With its famously steep hills, iconic sights, and many kid-friendly attractions, San Francisco is chock full of family fun. Unique thrills like a ride on the clanging cable cars, a ferry trip across the bay to visit a fabled island prison, amazing experiential food spots are some of the only-in-San Francisco experiences that kids and adults will love. Hands-on museums, a bayside aquarium, and enormous parks round out the family fun.
Read on to discover our best bets for family fun on a trip to San Francisco. And for more Bay Area fun, check out our list of things to do in Silicon Valley with kids.
1. Stroll through Pier 39, taking in the sights and sounds of specialty shops, restaurants, sweet shops, and a two-tier carousel. Make your way to the end of the pier for a breathtaking view of the bay and maybe spot some sea lions sunning themselves.
Aquarium of the Bay. Photo courtesy of the aquarium
2. Press your nose to the glass tanks at Aquarium of the Bay to get up close and personal with bay area marine life, including sharks and rays, jellyfish and octopus, and playful river otters.
3. Nosh on local fare at the historic Ferry Building Marketplace at the foot of bustling Market Street, where more than 40 local vendors operate. Faves include Cowgirl Creamery, Gott's Roadside, Recchiuti Confections, and Blue Bottle Coffee. On market days, the plaza out front features food trucks and colorful displays of California produce at the farmer's market. My kids loved poking around Book Passage, an indy bookseller with a well-curated children's section and many titles by local authors.
4. Tinker with more than 650 exhibits at the Exploratorium on Pier 15 for an inside look at science, art, and human perception. Kids can build their own bridges and electric circuits, discover optical illusions, and drink (clean) water from a toilet. My kids were fascinated with the inner workings of clocks and pinball machines and could have spent an entire day tinkering. Afterward, enjoy a waterfront meal at Sea Glass, the attached family-friendly restaurant with water views and local fare.
5. Sample the seafood and souvenir shops at Fisherman's Wharf, the city's historic fishing industry hub-turned-tourist attraction. Note the clean, public restrooms halfway down the pier.
6. Gaze across the bay at imposing Alcatraz Island, or book a ferry ride to "The Rock" for a tour of the notorious federal prison.
Photo courtesy of the Bay Area Discovery Museum
7. Board the ferry for a ride to Sausalito and take in the majestic bay views, along with waterfront shops and dining. Spend some time at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, an interactive, 7.5-acre indoor and outdoor adventure in art and science designed for kids ages 6 months to 10 years old.
8. Meander through Golden Gate Park to get to Koret Children's Quarter, where the kids can climb rope towers and a wave wall, or ride the nearby carousel. Bring some cardboard to ride the famous concrete slide or head to Stow Lake for paddleboats.
9. Investigate a four-story rainforest, an underwater coral reef, and faraway galaxies at the California Academy of Sciences. My youngest, who recently studied the rainforest in kindergarten, loved climbing down from the canopy to the understory and forest floor. Don't miss the earthquake simulator for a demonstration of the wall-shaking quakes San Francisco has experienced.
10. Dip your toes in the chilly Pacific at Ocean Beach, a 3.5-mile stretch of shore on the city's western edge. Dine at Beach Chalet at sunset to enjoy sweeping ocean views.
Alamo Square. Photo courtesy of San Francisco City Parks
11. Bring your "Full House" fans to Alamo Square to see the pastel-colored Painted Ladies, the quintessential San Francisco row homes with Victorian charm. A dual-level playground in the park is an added bonus.
12. Doodle, sculpt, invent, and create music at the Children's Creativity Museum, a hands-on, multimedia experience that celebrates innovation and creative expression.
13. Visit the San Francisco Zoo with young animal lovers to see hippos, giraffe, bears, and penguins. Ride the Little Puffer steam train through the 100-acre zoo or hike the wildlife trails.
14. Soak up some sun while the kids clamber through the huge playground and grassy fields at Dolores Park in the Mission District.
Coit Tower. Christopher Michel via Flickr
15. Climb to the top of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill for unparalleled views of the city. Check out the WPA murals painted inside in the 1930s.
Kids will be fascinated by the Cable Car Museum. Photo by kinukovv via Instragram
16. Ride the Powell-Mason cable car line through Chinatown or the less crowded California Street line. Take your transportation-loving kids to the Cable Car Museum to see how those clanging cars have been working since the 1870s.
17. Spend time at Ghirardelli Square, the renowned former chocolate factory, where you can stroll around the fountain, browse in the gift shops, or grab a bite to eat. My boys found a kid-sized picnic table and some smooth rocks to play tic-tac-toe while my daughter and I shopped for some gifts.
18. Stand in line for a taste of decadent chocolate or a mega ice cream sundae and at one of the original Ghirardelli Chocolate shops.
19. Take in the view from the top of Lombard Street, the city's most famous crooked street with eight steep switchbacks, then walk down the stairs built into the sidewalk.
20. Hike the shoreline on a stroller-friendly trail through Crissy Field and up to Fort Point for a closeup of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
21. Hold hands as you walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and stop in at the welcome center to learn about the amazing history and engineering of the bridge. If your kids are old enough, or brave enough, rent bikes and pedal across the bridge.
Palace of Fine Arts. Photo courtesy of the California Park System
22. Stroll around the domed rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts and surrounding gardens.
23. Visit the Walt Disney Family Museum for a glimpse into the personal life of the man behind Mickey Mouse. Screenings of classic Disney movies are held most afternoons.
24. Root for the SF Giants during a day game at AT&T Ballpark, as we did. The stadium is beautiful on a sunny day, with views of the bay. Don't miss the giant baseball glove and huge slides inside a Coke bottle at the children's play area behind left field.
25. If you miss any monuments, play a quick round of miniature golf at SubPar Minigolf in Ghirardelli Square, where each hole is built to resemble a San Francisco landmark. My sons loved the break from sightseeing and thought the mini-monuments were pretty cool.
Know Before You Go
The weather in San Francisco is mild year-round, albeit foggy and unexpectedly cool in summer, especially in the evenings. We lucked out with a few sunny days in early July, although the temperature in San Francisco was 15 degrees cooler than it was in the surrounding area, so pack sweaters and light jackets for the kids.
Getting around San Francisco with kids was easy using Uber and the Muni streetcar that runs along the Embarcadero. We stayed near Union Square and did a lot of walking.
Unless noted, photos by the author