San Francisco is one of the most popular U.S. tourist destinations. It’s the perfect city to visit if your family craves action, diversity, good food, and fun. Here’s the best way to experience San Francisco in four days with kids.
Take a cable car from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch. If you’re staying in the heart of San Francisco, near Union Square, the best way to get around is via the iconic cable cars. The Powell-Mason line begins at the Powell/Market turntable, and the line runs from there up and over Nob Hill and down to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. Purchase a CityPass San Francisco and you’ll have 7-day access to the cable cars as well as admission to several area attractions (including the Aquarium of the Bay and the Exploratorium, two popular family attractions).
Enjoy lunch with a view at Alioto’s. Specializing in Sicilian-influenced seafood, the gorgeous view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge from this historic restaurant are spectacular.
Hobnob with (wax) celebrities. If your kids have never been to a wax museum, a visit to Madame Tussaud’s is a treat. Take some selfies with your favorite (wax) A-List celebrity or historical figure, including Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, Katy Perry, and more.
Explore Pier 39. Pier 39 is one of San Francisco’s main tourist hubs. It is touristy, for sure, and overpriced, but it’s worth a visit. There are boutiques, cafes, and live entertainment—and your kids will love seeing the sea lions that like to catch rays on floating piers. The two-story carousel is a must-do if you have little ones, while the 7D Experience, a laser blasting gaming adventure, will be popular with the older kids in your crew. The Aquarium of the Bay is a smaller aquarium located on Pier 39: 20,000 local sea creatures live in three main exhibit areas, where visitors can go eye-to-eye with a seven gill shark, be mesmerized by moon jellies, and touch a bat ray’s wing.
Sip a flight of California wines at First Crush. Hop on a cable car back towards Union Square and enjoy dinner at First Crush, a stylish restaurant with a wine-savvy staff and a focus on progressive American grub. Enjoy a wine flight and a locally-sourced cheese flight while your kids dig into gourmet versions of their favorite dishes, including Kobe burgers with handcut truffle fries, and lobster mac n’cheese.
Wander the Presidio. The Presidio is where San Francisco began: home to native people for over a thousand years, it was established as Spain’s northernmost outpost in the Americas in 1776. After a stint as a Mexican fort, it became a U.S. army post in 1846. Today the Presidio is a national park filled with history, gorgeous vistas, and nature trails. Former military buildings have been transformed into private homes, museums, and more.
Start your visit at the Officer’s Club, where a small museum explores the Presidio’s fascinating natural and cultural heritage. Next, head to the Walt Disney Family Museum, located in one of the buildings on the Presidio’s main post, to learn more about the man behind the mouse. StarWar’s fans will want to pay a visit to the Yoda Fountain at the the LucasArts’ Letterman Digital Arts Center, a short walk from the Disney Family Museum. Take a hike through the Presidio by following one of the many trails; the 1.4 mile Ecology Trail is a good pick for budding hikers. Or if you prefer a walk on the water, check out Chrissy Fields. You’ll have an excellent view of restored marshes (and lots of birds) on one side of the trail, and Golden Gate Bridge on the other. If your fellow walkers need a little sustenance, stop for a snack at the Warming Hut. Cap off your visit to the Presidio by heading back to the Officer’s Club for a meal at Arguello, a Mexican restaurant by Bay Area Chef Traci Des Jardins, where the best guacamole and chips in San Francisco await. Arguello also offers a kids’ menu.
Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. Pick up your bikes at one of Blazing Saddles‘ many locations near Fisherman’s Wharf: kid bikes, baby seats, tandems, and trailers are available, so you can find the bikes you need to fit your family. Plan on a two and half hour ride along the bay and across the famous bridge. From the end of the bridge, it’s an easy roll into the small bayside town of Sausalito. Enjoy dinner at Copita Tequileria y Comida, a seasonally-focused Mexican restaurant and tequila bar where even the tortillas are handmade. Take a Blue and Gold Fleet ferry from Sausalito back to San Francisco.
Dig into ice cream sundaes at Ghiaradelli Square. In 1852, Italian immigrant Domenico Ghirardelli established his Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco. At the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, located in the Clocktower Building, you can view chocolate manufacturing equipment, indulge in hot fudge sundaes, and sample chocolates. Catch the Powell-Hyde cable car line at Aquatic Park near Ghiaradelli square, which will take you back to the Powell Market turntable.
Hike Muir Woods. While you can rent a car to travel to Muir Woods National Monument, our family opted for a Tower Tours shuttle bus day trip to this stunning primeval forest, located near the Pacific coast in southwestern Marin County, California. Several easy-to-navigate trails will take you through the magnificent old growth coast redwoods. If you didn’t cross Golden Gate Bridge by bike on Day 2, hop off the shuttle when it stops at Sausalito and opt to browse the boutiques, dine at Copita Tequileria y Comida, and then ferry back to San Francisico.
Enjoy a local craft beer (and milkshake!) at TAP(415). Located on the 4th floor of the downtown Westfield Mall , TAP(415) is a modern urban eatery that serves primarily local fare. You’ll find all your handcrafted American favorites, including outstanding burgers, as well as taps with local craft beer, wine and cocktails, and milkshakes for the kiddos.
Escape to Alcatraz. Alcatraz once housed some notorious criminals, and kids will get a kick out of “heading to jail” at this former federal penitentiary, now a National Park. Catch your ferry at Pier 33 with AlcatrazCruises.com. The views from the windy island are incredible and the Alcatraz audio tour, which is included in the admission price, provides a fascinating summary of the prison’s dark and colorful history.
Be warned that it can be difficult to snag last minute tickets to Alcatraz, so try to reserve a couple of months in advance. If you can’t get tickets, take a guided Blue and Gold fleet ferry Escape from the Rock cruise, which will take you under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz Island. Alternatively, visit the Exploratorium. This hands-on museum is almost impossible to describe; it is packed with fascinating interactive displays that are so beguiling your kids will never want to leave—and you won’t, either.
Afternoon tea at the Palace Hotel. The regal Palace Hotel is rich in history, and its Garden Court is one of the loveliest settings to enjoy afternoon tea in San Francisco. Little princesses and princes will receive a crown or a scepter. Be sure to peep into the hotel’s Pied Piper Bar, where the famous Maxfield Parrish painting, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” hangs in all its glory behind the main bar.
Take a walk through Chinatown. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and largest Chinese community outside of China. Start your walk at the Dragon Gate, located at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, and make your way down Grant Avenue towards Columbus Avenue and the North Beach neighborhood. Pop into the landmark City Lights Bookstore, one of the best independent bookstores in the U.S., founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin.
Celebrate the Stinking Rose. The Stinking Rose is home to garlic galore: everything in this North Beach restaurant includes a touch of garlic — they serve up over 3,000 pounds of the pungent herb each month! The whimsical dining rooms feature murals depicting adorable garlic bulb characters milling around historic San Francisco sights.