If there’s any town you should take kids to while they’re still kids, it’s San Francisco, which is basically Disneyland in city form.
The bay-hugging metropolis is packed with attractions, rides and shows that entertain, educate and exhaust youngsters. Even places you wouldn’t expect to cater to children — the top of a convention center, for example, or a theater that usually puts on a saucy show — can generate lifelong memories.
The Exploratorium is a 47-year-old institution founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer at the Palace of Fine Arts. It moved in 2013 to a venue at Pier 15 with three times the space, and today it’s a buffet for kids’ senses.
For toddlers, there are plenty of exhibits that involve bubbles, light and color, always big hits with the little set.
Older kids will have a field day with the 600-plus displays, each created by a scientist or artist. They will encounter a huge mechanical clock from England, tall water columns that rise and fall with the tide, and microscopes that let kids spy on plankton.
There’s also the Tactile Dome, a dark maze you navigate by moving your hands over its textured passages.
The Exploratorium has a great gift shop as well as the light-filled Seaglass Restaurant.
But if the kids get hungry, take a quick walk down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street, where you’ll find organic, locally sourced food.
Info: Admission to the Exploratorium costs $30 (Tactile Dome costs $15 extra); $24.95 for ages 13-17, $20 for ages 4-12; free for ages 3 and younger.
The California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park, is an aquarium, a planetarium and a semi-zoo.
The glass-encased, four-level biodome teaches kids about rain forests by re-creating the ecosystems of Borneo, Madagascar and Costa Rica, humidity, butterflies and all. More than 1,600 animals live here, including a slow-moving chameleon, vividly bright poison-dart frogs and hundreds of flapping birds.
Elsewhere at the academy, you can meet Claude the albino alligator, watch African penguins get fed, pet starfish and urchins, and peek in on the aquarium’s more than 38,000 residents, spanning 900 species.
The Shake House lets you experience an earthquake. After that rumbler, head up to the living roof, which is carpeted in grass and wildflowers, for a view of Golden Gate Park.
If you can, catch one of the activity-packed “Penguins+Pajamas” sleepovers ($109 per person), during which chaperoned kids ages 5 to 17 camp out in the aquarium.
Info: Admission to the California Academy of Sciences costs $35 per adult; $30 for ages 12-17; $25 for ages 4-11, free for ages 3 and younger.
Locals scoff at — and generally avoid — Fisherman’s Wharf for being a tourist trap, but they forget the magic, albeit hokey magic, that they’re missing, especially when it’s seen through a child’s eyes.
Pier 39 has a two-story merry-go-round ($3 per ride), free shows (a juggler, a magician and acrobats), the worthwhile Aquarium of the Bay ($25, $15 for ages 4-12, free for ages 3 and younger), laser and mirror mazes, and whimsical shops and restaurants.
The stars of the show, though, are the dozens of sea lions that colonize the pier’s west side docks — an attraction that won't cost you a penny. You can hear their brays for blocks, and if your children are like my daughter, they will crack up at the pinnipeds’ rude antics.
Step off the pier for chowder in a bread bowl at Boudin’s sourdough factory, sundaes at Ghirardelli Square and quirky attractions including Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the must-see Musée Mécanique, where kids plunk quarters into old-timey arcade games.
The Presidio: This former Army base has been transformed into a destination that's ideal for families.
On Crissy Field’s beach, with its head-on view of the Golden Gate Bridge, dogs frolic in the tide and people fly kites.
The Disney Family Museum tells the story of Walt’s life (waltdisney.org, $20 per adult, $12 for ages 6-17, free for ages 5 and younger); my little one was mesmerized by the detailed scale model of Disneyland.
A cable car ride: Yes, it’s clichéd but kids don’t know what clichés are. Plus, there’s nothing like the windy feeling of cresting Nob Hill — disembark to saunter down curvy Lombard Street, if you like — then cruising down Powell Street on a cable car click-clacking over its pulley tracks, the city’s whirring veins.
Conductors ding their bells and ham it up for their youngest passengers. Be prepared for a long line to board, though buskers entertain while you wait. (When my daughter starts getting impatient, we board a streetcar instead.)
Live theater: San Francisco is underrated as a theater destination, and there are plenty of performances that will delight the kids, including one that might surprise you.
In North Beach, an uproarious show called “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a revue that stars Snow White on her quest to find her prince, plays every night to a boozy crowd. What? For kids? Yes, at certain times. On Sundays, both the 2 and 5 p.m. shows are alcohol-free, and kids ages 6 and older are allowed.
Before plunking down your money, weigh whether the content, full of up-to-the-moment political and pop-culture references that’s rated PG-13, is right for your offspring. (“It’s nothing they haven’t seen on TV,” the ticket agent told me.) If that works, they may enjoy this huge-hatted bit of flamboyance.
AT&T Park: If it’s baseball season (typically April to October), take the kids to a Giants game at one of the country’s best ballparks. Here, home runs splash into the bay, the air smells of garlic fries and fans are still fired up from seeing their team win the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Will the magic of an even-year World Series hold?
At AT&T Park’s admission-free Fan Lot, open year round, children can run the bases in a 2,500-square-foot replica of the ballpark, hit Wiffle balls and whiz down the four curvy slides (two are more than 50 feet tall) that make up the Coca-Cola Superslide. The ballpark also offers 1 1/2-hour tours at least twice most days.
Info: Tickets to Giants games at AT&T Park start at $9; tours cost $22, $12 for ages 3-12, free for ages 2 and younger. sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com/sf/ballpark/
Yerba Buena Gardens: Here’s a surprise: On five acres atop Moscone, San Francisco’s busiest convention center where grown-up things go on, you’ll find a carousel ($4 for two rides), a playground, a learning garden, a bowling alley ($28 per hour), an ice-skating rink ($12, $10 for ages 6-12, $7 for ages 5 and younger [a section of the rink is reserved for toddlers], $4 for skate rental) and the stimulating Children’s Creativity Museum (creativity.org, $12; free for ages 2 and younger).
A quick walk down is the watery Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, so stately and moving that it looks as though it belongs on D.C.’s National Mall.
Restaurants that know how to have fun. The Fairmont’s tiki-themed Tonga Room is known for its hourly fake thunderstorm, complete with rain and lightning.
The Stinking Rose, on North Beach’s very Italian Columbus Avenue, is a very garlicky restaurant with curtained booths, jam-packed ceilings, silly art, and smelly but yummy pasta. (If the name sounds familiar, that’s because there’s one in Beverly Hills too.)
Fisherman’s Wharf’s Rainforest Cafe also has faux thunderstorms, plus animatronic animals, rich tropical visuals and a bigger-than-normal kids’ menu.
The thunderclaps every 30 minutes may be a bit much for sensitive children, though my toddler couldn’t wait until they started again.
Kid-friendly hotels. Among San Francisco’s kid-friendliest hotels are the Argonaut, where the theme is top-to-bottom nautical and you can request a pet goldfish for your room; Hotel Del Sol, where super-bright colors take over a 1950s swimming-pool motel (book a family suite); and the new Hotel Zephyr, formerly a Radisson with bridge views (the Golden Gate, Bay or Richmond-San Rafael, depending on your room), crisp guestrooms equipped with dartboards and bunk beds, and outdoor spaces with mega-sized sets of Jenga and Connect Four. All three hotels are an easy walk to the water.
What doesn’t work
Driving: Trying to get around S.F. by car is an exercise in frustration. Parking is scarce and expensive, traffic’s terrible and the hills can be downright scary.
Instead, rely on the excellent and easy-to-figure out public transit system – buses, streetcars and BART. (One exception to the no-driving rule: Do take a car, full of kids, across the Golden Gate Bridge.)
Dressing light: Yes, this is California, but that doesn't mean you should pack only shorts and tank tops. Even in summer — especially in summer — the fog rolls in and temperatures fall fast. To avoid being one of the millions who end up buying those expensive “San Francisco” sweatshirts they sell to freezing tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf, dress your family in layers.
Certain neighborhoods: Steer clear of parts of the city that haven’t been able to heal their high rates of crime and homelessness, especially the Tenderloin and Hunters Point.
Anywhere too fancy: San Francisco has many luxurious hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. You know your kids, but there are good reasons most families with children feel most comfortable in places geared to them.