San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

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In one of the most iconic songs of all time, Tony Bennet sings about leaving his heart in San Francisco. While we didn’t find the late crooner’s heart on our recent family vacation to the foggy city “above the blue and windy sea,” we, too, fell in love with the place.

My husband, TJ, and I found plenty of things to do in San Francisco despite having two energetic kids in tow. In fact, Everett, our seven-year-old, and Alena, our three-year-old, could easily come up with a list – far longer than their lengthy Christmas lists – of things they loved about San Francisco.

Ideally, you have an entire month to explore this hilly metropolis that inspired so many musicians, artists and screenwriters (huge “Full House” fan here). But, if you only have a few days before the kids need to go back to school or worse, you need to go back to work, here are the top 10 places we recommend.

1. Chinatown

San Francisco Chinatown
Chinatown. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

It’s best to enter North America’s oldest Chinatown through the iconic Dragon Gate. And come hungry. Even picky eaters will have fun at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a family-owned and operated business where employees still fold 10,000 cookies by hand each day. As the author of his own fortune, Everett predicted more family vacations (I should have predicted winning the lottery to pay for them).

Save room for the Hong Kong-style egg custard tarts at Golden Gate Bakery. This cash-only, window-in-the-wall joint has a cult-like following willing to wait in long lines for these sweet treats. They’re 100% worth the hype, especially if you’re like me and you love introducing your kids to different cultures via new foods.

2. BIGBUS San Francisco

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Instead of hoofing it up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets with a three-year-old in tow, we hopped aboard the city’s beloved two-story red buses. With buses running every 15 minutes and the free audio commentary, they’re a far better value than Ubering around or paying for parking.

The day tour’s 17 stops include museums, parks, gardens and more. It was cool to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and cruise past the capital and through the Haight-Ashbury. We listen to a lot of Jimmy Hendrix as a family, so driving past the legendary guitarist’s home was a major highlight. The kids also loved the al fresco viewing from the top deck.

Read More: 10 Fun Family Things to Do in Mendocino, California

3. Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco
Fisherman’s Wharf. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Don’t be fooled by its name. There’s so much to do at Fisherman’s Wharf besides savor a fresh lobster roll. Rent bikes (tag-a-longs and trailers are available), catch a ferry to Alcatraz, walk through the aquarium’s unique underwater tunnel and ride a 150-foot-tall Ferris wheel. Or, get a sneak peek of a WWII submarine at the National Maritime Museum at Hyde Street Pier, just a few minutes away.

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Our favorite Fisherman’s Wharf memory was traveling back in time at the Musée Mécanique. Founded in 1933, it boasts one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of arcade games and coin-operated instruments. It was neat showing Everett and Alena – a.k.a. the iPad generation – the old-fashioned games TJ and I grew up playing.

4. Boudin Bakery

kids at Boudin Bakery
Boudin Bakery. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Rumor has it that Boudin Bakery, a SanFran institution since 1849, intentionally leaves its doors open to let the aroma of freshly baked bread lure passersby in. Their world-famous sourdough recipe is a secret.

But we got to watch the bakers in action through the 30-foot-tall observation window. There’s even a two-way intercom system where you can ask them questions. The kids were a big fan of the carb-laded critters – turkey, turtle, crocodile, crab, and rabbit loaves. You also can’t go wrong with Boudin’s signature bread bowl, which is filled with clam chowder, of course.

5. Lombard Street

Lombard Street San Francisco
Lombard Street. Photo by Carri Wilbanks.

The “crookedest street in the world” is stop #14 on the Big Bus Day Tour. As long as you can handle going down stairs (approximately 250) it’s definitely worth getting off at this stop.

The Insta-worthy one-way, fringed by hydrangeas, features eight hairpin turns. In fact, Lombard Street is so steep it has a single-digit speed limit. At the bottom, you’re within walking distance (roughly one mile) of Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown. Of course, if your kids have excess energy, you can always walk back up the stairs.

6. Ferry Building and Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

San Francisco Ferry Building.
Ferry Building. Image from Canva

After the Golden Gate Bridge, the nearby 126-year-old Ferry Building, complete with a clock tower, is the city’s most famous landmark. Once a transportation hub, today its 600-foot-long skylit nave is filled with specialty stores, cute cafes and niche eateries.

This includes an ice cream purveyor with out-of-this-world flavors including adult-friendly combos like bourbon and cornflakes (don’t worry; kids can ask for a sample before they commit to something too unusual).

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the Ferry Plaza hosts a farmers market where you can shop for California-grown produce and artisanal souvenirs. For the best selection, come on Saturday when there are more than 100 vendors.

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7. Walt Disney Family Museum

Founded by Walt Disney’s granddaughter, this non-profit museum is housed in a former army base in Presidio National Park. It pays homage to the man who gave us Mickey Mouse and all the classic films TJ and I are now re-watching with our kids.

The massive collection of archival sketches, animation drawings and film sequences is definitely more adult-oriented. But there are still plenty of family-friendly interactive exhibits and events including workshops and film screenings.

Currently, the Walt Disney Family Museum is even partnering with local animal shelters as part of its temporary Disney Cats & Dogs exhibit.

8. Exploratorium

The aptly named Exploratorium is the perfect place for kids who learn through play. Touch-wise, practically nothing is off-limits. The more than 650 hands-on exhibits spread throughout the six indoor and outdoor galleries include an antigravity mirror, fog bridge, and tornado experience.

From biology (you can even dissect a cow’s eye here) to physics (don’t miss the floating fabrics), all the sciences are covered. And since it’s at Pier 15, you also enjoy epic bridge views.

Read More: San Diego: Top 10 Places to Take the Family

9. Cable Car Museum 

San Francisco's cable cars
San Francisco’s cable cars are an iconic sight. Image from Canva

If your kids are obsessed with planes, trains, trucks or any other form of transportation, you won’t want to miss the Cable Car Museum. It may be small and dated, but this historic powerhouse and cable car barn in Nob Hill is one of the top 20 things to do in San Francisco California on TripAdvisor.

Admission is free, and not only will you learn how the city’s iconic public transportation system runs, but you’ll also get to see it in action. Plus, there’s a gift shop and clean bathrooms. What more could you ask for? 

10. San Francisco Botanical Garden 

San Francisco Botanical Gardens
San Francisco Botanical Gardens. Image from Canva

Every city needs an urban oasis. The San Francisco Botanical Garden not only delivers in the flora department, but it’s also incredibly family-friendly. Kids can go hunt for bugs in the Children’s Garden, get their noses up close to everything in the Fragrance Garden and roll around on the grass in the Great Meadow.

Most of the 55-acre park is stroller-accessible, and while there’s no cafe, you can bring in a picnic lunch. Plan your visit for the second Tuesday of the month, and you’ll get in for free. 

Where to Stay in San Francisco

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It takes a lot for a hotel to stand out in a city full of standout hotels. But that’s just what InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco does. Located in the heart of Nob Hill, it boasts one of the city’s most desired addresses and some of its best views, especially from Top of the Mark.

This nostalgic penthouse cocktail bar/restaurant (kids are allowed until 9:30 p.m.) serves San Francisco’s most talked-about Sunday Brunch. It’s also where you can buy a “Squadron Bottle” to be enjoyed by the next veteran or active military member who comes in. 

The birthplace of the Squadron Bottle, which came about in the 1940s when men were leaving San Francisco to fight in WWII, InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco is one of the city’s most historic hotels. It even boasts Historic Hotels of America status.

The prime real estate it’s on was once home to the 40-room mansion of Mark Hopkins, one of the founders of Southern Pacific Railroad. After the mansion was destroyed in the fires caused by the 1906 earthquake, it was eventually replaced by an eye-catching 19th-story hotel blending Renaissance Revival architecture with the Gilded Age. 

Travel Back in Time

Since opening in 1926, InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco has hosted everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Dwight Eisenhower and King Charles (back when he was a prince).

We enjoyed traveling back in time via the hotel’s black-and-white photographs and historic memorabilia housed in its free history exhibit, “The Museum at The Mark.” The kids also loved learning about the mail slots, still present, next to the elevator on each floor. Originally, they led to a chute that sent guests’ outgoing mail to the lobby. 

Guest room at InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco
InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco. Photo by Carri Wilbanks

Room-wise, you can choose from cozy rooms to spacious suites, and there’s on-site dining. Nob Hill Club, the restaurant in the lobby, makes incredible steak frites and Alena gives their chocolate milk her coveted stamp of approval. Meanwhile, Everett wants their chicken strips recipe.

While InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco doesn’t have a pool, it’s not hard to work up an appetite thanks to its 24/7 fitness center. And for the kids? Ask for crayons and coloring books at check-in. 

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Author Bio: Freelancer Carri Wilbanks’ focus is to inform and inspire others to engage with the world around them. Trekking across Europe and South America unlocked her passion for travel. She now resides in Colorado between trips. Read more about her global adventures at

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