San Francisco is a city that appears on a lot of Top Whatever lists—Most Romantic, Most Diversity, etc. Tourism is not something that “The City by the Bay” is worried about. But some parents fear that the romance of crooked streets and cable cars might be a nightmare for a trip with a baby. It doesn’t have to be.
San Francisco has the lowest percentage of kids (under the age of 18) of any major city in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not welcome. Just remember that the trick to enjoying traveling with a baby is preparation and to mostly stick to what you want to do. I know we all want to expose our kids to new cultures and places, art and food, but let’s face it—if your child is under one year old, only you will have those wonderful memories.
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Given the fact that you may well visit the area again when your child is older, stick to an agenda with fewer inherent challenges and age-appropriate activities. Aquarium touch tanks, for example, are better experiences at 3 years than at 3 months.
In other words, don’t make your life harder than it needs to be. Traveling with a baby can be challenging enough! If the weather is good (which is always a relative term), you will have many more options.
One thing you will likely do a lot of in San Francisco is walk, so wear comfortable shoes and layers. Even if you rent a car, some areas are better seen on foot. Parking in the city can be as scarce as a reasonably priced apartment, and even trickier to negotiate if you aren’t used to finessing hills.
Consider taking both a stroller and a body carrier for your baby. You can still jump onto a cable car with baby strapped to you, but a stroller is just not going to happen. Other than the fact that they are not usually allowed on board due to limited space, the car and its passengers move faster than you’d expect. While you are wrestling with the “easy fold,” the Powell-Hyde will leave without you, along with the baby that you handed to your spouse. They will wave, though.
In fact, stick to the carrier as much as you can. The sidewalks can be crowded and uneven, and city amenities are notoriously unfriendly to strollers. Only in 2013 did the SFMTA change its policy to allow non-folded strollers on city buses. Now you just have to be born under the magical Muni moon in which your child is securely strapped in, your stroller’s brakes are on, and it is not blocking an aisle on a bus that is not already crowded. If you are truly blessed, you will have a driver who will lower the lift in order for you to board more easily.
Alternatively, I can tell you from experience that pushing 2.5 year old twins up Telegraph Hill is a great way to get a workout in while on vacation! In fact, starting there at Coit Tower is a great idea. The Art Deco tower completed in 1933 on Telegraph Hill can involve a bit of a climb, but the murals and panoramic views are spectacular. You will see at a glance the beauty of the city, and pinpoint the areas that you may want to explore with that stroller (Museum of Russian Culture, yes! Russian Hill, no!)
Now let’s get a move on! That morning fog is burning off already and there’s a sourdough bowl full of seafood chowder with your name on it!
Top 5 Things to Do in San Francisco With a Baby
- For the History Buff: Now that you have the lay of the land, you might want to know how it all developed. There are few online museums detailing the city’s history and organizations that offer historical tours (yes, the walking kind). But to explore a quiet, climate-regulated place with benches, head to the California Historical Society in the Yerba Buena district. It’s across the street from the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Cartoon Art Museum, so you can score a cultural three-pointer in just a few hours. Do not be tempted by the Children’s Creativity Center a few blocks away—it will be there for your next visit!
- For the Inventor: I know, I know, all the books shout EXPLORATORIUM! But restrain yourself. You will enjoy it much more in a few years when you can play in it together. When your child is just a wee sprout, the cacophony can be downright terrifying and your $30 ticket will be quickly abandoned.
For an equally fascinating and more intimate experience, check out the Musée Méchanique at Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf (and take a stroll around there too). One of the largest private collections of mechanically operated music players, automatons and arcades, it will remind you that there was entertainment before Netflix. If you are one of those people that are creeped out by dolls, however, you may want to skip it.
- For the Art Lover: Oh, there are so many options, and they are spread all over the city! For contemporary art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is amazing. However, it can be very crowded, places to rest are limited, and it’s recommended that you buy your timed entry ticket in advance. After having a baby, you know that timing anything in advance is a laughable concept.
Almost as busy but cheaper and more peaceful are the Asian Art Museum (located across from City Hall) and The Legion of Honor (nestled in a park in the city’s northwest corner). Both have staggering collections of fine art and decorative objects housed in equally impressive buildings. And ample benches to sit on. If you like your art in word form, I have three words for you: Green Apple Books. Consider yourself warned.
- For the fun of It: Ditch the stroller for your visit to the tiny and yummy-smelling Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. An American invention, fortune cookies didn’t actually make it to China until 1993 as “Genuine American Fortune Cookies.” Operating since 1962 in Ross Alley, Golden Gate delights all the senses with the mesmerizing ballet that the workers do with the press and lightning-quick insertion of fortunes (but be ready with a couple of quarters to hand over if you want to take a picture). And yes, you can taste freshly made ones before exploring the other sights and smells of Chinatown.
- For the hell of it: Go to “the Rock.” Alcatraz is not overrated at all (really, I’m not being sarcastic!), is surprisingly stroller-friendly, and all the bathrooms have change tables. Try to book your ferry and tour tickets in advance, especially in the summer. And you can take some awesome pictures and someday tease your child that they’ve been to prison.
What? No Ghiradelli Square? The sea lions at Pier 39? Relax, baby-toting travelers! The list above was things to do “inside” (mostly). If it is not raining, windy, foggy or cold, then San Francisco has some truly unique outdoor attractions as well. Even if the weather is bad, sometimes it’s worth it for these destinations.
Do: Drive to Muir Woods and stand quietly among the oldest trees on the planet.
Do not: Drive to Bodega Bay. Though the scenery is nauseatingly beautiful, the drive can be, well, nauseating—especially for a baby, whose stomach and depth perception is not as good as yours.
Do: Drive or walk around in the peaceful Presidio, a history-rich army post for three nations over 218 years.
Do not: Grab some cardboard and attempt the Seward Street slide in nearby Golden Gate Park with your child. At least hand the child off to your companion first. And I’m not kidding about the cardboard. Do not attempt this in just your jeans.
Do: Take a weekend tour of the Precita Eyes murals in the Mission District.
Do not: Step on sidewalk residents of the Mission District.
Do: Check out the underside of the Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point (you might recognize the view if you’ve seen the 1957 Hitchcock film Vertigo).
Do not: Try to walk across it. While interesting, it can be a hike from where you’ll have to park first, the dust, traffic and wind will be distracting, and a high fence blocks the view (installed to deter suicide attempts). It can wait.
If you have time, sit on Ocean Beach and look towards Japan. Take a ferry across the bay to check out the Tiburon or Sausalito farmer’s markets, or go to a baseball game at Candlestick (sorry, AT&T) Park. Then there’s Point Reyes National Seashore, Half Moon Bay (and its annual Pumpkin Festival), edgy Oakland…
Actually, by the time you see everything, you might as well drive up to Berkeley or down to Stanford for a college tour! You can see why people return to the Bay Area over and over again. And you will too.
NJS Kaye is the author of Items May Have Shifted: How to Travel With Your Baby or Toddler. After taking her twin boys on more than 20 flights before their first birthday, she figured out how to MacGyver the world to make family travel easier (hint: duct tape is essential). Her professional experiences with Hollywood actors and the United Nations are helping her with her next book, How to Be a DUMBASS Parent in 7 Easy Steps.
Her website is: https://www.itemsmayhaveshifted.net/