Disclosure: This post is sponsored by the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. All opinions are my own.
The small, flavored chocolate squares of many colors bearing the Ghirardelli logo are known the world over. So when travelers come to the city of San Francisco, one of the things many want to see is where it all started for the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.
That spot is Ghirardelli Square – one of the most popular blocks to visit in the City by the Bay. Located on one end of Fisherman’s Wharf along the waterfront, it’s the place to taste the latest and greatest in chocolate treats as well as shop, dine, play, and explore. It’s also one of the best things to do with kids in San Francisco.
My husband and I had the good fortune of living just a few blocks up the hill from Ghirardelli Square when we first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2005. I was recently able to take my kids back to our old stomping grounds to explore all the family-friendly offerings and try a whole lot of chocolate. We visited specifically so we could try the recently refreshed and reopened Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience Store (more on that below!), although we made an afternoon of it experiencing a number of offerings in the neighborhood as well.
Whether you are a local looking for a day outing or an out-of-towner planning a multi-day trip, here are all the essentials you need to know to plan a perfect visit to San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square with kids.
Ghirardelli Square Basics
Where is Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco?
Ghirardelli Square is located on the west end of the neighborhood of San Francisco known as Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s just one block off of the city’s northern waterfront facing the San Francisco Bay. The east end of Fisherman’s Wharf is where Pier 39 and the famous San Francisco sea lions are located – about a 15 minute stroll away.
The Square is also just down slope of Russian Hill where the crooked part of Lombard Street is located, one block off of the Powell-Hyde cable car line. The Square is ultimately pretty perfectly positioned for easy access to other top tourist sites and attractions in San Francisco.
History of Ghirardelli Square
So why do visitors flock to Ghirardelli Square? The chocolate company has been part of San Francisco history since the Gold Rush, eventually acquiring the facilities of a woolen mill on North Point Street not long before the turn of the century. Chocolate was made in these manufacturing facilities until the 1960s.
When the chocolate manufacturing was moved elsewhere, the historic buildings in the Square were converted into shopping, dining, and other activities that remain to this day. Of course, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company’s presence still looms large in that mix.
Best Things to Do in Ghirardelli Square for Families: All Things Chocolate
The top reason most visitors – especially those with kids – visit the Square is to eat and shop for Ghirardelli chocolate. There are currently multiple places to do that within the Square.
Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience Store
The first stop on our visit to Ghirardelli Square was the just reopened (in May of 2022) Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience Store. Located in the historic Woolen Mill Building that has been in the heart of the Square in 1864, this shop is a one stop shop for all things Ghirardelli.
We got our bearings by stopping first by the wide open bar area where chocolatiers make Ghirardelli hot fudge and handmade candy bars before your very eyes. Hot fudge literally comes out of the tap on display in this spot. Best of all – samples are available!
The store features another counter where visitors can order a Ghirardelli “World Famous Hot Fudge Sundae.” Bring your appetite because these sundaes are enormous and decadent. In fact, if you have little ones, you probably can split one. I ordered the original World Famous Hot Fudge Sundae while my daughter went with the Cookie Crumble, and both were delicious.
The shop has ample seating for quite a few guests, but if you can find a spot to sit at a table in the Alcatraz room, that’s the place to be. The windows overlook the waterfront with Alcatraz in sight when the San Francisco fog recedes. We lucked into visiting on a clear and sunny summer day and had a prime view.
A really fun offering not to miss at the shop’s main entrance is the Pick & Mix station – the largest offered by Ghirardelli anywhere in the world. Here, you can create your own bag or tin full of a custom mix of Ghirardelli chocolate square flavors.
Then, you can create a custom label with a message or photo on it to turn it into a unique souvenir. (If you are in San Francisco during the holiday season, you could really knock out a lot of gift buying here!) My kids had a blast running around to select the perfect mix of flavors to fill a tin to the brim and then using the photo stations to print our photo label for it.
We spent well over an hour in the shop trying all the offerings at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience, so be sure to leave ample time when visiting with your family. The shop gives new meaning to the phrase “a kid in a candy store!” We left with very full bellies and a few full bags of souvenirs for later.
Other Ghirardelli Shops
While the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience Store is the largest and newest, there are actually three total storefronts bearing the Ghirardelli name in the Square today.
The next largest is the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. It’s located right next to the arched lighted entrance to the Square on Larkin Street, so a lot of guests stop here but don’t realize there are other stores to explore. This location has a shop with Ghirardelli products as well as an ice cream sundae counter with seating, all set amidst historic chocolate making equipment on display.
There’s also another “On-the-Go” smaller shop facing out of the Square on Beach Street. This location offers ice cream sundaes to go and also has a more compact selection of chocolate products for purchase.
Beyond Chocolate: Other Kid-Friendly Things to Do in and Near Ghirardelli Square
While chocolate shopping and ice cream sundaes are the priority for most visitors, Ghirardelli Square and its surrounding blocks have enough to do for a full day or more for families. Here are some of the highlights that visitors with kids will enjoy.
Subpar Miniature Golf: This indoor 18 hole miniature golf course has custom-built holes that feature iconic sights and attractions from all over the city of San Francisco. Putt through the spires of the Golden Gate Bridge, by the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square, or over the wall of Oracle Park. Subpar also operates a large adjacent arcade.
GamedayVR: This gaming center features lots of virtual reality gaming stations and several escape rooms, making it a fun activity for kids and groups.
Cartoon Art Museum: On the block next to Ghirardelli Square is San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum which features a wide variety of changing exhibitions from historic comic strips to edgy digital art.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park: Just adjacent to Ghirardelli Square is a site operated by the National Park Service that showcases the Pacific Coast’s seafaring history. (Related: Guide to National Parks in the San Francisco Bay Area.) The site features a number of attractions, including the Hyde Street Pier where multiple historic ships are moored – some of which kids can climb aboard and explore. It also includes the Maritime Museum which has 1930s era nautical murals painted inside. Adjacent to that building is a small urban beach area perfect for a picnics or sunning on a warm day.
Kid-Friendly Restaurants in Ghirardelli Square
There are a number of places to eat a meal in the Square as well – many of which work well for families. The San Francisco Brewing Company has ample outdoor bench seating in its beer garden and a menu of pub favorites that suits kids and adults alike.
Barrio Ghirardelli Square has indoor and outdoor seating and serves up Latin-inspired cuisine. Finally, McCormick & Kuleto’s is a higher end steak and seafood restaurant that specializes in some San Francisco classic dishes that would be appropriate for older kids and teens.
Tips for Visiting San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square with Kids
Considering a visit to Ghirardelli Square with kids? Here are some essential tips to help make the logistics of your visit as smooth as possible.
Parking: For guests who prefer to drive to the Square (as we did on our most recent visit), there’s conveniently a parking garage located just beneath the block. The entrances are well-marked on either Larkin Street (between North Point and Beach) or on Beach Street (between Larkin and Polk).
Transit: As in many big cities, driving and parking can sometimes be more hassle than it’s worth or just too expensive. Thankfully, Ghirardelli Square is also super accessible by transit. The Powell-Hyde Cable car goes right by the entrance to the Square. The F Market Streetcar also stops at its turnaround about 2 blocks away on Jones Street. A number of SF Muni bus lines also stop nearby, including the 30, 28, and 19. Get more tips in my guide to transit and transportation in San Francisco.
Strollers/Baby Carriers: The Square is fully accessible which means it is possible to navigate it with a stroller if you prefer. But since the Square is on a hillside, there are also sets of several stairs in certain places. As a result, some parents of babies and toddlers may find that a baby carrier is preferable to a stroller for ease of access.
Skip the Lines: Ghirardelli Square is an incredibly popular destination so this means it can get crowded with some pretty long lines at peak times. If you can visit on a weekday or in the off-season, you’ll find much shorter lines, especially for ice cream sundaes. Lines also get longer in the afternoon as more people want an afternoon treat. We had a lot of luck visiting after an early lunch before those crowds arrived.
And don’t forget – because there are multiple Ghirardelli shops in the Square, there are multiple lines for sundaes – some of which may be shorter than others! When we visited, the line at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience Store for sundaes was usually shorter than the line at the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, perhaps because of the Chocolate Experience’s location a little deeper into the Square. So keep your eyes open and try multiple locations to find the shortest line on busier days.
Seasonal Events: Ghirardelli Square has a number of seasonal offerings, from fun in the fall around Halloween to lights and movies during the holiday season. Be sure to check local activity calendars or the Square’s website to find out what is happening seasonally.
Where to Stay Near Ghirardelli Square
If you plan to visit attractions in and around Ghirardelli Square during a visit to San Francisco, there are plenty of hotel choices nearby in the greater Fisherman’s Wharf Area. Three options within easy walking distance of Ghirardelli Square that all work well for families include:
- Fairmont Heritage Place ($$$$): A luxury hotel located within the Square featuring suites and residences with plenty of space for families.
- Argonaut Hotel ($$$): Located adjacent to the Hyde Street Pier, this independent hotel has nautical touches in a historic building, along with a number of rooms with two queen beds that sleep families of 4 as well as suites.
- Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf ($$): With two queen rooms that sleep up to 4 people and a location smack in the center of the action of Fisherman’s Wharf, this hotel works well for family travelers.
More San Francisco Family Travel Tips
Visiting San Francisco with kids? Be sure to check out my other recommendations and tips in these related posts:
- 24 Hours in San Francisco: The Perfect 1 Day Itinerary for Families
- 25 Free Things to do in San Francisco with Kids
- Complete Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Airports
- 12 Kid-Friendly Day Trips Near San Francisco