Inside: Lots of things to do in San Francisco with teens, plus our complete Spring Break itinerary (including a trip to Monterey).
We recently took a Spring Break trip to San Francisco with our 14-year-old son, and it was fantastic! We made the most of our time and packed a lot into just a few days, experiencing both the energy of the city and the wonder of the coastline. If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco with teens, I hope our itinerary and travel tips will help.
San Francisco With Teens Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in San Francisco
We arrived in San Francisco at midnight. I don’t recommend this if you’re coming from the Eastern time zone–we were exhausted! We took an expensive taxi ride to our hotel (about $75). If we’d arrived earlier in the day, we definitely would’ve taken public transportation.
We checked into Hotel Caza. It’s located in Fisherman’s Wharf, but around the block from the busiest tourist area, so it was pretty quiet. They don’t offer free breakfast but do provide coffee and tea service in the mornings until 10am, plus items you can buy for light meals and snacks like yogurt parfaits, salads, and packaged snacks.
This hotel was full of families. It has a heated outdoor pool, and the lobby features an area with pool table, arcade games (the front desk supplies the quarters at no cost!), foosball, and board games. Our room was comfortable, but it didn’t have a fridge–FYI, in case that’s important to you.
Day 2: Chinatown Walking Tour & Marrakech Magic Theater
We ate breakfast across the street from the hotel at a tiny place called 8 A.M. Cafe that has a nice breakfast menu. We had the crepes, frittatas, and the “Napa Bagel” with brie, prosciutto, arugula, and fig glaze. There seemed to be a line out the door after about 9:30am, so go early. It opens at, of course, 8am!
A trip to San Francisco with teens wouldn’t be complete with a cable car ride. So we walked a few blocks to catch the cable car on the Powell/Hyde line. Buy day passes on the Muni Mobile app, which saves you a few bucks versus paying each way.
We were amazed by the crazy-steep streets of the city, and experiencing them via cable car was a (literal!) trip. We rode to the Bush Street stop then walked a couple blocks to the entrance of Chinatown, called Dragon Gate.
We opted to do a self-guided walking tour of Chinatown via Free Tours By Foot, stopping in souvenir shops, the Fortune Cookie Factory for a sample, and the Tin How Temple. This was a surprise hit of the trip. Knowing the history and significance of the various stops made a big difference.
Then we caught the Powell/Mason line back and hopped off at Lombard Street to gawk at the famous zig-zag road and snap some photos. We were able to walk back to the hotel from there.
IF YOU GO: Download the Chinatown walking tour PDF or read it on your phone, it added so much to our walk. Also, research a place to eat in Chinatown—we were too full from breakfast, but a friend recommended R & G Lounge.
After a couple hours of downtime at the hotel (we were still recovering from our trip the night before), we took an Uber to Marrakech Magic Theater in Union Square. It’s key to arrive an hour before to see the magician do extra tricks and to order food and drinks. We had the hummus plate and chicken kebabs, both of which were yummy.
To my initial disappointment, the usual magician, Jay Alexander, was out for the night. But his replacement (Brad Barton, “Reality Thief”) was terrific. This is a tiny theater, and there’s lots of audience participation. We’re STILL talking about the tricks and can’t figure them out!
We took an Uber back to the hotel and went to bed early.
Day 3: Driving Tour & Alcatraz
We bought a yogurt in the lobby for our son, then were picked up in front of our hotel by Armando from Painted Ladies Tour in a fun, painted VW bus. Armando was friendly and full of knowledge and stories about the city. He drove us around the city, and we hopped out for photos at the Golden Gate Bridge, Painted Ladies, and Palace of Fine Arts. This tour lasted two hours, which felt like just the right amount of time to get a lay of the land.
Afterward, we walked to lunch at San Francisco Brewing Company in Ghirardelli Square because my husband is a big fan of craft beers. We had a good lunch of burgers and fish tacos.
Then we walked over to Musee Mecanique on the water. Admission is free but bring lots of bills to get quarters for the old time mechanical machines. We were there on a Saturday, so it was pretty packed. In general, I’d recommend avoiding the Fisherman’s Wharf area on the weekend if you don’t like crowds.
We walked back over to Ghirardelli Square for their famous hot fudge sundaes and waited in a long line. If I could do it over again, I’d buy just one sundae and all have a couple bites–they’re very expensive and very large.
After a pit stop at the hotel, we walked to Pier 33 to catch the ferry to Alcatraz. It’s important to buy these tickets in advance because it regularly sells outs. The ferry ride is about 15 minutes each way.
This prison once housed inmates like Al Capone, and the audio tour, which includes narration and interviews from former guards and inmates, was terrific. If you’re going to San Francisco with teens, they’ll love this! Ask if the rangers are giving tours as well. Ours was not, but I’ve heard that’s interesting as well.
IF YOU GO: Give yourself at least 1.5 hours on the island. You can pick which ferry you catch back, so check the times to plan your trip. I’d heard mixed things about the day tour versus the night tour. We opted to do a late-afternoon tour and agreed that we enjoyed seeing it in the daylight. There’s something very haunting about Alcatraz, so I think a nighttime tour would be super spooky.
We walked back to our hotel along the various piers and grabbed dinner at In-N-Out Burger. It was our first time having it–and don’t come at me, but we were underwhelmed. In fact, I ended up buying some cheese and crackers in the lobby and calling it dinner for me! I’m not big on fast food, but was glad that my teenager got to finally try the famous burger chain.
Day 4: Drive To Big Basin Redwoods State Park & Monterey
This was Easter Sunday and things were closed here and there, so we got breakfast again at 8 A.M. Cafe and took an Uber to Thrifty car rental (there were other car rental places within walking distance to the hotel which I didn’t realize when I booked it).
We did the 1.5 hour drive to Big Basin Redwoods State Park (we had to buy a parking pass in advance). It’s a pretty tricky, windy drive at times, which made me and my son a bit carsick.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not carefully reading the park’s website. When we arrived, we learned that almost all of the park is closed right now due to fires and rainstorms. Only one small trail was open, which we walked twice. We were still able to see redwoods, but I would’ve preferred a more extensive experience.
IF YOU GO: Until the park is reopened fully (which they said will take a few years), take a day trip from San Francisco to Muir Woods instead.
From Big Basin, we got on Highway 1 for our drive to Monterey. We stopped in Santa Cruz and parked in a garage downtown so we could poke around the cute, funky downtown (there’s a boardwalk in Santa Cruz too but we didn’t go). We also also stopped for roadside strawberries and shaved ice along the way.
Then we checked in to Victorian Inn. The lobby looks like a Victorian house, but the rest is just a regular hotel. It’s not fancy, but our room was perfectly fine. My favorite feature was the gas fireplace, which made our room feel cozy.
I also like that they had a free breakfast plus a free “wine and cheese” hour at 5pm with fruit, cheese, crackers, wine, and lemonade.
The downside to the hotel: It was on a busy street and was a bit loud. But we liked that we could park our car in the hotel garage and walk to everything.
Tired and hungry, we walked down to Cannery Row for dinner. The place we intended to go (Lalla Grill) was closed for Easter, so we ended up at an overpriced Italian restaurant which was just okay.
Day 5: Kayak Tour & Monterey Bay Aquarium
After a (free!) breakfast at the hotel, we walked down to Adventures By The Sea on Cannery Row for a guided, two-hour kayak tour. Because it was breezy that morning, the water was choppy, and it was strenuous at times. We saw otters, sea lions, and harbor seals, which was a huge highlight. My husband and I really enjoyed this tour, but my son was so-so on it (and he got a blister–pack bandages if you go!).
IF YOU GO: You’ll get wet! Change into their rain pants and coats and go barefoot. Wear sunscreen and a hat.
We walked back to the hotel for showers then headed about 10 minutes away on foot to Happy Girl Kitchen Co., where I ordered the quinoa and millet salad, a lemon energy ball, and house-made Chai. (I found this place by reading an article about “Big Little Lies” locations in Monterey.)
My guys wanted something meatier, so walked about a block away to Cafe Guarani, for empanadas and Yuca fries and sat in their cute little “secret garden” out back.
Then we walked to Monterey Bay Aquarium (you have to buy tickets online before entering). It was pretty crowded but well worth it. The aquarium only houses species you can find in the Bay, which is a lot! We were able to see the whole museum in about two hours.
IF YOU GO: Buy tickets for the aquarium online before entering. I read that it’s less crowded in the late afternoon, but it was still pretty packed. You can leave and come back if you get a hand stamp.
Next we headed back to the hotel to get the car and take a drive along Highway 1 to Big Sur. My teen was tired and didn’t want to do this, but it ended up being one of his favorite parts of the trip.
Along Highway 1, we made stops at different vistas to marvel at the beauty. We also stopped at the Bixby Bridge, another location from “Big Little Lies” and a popular vista stop. We drove to Big Sur, then turned around and drove back.
IF YOU GO: Highway 1 is a twisty-turny drive in places. Fog suddenly moved in as we were driving back, which made visibility iffy. So make sure you’re prepared for that. I was glad we did most of the drive in daylight.
We couldn’t find a dinner option along Highway 1 in Big Sur (we put our names in at one place with an amazing view but hopped back in the car after seeing the prices!).
We ended up in downtown Monterey at Medici for wood-fired-oven pizzas, wings, and salads. I wish we had discovered this cute downtown area earlier. It’s lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops and strung with white lights.
Day 6: Breakfast & Depart to San Jose airport
We woke up, ate the hotel’s free breakfast, then hopped in the car for the drive to San Jose Airport (it was closer to Monterey than driving back to San Francisco and our flights cost the same). Along the way, we did a stop to see UC Santa Cruz just for fun. Parts of the drive along CA-17 were also twisty-turny, FYI.
Summary: Fun Things We Did in San Francisco With Our Teen
- Musee Mecanique
- Chinatown Walking Tour
- Painted Ladies Driving Tour
- Ghirardelli Square
- Marrakech Magic Theater
10 More Things To Do in San Francisco With Teens
- Rent bikes: Hotel Caza actually had free bikes to use, but we didn’t have time. A friend rented from Unlimited Biking and rode from their location over the Golden Gate Bridge and back. I was worried my fear of heights would make that trek unpleasant.
- Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum: Yeah, kinda cheesy. But I’m guessing my teen would’ve gotten a big kick out of this place, which is right there on Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Cartoon Art Museum: This was around the corner from our hotel and would be perfect for teens interested in art or who love to read comics and graphic novels.
- Big Bus Tour: Our friends did this tour, and you can hop on and off along the route. Keep in mind that the top deck can get chilly, depending on the weather.
- Boudin Bakery: This is right along the water at Fisherman’s Wharf, but we ran out of time to pop in for some famous sourdough bread.
- Umbrella Alley: This is also around the corner from Hotel Caza and features interactive murals and street art. There’s a fee for entering.
- The Exploratorium: Located at Pier 15, this science museum offers a discount for kids 17 and under.
- Angel Island State Park: If we’d had an extra day, we would’ve taken the ferry to this island for my history-buff kid. Over the years, this island has served as an immigration station, detention facility for German POWs, and missile base. It now offers hiking trails and self-guided tours.
- Day trip to Muir Woods: You can book a day trip from the city to see the majestic redwoods.
- Ghost Tour: I wish we’d had time to do one of these ghost tours. Haunted San Francisco is well rated (not suitable for children under 13).
Questions About San Francisco With Teens
Did we feel safe?
Yes. The news is filled right now with bad news about cities in general, but we are city people–having lived in and visited cities our entire adult lives. So we were comfortable in San Francisco, especially in the tourist-populated area of Fisherman’s Wharf.
We were advised against parking a rental car in the city, since “smash-and-grabs” are common. So we walked, took the cable cars, or got an Uber to get around.
Is it expensive?
Yes. Meals and lodging were both pricey. We tried to save money by eating just two big meals a day. We were also able to use Southwest frequent flier miles to get a major discount on our airfare. Bu with our itinerary, it definitely wasn’t a budget vacation.
Are any colleges nearby for tours?
Yes. If you’re visiting San Francisco with teens who are thinking about college, places like San Francisco State University, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University are within driving distance.
Items to Pack for San Francisco
- Packable rain coat: I have this packable raincoat from LLBean that comes in regular, petite, and plus sizes. One morning during our trip, there was a steady wet mist in the air, which I don’t think is unusual for San Francisco. We also used our raincoats for our kayak tour in Monterey.
- Warm coats: We’d been told by multiple people to pack much warmer clothes than we think we’d need, and that was great advice. San Francisco can be chilly, even in the summer. I wore a pullover fleece (this Columbia fleece, that comes in petite!) and splurged on this packable down coat from LLBean.
- Comfortable shoes: We walked a ton, at least 15,000 steps a day. I alternated between running shoes and Dansko clogs.
- Cash: For tipping tour guides and getting quarters at Musee Mecanique.
- Snacks: Food is one of the most expensive parts of any family trip. I packed a small bag with some protein bars, clementines, and trail mix (and because it was Easter. Cadbury Mini Eggs too!).
- Sunscreen: You’ll especially need this if you do the kayak tour.
- Sunglasses and hat
- Chargers for phones, iPads, and laptops.