Cross the Golden Gate Bridge for a Great San Francisco Day Trip

San Francisco is my hometown, so when we go back for a visit it’s like a trip back to the old stomping grounds. But now with the kids in tow, it’s a bit of a different experience. No more explorations South of Market for drinks at the latest dive bar or adventures in Asian dining on Clement Street where you play “Guess That Meat.” Instead, I get to show them the cool stuff I remember as a kid growing up here.

The City by the Bay has an excellent public transportation system with BART, the MUNI and any number of other modes of transportation to help you get from here to there. If you are staying at the very well located Hilton San Francisco Union Square, it’s really easy to get around via a variety of transportation modes, even your feet.

Still, it’s worth it to venture beyond those seven square miles that make up San Francisco proper. A short day trip across the Golden Gate Bridge is just the ticket. (Bring snacks.)

Cross the GOLDEN GATE Bridge for Amazing Views
Obviously an iconic landmark associated with San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is even more impressive when viewed from the other side. Seen from the city, views are often partially blocked by buildings, or even more often, that pesky fog. Get up and pack the kids into the car after breakfast to take the easy drive along Highway 101 North, crossing the famous bridge before it gets too crowded. Open all the windows and the sunroof if you have one, smell the salty ocean air and look up to ponder the gargantuan towers.

Best question from my kids: “Why do they call it the Golden Gate Bridge when it’s actually painted red, Daddy?” I dunno kids, I dunno. (But they are right – it’s clearly red, not golden.) If you’re curious now, find the answer here.

San Francisco Day Trip - Golden Gate Bridge Scenic Overlook
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge on the Marin County side, the scenic lookout offers unmatched views of the bridge and San Francisco, Alcatraz, Bay Bridge, and more.

From here, take the first exit on the right after you cross the bridge at the Scenic Overlook, pull into the lot and park the car. From here, you can get out and walk back along the pedestrian walkway on the bridge as you marvel at the views of the city, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge and the areas beyond. It’s much less crowded on this side of the bridge, and here’s the secret — the views are much better from this side! Pose for family selfies that are sure to end up on your holiday card next year.

Second best question from my kids: “Why do the bad guys always destroy the Golden Gate Bridge in every action movie we’ve ever seen, Daddy?” Once again, I dunno, but it does make for a dramatic sci-fi disaster scene.

Now get back in the car and cross under Highway 101 to the other side of the bridge, an area called the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From here, there is a two-lane road with many scenic turnouts, where you can park and look back towards the bridge from a different vantage point. An old military fort built long ago to protect the city from foreign marauders, the battlements at the Marin Headlands still exist. You can even climb around where the cannons used to sit, walk inside the old barracks, and see into the long-abandoned ammunition storage bunkers.

However, the best part of this journey is the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from this side – the outside, looking back towards the city with the bridge in front of it. TREMENDOUS PHOTO OPP!

San Francisco Day Trip - Golden Gate Bridge
Drive into the Marin Headlands for postcard-perfect views of the Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco framed behind.

Best kid question from this area: “Is it always so cold and windy here, Daddy?” Yep, it is. So bring a sweatshirt because it is NEVER warm here. No exaggeration.

From there, get back in the car and continue along the tiny road away from the bridge. Note: the road gets a bit windy but only for a few miles. The vistas are so worth it, and you can stop a number of places along the way if anyone gets a little urpy.

San Francisco Day Trip - Marin Headlands
Located within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Marin Headlands is a picturesque drive just minutes from the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

When you get down to ocean level, there are a bunch of fun and easy hikes, especially the one to the lighthouse. Park the car in the parking lot and follow the signs along the path to the old historic Point Bonita Lighthouse. It’s still active and they give great guided tours. The views back toward the bridge are quite impressive, with the rocky shoreline and wind-twisted pines in the foreground. This is a good place for a snack break too.

A very short drive beyond, stop at beautiful Rodeo Beach. The water is wetsuit-chilly, but the warm red and green pebbles that make up the beach feel welcoming on your bare feet, beckoning for a little nap break. Our kids gathered interesting stones and shells here; the seagulls left us alone when they realized we had no food; and the warm sun allowed a perfect respite before we hit the road again.

Inevitable question from the kids about now: “I’m hungry! Is there a restaurant around here, Daddy?”

Leaving the historic Fort Cronkhite buildings and Rodeo Beach behind, drive to nearby Sausalito. A postcard-perfect seaside enclave, Sausalito has many restaurants to choose from, most of which are extremely kid-friendly. Luckily, these establishments are accustomed to hungry masses, and you can choose from many delicious cafés with good menus and friendly staff.

Another great thing about Sausalito is the plethora of photo-worthy spots throughout the village. Perfect for visitors, the village looks ready-made for Instagram moments, complete with seals on the rocky beach, quirky houseboats floating on the water, fishermen with lines in the surf, rich people on custom sailboats and many, many views of downtown San Francisco across the bay. Originally a hippie hangout and now home to wealthy ex-pats of San Francisco’s successful tech community, Sausalito still has a bohemian flair. (Think tie-dyed shirts over Lulu Lemon yoga pants). Fun people watching!

After a quick Starbucks bracer for the parents, we snapped some selfies and got back into the car to retrace our path across the bridge. We were back in San Francisco proper within 15 minutes and ensconced in the Hilton garage lickety-split.

Tip: The bridge has a whopping $7 toll in this direction, but no one manning the toll booths. Either self-pay, or plan to get a notice in the mail that you owe the toll ASAP. (The toll compounds surprisingly quickly for those who lag, which I found out the hard way.) You can arrange to pay in advance through your rental car company as well. More details here.

Hope it’s as fun for your family as it was for ours!

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Know Before You Go

This post was written by Hilton Suggests Team Member, Jon B. Are you interested in traveling to San Francisco? Let us know if we can help you with any other recommendations. Tweet us for more great local travel tips!

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