San Francisco was recently rated in the nation’s top five most walkable cities. I’m calling malarky – at least if you’re traveling with a wheelchair. The hills of San Francisco are even steeper than what you envision (thanks to those movie chase scenes on Lombard Ave). They were scary in a car, and nearly impossible with the manual wheelchair (even with loads of help from Mom and Dad).
Does that mean San Francisco isn’t wheelchair accessible? Absolutely not. We had a fantastic four days in the city – we just didn’t do as much walking as we anticipated. Here’s all we learned, loved, and loathed in the Golden City!
When to Go
Like any city, it’s crowded in the summer. Unlike many cities, summer also isn’t the best weather for visiting. We visited in June, because that’s when we all had vacation, but it was still pretty cold (high 50’s to low 60’s). The fog also lasted until after lunch each day, blocking any views of the bridge or over the water. September is actually the warmest month in San Francisco, and the crowds will have dwindled. I hear it’s also beautiful in the fall.
Getting There and Around
San Francisco is one of the few cities that I suggest flying straight into. The SFO airport runs great deals, so there’s no need to travel in from a different airport. If you’re not finding a deal from your home airport, consider trying a neighboring departure city. Our one airport runs all the deals to LAX, and the other to SFO. I typically run a search on Kayak to find the best deals.
Renting a Car
If you’re staying in the city, this may not be necessary for you. We did a road trip through northern California, so we needed our own vehicle. The pros of having a rental are the freedom to run on your own schedule and stop wherever you want. The cons are finding parking and rental prices this year!
If you opt for a rental, you need to know:
- Priceline is your best bet price-wise. Search all vehicles – you may find a surprising deal on a vehicle that wouldn’t fit your usual search (we saved over 50% by going with an SUV instead of a car).
- Parking with your handicap placard is free in any public metered space. You can search for blue zones, but you don’t actually need one. This made parking easy in most places… except for right downtown (near the Cable Car Museum).
- Picking up in-town, instead of at the airport, can save money and increase your selection.
Our Bubblebum car seats made fitting three across in a smaller rental a breeze – they were also so much easier to get through the airport!
If you skip the rental, no worries. San Francisco has an abundance of wheelchair accessible transportation options. For a full guide on public transportation options, check this out. Just keep in mind that sometimes elevators are out of order, which changes accessibility. Always ask when you board if the elevator at your stop is working. If not, you may need to make an alternate plan. My kids always love a bus or tram, so this is a fun way to explore the city!
What to See and Do
Golden Gate Bridge
Obviously. This is actually the main reason we visited – it was at the top of our eight year old’s bucket list!
First, let me tell you that you’re not going to miss the bridge. I researched the best places to view the Golden Gate Bridge ahead of time, and found lists that all included Marin Headlands, Fort Point, Battery Spencer (not an accessible path to the best view, but the parking lot still offers a decent view), and Crissy Field. Once you near the bridge, you’ll see signs for a variety of vistas and pull-offs. Not only are they all good views, but you’ll have good views throughout the entire area. Don’t worry too much about where you’re going to get a picture. Most views of the Golden Gate Bridge are wheelchair accessible.
We were going to skip Crissy Field, but it ended up being one of my favorite views. We parked on Mason St. and took the accessible trail through the park all the way up to The Warming Hut. Marin Headlands is worth the drive, even if you can’t get out for a hike.
Golden Gate Park
This is like the Central Park of San Francisco. In addition to sprawling greens, gardens, trails, and play and picnic areas, there are several attractions within the park. You can receive $2 admission (with your disability ACCESS card) at the Japanese Tea Garden, the Academy of Sciences (an impressive natural history museum), and the Botanical Garden.
The Japanese Tea Garden was a bit of a nightmare in terms of accessibility. I wouldn’t have paid the full admission for what we were able to see, but with the discount it was still worth it for what we could get to. Even if you skip the attractions, it’s a beautiful park and easy to navigate. It’s also a great place to let the kids run off some energy!
San Francisco’s Chinatown is known as the best, and it did not disappoint. Many of the shops and restaurants were not wheelchair accessible. It’s still worth rolling through for the sites. The main street goes across the hill, so it’s not up and down. We loved Hong Kong Clay Pot. I suggest takeout – since the restaurant is up a full flight of steep stairs! Of course, there are many other options, but most are not accessible.
This is a great place to get your souvenirs! The streets are lined with cheap shops selling every type of token you can imagine – at prices cheaper than anywhere else. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory makes a unique stop. You can take a factory tour and learn how fortune cookies are made. the tour is wheelchair accessible. Don’t miss Dragon’s Gate on your way in.
I feel funny sharing something we didn’t experience, but I was excited for this local tip. You’ve probably heard of Twin Peaks, a scenic viewing point above the city. Tank Hill is nearby, and less crowded. We stumbled upon this thanks to a friendly neighbor at our Home Exchange. It looks like a neat park with an excellent view. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit – so I can’t confirm accessibility first hand. The gentleman directing us didn’t know of any obstacles, but you know how people traveling without wheelchairs can miss things.
I wasn’t sure the kids would be thrilled with idea of spending the day in prison, but it was a hit! In fact, we saw plenty of young families… and fewer crying children than at Disney World! The audio tour is given to you as a recording on a walkie-talkie like device, and the kids loved the novelty of walking around listening to their own device.
I was also pretty impressed with the ease of access. We were able to pre-board and disembark for the ferry and it was an easy ramp. The bathrooms on the ferry are not wheelchair accessible, and there’s no changing table – go before you leave or after you arrive – it’s less than a 20 minute ride.
Once we arrived on the island, there’s a tram to bring you to the top of the hill, where the main prison is. The tram is for the wheelchair user and one accompanying guest, but I’m sure if I had been traveling with the kids on my own they would have made an exception. They were all very accommodating. The prison itself had smooth, wide paths, and an elevator. We didn’t even require an alternate path for the tour, which was a welcome change.
Pier 39 is known for it’s harbor seals… but we didn’t see any. If they’re not out when you visit, you can always stop in the Aquarium of the Bay for your wildlife sightings. Regardless, the pier is filled with unique shops and restaurants. Chowder in a bread bowl, French crepes, fresh seafood, the world’s oldest magnet store, a musical staircase, and a carousel are just some of the treats awaiting.
There are handicap drop-off zones at the entrance, if parking is difficult to find. We were able to find open spaces on the same road, just before the pier. The pier also has ramps throughout and an elevator at the far end, just past the carousel.
Yikes! Two places in one article that I’m sharing without having been! This one has excellent reviews – both for accessibility and for just plain awesomeness, but it was still closed when we were there! It’s like a science center, but massive and for all ages. The Exploratorium is open, now – and you should probably check it out! I know we will, the next time we’re in town. If you’re heading to the Exploratorium, or any of the major ticketed attractions, check out Go City for big discounts!
Ghirardelli Square wasn’t as big or impressive as I was expecting, but it’s still neat to see… and it only makes sense to enjoy an overpriced chocolate treat in the place where it all began! Instead of knocking down the original chocolate factory, it was made into a quaint square of shops – including a Ghirardelli marketplace and ice cream shop. There is one handicap parking space immediately in front of the Ghirardelli store at the top of the hill. There were also plenty of metered spaces (free with a handicap placard) along the entry street. We were able to enjoy our treats by the fountain, while a live show took place on the balcony.
What to Eat
Speaking of chocolate and ice cream, Ghirardelli isn’t the only San Francisco treat worth stopping for.
Everywhere you go, you’ll see chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Boudin Bakery is the original San Francisco Sourdough, and if you stop at the Fishermans Wharf location, you can get an experience to go with your meal. The museum is currently under construction, but you can still see into the factory through the windows, and listen as a friendly guide shares the history and bread making process that is unique to Boudin. If your kids pass the quiz at the end, there’s even a neat treat! The entire experience is family friendly, wheelchair accessible, and delicious – all of our favorite things!
This is another offering that you’re going to see everywhere. Sotto Mare in little Italy and Fog Harbor Fish House at Pier 39 have excellent reputations, but there are plenty of other little stops along the piers that look like delicious options. It’s fresh, and it’s everywhere.
Chinese Take Out
Going back to my Chinatown suggestion of Hong Kong Clay Pot – this is the best Chinese food we’ve had in this country. There’s no better place for some Chinese take out!
Where to Stay
It’s a big city – you can find all of the chains you prefer. Whether you’re using real money, or Bonvoy points, it’s cheaper to stay near the airport. If you’re traveling with pets, Stay Pineapple is the place for them to be pampered. Omni San Francisco is a do-good hotel, so you know your money is being well spent.
We went a different route and stayed through HomeExchange. This was brilliant because we got to stay in a quintessential San Francisco row home and the kids had plenty to keep them busy during our down time. Between the trampoline, LEGO bins, games, hammocks, books, and toys – Mom and Dad even got to sleep in a bit!
There are wheelchair accessible homes available; but, because you’re staying in someone else’s home, schedule flexibility makes it a lot easier to book. We really enjoyed having a home away from home, and are doing our best to travel this way as often as we can!
All the Rest
If you’re looking for more in the area, Access North California has an incredible accessibility guide for the region. Somehow I didn’t discover this until after our visit, but it would’ve made planning so much easier! You can also check out our accessible road trip itinerary here!