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14 fun things to do in San Francisco with teens in one day

San Francisco Pier 39

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San Francisco is a living Californian dream, with pretty boats and sealions bobbing in the harbour, vintage vehicles and wharf walks, and a surfy vibe (without the surf).

Throw in Russian houses, Chinatown, Irish whisky, 100 year-old French bread, the worlds’ most crooked road and a spooky heritage arcade and you have yourself an international-melting pot of a teen itinerary.

A "potted" history

San Francisco Bay, things to do in San Francisco wit teens

To help understand what we were about to see in this city, I thought it would be useful to find out a bit about its story. What brought so many nations here and why did the flower people come?

The story behind the city:

It started with the water. The indigenous name for San Francisco is Ahwaste, meaning, “place at the bay” and its natural harbour had drawn fisherman across the ages.

And then it was religion. The earliest Europeans to come here were an exploratory party who arrived overland from Mexico in 1769, duly claimed the area for Spain and set up a mission dedicated to San Francis of Assisi.

Next up was trade. Hot on the heels of the Spaniards, Russian fur-traders colonized the area, their cemetery leaving its mark as today’s Russian Hill.

Then it was a spoil of war. In 1821 San Francisco became Mexican following independence from Spain and then American in 1846 during the war with Mexico.

A promise of gold in them there hills. In 1848 the population increased from 1,000 to 25,000 as prospectors flooded in to town in search of treasure. Many came from China and Ireland to work in the mines. French bakers and Italian fishermen arrived to feed everybody.

The arrival of the railroad.  In the 1850’s “The Big Four” founders of the Pacific Railroad bought houses on one of the city’s 7 hills, which was promptly renamed Nob Hill in honour of their cashed-up .status. 

Sex in the city. In 1851, the Chinese population in California was  made up of 12,000 men and ten women. This disparity and “gap in the market” did not go unnoticed. By the 1880s, the number of Chinese sex workers in Chinatown had grown to 1,800,  70% of the total Chinese female population.

Nature intervened. In 1906 an earthquake destroyed three quarters of the city, which was rebuilt like a phoenix out of the ashes, with the addition of fancy new (fire-breaking) wide avenues.

Criminal element. Where there are people, there is crime. In the 1930’s Alcatraz, began its service as a federal maximum security prison. The strong currents and icy waters surrounding the island made escape virtually impossible, so its cells were reserved for the ultimate trouble makers, famously including Mr Al Capone.

Military influence on the gay population. San Francisco was a major port of embarkation in WW2. Between 1941 to 1945, the US military dishonourably discharged 9, 000 gay servicemen and women many of whom were processed out in San Francisco where they decided to stay. Its reputation as a gay mecca in the first half of the 20th century blossomed into the flower revolution. 

Literature steps in for some fun. In the 1950’s, the Beatnik literary movement sprang up here, celebrating spiritual journeys, sexual liberation and the rejection of materialism, thus spawning a hedonistic and non-conformist Beat Generation.

Counter culture brings the flower children.  Being drawn to the epicentre of America’s counterculture in 1967, thousands of hippies headed to town with flowers in their hair for a Summer of Love, embracing music, drugs and free-love.

So history set the scene for our journey visiting fisherman’s boats, Chinatowns and Russian hills on vintage trams against a backdrop of flowers and love.

Achievable walking route

Map of route San Fran 1

The plan was to drift around the city taking in the main sites, hopping on some vintage transport and hanging out in cafes. We were looking for a balance between rest and play and to spend as little money as possible.
This is what we settled on:
– setting off from the top of Nob Hill looking, in the manner of the original Nobs, down on everything (and at their  fancy houses)
– waking down (not up) the famously crooked and insanely steep Lombard St
– breakfasting on ancient French bread from the gold rush days at Boudin bakery
– hanging out with a thousand sealions and strolling along the Victorian themed shopping arcades at Pier 39
– trying our hand at some vintage / terrifying arcade games at the Musee Mechanique
– lunching by the Bay at the Buena Vista, which appeared to the the “home of Irish coffee”
– catching a vintage cable car to down town Union Square
– wandering back through Chinatown for tea
– finishing with a cocktail in the historic Fairmont Hotel Tiki bar, where tropical rainstorms take place over the indoor pool/bar.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #1

Stay in style at Mark Hopkins

We decided to start our trip by waking up on the very peak of Nob Hill in the home (almost) of one of the city’s Big Four, the Mark Hopkins’ Hotel.

The story: Hopkins’ dream home was completed (sadly for him, after his death) in 1878. It managed to survive the earthquake but not the subsequent fires. The current 19-story hotel, part Spanish/ part French château, opened in 1926. In 1939, the penthouse suite was converted into a glass-walled  cocktail lounge and was a favourite place for bidding fond farewells to Pacific-bound soldiers heading off to war.

Stepping into the hotel today is like walking into a period drama: chandeliers light the lobby, the lifts are a mirrored bronze and the rooms are wooden panelled. The reception area, with its satin yellow sofas and gilt fittings,  channels a stately home vibe. With our imminent road trip backpacks, we looked far too scruffy to be staying here but with IHG reward points in our pocket, we’d got it down to $150 for a room for 4, so we were in. The beauty of travelling as a 4 in the USA is that most rooms have 2 double beds so you don’t have to break the bank forking out for a second room. Better to breakfast out though, as 4 hotel breakfasts do not come cheap. 

The rooftop bar still commands 360 degree views over the city, although, weather warning, there is a good chance that sea fog may obscure the view. We took this snap with our free reward wine as it lifted…

San Francisco skyline

Climb the steepest streets

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #2

Nob and Russian Hills

Kick start the day whist your legs are at their keenest, by wandering past the grand old houses of Russian and Nob Hills.

True to its name, Nob Hill is still among the highest-income neighbourhoods in the country. Wikipedia tells me it is the only place in the United States where market price per square metre exceeds the average yearly salary (a princely $72 400).

Russian Hill is directly to the north and slightly downhill from Nob Hill (as is everything in the city). The original Russian traders’ cemetery has been moved, so you will just have to marvel at the fabulous architecture instead.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that just 5 houses in Russian Hill survived the earthquake, due to the insane fire fighting heroics of their owners (involving bath water, wet blankets and a dynamite firebreak). Three of the five are still standing today, on the south side of Green Street between Leavenworth and Jones, including a historic octagonal house built in the 1850s.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #3

Lombard Street

In a city famous for its hills, Lombard Street has probably the highest celebrity status and is an actual movie star. Known as “the crookedest street in the world”, it attracts thousands of visitors a day.

For this incredibly steep, one-block section, no less than eight hairpin turns were put in place in 1922 to enable vehicles to ascend its 27% gradient (there must have been some comedy scenes prior to this). Even with the slalom arrangement set-up, caution is still required. The sign at the top recommends 5 mph.  Unsurprisingly, for the sanity of the emergency services, it is one-way only. The 250 vehicles per hour passing through can result in waits of up to 20 minutes to enter. (I did wonder if this was a car insurance exclusion zone in the manner of the Arc de Triomphe – but Google is very quiet on this so it looks like you are good to go.)

Walking is quite fun too, although your legs do get a bit wobbly.  Watching the cars navigate those hairpin turns is quite the spectator sport.  Despite all the safety precautions, there is evidence to skidding at the bottom. Or maybe its just the donuts of riders coming for a quick glimpse of the show but too chicken to take it on.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #4

Eat 160 year-old bread bears from Boudin bakery

At Boudins, you can partake in the novel experience of sampling bread made from a mother sourdough first cultivated here in 1849.

Established by the son of a family of master bakers from Burgundy, Boudin’s  bread was the culinary result of a fusion of French baking techniques applied to sourdough eaten by the Gold Rush miners. 

Although it is exceedingly (surprisingly?) tasty, at £10 for a small teddy or crab loaf, you don’t get more than a biteful when split 4 ways. Still, it was worth a visit for the array of comedy bread items hanging out in the baskets behind the servers (and moving around above your head on some kind of aerial conveyor belt).

Fisherman’s wharf

This is where a lot of the action takes place for the day tripper: shopping, carousels, eateries and sealions. But its raison d’etre is the fish.

The first state-owned Fisherman’s Wharf was built in 1884, and lasted a full 22 years until the earthquake  intervened. Today’s Wharf rests on land created from the rubble of destroyed buildings. Today’s fleet is still the beating fish heart of the Wharf.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #5

Sealion spotting at Pier 39

Other local fish fans are the sealions, who have recently adopted the wharf as their home and teem in multitudes of over 1000 at the right time of year. We were pretty excited to witness these sealion safari scenes. Sadly for us it was the wrong time of year. They all migrate to their breeding grounds in June and July summer, leaving 2 behind for tourists to photograph. Fortunately, the fishing boats are photogenic.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #6

Seaside shopping California-style

Once you have had your sealion fix (or not), stroll along the wharf for some window shopping/ retail therapy – depending on budget.  Pop into a thousand seaside t-shirt stalls and check out the retro warehouse style retailers in the side streets. At  Pier 39, you will find 2 storeys of board-walked shopping arcades, cafes and fairground rides (one of which is also 2 storeys). Rows of cowboy boots and a year-round Christmas shop are present to keep you company. 

The is dotted with floral murals and hanging baskets, but would the flower generation be enamoured with this material world? This 1970’s yet Victorian-themed arcade is both kitsch and commercial, but you can’t help but embrace the carnival atmosphere.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #7

Obligatory selfie with the heart sign

As part of the Hearts in San Francisco annual art project, artists are commissioned to paint heart sculptures which are put on display around the city before being auctioned off to raise funds for the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.

Take an I heart San Francisco selfie with the installation at the end of Pier 39. Warning: high winds may result in comedy hair.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #8

Play with spooky toys at the Heritage arcade

Further along the docks at Pier 45, you will find the Musee Mechanique, a quirky heritage gaming arcade where the dark undertones of yesteryear complement the sombre mahogany casings.

With over 300 machines, the arcade claims to be one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade artefacts. 

Admission is free and you can change modern currency for old pennies through a man hiding in a small office in the back of the room. Try your luck at strong-armed challenges or learn whether you are lucky in love. We thought we’d spotted a Zelda from Big (or was it Margaret Thatcher?). Hanging and general execution are extensively represented and are almost as unsettling as the wooden clown faces.

Brilliant teen combination of gaming, heritage and horror.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #9

Watch parents sample an original Irish Whiskey at Buena Vista

San Francisco Irish coffee

How could a small bar in San Francisco claim to be the home of Irish Whiskey? It turns out the drink had already been invented in Ireland in the 1940s, but this bar started the craze in the US.

In the winter of 1943, some passengers who had been on a flight to New York which had been forced to turn back due to inclement weather, were looking for a stiff but warm drink. The bar tender at Shannon Airport added whiskey to their coffees, and zuzhed it up by topping his creation off with cream. It was an instant hit and soon made it on to the official menu. 

In 1952, the owner of the Buena Vista challenged international travel writer Stanton Delaplane, who had sampled and loved the drink at the airport, to help re-create it. The Buena Vista became the first US bar to add it to its own menu and is today credited as the largest seller of Irish coffee in the world, serving up to 2,000 per day. 

Despite the sun, a stiff sea breeze was up and, like the original customers 80 years earlier, we were keen to warm up with a hot alcoholic drink. Handily, teens are permitted inside the café style bar. A small hot soup will keep them happy whilst you sample the famous coffee/whiskey/cream combo. The cafe does have a real buena vista too – though you may wish to opt for indoor seats to keep the hypothermia at bay.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #10

Spot the amazing retro transport

Every passing tram, bus and fire truck gives a nod to the past. Try not to get run over capturing them on film.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #11

Try a white knuckle cable car ride

When I hear cable car, I think of aerial cabins whisking you up mountainsides, so was surprised to find when arriving in town that my trip would be land based. The cable cars, part of the city plan to get people up the crazy city hills, are however vintage and super cool.

Right outside Buena Vista, we found the main cable car boarding point at Powell and Market Streets. We were not the only ones there. The wait is long. This does give you plenty of time to buy the $7 ticket via app, rather than wasting valuable queue time at the ticket office.

There is a handy 1-hour sign in the line to let you know your queue sentence and so you can resign yourself to the situation. It helps to take turns with 1 sacrificial queue-standing lamb and lazier teenagers/wives resting legs, sitting on nearby walls.

Also, bring a coat. I grew up in North East England and consider myself fully appraised of what a wintry summer feels like. August in San Francisco came with highs of 15. Throw in the wind and a sea fog and it feels like the dementors have come to town. I have never felt so chilled to the bone as when waiting for, then riding, a San Francisco street car in only a thin jumper (we’d all had to buy them during the course of the day, having optimistically gone for holiday t-shirts).

The wait is made more tolerable by the fact that the line snakes around the tram turning-circle and you get to watch the 10-minutely spectacle of burly tram drivers physically pushing the cart around in its tracks to face the right way. You spectate multiple times until the novelty wears a bit thin and a tram finally has room for you.

If you are lucky enough to board first, you have seating options (make these decisions in the queue as dither, and someone else will jump in your seat of choice):

Option 1 – sit on a forward-facing bench inside (safe but dull); 

Option 2 – sit on an open-air strap-free bench perching side-ways with nothing in front of you (bench clinging required), or,

Option 3 – for the wildest ride of all, stand on a 6 inch exterior ledge and cling on to a vertical bar as you shoot up and down the hills and are flung around corners. Do not let go. 

Photos are nigh on impossible for any but option 1. Whilst in motion, the wind chill factor is doubled – gloves and scarf would have been welcome. Its like a fairground ride but with fewer safety features.

Top tip: You can in theory board at any point – but most people do not get off until the end of the line. The cars mainly empty out and fill up at the turn-around and you might struggle to find a space at any stop en route.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #12

Stroll around China town

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America and one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside Asia. Even today, the city is roughly one-fifth Chinese. Covering 24 blocks, there are 2 hospitals and several parks and churches. The area has retained its own customs, languages and identity.

Walk through the Dragon gate and under lantern-festooned streets. Return in the evening for the full light-up experience that is Chinatown. The choice of places to eat is overwhelming We Googled a restaurant with good reviews to suit our budget (small).

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #13

Have a cocktail in an indoor rainstorm at the Fairmont Hotel

The story – birth place of the United Nations and a song: The Fairmont was named after mining magnate and Senator James Fair, being  built by his daughters posthumously in his honour. Almost complete in 1906, the interior was heavily damaged by fire, but against the odds, the building survived the earthquake.

In 1945, the charter creating the United Nations was finalised in the hotel’s Garden Room. In the same year (in order to celebrate properly?) the hotel opened its fabulous Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, featuring a boat which floats in a former swimming pool and a dining area built from parts of an old ship. Bar flies  would have to wait until 1969 for Tony Bennett’s debut performance of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in the Venetian Room .

Why not finish the evening in an historical tiki bar where a tropical rainstorm crashes from the ceiling every 30 minutes, we thought? Ideally, it was just opposite our own hotel in Nob Hill. To our delight, teens were allowed in, but had a curfew of 9pm. And rain really did fall from the ceiling into the pool in regular indoor tropical storms. 

We went on band night which was good and bad. You get to witness the raft/ boat launch across the indoor pool, replete with strumming minstrels. The down side is that the cover charge is $20/head. With 1 fancy cocktail each, you can imagine the horror of the final bill.

Things to do in San Francisco with teens #14

Cycle/drive/walk over Golden Gate Bridge

Built in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is considered to be the most beautiful and most photographed on the planet. (It is a great colour.) At the time of its opening it was both the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world.

I am cheating adding this to our day’s itinerary as we crossed the bridge the following morning on the start of our road trip USA. For the day visitor, a car is not required to enjoy the bridge; all crossing options are available. Cycling would be magical on a sunnier day (do they have them?).

Lessons learned

  • Avoid June and July for sealions
  • Not all cable cars fly
  • Arrive early to avoid queues for pretty much everything (cable car turn arounds/ Lombard St descent) 
  • Beware the cover charge at fancy hotel bars
  • Take a jumper and a coat, even in summer

Summary of things to do in San Francisco with teens

We were happy that we had packed so much into our day, without punishing anyone’s legs too much.  We loved the seaside, heritage feel to the city. The hills are a gift that keep on giving  – amazing views over the bay and cool options for scaling them, both saving your legs and providing activities in their own right. Having a French breakfast, an Irish lunch and tea in China enabled us to experience the city’s international flavour in a literal sense.

One day is not enough to see the whole city. I am well aware of there are many more sights to be seen – Alcatraz, whale watching boat trips and hippie-epicentre, Haight Ashbury, Japanese gardens in Presidio Park. Why not mix and match our route, adding in items of your teen’s interest? Let me know what other gems the city is hiding for the teen tourist!

If you are heading to the US with teens don’t forget to check out my New York with teens post.

For an exclusive downloadable pdf summary of things to in San Francisco with teens – click to subscribe to Holiday from Hels here!

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8 thoughts on “14 fun things to do in San Francisco with teens in one day”

  1. We have been to San Francisco several times but your post showed me some things we need to do on a return visit. Great that you found so many things that kept your teens engaged. It is sometimes a hard age to please. But it is certainly a great city to eat your way around. The Irish Whiskey tasting would be one for us for sure!

  2. I love the retro transport especially that beautiful blue bus! I’ve saved your article for when I eventually make it to San Francisco one day 🙂

  3. I’ve heard lots of great things about San Francisco and I’m sad I didn’t have the chance to visit it when I was in California a couple of years ago. Definitely need to plan a trip here 🙂 Great post!

  4. Somehow we had sunshine the whole 2,5 days we were in San Francisco and zero fog. However we had a bit of a less full program, since our son was 13 months old at the time. Some fun things to do with teens in San Francisco.

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