San Francisco in 3 Days: Family Vacation Edition

Ahead of our family trip to San Francisco, we knew that we’d need to split our total vacation time between San Francisco and the burbs. That meant our 7 day, 6 night West Coast vacation had to squeeze as much San Francisco goodness as possible into, basically, 3 total days. So with an arrival day and time of Saturday afternoon, and a departure-to-the-burbs day and time of Tuesday by noon, I began to plan.

San Francisco Family Vacation in 3 Days

(If you haven’t already read my San Francisco Family Vacation planning post, click here. It gives you plenty of attraction options, links, and transportation tips even beyond what we chose to see and do during our trip.)

San Francisco Day .5

With an airport arrival time around 2pm PST plus time spent getting from the airport to the Union Square area of San Francisco, our first day was really more like a late afternoon. But not to worry because we made the most of the time we had.

Walking to a family dinner in San Francisco

Walking down O'Farrell St in San Francisco's Union Square area

After checking in to our hotel (Hilton San Francisco – Union Square) and being given an extra-awesome upgraded room with this view, we walked to dinner at Kuleto’s.

View of San Francisco from the 35th Floor of the Hilton Union Square Hotel

This is looking southeast. We could see Coit Tower if we looked north.

Kuleto's Italian Restaurant in San Francisco

The restaurant had a very cool vibe to it.

At only 2 or 3 blocks from our hotel and located along the most popular cable car line in the city, we enjoyed our table at the window and all the people watching we did.

People watching at Kuleto's

It was by random chance we got to sit by the window, but I’d request it again.

And then we ate these wonderful things.

Homemade breadsticks at Kuleto's

Homemade breadsticks at Kuleto’s

Kuleto's dinner and dessertAfter dinner we walked to the Disney store (per recommendation of our waiter), and then over to Target. We knew we needed to get a few things once we arrived in San Francisco, and had previously located a Target (Mission & 4th) within walking distance from our hotel.

Union Square area of San Francisco

On our walk to Target.

We went to bed Saturday night ready to take in a very full Sunday.

San Francisco Sunset

Sunrise and sunset were my favorite views of the day.

San Francisco Day 1

We’re early risers by nature, so with the 2-hour time change, this first morning was a bit brutal. But after breakfast, we walked down to the Powell & Market stop for our first streetcar ride.

San Francisco Streetcar

Pier 39, here we come!

A ride on the historic San Francisco streetcars

A ride on the historic San Francisco streetcars.

With our CityPasses in hand (which included a 7-day Muni pass), we headed to Pier 39.

Welcome to Pier 39

If you looked closely enough, you’d see several metal & topiary sea animals used to decorate the raised beds around Pier 39.

We got there a bit passed 9 am. We walked over to the Blue & Gold Ferry ticket booth to trade in our bay cruise CityPass vouchers for the 10:15 am cruise. After that, we walked through Pier 39 and went to see the sea lions.

Blue and Gold Ferry boat

You have a great view of Alcatraz from here, though don’t waste your time (or quarters) on those machines promising you an up close view. Pier 39 has a two-level carousel, plus loads of shops and restaurants. We picked up a Christmas ornament, shared a hot pretzel, and then walked back to the ferry dock for our morning cruise.

Sea lions at Pier 39

WARNING: The sea lions smellllllll!

View of Alcatraz from Pier 39

A view of “The Rock” from the end of Pier 39.

The Blue & Gold Ferry Bay cruise lasts for an hour, and is well worth it. The whole family enjoyed our time. There is a pre-recorded narration that plays throughout the entire cruise so you can learn the history of everything you are seeing during your boat ride, but gives you all the freedom to move around, take pictures, talk, and even eat and drink, if you prefer.

The boat first takes you out underneath the Golden Gate bridge, and then cruises around Alcatraz on its way back to Pier 39.

View of San Francisco from the Bay

View of San Francisco from the Bay

Golden Gate Bridge from the Blue & Gold Ferry boat

Golden Gate Bridge from the Blue & Gold Ferry boat

Alcatraz from the Bay Ferry

You can take a Alcatraz tour. It’s run by the National Parks department.

Maddie loved staring out the back of the boat.

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Once we disembarked the boat, it was time for lunch. I had made reservations at Fog Harbor Fish House (located at Pier 39) on my phone that morning, right after securing our bay cruise tickets (Gotta love a restaurant that uses OpenTable!). I had checked out the menu and reviews ahead of time, and really appreciated that they serve 100% sustainable seafood.

Fog Harbor Fish House in San Francisco

Lunch at the Fog Harbor Fish House at Pier 39.

I ordered the clam chowder and ahi tuna for lunch.

Clam chowder at Fog Harbor Fish House

Ahi tuna at Fog Harbor Fish House

Once we filled our bellies, we walked over to Aquarium of the Bay (also located at Pier 39). I knew from my research that it was a smaller aquarium, but I was excited that it had walk-through tanks and included animals and fish that were specific to the bay. Plus, it fit into our day’s itinerary well; not only was it located at Pier 39, but the other aquarium that you had the option of visiting with your CityPass isn’t even in San Francisco.

Walk through fish tanks at Aquarium of the Bay

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Octopus at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco


We got to see and touch some things we’ve never had the opportunity to before (ever touched a sea cucumber or pet a shark?). It had a couple extremely playful otter brothers, too, that put on an excellent show for us.

Otter brothers at Aquarium of the Bay

Otter brothers at Aquarium of the Bay

After we finished up at the Aquarium, it was time to head south along the bay to the Exploratorium. We opted to walk (it’s at Pier 15) instead of hopping back on the streetcar. It was a beautiful day, we wanted to see as much of the city as we could, and we also wanted to enjoy being so close to the water.

The Exploratorium describes itself as a “museum of science, art, and human perception.” I’d describe it as a science, tinkering, and “how things work” hands-on museum that’s as interesting for kids as it is adults. In fact, Craig and I both noted how many adults-sans-kids were there that day. One of our Uber drivers told us that it’s the hip place for adults to go now that it’s been rebuilt in its new location at the pier and larger than before.

Drinking out of a toilet water fountain near the entrance of the Exploratorium

Drinking out of a toilet water fountain near the entrance of the Exploratorium.

You can easily spend 3 hours at the Exploratorium. It’s divided into sections, and be sure not to miss what’s outside and upstairs!

Once we finished up here, we walked (only 10 minutes this time) south again to the Ferry Building Marketplace. We could have gotten back on the streetcar since it runs along the Embarcadero/coast, but we preferred to be outside. Full of restaurants and shops (including fresh fish, meat, and a farmers market!), we scarfed down burgers and beer from Gott’s Roadside while dining on their outdoor patio. After dinner, we took the streetcar back to Powell & Market to head home for the night.

San Francisco Day 2

The busiest day of our family trip began at the California Academy of Sciences. Located in Golden Gate Park, this interesting museum of sorts houses a planetarium, aquarium, rainforest, and living rooftop! It also has a very cool earthquake simulator that reenacts (to an extent) 2 significant earthquakes from San Francisco’s history.

California Academy of Sciences

Dinosaur in the lobby of the Cal Academy

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Living Rooftop at the California Academy of Sciences

The Living Rooftop is cool, however you can’t walk around much of it.

(If we were gutsy enough to attempt to ride the bus, we could have taken public transportation from our hotel to Cal Academy, but alas, we scheduled an Uber instead.)

We asked for directions to Stow Lake, and walked there in 10 minutes’ time from the Cal Academy.

I had discovered ahead of our trip that Stow Lake has row boat and pedal boat rentals, and thought that could be a cool and different way to enjoy this massive park. The Stow Lake Boat House also has a casual counter service restaurant, so we ate lunch there, and then pedaled our way around the lake. The boat rentals are by the hour.

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park

Pedal boats at Stow Lake

Pedal boat fun!

Pedal under the bridge at Stow Lake

Under the bridge!

Craig wasn’t feeling well, so it was the girls and me on the boat. I did about 85% of the pedaling myself (Kate’s legs were too short to offer much assistance), so don’t worry about this being too strenuous of an activity. It was quite lovely out on the lake.

After our pedal boat ride, we Uber-ed (totally a verb) it over to the Walt Disney Family Museum. It’s located within the Presidio, and offers a great view of the bay.

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The museum was definitely better suited for adults than kids, but I think both girls found enough kid stuff to keep them interested during our visit. Craig and I especially loved to learn the history of how Walt got started in the business, some significant turning points in his career, and seeing how the magic of animation used to work, and how it evolved over time.

Walt Disney developed a way to synchronize sound with animation

Walt Disney developed a way to synchronize sound with animation.

Sketches of Cinderella in her work dress on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum

Sketches of Cinderella in her work dress on display.

Timeline of what led Walt Disney to Hollywood at the Walt Disney Family Museum

Timeline of what led Walt Disney to Hollywood.

Walt Disney Facts

Walt lost control of Oswald and “birthed” Mickey Mouse in the same year.

The scale replica of Disneyland is pretty neat to see.

Scale replica of Disneyland

Replica of Disneyland at Walt Disney Family Museum

We again scheduled an Uber driver to pick us up. This time we were headed to Chinatown, and specifically requested for her to drive us down Lombard Street (the “Crookedest Street in the World”) on our way there. If you were to plot out Golden Gate Park, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Lombard Street, Chinatown, and our hotel on a map, you’d see how this path made a lot of sense.

Driving down Lombard Street in San Francisco

Lombard Street is the “Crookedest Street in the World”.

We asked our driver where the gates to Chinatown were. She let us off at a corner within the heart of Chinatown, and pointed down a street, telling us the gates were at the end. We walked down the street, did a bit of shopping, admired the hanging lanterns, and then reached the gates of Chinatown to take this picture.

Chinatown in San Francisco

Gates of Chinatown in San Francisco

Did you know that San Francisco has the largest Chinatown outside of Asia?

We walked back into Chinatown, and then headed west to see if we could catch a cable car.

Thankfully we did (this is a busy line and it’s often better to try to hop on a few blocks away from the turnaround points), and all 4 of us took our very first cable car ride.

We got off at the cable car turnaround, then walked a few blocks back towards our hotel for dinner. We stopped in a cupcake shop (Cako Bakery on O’Farrell) on the way. We chose Puccini & Pinetti for dinner, and thoroughly enjoyed our food. If you ever dine there, be sure to order the bruschetta appetizer before your meal!

San Francisco Day 3

This day was really a half day that, added together with our arrival day, made up our 3rd day in San Francisco. With having fit in as much as we did during Days 1 and 2, there was much left on our To Do list for our final morning. After breakfast, we took the street car west on Market and got off near Twitter headquarters.

Twitter Headquarters on Market St in San Francisco

Twitter Headquarters are located at Market St & 10th in San Francisco.

There’s no way I’m traveling all the way to San Francisco and *not* taking this picture!

From there, we Uber-ed it over to Alamo Square. This green space is where the famous Painted Ladies (Victorians and Edwardians) are located. Craig and I reminisced about the opening to “Full House” while we walked through the park. They had a playground there, as well as a dog park.

Alamo Square Painted Ladies in San Francisco

(Since we were headed out to the San Francisco burbs for a few days, we saved meals at In N Out Burger and Boudin for then.)

As we left San Francisco for Fremont, CA, we all felt kind of amazed at how much we did, saw, and ate during our 3 day family vacation.

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