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San Francisco

Breathtaking views, vibrant culture and 49 square miles of family-friendly fun. San Francisco, one of the most diverse and unique cities in the U.S., has it all. Be sure to pack for different temperatures; think layers. You’ll likely start the day being cold and then warm up quickly while hiking the city’s legendary hilly streets.

Save before you go
Purchase a San Francisco CityPASS for unlimited access to San Francisco’s historic cable cars, streetcars and buses, as well as admission to four attractions. A Go San Francisco Card gets you all-inclusive entry to 31 attractions.

Where to stay
Want to be smack-dab in the middle of everything? Stay in Union Square. Personality Hotels offer great options for families with their Kids Suites. Located one block from the historic Cable Car Turnaround (yes, you’ll hear bells from your room), Hotel Union Square’s retro-style space features a trundle bed, computer games, a Wii and a curved bookcase separating the kids’ area from the adults’ area. Hotel Diva’s Old Hollywood-themed suites include a private kids’ room with bunk beds, plus a karaoke machine, games and crafts.

What to Do
Sit up top of the double-decker bus and enjoy Gray Line’s Open City tour, where you can hop-on/hop-off at any of the 36 stops. Add on a side trip to marvel at the 800-year-old, 250-foot-high coastal redwood trees at Muir Woods National Monument. Kids get into the park for free, and it’s an easy flat walk through the breathtakingly quiet forest floor. Bring an extra sweater; it’s cool and damp among the trees.

Explore the city in a couple of two-seater GoCars, a splurge-worthy, GPS-guided “storytelling car” — an exhilarating way to see 200 points of interest, including many that tour buses can’t get to.

Ride tandem bikes over the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and then take the ferry back. Be sure to book the Adventure Cat sailing tour, where you’ll cruise under the bridge and around Alcatraz Island. Kids younger than 5 sail free. Bundle up — the winds can get pretty fierce on the water.

Plan to spend half a day visiting Alcatraz Island, where the nation’s most incorrigible criminals ended up between 1934–1963. The award-winning digital audio tour “Doing Time” — featuring the voices of former prisoners and guards — is terrific. Book your tickets far in advance, and bring warm jackets for the ferry ride over.

Hike along Lands End Beach, or walk through Crissy Fields, a former airfield in the Presidio and one of the best spots to see gorgeous views of Golden Gate Bridge or play on the beach. Bundle up; it gets pretty windy and cold here. Save some energy for the very steep walk up Lombard Street, the “crookedest” street in the world.

Ride a piece of moving history on the Hyde Street Cable Car. Be prepared for super-long lines if you don’t go first thing in the morning, or walk to the stop at Van Ness and California, which is rarely crowded.

Must-see museums
California Academy of Sciences — actually three museums in one — boasts a 4-story tropical rainforest, a swamp, a coral reef, a planetarium and 40,000 live animals and exhibits.

Housed in three historic buildings in a former military base, the Walt Disney Family Museum tells the story of the man behind Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. There’s not much for young children, but older kids and Disney die-hards will find hours’ worth of exhibits and memorabilia.

The Exploratorium, located at Pier 15, is world-renowned for its hands-on science, art, nature and technology exhibits. Don’t miss the world’s largest soap bubble and the tactile dome, a pitch-black maze you navigate by touch (the $20 extra fee is worth it!). Take a short walk to the Aquarium of the Bay, where you can walk through clear acrylic tunnels while marine life swims all around you.

Focus on freebies
Hundreds of barking sea lions migrated to Fisherman Wharf’s K dock at Pier 39 in 1990 — no one knows why, but kids love getting an up-close look at them. Afterwards, enjoy this two-level dining and shopping mecca: Watch the street performers, see how San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread is baked or ride the double-decker carousel.

Blink and you’ll walk right by this teeny-tiny fortune cookie factory, located in a Chinatown alley, where several elderly women craft delicious treats and hand out free samples. They’ll charge you fifty cents if you want to snap a photo, though.

See trolley cars in action and watch the giant wheels pulling the cars up and down the city’s famously steep streets at the Cable Car Museum.

In the 1960s, local residents fought back against city plans to destroy a patch of open space, and a teenager later designed the two long, steep concrete Seward Street Slides, which are for thrill-seekers only — wear sturdy pants, grab a piece of cardboard at the bottom of the slide and go!

Where to eat
Hankering for pancakes? Head to Mama’s, but get there early: The lines are legendary.

For lunch in Sausalito, Napa Valley Burger Company hits the spot. Or, back in SF, stroll the Ferry Building Marketplace’s many restaurants and specialty food stores and a world-class farmer’s market (open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays). Slurp some clam chowder in a sourdough bowl at the Boudin Bakery & Café. Sample authentic fish and chips at The Codmother, where portions are enormous. If you still have room, indulge your sweet tooth with to-die-for chocolate or ice cream at Ghirardelli Square.

For kid-friendly dinner bargains in the realm of Asian cuisine, drop into neighborhood favorite Katana-Ya
 for sushi and ramen. Tasty Thai can be found at Bangkok Noodles, and House of Nanking’s mouth-watering calamari and sesame chicken is a sure bet (and legendary in SF).

Check out one of the city’s fantastic food truck rallies: the SOMA StrEAT Food Park or Off the Grid, where you can try dozens of different ethnic foods while listening to live music.

Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based writer and TV producer at taketwoproductions.ca.