Take a look at our best ten … no wait…eleven…or is it twelve(?) picks for family fun in the heart of California! We tromped all over town and had a blast. We walked across the bridge, watched the sea lions in the harbour and took in a baseball game with the San Francisco Giants. But when it was all said and done, these turned out to be our ten best picks for kids in San Francisco.
The best Science Class EVER!
Ask my daughter Bonnie what her favourite place is in San Fra…. “EXPLORITORIUM!” You don’t even get a chance to finish the question. “It’s a science geek’s nirvana! I had so much fun there. It challenges what I think I know and then adds so much. I can easily spend a day there every time we visit San Francisco.”
The Exploritorium is in the heart of the Embarcadero at Pier 15. Go early and plan to be there all day. With over 600 hands-on exhibits and over 1.5 acres of outdoor exhibits, you need the time to explore. Our list of favourites is endless but make sure you reserve a time (As in book ahead) to go through the Tactile Dome where you crawl, side, bump and feel your way through all sorts of touchy feely things. The Seismic Joint Café has healthy choices for food and the gift shop is filled with excellent educational yet fun games, books and toys.
Yoda and Walt Disney in the Presidio
The Presidio of San Francisco National Park recently had major renovations to be home to some pretty cool businesses, museums and park space. Pixar and Lucas Films use some of the old military buildings to create some of your favourite movies. Star Wars fans will want to find the Letterman Digital Arts Center Building B (Lucas Films) to see the life-size statue of Yoda. If it’s office hours you might get through the front doors to see a life-size statue of Darth Vadar.
The History of the Making of Mickey
A big draw for us at the Presidio is the Disney Family Museum. Independent of the big mouse in Anaheim, the museum is owned by the family and highlights the story of Walt and the family. It’s jam packed with artifacts, furniture and awards from their private collection. Plan a good few hours to tour the museum. But if you are a big Disney fan, expect to take twice as long as you budget. Just like any Disney property, it is spectacular. My favourite artifact is a lonely old worn out faded park bench at the end of a hall. It looks insignificant but it’s a pivotal point in the story. It’s the bench Walt used to sit on while he watched his children play. It’s also where he decided watching the kids play wasn’t his idea of fun. The inspiration of Disneyland hatched there.
Fake or real – Madame Tussauds has had facelift
Madame Tussauds has had a makeover. Unlike wax museums of the past, this Madam Tussauds removes any barrier and invites interactions -there are no velvet ropes keeping you from touching the life-like mannequins. You are invited to do selfies with everyone from Johnny, George and Garcia to Gaga, Whoopie or Madonna. Shoot hoops with basketball stars, hang around the campfire with Janis Joplin and break out of Alcatraz with the best of the bad guys. It’s crazy how you get to mingle with the stars, royalty and celebrities. Wander through at your own pace.
The secret side of San Francisco
Right beside Madam Tussauds is the new “almost educational” attraction called the Dungeons of San Francisco. It’s a rollicking good time for anyone over the age of ten. Why ten? Well, it gets dark, noisy and the content will float above many younger heads. Moving through two-hundred years of history the hour long drama – based loosely on history – moves through nine scenes with real actors who engage with the audience. Judge Meade picks a few of your companions to either have a fair trial or to “Hang um high!” Miss Piggott meets you in the saloon to offer you a drink. Careful though! You might get “shanghaied” and find yourself on a ship to China. By the time you make it to the cells of Alcatraz you have been scared, hung, poisoned, mugged and lost in a gold mine. It’s a fun way to learn a little bit of history of San Francisco. Check on-line to buy combo tickets to Madam Tussauds and the Dungeon. It’s good cheesy fun.
This is San Fran – you have to ride the trolley!
Of course you want to ride the trollies but do it early in the day to avoid the crowds. Using the Go CarXXXX entitles you to use the trolley as much as you want. Jump on and ride it to 1201 Mason Street to the Cable Car Museum. It’s a bit noisy inside because it’s the Powerhouse and the actual workings of all the cables. You can watch as the wire rope loops around the pulley system that hauls the cars up the hills. It won’t take long to tour the exhibits. Make sure everyone gets a chance to ring the conductor’s bell.
The museum is free (donations are accepted) and operates daily. More details can be found here.
Fisherman’s Wharf ain’t what it used to be…
Built on the rubble of the earthquake and fire of 1906, Fisherman’s Wharf was the main port of San Francisco with a busy trade of fishing boats, imported goods and immigrants. Times and economies have changed. The boats are still there but the commerce is a frenzy of shopping and dining experiences. It can get very busy with the summer months extremely busy so your best bet would be to visit in the morning or off-peak months. Or both.
Nose to beak with an Octopus
Have you ever been eye to eye with an octopus? You can crawl under the habitat and pop your head up into a dome to be right next to the sleeping sea giant at the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39. This is another “must-do” for families. It’s entertaining, educational and aimed at a youthful audience. Walk through the tunnel and watch sharks drift overhead, stop at the Touch Tanks and feel the texture of baby sharks or stingrays as they glide by. Watching the jellyfish float by in their habitat is the best calming device in the world and the playful sea otters will bring on many laughs.
Musee Mecanique means noisy old fun
Step back in time on Pier 45 at the antique arcade called Musee Mecanique and I mean really old as in before Pac Man and Donkey Kong! Over 200 mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines have been restored to their original glory and worth blowing a roll of quarters on. Play the old baseball game or have Zoltar read you our fortune. The place is wall-to-wall games of chance, shooting galleries, games of strength and silliness. Hidden in the back corner are a few “new-age” pinball machines. It’s a bit noisy but free to walk through.
Alcatraz – for the inmates nobody wanted
The island sits lonely in the harbour and when the wind was just right, the inmates of Alcatraz could hear people celebrating New Years Eve across the water. Home to some of America’s most notorious criminals from 1934 – 1963, Alcatraz is now a huge tourist attraction. Why we are drawn to the history of the criminal minds is a mystery to me but it is a fascinating tour that I highly recommend for families with kids over the age of 8. Make sure you take the free audio tour narrated by retired guards and ex-inmates. Find the hole in the wall from the shootout and as the boat brings you safely back to the harbour, decide for yourself if an escape is possible.
Book your tickets way in advance for the trip over to Alcatraz Island and to make sure you get the best price, book through the official website (not like me who went through another site and wasted money.)
Look for the Grass Roof for Fun Science
Spend a day over at Golden Gate Park at the California Academy of Science. One word describes this centre. Jaw-dropping. The centre rivals the Exploritorium for inquisitive minds. Under one umbrella is an aquarium, a natural history museum and a planetarium. Hang out in the rainforest, or watch the penguims in their habitat. Learn about the stars and beyond. It’s a place where the question “Why” is welcomed.
Check out what’s planned at the academy on their website.
Get out of town to relax at the Beach House
After all the hustling around the city, take a day or two to unwind on the beach at Half Moon Bay. It’s less than a 45 minute drive from San Fran but a world away. Check into the Beach House Half Moon Bay where the rooms in the hotel are spacious and cater to families. Let the kids sleep in while you enjoy morning coffee on the deck only steps away from the shore. The healthy complimentary breakfast will fuel you all before heading for the beach to explore the tidal pools.
Right next to the hotel is Sam’s Chowder House with a menu that will impress your family. We tried almost everything and loved it all. It’s great for lunch before running off to spend the afternoon kayaking or riding a horse through the forest. Grab a table on the patio for a sunset dinner too!
Best Deals for Travellers to San Francisco
Make sure you visit the official San Francisco Travel webpage to explore all your options for accommodations, attractions and deals.
Check out the deals for attractions on the Go Card and CityPASS they both offer a variety of deals. We liked the CityPass because it had unlimited use of the cable cars and great passes for the places we wanted to go including the Aquarium Of the Bay, Exploritorium and the California Academy of Sciences.
An amusing way to see the city is on top of a double decker bus. The Hop-On, Hop-Off tours hosted by colourful hosts, took us to the sites we wanted to see – eliminating the need for a car.
Consider hotels along the BART line (light rail) to avoid driving into the heart of San Francisco. We picked an inexpensive hotel close to the airport and road the rail into town so we didn’t need to rent a car.
Fun, education, relaxation, history and amusement. San Francisco can do it all for you and the kids!