San Francisco with kids
June 18, 2009 2:19 AM   Subscribe

So, it looks like we will be going to be spending two weeks in August in the San Francisco area, specifically one week in Palo Alto and then one week in San Francisco. "We" encompasses myself, my wife, our 6 year old daughter and my mother-in-law, all visiting from the UK. None of us have been to California before. What should we do?

Our choice of destinations will be largely driven by our 6 year old, although she is usually happy to visit the odd art gallery (for example), as long as it can be sold in a kid-friendly way. Amusement parks, museums, historic locations, scenery are all good, as long as they are not too dark and gloomy (I suspect she would not be a big fan of Alcatraz, for example).

Since this will be my daughter's first trip to the US, anything that can provide a concentrated dose of Americana would also be welcome.

I assume that renting a car is an necessity, however we would probably not be too keen to drive for more than a couple of hours to reach somewhere (unless it is going to blow our minds!). How much does this limit us?

Our location in Palo Alto is probably going to be chosen for us, however where should we look for a hotel when we move to San Francisco?

Reading back over the above, I realise this is all a bit general and non-specific, but really this just shows how little I know about the area. Please help me get informed so we can plan a great trip!

[on preview] I've just seen these threads, which appear to cover a lot of the same ground. To differentiate my question a little, should we aim to concentrate on San Francisco, or is it worth heading further afield (within our 2 hour limit)? Also, what sort of weather/temperature/humidity should we be prepared for?
posted by oclipa to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For weather, try looking on You can plug in a location and get current temps plus averages and extended forecasts.

I wouldn't rule out Alcatraz. There's a boat ride out and the island itself is pretty cool. Lots of rocks to clamber on and it's not dark and gloomy inside at all. It might be a middle ground for you - interesting to the adults and interesting to the kid.

There's so much to do in San Francisco, especially with a child. Unless someone has just a "do not miss this no matter what you do" place to visit, you can easily just concentrate on San Francisco.
posted by cooker girl at 2:27 AM on June 18, 2009

If you concentrate on San Francisco, you won't need a car. BART trains will take you around the larger Bay Area. Berkeley is half an hour away, and worth visiting for any number of reasons, including anything that looks interesting from the University of California-Berkeley events pages for the dates you'll be visiting.
posted by gum at 3:02 AM on June 18, 2009

oclipa: Also, what sort of weather/temperature/humidity should we be prepared for?

San Francisco's weather is different from any other place in the United States or Europe, so far as I know. The spring and summer months—May, June, July—can range from a little chilly to frigid, with really cold, humid air blowing in from the bay, hence the old apocryphal Mark Twain saying: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

However, if you're there in August, the warm weather will be just starting, as weird as that seems. It will be like Spring generally is in a lot of places; there will be a bit of cold humidity some days, and other days it'll be quite nice and warm. Speaking as someone who only lived in the area once for about two months but who has always had a fondness for the Bay, August is probably the best time of year to be there.

Reading back over the above, I realise this is all a bit general and non-specific, but really this just shows how little I know about the area. Please help me get informed so we can plan a great trip!…To differentiate my question a little, should we aim to concentrate on San Francisco, or is it worth heading further afield (within our 2 hour limit)?

My advice? Head to San Francisco—it's really like a hub, with all sorts of interesting stuff spreading out in concentric circles around it—but there are cheaper places (at least to live, that's my experience…) just a little further out, in places like Alameda. But close to SF is the perfect base for doing little day trips in and around the Bay; and there's plenty to do, although I'll leave that to someone who actually lives there or is more familiar with the place.
posted by koeselitz at 3:10 AM on June 18, 2009

I'm from SF and never went on the cable car until my British future-in-laws came with me to the city to meet my family. We enjoyed that a lot much to my surprise. I've also heard great things about Alcatraz but never got a chance myself. I don't know if it's still good, but I think the Exploratorium should be great for a kid.

While you're in SF you don't REALLY need a car. You can take the Muni or the bus to most of the touristy spots. You can take the N Judah to any entrance spot into Golden Gate park and all the way to the beach.

I agree with koeselitz in terms of weather, August/September are awesome. Not hot (maybe quite warm in downtown) but surprisingly more sunny than other times of the year.
posted by like_neon at 3:25 AM on June 18, 2009

Argh posted too soon.


If you take the N Judah westwards, get off on 43rd Ave. Go north towards Golden Gate Park. Take the 46th ave entrance and you will find a great little playground that's always full of kids. If you walk west there's an old windmill and garden. Walk down some more to the beach and you got the Cliff house where you can see the seals.

I have also heard the SF Zoo has gotten some good revamping.

Botantical gardens is good too. My parents have a picture of me in there from when I was about 6 too.
posted by like_neon at 3:30 AM on June 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers. Glad to hear that we appear to be heading there at one of the best times of year!

Assuming we stick to the local area, how easy is it to travel between Palo Alto and San Francisco (with or without a car)? Or are there attractions in Palo Alto itself?
posted by oclipa at 4:58 AM on June 18, 2009

The Stanford campus is large and quite beautiful. Other than that -- no, there's not much to do in Palo Alto.
posted by creasy boy at 5:27 AM on June 18, 2009

From the UK and have spent a fair old time in both PA & SF.

PA is twee with a few nice coffee shops & food places but ultimately relatively dull. The area west of PA to the coast is some beautiful forest with a good circular drive from PA via La Honda to the coast, up to Half Moon Bay & either back to PA via San Mateo & Skyline Blvd or carry on up the coast towards SF via Pacifica. You'll get some good beaches too and won't be subject to the vagaries of the peninsula weather as much until you get north of Pacifica. Water is bloody freezing tho'.

Not sure if kids are into Snoopy, Charlie Brown & Peanuts but Santa Rosa is not too far north of the Bay and the Schulz Museum & gift shop are worth a visit if they are.
posted by i_cola at 5:29 AM on June 18, 2009

Go see some Redwoods. They are the tallest trees in the world (and some of the oldest). They are massive, you will never forget your visit.

Muir Woods is just North of San Francisco and you get to go over the Golden Gate Bridge on your way.
posted by SantosLHalper at 6:18 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some of the standard SF stuff would be the Exploratorium, Pier 39, China Town, Japan Town, Golden Gate Park (which contains the Academy of Sciences, Botanical Gardens, and other things), Alcatraz, cable cars. These are all semi-fun and touristy.

The thing that I would not miss is Yosemite. It is probably a little farther than 2 hours from where you will be, but there are guided bus tours from SF I think. As a local, Yosemite is the one place that I can come back to over and over again and still be impressed. And for me, it definitely is the essence of "Americana."
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 6:37 AM on June 18, 2009

These are some of my favorite places to take the kids

San Francisco
California Academy of Sciences/Golden Gate Park
Japanese Tea Garden/Golden Gate Park
Bay Area Discovery Museum

East Bay
Ardenwood Historic Farm
Chabot Space & Science Center
Oakland Zoo
Lyndsay Wildlife Museum
Blackhawk Auto Museum
posted by zeoslap at 6:38 AM on June 18, 2009

Re: weather. Dress in light layers. Around this area, depending where you are, the temperature can vary by 30* or more. It's always good to have a jacket or sweater with you.

I would recommend you get a car so you can get to the places that public transportation doesn't cover. Palo Alto is about 45 minutes from San Francisco.

In San Francisco I would recommend:

The Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands on the Marin County side of the bridge. There are view points at either end of the bridge where you can park and enjoy the bridge and bay views, but the views from the Headlands is the best!

Fisherman's Wharf is where you'll find souvenir shops, lots of seafood restaurants, the old fashioned arcade museum that you all would enjoy, and it's where you catch the ferry to Alcatraz.

Driving around San Francisco can be interesting in itself. The architecture and the hills are both amazing. Some even literally breathtaking.

The SF Zoo is wonderful and just minutes from the Great Highway that parallels Ocean Beach. It's a nice big beach with plenty of parking.

Definitely take a Cable Car ride. It's a great way to see the city!

Two weeks here is enough time to venture away from the city of SF. If you enjoy wine, the Napa and Sonoma wine countries are about 1 hour away. Or, take the Great Highway to Hwy 1 South and go to Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz (which is famous for it's beach boardwalk and amusements and rides) or the Monterey/Carmel area.

There truly is no end to the things you can find to do. It's an area like no other. I moved here 25 years from Washington, DC and never looked back.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 7:51 AM on June 18, 2009

I think the Monterey area is within decent day-trip distance of Palo Alto. (We used to day-trip there and back from my Mom's in Pleasanton, which is in the East Bay, so Palo Alto would be even closer). The Monterey Aquarium is completely awesome. Especially the sea otters.

I always found the ocean temperature at Bay Area beaches way too cold for swimming in, but it's really nice to just sit on the beach anyway sometimes. (The sunsets from Monterey and Carmel are particularly gorgeous for some reason.)
posted by dnash at 7:59 AM on June 18, 2009

You MUST go to Monterey and spend half a day at the Aquarium. This is not up for debate. You must do it. (It's about 90 minutes from Palo Alto, 2 hours and change from SF.) Ticket lines can be long during summer weekends; one trick is to stop in at a major hotel and buy tickets from the desk. They're the same price as at the Aquarium, but they're good for two days admission, plus you can zip right through the will-call door and avoid the lines. Go during the week if you can. Much less crazy.

If you can spend the night down there, another really fabulous thing to do with your daughter would be the Elkhorn Slough Safari. (Stupid name, excellent experience.) It's in Moss Landing, halfway between Monterey and Santa Cruz. It's a (really gentle) boat trip through Moss Landing harbor and up into Elkhorn Slough. You'll get to see sea otters, seals, sea lions, and lots of other wildlife in the wild and up close. It's a great follow-up to the aquarium.

And on your way back to home base, you could head up to Santa Cruz and hit the Boardwalk. It's free and would be lots of fun for your daughter.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:16 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Monterey and Santa Cruz. Particularly read i_cola's guide. Driving around the mountains is wonderful.
In the south bay is the Winchester Mystery House. This is about 30 minutes from Palo Alto.
While you don't need a car in San Francisco, it's helpful. Just park at the Sutter St. garage while downtown.
Yerba Buena Gardens and the Zeum are favorites with my kids.
One strategy tip. Explore south from Palo Alto and go north from San Francisco. It's time consuming to drive through the city. Try to avoid it. Also, 280 is better than 101. The secret to the bay area is to be doing the opposite of everyone else.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 11:08 AM on June 18, 2009

For my money, the most concentrated dose of Americana on earth is the Musee Mechanique. For $10 worth of quarters, you can watch an animatronic ferris wheel, circus, cruise ship, beheading, and crack den. You can also seriously hurt yourself by arm-wrestling a robot.

Seriously. This place is America, in all its creepy wonder.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:15 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't often log in to Metafilter but, since I live in San Francisco and work for a hotel here, this is probably a good time to do so. The otherwise helpful folks here really haven't addressed your question about hotels, and I'm afraid I can't, either. San Francisco hotels are horribly expensive -- I wouldn't recommend mine unless you have loads of cash (which you don't mention) -- but any hotel east of Powell St. and north of Market St. will probably provide a pleasant experience, providing that you can afford it. Some motels near the west and north coasts of the peninsula may also be fine.

Regarding the attractions, most of the recommendations are good. There really is too much to do within 2 hours of San Francisco and Palo Alto. I particularly endorse the comments about Monterey and Santa Cruz, especially the Boardwalk, and also the Exploratorium. With a 6-year-old, you can't go wrong. Furthermore, if you want a ferry ride to an island, Angel, rather than Alcatraz, may be more outdoorsy and fun; it may be, in fact, your last chance to enjoy it... since it is on the governor's list for elimination. Downtown in San Francisco is the more popularized version of the Exploratorium, Zeum -- completely kid-oriented! Check the links and see what you think.
posted by sighmoan at 11:25 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Getting from Palo Alto to SF without a car isn't too bad, assuming you can get yourselves to the Caltrain station in Palo Alto. Caltrain runs about once an hour during off-peak times, and about every half hour during rush hour, but those trains are usually very crowded. The terminal in SF is at 4th and King and you can connect to Muni buses and streetcars there. Or you could get off at Millbrae and catch BART, which goes right downtown and also will add the East Bay and SFO airport to your options. Check the Caltrain schedule carefully, though, as not all trains stop at all stations.

There are also buses that run up the Peninsula to SF but I'm not familiar with them - Caltrain is faster if the route works for you.
posted by Quietgal at 11:43 AM on June 18, 2009

Oh, and be prepared for fat admission charges to everything -- we're all about funding everything through visitor support. The cable cars are, what, $5 a head, now? That's closer to a taxi fare than a bus fare. (BTW, consider taxis for family groups -- BART is $1.50 a head one-way in SF).

A free walk through Golden Gate Park may seem even better than it already is -- and it already is quite good.
posted by sighmoan at 11:46 AM on June 18, 2009

The Palo Alto Museum Of American Heritage. It's little, but it's fun! My daughters love it, they're 5 and 6.

In between SF and PA, the San Mateo County Historical Museum is another fun, interactive place to get a dose of California-style Americana (you can sit in a stagecoach! You can grind corn!), and it's walking distance from the Caltrain station. It's in the downtown "theater" district of Redwood City, so you could catch a matinee of Up or something while you're down there. I'd suggest going in time to catch a classic American-style breakfast at nearby Talk of Broadway, where the ingredients are fresh and local.

And me-mail me if you'd like to get together for a low-key playdate!
posted by padraigin at 1:27 PM on June 18, 2009

if you like the sight seeing, walking tour types, i would suggest fisherman's wharf and then the ghirardelli factory. you can also hop on the trolley through china town. there are some fabulous local places that won't cost you and arm and a leg to eat, not to mention the cool little shops. if you get a rental car, you can drive over the bridge and go a little north of san fran.
posted by penguingrl at 5:05 PM on June 18, 2009

Thirding the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's very kid-friendly, and the adults will enjoy the majestic displays of the various animals. This aquarium is actually much more kid-oriented than any other aquarium I've ever visited, to the point where I wished I'd had kids with me when I was there.

After the aquarium, consider taking a sack lunch to "Dennis the Menace Park", which is in Monterey about two miles from the Aquarium. Tons of play equipment (slides, swings, things to climb on). Obviously more of a kids' place, but as fun for adults as any such park could be.

We also suggest the San Jose Children's Museum. Fun science-y stuff that a six-year-old can enjoy.

The other suggestions above are great too. Enjoy your trip!
posted by Maximian at 9:45 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your replies. Can't wait to get there now!
posted by oclipa at 5:27 AM on June 19, 2009

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