Driving across expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge on my first trip to San Francisco in 1993, I wondered where on earth the people who live there would ever go on vacation--or why. It seemed to me then, as now, that if you lived in a city so beautiful and charming, you'd never want to leave.
On sunny days, the view of the gleaming city by the bay is unparalleled. The tall spires of commerce offer the perfect counterpoint to sailboats skimming across the cool grey-blue waters of the San Francisco Bay. Even through dense fog, the iconic red ladders of the Golden Gate bridge invite visitors from all over the world to experience the city's mystery and history.
Whether you're visiting San Francisco for the first time or the fortieth, there's always something new to discover. San Francisco is known primarily for activities and attractions for adults--from gourmet food to sports to theatre and music. Lesser known are the fantastic opportunities for kids. These are my Top 5 Educational Attractions for Kids:
1. Located in the heart of Golden Gate Park in the museum complex that boasts the DeYoung Museum and Japanese Tea Garden, The California Academy of Sciences is dedicated to making science fun for both kids and adults. Inside, you'll find a multi-story bubble that houses numerous species of butterflies flitting about, and displays featuring insects and animals of the rainforest. it's like taking a walk inside a giant terrarium. If you're really still, a butterfly or two might take a liking to you and hitch a ride on your finger. Down below, you can learn about hundreds of species of fish and water animals at the Steinhart Aquarium. Our favorite? Claude the Albino Alligator.
2. Ever want to swim with sharks without getting wet? Try the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 for a unique underwater view. The Aquarium at Pier 39 is a hidden gem of an attraction buried in a sea of themed chain restaurants and t-shirts shops. Walk through a tunnel and find yourself surrounded by sharks and colorful fish. It has all the benefits of deep-sea diving without all the gear and discomfort. As you're looking around at the fish, they seem to be looking back at you. I sort of wonder if they think they're looking at a people display (humanarium?) instead of the other way around.
3. Further west along the coastline, take the kids to visit a real Civil War fort. Located right under the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point offers a glimpse back in time. Build in the mid-19th century, Fort Point has been used as a look-out and a point of defense for the San Francisco Bay in both the Civil War and World War II. As museums go, there is not a whole lot here, but the fact that a brick building of such a large scale is still standing in earthquake-prone San Francisco is a marvel in and of itself. Park Rangers offer some very entertaining stories about the fort and its uses. Our son loved running around the halls of the barracks, doing his own version of a Civil War reinactment using imaginary weapons. The Fort is only open 3 days a week, from Friday through Sunday from 10-5, so plan your visit accordingly.
4. Also in the Fisherman's Wharf area, be sure to visit the Maritime National Historical Park at Hyde Pier, where four historic ships are open to the public for tours. We particularly liked the cargo ship Balclutha, with its tall masts and cramped sleeping quarters for the deck hands. Our son loved exploring all the nooks and crannies of the ship, and was particularly pleased to be allowed to ring the ship's bell.
5. Still in a nautical mood? Visit the USS Pampanito located at Pier 45. The Pampanito is a World War II submarine that is now open to the public for tours. Our son got to go spend the night on the Pampanito a few years ago with his Cub Scout group, and loved it. It was a little cramped for his 6'4" dad, who went along to chaperone, but had a great time anyway.
San Francisco is a city rich with history, culture, and opportunities to learn new things. After you've gotten that much smarter, you can always frolic by the beach.
Note: I'm entering this post in the World Bloggers Travel Contest for a chance to win a stay at the fabulously green Orchard Hotel in San Francisco. Even though I live near San Francisco, I don't get to visit nearly enough and would love to try it out!