Explore San Francisco and Oakland
Summer is the perfect time to explore a city, whether finding new adventures or visiting old favorites in San Francisco or checking out Oakland, its counterpart across the Bay. We turned to some local authors and experts to share their top picks from recent additions to Reedy Press’ 100 Things to Do Before You Die travel series.
When the teacher’s away, the kids want to play, and Mom and Dad need ideas! 100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die (Reedy Press, 2018), a new book by local parents and authors Kimberley Lovato and Jill K. Robinson, offers lots of options, including these 10 family-friendly outings sure to make a summer trip to the city a memorable one.
1. Get Close to Aquatic Life at the Aquarium of the Bay.
On the water’s edge at Pier 39, 20,000 sea creatures from the San Francisco Bay and the surrounding water await. You’ll come eye-to-eye with a sevengill shark, watch the hypnotic motion of the moon jellies and even touch a bat ray’s wing, if you dare. Walk under the sea through transparent tunnels that bring the diverse aquatic life up close, and take part in the daily, naturalist-led animal feedings, too. Though not found under the sea, otters are considered a watershed ambassador as they are indicators of healthy waterways, and the Aquarium of the Bay is home to four of these adorable residents. The Embarcadero at Beach St. 415-623-5300. aquariumofthebay.org.
2. Get Your Mind Blown at the Marrakech Magic Theater.
Sleight of hand, mind-bendy illusions and astonishing tricks are all in a day’s work for master magician, mentalist and comic Jay Alexander who performs four nights per week at an intimate Moroccan-themed theater near Union Square. Inspired by his grandfather and a trunk he found in the attic when he was a kid, Jay has appeared on the TODAY show and Good Morning America, and performed for U2 front man Bono, as well as the late Robin Williams. At the age of 14, Jay was the youngest recipient of the Society of American Magicians’ Gold Medal of Honor. His shows are fun, inspirational and family-friendly, and are guaranteed to leave you wondering, “How did he do that?” Make a night of it and come see if you can figure it out. 419 O'Farrell St. 415-794-6893. sanfranciscomagictheater.com.
3. Take a Whirl on an Old-Fashioned Carousel.
Carousels are part of a magical childhood memory that many of us can recall – a timeless, nostalgic and old-fashioned fun that’s becoming lost on today’s technology-addicted kids. Spend a day on a scavenger hunt for these gems that will spark young imaginations anew, thanks to their menageries of colorful creatures, music and lights.
Dentzel Carousel: San Francisco Zoo has one of the world’s last existing machines handcrafted by William H. Dentzel. Sloat Boulevard at the Great Highway. 415-753-7080. sfzoo.org.
LeRoy King Carousel: Constructed in 1906 by famed designer Charles I.D. Looff. 221 Fourth St. 415-820-3320. creativity.org.
San Francisco Carousel: Pier 39’s carousel has a sea creature theme and is painted with famous San Francisco landmarks. Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf. pier39.com.
4. Catch Some Air at House of Air.
If you’ve long envied birds and other flying creatures, take a trip to the historic airplane hangar at Crissy Field to find your fix. The indoor trampoline park has three high-performance trampolines, two recreational areas enclosed within padded walls and patched with more than 60 conjoined trampolines, and a bounce house for small children. Regular “air-conditioning classes” are available for those who want to spend some dedicated time in the air (it’s a workout!). Check out other activities such as trampoline dodgeball, trampoline basketball dunking, ninja obstacle courses and summer camps. There are mini programs for little flyers, ages 2-6 years old. And you can host parties, and let the kids burn off some steam. 926 Mason St. 415-345-9675. houseofair.com.
5. Spend a Day in Golden Gate Park.
You could easily make a “staycation” journey to Golden Gate Park and never get bored among its more than 1,000 acres (larger than New York’s Central Park) filled with fun and informative activities. Top attractions include one of the largest museums of natural history in the world, the California Academy of Sciences, where you can visit a rainforest and a coral reef under the same roof. Check out their Night at the Museum sleepovers, too. Nearby, the Spreckels Temple of Music and Music Concourse holds free concerts on summer Sundays. Don’t forget to visit the wooly residents of the Bison Paddock, and rent a paddleboat on Stow Lake. The largest of the park’s playgrounds is the Koret Children’s Quarter, with amusement for kids of all ages. Bordered by the Great Highway, Fulton Street, Lincoln Way and Stanyan Street. goldengatepark.com.
6. Get Out on the Bay.
Water views are nearly everywhere in San Francisco, and there are plenty of fun ways to get a closer look, especially for older kids and teens. Rent from City Kayak in South Beach and head for AT&T Park’s McCovey Cove to catch home run “splash hits” from a Giants game. Take the family out for a calm brunch, lunch or dinner cruise aboard one of Hornblower’s dining yachts. Or, if adrenaline is more your taste, ACsailingSF takes guests out on the USA 76, an International America’s Cup Class racing yacht. The Blue & Gold Fleet’s RocketBoat – a highly maneuverable speedboat that makes quick, tight turns – may be the wildest ride on the bay. The Blue & Gold Fleet, as well as the Red & White Fleet, offer a variety of cruising adventures and sightseeing tours that showcase San Francisco Bay’s greatest highlights. Adventure Cat Sailing Charters invites guests to experience the beauty of San Francisco from the deck of a spacious catamaran that cruises right under the Golden Gate Bridge.
7. Discover Yerba Buena Gardens.
This urban respite in downtown San Francisco satisfies the busiest of bees. Here you can ride the historic LeRoy King Carousel, partake in interactive activities inside the Children’s Creativity Museum, get some time on the ice or bowl at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating + Bowling Center, and unleash the little ones inside the Children’s Garden with its just right-sized play structures. The landscaped lawns, public art and colorful gardens make an ideal backdrop for picnics, snacks and reading, too. 750 Howard St. 415-820-3550. yerbabuenagardens.com.
8. Take Yourself Out to the Ball Game at AT&T Park.
The smell of freshly cut grass, the crack of the bat – it must be baseball season, and where better to be than at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants. Inside the gates, the dining choices are what you’d expect from a food-crazed city – anything from pizza to hot dogs to Mission-style burritos. Find your seat and settle in, then root, root, root for the home team! If you can’t make a game, book a behind-the-scenes ballpark tour and walk on the field, sit in the dugout and take a peek inside the Visitors’ Clubhouse. 24 Willie Mays Plaza. 415-972-2000. sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com.
9. Get Your Game on at Musée Mécanique.
Show the kids the games of old at the Musée Mécanique, one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanical and antique arcade machines. A pocket full of quarters provides hours of fun as you try your hand at more than 300 coin-operated games. Check out the fortunetellers, SkeeBall, photo booths, pinball machines, air hockey tables, arm-wrestling and even an interlude with good old “Laffing Sal,” a six-foot-tall laughing automaton. Many of these games were once a part of the now defunct Playland at the Beach, a 10-acre amusement park next to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Tip: Admission is free, but bring your quarters to play. Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf. 415-346-2000. museemecaniquesf.com.
10. Race Down the Seward Street Slides.
The slides at the Seward Mini Park sound a siren call to all children at heart, and a sign even says adults must be accompanied by a child in order to ride the two curvy, side-by-side cement slides. Just remember to wear sturdy pants, carry a piece of cardboard, and bring some courage. This park owes its existence to dedicated residents who sat in protest against the disappearance of open space and a developer’s bulldozers. In the end, they triumphed, and the Seward Mini Park opened in 1973. Home to a community garden and a collection of native plants, it’s especially known for the long, steep concrete slides designed by 14-year-old Kim Clark. The park is open from sunrise to sunset. 30 Seward St. sfrecpark.org/destination/seward-mini-park.
Oakland is in the middle of a renaissance and, in the past five years, has quickly become a melting pot for hipsters, techies and aspiring artists escaping the San Francisco fog. But at its heart are the families that have called this city home for decades, giving it a rare sense of community that’s dying in other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. Jessie Fetterling, a travel junkie who lives in downtown Oakland, shares her favorite outings in 100 Things to Do Before You Die in Oakland (Reedy Press, 2018). Here are some of her top picks for families:
1. Order a Black & Tan Sundae at Fentons Creamery.
This retro creamery is a nod to the soda fountain shops and ice cream parlors of yesteryear. In fact, the landmark institution got its start when E.S. Fenton first delivered dairy products by horse-drawn wagon in the Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood, where the storefront still stands today. E.S.’s grandson, Melvin Fenton, was responsible for creating several of the creamery’s favorite flavors: toasted almond, Swiss milk chocolate and the world-renowned rocky road ice cream flavor. The creamery also doubles as a restaurant, serving up burgers and fries, but its black and tan sundae is the must-order on the menu. Toasted almond and vanilla flavors are layered with handmade caramel and chocolate fudge, topped with toasted almonds, whipped cream and a cherry. This place is so nostalgic it made an appearance in local production company Pixar’s motion picture Up. Curious patrons can also take the Arctic Tour of the facility to learn more about the handmade ice cream production process. 4226 Piedmont Ave. 510-658-7000. fentonscreamery.com.
2. See a Movie at the Grand Lake Theatre.
If you’re looking for a vintage movie theater experience for the whole family, look no further than the Grand Lake Theatre, built in 1926. On Friday and Saturday evenings, the theater pays homage to its history by playing its Mighty Wurlitzer Organ briefly before screenings. Unlike big-name movie conglomerates, the movie tickets come at bargain prices by today’s standards, especially with all-day discount tickets on Discount Tuesdays. The theater has several auditoriums – each with their own theme – but the main theater is definitely its shining gem, featuring intricate gold furnishings and curtains. While the design is vintage, the theater still keeps up with the times, offering 3D movies and even hosting community film festivals of all kinds. 3200 Grand Ave. 510-452-3556. renaissancerialto.com.
3. See an Outdoor Musical at Woodminster Amphitheater.
Nothing quite says summer in Oakland like seeing an outdoor musical at Woodminster Amphitheater. Located in Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland Hills, patrons can sing along to a combination of new and classic musicals such as past renditions of Mamma Mia! or South Pacific. The amphitheater has hosted under-the-stars musicals since 1967, typically presenting three musicals a summer, with seven regular performances of each. While the shows are entertaining, the setting is equally worth a visit. The park’s towering redwood trees surround the amphitheater, complete with standard seating. Even better, most patrons bring a picnic before the evening show, as there are no restrictions on bringing food or beverages into the theater. 3300 Joaquin Miller Road. 510-531-9597. woodminster.com.
4. Witness Stories Come to Life at Children’s Fairyland.
Almost every local has fond childhood memories of Children’s Fairyland. Located within Lakeside Park (situated along Lake Merritt), the 10-acre park was built in 1950 as the first “themed” amusement park in the United States and the first one created specifically for families with young children. It is even said to have inspired Walt Disney’s vision for Disneyland. With about 60 storybook sets, the park brings childhood stories to life in attractions like The Old Lady in the Shoe or The Alice in Wonderland Tunnel. Visitors can also catch one of the three puppet performances a day at Fairyland’s Storybook Puppet Theater, the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the country. Note: The park only admits adults who are accompanied by children and vice versa. 699 Bellevue Ave. 510-452-2259. fairyland.org.
5. Wave to a Monkey at the Oakland Zoo.
Animal lovers will want to make their way to the southeast side of town to visit the Oakland Zoo. The playful animal kingdom has been a staple in the Oakland community since 1922, and it continues to remain fresh for a new generation of zoo-goers as it transitions from the traditional zoo concept into more of a wild animal park. In June 2017, it opened a gondola ride that takes families above the Oakland Hills to a restaurant with views. Then, in summer 2018, the zoo’s California Trail expansion added 55 acres of land and eight native-to-California animals such as grizzly bears, American bison and mountain lions. Visitors can still see the same chimpanzees and tigers in the Tropical Rainforest exhibit or giraffes in the African Veldt exhibit, but now they will experience them through a newer lens. 9777 Golf Links Road. 510-632-9525. oaklandzoo.org.
6. Slide Across the Ice at Oakland Ice Center.
Oakland’s temperate climate makes it difficult to find any real winter activities to explore. Oakland Ice Center is the exception, offering public skate sessions at reasonable rates on any given day. There’s also drop-in ice hockey, as well as unstructured hockey time that the rink playfully dubs “Gretzky Hour.” (Full ice hockey gear is required for both.) Of course, locals can sign up for figure skating classes and youth or adult hockey leagues. And real ice skating die-hards can join Coffee Club, a twice weekly, adults-only session for open skating practice, complete with a cup of coffee and pastry. 519 18th St. 510-268-9000. oaklandice.com.
7. Interact With History at the Oakland Museum of California.
Opened in 1969, Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is an unexpected treasure in the heart of downtown. While it focuses on the city’s culture and history, it also pays homage to the entire state of California across its three gallery spaces: Natural Sciences on Level 1, History on Level 2 and Art on Level 3. Its History level, for instance, takes visitors on an exploration of the Wild West and 1920s Hollywood through the Summer of Love and the beginning of tech culture. What really makes the museum stand out, though, is its Brutalist architecture that mixes concrete with a variety of outdoor elements on all three levels. A fan favorite is the Oak Street Plaza, which includes scattered chairs and tables alongside a giant chalkboard for anyone to use. Every week, the museum hosts its Friday Nights at OMCA with food trucks and live music. Note: The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday. 1000 Oak St. 510-318-8400. museumca.org.
8. Stargaze at the Chabot Space & Science Center.
Science and astronomy lovers go crazy over this place that especially caters to kids. While its planetarium alone is worth the trip, it also features special exhibits based on work supported by different earth and space programs. Its “Touch the Sun” exhibit lets visitors play with plasma and sculpt sunspots using powerful magnets. Or the “One Giant Leap: A Moon Odyssey” exhibit puts visitors behind the controls of a Mercury space capsule and also features a moon rock from the Apollo 15 mission. Night hikes through the nearby redwoods and various laser and planetarium shows mix well with the hands-on activities and demonstrations going on throughout the center. The center’s $5 First Fridays give visitors on a budget the option to experience the science center at night from 6 to 10 p.m. Note: The science center stays open late on Fridays and Saturdays for telescope viewings during the summer months and is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 10000 Skyline Blvd. 510-336-7373. chabotspace.org.
9. Get Crafty at Museum of Children’s Arts (MOCHA).
If your children love art, Museum of Children’s Arts (MOCHA) is the place for them. Founded in 1989, MOCHA started with artist residency programs, partnering with local schools and bringing children’s art exhibits to community sites such as hospitals and city buildings. Now, its downtown museum offers several interactive exhibits and art programs, which are ideal for school field trips and art parties. Art lessons can range from mask design to clay exploration to painting pictures of animals. Children can make their way through the museum’s different areas, including paint and LEGO walls, a sensory tables and more. The museum moved to a new space in Oakland City Center and celebrated its grand opening in January. 1221 Broadway, LL-49. 510-465-8770. mocha.org.
10. Keep It Fresh at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market.
The Grand Lake Farmers’ Market is not your average farmers’ market – even by Bay Area standards. The Saturday market is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and features produce from more than 40 local farmers, 30 specialty food purveyors and a handful of local artisans. But it’s much more than that. The Grand Lake Farmers Market has become part of a routine for many residents. It’s not just about picking up fresh fruits and veggies but being a part of the local scene. Its close proximity to Lake Merritt also gives it an advantage, making it almost impossible to pass on a warm, Oakland day. As the market continues to grow in popularity, it has started to swell beyond its general location, with other vendors and artisans selling goods along the sidewalks to and from the market. Lake Park Avenue. 415-472-6100. agriculturalinstitute.org.
Jessie Fetterling is the author of 100 Things to Do in Oakland Before You Die. For more information, visit jessiefetterling.com or reedypress.com. Kimberly Lovato and Jill K. Robinson are the authors of 100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die, available at local bookstores or at 100ThingsSF.net.