San Francisco with kids: the good, the bad and the ugly

San Francisco is a great place to take kids. Once you are there mind you, as it’s a hell of a long flight. Our maiden world trip voyage was 11 hours and included a full 15-minute scream-off during our ascent. Grace was reluctantly held down in her seat to stop her unbuckling. She was adamant her seat belt should go across her shoulder, like in a car. Her reluctance was vocal to the delight of our fellow flyers. Along the way, we dodged a few egg-allergy scares, but thanks to modern in-flight entertainment and plenty of snacks, we made it to San Francisco.

Our stay in San Francisco was baked in new beginnings and high expectations. Expectations that we have gradually adjusted over the last few months, as those of you who follow us on Instagram will know. If you have exhausting weekends at home with the kids, then don’t think they will turn into docile little angels once hit the road. They won’t.

David, Grace and Aidan in front of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.

David, Grace and Aidan in front of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.

We made the budget conscious decision to stay in Outer Sunset, a 30-40 minutes tram way away from downtown San Francisco. Our Airbnb was close to the beach and to the Golden Gate Park, not to be confused with The Golden Gate Bridge. It was misty and quite frankly cold on the beach in early September, but kids never seem to care about that sort of thing and happily ran in and out of the white ocean foam until their lips were blue.

San Francisco sandwiched our RV trip and returning from three weeks on the road meant choosing another place to stay before we headed to New York. After three weeks in our camper van we opted for a hotel, Cova Hotel in the Tenderloin district. Despite the area’s gritty reputation, it has a genuine charm and gives you a taste of the real San Francisco. The hotel was good value and offered a free wine hour every evening on the roof terrace – exactly what we needed after a day of tears, tantrums and egg-free food hunts across downtown San Francisco.

This was our second trip to San Francisco but our first with the two monsters in tow. These are their top picks.

Aidan taking in the views during our bike ride across the Presidio.

Aidan taking in the views during our bike ride across the Presidio.

Aidan met ex-Alcatraz prisoner William Baker on the ferry back to San Francisco.

Aidan met ex-Alcatraz prisoner William Baker on the ferry back to San Francisco.

Top 10 San Francisco Experiences with Kids:

  1. Bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. Rent your bikes at The Sports Basement from Presidio. They have great selection of bikes, as well as bike seats for younger children. Aidan had an absolute blast on his mountain bike. We rented the bikes for three hours and rode all away around the Presidio area, over the bridge and back. Riding over the bridge can be quite hectic. If only one lane is open, traffic goes both ways for pedestrians and cyclists, combined with the wind and noise from the heavy traffic, it was quite the adrenaline rush, so be prepared. It’s also a steep climb up on the bike to the bridge.

  2. Exploratorium - got this tip from one of our fellow travelling Instagram families. Well worth the $20-30 entrance fee. We spent hours here making our way through the different interactive exhibits. Shame Grace decided the most interesting thing to interact with were the fire extinguishers. There is a decent shop there too with science themed toys and books. We picked up some awesome play-dough (Mad Matter), which has become a firm favourite with the kids and is still going strong. There is a nice burger and chips place onsite too with yummy fries!

  3. Sea Lions on Pier 39 - a classic but not to miss if you have the kids with you. You can smell them before you see them. It’s free, but the walk to the sea lions could knock you back a few dollars. With souvenir shops, ice cream stalls and merry-go-rounds, it will be hard to resist the pleading whines from the kids. If you want to make a B-line straight to the sea lions without the commercial distractions, there is a more direct and therefore cheaper route so take note.

  4. Alcatraz - great for older kids - but plenty of space to run around for boisterous toddlers too and if you are lucky you can leave one of them there! Whatever the season, the notorious prison is a firm favourite with tourists so make sure you book in advance. Would recommend booking online although you can always rock up to buy tickets on the pier but you will rarely get same day tickets. The climb to the prison itself is easy enough and we took our pushchair despite some comments online suggesting not to. Bring snacks as food is only available during the short ferry ride to and from the island. The audio tour is included in the ticket price and our eldest lapped it up. We took the 2.40 pm ferry and it gave us plenty of time to do the tour and get back to the pier in time for the last ferry back around 6pm. In high season would probably recommend taking an earlier ferry, as the crowds build quite quickly after lunch, but as we went in September, the afternoon slots were not too busy. We booked with Alcatraz Island Tickets - fast response time.

  5. San Francisco Library This was not a planned stop but with the main library ideally situated across from the Helen Dillier Playground (see recommendation 10), it is an ideal place to have some quiet time (yeah right), check out the great kids’ selection and stop for a free toilet break. They also have a second hand book stall at one of the entrances where you can pick up your next holiday read, as well as drop off books you have already read.

  6. China Town - stroll through San Francisco China Town and you will be guaranteed some free entertainment. From bubble tea and exotic vegetable stalls to pet shops, without forgetting the Asian architectural touches, kids might just shut up for a few minutes and take the unfamiliar in.

  7. Cable Car - another classic - a bit confusing to navigate the first time. Would recommend to get on it at first or last stop - especially with kids, as mid journey it is often packed and you might struggle to get your brood and toddler paraphernalia on quick enough. You can buy your fare in the cable car itself from the conductor or stock up on some pre-paid fares with the pretty decent San Francisco transport app Muni . If you have a pushchair, fold it before you board and they will store it at the back of the cable car for you. Be warned no snacks allowed - with some discretion I did manage to slip a few in our restless toddler’s mouth. Also from experience make sure all small children have had a wee beforehand. Don’t ask.

  8. Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground- amazing park in North Beach for keeping kids entertained for a good few hours. Really well set up. They also have a community centre on site where you can pop in and play (toys available). There are also a couple of ping-pong tables inside but be warned they are very popular with the elderly Chinese community and we didn’t get a look in! Was just as fun watching them though. There is also an indoor pool onsite - which we discovered too late - but you could combine the park with a dip.

  9. Helen Dillier Civic Centre Playground - futuristic playground located opposite the main San Francisco Library (see recommendation 5). There are two semi-connecting playgrounds with some pretty impressive slides. Not much shade for the little ones. Plenty to explore visually around the area with San Francisco City Hall and the Asian Art Museum all within a stone’s throw.

  10. Tenderloin Rec Centre - in our desperate search for a kids’ playground near our hotel in Tenderloin district we stumbled across this park/children’s centre. It has a decent size play area outside, as well as an outdoor enclosed football pitch - quite a rare find in the USA. You want to get a real taste of the area, this is where to go. There are a lot of disadvantaged kids here, including refugees with a lot of their plate. It is run by volunteers and clearly underfunded. A lot of local parents drop off their kids here for a few hours knowing they are in safe hands. Don’t look the other way. Drop by. Be kind, be patient, smile and you got yourself a hell of a soccer match on your hands.