Catch the scenic ferry ride from Pier 33 to Alcatraz Island, or “the Rock.” The fearsome federal penitentiary on the island housed America’s most notorious criminals from 1934 to 1963, including Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly.

The two-and-a-half-hour tour includes the five-by-nine-foot cells in C-Block, which inmates sarcastically dubbed “Park Avenue.” Some parents seize the opportunity to give their kids a Scared Straight! lesson by putting them in a solitary confinement cell and shutting the door.

In addition to housing an abandoned prison, Alcatraz Island features the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast (Photograph by brianandjaclyn, Flickr)

In addition to housing an abandoned prison, Alcatraz Island features the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast (Photograph by brianandjaclyn, Flickr)

Those who have read the book Al Capone Does My Shirts will know that children — the sons and daughters of prison guards — resided on Alcatraz. Get a sense of their lives by strolling the grounds, where rocky cliffs are now claimed by thousands of roosting gulls and egrets.

Got teens? Opt for the more ghoulish night tour, which includes stops at the prison’s hospital and morgue.

Here are three more don’t-miss spots for families in San Francisco:

The Exploratorium

The Scoop: A Silicon Valley-worthy relaunch of the inter-active science museum founded by Frank Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) in 1969. The new digs are on Pier 15, near the Ferry Building.

Absolute Musts: Drink from the toilet-shaped water fountain. Sculpt with electrified Play-Doh at the Tinkering Studio. Sample a California seawater cocktail at the bar (grown-ups only).

Mission District

California Academy of Sciences, located in Golden Gate Park, is one of the world's largest natural history museums. (Photograph by dollop, Flickr)

The California Academy of Sciences, located in Golden Gate Park, is one of the world’s largest natural history museums. (Photograph by dollop, Flickr)

The Scoop: This Latino/boho/hipster neighborhood feels like an adult enclave, but there’s plenty here for the pint-sized.

Absolute Musts: Peek into the hushed sanctum of the Mission Dolores. Walk through mural-laden Balmy Alley. Order a cone of ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodles) ice cream at the Bi-Rite Creamery.

Golden Gate Park

The Scoop: At more than 1,000 acres it’s 20 percent larger than Central Park, with lakes, fields, windmills, gardens, and two museums (including the California Academy of Sciences). You’ll need a plan.

Absolute Musts: Ride the century-old carousel at the Children’s Quarter (only the beasts in the middle row go up and down). Count bison (there’s been a herd since the 1890s). Get free swing dance lessons on Sundays.

This piece, written by Kimberley Lovato, appeared in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

Comments

  1. The Muskie Traveler
    themuskietraveler.blogspot.com
    November 13, 2013, 3:35 pm

    Alcatraz was so interesting when we visited. My family did the recorded tour around the prison and it just so happened to be the anniversary of its closing. As we were walking around the gift shop we came across an old man in a guard’s uniform, who just so happened to be the very guard who locked the gates for the very last time and also had the very key. Having read Al Capone Does my Shirts as a child I enjoyed that tour even more as I could make connections to the history. Great travel advice for families!