This isn’t your typical San Francisco travel guide, while we will cover most of the popular tourist attractions we will also show you some of our favorite, beautiful day trips that are a must see while you are in the area. If your family is anything like ours you try to make the most out of your trips and see all that you can while still relaxing just enough.
We started our trip by flying into SFO and picking up our rental car, a Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE. We knew for our road trip that we would need a comfortable family car and that’s exactly what the Highlander was. It was an 8 passenger SUV with leather, a sunroof and a rear seat DVD player. It was perfect for our road tripping along the California coast. We were even impressed that it had automatic high beam sensors and would turn off and on when we were passing another car. That was super useful while driving the pacific coast highway at night which has to be the most twisy turny, dark, guardrail-less road we’ve ever been on. Being that this car was a hybrid meant that it was great on gas! In addition to its V6 engine it also has an electric motor so the car was so quiet while driving. It was really the perfect car for a family who likes to get out and travel!
Here are a few of our recommendations starting with areas that are just a short ride from San Francisco. If you only want to read about what we recommend directly in the city of San Francisco you can scroll down to the bottom. But why would you want to do that?
We spent the first few days at an airbnb in Stinson Beach. (clicking that link will get you a $40 airbnb travel credit!) It was just about an hour outside of San Francisco and an absolute must visit. If you’d prefer to stay here overnight like we did, then an airbnb is your only option so keep that in mind. Stinson beach itself is a gorgeous little beach town but it’s also a great place to plant yourself for a night or two to experience some of the surrounding areas. We suggest walking into the town and exploring some of the local shops and dining. The Siren Canteen is supposed to have the best ice cream but unfortunately for us we walked up to it 2 minutes after it closed, but we will take the word of a local that it is well worth a visit.
You can walk down the beach to Bolinas Bay and might even catch a glimpse of a seal out in the ocean. We were here in January and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. It’s a must visit beach any time of the year.
Point Reyes National Seashore
This is just a short drive from Stinson Beach. There are plenty of hiking trails and long beach walks in the area. The beaches are absolutely stunning, the cliffs along the shore are just incredible to look at, especially if you’re used to East Coast beaches. We were even lucky enough (although sad) to see a whale on the beach, it was quite the learning experience for our little boys to see. We suggest taking your time and walking a few of the different trails here. You can print out a map online and visit their lighthouse too.
After you leave the National Seashore we suggest doing a Mead tasting. Full disclosure- until we arrived and they started pouring Mead into my glass I thought we were doing a meat tasting. Yeah, i’m so lame. But anyway, we visited the Heidrun Meadery and it was so much fun. Not only is it a beautiful little meadery, but the actual experience of doing the Mead tasting was a lot of fun. I loved the different flavors they offered. They also have a little shop in their tasting room, which had a bunch of products like beeswax candles, plants and succulents to purchase and if it weren’t for us having to fly back across the country I would have definitely snagged a few items. The kids were kept entertained with honey sticks and when we went outside to enjoy a bottle of Mead they were more than happy to explore the grounds.
Did you know Napa and Sonoma Valley’s are only about 1.5-2 hours from San Francisco? This can easily be done in a day but we still recommend renting an airbnb in Stinson beach or Napa to make the most of your time. Even though we had our two little boys with us we found Napa valley to be very easy to visit with kids. In fact, almost every winery or store we popped into was full of kids and dogs. We had a delicious lunch at the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. They serve farm fresh ingredients and I was quite impressed by their kids menu which included rainbow trout, our older son loved it! We had the chance to walk around their property and it was equally impressive; they have a little gift shop, gorgeous flowers and lemon trees and a few vintage trucks and tractors to look at.
We also visited the Turnbull Winery . It was a gorgeous winery, and the 4 newly released wines that we tried were great. Be prepared to spend a lot of money wine tasting, this specific winery was $40 for 4 samples and that pretty much seems to be the average rate in Napa. It is well worth it though to experience tasting at a few different wineries in the gorgeous Napa Valley.
One thing that really caught my eye in Napa was the wine train. Although we did not have a chance to ride it I made a mental note to make a reservation for the next time we are in the area. It makes a 36 mile round trip journey from Napa to Calistoga and offers several different winery and food tasting options. It seems like it would be the perfect way to experience Napa if you have enough time in the area.
John Muir Woods
This beautiful national monument is an absolute must when visiting San Francisco, it is located 11 miles North of the Golden Gate Bridge. There are 6 miles of easy walking trails throughout the park which are separated into 3 different loops. It is important to arrive at the John Muir Woods as early as possible as parking is very limited and fills up fast. We had to drive around several loops and were finally lucky enough to find a spot in the second lot. Try to carpool if you can, but they also offer a shuttle bus which you can read more about by clicking here. You aren’t allowed to picnic within the park but they do have tables and benches set up at the first parking lot right outside of their cafe/gift shop. There is no cell phone service anywhere in the park so be sure to get your GPS set up before you get too close to the area.
If you have a children between the ages of 5-12 they can participate in the Junior Ranger program and at the end they will be officially sworn in as a Junior Ranger and receive a little wooden ranger badge. Our son loved doing this, it’s a great way to keep little kids involved and interested in hiking and taking care of our forests. Don’t forget to bring your US National Park passport book so you can add stamps to it while at John Muir Woods. We forgot ours at home but were able to stamp the pieces of paper and once home we glued them into the kids’ passport books. Our boys love going through the pages and seeing the stamps they’ve collected.
Since there is so much to do within the city itself i’ll break this down into each attraction.
1. Fishermans Wharf & Pier 39
If you want to see those iconic seals then head here. Before we left I had though these were two separate places, but they are actually right next to each other. There isn’t a whole lot to do here besides take a look at the Seals and get a view of Alcatraz Island, but it’s worth visiting for sure. If you’re hungry there are a ton of food options here. Just watch yourself or you may get swindled into spending far too much money from the street vendors, we know from experience (yes i’m talking about you Mr. Balloon character maker). If you’re doing any sort of boating cruise this is where you will leave from. There is plenty of parking in nearby parking lots and garages.
This is a great way to see the city. You can ride the cable cars instead of the MUNI to get to most of the spots we will mention in this guide. It’s definitely the tourist option and it’s pretty easy to navigate as they only have 3 cable cars. The cable cars don’t stop as frequently as the MUNI does so this is a better option if you’re trying to get somewhere touristy, quick. The great thing about San Francisco is that it never seems to get below the mid 50’s so you can ride the open air cable cars pretty much anytime of the year.
We rode the MUNI bus into Chinatown and it was quite the experience. (click here to read more about the bus system in the city) It’s neat to have such a cultural experience right in the middle of a city. There were paper lanterns hanging above the streets and gorgeous Chinese architecture in many of the buildings in this section of town. I would say it’s a must visit just to show your children, i’ve heard it’s the “best” Chinatown in the United States and it certainly felt authentic while we were there. Be sure to get a glimpse of the dragons gate. Since our 5 year old is just learning to recognize English letters and numbers it was fun to show him how they looked in Chinese as all of Chinatown had signage in both Chinese and English. Definitely a must visit!
4. Pink Ladies
This is your typical tourist photograph hotspot. You can stand in the park in front of the pink ladies (essentially just a short row of pretty, painted houses) against the back drop of the city. If you have enough time then sure, it’s worth it but one common misconception about this place is that one of them is the Full House, house. That’s not true, the Full House house is located elsewhere in the city and the owners have painted it a different color and do not appreciate tourists stopping by. If you visit the painted ladies and want a great photo make sure you go on a sunny day, if it’s cloudy and foggy you won’t get that beautiful city backdrop that you’re hoping for.
This gorgeous park is a National Recreation Area located in the northwest corner of San Francisco. It offers stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the surrounding cliffs. The view looking down at the surfers was really neat! We did part of this hike with our kids, but there are a substantial amount of cliffs and stairs so if your kids aren’t great hikers you may want to just stick to the first part of the trail, it still offers plenty of views. The water below Lands End is supposedly some of the best surfing in the country, thanks to the waves and the views. If you’re walking around Lands End you might as well continue your walk past the gorgeous houses located just outside of the park. This is one of San Francisco’s ritzier areas and celebrities like Robin Williams have lived there. You can read more about Lands End by clicking here.
6. Golden Gate Bridge
Of course the Golden Gate Bridge is a must see when you come to San Francisco. It’s an engineering marvel and the most iconic spot in the city. You can drive across it on your way to Stinson Beach, Napa or John Muir woods but you can also walk across the bridge.
So that sums up our list of recommended places to visit while you’re in San Francisco. Scroll down to see a few more photos from our trip. Have you been there before? What are some of your favorite places to visit in the city and surrounding areas?
If you want to read a more in depth guide for Fishermans Wharf and Pier 39 I suggest you check out Katie’s article here.
Thank you to Toyota for providing us with the Toyota Highlander for our trip. All opinions are my own.