When visiting San Francisco the list of must-sees can be overwhelming.You can’t do it all.Make choices, and plan on coming back again. If you’re looking to go a little off the beaten path, check out some of my favorite things to do in Golden Gate Park or a local mom’s take on her 5 favorite kid-friendly activities in San Francisco.
But if you’re looking to visit some of the more touristy spots, a little advance planning can save you a lot of aggravation and precious travel time.
Some Worthwhile Paperwork
The first thing you should do is buy a CityPass, but don’t buy it through the CityPass website. Buy it directly from Alcatraz Cruises. Why? It’s the only way to include Alcatraz as one of the attractions covered by your CityPass. The pass will also guarantee you admission to the California Academy of Sciences, the Aquarium of the Bay, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor. It also includes a 7-day Muni and Cable Car passport. The cost:$64 for adults, $39 for kids 5-12. It’s a bargain.
When you purchase the pass make your reservation to go to Alcatraz. Tours sell out quickly. It’d be criminal to miss out. The tour includes the ferry to Alcatraz, a self-guided audio tour (my 7-year-old did fine with it), and ferry back to Pier 33. I’d recommend giving your family a good 3 hours for the whole trip.
The Rock is best known as the prison that once held some of the nation’s most notorious bad guys. Gangster Al “Scarface” Capone and convicted murderer “Birdman” Robert Stroud helped put the island on the map. It was the prison for inmates that other prisons couldn’t handle. But Alcatraz was and is much more than just a maximum-security prison. Once a military fort, the island was home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse. Now part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Alcatraz is home to wildlife and gardens with unique plant varieties from around the world.
Give yourself time to make it to the boat. (Include time to park if you’re coming by car.) Tours leave from Pier 33, not Tourist hub Pier 39.
Once back on terra firma, jump on a street car (covered by your CityPass) and head to Pier 39. The pier is loaded with plenty of places to eat and lots of shops. Unless you need souvenirs, head for the Aquarium by the Bay (also covered by your CityPass). The small but impressive aquarium contains more than 20-thousand local marine animals. After making your way through the underwater tunnels, there’s an area where kids can do plenty of touching. Expect the visit to take about an hour.
Once back on the Pier, keep heading out toward sea. If you can, convince the kids to skip the carousel and go find the real stars of Pier 39, the sea lions. You’ll hear them long before you see them. The sea lions moved in shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. At first the numbers were small, 10 to 50 at a time. A few months later there were 300. Each winter up to 900 sea lions can move in. Volunteers from The Marine Mammal Center are on hand most weekends to answer questions.
San Francisco Sourdough
A short walk from Pier 39 is Boudin Bakery. (If little legs are starting to get tired, you can tell them a delicious payoff awaits them at the end of the road.) A 30-foot observation window turns bakers into street performers. It’s amazing to watch them turn balls of dough into works of art. Think loaves of bread shaped like crabs, turtles, alligators and just about anything you can imagine.A built in microphone system lets visitors and bakers chat back and forth. And did I mention the bread is incredible? Indulge, but save room for dessert. Ghirardelli Square is only a few blocks away.
Chocolate Lover’s Dream
If you’re on a diet don’t go. You’ll gain 5 pounds just looking at the menu. Famous for their homemade hot fudge, Ghirardelli is the ultimate ice cream parlour. My family’s favorite, “The Earthquake.” Eight scoops of ice cream, eight toppings, bananas, whipped cream, almonds, chocolate chips and cherries. I’ve never seen a sundae so big, disappear so fast!
Fleet Week and The Blue Angels – this weekend!
Ciao Bambino recommended San Francisco family hotels
Zeum San Francisco – a museum your kids will love
Things to do in San Francisco with kids (locals version)
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