Let me preface this itinerary by saying this is not a sightseeing tour of San Francisco. Our goal was to spend low-key, quality time outside with a gaggle of kids and old friends and we most definitely accomplished that!
Mill Valley is an absolutely picture perfect little town in Marin County just north of San Francisco. The neighborhoods are straight out of a fairy tale and there are plenty of restaurants and green space to keep things convenient, yet not boring in the slightest. If you are considering staying outside of the city, I highly recommend renting a house here. You can be over the Golden Gate bridge and into the Marina in about 15 minutes.
Tip: Mill Valley is likely to be warmer and sunnier than the city, which is a huge plus! San Francisco can get cold and covered under a dense fog at any time of year, so you must be mentally prepared for that type of weather and pack accordingly.
Getting There An 8:00am flight to California meant waking the kids up at 6:00am, flying for four hours and THEN starting an entire day of activity. The two hour time change was a little harder on my kiddos than I had anticipated and if I had to do it again I might not plan an action packed day after flying, but as always, we live and learn. The Virgin America flight was easy and comfortable (with TVs at every seat) and the terminal at the SFO airport is brand new and very easy to navigate.
We went straight to lunch at Hillstone, which is directly across the street from where the Alcatraz ferry departs (Pier 33). It has yummy food for both kids and adults and is much less touristy than the restaurants at Pier 39. We even found street parking right behind the restaurant that was good for up to five hours.
Things to Do To get the most out of your visit to Alcatraz, take a little time to read or talk with your kids about some of Alcatraz’s most well known prisoners, escape attempts, other things the island has been used for and maybe life as a prisoner in general. You can do a lengthy audio tour around the island, but for our kids, a self-guided tour was definitely the best bet. The views are magnificent and the walkways are lined with lush foliage and nesting seagulls everywhere you look.
Tip: Buy your Alcatraz tickets in advance! Time slots were selling out weeks in advance and the whole day was completely sold out by noon.
The Ai Weiwei exhibit in the new industries building is really cool.The exhibit consisted of a huge Chinese dragon kite and portraits of 175 political prisoners made out of LEGOs. The kids especially enjoyed walking down the long hallway where they could drag their hands along the many panes of broken glass windows without fearing injury because they were encased in protective glass. We then did a walk through of the cell house. The dummies in the prison beds added just enough spook factor to make this part exciting for the kids.
We wanted to walk a few short blocks down to Pier 39 to spot some sea lions, but we just couldn’t make it happen this time. Next time!
We spent an afternoon at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, right under the Golden Gate Bridge. This was different than most children’s museums I have been to in that most of the fun part was outside, so weather is definitely a factor when thinking of visiting. It was a very relaxing place to spend a few hours even for the adults because the scenery was so picturesque. There is a café on site with a full lunch menu and snacks.
Tip: Children over the age of 8 years old would probably get bored pretty quickly here. However, younger kids will stay as long as you let them and be plenty tired from all the running around outside.
We packed up some beach gear and headed just over the Golden Gate Bridge to Crissy Field. The sand is soft, the waves are almost non-existent, the water is clear and there was plenty of room to spread out and explore the beach. Parking was free down on the end closest to the bridge and there was a bathroom building but we didn’t go in to check them out. There is also plenty of grassy space to sit on if you prefer that to the sand and a long path to walk along the water if you like. If you wanted to pack more into the day you could start with a walking tour of the surrounding neighborhood ("The Marina") or visit The Palace of Fine Arts before hitting the beach.
We enjoyed a 35 minute ferry ride into the city from the Larkspur port and had lunch at Gott’s Roadside in the Ferry Building. The food was delicious and the kids menu was great! I had the Ahi tacos, but just as well could have ordered the patty melt or the Chinese chicken salad. This is a great place to pick up a souvenir, people watch or just relax on the water front. Walking tours of the building are offered throughout the day.