Getting into San Francisco:
San Francisco is accessed through three international airports (SFO, OAK and SJC) and through a variety of train lines. There are a ton of resources for getting to San Francisco and general San Francisco travel information on the web, so figure out what works best for you.
Getting Around San Francisco:
Public transportation is where San Francisco falls behind other major cities of its size and significance. It’s a small city, only 7 miles long, but many of the charming residential neighborhoods remain unreachable via public transportation as are attractions outside of the city. That being said, most hotels downtown will charge you a stiff parking fee so my suggestion would be to spend a couple of days in the city without a car and then rent one to see some of the Bay Area’s sights (highly recommended). All rental agencies will be able to rent you a car seat in case you are not able to bring yours. Check out one of our Bay Area itineraries to help you plan.
The main public transit system in San Francisco is the MUNI, which you will see in the form of buses, trains and vintage trams on certain routes (the F train that runs through the Embarcadero). You can plan a trip online on the MUNI or find out when the next bus or train will arrive. You can also take the BART to a few stops within the city, but it mostly serves areas East of San Francisco while the Caltrain runs to the South Bay and Peninsula. Ferries are also available to the North and East Bay from the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf. Finally, taxis are notoriously hard to come by and you will likely have to call one so keep this number handy: Yellow Cabs (415) 333-3333.
You can take a stroller on all of these as long as it’s not rush hour. Car seats in taxis are not mandatory but are recommended. If you are a true tourist, you will probably want to take a ride on the SF Cable Car which is a great way to experience some of the city’s history and impossible hills. Take the Powell/Hyde line which starts at Union Square and ends at Ghirardelli Square, where you will find the famous Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop (need we say more?). The whole adventure will be a hit with the kids, especially as you go past Lombard, the world’s crookedest street.
Educational and Fun Things to do with the Kids
Well of course, this is Silicon Valley. If kids don’t get immersed in the wonders of science and technology here, where will they? Fortunately because we are the the seat of global innovation, these institutions have also figured out how to make learning fun, and any child, regardless of interests or age will have a blast at these wonderful centers:
California Academy of Sciences: Recently renovated and situated on prime property in the heart of Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is a natural history museum, planetarium, aquarium, rainforest dome and research center all in one. The building is large and spectacular and the exhibits are beautifully displayed, so as to capture and hold anyone’s attention. Here children can learn about the Earth’s rotation at the giant pendulum, touch and marvel at sea creatures in the aquarium and go gaga over the rare white alligator in the swamp. They can enter the solar system at the planetarium, learn about climate change in California and visit Madagascar at the rainforest, all without leaving the building!
The Academy is such a popular location with locals that it can actually get quite crowded on weekends and rainy days so if you are a tourist, try to get in during the week (the third Wednesday of every month is a free day). Tickets are not cheap and will cost you about $100 for a family of four (kids 3 and under are free), but given how much you get, it’s worth it and you can spend the whole day here.
The Exploratorium: The Exploratorium re-opened early 2013 in their new home at pier 15 and now boasts the same brilliantly engaging exhibits as well as a cafe. In their own words: “The Exploratorium isn’t just a museum, it’s an ongoing exploration of science, art, and human perception”. Wow! Sounds like a lot for a day out with the family but the Exploratorium offers small, child-size exhibits that demonstrate one phenomenon at a time. Karam loved chucking tennis balls down a tube and learning about gravity – he could have done it all day. But most kids will happily spend a couple of hours going from one interactive stand to the other, learning about space, the human body, sound, gardening and much more!
Aquarium of the Bay: It’s certainly not the largest aquarium in California but the Aquarium of the Bay is just the right size for younger kids to be entertained, but not overwhelmed. Children can watch live feedings, learn about shark conservation and descend into the underground tunnels for a closer look at over 1000 species of aquatic life. On your way out, make sure to grab a chance to pat a ray and grab a souvenir at the gift store. Check out their combo ticket options to save a few dollars on admission plus other SF activities such as a Bay Cruise or City Pass.
Zeum, San Francisco’s Children’s Museum: Zeum located just a few minute’s walk from Union Square is an interactive, multimedia space where kids can learn about animation, digital music, special effects and much more. The various rooms offer different activities such as puppet making, cartooning and other arts.
For the 3-6 year olds, there is a newly opened designated space where the kids can play with soft blocks, try on costumes and bounce of walls (literally!). They also run weekly workshops for 3-5 year olds at $10/family (first Fridays free) designed to build creativity, communication, literacy and motor skills for the little critters.
When you are done at Zeum, take a ride on the carousel, go bowling or veg out on the gardens at the Yerba Buena center. There is also a small playground just outside.
San Francisco Zoo: I love this zoo because it offers really fun family events like the BikeAbout, where you get in before the crowds and take a guided bicycle tour of the zoo. As zoos go, it is well planned out, with good exhibits and all the usual suspects animals. The highlight for younger kids is the Children’s Zoo where they can pet an owl, check out some turtles or take a class at the Fisher Price Learning Center. There is also a carousel, steam train and playground to keep the entertained if the animals are not putting up much of a show. Avoid paying for overpriced pizza at the zoo by bringing your own collection of snacks but remember, don’t feed the animals!
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is the largest city park in the United States and a veritable oasis in the middle of this urban chaos. As locals, we make it out to Golden Gate Park at least once a month and I am always blown away by the serenity and beauty of this park. Now, keep in mind that the Golden Gate Park is massive and even a full day there is not enough. Here are some of our favorite spots that you should check out:
The Children’s Playground:
San Francisco takes its kids seriously and this playground is no joke! Tubes to crawl through, chutes to fly down, swings to soar on, planks to balance on and of course, everyone’s favorite, the carousel! Check the hours and directions for The Children’s Playground.
The Mother’s Playground and Meadow
For those with younger kids looking to picnic on lush green lawns, the Mother’s Playground is a great place to park it for a few hours. The playground is smaller and suited for toddlers as well as big kids, but not as intimidating as the one at the Children’s Playground. Great for a low-key family picnic. The Mother’s Playground is conveniently located between MLK Jr. drive and Stow Lake drive.
Japanese Tea House and Garden
For those of you unable to make it to Japan anytime soon, take a gander through the Japanese Tea Garden, sip a cup of tea as you stroll through the serenity of the gardens, with its waterfalls, bridges, lanterns and of course, the elegant and impressive pagoda. You can find hours and directions to the Japanese Tea House and Garden online.
The De Young Museum
For the art lovers in the family, the De Young is a great place to visit. For those less inclined, the De Young has a great courtside cafe and open gardens just out front to spend the time. During the summers. the De Young has wonderful family nights on “Fiesta Fridays”, with music, children’s activities and a host of free exhibits. One of our favorite things to do in the city!
Tucked away in the center of the park is Stow Lake, where families can rent paddle or row boats and get acquainted with domestic aquatic creatures like seagulls, ducks, turtles, and much more. Many enjoy the scenic walk around the lake. You can also rent bikes for adults, kids, or the whole family at the lake. Check us out paddling it out at Stow Lake!
The California Academy of Sciences
This relatively new addition to the park never fails to impress both tourists and locals. The kids will love all the natural and interactive exhibits and guaranteed, even the adults will learn a lot!
Although that’s what it is called, it is actually bison that you see in Golden Gate’s Buffalo Paddock, and it’s the closest you will come to an open zoo in the city. The bison tend to keep to themselves (and we suggest, you let them), but it’s still great for the young ones to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures in a somewhat natural habitat. Within the Golden Gate Park, the Buffalo Paddock is situated off of John F. Kennedy Drive in the north/west corner of the park.
Tips on Visiting Golden Gate Park:
1. As mentioned, Golden Gate Park is huge and although you can attempt to walk around, I would recommend picking a few places you would like to spend your time and focusing on them. A map of Golden Gate Park is therefore, essential.
2. On sunny weekends parking around the park can be a real nightmare. There are two lots around the park, along with a shuttle service that runs between the park’s major attraction for free.
3. For more events, activities, clubs and goings-on, check out the Golden Gate Park website.
The Ferry Building
If you find yourself strolling down the Embarcadero or down Market Street from Union Square, look up and marvel at the elegant Spanish-influenced clock tower standing in front of you. That’s the San Francisco Ferry Building, a terminal for ferries that travel across the San Francisco Bay but equally important, home to some of our favorite retailers showcasing the best of luxury and uniquely San Francisco wares. If you are a gourmet, you’ll want to stop here and don’t worry because the kids will be thrilled to watch the boats pull in and out and get a taste of the good like at some of the eateries. Here are some of Momaboard’s favorites, guaranteed to be equally popular with the kids as with the adults:
The Slanted Door:
This San Francisco institution has taken its rightful seat in one of San Francisco’s most historical buildings. It is unarguably one of the toughest restaurants to get into but if you want an experience of some of the best modern Vietnamese cuisine you could ever imagine, plan ahead and make a reservation. With the kids, I would recommend doing lunch so you can enjoy the breathtaking views of the Bay and the Bay Bridge. If you are not in the mood for fine dining (or couldn’t get in), you can always get a taste at Out the Door, the adjacent take-out stall which offers a sampling of the restaurant’s favorites to be enjoyed in a more casual setting of your choice.
Nothing beats a sunny day by the Bay in San Francisco and if you happen to have one, grab a burger, a glass of Chardonnay and a shake for the kids and camp out on one of the outdoor tables at G’s. A hot happy hour spot, this diner has a casual atmosphere that is suited to all. They have high chairs and don’t be afraid to tell people to scoot over. That’s what “communal tables” are all about!
If you’re ready for desert, this classic Italian gelateria is just where you and the little ones need to head. Now made in San Francisco, Ciao Bella offers a range of low carb and organic flavors in addition to other diabolical favorites like the Hazelnut Biscotti and Chocolate Jalapeno. If your kids didn’t have gourmet palettes before this, they will now!
Recchiuti San Francisco:
The first time I tasted Recchiuti’s Extra-Bitter Chocolate Sauce I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Yes, it’s more than you will ever want to pay for a truffle but it’s so worth it. Recchiuti’s divine treats are handmade in San Francisco and infused with flavors like lavender and terragon. For the kids, indulge them in handmade marshmallows or a S’Mores kit and they will be sworn to San Francisco for life.
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market:
You’ve heard of fresh California produce but you haven’t experienced it until you have sampled the goods at the Ferry Plaza Market. Fruits, vegetables, breads, cheeses, meats, eggs and specialty stalls of jams, herbs and anything else you can think of. A smaller version of the market runs Tuesdays and Thursdays and if you’re averse to crowds, that’s when you’ll visit, but the Saturday market is the big hoohah. It is a local favorite too so be prepared for people, particularly on a nice day but there is nothing more rewarding than overlooking the San Francisco bay with a wood-fired pizza and a freshly squeezed organic orange juice while the kids chase seagulls around the deck. That’s why we love San Francisco.
Parking is notoriously difficult around the Ferry Building but it is fairly easy to get to via the MUNI and a short walk from union square (about a 30 minute picturesque stroll from Fisherman’s Wharf). Parking garages are located close by and will cost you a minimum of $10 flat fee.
Hanging in Hayes Valley
Once the leftovers of the San Francisco theater district and a fairly rough homeless district, Hayes Valley is now all cleaned up and one of our favorite neighborhoods in the city. The main strip goes down Hayes Street and is lined with upscale boutiques, eateries and art galleries, but the side streets house several treasures as well. But that Hayes Valley is the mecca for all things kid-related is unknown to most who are not from the city. Here are five reasons why:
1. Fiddlesticks: Everything you could want for kids from shoes to toys to clothes, but a beautiful blend of variety, taste and quirky. They support tons of local designers so you can find uniquely SF items here. Also great deals in the sales section!
2. Seesaw SF: This bright little space just off Hayes on Octavia was started by a husband and wife team – she’s a child psychologist and he a software engineer (that’s why there site looks so good?). See Saw aims to help develop children’s social skills but when we visited, it looked like it was giving the mums a good start as well. A little coffee bar that provides beverages and healthy organic snacks keeps mums chatting while the kids can attend story time or just play around with the many toys around. Drop in if you are just visiting, or check out their website and plan to be there when something really fun happens, like the Nature Classes, where they bring in live animals and encourage the kids to interact closely with nature!
3. Lili Merveille: In keeping with Hayes Valley’s reputation as one of SF’s chicest fashion districts, welcome Lili Merveille, where the best of Paris resides in San Francisco. If you kid has taste, he/she will be like Carrie Broadshaw at a Manolo sample sale at this store. Clothes, jewelry and accents all emanate a romanticism that will drive even non-parent francophiles to the tills.
4. Hayes Valley Park: A green oasis in this retail haven is Hayes Valley where kids, dogs and lunchers meet for some SF rays. Check out the cool domed play structure with its climbing ropes and hammocks, or just lie in the park and count your bills!
5. The food: Grab a gourmet burger at Flipper’s, allegedly the best coffee in San Francisco at Blue Bottle, a Kir Royal at Absinthe, or a well-deserved truffle at Miette. Either way there is something for everyone!
Hayes Valley is very close to downtown San Francisco which is where you will likely be staying if you are visiting the city. Just take a short cab ride up market street and Voila! you have arrived into Paradise.
Best San Francisco Family Brunches
San Francisco is known for its eclectic cuisines and scrumptious organic fare. Combine that with the California sunshine and blissful water views and brunch is never just a meal in the city by the Bay.
Here are some our top choices for family brunches in San Francisco:
For the Urban Hipster Tot: Foreign Cinema is an institution in San Francisco, and offers a stylish yet accessible brunch every weekend. Start off with oysters, dig into hirame and ahi tartare tostadas and finish up with a Pilsner and apple omelet with fontina, black truffle, créme fraiche and crispy Yukon Gold potatoes. Sound good? For the kids, the $7 menu includes carrot sticks, a pasta and a desert. Enjoy the outdoor patio and watch other SF hipsters devour carafes of white wine or Bloody Marys, while you hopefully can savor a Mimosa or two of your own. Added bonus: you get a taste of one of San Francisco’s most colorful and culturally rich neighborhoods, the Mission. Make reservations before hand, because this place fills up!
For the Culturally Savvy Tot: (Doesn’t count if you are Chinese), head over to the ever-popular Yank Sing at the Rincon Center for the best of the city’s deem sum lunches. Trolleys abound and everything is steaming hot and fresh, and while it does have that bustling feel don’t be fooled. Some deem sum here can cost $12-$15 a plate but it’s worth it. For the kids, let them play around with the chopsticks and order a fried rice or noodles off the a la carte menu. The Rincon Center is a 10 minute walk from Union Square so very easy to get to, and you can also get validated parking in the building. Unfortunately Yank Sing does not take reservations and expect to wait 30 minutes for a table on the weekends if you don’t get there early enough (11:30). It’s not horrendous: the kids are mesmerized by the sky waterfall in the center of the lobby and if they get really hungry, you can appease them with a dumpling from Yank Sing To Go next door. Final tip: if you are a chili oil lover, take home their special Yank Sing sauce sold only a the restaurant. Trust me, it’s worth it.
For the Homestyle Cooking Tot: No place like Stacks, nestled in the heart of Hayes Valley (see below) with its extensive menu of crepes, sandwiches, eggs and of course stacks of pancakes. The kids’ menu includes everything from mac and cheese, to a burger to eggs to pancakes. How’s that for choice? Stacks is a popular brunch spot with all demographics and they only take reservations for groups over 6. Get there early and enjoy complimentary coffee and iced tea while you wait.
For the Crabcakes Benedict Tot: No trip to San Francisco is complete without crab cakes and clam chowder and Waterbar does both exquisitely along with fabulous views of the Embarcadero and Bay Bridge. Although this would be a more upscale option than most of the other places on this list, the atmosphere is warm and friendly to all age groups. The only complaint is that the kids’ menu does have fish ‘n’ chips on it. What’s that about? The giant fish tanks inside serve as great entertainment for the little ones when they start getting restless (as long as they don’t think where their lunch is coming from) but if it’s a sunny day, a table outside is the way to go.
We’d like to give honorable mentions to Plow and Universal Cafe for their excellent brunches. Unfortunately they’re not the most kid-friendly places with small spaces and long waits.
Best Boutiques for Kids
San Francisco is certainly a city that is proud of its tree-hugging roots, its international influences and its particular brand of “urban grunge”. The result: SF kids are environmentally conscious, chemical-free and undeniably trendy.
Here are Momaboard’s pics for the Top 5 boutiques for kids at SF’s cutting edge best, in alphabetical order:
1. Aldea Ninos:
I am in love with this store. The children’s location opened only 2 month ago, separating itself from Aldea Home just up the street, and thank goodness for all that space and attention. Aldea means “small village” and you could pack one with all the quirky, creative and useful goodies at this store. Johanna the proprietor travels around the world to find the best of the best and you can tell. We love the Organic/Bamboo clothing and the urban, great-for-compact spaces and undeniably ergonomic collection of furniture: high chairs, strollers, gliders and kid’s seating options. Oh, and bub can hang out in the little play area while you shop.**Heart Heart Heart**
2. Kids Only:
For those of you who think the Haight is still for hippy revolutionaries, think again. It is now one of San Francisco’s most mainstream neighborhoods and of course, a popular tourist destination. Therefore it’s supremely convenient that Kids Only, a mecca for all things urban kid, is right on main Haight street. The owners, Bruce and Marie stock the store with uniquely SF and interesting things. We loved the book collection and the Che Guevara onesies, in addition to the wide range of toys, puzzles, organic baby stuff, and accessories (shoes!). Definitely a worthwhile stop, if at least for a SF tie-dye souvenir tee.
3. Lili Merveille:
In keeping with Hayes Valley’s reputation as one of SF’s chicest fashion districts, enter Lili Merveille, where the best of Paris resides in San Francisco. If you kid has taste, he/she will be like Carrie Broadshaw at a Manolo sample sale at this store. Clothes, jewelry and accents all emanate a romanticism that will drive even non-parent francophiles to the tills.
4. Small Frys:
This one-stop-shop on Noe has everything from your essentials (Baby bjorns) to your luxury items (another blanket, anyone?), but without the overwhelming factor of Babies-R-Us. They also carry bottles and feeding equipment, so if you’ve lost a pacifier or bottle, Small Frys can come to your rescue. I’ll bet the friendly staff here can get you through the entire list of items you will need for your first baby without any fuss or fear because that’s how varied their inventory is. We love Small Frys!
Located on chic shopping Union Street, Sprout is an all-organic and natural baby products store. The store was founded because Suzanne the owner was learning a lot about the organic industry and started to become concerned about all the products we use every day that people didn’t know the problems with. She was especially concerned because she was thinking of starting a family and didn’t know where to find all the organic products she was looking for. After a lot of research, Sprout opened in April 2009 and Suzanne was pregnant with her little daughter 2 weeks later!
At their newest location on Fillmore street, Mudpie has plenty of room (two expansive levels in fact) to display all their wonderful American and European classic children’s products. From vintage rocking chairs to über-luxe clothing and accessories, this store will keep you mesmerized for hours. Definitely worth a gander if you are in the Pacific Heights area.
There you have it – I will probably never step into a Babies-R-Us again, with these fabulous options at my doorstep.
Summertime is street fair time in San Francisco and starting with Carnaval in May, going through the Union Street Fair, North Beach Festival and Fillmore Jazz Festival, ending with the Castro Street Fair in October, all worth attending!