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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fun Activities with Kids in the San Francisco Bay Area

By Amie O’Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino

What makes the San Francisco Bay Area so unique is the number of different places you can visit within a relatively short drive. I also love our micro-climates—if you don’t like the weather where you are, just drive 15 minutes and it will change! This is particularly key over the summer months when it can be foggy and cold, especially in San Francisco and along the coastline.

We all know that the easiest travel plan with kids, particularly young kids, is to establish a home-base where you can unpack and minimize the hassles of continually moving. The beauty here is that the driving distances are relatively small so families can decide if they want to experience a new environment and change hotels, or simply stay put and check out sights via day trips.

San Francisco

Of course, this is the key urban attraction in Northern California. For good reason—San Francisco is a spectacular city with incredible cultural diversity. Any good guidebook will outline the main tourist attractions—Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, North Beach, Golden Gate Park—all places that should be included a first-time visit. My 6-year-old likes to remind me that “just walking around” all the time is not fun. Break-up traditional sightseeing with more active stops. I love Chrissy Field, the oceanfront park leading up to the Golden Gate Bridge. There is a sandy beach that is always full of kids and dogs, plus there is a fantastic flat walking path leading right to the base of the bridge. Visit the Chrissy Field web page for special kid-focused programs and activities. Energetic families will love the thrill of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge although it is 1.7 miles across, so a partial walk will be in order for young kids.

Another active stop that is unique is heading to Golden Gate Park on a Sunday to enjoy traffic-free bike riding on the park’s main street, JFK Drive. There are so many people out and about from all walks of life—parents and kids alike will get a kick out of the fantastic people watching opportunity. This SF Gate article has a good general breakdown of the park and includes information about bike rental options near the park.

Another highlight in the park is the de Young Museum with an extensive permanent collection and there is always some kind of amazing special exhibit happening (Warhol Live is there now through May 17th and King Tut is coming in June). Yes, kids have a limited attention span for art, but one fun thing at the de Young is Friday Nights at the museum when the museum stays open until 8:45p with hands-on kids activities and a no-host bar for dinner and drinks. A fun way to expose kids to art!

I also must mention that our recently re-opened California Academy of Sciences is supposed to be extraordinary. I say “supposed” intentionally—it is so great that the lines are long and I haven’t gone yet, although everyone else I know has been there—highlights are the aquarium and 4-story rainforest. Buying tickets ahead of time is a must.

These are just a few ideas that are top of mind for me—there are so many things to see and do in San Francisco (we have a wonderful zoo too). A fun hotel base in the city is Hotel Del Sol in the Marina. This is a great location for accessing main sights with many kid-friendly inexpensive restaurants within walking distance. The entertaining part about this property is that they really cater to families in the summer months and host a free Friday night BBQ around the pool.

North Bay

Marin County is an outdoor paradise. Locals from around the Bay Area head to Marin on weekends to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Muir Woods is a must-see stop on any North Bay itinerary. These awe-inspiring redwood trees never cease to amaze me and even really young kids fall under the spell of this place. The paths through the immediate forest are easy to navigate with little legs and strollers. Nearby, the Pelican Inn, modeled after a real English pub, is a terrific spot for lunch. On a nice weekend, many families will park themselves on the grass outside the inn. Just down the road is Muir Beach, ideal for a picnic in nice weather (note, planning is required as there are no stores in the immediate area).

Downtown Sausalito is touristy, but it’s still a fun place to stroll and enjoy the unique views of San Francisco from across the bay. If you’re not planning on other stops, it’s also fun to take the ferry over from San Francisco instead of driving. Tiburon is another maritime-focused North Bay tourist attraction and the highlight there for me is Guaymas, a Mexican restaurant that has been around forever with outrageous guacamole and views—a great combination.

I did a post a few weeks ago on my Favorite Spring Excursions in the San Francisco Bay Area, on that list is Rodeo Beach, a popular local beach with some nice, short hikes to fantastic vantage points. Tennessee Valley is another place to take an easy hike with kids—the 3.1 mile loop is a good one for kids that are 4 and up (unless you have a backpack).

It’s not necessary to stay in the North Bay to enjoy the various sights—everything mentioned above is within an hour’s drive from San Francisco. That said, there is something fun about staying outside of San Francisco too in a less urban environment. We have a few good options on Ciao Bambino including Cavallo Point, a stunning eco-friendly retreat in the original Fort Baker army post. There are many room configurations that work with kids, but my favorite are the apartment-like suites with multiple rooms. Adjacent to Cavallo Point is the Bay Area Discovery Museum with terrific hands-on exhibits optimized for young kids. Yes, many cities have kids museums, but this one is special with the integration of local themes (like a mini Golden Gate Bridge) and truly fantastic views of the city and bay. One of our community members recommended The Lodge at Tiburon—it’s certainly a great location just 3-minutes from the ferry with a swimming pool and value-oriented room rates for the quality.

East Bay

The East Bay has a culture and feel of its own. There are many great spots locals go with kids, but for a visitor I’d point out one in particular that is special. Tilden Park is an enormous 2,000+ acre park with lakes, golf, a botanical garden, even a carousel. The steam train is a stand-out activity for young kids—the mini-train goes on its own little track on a ride through tunnels and trees. The giggles begin when the conductor blows the whistle and everyone gets excited. This is a must-see stop for Thomas the Tank Engine lovers!

There are so many more fun activities to enjoy in the Bay Area with kids but it’s impossible to fit all the information into a single post. Bay Area Kid Fun has some good additional ideas and resources.

Amie O’Shaughnessy lives in Oakland, CA with her husband, and 6-year-old son. She publishes Ciao Bambino, a family travel blog and worldwide guide to the best family-friendly hotels and resorts.


Rachel Cotterill said...

Great overview - I'll remember this if I ever find myself headed to that part of the world :)

Marina K. Villatoro said...

i was in san fran ages ago. BC (before child) and i never looked at the kid friendly aspect. now, that's all i focus on:) i also lived in manhattan for years, and never ever thought it to be kid friendly, until i visited with my son and have found sooooo much kid friendly stuff, that it was overwhelming. san fran sounds soooo great, i can't wait to take my son there!!!!!
The Travel Expert(a) and an Expat with a Twist

Lorraine said...

This was a great read even being from the Bay Area. I just picked up a couple of pointers on places I have not visited yet. I think I'll try Fridays at the de Young Museum!

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

What a list! My in-laws live in San Francisco...we love visiting because there is so much to see and do. On our last trip we made it to the California Academy of Sciences and I highly recommend it. In addition to all of the wonderful exhibits, the cafe has a very diverse menu.We loved being able to dine outside where there is a big space for kids to run around. And that roof garden is a must-see! I am bookmarking this post because we are heading back in May.