San Francisco is one of the world’s top tourist destinations and a city that travelers with kids visit often. Get a local’s perspective on the city hosting Super Bowl 50 and learn what are can’t-miss attractions for travelers with kids of any age.
San Francisco, California, is playing host to the 2016 Super Bowl. While the game is officially taking place in Santa Clara, a suburb of San Jose to the south, the entire Bay Area is expected to be filled to capacity for the 50th anniversary of the big game. If you are planning to come to the City by the Bay to celebrate, don’t miss the chance to see some of the amazing sights that one of the country’s top tourist destinations has to offer. You can’t possibly squeeze all there is to see in San Francisco in over a single weekend or week (I’m still trying after 11 years of living in the area!), but you can hit some serious highlights.
Here are some of the top attractions to visit and things to do with kids in San Francisco. (And if you plan to escape the city to avoid the Super Bowl crowds, here are some kid-friendly day trip ideas near San Francisco.)
1. Cable Car Rides
A ride on San Francisco’s iconic cable cars is must-do for all travelers, but especially for kids. Children will marvel at how the cars climb San Francisco’s famous hills and how the operators handle them. Just be careful with little ones as the cars are jerky and open to traffic all around.
Cable cars are extremely popular and fill up when many tourists are in town. Expect to wait to ride them, so don’t rely on them for timely transportation during your visit. Cable car rides are pricey ($7 one way), so if you plan to use other San Francisco public transit, your best bet for saving is to buy a Muni passport that provides unlimited access.
2. Golden Gate Bridge
You can’t visit the city by the bay without crossing the world’s most famous bridge! If you have a rental car, driving the bridge is easy. After crossing the bridge, pull off on the overlook at Vista Point for some amazing views and photo opportunities. Just be aware that there is a cashless toll on the way back into the city, so understand your car rental company’s toll policies and pre-pay in advance online if need be.
An even better way to see the bridge is to bike it if your kids are old enough to handle a few hills. There are numerous bike rental companies in major tourist centers in San Francisco (particularly near Fisherman’s Wharf). Bike over the bridge and return via the ferry from Sausalito.
3. Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most famous tourist trap, but it’s a darn good tourist trap, particularly if you have kids. Children will enjoy seeing the well-known sea lions sunbathing on the docks by Pier 39. My kids (ages 6 and 2) especially love the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39, which showcases local sea life. Other attractions worth a stop: the Pier 39 carousel, Boudin Bakery for famous sourdough, and nearby Ghirardelli Square and it’s delicious chocolate. Plan to spend at least a half day at the wharf to get a flavor of the area.
4. California Academy of Sciences
Located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is a large natural history museum perfect for both younger and older kids. It contains an aquarium, planetarium and giant enclosed rainforest exhibit. It also houses a locally beloved albino alligator.
Given its distance from the other parts of the city, plan for at least a half day. Alternatively, spend a full day exploring the Academy of Sciences and the many other attractions in Golden Gate Park like the deYoung Museum, Conservatory of Flowers, or Japanese Tea Garden. The Academy can get very crowded on weekends with local visitors, so go on a weekday if at all possible.
The country’s most famous prison, “the Rock” is a can’t-miss attraction if you have older kids. Walk through the cells that housed infamous mobster and criminals while taking in gorgeous bay views.
Getting to Alcatraz requires a longish ferry ride plus some walking on uneven terrain when you arrive, so I’d suggest skipping this stop if you have toddlers (babies are best brought in carriers). During busy holiday periods, the ferries to Alcatraz almost always sell out, so book online early to avoid disappointment. Plan for a half day excursion to see it all. Finally, bring a coat and wear lots of layers – it is cold and much, much windier than you might expect!
6. Ferry Building
The Ferry Building is a new center of all things foodie in San Francisco. It hosts a regular farmer’s market and is home to several top-rated restaurants and eateries, all of which are quite kid-friendly. For a fancier meal, try Vietnamese food at the Slanted Door. For something more casual, Gott’s Roadside puts a gourmet twist on the greasy spoon.
7. Walt Disney Family Museum
Think you can only visit Disney in Southern California? Think again. The family of Walt Disney has opened a magnificent museum dedicated to Walt’s life in the Presidio in San Francisco. It’s a Disney history fan’s dream. Unlike Disney’s theme parks, this museum is best for older kids. Little ones aren’t likely to have the patience to explore all the exhibits.
8. Lombard Street
Lombard isn’t technically the steepest street in San Francisco, but it’s definitely the most fun. Cars line up for blocks on weekends to drive down the crookedest street in America. Walk it or drive it with the whole family. Located right off of the Powell-Hyde cable car line and just a few blocks uphill from Ghirardelli Square, it’s easily accessible.
The Exploratorium is classified as a children’s science museum, but it is so much more. Now located on the waterfront at Piers 15 and 17 (roughly halfway between the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf), the Exploratorium weaves art, architecture, and history into interactive science-based exhibits designed to stimulate learning and exploration. There is something for every age at the Exploratorium, but it would likely be best appreciated by school age kids and older.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest one in North America. Conveniently located between Union Square and North Beach, it’s easily reached while in the central city. Simply walking through the area and seeing the architecture is a treat for everyone in the family, but not as much of a treat as the food. Dim sum thrives in Chinatown. While the tourists flock to the fancier table service restaurants around the Grant Street gate, cheap and authentic eats abound on Stockton Street too. You can’t go wrong with either – or both!