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Let’s just start off here with a rather obvious statement that you still need to read: San Francisco is truly a remarkable and unique place. Yes, it may be obvious, but it’s also important.
If you are seriously considering a San Francisco getaway for your family, you should know that it boasts a stunning combination of non-stop city life, fascinating history, stunning sea views and experiences, iconic landmark viewing and escapes into nature that will likely eclipse any of your previous getaways.
I don’t think I’m overstating the case on this one, folks. San Francisco is a top tourist destination for many reasons, but there are even more reasons than you may be aware of right now. And that’s why I’m sitting at this laptop writing. So let’s get to it.
What to do in San Francisco with Your Family
My family and I have made two trips to San Francisco in the past 18 months or so. Our first experience was back in March 2016 when we flew into Oakland from Texas for a Spring Break excursion into both Yosemite and San Francisco. And talk about making some memories!
Right now, however, I just want to specifically cover our three days in San Francisco in early October 2017. We had some unique opportunities to take advantage of experiences in the area and it really made for a fantastic time for the whole family.
We rolled into town and got ourselves all settled in by mid-afternoon, so we decided to head as quickly as possible to one of our favorite stops from our last visit: Muir Beach. Our goal was to get some nice sunset shots from here.
This pristine coast location only requires a 20-30 minute drive north from San Francisco. It’s a beautiful drive that takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge and along the northern side of the bay close to Sausalito where you can snag some great views of Alcatraz, the city skyline and the Bay Bridge.
Be aware that the last 10-15 minutes of the drive to the beach is an extremely curvy section of road. So if you have any family members prone to car sickness be sure to dose them up on Dramamine 30 minutes before heading out.
Our 13-year old was able to get in some skimboarding as the light faded at Muir Beach, while the rest of us were able to flex our photography muscles and grab some golden shots with surfers and crashing waves in the foreground and stunning sea cliffs in the background. Doesn’t get much better.
THE BIG BUS TOUR
We stayed about 20-30 minutes outside of San Francisco along the coast, so the next morning we decided to get a ride from Lyft into town so we wouldn’t have to fight traffic and find parking for our far-too-giant truck. We had the driver drop us off at one of the stops for the Big Bus, a hop on, hop off touring option in the city that will take you from the Presidio to the Golden Gate, Chinatown Gate to Pier 39 and many places in between.
A word of advice: If you happen to be using Big Bus or any of the tour bus services on a public holiday or around the time of a major event in the city, be sure to check in with the tour company regarding any alternative pick-up locations that might differ from their published map. Since they alter their routes during these times, a quick phone call to confirm locations will save you from possibly walking a bit farther than you might prefer to catch a bus.
We caught the Big Bus near the California Academy of Sciences and rode across the Golden Gate Bridge and then back through the heart of San Francisco before hopping off at iconic Pier 39. For most of the ride, we were up on the open top deck of the bus so there was nothing between us and the San Francisco scenery. Getting up close and personal with some of the historic architecture of the city was a great experience and definitely, put a smile on our faces.
Find out more about San Francisco’s Big Bus Tours here.
At Pier 39, we soaked in some of the most touristy portions of San Francisco and grabbed a bite to eat at one of the quick little food stops in the pier. It was clam chowder for me, just in case you were wondering. What else would I get in San Fran?
After the food settled a bit, we headed straight for the 7D Experience also located on Pier 39. This is a fully interactive laser-shooting experience that mixes in the thrill of a roller coaster ride. It will have you screaming and laughing while your head is spinning uncontrollably. Talk about immersive! I can guarantee you will get a kick out of it, so be sure to check it out.
SAILING SAN FRANCISCO WITH ADVENTURE CAT SAILING
We soaked in some rays and got some good photos of the sea lions at the pier while we were waiting for our upcoming sailing adventures. My three family members had a 3:00 sail time with Adventure Cat Sailing and they weren’t about to miss that! Luckily, it was conveniently located right there at Pier 39. Let me tell you something: that 90-minute sailing experience definitely did NOT disappoint.
It was the first sailing experience for all of them and it definitely got it in their blood a bit. Both of our boys got to taste the deckhand life by helping out a little bit with raising and lowering sails and other tasks on the boat. (No complaints from them.) But don’t worry, they still had plenty of downtime to relax and enjoy the ride and the views while my wife enjoyed a nice glass of wine as the sea breeze blew through her hair.
I know, this sounds pretty rough. But it’s not over yet.
AQUARIUM OF THE BAY
While the three of them were trying their hand at sailing, I decided to soak in some indoor sea life at the Aquarium of the Bay. This eye-opening experience is located right next to Pier 39, so no more walking required of me. Excellent.
The aquarium experience started off with a quick elevator ride down to a stunning display of jellyfish that will make your jaw drop. These creatures are simply mesmerizing and they had at least 5-6 different species on display for us to enjoy. I could have stayed there for a good 30 minutes soaking it in if I had the time.
But I kept moving forward and was quickly greeted by a Giant Sea Bass (that could have easily kicked my butt) in the underwater tunnel. That bass was giving me a menacing look so I just whistled and strolled by after snapping a quick picture. I don’t need that kind of trouble.
Just past the bad attitude bass, several species of shark glided silently past me and their underwater companions. Strangely, the sharks didn’t seem nearly as intimidating to me as that Giant Sea Bass. I know it’s weird but it’s true.
On the next level of the aquarium, I discovered a couple of river otters that were having the time of their lives diving and splashing for the eyeballs staring at them. Just next door, a touching pool with a couple of different species of rays had kids of all ages crowded around to get their chance at touching such a graceful and exotic creature. And the rays were all for it, popping up out of the water to get some attention and affection. You could actually tell they enjoyed the interaction and that was really nice to see.
There’s no doubt at all that younger kids especially will love this experience. I would say it is primarily geared for kids ages 4-10 or so. But kids of all ages can definitely have a great time here without a doubt.
THE ROYAL PRINCE VESSEL
I had to move on to my next adventure before the others returned from their sailing adventure, so I walked a few hundred feet down to the other side of Pier 39 and found the Red and White Fleet ticket office. Luckily, they had a 60-minute tour of the bay leaving in just a few minutes that would get me back about the same time as my family of sailors. Perfect!
Hopping on the Royal Prince vessel, I was immediately handed a small audio device and headphones so I could enjoy the complimentary audio tour of the bay. I discovered some really interesting historical facts about the area from the audio tour, and I would definitely recommend listening in as you soak in the sights.
Off we headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge. It took us about 30 minutes to get out to the bridge and make our way under it for some great views and pictures. I was able to spot a couple of dolphins and some parasailers along the way, as well as spotting my family’s sailboat and a massive cargo ship slipping under the bridge. All in all, an impressive experience.
After the bridge, the Royal Prince headed back toward Alcatraz and came within 100 feet or so of its fabled shores. Coming so close to a landmark with so much dark history will get your mind spinning about what really went down in that place. My boys decided that we needed to watch the old “Escape from Alcatraz” movie after getting a peek of the place on their sailing trip.
That was one full day! We were all completely exhausted, and after grabbing dinner with a good friend in the area, we grabbed another ride back home with Lyft and crashed into bed.
I should also mention that the boys and I did get up the next morning and headed north across the Golden Gate again to soak in some ancient and legendary trees in Muir Woods National Monument. We had been talking about it since our last visit to the area in 2016, when the place was too busy for us to get in, so we had to make it happen despite our exhaustion. I can’t express to you how worth it that decision was. Muir Woods is simply magical and I could have easily sat among those trees in peaceful bliss the entire day with no problem at all.
My recommendation is definitely to get to Muir Woods early in the day, and absolutely do it on a weekday if possible. A weekend trip would be much more challenging and crowded.
And that, my friends, is my humble opinion on the right way to do San Francisco with your family. It will be an adventure they will certainly never forget if you can even fit in a couple of these experiences. I guarantee you will all be reliving the adventures for years to come.
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Todd Bonner is the slightly quieter half of the dynamic TREKKN duo. He spends most of his time sharing information about RV travel and safety, RV accessories and tips, and the National Parks he has visited and still desperately craves. When he’s not busy working on TREKKN, you will often find him staring at breathtaking pictures of Glacier National Park, probably his favorite spot on earth.