We spent a day in San Francisco with our three young kids (ages 10 months, 2 ½ and 4 ½) along with my parents-in-law. The big draw for the day was riding on the cable car. I thought the boys would like it the most, and they definitely did. Despite the very long line and wait, the boys waited more or less patiently and then were thrilled to be on the cable car when we finally got on.
They have talked about it pretty continuously ever since (2 months later) and it features pretty heavily in their pretend play. Last night we “hopped onto cable cars” while eating dinner at the kitchen table.
There are three main lines: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California. Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason both have the same starting/turn around point and long wait times, and both end near Fisherman’s Wharf but at slightly different spots. Powell-Hyde is the most popular line as it stops at Lombard street. You also get great views of Alcatraz and Coit Tower on the Powell-Hyde line.
On our first full day in San Francisco we took the Powell-Hyde line. We parked at Union Square in the public parking garage. It was a few block walk down to the turnaround point. We bought tickets on our phones, which you activate right before getting on the cable car. After the long wait (close to 2 hours) we grabbed seats on the right hand side of the cable car at the very front to get the best views.
We did bring our double stroller with a single seat and left the second seat in the car. We figured it might be too stressful to try to get the double stroller folded on the cable car, and too stressful to not have a stroller at all with three little kids. So, we took the middle route and brought only one of the seats for the double stroller, and I wore the baby in a backpack for the day (wear sneakers for extra support while walking!).
The ride was awesome. It felt like you were going really fast and the hills are really steep. The boys loved it, but it was fun for the adults too!
We hopped off at Lombard Street, which was also a hit for the boys. It helped that we read Good Night San Francisco a number of times before visiting. So they knew all about Lombard Street. Afterwards, we made our way over to Fisherman’s Wharf where we watched the sea lions play. Most of the sea lions were lounging on the docks in the sun. Others seemed to be posing for pictures, and some of the younger ones were playing in the water, trying to tease the others on the docks to join them.
From Fisherman’s Wharf you can see boats and ships tied up in the water. Out in the distance you can see Alcatraz. It was nice to stand by the water for a while, watching the sea lions, birds, and Alcatraz. At this point we needed lunch. Rather than searching all around for the perfect place, we wandered just a little bit looking for a place with good sourdough bread and stumbled across Boudin Bakery. There is a more formal restaurant upstairs, but in the main area there is a low key, order at the counter restaurant called Baker’s Hall with indoor and outdoor seating. This was the perfect place to sit with the boys, very low stress. We devoured clam chowder served in sourdough bowls and grilled cheese sandwiches while people watching.
From there we made our way back down into San Francisco towards the Powell-Mason line. We figured there’d be less of a wait there. When we got to the turnaround point there was still quite a bit of a line, so we walked up a stop to hopefully get on quicker. They reserve room on the cable cars so that they are not full when they leave the turnaround point and can still pick up passengers at future stops. Even at the next stop up we still waited since they only took one group at a time on each cable car due to limited space. It probably took less time than waiting at the turnaround point, but it still took upwards of 30 minutes.
While it had already felt like a full day, we made one more stop at the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park before heading home. There was an entry fee for non-residents, but it was well worth it. We were blown away by the variety of plants and flowers, most of which I had never seen before. It filled me with such a sense of awe and wonder, something we are filled with a lot as kids, but not so much when we are adults.
We spent a fair amount of time in the Succulent Garden, which was really incredible, particularly in the afternoon light. The sun was pouring in at an angle through all of the exotic plants, many of which were hard to believe existed on this planet. Before heading home, we made sure to spend some time among the redwoods, which I had never seen before. Seeing the redwoods was one of the big reasons why we made a stop in northern California. I have wanted to see the redwoods for so long, so we were planning a separate trip to Redwood National Park, but we made sure to stop and see the ones in the San Francisco Botanical Garden as a little preview. It was pretty impressive to walk among these towering trees and see the boys climb up the base and be so small in comparison.
The sun was setting, so this is where we wrapped up the day. It was a FULL day, and we had a blast. On the way back to the house we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and once again saw the fog rushing down the mountainside. It was a little surreal to be there. I had never been on the West Coast before this trip, and had only seen images of San Francisco in movies or on TV (Full House). It certainly didn’t disappoint to see it in person.
The next several days after we got home, the boys talked nonstop about the cable cars and wanted to go back. They loved it so much that we did actually go back a couple weeks later to ride the cable car again.
The second time around we rode the California line, which has much, much fewer tourists. At the California line we got right on without needing to wait very long. We took the cable car a few stops to explore Chinatown and get Dim Sum.
I had had dim sum a few times before in New York, but it had been a long time and we thought it’d make for a fun destination. Despite the fact that we chose a reputable place that is pretty well recommended and has had some high-profile diners, it’s not something I’d recommend. Perhaps this is because the places I went to in New York were really very good and I have such fond memories of the experience and by comparison this was disappointing, but who knows. The bill was quite high, and even though we ate all the food, we still left hungry and dissatisfied. I’m guessing you could probably get something better if you weren’t on the main strip in Chinatown in San Francisco. Though it was still exciting to get to experience it and to bring the boys along, who tried a few of the dishes.
We rounded out the day with a drive back over to Golden Gate Park and a stop inside the Flower Conservatory. It is a large and impressive greenhouse in Golden Gate Park with rare and exotic plants. When we walked inside, I was surprised by how extremely humid it is was. Though considering it’s a greenhouse with rare plants it shouldn’t be that surprising. The plants housed inside were out-of-this-world. The shapes and sizes of these plants that seemed to defy laws of physics were really something to see. We also got to see what a chocolate plant looks like!
We spent about a half an hour walking around inside (trying to prevent the boys from running over other guests), and then made our way outside for a picnic on the lawn. It was fun to relax here, have the boys run around without restraint, and people watch. We thought about going back to the Botanical Garden to see other areas we missed, but decided to call it a day there, and end on a high note. We had a great time in San Francisco, and I’m glad we made it a stop on our year long trip around the country.
- Read Good Night San Francisco ahead of time if you have little kids. They’ll be excited to see the sites in person.
- Bring a stroller that is easy to maneuver/fold for the cable car, and a baby backpack if appropriate.
What to Do:
- Powell-Hyde Cable Car: see Alcatraz, Coit, Tower, hop off at Lombard Street
- Sit on the right hand side at the front if possible
- Buy tickets on your phone
- Folding strollers can go in the back of the cable car
- If you want to avoid lines, get there as early as possible
- Lombard Street: walk down the steps and take in the views
- Fisherman’s Wharf & Sea Lions: check out the boats, watch the sea lions play, see another view of Alcatraz
- San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park: Succulent Garden and Redwoods
- Flower Conservatory: see the rare and exotic plants in the greenhouse in Golden Gate Park
- Golden Gate Park: pack a picnic to enjoy
Where to Eat:
- Boudin Bakery, Baker’s Hall:
- If you’re already in the area, not a destination in and of itself
- We ordered clam chowder in sourdough bowls and grilled cheese – very easy and relaxed atmosphere for families with little kids
What I’d Skip:
- Dim sum in Chinatown: I’m guessing if you really want dim sum you could find something better outside of the main drag in Chinatown.
What I’d Do Next Time:
- Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies: The Full House houses