Tripper Nina Sadjadpour, marketing consultant, mother and wife shares tips on favorite things to do in San Francisco with kids.
I LOVE San Francisco! When the sun shines on the city by the bay, it’s one of the best places to be in the world (Sydney is a close second)! I feel lucky to live here, with it’s natural beauty and fantastic neighborhoods & suburbs. Here’s what we love to do for FAMILY fun:
1) California Academy of Sciences, at Golden Gate Park
The newly renovated California Academy of Sciences is a must-see. With its beautiful and modern light-bright architecture (sustainably designed by Renzo Piano), the building itself is as lovely as the Rainforest, Aquarium, Planetarium, Living Roof, & Natural History exhibits. My personal favorite is the aquarium with its coral reef exhibit on the lower level. My 8 year old loves the rainforest exhibit with its birds and butterflies and humidity, and my 4 year old enjoys the “dead animals” and penguins of the African hall, in the museum’s natural history wing. We have been to here many times and it’s never dull or tiresome – sometimes we run over after school, get lucky with street-parking and dash in for an hour or so, before heading back home to beat bridge traffic.
The academy café is a fabulous treat, though expensive for kid fare – we usually bring snacks with us in addition to splurging a little on delicious spring rolls, soups and sorbets. We haven’t yet tried the lower-level and more upscale Moss Room restaurant – but both eateries are known for their local celebrity chefs Charles Phan (academy café) and Loretta Keller (Moss Room). [ Location: 55 Music Concourse Drive]
2) Yerba Buena Garden Rooftop, South of Market
Zeum Children’s Tech Museum & Carousel, Skate & Bowl, Children’s Garden Park
My children have always loved the playground at Yerba Buena Center. I had to look up the official name of the park; it’s called the Play Circle in the Children’s Garden Park. Anyway, we’ve been coming here since they were little enough to only ride the beautiful Carousel and crawl around the park’s rubber floor. But now, at age 4 and 8, they still LOVE the carousel and barreling down the metal tube slides and attempting to run uphill on the rubber surface. They love it so much, that we’ve been overlooking some of the Yerba Buena’s other attractions…
We recently discovered the Zeum Children’s Museum, a hands-on creative place for multimedia and tech exploration where kids can, among other things, make their very own stop-action short films using LEGO people or playdough characters, or record a music video shot against a giant green screen. Younger children can do arts & crafts and play on the slides. If your SF visit includes a trip to the Zeum, be sure to call first or check the website – it’s wildly popular destination for class visits and they maintain only certain hours on certain days.
If you happen to find yourself here on a rainy day when the children’s museum is closed, make your way to the nearby ice skating & (adjacent) bowling center. It’s the only place you can ice skate year-round in SF and the only place to skate during the non-holiday season! [Location: 221 Fourth Street between Mission & Howard]
3) Exploratorium, at the Palace of Fine Arts
The Exploratorium is a terrific spot for adults and kids alike to engage all five senses. I suspect even older kids/teens would find it “cool.” We recently visited here during a school holiday. I took my two girls, along with a friend and her two children, and her daughter’s playdate to the museum, where we proceeded to bump into another of my daughter’s classmates who was visiting with her mom and older brother – 10 of us on a Thursday! This place is so popular – and it’s no wonder. It can be crowded, but the space is large and the exhibits are plenty; we never experienced lines or long wait-times to “play.”
Exploratorium is known as the “museum of science, art and human perception” there’s a lot to hold the attention of children (and grown-ups) of all ages – our group consisted of kids age 3 to age 10 – and we stayed there over half the day and just scratched the interactive surface of things to do. It’s especially hands-on, even for a children’s museum. At the Exploratorium, curious little hands and can press buttons, and pull levers to their hearts content! All the exhibits encourage experimentation and kids can easily roam around, jumping from one to the next. So nice to be able to tell my four year old, (for once) “it’s okay to touch.” The kids in our group seemed to really enjoy the physics, music and biology exhibits – as a bonus, they were dissecting a cow eyeball on one recent visit – my girls sat front and center!
Street parking was easy enough, along Lyon Street or nearby residential area (2 hours at a time). We also walked along the pond and Palace of Fine Arts. The Exploratorium also has a decent cafeteria, with kid and adult fare (hotdogs, pizza, as well as sandwiches and salad bar, and lattes!) You can store your belongings – bags, coats, snacks, etc in lockers during your visit for just a few quarters, which is nice, because once inside the kids tend to take off and grownups are left holding everything. I forgot to mention one of the biggest attractions – the tactile dome – we didn’t even make it here, but it’s one of the more popular exhibits….next visit! Nearby attractions include the beautiful strolling grounds of Palace of Fine Arts (but please don’t feed the swans and ducks!), Crissy Field – great for running around and letting off some steam while taking in views of GG Bridge, and shopping/restaurants in the Marina district on Chestnut Street. [Location: 3601 Lyon Street]
4) Mile Rock Beach, Lands End Coastal Trail
Beautiful, scenic hike along the Lands End Coastal Trail, includes a detour climb down to the fabulous Mile Rock beach. 100+ steps down and totally worth the trek there – and back! Beach setting is surreal….don’t let it intimidate you. We really felt like we’d stumbled upon some hidden little treasure, despite not being the only ones there!
Mile Rock isn’t the sandy sort of beach where you sit and sun while the kids play tag with the surf, but rather, a very cool rocky beach with crashing waves, and huge clouds of seafoam – on a foggy day, it really makes for a “mysterious” looking scene. My kids had the best time climbing around and exploring, and playing with the “mermaid foam,” and collecting “treasures” (blue, gray, green rocks). Do keep an eye on them as waves come crashing. My guess is they’ll be happy to play on the low rocks and to scoop up handfuls of seafoam, instead of wanting to run into the water.
From the recently renovated Merrie Way parking area (free parking, outdoor toilets) follow signs to the beach steps for perhaps, a mile. My four year old ran all the way there, then proceeded to play hard…but she was too tired to climb back up the stairs – lucky for her daddy let her ride his shoulders. Had we not been running around Ocean Beach and the GG Park earlier that same day, she would’ve been fine. This is one of my new favorite SF/Bay Area hikes – can’t wait to take grandpa & grandma when they visit. [Location: El Camino del Mar]
5) Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, The Embarcadero
The SF Ferry Building is one of my favorite places in the city – in all the Bay Area, actually. It’s on our list of “must-see” places when anyone comes to visit. The clock tower itself is an iconic San Francisco symbol, much like the Golden Gate Bridge. But, what we love most are the eateries – a nod to the city’s culinary culture.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays they have the most fantastic farmer’s market! Kids and grownups will appreciate strolling while sampling all sorts of local foods, fruits and veg. Even my picky 4 year old finds things she wants to taste here. It’s easy to leave with multiple full bags of fresh produce. Start at one end and make your way down outside.
Your kids don’t have to be foodies to appreciate the Ferry Building though – mine like to roam along inside and check out what the merchants have to offer (they basically run from one end to the other, making frequent quick stops). They always stop and observe the fresh lobsters in the tank, gelatos in hand. As a bonus for grownups, the building itself is lovely, with lots of natural light; it manages to have the old world charm of a bazaar, while feeling very contemporary/modern – and very San Francisco, at the same time. [Location: 1 Ferry Bldg, Ste 50]
A long-time San Francisco Bay Area resident (not including a 2 yr experiment DC), Nina now lives in Marin County, CA with her family. Nina speaks Farsi & Spanish, and gets by with a little French and Italian on a very good day. She has lived, studied and worked abroad and sees more international travel in her future, now that her kids are beyond the “zero-to-five” years! Connect with Nina via her Tripping profile. Connect with her and other families via the Traveling Families Network.
Academy of Sciences (Photos 1 & 2) : Anis Salvesen
Yerba Buena Garden (Photos 3 & 4): Yerba Buena Gardens Wesbite
Palace of Fine Arts (Photo 5) : Free Palace of Fine Arts Pictures & Stock Photos
Mile Rock (Photos 6 & 7) : Nina Sadjadpour
SF Ferry Building (Photo 8) : wallyg