SkyStar Wheel view from Golden Gate Bridge

What makes San Francisco such a great city for families to explore? Exciting history, thrilling recreation, fascinating museums, and so much more. For families, you’ll find a relaxing, welcoming vibe open to all.

 

Let’s Talk About Food

Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco
Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

What I discovered after spending a few days in the “City by the Bay” is that there are so many unique tastes in San Francisco; your family will share these yummy memories for years to come.

 

San Fran has always been a melting pot of cultures ranging from Chinese and Japanese to Mexican, Mediterranean, and more. The cuisine reflects the changing diversity of the population. Fresh seafood is king and is served everywhere from food trucks to fine restaurants. Lobster, shrimp, clams, oysters, and chowders all reign supreme at hundreds of establishments.  

 

Sourdough bread made its debut in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and has been a popular treat ever since. Boudin Bakery is the best place to enjoy sandwiches, soup bowls, and sourdough pizza. There are more than a dozen locations throughout San Fran. 

 

Chocolate is another popular treat, and a visit to Ghirardelli Square is filled with shops, restaurants, and a luxe hotel. Be sure to stop in the renovated original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop with 15 sundaes, a replica cable car, and amazing chocolate treats. Then, fill your box with your favorite chocolate squares to bring home. Which ones to pick?

 

Head to Pier 39, the Place to Play

Pier 39 in San Francisco, featured in Family Travel with Colleen Kelly
Pier 39 is the ideal place for dining, shopping, and entertainment. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

 

Pier 39 is a multiplex of restaurants, entertainment venues, and shops. Built by the Simmons family in 1978, this bright mecca of family fun offers the Aquarium of the Bay, Flying Theatre, a beautiful carousel, and the SkyStar Wheel with its impressive views of the Bay, Alcatraz Island, and Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. The SkyStar Wheel goes 150 feet in the air with 36 gondolas that hold up to six guests. It’s a glorious ride, day or night. 

 

SkyStar Wheel view from Golden Gate Bridge
SkyStar Wheel, Fisherman’s Wharf. Photo credit: SkyStar Wheel

Simmons operates six restaurants at Pier 39. I opted for the Fog Harbor Fish House for a fabulous meal, only matched by exquisite views of the Pacific Ocean and yachts. The salmon with couscous, tomatoes, and crispy onions was perfectly grilled and very tasty. I saw other diners indulging in the seafood tower, and the scent was intoxicating. Best thing is that there were plenty of kids in the restaurant enjoying their meals and just as happy. Other Simmons restaurants at Pier 39 include: Crab House, Wipeout Bar & Grill, Pier Market Seafood Restaurant, and more.

 

The Flyer San Francisco is a flyer theatre experience that gives you a bird’s eye view (literally) of the incredible beauty of the city, all from the comfort of your movable seat.

 

The carousel is a big draw for families. I chose the stationery seat and took a few spins around, admiring the twinkling lights.

 

Another big draw is Aquarium of the Bay, with more than 200 species and 24,000 local marine animals. Come face to fin with interactive exhibits for an experience that’s both educational and fun.

 

The Pier’s most playful residents are the sea lions, who you can watch frolicking in the water. The abundant food supply and warm water are an ideal environment for them to thrive.

 

Chinatown – Biggest in the U.S.

Chinatown in San Francisco, featured in Family Travel with Colleen Kelly
The entrance to Chinatown. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

The oldest in the U.S. and one of the largest outside of East Asia, Chinatown opened in the 1850s when people from Asia began emigrating to America. Filled with shops, restaurants, and even a fortune cookie factory, Chinatown is fun for all ages. Stop in an herbal pharmacy for wellness products. Don’t miss Portsmouth Square where you’ll see men playing Chinese Chess. Come hungry, and eat your way through the streets. Egg rolls never tasted so fresh!

 

Alcatraz Island – Dare to Escape!

inside the alcatraz cells in san francisco
Take a tour of the cells at Alcatraz Island. Photo credit: Mira Temkin
banner of Al Capone and a quote of his on Alcatraz
One of Alcatraz’s most famous residents. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

Once a former military fort, Alcatraz is the world-famous former federal penitentiary that once housed Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”  

 

Since it’s been renovated and reopened, it remains one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco, run by the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Catch the Alcatraz Cruises boat for a 10-minute jaunt out to the island. Stay as long as you want as you wander around.

 

Visit the historic cellhouse, see where the inmates got fresh air, and listen to the audio tour. It’s mostly self-guided with interpretive programs throughout the day. They even show you how they lock and unlock the doors.

 

How frustrating it must have been for the prisoners to see the city, only a mile and a half from land, knowing they had to swim through freezing, shark-infested waters to freedom. Few tried, and only one group ever made it out in 1962.

 

The boat departs from Pier 33. Make sure you arrive in plenty of time. There are also night cruises and a behind-the-scenes tour.

 

Exploratorium – Big on the “Wow” Factor

Exploratorium in San Francisco
Exploratorium will inspire your imagination and discovery. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

Yes, it’s a museum, but it’s a place to explore the inner depths of science, art, and human perception, and your kids will want to spend hours there. Founded by physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer in 1969, the Exploratorium is filled with interactive exhibits that will blow you away.  

 

Discover the Presidio

Kids interacting at the Field Station in San Francisco
Field Station offers nature projects for kids. Photo courtesy of The Presidio.

Strategically located on the San Francisco Peninsula with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, this former army base has been turned into a thriving community with residential housing, schools, hotels, restaurants, and more. The Presidio is mostly known for their Tunnel Tops that opened in 2022, which has created a 14-acre park on top of the tunnels with walking trails and more.

 

Start at the Visitors Center to learn more about all there is to do at this National Park. Get maps, take the free shuttle, and talk to a park ranger. Rent bikes to ride or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. This is an experience your kids will long remember.

 

For visitors, there are hiking and biking trails, swimming, rock climbing, or bowling. The largest kids’ playground in San Fran is the Outpost on the Tunnel Tops. Or, stop by the Field Station for lots of free educational programs with nature specimens, historical artifacts, and tools to inspire your kids. 

 

Stay at the Lodge at the Presidio, a 44-room hotel offering an authentic historic experience. This is the closest you can stay on this side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Introduce your kids to Mexican food at Colibri Mexican Bistro with food inspired by Central Mexico, like chile relleno, ceviche, and carnitas. It was awesome watching the tableside guacamole preparation, served with homemade chips. You can also sit on their outdoor patio and watch tortillas made to order on a comal.

 

The Walt Disney Family Museum

The Walt Disney Family Museum
The Walt Disney Family Museum is a tribute to his life and legacy. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

Located in the Presidio, The Walt Disney Family Museum (WDFM) is a hands-on museum where kids can try their hand at animation and learn more about the remarkable life story of Walt Disney. Contemporary, interactive galleries feature state-of-the-art exhibits narrated in Walt’s voice alongside early drawings, cartoons, films, music, and a spectacular model of Disneyland. It’s more of a behind-the-scenes look at Disney magic.

 

Check out their Disney Cats & Dogs exhibit in another building through June 2. Walt Disney loved dogs, and his affection for them is expressed in his movies.

 

The WDFM was created by daughter Diane Disney Miller as a lasting tribute to her father. Opened since 2009, this museum is ideal for kids 10 and older with their families, who will appreciate seeing the Disney memorabilia they grew up with.  

 

Ride the Cable Cars

A red cable car at the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco
Learn more about the history of San Fran’s Cable Cars at the Cable Car Museum. Photo credit: Mira Temkin.

Riding the cable cars is something you must do. There are three lines running in different directions. The cable cars began operating in 1853, with one operator in the front and one in the back. It was exciting to go up and down the hills while I kept looking for Mrs. Doubtfire’s townhouse. For a more in-depth look at the inner workings and history of the cable cars, stop at the free Cable Car Museum. Single rides cost $8.00, or you can buy a day-pass or multi-day pass.

 

Make your plans to visit San Francisco soon, and discover all the wonder that is the “City by the Bay.” For more information, go to sftravel.com.  

 

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