1. Make the most of your CityPass
For longer city stays (three or more days), it may be worth investing in a CityPass. This gains access to several popular attractions as well as a three-day pass for MUNI (a network buses, light rail Metro trains, historic streetcars and the cable cars—so you can snap that iconic San Francisco shot). Start by visiting the Aquarium of the Bay, a showcase of 20,000 marine animals from San Francisco Bay and nearby waters. Spot the fierce-looking (yet harmless) sevengill shark in the sharks of Alcatraz tunnel before heading upstairs to see the giant Pacific octopus—these can weigh up to 50 lbs. Before leaving, visit the playful river otters who are known to put on a show before feeding time. Next, use your pass to pop into the Exploratorium, a hands-on laboratory where kids can wander freely and flex their STEM muscles learning about colour, time, gravity and more. Little ones will spend hours at the bubble station making massive bubbles. As well, the pass provides access to the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure and the California Academy of Sciences.
2. Explore the Presidio
This massive 1,500-acre park that once served as a military post is now almost a city unto itself. Explore the hilly forests, beaches and get that iconic shot of the fam in front of the Golden Gate bridge. Every Sunday from late-March to late-October, city dwellers flock here for the Presidio Picnic, with food vendors, yoga, performances and free learn-to-ride bike lessons for the little ones. While you’re there, check out the Walt Disney Family Museum. More for Disney-aficionados than kids, the museum is home to the first drawing of Mickey Mouse and gives an extensive history of Walt’s creative journey. If you’re feeling adventurous, consider renting bikes to fully explore the winding roads and trails throughout the park.
3. Go on a culinary adventure
If you haven’t had a taste of what the locals eat can you even say you’ve been there? Luckily, San Francisco has enough to please even the pickiest eater—from the fresh seafood at Fisherman’s Warf to the famous burritos found in the Mission. Try August (1) Five for modern Indian cuisine—kids can eat with their hands!—Red Dog for a taste of northern California farmhouse cooking or grab a bite at Wipeout Bar and Grill after visiting the sea lions on Pier39. Parents will love Magnolia Brewing’s new Dogpatch beer garden which has plenty of space for the kids to run around, Pizzeria Delfina with endless breadsticks and memorable pies, as well as International Smoke, a hip barbecue joint from Ayesha Curry. Also, a trip to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Chinatown. China Live is one part marketplace, one part interactive food show, where kids can watch through a glass window as chefs prepare dishes like peking duck and dumplings. If your little ones are antsy, a meal at SPIN San Francisco comes with a side of ping pong. And if you just can’t decide on one thing, head down to the San Francisco Ferry Building, a modern food hall with 75,000 square feet of tasty choices.
4. Hit the water
The bay in San Francisco is easily the heart of the city—hey, it’s where Otis Redding was inspired to co-write the famous “Dock of the Bay”, which you can sing to your little ones during your visit. Experience the bay from the water on a lunch or dinner cruise with Hornblower Cruises & Events, where kids can try spotting a great white shark in between courses. The boat will also give you a unique view of Alcatraz and both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges from below.
5. Let them eat… ice cream
Get your Instagram fix with a visit to The Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC). Wander from room to room learning about the history of ice cream, interacting with the artistic installations and enjoying Lots. Of. Ice cream—prepare yourself for a serious sugar crash. Kids under two get in free (and are welcome to partake in the eating of the treats). Finish your visit with a dip in the picturesque swimming pool full of approximately one hundred million antimicrobial biodegradable ‘sprinkles’. (Note: these are not for eating!) Warning: it can get rowdy in the pool—most kids (and adults) have reached peak sugar high at this point—so meltdowns may ensue when you eventually decide it’s time to leave.
6. Stay in the heart of the action
Finding the right place to stay can be tricky, but there are plenty of options that can be found right in the heart of the city. If you’re travelling with little ones who will want to walk down to PIER39 every morning to visit the resident sea lions, consider staying in Fisherman’s Warf. The Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel is ideally located with onsite dining options, a heated outdoor pool and comfortable rooms that cater to families—Bonus: it’s a block from a Trader Joe’s where you can grab breakfast and cheap snacks for the day. If your family likes to shop, the Westin St. Francis Hotel is right across the street from Macy’s. Don’t be fooled by the historic exterior, the hotel recently underwent a $45 million renovation. Kids will be thrilled by the view from the glass elevators as you go up to your room.
7. Discover Oakland
Real estate in San Francisco isn’t cheap, which is why many people who work in the city live just across the bridge in Oakland. Stay at the stylish Waterfront Hotel in the recently rejuvenated Jack London Square—named after the White Fang author. From here, you can take a ferry directly into the city or spend some time exploring Oakland—the very manageable Oakland Zoo can be done in a morning or afternoon or make a stop at Children’s Fairyland, a whimsical amusement park built in the ‘50s. But the real reason to come to Oakland is to eat. A few of our favourite stops were Fentons Creamery—let the little ones get ice cream for lunch—Homeroom, a mac ‘n cheese restaurant parents will love just as much as kids and Ramen Shop, an Instagram-friendly space with tasty noodles.
8. Rent a car and escape the city
If you’re visiting over a weekend, do like the locals and escape the city. Try out the Airbnb of car rentals, Turo, which is based out of San Francisco and offers a wide variety of rides you won’t find at traditional rental outlets, including Teslas, BMWs and even minivans—if that’s what you’re used to. All renters are prescreened by the app and many offer handy services like free drop-off and car seat rentals. Once you’ve got your ride, the California coastline is yours to discover.
9. Turn up the heat in Sonoma
If you’re craving that California heat, you’ll find it in Sonoma. The scenic ride to Santa Rosa—you’ll get a chance to drive over the Golden Gate bridge and through the pretty town of Petaluma, the “Egg Basket of the World”—is just over an hour (pending traffic) and you’ll typically find there’s a 10 to 15 degree rise in temperature. Make your home base the popular Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa, which has a massive outdoor heated pool with a super shallow end where even toddlers can stand up—in summer, the pool hosts live music and a Tiki bar on Fridays. Room not ready? Pop into the nearby Charles M. Schulz Museum for a nostalgic trip through the Snoopy and Charlie Brown creator’s life.
10. Go on a safari
Most kids love the zoo, but a trip to Safari West is a rare opportunity to let your little ones go behind the fence to see some of their favourite animals in their (mostly) natural habitat. The 400-acre preserve features around 900 animals from flamingos and black swans to zebras, rhinos, cheetahs and monkeys. Informative group tours run around three hours—you’ll need to book a private tour if you’re travelling with kids under four—and take you through the property on a canvas-covered safari jeep. If you’re feeling adventurous, splurge on a night stay in one of the luxury safari tents imported from Botswana where you can wake up to the sounds of giraffes chomping on the nearby trees.
11. Let there be wine
A trip to the famous Sonoma Valley winemaking region wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a vineyard. While lots of wineries in the region now cater to families [link to family-friendly wineries], the Francis Ford Coppola Winery should not be missed. The American film director bought the sprawling property in 2006 and has transformed it into a small slice of paradise the kids will love just as much as you do. Arrive early and book a cabine at the impressive swimming pool and then grab lunch at one of the onsite restaurants—we’re partial to the spaghetti and meatballs from the kid’s menu at Rustic. Aspiring film buffs can wander through the memorabilia scattered throughout the property—including Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather, costumes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and some of Coppola’s actual Academy Awards—while parents partake in a tasting. End the day by winding down in the Lending Library, housed in a giant teepee or catch an evening performance at the performing arts pavilion.
Some of the writers costs were covered.