Family-Friendly Neighborhoods of San Francisco

A local mom shares her favorite neighborhoods and joints for where to eat, shop and play like a native while on your San Francisco family vacation.


I feel lucky to live in San Francisco, especially now that I have a toddler. Suddenly, the city that once seemed so suited to my child-free 30-something self (when I had all the time in the world to hang out in cafés and check out the latest hotspots) is suddenly revealing itself as an amazing place to be (and have) a kid.

To be honest, these days, I’m more excited about a great playground than the latest gallery or wine bar. And though the city’s iconic sights are endlessly fun for the little ones (who doesn’t love cable cars and sea lions?) San Francisco’s distinct neighborhoods are where the real family fun happens—so get out of touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and check out this local mom’s guide to some of the best off-the-beaten path hangouts. Of course, while this very short list leaves out other great family experiences (murals in the Mission District and Asian sweets on Clement Street in the Inner Richmond, for example), the following three neighborhoods are relatively compact and exude an especially safe, family-friendly vibe.

Noe Valley

This village-like enclave (which also happens to be where I live) is so baby-happy, its nickname is “Stroller Valley,” referring to the gridlock of Bugaboos on 24th Street—the neighborhood’s main drag. The Victorian homes lining the nearby hilly streets may fetch millions (even in today’s sagging economy), but the former Irish working-class stronghold still retains its small-town feel. My husband, daughter and I love to stroll around, greeting the other families and having a latte outside Martha & Bros. Coffee while eavesdropping on the daily gossip. The Saturday morning farmer’s market brings the locals out in force, but any day of the week is great for browsing through the toy stores and boutiques. In other words, 24th Street is always hopping.


Urban Nest (3927 24th St., tel. 415-341-0116). Nouveau-vintage nursery décor—think glitter boards of Mother Goose rhymes and stylish baby clothes and blankets.

Peek-a-Bootique (1306 Castro St., tel. 415-641-6192). New and used children’s clothes and toys, a play area and one of the best family bathrooms in town—with a real changing table (not the Koala shelf).

Just For Fun (3982 24th St., tel. 415-285-4068). Games, puzzles and silly things that kids (and adults) love.

Small Frys (4066 24th St., tel. 415-648-3954). The spot for pretty frocks, organic cotton onesies and See Kai Run shoes.

Cover to Cover Books (1307 Castro St., tel. 415-282-8080). Plenty of local flavor and a great kid’s selection, arranged around a playhouse that the tots can climb in.


Noe Valley Bakery (4073 24th St., tel. 415-550-1405). Perfect for that mid-afternoon cupcake or scone fix. I always buy a few breadsticks to keep the tot happy on the walk home.

Savor (3913 24th St., tel. 415- 282-0344). Kid-friendly dining on crêpes stuffed with everything imaginable. The pretty patio is a great brunch spot on a sunny day. The tolerant staff deserves a medal for their patience with the kids!

Pasta Pomodoro (4000 24th St., tel. 415-920-9904). Grab a sidewalk table at this budget-friendly chain spot. Highchairs and crayons for the kids are a bonus.


There’s a big, sunny Starbucks (3995 24th St.) where lots of parents congregate (with a changing table in the bathroom), but if you’d prefer a local spot, check out Bernie’s (3966 24th St.), an independent café with especially strong espresso drinks and a small play area for toddlers with a table, books and toys.

Lovejoy’s Tea Room (1195 Church St. at Clipper St., tel. 415- 648-5895). Traditional high tea with china and doilies. All the knick-knacks make it a bit clumsy with a baby, though they are welcome here. Reservations recommended.


Check out the Noe Courts Playground (Douglass at 24th St.) to let the kids burn off steam (and you’ll burn off that bakery cupcake trekking up the hill).

Bernal Heights

Quirky, independent-minded Bernal sits apart from the rest of the city, partly due to its location on one of the city’s biggest hills, and partly because the residents like it that way. This is the kind of neighborhood that hosts a “soapbox” lecture series at the local Laundromat, and has a bar for dog owners who can’t bear to tie their pooch up outside while they have a beer. That kind of consideration extends to parents, too (the local wine bar has a baby-friendly happy hour on Wednesday nights called “Wine and Whiners”). Though it’s a bit of a trek (not far from Noe Valley, but up on a pretty steep hill), street parking is plentiful, and Cortland Avenue (the area’s commercial district) makes for a pleasant afternoon of strolling and snacking.


Chloe’s Closet (451 Cortland Ave., tel. 415-642-3300). This is one of our favorite places to browse for children’s clothes, shoes and toys (some new, some used). I love that my daughter can run around in the free-play area at the back of the store while I shop for half-price Melissa and Doug wooden puzzles and other fun stuff.

Red Hill Books (401 Cortland Ave., tel. 415-648-5331). This independent shop hosts a story time at 10:30 a.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and on Sunday afternoons, a family-friendly live-music performance where kids are encouraged to explore while parents enjoy a glass of wine.


The Liberty Café (410 Cortland Ave., tel. 415-695-1223. Have coffee and a fresh-baked brioche at the Liberty Cottage Bakery (tucked away in an alley—look for the sign) or a comforting handmade chicken potpie at the café in front.

Maggie Mudd (903 Cortland Ave., tel. 415-641-5291, This old-fashioned ice cream parlor serves 55 flavors ranging from the classics to the more adventurous (habañero lime anyone?). Also, a full menu of dairy-free and vegan options.

Vino Rosso (629 Cortland Ave., 415-647-1268). Drop in for the baby-friendly happy hour on Wednesday nights from 4 to7 p.m. Sample Italian wines and nibble cheese while the little ones play (how great is that?).


Progressive Grounds (400 Cortland Ave., tel. 415-282-6233) This local coffeehouse has lots of space for stretching out and a changing table in the bathroom (actually a rarity in this neighborhood, oddly).

Martha & Bros. (745  Cortland Ave., tel 415-642-7585). Farther up the hill, but popular with the locals, this San Francisco chain has some of the best coffee around, and a good selection of snacks.


Holly Park has a nice playground divided into sections for babies and older kids. If you don’t feel up to the trek (it’s up yet another hill), there’s also a nice playground behind the library on Cortland, next to the Good Life Grocery.  

Cole Valley

Just off the colorful Haight Ashbury district, this cute pocket of the city is the perfect spot to relax in before or after checking out Golden Gate Park’s world-class Koret Children’s Playground and Carousel and the California Academy of Sciences (opening Fall 2008). The three-block commercial stretch of Cole Street has several cafés and shops for idle browsing and lots of post card pretty Victorians to swoon over. There’s also a distinctly French feel to the neighborhood, with a restaurant called Zazie (after the Louis Malle film), and French-owned wine and cheese shops, as well as an excellent boulangerie (see below). The hardy can walk all the way up Cole Street to Tank Hill for a great view of the city.


Boulange de Cole (1000 Cole St., tel. 415-242-2442). This spot serves authentic pain au chocolate and café au lait (seriously, they are just like the ones in Paris!), plus a nice selection of savory tarts and salads. Buzzing with families and locals who crowd around its communal wooden tables, there are also several outside seats.

Crêpes on Cole (100 Carl St; tel. 415-664-1800). It has a slightly scruffy student vibe, probably due to the building’s former life as “The Other,” a comedy club where Robin Williams and Dana Carvey performed in their early days (look for the original sign outside). A menu of big crepes and salads, along with the boisterous mood, make it a good place to eat with kids.


Pharmaca (925 Cole St., tel. 415-661-1216). A spacious integrative pharmacy that has space for the kids to stretch out while you sample bath products, books and yoga gear. Don’t miss the natural baby products.

Stumasa (515 Frederick St., tel. 415-759-1234. A few blocks off the main drag, this creatively charged shop sells handmade furniture and one-of-kind decorative objects for nursery and kid’s rooms, as well as more grownup stuff like candles and tableware. I always find something here that I must have, but the decent prices make this guilt-free retail therapy.

Egg and Urban Mercantile (85 Carl St., tel. 415- 564-2248). This shop is full of cool things for the home, as well as a few hip baby items—clothes and art for the modern nursery.


Café Reverie (848 Cole St., tel. 415-242-0200). Features espresso drinks straight out of Italy and has a pretty garden and lots of books and board games to while away an hour. They also serve a light lunch menu.

Tully’s (919 Cole St., tel. 415-753-2287). This is the spot for a quick cup of coffee or a smoothie.


Our absolute favorite playground is the Koret Children’s Quarter (320 Bowling Green Dr. between John F. Kennedy Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) in Golden Gate Park. Recently reopened after a major overhaul, this is the oldest playground in the country, so it was time for a face-lift! Sitting adjacent to the historic carousel (don’t miss a spin on this hand-painted beauty), this multi-age appropriate wonderland will keep your kids happy for hours.

For more information on family-friendly San Francisco, check out this comprehensive site ( 

Destinations: San Francisco

Themes: Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Eat, Parks and Playgrounds, Shopping

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