This summer we spent two days of our California mini-adventure in San Francisco, enjoying the city by the bay with our two young kids. While parts of the city were a bit rough, we were quite pleased overall with the number of kid friendly activities the city had to offer. With only two days in town we had to pick and chose a bit but there are plenty of things to do for kids of all ages.
Our first stop was the Children Creativity Museum in the Yeurba Buena Centre near Union Square. We chose this sight for two reasons; first because it was very close to our hotel and second because it was covered under our Family Museum Pass and with the Canadian dollar dropping like a rock we wanted to save money wherever we could.
The museum itself is part of a large complex of gardens, theatres, playgrounds and other public spaces. There is a convention centre, bowling alley, ice rink and arts centre nearby as well as a lovely vintage carousel. The museum is quite different from most children’s museums we’ve seen in that it didn’t have a lot of fixed exhibits or structures, it was more focused on high tech interactions and experiences. There was a robotics lab where kids could use IPads to program robots to play music or run through a maze and another area where they could chose a song and star in a music video. My daughter’s favourite was the innovation lab where kids were given a Mystery Box Challenge. Each child could chose a card with a project such as design a robot who gives hugs or make a circus for fleas. They are then issued a box of simple craft supplies and off they go. For some reason my six year old daughter was intrigued by this idea and kept going back as soon as she had finished. It was really amazing to see some of the things she could come up with from bits of paper, string, foil and other simple supplies when she had a neat idea and a little encouragement
We really had a good time at the museum but I think it helped that we were there right at opening time on a Sunday. The capacity in some of the areas was quite limited and I think that it would have been a lot less fun if the kids would have had to wait in lines for each of the activities. As it was, they rarely had to wait and enjoyed lots of individual attention from the energetic young staff. The playground in the Yeurba Buena Gardens complex was also quite good and between the museum, the playground and the carousel we managed to spend most of our first day there.
On our second day we woke up early and heading to the cable car turnaround, which happened to be right across the street from our hotel. The cable cars are quite touristy and expensive at $7 per ride, but we got day passes for $17 each and spent the day riding all the transit options including cable cars, trolleys and buses. Even at 7:30 am there was a bit of a wait to get on a car, but it was certainly better than the hour long lineup that built up by about 10 am. You can also skip the line at the turnaround and try your luck hopping a car along the route but we found that to be hit and miss. The conductor will only let a few people on at each stop and there’s no system of lining up so some people would just show up at the stop and barge right past the people who had been waiting for a long time. In the end we decided that just getting up early and getting to the turnaround early was probably the best way to get a ride.
We rode the cable car to Lombard Street to check out the “crookedest street in the world” and then hopped back on to see Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. As expected the entire area was slammed with tourists but the views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge were still picture perfect and the kids enjoyed watching the barking sea lions by Pier 39. It was actually quite pleasant for the first hour after the shops opened and we did a bit of souvenir shopping and rode yet another carousel before the crowds started to build and we got out of there.
We also made a stop at the Cable Car Museum, a free exhibit at the point where all three cable car lines intersect. You can see and hear the huge cables whirring along below ground level as well as see vintage cable cars and watch videos about the history of the transportation system. One of our favourites was a video made in the mid 1980’s to celebrate the revival and restoration of the cable car system and we had a great time watching vintage views of the city in all it’s 1980’s glory.
From there we put our transit passes to use by catching a bus up market street to a part of the city I’d never seen; the historic Mission district. I had been warned away from this area back when I spent three months in the area in 2004 but there was a store we wanted to check out nearby so we decided to take a chance and check out the area. We were a little surprised to find an area that was a little rough around the edges, but clearly in transition with lovely parks and a great collection of neat shops and houses. We visited the site of the 18th century mission and marveled at the fact that this once remote outpost is now packed into the centre of a huge, vibrant city. They had a few small exhibits showing native artifacts and a small part of the original church that wasn’t destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
From the mission we walked a short ways to a store called simply 826 Valencia. The purpose of this place is to teach writing skills and support literacy in children aged 6-18 and the way they do it is to run an amazing pirate themed store. It’s filled with unique and interesting pirate themed items and all the profits go to their workshops and after school support programs for local kids. The kids had a great time checking out the store and it felt great to buy a few cool souvenirs knowing the money was going to a great cause.
And that was our two fun filled family days in San Francisco. Of course we barely scratched the surface. There’s still Alcatraz, the zoo, Golden Gate Park and many other places left to explore. But when you’re short on time you have to focus on a few things and let the rest go until next time. And I’m sure that next time we go we’ll have just as much fun.