Family Vacation Guides:
What to Do
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Money $aving Tips
San Francisco ... there's no other city like it. If you plan well and come well prepared, San Francisco is a surprisingly kid-friendly town and a family favorite. There are a handful of sites and attractions unique to San Francisco that should be on every family's list of must-do activities. Because the sightseeing opportunities are so diverse (indoor/outdoor, walking/riding, etc.), planning is key. Before diving into our material, take note of these general recommendations for getting around the city.
* You will not need a car in San Francisco. Street parking non-existent at best, and parking garages will charge up to $12 per hour. Additionally, local authorities are notoriously intolerant of any parking violations, however minor. Not suprisingly, ticketing is one of the city's favorite sources of revenue.. So if you arrive by car the best plan is to leave the car in hotel parking and use it only for any day trips you may want to take.
* Plan to see San Francisco's sites by foot or by the public transport system. The San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) is safe and the most reliable of the other forms of transportation. Cable cars are great for entertainment, but they are not very efficient. You might still hop a cable car just for the experience, but for fast and efficient transportation, MUNI is the way to go. To find your way around the city's transport network just get a MUNI map -- free from the Visitor's Information Center or purchased at most bookstores, drugstores and convenience stores.
* The other public transit system is BART, Bay Area Rapid Travel, a network of high-speed rail lines between San Francisco and surrounding counties. BART is of little use to get around the city since it only has 5 stops within the city. It is, however, a terrific way to take a tour of the entire Bay Area since most of the rail is elevated.
* If you decide to walk, be sure everyone has comfortable walking shoes. Be prepared for climbing San Francisco's legendary steep hills, and be sure to visit Lombard Street: the most crooked street in the world!
* Another challenge will be the unpredictable weather. Someone once said, "San Francisco is a city of four seasons -- every day." The year around marine climate keeps the temperature between 40F to 75F, but there can be drastic temperature changes accompanied by fog and/or rain within the day. Be prepared, and dress in layers that can be put on or taken off as the temperature changes. If you're going to San Francisco during the summer months, be aware that it may not be warm due to the fog. Many tourists expect to wear shorts and sleeveless shirts and end up freezing.
For more information on San Francisco, you can call the San Francisco Convention and Visitor's Bureau at (415) 974-6900. The Visitor Information Center (415-391-2000) maintains a 24-hour hotline listing daily events and activities. Access it by dialing (415) 391-2001. Another great source of information for families is the San Francisco Peninsula Parent Newsmagazine (415-342-9203). It lists area activities and events designed for families and kids.
What to Do
You think science is boring? Never, at this very clever hands-on museum! Put it at the top of your list. It's an absolutely fascinating exploration of the secrets of heat, light, electricity, electronics, temperature, touch, vision, waves, color, motion, and language guaranteed to mesmerize the whole family. There are hundreds of interactive exhibits -- like having the kids create their own tornadoes. Be sure to include the Tactile Dome in your visit, which is so popular that reservation are now required.. The Exploritorium is in the Palace of Fine Arts at 3601 Lyon Street at Marina Boulevard. Call (415) 561-0360 for general information, and (415) 561-0362 for required reservations for Tactile Dome.
Free all-day events for families that will include you family's want-to-be clowns, jugglers, stilt-walkers and acrobats. You'll find this to be really fun and very entertaining, even for the adults. Each festival starts with a professional show followed by a Circus Skills Workshop for the audience. For more information, call (415) 242-1414
BAY AREA DISCOVERY MUSEUM
This is a wonderful playground for the imagination! This entertaining museum is geared for children ages 2 to 12. Its highly interactive exhibits have kids and their families crewing on a fishing boat, recording songs in a studio, and exploring in and under a house. The Museum is located at 557 East Fort Baker, near the north end of Golden Gate Bridge. Call (415) 487-4389 for more information.
THE JUNGLE, FUN AND ADVENTURE
This is a great place to let the kids burn off excess energy and to give parents a break. The Jungle is an indoor play park for kids from 6 months to 12 years. Kids can run, jump, climb and yell to their heart's content while sliding and crawling through a tangle of colorful tubes, scaling cargo netting and flinging themselves into tanks filled with plastic balls. Once there parents can turn the kids over to counselors and retreat to the ParentsOnly room. The Jungle is located at 555 Ninth Street, between Bryant and Brannan Streets. Call (415) 552-4386 for more information.
Located at the Marina waterfront, Pier 39 ranks at the top of many children's lists of the best attraction in San Francisco. You'll find a double-decker Venetian carousel, a resident group of sea lions, and some great stores including Wound About -- a store stacked floor to ceiling with wind up toys; Puppets on the Pier; The Disney Store; and Chocolate Heaven and The Fudge House for chocolate lovers. There are lots of great places to eat (try the Alcatraz Bar and Grill) and a great game arcade and virtual reality theater. Don't miss Underwater World -- a 2,000-fish, 707,000-gallon marine park that recently opened in April.
THE BASIC BROWN BEAR FACTORY AND STORE
Teddy bear devotees will be delighted by this factory and store complex where you and the kids will se the workrooms that bring these cuddly companions to life. Someone in your family is sure to find a life-long friend. Call for a tour schedule. The Basic Brown Bear is located South of Market at 444 De Haro St. Call (415) 626-0781 for more information.
SAN FRANCISCO ZOO
One of San Francisco's most kid-friendly places, the zoo is rated among the top six city zoos in the U.S. It's a masterpiece of design, using computer technology and interactive exhibits to inform and educate visitors about the animals. Don't miss the Primate Discovery Center where the Nocturnal Gallery created the night-time world of wonderfully exotic nocturnal primates. You will have trouble getting the kids out of Gorilla World and they will be fascinated with WolfWoods with its wolves liar. But keep on moving because you won't want to miss the kolas, snow leopards, white rhino, or pygmy hippos. The Children's Zoo and the Insect Zoo are also big favorites. And if all this isn't enough, there's an old fashioned carousel to enjoy. The Zoo is located on Sloat Boulevard at Great Highway. For more information call (415) 753-7083.
MARINE WORLD/AFRICA USA
Elephant and camel rides? You bet, at this absolutely fabulous wildlife park. There are whales, dolphins, sea lions, tiers, elephants, chimpanzees and exotic birds who "earn their keep" with daily performances. There's even a mini-park with mechanical dinosaurs who do what dinosaurs do. For the younger kids there's the Gentle Jungle where the can meet animals up close and personal. And if after all this anyone in your group is still bursting with energy, turn them loose in the Whale-of-a-Time playground located in a life-size Blue Whale model. The park's most popular attraction is its Killer Whale and Dolphin Show, where the mammals perform a number of activities and behaviors for their audience. Kids love sitting down in the first two rows so they can get soaked. Other favorites include the Shark Experience, the Tiger and Lion Show, and the Sea Lion Show.
Marine World is located at the North end of the bay in the town on Vallejo -- getting there is half the fun because you can make the trip via ferry service that leaves from Pier 39. For more information on current hours and prices, call (707) 643-6722.
THE WAVE ORGAN
This interesting instrument in the Marina Small Craft Harbor allows the waves to create music as they move through the pipes from the breakwater into the Bay. The best time to hear the music is at high tide, so plan accordingly. Kids can enjoy the music and climb on the rocks while parents relax on the steps and enjoy the view from the Marina. Follow the path past the St. Francis Yacht Club and listen for the music.
HYDE STREET PIER
This pier, part of the San Francisco National Historic Park, houses one of the world's largest collections of historic ships. Best of all, the kids can walk on board and imagine themselves being part of the adventure. You'll find a three-masted schooner, the 1886 square-rigged sailing ship Balclutha featured in the film Mutiny on the Bounty, a steam-powered ocean tug boat, a World War II submarine, and many more.
The Pier is located at the base of Hyde Street. There is a small admissions charge. For more information, call 415-929-0202.
This area houses a number of shopping and fun attractions, including the Wharf itself. You'll find vendors selling little shrimp and crab cocktails, outdoor entertainment, and some really great seafood. Lots of great shops are located nearby. If you and your kids are chocolate lovers, you can't leave San Francisco without visiting this place. This was the original site of the chocolate factory, but you won't find it here anymore. Now, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory offers great chocolate and ice cream desserts. The Cannery, once the world's largest fruit canning plant, houses a number of stores as well. You'll also find the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, the Wax Museum, and the Guinness Book of Records.
GOLDEN GATE PARK
This is one of the most beautiful, most family-friendly parks we've ever seen. The 1,017-acre park stretches nearly three miles to the Golden Gate Bridge, and is filled with huge stands of eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees. Ride on the beautifully restored carousel, view the buffaloes roaming in the Buffalo Paddock, play tennis, feed the ducks or go boating at Stow Lake, hike, go horseback riding, play golf, or bike or rollerblade Kennedy Drive on Sundays when it's closed to traffic. Here you'll also find the Steinhart Aquarium, one of the state's top aquariums, where the kids can enjoy the "Touching Tide Pool" . At the nearby Japanese Tea Garden (415-666-7100), you can enjoy tea and fortune cookies for a small fee. On Sundays, the local model boat club often sails their elaborate power and sailboats on Spreckels Lake near the western end of the Park.
For more information on Golden Gate Park, call 415-666-7200.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
When you think San Francisco, you simultaneously think of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every first time visitor wants to see this landmark at least once. While driving across it is fun, also considering walking or biking the bridge if your kids are old enough. It's an unforgettable experience!
The east walkway is open to bikers on weekdays, and the west walkway is open on weekends. You can pick up a bike at American Bicycle Rental on Hyde Street. For additional information on bike routes, call the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department at 415-666-7201.
Most kids love to visit "The Rock", a former maximum security federal prison which once housed criminals such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. You can get to the island by taking one of the bay cruises which typcally leave the docks daily every half-hour starting at 9:30 a.m. This is an extremely popular cruise during the summer months, so you might want to purchase your tickets at least a day in advance. Make sure to dress warmly -- it gets chilly on the island and on the boat while you're crossing the Bay. Once on the island, you can chose to take self-guided audiocassette tours narrated by former inmates and guards, or opt for the ranger-led programs.
For more information on the Red and White boat cruises to Alcatraz, call 415-546-BOAT.
This area of San Francisco is a favorite with kids. Walk through the gateway located at Grand and Bush Streets, and you'll find 24 blocks full of wonderful restaurants, interesting shops and food markets, temples and museums. The kids will love the stone lions, dragon-twined lampposts, pagoda roofs, and Chinese calligraphied signs -- not to mention the other exotic sights and smells of this area of the city. Stockton Street is where most of the area residents shop for fresh fish and produce. Don't miss the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on 56 Ross Alley (415-781-3956), where kids can watch cookies being made and find out how those fortunes manage to get inside.
Don't be shy about exploring -- but do plan to walk about. The traffic is heavy and there are usually crowds. Parking is especially difficult in this area, so plan to leave the car elsewhere.
THE COIT TOWER
This is San Francisco's answer to Washington's Monument. The view from the top is no less breathtaking. Ride the elevator to the top, and you'll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Directly offshore, you'll see Alcatraz and Angel Island, a great place to go for hiking and camping.
PARAMOUNT'S GREAT AMERICA
If thrill rides are an important part of your vacation experience, look no futher than Paramount's Great America theme park located in nearby Santa Clara. There's the Vortex, a stand-up roller coaster; the Top Gun coaster modeled after an F-14 fighter experience; the wooden Grizzly; and lots of other daredevil rides. Younger children will enjoy Smurf Woods, complete with mini-rides and activities.
The theme park also features a number of water rides, stage shows, musicals, animals, and an IMAX theater. For more information on current hours and prices, call 408-988-1800.
LEVI STRAUSS & COMPANY
This is the smallest and oldest factory in the country, and the home of some kids (and adults) favorite jeans. You can take a guided tour and watch jeans being made. Don't plan on just walking in -- this is a very popular tour and reservations are a must.
The factory is located at 250 Valencia Street. For more information and to make reservations, call (415) 565-9159.
Where to Stay
THE WESTIN ST. FRANCIS
335 Powell St.
San Francisco, CA 94102 USA
Located in the heart of San Francisco on Union Square, the St. Francis is surrounded by the city's finest shops, theaters and restaurants. And of course, the cable cars stop right at our front door. The Westin Kids Club is a great program for kids 12 and under. Additionally there is no charge for children 18 years and under if occupying same room with parents.
340 Stockton Street
San Francisco, California 94108
415-781-5555 or 800-426-3135
This high end hotel offers Valet service, Parking, International currency exchange, Laundry, Complimentary shoeshine, House doctor, Baby-sitting service, etc. Nearby are Maiden Lane boutique shopping, Union Square major shopping district, near cable car lines as well.
501 Post Street
415-441-7100 or 800-227-3184
The Donatello offers some of the biggest rooms in the city, there's plenty of space for romping. The Donatello is not cheap, but children under 12 stay free in their parents' room.
FOUR SEASONS CLIFT
495 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
415/775-4700, or 800/332-3442
The Very Important Kids (VIK) program provides families with baby blankets, teddy bears, Nintendo video games, children's-size robes, and other amenities to help children and their parents feel at home.
2220 Sacramento Street
415-929-9444 or 800-826-9398
Furnished with theatrical originality, this hotel will appeal to children's creative fantasies. On-site entertainment includes nightly performances by virtuoso pianist Claudia the Ghost, who is sometimes accompanied by owner Bob Pritikin on the saw.
THE HYATT ON UNION SQUARE
345 Stockton Street
415-398-1234 or 800-223-1234
San Francisco's Chinatown is located just three blocks away and you can catch the Cable Car a block from the hotel.
MARRIOTT FISHERMAN'S WHARF
1250 Columbus Avenue
415-775-7555 or 800-228-9290
The San Francisco Mariott Fisherman's Wharf is a luxury facility. Located in the heart of the city, the hotel offers some family plans, definitely an option to explore when visiting the San Francisco area.
RAMADA AT FISHERMAN'S WHARF
590 Bay Street
415-885-4700 or 800-2-RAMADA
The Ramada Hotel at Fisherman's Wharf offers convenient access to many of San Francisco's main attractions. Fisherman's Wharf is one of the popular attractions with the many fishing vessels, street vendors, shops and fine restaurants. The guest rooms at the hotel feature telephone, radio and color television including rooms for handicapped persons.
THE SHERATON AT FISHERMAN'S WHARF
2500 Mason Street
415-362-5500 or 800-325-3535
The Sheraton at Fisherman's Wharf has 525 rooms and suites, which are pretty spacious for families sharing rooms. There's also a restaurant, two lounges and a swimming pool.
THE TRAVELODGE AT FISHERMAN'S WHARF
250 Beach Street
415-392-6700 or for reservations, 800-255-3050
The Travelodge at Fisherman's Wharf occupies an entire city block in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf. Views of San Francisco city, harbor and bay are fantastic. Another nice feature is the free parking. The Travelodge offers extensive vacation planning opptions.
Here are some common chains that have properties in California that may offer family discounts, kids programs or other special kid-friendly amenities. NOTE: some of these are not available at some properties, and some special promotions are seasonal; therefore, make sure to call each property for current information.
You might also call the state Office of Tourism, 800-462-2543, for additional listings and directories of California accomodations.
* BEST WESTERN, 800-528-1234
* CHOICE HOTELS, 800-424-6423
* EMBASSY SUITES, 800-362-2779
* HOLIDAY INN, 800-465-4329
* HOWARD JOHNSON HOTELS, 800-446-4656
* RADISSON, 800-333-3333
* WESTIN, 800-228-3000
* WYNDHAM, 800-822-4200
Where to Eat
1600 Powell Street.
This place is popular with families because it has an extensive Italian-American menu. Very economical sit down establishment. The food is excellent, and it is a popular place, so for dinner, be sure to make reservations. No lunch on weekends.
4th and Howard Streets
This is a really fun Mexican minichain. They pride themselves on using the freshest ingredients, and sauces. The fajitas, and the seafood are notable entrees. Reservations are accepted for parties of 8 or more. This is just across from Moscone center.
3148 Geary Blvd.
5821 Geary Blvd.
Ton Kiang features the cuisine of South China, Hakka. And the seafood is not to be overlooked. Many of the regional dishes are lightly seasoned, delicate and of course, very tasty. The less-seasoned cuisine is good for kids who are open to new dining experiences.
SEARS FINE FOODS
439 Powell Street
A San Francisco landmark, Sears Fine Foods is a great breakfast and lunch place. The service is efficient and friendly. It gets really crowed, sometimes there's a line out front, so be prepared for the crowd. The food is great, and they feature some really unique entrees. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Do not accept credit cards. Do not serve dinner.
3rd and Folsom Streets
This a pretty cool family spot. The food is good, made fresh and served in big portions. There's a great kids menu too. The big band music of decades past makes for a really neat experience, and a really tasty meal. Reservations for dinneer only.
HARD ROCK CAFE
1699 Van Ness Ave.
The place is loud, the burgers are some of the best around, and the souvenir T-Shirts are the hottest sellers. If you're not into loud music, and shouting dinner conversation this isn't the place for you. Older kids love it. The rock memorabilia chronicles music, and the teen music culture of the Bay area. A fascinating experience.
2801 Leavenworth St.
Charley Brown's has a good children's menu, and a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Food for kids and adults is quite good. Some sides and entrees might include: thick-cut fries, hamburger, prime rib, fish dishes, and other standard fare. High chairs and booster seats are available too.
Located in Ghiardelli Square, Boudin Bakery offers some of the best sandwiches around. The San Francisco sourdough bread is to die for. Inexpensive lunch type offerings and a nice atmosphere make for a nice *time out* for touring the city.
Money $aving Tips
GETTING AROUND: In San Francisco, a city where parking is scarce and where available expensive, your best bet is to go on foot, or utilize MUNI, BART, cable cars, and independent systems. Information on these services can be found by calling San Francisco Convention and Visitor's Bureau Information Center at 415-391-2000. The Center is located at Hallidie Plaza, 900 Market Streetat Powell Street.
PACKAGES AND TOURS: Tours can be economical; group rates, inclusive meals and travel all contribute to overall savings. Be aware however to beware of hidden costs (taxes, tips, service charges etc.). Check out every detail from accomodations to specific tour destinations. Make sure the tour operator is a reputable one. Consult several travel agents about a comany's reputation.
ATTIRE: Although this might seem unimportant, be sure to pack clothing for all different climates. Weather in San Francisco fluctuates often. You dont' want to have to buy a sweater or sweatshirt when the fog rolls in.
PARKS: San Francisco has over 200 parks and playgrounds where kids might like to run around a bit, to take a break from *seeing the sights.*