Photograph by Emily Polar
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Heather Greenwood Davis and her son hike at Fort Point near the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Photograph by Emily Polar

Six Things to Do With Your Tween in San Francisco

They'll think you're so cool.

The trick to traveling with a tween is finding the steady balance of fun things to do and an interesting place to do them. Falter on the destination you pick or misinterpret your tween’s idea of fun, and you can be in for a steely few days.

Deciding to explore San Francisco, California, with my 11-year-old son turned out to be a win. San Francisco is a city with layers. Traveling with a science geek? It’s got something for her. A foodie? It’s got him covered too. You name the interest and there’s bound to be some activity or event that will blow your tween’s mind. Taking my son to these six stops turned me into mom of the year—if only for a day or so. 

Hands-On Learning at the Exploratorium 

I had him at the toilet-water fountain. Near the entrance to the hands-on science exploration center, two water fountains offer you a choice of places to drink. One looks like a traditional fountain; the other is a fountain coming out of a toilet. The exhibit challenges you to think about why one fountain looks more preferable and confirms that the same clean water is actually running though both (don’t try this at home, kids). It’s the perfect icebreaker to an inquiry-based learning space that offers no set routes or routines. Every exhibit has something for tweens to do, touch, or try—including a chance to watch a cow-eye dissection! Whereas some “children’s museums” really only cater to the under-10 set, the Exploratorium is perfect for kids who are older. $29.95 for adults; $24.95 for teens; $19.95 for ages four to 12; children three and under free

Riding the Cable Car

Which other type of public transit offers kids this kind of a thrill factor? And it’ll be the cheapest ride you take on your trip. In San Francisco, hanging onto the open-air poles with one foot dangling dangerously above the street as it lurches up the steep hills comes with parents’ permission. It is a tween dream. The grin on my son’s face as we moved through the neighborhoods lasted for hours. When coupled with the rest of the public transit system, the three cable car lines can get you in the vicinity of most places you want to go, and hopping on and off is easy. For a cool experience, head for Lombard Street and then walk down what’s called the most crooked street in the world. Ages five to 17 pay $5 each way; day passes $13

A Different View of the Golden Gate Bridge

A sunset sail under most circumstances is pretty incredible, but this one is just long enough to hold the tween’s attention (90 minutes) and offers a cool perspective of the city’s most famous icon, the Golden Gate Bridge. Make an evening of it by starting with an exploration of the kitschy Pier 39, where lounging sea lions on the floating docks offer a reason to get there early. Then hop aboard the catamaran. Some drinks and snacks are included in your ticket for the sunset sail, which takes you out past Angel Island and under the Golden Gate Bridge. It can get cool once the sun starts to dip; the company thoughtfully has thick jackets on board so you don’t feel the chill. $55 per person

Catamaran Ride in San Francisco Bay

All-in-One Science at California Academy of Sciences

You’ve got plenty of options inside this unique science powerhouse, which has an aquarium, living roof, natural history museum, and a planetarium. But the spot you’ll want to make sure you don’t miss is the rain forest. Giant butterflies make their way around the humid green-space dome. Go all the way to the top, where the biggest ones congregate. We even had a few perch on our fingers long enough for photos. (If you’ve got younger kids in tow, the fully ramped space makes it easy for stroller navigation.) Tweens will also love the gift shop, where a variety of items that celebrate the exhibits make for fun souvenirs. Adults $34.95, ages 12 to 17 $29.95; ages four to 11 $24.95 

Shop and Sleep at Union Square

Union Square is shopping central in San Francisco. Perch here and your tween shopaholic will have access to all of their favorite brands. Our accommodations at the Westin St. Francis meant we didn’t have far to haul our bags, had access to family-friendly amenities like the spacious rooms and kids' club offerings, and were steps from public transit on Powell Street. The glass elevator that gave us a peek out over the city on the way up was also a hit. (As a mom traveling solo, I also liked the hotel’s security features, which included key-only and floor-specific access to the elevators.) Rates start at $289 per night on weekdays and $199 per night on weekends

Mix It Up With Locals at the Ferry Building Marketplace

At first glance, the Ferry Building Marketplace seems like more of a stopover than a destination, but try telling that to a hungry-all-the-time tween. Hand over a few bucks and let them loose to find tasty snacks and sandwiches while you enjoy the Book Passage store (check their site for visiting authors and readings). There’s the pier overlooking the bay out back and plenty of people-watching as locals and tourists board cable cars out front. Plan for a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday visit and you double your options with the addition of the farmers market. Don’t miss the warm cookies at the Batter bakery kiosk out front on Saturdays. Farmers market Tuesday and Thursday 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-2 p.m.

All those admission costs can add up. If you’re planning to be in San Francisco for a few days, consider a CityPASS. The booklet offers an unlimited week of cable car rides and entrance to four (out of a choice of six) museums and entertainment venues, including the Exploratorium and California Academy of Sciences, at 46 percent off the regular admission price. Adults $94; kids $69