As far as cities go, San Francisco is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. The city has it all: extra-special hikes, challenging biking trails, outdoor step-classes, and spectacular shorelines for surfing and beachcombing.
My family and I live about a 90-minute drive north of the city, and we often take weekend trips to San Francisco so we can experience some of these adventures back to back. Plans for these family jaunts are simple: We drive down after lunch, check in to a hotel for a low-key night, then get up early the next day and plan an entire day around something fun.
Here, in no particular order, are some of our favorite (and family-friendly!) activities from some of our recent trips.
Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge
My younger daughter loves celebrating milestone birthdays on iconic feats of engineering. For her second birthday, when we living temporarily in London, she insisted on riding the London Eye. This year, for her third birthday, since we were back home in the Bay Area, her request was more localized: She wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
The author’s family, on the approach
We built our trip around a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco. Following a kid-friendly lunch (read: PB&Js, no crusts!) at MKT, the hotel’s restaurant, we picked up my truck from the valet downstairs, drove across the bridge and parked in parking lot on the Sausalito side.
(There is another parking lot on the San Francisco end of the bridge, but road construction on the south side makes it challenging to get to that lot. The construction was expected to continue until 2016.)
From the north lot, the walk across the bridge to the south lot measures about 1.7 miles. We figured that with the Birthday Girl and her sister, we’d be lucky to make it about halfway across before one (or both) of the kids had had enough.
We didn’t need to go more than about 20 feet for the girls to start marveling at the sights. The little one loved peeking through the red-orange fence at the bay below. The big girl loved looking up and watching the clouds zip past over our heads. The girls ooohed and aaahed at one of the seabirds flying below us. They also loved counting sailboats.
Sadly, the wonder was short-lived. It was so windy on the bridge itself that the 3-year-old clamored for a seat before we even reached the first tower (which is about one-third of the way across). The Big Girl petered out shortly thereafter. So we took some pictures, turned around and headed for the car.
Of course it didn’t matter to the girls how far across we’d walked. They still talk about the views and the birds and the clouds and the bridge itself. I’ve done it 50 times, and I don’t blame them at all.
Hiking and biking in the Presidio
The Golden Gate Bridge isn’t the only part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area worth exploring; the Presidio of San Francisco, a former military base on the promontory at the southern end of the bridge, is another.
This part of the city has undergone a series of refurbishments in recent years—it’s now home to attractions such as the Walt Disney Family Museum and the Presidio Officers’ Club. Personally, however, I prefer exploring some of the Presidio’s 25 miles of hiking and biking trails, some of which have existed for more than 50 years.
Viewfinder Tip: Disney fans will love the Walt Disney Family Museum, which is an artifact-packed love letter to Walt Disney himself.
My favorite of the Presidio trails is the park’s section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Within the Presidio, the trail leads visitors along the park’s ridgeline from the Arguello Gate to the Golden Gate Bridge, providing sweeping panoramas of the park, bay, and ocean. Along the way, I like to pause to enjoy the striking Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, Spire; the rolling hills of San Francisco National Cemetery; and a number of coastal gun batteries.
For a flatter experience (both for me and for the girls, when they want to ride their scooters), I like strolling along the paved trails at Crissy Field, a former U.S. Army airfield on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
Outdoor step-classes on Telegraph Hill
San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood is one of the steepest in the city; it sits on a hump that rises 275 feet above sea level. Most visitors head around this slope on public transportation or on foot along the Embarcadero. When we visit, however, we prefer to explore Telegraph Hill another way: By climbing (and descending) the Filbert Street Steps.
I like to think of this destination as a Stairway to Heaven; from a park just off Sansome Street, the steps head up the east side of the hill at a 31 percent grade and end just south of Coit Tower (which has its own steps up to the base of the tower and inside the tower to the very top).
There are nearly 400 steps in all.
Along this climb, you’ll see everything from hotels, restaurants, and private homes (accessible only by the steps) to fire hydrants, telephone wires and more. If you time your visit correctly, you also might spot some of the wild parrots that call the forested area around the steps home; they were the subject of a documentary film in 2003.
When we go, we climb SLOWLY, since we’ve usually got the girls in tow. We also often bring a picnic lunch and stop at one of the landings along the way for a break (and some parrot-watching). Believe it or not, our girls have made the climb twice over the years. In both cases, we took taxis back to the car.
IMHO, the Filbert Street Steps are one of the best-kept secrets in the entire city. The best part: Experiencing them (with or without kids) is totally free.
Sunlight shines through Presidio trees
Family fun on Ocean Beach
Don’t let the name fool you—Ocean Beach, a 3-mile stretch of shoreline on the southwestern edge of San Francisco, isn’t the kind of place you don a Speedo and float in the surf. For starters, the water is cold pretty much year-round; in order to swim it, you need a dry suit at the very least. Second, the currents are fierce; this isn’t the kind of place you’d take little ones to go swimming.
That said, there is plenty to do on San Francisco’s largest beach. Especially if you don’t mind being whipped by the wind a little.
Surf-watching is probably No. 1 on our list, and on those winter days when the beach gets its big sets, you might witness towering troths and professional surfers conquering them with abandon. Windy days bring a host of other fun things to ogle, including kites, kiteboarders, windsurfers and more.
General recreation is another of our favorite activities on Ocean Beach. Sometimes we play touch football. Other times we just play catch. Because the beach is flat and sandy, because it stretches for miles, there’s never a shortage of things to do and places to do them. Sometimes, the girls and I will just walk up to the shore break and toss rocks into the crashing waves for hours at a time.
Finally, of course, is the history. Ruins of the Sutro Baths, an ill-fated, ocean-fed bath and pool complex, are a great spot to bone up on the local past. The Cliff House, a restaurant, is a classic (though overpriced).
No matter where in San Francisco you visit, there are a multitude of outdoor activities for families with young kids. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned Golden Gate Park, which boasts museums and gardens and more. I like to think of San Francisco as one of the most family-friendly cities in the United States. Thankfully, for us, the metropolis is just a short drive away.
What sorts of outdoor activities do you seek out when you travel to big cities?