Ooh, we love a good tourist attraction. Not a tourist trap, but a genuine attraction. Of all of the classic American icons a few really stand out: the Statue of Liberty, the White House, the Golden Gate Bridge. In our house, being the family travel folk that we are, we’ve got a lot of maps, and in particular, kid maps. They all have the Golden Gate Bridge on them so it’s the most recognizable landmark/icon to Oliver, our oldest.
When we showed him our route for out #2TDgoparks2016 epic road trip, he saw that we were going through San Francisco (which he thinks is its own state) and got so excited that we got to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. So, initially our route had us going through the North Bay and crossing in Richmond, California, but it was worth altering our path to show him the Golden Gate Bridge in person.
Is a stop at the Golden Gate Bridge worth it or is just a tourist stop that’ll be a messy waste of time? How easy is it to actually visit the Bridge? How long do you need? So many questions and we have most of the answers.
What you'll find...
Getting to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center
There are a few spots to visit and learn about the Golden Gate Bridge and its history, but our favorite is on the south side of the Bridge, within San Francisco. It’s really easy to get to. In fact, I feel confident saying that all roads in SF lead to the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s true. And even if you get lost somehow, you’ll end up in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
When you arrive at the Welcome Center, you’ll no doubt be shocked by the fubar mess that is traffic in the small parking area. Have no fear though, just follow the signs to the overflow parking. This is a better spot to park than the primary lot because there are fewer people and you’ll get to see a different view/side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Also, you’ll be on the side with the bunkers which are nifty to learn about (different post for a different day).
If you want to go to the Welcome Center on the Marin County side, you can do that too, and it’ll offer you a completely different view of the Bridge with San Francisco besides. It’s not a must-see stop though.
Tip: for visitors staying in San Francisco, take advantage of the transit system and take the bus to the Welcome Center or Presidio. It’ll be very SF of you and you won’t have to worry about parking.
Best photo spots
We stand by the San Francisco side as being the best spot to snap pics and get family photos with the Golden Gate Bridge. Being at the same level as the bridge makes for cool perspective shots and allows you to capture some of the cool engineering keeping the Bridge high above the San Francisco Bay.
Besides being up at the Welcome Center, you can go down to the Presidio or Fort Point for more fun shots. The Presidio goes along the water and is just beautiful. You can stroll from the Bridge… to the Bay Bridge if you like, and you’ll have a view of the Golden Gate Bridge almost all of the way.
Tip: this is the best place to enjoy a picnic. The Presidio and Chrissy Fields have beautiful grassy areas, benches and random picnic tables for you to enjoy a sit and a lunch.
If you head west towards the Pacific Ocean, you’ll need to take the trails (or there’s a driving/biking route) to Baker Beach. This is where you’ll get the breathtaking shots of the Golden Gate Bridge with waves crashing against the rocks below. So beautiful.
Warning: Baker Beach is also called Naker Beach as some people feel that it’s a nice place to get sand in your butt crack. I know, that’s not what you wanted to hear, but we have to drive this point home so you don’t go and get surprised by the… free-spirited nature of San Franciscans.
What to do at the Golden Gate Bridge
I think it’s clear that letting the Bridge be your muse and continually photographing her is the way to go, but there is more to it. The Welcome Center has great displays about the history of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. It’s also where you get your National Park Passport stamps. And you can get your iconic San Francisco gear here.
Can you get a pressed penny at the Welcome Center? Nope. You have to head down to Fort Point and the Presidio to find a penny press. We only just started collecting pressed pennies in our household and we’re ready to fully commit to collecting them at this point, so on our next trip we’ll be sure to get one at the Bridge… or I guess from one of the neighboring sites below the Bridge area.
There is also a restaurant and snack stand at the Welcome Center plaza if you so need. The Round House is another iconic feature and it matches the Bridge’s signature color, International Orange.
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge
Of course you can cross the Golden Gate Bridge. You must. There are a few options for crossing. You can drive (like we did on this trip), walk, ride a bike, or take a bus. For the people visiting San Francisco as their main destination, the bike option is best. You can rent bikes down in the Wharf area and they’ll get you squared away with bike maps and suggested routes to visit the Golden Gate Bridge and more.
If you’re going to walk, know that it’ll be cold (most likely), loud (so many cars) and windy (duh). Be prepared for all of these things. For the kiddos, be sure you’ve got a spare jacket or something to keep them warm, even if they insist that they’ll be fine. We often don’t trust our kids’ personal measurement of their tolerance for cold. You should see our camping tips about this.
Note: our oldest, Oliver, is very observant and asks lots of questions. No doubt next time he’ll ask us why there are signs and telephones all along the Bridge. There are safety precautions of all sorts to prevent both accidental and intentional plummeting from the Bridge. Perhaps formulate a realistic explanation of these things before your kid puts you on the spot. The signs are really blatant about suicide prevention, so just think ahead that you may have to talk to your kids.
For those driving across the Bridge, you’ll be able to take some cool shots as you’re crossing the midspan. We opened our sunroof and watched the suspension cables get close and far as we drove. The kids loved the sight of it all.
Tip: use the sunroof as a frame for taking pictures. If it’s open, there’s nothing to cloud your view and you’ll see a fun new perspective.
Planning your visit
Knowing that San Francisco has a ton of tourists… I mean a ton of traffic, you should plan for it to take at least 20 minutes to get to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center from almost anywhere in the city, with the exception of the Presidio. If you’re coming from the north, remember that people live in Marin County and commute into San Francisco, so considering the time of day, you may face commuter traffic.
Depending on whether or not you only want to stop and get a few pics and get back on the road or do more, you should plan to be at the Golden Gate Bridge for about 30 minutes. If you want to wander around the bunkers, maybe do some trails and check out the displays, one hour should be good. If you want to jaunt down the hill to Fort Point or Baker Beach, you should just allot a whole day to being in the immediate area of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Not going to be in the Bay Area again for a while or you’ve got kids or travel companions that will appreciate the stop (or the pictures they can take)? Carving out the time to explore a bit is totally worth it, particularly if it’s a beautiful day. The Golden Gate Bridge is an engineering feat and iconic of so many aspects of American culture and history. Simply put, you won’t regret visiting the Golden Gate Bridge and alotting an hour to enjoy the sight is well worth it. Trust us and have a fun, memorable time!