San Francisco makes a great destination with its iconic Golden Gate Bridge, trolleys, steep hills, rolling fog, Alcatraz and sea lions. There are tons of things for a family to do, but if you are planning a journey with your tadpoles, you best prepare them for a lot of hopping! You’ll want to review all of these tips for visiting San Francisco with kids before you go.
Airports & Transportation While Visiting San Francisco with Kids
San Francisco is a great city to visit without a car. They have an amazing public transportation system. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, connects San Francisco with all the surrounding cities in the East Bay. Around the city there are buses, cable cars and those famous trolleys you can hop on and off of! You can also get taxis and car services to get you where you want to go.
If you have tadpoles and froglets who use car seats, here’s what you need to know about riding in cars or using public transportation in San Francisco. Children do not ride in car seats in buses, trains or ferries. Hold them tightly in your lap. In terms of rental cars and cabs, technically speaking, it is illegal for a child under eight to ride in any motor vehicle in California without a car seat or booster seat. If you bring or rent a car, you can expect to pay $50 and up per night to park it. Here are the rules for rental/private cars and taxi cabs.
In private cars:
- Children under two must ride in a rear-facing seat until they are 40 pound or more, or over 40 inches tall.
- All children younger than eight years old or under 4’ 9” must be secured in a child safety seat restraint system, including safety seats, harness vests and booster seats attached via safety belts.
- Children over eight must be secured by a seatbelt. Shorter children (under 4’ 9”) should still sit in a booster.
- Look at costs for renting a booster or car seat when you make your car rental reservation. It might save a lot of money to bring one from home or even to purchase an inexpensive one upon arrival (although logistically that can complicate things).
In taxi cabs:
- In California, car seat laws still apply to taxi cabs and cars for hire.
- While you may find drivers who choose to drive your small child out of a car seat in the city, it is at their discretion and not in accordance with state laws.
- There are some San Francisco family-friendly taxi companies where you can request a driver with a car seat, but it may take longer. This works best if you arrange rides through the dispatch in advance.
- You can select a car seat with UberX for a $10 surcharge.
- It can be cumbersome to carry a car seat about the city with you. Look into travel car seats that attach to or convert into strollers, and remember to retrieve any stroller or bags from the trunk of the cab or hired car.
*Please visit the official California DMV website for laws and rules.
On buses, cable cars, BART and Muni:
If you take buses or cable cars, be sure to hold onto your ticket you receive when you board them. The ticket is often good for your return trip if it is within a certain time frame.
San Francisco Bay Area Airports:
The San Francisco Bay area has three major airports. Chances are at least one of them will offer direct flights if you live or are near a major U.S. city. It pays to price check all of the airports, because you can find some significant savings even on similar flight times.
San Francisco International Airport is on the south end of the city. You can catch the BART rail from any terminal by taking SFO's AirTrain to Garage G/BART Station. While AirTrain is free, you will need to purchase BART tickets when you arrive at the station.
Oakland International Airport is a hop, skip and a jump — or just across the bay from San Francisco in the city of Oakland. You can take the BART rail directly from the airport over to the city. The Oakland Airport BART station is across from Terminal 1 baggage claim and a short walk from Terminal 2.
San Jose International Airport is a little further out than the other two airports and located in the city of San Jose. It's a little harder if you don't want to rent a car. To use BART to get to the city, you will first need to take the VTA Airport Flyer bus to the Metro Light Rail Station. You will board Light Rail at Metro and exit at Civic Center. You will then take the VTA #180 Express Bus to Fremont Bart Station. From there, you can catch a BART rail into the city.
Prepare for the Weather Before Visiting San Francisco with Kids
If you are not from the area, you might expect sunshine and warm days for this California city. But think again. Weather wise, the nicest months with the warmest temperatures are September and October. The months with the most fog, wind and cold are, surprisingly, July and August. You may have heard the famous quote (wrongly attributed to Mark Twain), “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” It doesn’t really matter who said it, but take it as a warning to pack layers, be prepared for anything and check the weather each day before venturing out. The way the wind blows off the water makes it feel chillier than what the temperature reads. We have thought we were well prepared for a warmish day, but then had to stock up on unexpected souvenir fleece sweatshirts, hats, gloves and scarves because it was colder than we’d expected. This is especially true if you're planning to ride on the top of a double decker bus across the Golden Gate Bridge! Pack an umbrella because rain may be a possibility.And there is nothing quite like the look of the fog rolling in. Despite the weather warnings, the city is gorgeous and we have enjoyed sunny days there as well. If you leave the city, you may find that the surrounding areas can be quite warm while the city feels cooler.
Fun Activities for Visiting San Francisco with Kids
Escape to Alcatraz
Older kids love to visit Alcatraz Island and tour the prison. It involves a boat ride there, which is always exciting, and a headphone self-guided tour, so it is not the best for small children. Get a jump on reservations and book your trip ahead of time, because tours usually sell out in advance. There are also plenty of other boat tours that sail past Alcatraz without stopping. These can take you closer to the Golden Gate Bridge and give you a view of the city from the water.
Explore a Museum
There are some great family museums in San Francisco. If you love hands-on exploration and figuring out how things work, you can get lost inside the Exploratorium. It makes a great rainy day activity, but good luck getting your kids out of there! Parents won’t want to leave either. On our last visit we enjoyed seeing how colorblindness worked and hearing music through vibrations on our teeth. Tad and Lily even drank from a drinking fountain that looked like a toilet. There were live science demonstrations happening and so much to see and do. It’s definitely worth a visit
Any Disney fans in the house? Woot woot! The Walt Disney Family Museum will make a great stop, but you’ll need to accept that your kids will be begging for a trip to Disneyland after your visit. Don’t worry; we can help you with those plans ;) The Museum is in the Presidio, close to the Golden Gate Bridge, so it is great idea to visit both locations in the same day.
You can visit the Cable Car Museum or the California Academy of Sciences (a hit for kids who love live animals or people who have always wanted to experience what an earthquake feels like). The Bay Area Discovery Museum will appeal to families with children under nine.
If you luck out with a sunshiny day, check out some of the amazing parks. Golden Gate Park and Presidio National Park offer row boats, tree forts and innovative playgrounds. Golden Gate Park is where you will encounter the California Academy of Sciences, a Japanese Tea Garden, buffalo, the De Young Museum, windmills, playgrounds, a carousel and even the beach. There are also bike rentals, street vendors and endless paths for exploring!
From the presidio, you can venture onto the Golden Gate Bridge (there is a welcome center), play at the beach, and take in some history and breathtaking views. If you choose to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, you can walk on the East Sidewalk. The hours are 5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. November through early March and 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. early March through early November. There are walking tours, but you are free to do it on your own. San Francisco City Guides offers free walking tours (donations accepted) for parties fewer than eight people. Some people bike across the bridge and take a ferry back. There are no bike rentals nearby. You would have to rent bikes in the city. If you have always wanted to see giant redwood trees, you can see them at Muir Woods National Monument, just 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Take a Trip Down Lombard Street
Lombard Street is one of the most famous streets in San Francisco. It has a steep, one-block section with eight hairpin curves, which is why it is known as the crookedest street in the world (although it might not actually be the crookedest in the world). Whether you walk it, drive down or take pictures from the bottom, it is one street your kids will not forget. Take the journey down Lombard Street on your way back from the Presidio or Golden Gate Bridge.
Ride a Historic Trolley Car
For us, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a ride on a historic trolley car. You can use it as your real transportation to a number of sights, tourist areas, shopping and restaurants. There are three lines, two of which start at Union Square. You'll find the booth to purchase tickets between near the AT&T store.
Visit a Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown
Chinatown offers many interesting sights and fun shopping. Try some authentic food and take in the sights. One of our favorite tips for visiting San Francisco with kids is to stop at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown. It is located at 56 Ross Alley — it is literally in an alley. It might be the only time we say to walk into an alley! It is small and makes for a quick stop, but you can get a free sample, and purchase some fresh fortune cookies or the flat rounds. They are delicious and a fun treat to snack on as you walk the streets of Chinatown. Fun Fact: The fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco by a Japanese American, and the machine that folds them was invented in Oakland, just across the Bay!
Be Street Smart When Visiting San Francisco with Kids
San Francisco is a world-class city, but it does have a large homeless population, and it has some bad neighborhoods that are just a few blocks from some great neighborhoods. You can tell when things are going downhill, so just back up and remove yourself from that part of town. Pop into a hotel or store for directions if you get turned around.
You’ll need a bit of street smart tips for visiting San Francisco with kids:
- Hold hands.
- Look both ways when crossing the streets — traffic may be coming from the left or right on a one-way street. Watch out for cable cars and trolleys.
- Use a crosswalk — no jaywalking!
- Do not assume cars will stop for you, even if you have the walk signal.
- Discuss a plan in case you become separated or your entire family does not make it onto a subway car.
- Note your hotel address — you can pick up a business card when you check in.
- Keep valuables in a safe. Do not carry money or ID in a backpack.
- Avoid dark alleyways.
- Ask for directions if you are not sure where to go.
- Know which bus line and stop to take it before you board. It’s easy to end up in the wrong place.
Just use your street smarts, keep valuables safely stowed and out of sight, and keep the kids close to you.
More Tips for Visiting San Francisco with Kids
Read Up Before Visiting San Francisco with Kids
Kids have a deeper appreciation and connection to the places they are visiting when they read about them. There are a number of picture books about San Francisco that can help your tadpoles prepare for a visit. The same goes for movies. Your children might recognize San Francisco from movies such as Mrs. Doubtfire, Inside Out, or even the fictional San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6.
Take Time to Take in the Sights
Expect to move at a slower pace with your froglets in tow. Take time to sit down and enjoy the sights. Let them shop for trinkets in Chinatown. Explore the funky shops of Haight-Ashbury. Let them explore artwork on the streets. Take time to watch the sea lions sunning themselves or ride the double decker carousel at Fisherman’s Wharf. People watch. Let them help plan what you do, and be flexible. Perhaps you find something that excites you that was not on your to-do list.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
Plan to do a lot of walking in San Francisco. One of most important tips for visiting San Francisco with kids is to make sure that all of you are wearing comfortable shoes. Even with all the great public transportation, you will be climbing many steep hills and may find yourselves walking for miles each day. You do not want anyone to get blisters or sore feet. Keep everyone’s feet dry and warm, and you will find a lot more fun and mileage out of your day.
Kid-Friendly San Francisco Hotels
Book a kid-friendly hotel that is near some popular and safe destinations in San Francisco. This can save on transportation costs by allowing you to walk. In case you missed it, Undercover Tourist is now booking discount hotel rooms in San Francisco. Some San Francisco hotels that work well for kids are near Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. May we suggest the Argonaut Hotel in Fisherman's Wharf and Westin St. Francis in Union Square? For business frogs who are thinking of perhaps tacking on family time to a work trip, it doesn't get any better than the Loews Regency San Francisco in the Financial District — it's steps from the trolley line and walking distance to Union Square and China Town. Plus it offers AMAZING views of the city skyline and bay!
We have enjoyed staying at a couple of hotels near Union Square, which is right near a trolley line and several cable car or bus lines. It's also Flora's favorite place to shop in the city! It has a BART station and a lot of restaurants nearby. Plus, it is within walking distance of Chinatown. There are many different hotels that have room for larger families in San Francisco, some of which offer bunk beds and toys or even free breakfast.
We have discussed the best and worst weather months for visiting San Francisco with kids, but keep in mind that it may be challenging to find hotel availability at the very end of April or beginning of May each year. Thousands of 5th grade Girl Scouts from around the country bridge up from Juniors to Cadettes by walking across the Golden Gate Bridge every year. The city is filled with girls and their mothers and troop leaders, filling the streets, parks, restaurants and hotels that weekend. It helps to know to avoid that weekend when planning your journey (unless you happen to have a Girl Scout).
San Francisco makes a great family vacation. If you research tips for visiting San Francisco with kids and prepare your children by reading books and talking about your journey to the city by the Bay you will be off to a great start! Be sure to bring your appetite with you, because there are so many delicious foods to try. Rudyard Kipling said, “San Francisco has only one drawback. ‘tis hard to leave,” and we wholeheartedly agree.
Have tips for visiting San Francisco with kids? Please share them in the comments sections below. Did you know, Undercover Tourist is now hopping into top family-friendly cities, including San Francisco? Check out our discount San Francisco tickets and hotels — and check back soon, because we're adding more products weekly!