My hometown of San Francisco is one of the most popular family travel destinations in the world. I’m lucky enough to live in the middle of it all with my two kids! Of course, like many travelers, I occasionally take my hometown for granted and don’t experience everything it has to offer. I’m making 2016 the year of Bay Area exploration, so it’s time to give San Francisco its due.
One of the places that Bay Area locals tend to avoid is Fisherman’s Wharf. Of course, tourists flock to it. During my pre-kid days, my husband and I lived just up the hill from the Wharf and would pass through fairly regularly. I realized last year that I’d never taken my kids there, so it was time to rectify that. We’ve been to the area a few times in recent months looking for what to do (and what to skip) for travelers with little ones.
Although it has gotten a bit of a bad rep as a tourist trap, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are truly can’t-miss spots for families with kids – whether local or visitors the the city. The area is lot of fun and a place that everyone needs to experience in San Francisco at least once. Because it is a popular tourist destination, a visit can get expensive so plan ahead by purchasing discount combination packages or opting for more of the free and cheap attractions in the area.
Here’s what to do and see with kids in the Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 areas:
1. Aquarium of the Bay
If you only have time to do a very few things at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Aquarium of the Bay is probably my top pick for younger kids. The Aquarium features species found in the Bay Area and was truly educational – even for me! It’s small and can be done in an hour or two leaving you plenty of time to do other activities on the Wharf. The highlight is definitely the underwater tunnels where you can see sharks and scuba divers. My kids didn’t want to leave these spaces.
Admission pre-purchased in advance online is $22.95 for adults and $13.95 for kids 4-12 (kids 3 & under are free). If you live in San Francisco County, make sure to take advantage of the local’s discount ($19 adults, $11 kids 4-12) too!.
2. Watch the Sea Lions on Pier 39
The world’s most famous sea lions arrived in San Francisco in 1989 after the big earthquake and have now made the floating docks around Pier 39 their permanent home. Make a little time to watch them hanging out and visit the Sea Lion Center (free) to learn more about these creatures.
Known for housing some of the country’s most infamous criminals before it closed in 1963, Alcatraz is a fascinating and iconic San Francisco stop. Getting there requires some pre-planning, as there are limited boats that make the trip. Spots do sell out during the summer tourist season and on busy weekends, so buy in advance. One mistake that visitors always make is not dressing appropriately. The Rock is cold and windy almost all year round. Bring layers and even fleeces or coats on chillier days.
Day tour tickets are $31 for adults and $19.25 for kids 5-11 at AlcatrazCruises.com and include a free audio tour. Plan for about a half day to make the trip at a leisurely pace.
4. Cruise the Bay
Although hopping the boat to Alcatraz is a blast for older kids, it isn’t exactly a destination that most toddlers will enjoy. If you have younger kids with shorter attention spans who might still need to be back in time for a nap, I’d still recommend getting out on the water to see the amazing bay views. An alternative to Alcatraz for the younger set is a short bay cruise. Blue & Gold Fleet run a one hour cruise that takes you near Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Tickets are pricey at $30 for adults and $20 for kids 5-11, but can be a good deal when purchased in combination with other attractions.
One of the best things about a San Francisco vacation is the food! Fisherman’s Wharf has plenty of chain restaurants that you should probably avoid, but there are lots of memorable food choices there too. Make time for anything sourdough at Boudin Bakery and stop in for a sweet ice cream treat down at Ghirardelli Square.
6. Ship Watch
Learn all about San Francisco’s seafaring history at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The park is home several historic ships and is run by the National Park Service. Tickets are $10 for adults and kids 15 and under are free to tour the ships with adults. Start at the visitor’s center then head out to the ships and don’t forget to pick up Junior Ranger booklets for your little ones! On warm days, kids will enjoy the beach in the park too.
If you have little ones, walk to the end of Pier 39 for a ride aboard a gorgeous two story historic carousel. Rides are just $3 (or 2 for $5) so this is one time you don’t have to say no to the kids for another ride.
8. Ride a Cable Car
A trip to the city by the bay wouldn’t be complete without hopping aboard a cable car, right? Two of San Francisco’s three cable car lines come into the Fisherman’s Wharf area: the Powell-Hyde and the Powell-Mason lines (both originate in Union Square). Be sure to make time for a ride and plan for lines. At $7 one way, cable car rides are expensive, so if you plan to use other San Francisco public transit, purchase a Muni passport that provides unlimited access.
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Disclosure: The Aquarium of the Bay provided my family with complimentary media passes on our last visit for review purposes. As always, all opinions are my own.