Wednesday, May 10, 2023

How to plan 4 days in Northern California kids and adults will both adore

Sailboat sailing under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge

Are you ready for an unforgettable family vacation? Look no further than Northern California! With its breathtaking coastline, mouthwatering cuisine, and endless activities, it's the ultimate destination for families seeking adventure. Trust me, my family and I recently took a trip there and had the time of our lives. So, if you're looking for some inspiration for your own Northern California getaway, keep reading for some of the amazing things we did and highly recommend.

Day 1:

Adventurous Tastes kids walk through San Francisco's Chinatown

We started our trip by exploring San Francisco. We headed to Fisherman's Wharf to check out the sea lions, and it was a hit with the kids. Next, we stopped for breakfast at the incredibly popular Mamas on Washington Square, and it was worth the hype. From what I hear, this place gets a line down the street, but at opening time on a weekday, we were the second group through the door. The Monte Christo sandwiches are epic, and my daughter is still talking about them weeks later.

Afterward, we walked through Chinatown, which was bustling with activity, and stopped by the Fortune Cookie Factory. Watching the cookies being made and trying some fresh out of the oven was a unique experience that the kids loved.

Next up, we purchased a Go City Pass which gave us access to three different activities. For our first activity, we chose to visit the Exploratorium. This interactive science museum was a hit with the kids (and adults, too). We spent hours exploring and learning about everything from physics to biology. 

Little girl making faces in a mirrored room at San Francisco's Exploratorium
Multicolored shadow at San Francisco's Exploratorium

Then, we headed to Palette Tea House for some delicious dim sum. Their famous multi-colored soup dumpling sampler did not disappoint! My daughters fell in love with the crabs in the tanks and were horrified when one appeared for lunch at the table next to us. Pour one out for Mr. Pinchy!

After lunch, we headed to Crissy Field, a beautiful park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. We took a leisurely stroll and enjoyed the stunning views. Our walk eventually led us to dinner at a16, a cozy Italian restaurant with incredible pizza. We finished off the night with some tasty ice cream sandwiches at The Baked Bear before retiring to our accommodations at Hotel Zoe in Fisherman's Wharf.

Man's hand getting a slice of pizza at San Francisco's A16

Day 2:

On Saturday morning, we headed to the Ferry Building and Farmers Market. It was a great spot to grab a pastry and some fresh fruit. 

Next up was a boat tour with Blue and Gold Fleet from Pier 39, which we booked using our Go City Pass. We were able to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and even a few sea lions sunbathing on some of the buoys in the bay. We all loved seeing the area by boat and learning about the history of the city. I recommend bringing earphones to listen to the tour streaming from an app because it was otherwise hard to hear via the boat's speakers.

Woman working behind counter at Molinari's Italian deli in San Francisco's North Beach
Molinari's Italian deli in North Beach

For lunch, we headed to Molinari's in North Beach for some delicious Italian sandwiches. The sandwiches were huge, but they were so delish that we came close to finishing them off. I highly recommend the eggplant parm sandwich! Don't forget to take a number when you come in, and be prepared to wait in line. While we waited, a truly bonkers parade of misfits went by, and my kids will be talking about the naked old man in the parade until the end of time. 

Two little girls in a restaurant booth eating burritos and chips
Taqueria Cancun's epic burritos

After lunch, we hopped on a bus tour which we booked using our Go City Pass. We got off the bus to see the Painted Ladies, which are a group of Victorian houses that are famously pictured in many movies and TV shows. It was a great photo opportunity, and we loved seeing the architecture of the houses up close. These bus tours are touristy, sure, but you can't beat them for getting a quick view of all the major neighborhoods.

For dinner, we went to Taqueria Cancun in the Mission district for some delicious burritos. The burritos were huge, and amongst the best we've ever had. We finished off the day with some ice cream from Smitten, which uses liquid nitrogen to make the ice cream fresh to order. I had hoped to do a self-guided food tour, but we arrived too late and some of the streets were a little sketchy so we had to settle for just the two stops. Next time I'll go before sunset.

Day 3:

4 pastries, a sandwich and coffee on a table at San Francisco's Bread Belly
Pastries at Bread Belly

On Sunday morning, we headed to Bread Belly for some amazing Asian pastries. We highly recommend the pandan-filled kaya bun and the savory everything bun. Next up was a visit to Golden Gate Park. We ran out of time to visit the botanical gardens, but we saw beautiful flowers even just walking nearby.

After this, it was time to leave San Fran. In an amazing stroke of luck, the car rental company was out of the boring mid-size car we'd rented and only had convertibles. So stuffed like sausages into our Mustang Convertible, we headed south to Monterey. It would never have occurred to me to pay more for a convertible, but it was a truly memorable experience to cruise down the stunning coast with the top down. 

For lunch, we decided to introduce our kids to the wonders of In-N-Out Burger. As always, it lived up to the hype, and our animal-style burgers and milkshakes went down easy. 

The famous Bixby Bridge in Big Sur with the ocean behind it
Bixby Bridge

After lunch, we took a scenic drive along the coast to Mori Point, Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, and Soberanes Point. The views were absolutely breathtaking, and we stopped several times to take pictures and enjoy the dramatic scenery. Note that as of May CA1 is closed just south of Big Sur, so your drive will have to end there.

For dinner, we went to Cultura Comida y Bebida in Carmel for some delicious Oaxacan regional Mexican food. We highly recommend the mole negro! The restaurant had a great atmosphere and was perfect for families looking to get a different take on Mexican cuisine.

Dramatic rocks, sky and sea landscape at Soberanes on CA1

We stayed at the Victorian Inn in Monterey, which had a lovely large suite that was perfect for traveling with kids. The room had a fireplace, afternoon wine, and a great breakfast in the morning.

Day 4:

Our final day before heading to Wine Country was spent in Monterey. We started our day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a must-visit for families. You can't go wrong with touching pools or otter feedings, and the mesmerizing jellyfish were a highlight.

Two jellyfish in a tank at Monterey Aquarium
Jellyfish at Monterey Aquarium

For lunch, we went to First Awakenings, a cozy breakfast and lunch spot. The portions were generous, and the food was delicious and very kid-friendly.

After lunch, we popped the top on the convertible again and took a drive to the Calla Lily Valley and Garrapata Beach. There isn't a ton of signage for this stop, so follow your map's directions and look out for a Garrapata Beach sign. It's a bit of a walk, but well worth it. The flowers were on the tail-end of their season in early April but were every bit as lovely as I'd hoped, and the kids loved running on the very windy beach. We finished our trip with some window shopping in Carmel and a visit to the Alvarado Street Brewery.

Calla lilies and greenery in Calla Lily Valley in CAPretty young girl smiling at Garrapata State Beach

Overall, our trip to Northern California was a fantastic experience. We packed in a lot of activities, but we still felt relaxed and rejuvenated. If you're planning a trip to Northern California with kids, we highly recommend an itinerary like ours that balances kid activities and more parent-oriented ones. The Bay Area is a beautiful and vibrant place, and we can't wait to go back.

I've included an affiliate link in this article. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. 

Northern California Family-Friendly Itinerary:

Day 1

Location: San Francisco

Meal and recommended restaurant: Monte Christo sandwiches at Mamas on Washington Square for breakfast; dim sum at Palette Tea House; pizza at a16, ice cream sandwiches at The Baked Bear

Recommended activity: Visit the Exploratorium; walk through Chinatown; visit Crissy Field for views of the Golden Gate Bridge

Hotel: Hotel Zoe in Fisherman's Wharf

Day 2

Location: San Francisco

Restaurants: Breakfast at Ferry Building Farmer's Market, Italian sandwiches at Molinari's in North Beach for lunch; burritos at Taqueria Cancun in the Mission district for dinner; ice cream at Smitten

Recommended activity: Boat tour with Blue and Gold Fleet from Pier 39; bus tour to see the city's sites include the Painted Ladies

Hotel: Hotel Zoe in Fisherman's Wharf

Day 3

Location: Monterey, day trip down to Big Sur, Carmel

Restaurants: Asian pastries at Bread Belly for breakfast, Lunch at In-n-Out

Recommended activity: Visit Golden Gate Park and botanical gardens, drive CA 1 to Big Sur

Hotel: Victorian Inn, Monterey

Day 4

Location: Monterey, day trip down to Big Sur, Carmel

Restaurants: First Awakenings for breakfast or lunch, Alvarado Street Brewery for dinner

Recommended activity: Monterey aquarium

Hotel: Victorian Inn, Monterey

I've included an affiliate link in this article. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

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