San Francisco Loves Little Ones - My Family Travels

California's golden city of San Francisco has lots to offer kids of all ages, even the youngest in your family.

Although many people discover San Francisco as an adult, my favorite memories of the city are from my childhood growing up in the Bay Area. My experiences of the biggest city in Northern California are that of a young child exploring the various beaches, playgrounds, aquariums and zoos SF has to offer its youngest residents.

Ways to Get Around the “City by the Bay”

The city’s famous Cable Cars (415/673-6864) are a convenient and historic way to get around town. Three different lines traverse the hills of San Francisco — both the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines start at the intersection of Powell and Market streets at Union Square and respectively run to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The California Street line begins in the Financial District and heads west over Nob Hill until it reaches Van Ness Avenue. Tickets can be bought directly from the cable car conductors. For those who desire more information about San Francisco’s unique mode of transportation, explore the Cable Car Museum (415/474-1887) at 1201 Mason Street. Admission is free-of-charge. Here you can learn how cable cars operate and see three antique cable cars on display.

The Blue and Gold Fleet (415/773-1188) offers special tours around San Francisco. The one-hour narrated tour operates on a hop-on/hop-off basis stops at popular tourist destinations such as Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square and Union Square. The motorized cable cars will take you and your family through various neighborhoods including North Beach, Nob Hill, Union Square, Chinatown, Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Although popular PIER 39 (415/705-5500) may be crowded, children will surely enjoy the various shops, street performers and family-oriented restaurants that line the pier. On the west marina, the hundreds of barking sea lions basking in the sun grabbed my attention as a child and still fascinate me today. At the end of the pier, a handcrafted Italian carousel features famous San Francisco landmarks including Coit Tower, Lombard Street, Chinatown and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Also located at PIER 39, the Aquarium of the Bay (415/623-5300) allows your toddler to discover 23,000 aquatic animals while traveling through two 300-feet-long underwater tunnels. The first tunnel focuses on the near coastal marine life of the San Francisco Bay, where sharks, sting rays, an octopus, and lots of other marine life make up this unique ecosystem. The second tunnel that visitors pass through explores the animals that live farther out in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean. Tickets can be bought at the aquarium’s website, where they offer a discounted family rate. A color fish chart and a fun, 30-minute headphone tour are included, and the aquarium is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. Our families with kids from 2-7-years-old spent about two hours, including a gift shop stop, at the site.

A popular place for Bay Area school’s fieldtrips, (I still have the teddy bear I stuffed myself as a child) is the Basic Brown Bear Factory (866/5BB-BEAR). Located at The Cannery at Fisherman’s Wharf, half a block from the Powell-Hyde Cable Car turnaround, America’s oldest real teddy bear factory has welcomed children to stuff and personalize their own bears since 1976. If your child is frightened of loud noises, use your judgment visiting the factory as the machines used to stuff the animals are quite loud. Prices for bears start at $14 and increase depending on size of bear and accessories.

A short stroll down Fisherman’s Wharf is Hyde Street Pier where you can take children aboard several historical vessels at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (415-447-5000). Among the various ships is the Balclutha, a square-rigger from 1886. While you’re in the area, be sure to stop by Ghirardelli Square for an ice cream sundae at the flagship Ghirardelli Chocolate shop.

Another afternoon well spent is one in Chinatown. Have lunch at one of the various restaurants in the neighborhood and afterwards visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company (415/781-3956). Tucked away at 56 Ross Alley, this is a true San Francisco gem. The fortune cookies are made right in front of you in this small storefront and the old machines, wonderful aromas and free samples of the cookies will delight children.

The up-and-coming neighborhood south of Market Street, affectionately called SOMA, has several places for young children to enjoy. The Metreon (415/369-6000), located at Fourth and Mission streets, is a unique entertainment complex that includes restaurants, shops, arcades and the West Coast’s largest IMAX theatre.

Across the street are the Yerba Buena Gardens, home to the high-tech Zeum Museum (ideal for older children), a 1906 restored carousel and a playground.

The Cartoon Art Museum (415/227-8666) has exhibits detailing the history of cartoons and is enjoyable for both children and their parents. The Museum of Children’s Art (510/465-8770) in nearby Oakland, allows kids to explore their artistic side by creating their own artwork with the museum’s supplies, as well as view art made by other children in the museum’s gallery.

Every winter my family went to the San Francisco Symphony’s (415/864-6000) children’s Christmas carol sing-a-long at Davies Symphony Hall located right near San Francisco’s city hall. This is a fun event for the whole family. Children will also be delighted by the hundreds of Christmas trees decorated by various schools and volunteer programs on display in the lobby. In addition to the annual Christmas concert, the SF Symphony also puts on a performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” for children during the holiday season. Also visit for musical activities for children.

The Presidio (415/561-5444), a former military post, is now a national park that offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, historical exhibits, and great hiking trails. It is a wonderful place for a calm afternoon picnic or walk with the family. Visit the Julius Kahn Playground located in the Presidio at W. Pacific Avenue and Spruce Street. Park entrance is free-of-charge as are most of the historical exhibits.

The three-mile paved pathway at Crissy Field runs from Aquatic Park to Fort Point. It’s perfect for a stroller walk with spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and there’s a small cafe at the bridge end for tea, coffee, cocoa and treats.

Golden Gate & other SF Parks

Golden Gate Park offers a vast amount of activities for families to explore when the weather is sunny. 174 acres larger than New York’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park stretches all the to the Pacific Ocean where the North Windmill, donated by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, stands. The main attractions of the park include:

The Conservatory of Flowers (415/666-7001) is one of the most popular destinations within Golden Gate Park. With a wide variety of tropical plants and flowers, the Conservatory is a beautiful place that both children and adults enjoy. The Conservatory opened in 1879, and its stunning Victorian architecture is worth the trip alone. The first Tuesday of every month admission is free.

Also be sure to make a stop at the Bison Paddock to see the small heard of bison roaming around the Park. This is the only vestige of the exotic animals that have been housed here over the years. The bison have been there since 1892, but the park has been home to various other animals including elk, caribou, bears and emus. Although the Children’s Playground (415/831-2700) is under renovation until May 2007, the famous 1912 Herschel-Spillman carousel still operates Saturday and Sunday from 10am-5 pm.

Alta Plaza Park is located in the beautiful Pacific Heights neighborhood at Jackson and Scott Streets. Located at the top of a hill, this park has one of the city’s most beautiful views as well as a great playground that little ones will enjoy. Cow Hollow Playground in the Marina/Presidio neighborhood on Baker St. between Greenwich and Filbert Streets provides a small park ideal for those with infants and toddlers.

To find more parks in whatever neighborhood you’re exploring, visit SF Park & Recreation Department.

Although San Francisco tends to be quite chilly and foggy in the summer months, weather is beautiful in the spring and early fall. Take advantage of the Bay Area’s mild weather at its many beaches along the Pacific Coast. The water may too chilly to swim in, but the beaches offer great views and are the perfect settings for an afternoon picnic or barbeque. Both China Beach and Baker Beach offer splendid views of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north. Ocean Beach runs down the entire west side of San Francisco and offers gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean.

Kids Museums

Randall Museum (415/554-9600) is a great wildlife museum for kids with programs, including its Tree House Toddler Exploration Zone, designed especially for toddlers. Equipped with a safe climbing structure and plenty of age appropriate books and toys, this museum also has a live animal exhibit with over 100 animals that have been rescued and housed at the museum. Admission is free-of-charge.

Construction on the new California Academy of Sciences (415/321-8000) in Golden Gate Park began in 2005. The new permanent location is scheduled to open in late 2008. However, the academy is still operating at a temporary location downtown, at 875 Howard Street. Visitors can observe dinosaur exhibits and watch African penguins be fed everyday at 11am and 3:30pm. For younger guests (ages 3-5) there is a nature story time every Saturday morning at 10:30am. The Howard Street location has developed the Nature Nest to provide a place for children five-years-old and under to explore the natural world. Live animals, nature books and other creative and imaginative opportunities will be sure to grab your toddler’s interest. Admission is free-of-charge on the first Wednesday of each month.

The San Francisco Zoo (415-753-7080), with over 1,000 animals, is Northern California’s largest and has an amazing variety of programs to entertain toddlers including the Asian Elephant exhibit, the big cat feedings at the Lion House, and the Penguin Island. At the Children’s Zoo, young children can feed and pet animals Admisison is free-of-charge on the first Wednesday of every month.

Day Trips around the Bay Area

Fun activities for family with toddlers are not just limited to San Francisco. Spend a day exploring various nearby cities and towns in the Bay Area with your children.

For starters, spend the afternoon in sunny Sausalito, a charming town located on the bay directly north of San Francisco. The Blue and Gold Fleet also has ferries that will take you on a 30-minute boat ride to Sausalito. Once there, take a walk down Bridgeway Street and pick up an ice cream cone at Lappert’s Ice Cream (415/331-3607). A delicious Hawaiian ice cream and coffee shop, Lappert’s offers a unique array of flavors from Kauai Pie to Caramel Coconut Macadamia ice cream. Yum. Quaint shops, including a toy store that will entertain your children, line the rest of this street that looks out over the Bay.

Also in Sausalito is the Marine Mammal Center (415/289-7325) where children can observe sick and injured sea lions and elephant seals that are being rehabilitated to live in the wild once more.

A trip to Oakland’s Children’s Fairyland (510-452-2259) will truly delight your toddler. This park, located near Lake Merritt, brings popular children’s literature to life with rides, puppet shows, theatre and live animal exhibits. This attraction is open daily in the summer, and on a more limited schedule in the fall and winter.

Oakland Zoo (510/632-9523) is smaller than the San Francisco Zoo, but still has much to offer. In addition to the usual animal habitats, there is also a children’s zoo for toddlers to explore, and train rides around the park. Be sure to take a ride on the aerial tram at the zoo for stunning views of both the park and the Bay Area.

Located in the hills of Berkeley, Tilden Park (510/524-6773) is the perfect place for a day trip for the family. Little ones can ride a carousel or take a scenic ride around the park on a scaled-down steam train. There is also a small children’s farm where children can pet and feed animals. Bring a picnic and enjoy the views that look out over the entire San Francisco Bay.

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