San Francisco Vacation: An Insider's Planning Guide

Must-see attractions, planning tips, and insider advice for a family trip to San Francisco.

What to Expect:

San Francisco

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With its musical cable cars, leg-challenging hills, awesome waterfront, and beaches, San Francisco is like a sprawling family playground. You could easily spend a week here just walking around town, but then you'd miss great museums and cool historic sites, such as the Exploratorium and Alcatraz.

Along with its sights, the city is famous for its variable weather. "We have a lot of microclimates," notes Kristine Dworkin, a Bay Area mom and a blogger at Trekaroo.com. So pack plenty of layers. One neighborhood may be warm and sunny, while another is engulfed in fog.

Where to Stay:

SOMA (South of Market) is near engaging neighborhoods and home to a terrific park, Yerba Buena Gardens (yerbabuenagardens.com), and The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen (theamericansf.com).

Union Square, a downtown hub, is close to the Civic Center, SOMA, Chinatown, Nob Hill, and the Embarcadero, plus plenty of family-friendly restaurants.

Fisherman's Wharf, right on the bay, is steps away from Pier 39 and its resident sea lions; it's also where you'll find Boudin Bakery (boudinbakery.com), known for its critter-shaped sourdough. "From the street, you can watch the bakers prepare loaves of bread," says local mom Lydie Thomas, author of Your Guide to Visit San Francisco for Free.

Getting Around:

Unless you plan to leave the city proper, you're better off without a car in San Francisco. Parking is a challenge, and the city offers excellent public transportation, including Muni (the Municipal Railway) -- which runs the cable cars, historic street cars, light-rail vehicles, electric trolleys, and buses -- and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). A Muni Passport offers unlimited transportation on trolleys, buses, and cable cars for one, three, or seven days; a seven-day City Pass includes admission to five popular attractions (sfmta.com/cms/mfares/passports.htm).

Kids especially love riding the cable cars. Insider tip: Skip the crowded Powell turnaround, where two lines begin, and hop on a little farther up Powell Street.

On foot, be sure to check out Lombard Street, with its famous flower-trimmed twists and turns, and the city's equally steep stairs, which you can find with the help of the San Francisco Stairways app ($0.99; iOS).

Where to Eat:

Finding a good meal isn't hard in San Francisco, which boasts the country's highest restaurant-to-household ratio. The Noe Valley neighborhood is filled with kids and great restaurants that welcome them; among them is Lovejoy's Tea Room, where you can indulge in scones with clotted cream (lovejoystearoom.com).

In North Beach, you'll find a veritable feast of pasta, pizza, and all things Italian, including a string of family-run restaurants along Columbus Avenue.

And the Mission District is the place for Mexican food; for a quick treat, drop by La Victoria Bakery (lavictoriabakery.com) for Mexican pastries.

Family Favorites

1. In April, the original, outstanding, hands-on science center Exploratorium moved to new digs on Pier 15 with three times the space and a host of new exhibits. Take a side trip to the Marina District to hear the Wave Organ (free; exploratorium.edu/visit/wave-organ), an awesome acoustic sculpture "played" by the ocean at high tide. (Museum admission: $25 adults, $19 kids 6 to 17, free under age 6; exploratorium.com; 415-528-4360)

2. With 1,000-plus acres of gardens, trees, lakes, and museums, a carousel, a Japanese tea garden, and, yes, live bison, Golden Gate Park is a true city gem. (Free admission; fees for some attractions; golden-gate-park.com)

3. You can walk the Golden Gate Bridge on your own for free (parksconservancy.org), book a 45-minute guided tour in season ($12.95 adults, $9.95 kids 6 to 17, free under age 6; ggbridgetours.com), or bike across, as did the Storches of Woodmere, New York. Says mom Yafa, "It was an exhilarating experience. When we got to the other side, we coasted downhill to Sausalito, had a picnic on the water, then rode the ferry back." (Blazing Saddles bike rentals; blazingsaddles.com; 415-202-8888)

4. At Fisherman's Wharf, you'll find Anchorage Square (home to nearly two dozen shops and restaurants), Aquarium of the Bay, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Ghirardelli Square, and more. It's touristy but fun. (fishermanswharf.org)

5. Tours of Alcatraz Island take in not just the legendary decommissioned prison but also the island's extensive plant and animal life and its Civil War-era buildings. (It's especially spooky at night.) The ferry ride alone is worth the trip for the view across the bay. ($30 adults, $18.25 kids 5 to 11, free under age 5, family discounts available; alcatrazcruises.com; nps.gov/alca)

Go-to Guides:

  • BART BART (iOS) and Bart Rider (Android): Free apps offer real-time info on train arrivals and departures.
  • San Francisco Recreation and Parks: Get help navigating the city's major attractions. (free; iOS)

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of FamilyFun

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