San Francisco might be most famous for the Golden Gate Bridge but there is so much more to the city than the big red bridge. I was seriously surprised at how much the city has to offer – chic neighbourhoods, picture perfect streets, museums and art galleries galore, beautiful parks and gorgeous views from just about any corner.
You could easily and happily spend a week here but you probably want to see more of the West Coast, so I’ll keep it shorter. Still, if you’re flying straight into San Francisco from Asia, I would recommend staying for at least 4-5 days as you’ll probably end up wasting a day, thanks to jet lag.
Our first day in San Francisco was mostly zombie-like – think 16.5 hours in the air with 3 kids, followed by trying to stay awake the entire day to adjust to the 15-hour time difference. By day 2, though, I was completely in love with the city – San Francisco is simply beautiful and it has such a cool vibe to it.
We rented a car and stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Daly city. We mostly drove around but took Ubers on a couple of occasions as parking can be a nightmare – difficult to find and super-expensive.
Here is a 4-day family friendly itinerary for San Francisco. I drafted this based on what we did right, what we did wrong and how we could have organized our days better.
- Take in spectacular views of the Bay Area from Twin Peaks
- Enjoy a family picnic at Golden Gate Park
- Get gorgeous views at Lands End
- Walk on the Golden Gate Bridge
- Make a pit-stop at the Palace of Fine Arts
Start by driving to Twin Peaks for spectacular expansive views of the Bay Area. It is free (even the parking) and yet, not too crowded. We absorbed the views from near the parking lots but you can climb to the top of one of the peaks for 360 degree views. It can get really windy up there, so make sure you have jackets and something to tie your hair. Tip: If you want to look through the telescopes, keep quarters handy.
After getting a good bird’s eye view of the Bay Area, head over to Golden Gate Park for some family fun. Rent bikes, have a picnic or just laze around. If you want to visit the California Academy of Sciences, it is within the park. I wouldn’t rate it as a must-do but it is quite good, so if you’ve got the time, the money (at $35.95 for adults, it is pricey) and kids who want to explore an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, all under one roof, then go for it. My (and one of my 6-year-old’s) favourite part was the Earthquake simulation.
In the late afternoon, drive to Lands End – the wildest, rockiest corner of San Francisco. Trails at Lands End offer a cliff-top walk through dark cypress and open grass. Spend an hour or two here, walk around to get gorgeous views from different vista points – Lands End offers 30-mile views up and down the California Coast.
Now, time to finally see the iconic landmark up close – the Golden Gate Bridge. We parked at a parking lot in Presidio, not too far from the information centre and hiked up 15-20 minutes to reach the bridge, stopping several times to get that perfect picture of the bridge. And in case you were wondering – yes, with 5 kids in the group, we are entitled to call it a hike! Walking on the bridge is an experience, so definitely go for it.
On the way back, drive around Presidio for a bit and stop at the Palace of Fine Arts for a few minutes.
*It might look like a long day on paper, but you’ll only spend around 15 minutes each at Twin Peaks and Palace of Fine Arts. But if you start late in the day or want to take it slower, then omit the Golden Gate Park or do it on Day 3.
- Watch the sealions at Pier 39
- Walk around Fisherman’s Wharf
- Buy chocolates at Ghirardelli Square
- Ride the Cable Car
- Walk up and down Lombard Street
- Shop at Union Square
Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square cover several blocks along the waterfront. This is basically one of the popular and touristy things to do in San Francisco.
You can start around the Ferry Building and walk along the piers. Pier 7 is “supposedly” less crowded and offers great views. The Exploratorium at Pier 15 is a hands-on science museum for kids. We wanted to go but couldn’t manage it because of a poorly planned day ☹. Keep walking along the piers – take in the views and make a few stops so kids can jump, run around and admire the docked ships.
As you get closer to Pier 39, the hustle bustle starts to increase. Pier 39 gets crowded but the sea lions are a must for kids. After exploring the area, have an early lunch at Hard Rock Café. I loved the Cauliflower Burger – Hard Rock Café lets you mix and match the burgers, so I had my Cauliflower patty topped with condiments from the Atomic Burger.
Post lunch, walk through Fisherman’s Wharf to Ghirardelli Square. You can make pit-stops on the way to buy souvenirs, pretzels or chocolate milk. If When the kids start whining about being tired, bribe them with the promise of chocolates – the folks at Ghirardelli will take care of this as they dish out a free chocolate to everyone who enters.
The Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop and Café is a haven for chocoholics – watch chocolate being made while you enjoy a hot fudge sundae and go crazy shopping for chocolates for the folks back home (or at least, that’ll be the official version). Tip: DO NOT buy the small packs of squares, or you’re so gonna regret it once you’re back home and hooked on your daily dose of a post-dinner Ghirardelli. And if you’re delusional enough to think that you won’t get hooked to these, you’ve got another thing coming 😉.
Post the choco-mania, cross the street to where you can see a huge queue. This is where you can (and with kids you probably should) board the famous San Francisco Cable Car (Powell-Hyde Line). Then again, if you’re from Singapore you probably already joined the queue first and wondered later what it was for 😉. Ride the Cable Car up and down the steep streets of San Francisco, all the way to Union Square. Tip: Sit at the open front of the car. It gets pretty crowded, so you’ll miss the views if you’re in the back.
But first, get off on Lombard Street just a few stops away. Lombard Street was one of my favourite things to do/see in San Francisco. The street is famous for a steep section with 8 hairpin turns. Walk down the street, take in the views and plenty of pictures before you hop back on the Cable Car and continue on to Union Square. Once there, shop, eat, walk, photograph and shop some more.
- Alcatraz Tour
- Shopping or additional sightseeing
The former prison is rated as the top attraction in San Francisco. The tours get sold out weeks in advance so make sure you book early. We made the blunder of leaving it to chance and were pretty bummed out ‘coz we ended up missing it. The ticket price includes the ferry and the tour. For more information and to purchase tickets please visit the Alcatraz Cruises website.
The Day Tour ($37.25) is approximately 2.5 hours and would be most appropriate with kids. You can also opt for a combined tour of Alcatraz and Angel Island ($71.50/Adult).
Depending on what tour you take, you can plan for the rest of the day. Besides, you’re travelling with kids! So, let’s face it – things probably didn’t go to plan the first couple of days and you ended up missing stuff. Use the remaining part of this day to see what you missed, or any extras that you might be interested in –The de Young Museum, SFMOMA, Coit Towers, Chinatown, San Francisco Zoo, just to name a few.
- Muir Woods
You’ll have to take a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to get to Muir Woods and Sausalito. I would suggest doing Muir Woods first but if you’re not driving, then you can take the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito and start there.
The easiest way to get to Muir Woods is by car. Instead of driving all the way, I recommend parking at Pohono St Park & Ride and taking the Muir Woods Shuttle from there. It’s just easier. The shuttle costs $5 for a round trip for adults. Kids are free. Remember that there is no cell phone service in Muir Woods so you can’t rely on Uber for your pick-up.
Once you get to Muir Woods, you can do one of the many hikes through the forest. Or, if you’re travelling with young children, my guess is that you might just want to take a leisurely stroll amongst the majestic redwoods. Muir Woods will enchant you with its beauty – it is peaceful and beautiful. For more information on Muir Woods and the Shuttle, click here.
Spend the second half of the day at Sausalito. This cute little bay side town has a European feel to it. Experience the quaint charm of Sausalito’s waterfront, by strolling along the waterfront near the harbour, watching the ferries and hopefully a few seals. Walk along the main street lined with restaurants, cafes and shops; stop for an ice-cream. Sausalito is also a great dining destination, we had dinner at Poggio Trattoria – the food was amazing with great vegetarian choices (more on this later).
(Optional) Day 5
In case you want to do a day trip to Napa Valley or even a drive on the Pacific Coastal Highway to Santa Cruz and back.
Tips for the trip:
- Always, always keep a jacket – summer in San Francisco is not like the Singaporean summer. During our visit (June 2017), temperatures often dropped in the evening, even if it was sunny during the day. It is often windy, so it also feels cooler than the temperature might suggest.
- Driving distances from one sight to another can be longish, 20-40 minutes or occasionally more. So always keep some water and snacks in the car, for the kids. You might also do well to keep a tablet, in case you need to diffuse a fight that starts out of boredom.
- Depending on what attractions you want to cover, the San Francisco City Pass and/or the GO Card may be more value for money. Check them out while you draw up your itinerary.