From the downtown commercial area of Union Square, head straight to Chinatown. Children love checking out the colourful shops on Grant Street then visiting the tiny Chinese Fortune Cookie Factory to watch cookies being made. After that walk along Stockton Street, where Chinatown locals shop for such items as live frogs, whole pigs and exotic fruits.
From Chinatown take the cable-car towards Fisherman’s Wharf. Along the way you stop at the free Cable Car Museum to see how these engine-less machines actually work. On the Powell-Hyde cable-car line you’ll catch a fantastic view of the San Francisco Bay and pass the section of Lombard Street called the 'Crookedest Street in the World'. At Fisherman’s Wharf don’t miss Hyde Street Pier with its antique ships and interactive exhibits recounting San Francisco’s maritime history. Also in Fisherman’s Wharf you can visit two renowned World War II vessels, the USS Pampanito submarine and the 'Liberty Ship' SS Jeremiah O’Brien. Skip the tourist-packed Pier 39 but do check out the Aquarium of the Bay, where you can walk through a glass tunnel teeming with fish.
From the wharf board a ferry to the dramatic rock island Alcatraz, a San Fran highlight and must-see on family holidays. Book in advance for this former maximum-security penitentiary, preferably on the first morning ferry so you can have the spooky slammer all to yourselves. The audio tour, narrated in parts by former inmates and guards, describes desperate escape attempts and the austere prison conditions for such infamous criminals as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.
If you didn’t reserve a trip to Alcatraz in advance, consider a cruise on the bay. You’ll sail near the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz while listening to an audio-tour detailing San Francisco’s maritime history. Or simply enjoy a ferry ride to Sausalito across the bay in Marin County. Have lunch in the artsy coastal town while you relish views of the San Francisco skyline.
Another way to reach Marin County is by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Gleaming in sunshine or draped in silky white fog, the majestic red structure still impresses even lifelong San Franciscans. Its completion in 1937 with the longest suspension span in the world was heralded as an engineering marvel. The nearly 3km walk across the bridge might be too much for young kids, given the near-constant wind, but consider riding across on rented bikes or crossing by car.
Admire the bridge up close from Crissy Field. San Francisco families flock to this lovely stretch of sand, grass and wetlands to enjoy its breathtaking views, organic cafés, beaches, grassy knolls and promenades for joggers, strollers and cyclists.
Another popular outdoor playground is Golden Gate Park. Over a 50-year period from 1870 onwards, more than 4sq km of windswept sand dunes in western San Francisco were painstakingly converted into this verdant city park, where you can rent Rollerblades, bikes and even boats. Beyond an impressive flower conservatory, botanical garden, two lakes, a Japanese garden and a bison paddock, the park boasts two world-class museums. One is the De Young Museum; you can ride the elevator up its tower at no cost and take in the sweeping view. You can also enter the lobby for free, contemplate a massive work by Gerhard Richter then head out to the sculpture garden. Let the kids run around – and inside – the sculptures while you enjoy an organic snack from the De Young Café.
Next to the De Young is the California Academy of Sciences, hailed as the greenest museum in the world for its innovative, ecological design, which includes a living roof with more than 1.7 million native plants. Inside are a state-of-the-art planetarium, a four-storey rainforest exhibit and an aquarium filled with some of the most exotic sea creatures and reptiles on earth.
Also in the park you’ll find the charming wood and glass Conservatory of Flowers, which houses thousands of plant species, including rare orchids, aquatic flora and carnivorous plants. At the Japanese Tea Garden, kids enjoy stepping over streams and scaling the steep Drum Bridge, while you contemplate the Zen garden or sip green tea in the teahouse. At the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, stroll through the Andean Cloud Forest, the Mediterranean Garden and 20 other exhibits.
If the kids enjoyed the Academy of Sciences, they’ll love the Exploratorium, one of the most interactive science museums anywhere. Let them photograph their shadow, blow massive soap bubbles, gape at optical illusions and gasp at other marvels of physics.
For younger family members, the Bay Area Discovery Museum is a wonderful place to spend a morning. Located at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge just north of San Francisco, this educational kids’ space is chock full of play areas inspired by the local history and geography. Savour the lovely view while the kids build a mini Golden Gate Bridge or explore a model shipwrecked galleon.
Animal lovers appreciate the San Francisco Zoo, although it’s far from the city centre. The African Savanna and Lemur Forest exhibits are especially fun, and just beyond the zoo is the southern end of 6km-long Ocean Beach, a great spot for a family walk (but too dangerous to swim in most of the year).
Culturally oriented families may want to visit the Asian Art Museum, which has a Sunday storytelling hour and other family programs through the year. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora and several galleries border Yerba Buena Gardens, where families will also find a huge lawn with free summer concerts, a playground with massive slides and a science museum for older kids, Zeum.
Further afield, the Yosemite National Park a four-hour drive east of San Francisco is worthy of the many superlatives that have been used to describe the valley and its near-vertical mile-high cliffs. It has hiking options to suit children of all ages, many offering stunning views of El Captain, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, plus rafting trips down the Merced River, bike hire and horse-riding. Don't miss Mariposa Grove, with hiking trails and boardwalk areas, one leading to the 1,800-year-old tree Grizzly Giant. The Yosemite Valley itself can get very crowded during holiday periods, and it's advisable to book hotel and even campgrounds months in advance.
Lake Tahoe north of Yosemite, straddling the border between California and Nevada and one of the highest, deepest and largest lakes in the world, is surrounded by mountains and attracts skiers until late April/early May. In summer you can laze on the lake beaches, boat, fish, hike and cycle. Also near the border with Nevada, the ghost town of Bodie offers up nothing but its ruined buildings, with no facilities whatsoever, so giving you a genuine idea of how tough life was like out in the middle of nowhere.