We have officially lived in the Bay Area for over a year! We've had lots of friend's and family come to visit and I think we have perfected a 4 day itinerary for the Bay Area. There is sooo much more you can do, but I've narrowed it down to the crowd favorites.
This list cannot be done without a car, so if you are flying in, be sure to rent one!
16th ave tiled steps
This is a simple, fast stop on the way to the golden gate bridge. It's right off the 1 highway and you can park right in front of it. These beautiful steps are a collaboration of people of the neighborhood. If you look close on the the different tiles you can see who sponsored it. I highly recommend climbing all the way to the top as there is a very stunning view of the surrounding neighborhoods. If you are feeling extra adventurous, there is a park up another flight of stairs that you can check out!
Walk or bike along the golden gate bridge
A trip to San Francisco is not complete without visiting the golden gate bridge. I remember the first time I saw it and it felt so surreal to actually see it in person.
So there are a bunch of parking lots around the bridge, what I recommend is parking past the bridge up on the hill. There is a dirt lot that has tons of parking and it's free! You then have a gorgeous walk down to the bridge. A long the walk, you'll be surrounded by WWII bunkers. SF was a prime target of the Japanese, so it had to be heavily fortified. You can read more information about that here https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/world-war-ii-harbor-defenses.htm But the guns in these bunkers could shoot up to 9 miles off the coast. Pretty incredible, huh?
So you'll walk down the hill to the bridge and you can either rent bikes or walk across. We typically walk to the first spire? (no idea what those are called) Biking across it would be so much fun though! We haven't done it yet, but we will some day. Be sure to bring a jacket. Even on the warmest of days, it's cold on the bridge. In the words of Mark Twain "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."
You can drive across the bridge for a small toll (be sure to go online and pay that toll!!) and there are beautiful views of the bridge with the city in the background.
Palace of the Fine Arts
Once you are done with the golden gate bridge, hop in the car and take the first exit (Presidio) towards the city and go to the Palace of the Fine Arts.
Spend a while here and walk around. The architecture is stunning! There's a bunch of little pathways you can follow around the pond. Your kids will love feeding the ducks. Just be careful of the geese and swans.. they are aggressive.
My favorite thing to do is to stand in the middle of the rotunda and hear the echo. It's crazy how much it amplifies your voice.
Be sure to look at the houses around the park. The are all really pretty and unique....and cost between 4-18 million dollars.
Lands End and the Sutro Baths
Finish off your first day with a visit to lands end.
The Sutro Baths are part of lands end. They are ruins of an old bath house built in 1896 that was later destroyed, ironically, by a fire. All that is left is the outer cement of the baths.
Walk around the baths to the north and you'll find beautiful views of the rocky coast including a distant view of the golden gate bridge. If you walk up the steps, you'll be able to walk through a small grove of Cypress tree that will lead you back to the parking lot.
If you walk down the hill, you'll find a restaurant as well a giant camera. The Camera is only open from 11-5 though, so if that interests you, try to make it during that time.
Just passed the giant camera, you'll see the most stunning view of Ocean Beach. Finish off your day here! You can build a fire in the fire pits and cuddle with some blankets.
The painted ladies
The painted ladies of Alamo square are a row of Victorian and Edwardian houses made famous by the show "Full House". I love how they look the same, but have their own style. On a clear day, you can see the city behind the houses.
There's a nice park there full of instagramers and hipsters as well as a playground for the kids. Start your day off here to avoid having tons of people in your photos.
Known as "the crookedest street in the world" This street, and the streets around it are INSANE. You expect the crooked part... but what you don't expect is the near vertical incline leading up to the crooked part. Do NOT drive a stick-shift on these hills, not because I doubt your skills, but because people are idiots and wont give you any leeway if you roll back a hair.
My favorite moment while exploring the city was this lady driving up one of these hills. She was screaming at cars and pedestrians telling them to move. "I'm not from around here!!! I cant stop on these hills!! Mooove! I'm not from around here, get out of the way!!!" (But with a lot more expletives) In the moment, I thought she was a little crazy. But looking back it makes me laugh, cause I totally get it.
You can drive down the hill, or take the stairs, just be sure to go to the top. The view is beautiful and you can smell the flowers along the way.
Alcatraz or Bay Cruise
Okay, so I'll give you some options here... if you plan ahead, you can get tickets for Alcatraz online. They are sold out months in advance, so be prepared. Alcatraz isn't everyone's jam though. I personally haven't done it. But my dad and brother did and they had a blast. My brother actually took that picture above! (I was very impressed when I saw it)
Another option that is probably better for the kiddos is a bridge to bridge bay cruise. It starts off at pier 43 and then sails under the golden gate bridge around Alcatraz, under the bay bridge and then back. Going under the golden gate bridge really is something incredible. The wind and water currents are so strong and then you look up and just see this massive, breath taking structure. Truly incredible.
Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory
The best treat after a boat cruise to head on over to Ghirardelli and get yourself a crazy amount of sugar. You'll be greeted by a wonderful employee who will give you a free sample of chocolate. Then you browse the menu and find whatever your heart desires. I love anything with brownies and caramel. Grab a seat at a table overlooking the bay and TREAT YO SELF!
The Ghirardelli square is actually really nice to explore too. There's a fountain that the kids will love, there's also a spot to play corn-hole and a nice gift shop.
A great end to the day is going to China Town. Think of this kind of as the Time Square of SF. It's full of shops to find the perfect souvenir and has all sorts of pretty lights. Coming here at night is a good idea, because most of the crowds will be gone and you can see it all lit up. I love just going in to the stores and seeing what cool things I can find.
The restaurant here are something else though... I recommend trying some dim sum. They bring you food on these carts and the food just keeps coming. It's amazing. You kind of just have to go with it and try it... things look.... different. But most of it is pretty good. Don't let the dead ducks hanging in the windows scare you.
You'll have to see what order of these events work best for you depending on which direction you are coming from
See the Redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park
I LOVE this forest! It is seriously nature's playground. The trees are enormous and the forest floor is covered in green clovers. Moss is everywhere and everything is so lush.
I like to just go to the main entrance and walk the "loop. Its a fenced in area that is stroller friendly. Take your time and enjoy feeling tiny among these giants. I went here once after it rained and it smelled heavenly. Halfway through the loop, you see an area where the fence opens up and you can explore more if you wish. We usually just stick to the loop though, but it's fun to be next to the trees without the fence.
Once you are done with the loop, check out the area with all the trains. You probably heard one go by while on your walk. The steam engine travels through the redwoods for an unforgettable experience. There is even a train that will take you all the way to Santa Cruz. The train isn't cheap... $32 for adults $21 for children (2-12) We haven't had the chance to do it, but we will at some point for sure! Maybe when Max is old enough to actually enjoy it. There is also Thomas train that goes through there, so if you've got a Thomas fan in the family, they would LOVE it. But even if you don't ride the train, there's fun activities for the kids and it's fun just to watch the train pull out of the station.
This is the hidden gem of the bay area. When we moved here, it was one of the first places I wanted to check out. It's just about 20 mins north of Santa Cruz.
Named for a fin-like rock in the middle of a cove, Sharfin Cove is a must see. Hike down the short, but steep trail on to the little beach and take in the sights. There is a little cave that goes under the rock to the water. The waves are huge crashing up on the cliffs. It's so beautiful.
If that steep trail isn't for you, there are trails along the cliffs overlooking the Cove. During the spring the trails are lined with gorgeous yellow flowers (as modeled by my friend, Valerie) . These trails follow along the coast for awhile. I'd love to set a day aside just to visit all these trails!
Just down the road from sharkfin cove is the little town of Davenport. If you drive just north of the town center, you'll see a dirt lot. If you park here and walk towards the ocean, you'll see remains of an old pier surrounded by gorgeous cliffs. Sometimes there is a swing tied to the pier, which would make for a perfect picture if you're willing to find your way down the cliffs. This is a short stop, but definitely worth it.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Twenty minutes north of davenport is the most picturesque little light house. You can even stay at the hostels right by it if you wish! Pigeon point is actually one of the tallest lighthouses in America.
Walk along the coastal trails and breath in the fresh air. You can walk around the light house as well. If you look close enough, you might be able to spot whales and other wildlife.
Santa Cruz or Capitola
You probably will only have time for one of these coastal towns. But I love them both for different reasons!
Santa Cruz is the more northern of the two towns. What I love here most is the boardwalk. During the summer the boardwalk has tons of rides and delicious "fair food". During the end of June to mid August, bring a can of Coke after 5:00 and you can ride all the rides for only $15. There is also a pier with restaurants on it! If you are coming during the summer... I would probably go here.
If you are visiting at a time other than summer, I would recommend visiting Capitola. Capitola is only about 15 mins south of Santa Cruz. It's a cute little town full of colorful houses that remind me of the Italian riviera! Capitola Also has a pier, but it's much smaller. Around town there are tons of local shops and restaurants to explore. I really love the vibe of this little town!