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There are so many things to do in San Francisco with kids, it’s easy to see why many visitors leave their hearts there! The little cable cars do seem to climb halfway to the stars as the song suggests. As they go, they pass rows of charming old Victorian homes situated in diverse hilly neighborhoods.
Kids of all ages love exploring these areas as well as San Francisco’s many family-friendly parks, museums, and activities. Parents also enjoy that their kids are learning through experiential fun! The cultural, traditional, and quirky live side-by-side around the San Francisco Bay and the locals wouldn’t have it any other way. Here are our picks for the best things to do in San Francisco with kids.
10. Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
The lonely call of the fog horn is common around the Golden Gate Bridge but, the view is ever-changing. Clear and sunny days often get interrupted by “Karl the Fog”, as San Franciscans refer to the famous area weather system. One of the most beloved bridges in the world, The Golden Gate is flanked by stunning Golden Gate National Parks on each end.
A walk across the structure is an easy activity for all abilities and hiking levels. But, it can also be a chilly experience so dress in layers! Viewing platforms on the span provide a perspective of San Francisco visitors won’t get anywhere else. They also reveal a dazzling view of Fort Point, the Civil War era fortification nestled under the bridge platform. To learn more about this iconic landmark, sign up for free guided walking tour at the Bridge Plaza.
There are nearly a dozen National Parks in the Bay Area. Read about them all in our guide to National Parks near San Francisco.
9. Discover Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf is the best place to get clam chowder in a bowl fashioned from a round of San Francisco’s world-famous sourdough. The area also has a few attractions to enjoy while you’re walking off that filling meal.
Before the Golden Gate Bridge existed, the Hyde Street Pier and Maritime National Historic Park was an automobile ferry terminal connecting San Francisco and Marin. At Pier 45, Musee Mechanique traces the arcade experience back to the early 1900’s. Moored next to it is the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine open for self-guided tours.
But the most unusual sight is to be found on the K Dock at Pier 39. Hundreds of sea lions lounge on former boat slips. Watching them fight over precious space on the docks is endlessly entertaining. Learn more about these creatures at the Aquarium of the Bay. Want to get out on the bay? Well, the Red & White Fleet offers cruises out of Pier 43 ½.
8. Visit Alcatraz
Alcatraz , also referred to as “the Rock,” was home to some pretty nefarious types during its tenure as a federal prison. Al “Scarface” Capone and Robert “Birdman” Stroud were among the more than 1,500 convicts who did hard time there. But, did you know that the Rock also served as a Civil War fortress, a bird sanctuary, and the home base of the first lighthouse on the West Coast? It was also where the American Indian Red Power movement took root, occupying the then abandoned prison for over 18 months.
Tours of Alcatraz focus on the cell blocks, including solitary confinement, which you can experience for yourself, as well as colorful stories of daily life on the island. Just book well in advance as this tour is extremely popular!
7. Ride a Cable Car
The three remaining routes of San Francisco’s iconic cable car system — two routes running from downtown near Union Square out to Fisherman’s Wharf and a third along California Street — are a “must-ride”, taking visitors up and down San Francisco’s infamous steep hills. After their ride, families can learn more about the world’s last manually operated transportation system at the Cable Car Museum. Filled with historical exhibits and examples of old cable cars, it is considered a working museum because part of it houses the cable car power source, which drives the cables, as well as the car depot. It’s a visit that comes at the best price too — free!
6. Don’t Wait for a Game to Visit Oracle Park
Home to the 2014 World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, Oracle Park has many family-friendly attractions your kids will enjoy. Lukcily, you don’t have to visit the city during baseball season to take advantage of them! When the Giants are away, the Coca-Cola Fan Lot is open to the public at no charge. Your kids can take to the Coke bottle-shaped super slide and play around the 26-foot high replica of a vintage 1927 four-fingered baseball glove, They can also hit balls and run the bases at the Little Giants Park, a smaller version of Oracle Park.
5. Snap Selfies with Instagrammable Street Art
San Francisco is loaded with Instragrammable art your teens will want in their feeds. The Mission, North Beach, and Chinatown all have large outdoor galleries of murals. There are also staircases! San Francisco has several staircases that are frequently featured in social media selfies. There’s the dazzling mosaic that is the 16th Avenue Steps. The Hidden Garden Steps feature embossed tiles forming psychedelic butterflies and floral patterns. The gorgeous pop of design on the Lincoln Park Steps was a neighborhood effort to repair a neglected staircase at the eastern edge of Lincoln Park.
The city’s newest urban art project is Art Trail SF. It traverses the city’s central neighborhoods, from Hayes Valley to Alamo Square, through the Lower Haight and along the Divisadero Corridor. Notable stops include the Painted Gentlemen, a rotating gallery of murals adjacent to the iconic row of Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies.
4. Get Back to Nature in the Presidio
Presidio Park San Francisco is the perfect natural escape in the middle of the city! The largest US national park in an urban area, it’s home to a myriad of butterfly species, birds, and native plants. San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood street also runs along a tidy row of officers’ homes on this former military base.
Down in Crissy Field, a former air strip beside the San Francisco Bay, families now fly kites and play with their dogs. Kids explore Battery Chamberlain and other artilleries that dot the coastline near Baker Beach. Enjoy a picnic in lush meadows and along breezy headlands. Take to secluded hiking trails that wind through cypress, pine, and eucalyptus forests. One of my favorite hikes is the portion of the coastal trail leading to Land’s End and ultimately Ocean Beach. The Presidio is also home to Lucasfilm, the creator of Star Wars, and the Disney Family Museum.
Read about 9 great experiences Presidio Park has to offer families.
3. Check out Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park attractions are cultural, horticultural, and downright surprising. Who would expect an American metropolitan city park would have bison living it? A small herd has roved the park’s 35-acre Bison Paddock since the late 1800s.
Visitors can rent bikes and paddle boats. They can also snap photos with beautiful backdrops like Strawberry Hill, an island with a waterfall, or picturesque Stow Lake. A walk in the Japanese Tea Garden includes pagodas, stone lanterns, Koi ponds, and Zen gardens as well as refreshments in the tea house.
Don’t miss the Conservatory of Flowers, a masterpiece of Victorian architecture topped with a stunning glass dome. It’s home to aquatic species, carnivorous plants, Dahlia and Rhododendron gardens, and more. On the western end of the park, two Dutch windmills sit side by side. Once responsible for park irrigation, they now shadow the Beach Chalet, a charming restaurant with amazing ocean views.
2. Have Your Pick of Kid-Friendly Museums
San Francisco has many museums with hands-on, kid-friendly experiences. The MOMA, Palace of the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum offer family tours. They’re often followed by art projects led by professional artists.
The California Academy of Sciences is an epic exploration in science, ecology, astronomy, and the ecosystem. Learn about earthquakes and animals living in California at the Randall Museum. Kids can make their own stop motion film and produce a music video at the Children’s Creativity Museum.
The Exploratorium takes advantage of its close proximity to the San Francisco Bay to explore the effects of wind, water, and tides. In fact, it is filled with science, ecology, and biology experiments your kids will want to experience so be sure you have a full day to devote to it.
1. Explore Unique Neighborhoods
San Francisco’s vibrant neighborhoods hold old world charms and traditions while embracing modern ideals. If your visit falls in late June, don’t miss the LGBTQ pride celebrations in the Castro. They culminate in the Pride Parade, one the most colorful celebrations you’ll ever witness.
The Haight Ashbury neighborhood evokes images of free spirited 60’s hippie culture. For a bustling cultural experience, head to Chinatown. Enjoy family style Italian dining and gelato in North Beach. Hike the staircases of Telegraph Hill in search of the area’s famous parrots. Take in the city views around Coit Tower. Get a taste of Latin culture in the Mission District. Traverse the eight hairpin turns of the “Crookedest Street in the World,” Lombard Street. Play Japanese arcade games and snap a group shot in a green screen photo booth with outlandish backdrops. Both activities are among the entertaining surprises in Japan Town.
Attack a Margherita pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana or devour a clam and garlic pie from North Beach Pizza. Feast on delectable tacos, burritos, and tortas from El Farolito, El Toro Taqueria, or La Taqueria; three beloved Mission District establishments.
Then cast off guilt about carb consumption at Tartine Bakery. Gorge on a sundae at Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco’s preeminent chocolate outpost. Boudin Bakery is the place to partake of classic San Francisco clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl and kids go crazy for the Shrimp Packets and Mongolian Beef at House of Nanking.
Should you find yourself on Market Street around the Embarcadero, be sure to visit the Ferry Building Marketplace. Located in the historic Ferry Building, it’s the city’s largest farmers market. It’s also the permanent home for local artisan producers like the Cowgirl Creamery and Dandelion Chocolate.
Read reviews of kid friendly San Francisco dining on Trekaroo.
Here are some great, family-friendly hotels located near iconic San Francisco sites:
Hilton San Francisco Union Square
This Hilton property is a classic home base for families enjoying retail therapy in Union Square. It is also within walking distance to a majority of San Francisco’s live theater performances and adventures on the city’s waterfront. Kids love the pool at this hotel as well as the scrumptious breakfast buffet guests in the hotel’s restaurant, Poached. There’s also a convenient grab and go gourmet marketplace just off the lobby. The Herb N’ Kitchen offers fresh, seasonal food throughout the day.
Stay in the San Francisco Presidio
There are two hotels to choose from in the Presidio. Located at opposite ends the main post, both hotels are not just kid-friendly, they’re dog-friendly as well! The Inn at the Presidiois a cozy 22-unit hotel designed for socializing and reading. There are several gathering points for guests – a living room, mess hall and spacious porches. Books were everywhere.
It’s sister property,the Lodge at the Presidio, is the closest hotel to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The views of the bridge are so spectacular, you’ll feel like San Francisco opened its Golden Gate just for you!
The Hotel Zephyr in Fisherman’s Wharf
Part club house, old school game room, hang out pad, and all-around fun, the Hotel Zephyr is adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Families enjoy challenging each other to pool, backgammon and shuffleboard in the Game Room. Watch the fog roll in from the hotel’s outdoor area, the Yard. While you’re out there, why not also learn the art of Tubular Ping Pong?
Read reviews of kid friendly San Francisco lodging on Trekaroo.
“Must Do” Day Trips
Your family will become very familiar with the term “micro-climate” during your travels around the San Francisco Bay Area. This means that you may wake up to 67 degrees in San Francisco but you could encounter a temperature dip just across the bay or a large increase as you go inland. A little preparation will go a long way in making sure your family is comfortable for seeing the sights.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Made up of more than 70,000 acres, Point Reyes National Seashore has more than 70 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails as well as numerous hike-in campgrounds. Wild coastal beaches and headlands, estuaries, and uplands make up the peninsula of this preserve. It is a great place for watching the gray whale migration and observing raptors and shorebirds, and see elephant seals basking on the beach. In addition, there are opportunities for learning more about the San Andreas Fault, 16th-century maritime history, and to set off on your own searches for oyster shells and sand dollars.
Microclimate tip: Summers are often cold and foggy in Point Reyes, while winters in this area are generally clear. All family members should bring a jacket or sweat shirt that can be tied around the waist as the day warms up.
Muir Woods National Monument
Often described as a pilgrimage not an excursion, Muir Woods is a majestic collection of redwood trees 400 to nearly 1,000 years old. Douglas fir, maples, tanoaks, and red alders sprout up in the sprays of light that squeeze in between the redwoods’ huge trunks. Wildlife like owls, deer, chipmunks, and woodpeckers play and live among their branches and roots. Flat easy trails loop through the park and several of them include ways to cross Redwood Creek, which flows all year long.
Microclimate tip: Ocean moisture creeps up over the headlands and spills over into the protected valley where Muir Woods is located. The daytime temperatures rarely climb past the low 70’s. So consider bringing a sweatshirt or light jacket that can be tied around the waist, even if you visit in the summer months. A visit in the winter months could require toting a warm jacket or an umbrella.
Sausalito offers opportunities to explore marine life and enjoy the San Francisco cityscape from across the bay. Families particularly enjoy the Bay Area Discovery Museum. It is filled with all sorts of exhibits, play areas, and fun educational things to do.
Fifteen minutes down the road, is the picturesque town of Tiburon. Here you can catch the Angel Island Ferry and get out on the bay. Angel Island State Park is a gorgeous 10-minute sail away. Sweeping views, hiking and biking trails, and other outdoor adventures wait for you!
Microclimate Tip: Dress in layers! It can get breezy on the bay, but it could be very nice too so be prepared to shed or layer clothing according to what the weather dishes out.
It may be a place more immediately connected to fine wine and culinary arts but, the Napa Valley has attractions that are family-friendly, too! Kids love to watch the Old Faithful Geyser erupt, pretend they are knights or ladies at Castello di Amorosa, and conduct geological study in the Petrified Forest. Approximately 78 wineries offer family-friendly features on their tours that include grape juice and coloring books for the kids.
Microclimate Tip: Napa’s climate is considerably warmer than San Francisco, often by as much as 10 to 15 degrees. So, pack sunscreen and head out to enjoy a typically clear, comfortable day.
Lead image by Bigstock.