24 hours of family fun on a short break to San Francisco

by Allie Reynolds

Even if your time in San Francisco is seriously limited, you can still get a real flavour of this vibrant, cultural city. Here's how to cram maximum action into just one day by the bay...

San Francisco, known for its undulating hills, diverse cultures, fantastic attractions, quality seafood restaurants and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, is a great place to visit for families looking for something a little different from the usual city break. If you're on a stopover, or just taking in the city as part of a longer touring holiday, here’s how to do it in 24 hours.

Where to stay

We based ourselves in the Handlery Union Square Hotel, right on Union Square. The location was unbeatable, within easy access of all of the main sights, and with a good selection of restaurants and shops nearby. Rooms for a family of four cost from about $375, but they are huge, and have separate bedrooms. The hotel also has an outdoor pool, unusual for central San Francisco. For breakfast, try Lefty’s (333 Geary St; +1 415 982 8900), just left of the hotel, which is popular with the locals, and serves everything from eggs to pancakes, with great coffee. Breakfast here costs from about $4 to $8 and will set you up for the day.

Morning tour

We hopped on one of the cable cars at Powell Street, and headed straight down to Fisherman’s Wharf (one-way tickets c$3; $9 for a one-day pass; children under five travel free). It's best to get here early, to avoid the crowds and to get a better glimpse of the famous seals, which crowd on to Pier 39.

Alcatraz, a must-see, was our next port of call; you can catch the ferry from Pier 33, which takes about 15 minutes. We did the audio tour and explored this infamous island at our own leisure. More famous for its escape attempts than its residents, Alcatraz remained a prison right up until 1963, when it closed, allegedly after three inmates successfully escaped. Allow about two hours for the tour, and buy your tickets either online or through your hotel in advance, as the tickets at the pier sell out fast.

For lunch, stop for a quick bite at one of the many stalls in the Wharf selling excellent seafood, from crabs and calamari to shrimp cocktails. For something more sophisticated, try Boudins Bistro (160 Jefferson Street; +1 415 351 5561) for their famous clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (about $6 for a starter or $12 for a main).

Afternoon attractions

The Exploratorium (3601 Lyon Street; +1 415 561 0360; www.exploratorium.com), a hands-on science museum, is a great place to spend a couple of hours. Kids will love the interactive exhibits, and there’s lots to do for adults. You can get here by hiring bikes from the Wharf, and it’s a beautiful scenic two-mile ride along the bay, which also allows you to catch your first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge en route. Entrance to the Exploratorium costs $14 for adults, $9 for children.

From here, we headed east down Richardstown Avenue, onto Lombard Street, where, about halfway down, you come across the infamous and much photographed ’crookedest street in the world’. It's pure entertainment to watch cars negotiate the steep, narrow hairpin bends of this flower-lined street. We were taking bets on whether certain cars were even going to make it down!

On Columbus Avenue, kids will love the best sweet shop we have ever seen. Z Cioccolato (474 Columbus Ave; +1 415 395 9116‎) has an amazing display of giant lollipops and sweets of all colours and flavours imaginable, all laid out in huge barrels, with free fudge to sample. Delicious!

Chinatown is the most colourful and populated district of the city. Walk down Grant Avenue to the Dragon Gate, experiencing wonderful sights and smells, and exploring the shops with their unique treasures and gifts. You can visit the Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley, where they produce 20,000 cookies by hand every day. The main shop is decorated with beautiful ornate murals.

Evening relaxation

After a long day, we found ourselves back in Union Square, and headed to the Irish Bank Bar & Restaurant (10 Mark Ln; +1 415 788 7152; www.theirishbank.com) for dinner and a well-earned glass of wine. It's a great Irish-themed bar and restaurant, dishing up heart-warming food from about $9 to $12. They serve excellent fish and chips and a mighty steak. They also have a great outdoor terrace.

Overall, San Francisco offers plenty to see and do for both kids and adults, with a good choice of excellent eateries for foodies. It’s a pretty city, but also has many cultures and a rich history that's evident in its many districts. I'm sure you'll agree that 24 hours is not enough, and, like us, will want to come back for more...

Allie Reynolds

I am passionate about travelling, in fact I work only to travel ! For years, I have kept travel diaries, taken endless photos, and now I have the perfect forum to share all of my memories and experiences and hopefully I will encourage and give a little bit of inspiration to other like minded travellers to embrace the world of travel. I enjoy all types of travelling, whether city cultural European breaks, long-haul to Australasia, cruising, and having fun in theme parks in the US. Equally I love discovering parts of my own country Ireland, and spend weekends travelling, chilling out or simply relaxing in hotels. I have also been fortunate to live and work in mainland Europe, in particular Spain and Holland. There's a whole world out there waiting to be explored, whether on your own doorstep or further afield.

I have also been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a community moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.