Family Vacations to San Francisco, California

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California
Golden Gate Bridge (Corbis)

San Francisco Highlights

  • Ride a cable car around hilly San Fran.
  • Push and play with 700 exhibits at the Exploratorium.
  • Produce your own cartoon at Zeum.
  • Bicycle and rollerblade in Golden Gate Park.
  • Tour "the Rock," Alcatraz Prison.

It's easy to fall in love with San Francisco: Surrounded on three sides by shimmering water, the city has rolling hills, a lively waterfront, cable cars, great parks, and a host of family-friendly attractions.

At the Exploratorium, kids can push, pull, and talk and listen to more than 650 interactive exhibits that teach them about science and natural phenomena. A crawl through the pitch-black Tactile Dome forces you to get oriented by using your sense of touch. Find out how to move a 400-pound pendulum with a magnet, "freeze" your shadow, and Fridays to Sundays, examine mouse stem cells through the Imaging Station's high-resolution microscope.

Zeum, an art and technology center for ages eight to 18, teaches kids how to use technology to be creative. In the Animators Studio, kids craft their own clay figures, script a performance, and use stop-action techniques to produce a cartoon.

Two other area museums will pique kids' interest. The California Academy of Sciences, at a temporary location through 2008, explores the many habitats and mysteries of the natural world. Look out for a new "Dinosaurs" exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History on show from September 2006 through February 2007.

The Museum of the African Diaspora, which debuted in December 2005, explores how the African continent has influenced people and cultures around the world. The museum's changing exhibits focus on origins, movement, transformation, and adaptation. At computer kiosks, kids find out about a range of African-inspired items including designs, jewelry, and food.

Golden Gate Park's 1,000-plus acres give locals and visitors room to play, including basketball courts, lawn bowling, an archery field, baseball fields, and seven miles of bicycle paths that lead past waterfalls and gardens. The Japanese Tea Garden soothes with ponds, pagodas, and subtle arrangements. The Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum are fragrant with blooms. The de Young Museum, known for its art from America, the Pacific Islands, and Africa, re-opened in October 2005 in a new facility in Golden Gate Park.

Two more quintessential San Francisco experiences are visiting Alcatraz and strolling Chinatown. Take a ferry out to Alcatraz, a maximum security federal penitentiary known as "the Rock" and one-time abode of Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and other notorious criminals. On the audio tour, hear inmates' tales against a background of prison noise and look out from the island across the Bay to understand why no inmates ever made a successful jailbreak from this natural fortress. On your return trip, disembark at Fisherman's Wharf to sample the souvenir stands, restaurants, and street acts.

In Chinatown, kids like munching the goods at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley and strolling Grant Avenue to browse the Chinese groceries, tearooms, and souvenir shops. This is the neighborhood to introduce your kids to dim sum for lunch and to check out the interesting wares at the Portsmouth Square markets.

Tip: Save money on admission to attractions and tours with the Go San Francisco Card (

Recommended Side Trips: Sacramento, Monterey, South Lake Tahoe, Napa's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »