63 things to do in San Francisco with kids
San Francisco is one of those cities which has tempted me for years – and while I didn’t exactly intend to wait until after my daughter was born, it turned out to be a fantastic place to visit as a family.
For starters, it has all the big attractions you might expect from a major city but never felt as overwhelming or busy as some others in America. There’s lot of quirky things to discover as well, which is always a winner with my daughter – plus plenty of outdoor space, from parks to beaches.
1. Take a vintage fire truck tour around the city – wrapped up against the summer fog in an open-top fire truck, we rattled and rocketed up and down the famous hills of the city, from Fisherman’s Wharf across the Golden Gate bridge to the viewpoint near Fort Baker.
2. Spot sea lions – we had no trouble seeing (and hearing… and smelling) the colony of California sea lions than live at Pier 39. You might need longer than you think to watch them swimming and sunbathing.
3. While you’re on the waterfront, take a cruise on the San Francisco Bay for great views of the skyline, bridge and Alcatraz.
4. Even better, take the cruise out to Alcatraz – book in advance as tickets get snapped up, but even young kids will be fascinated by the famous prison.
5. Hit the beach. Ocean Beach, on the city’s western edge, isn’t great for swimming because of the strong currents but you can easily while away a few hours building sandcastles.
6. Head across the road to spot the windmills in Golden Gate Park, with a gentle wander under the trees.
7. Or walk through the San Francisco botanical gardens, also in the park, with more than 50,000 individual plants in the 55 acres.
8. Stop and smell the roses (and orchids, begonias, hibiscus… plus hundreds of other species) at the nearby Conservatory of Flowers.
9. And transport yourself to another world in the park’s Japanese tea garden. It’s a big park…
10. While you’re there, say hi to the family of American bison which live in the buffalo paddock. (All together… what’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison? You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo).
11. For more animals, see rare species like the snow leopard during a visit to the San Francisco Zoo.
12. And spy some of the flock of wild parrots who live on Telegraph Hill, with Coit Tower nearby.
13. Or if sea creatures are a favourite, head to the Aquarium of the Bay, which has a whopping 20,0000 marine inhabitants – you can book a behind-the-scenes tour to find out how they’re cared for too, and get skip the line tickets with this link.
14. There’s also an aquarium, a planetarium, a rain forest and 40,000 animals under one living roof at the California Academy of Sciences.
15. Go and listen to the Wave Organ at the marina – head beyond the Golden Gate yacht club for some lovely views, and possibly a small recital as the organ pipes transform the tide’s movements into music. Well, sounds.
16. To explore the whole city, follow the city’s 49 Mile scenic drive – you can pick up a map from the Visitor Information Center, and travel past some of San Francisco’s most famous attractions and best-known neighbourhoods.
17. Or let someone else do all the hard work with a Big Bus Tour around the city’s neighbourhoods.
18. Head to the top of Twin Peaks to enjoy panoramic views of the city. Drive rather than hike, unless you’re very fit.
19. Rent bikes and cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge for another experience of the iconic landmark.
20. Ride (or walk) one of the trails at The Presidio – The Batteries to Bluffs trail is a great one.
21. Follow the trail from the Land’s End Lookout to see the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a labyrinth, and fabulous views of the coastline.
22. See the massive mechanisms that keep the city’s famous cable cars running, with a visit to the free Cable Car Museum on Nob Hill.
23. Hop on one of the classic cable cars – the Powell-Hyde line is probably the most famous but the California Street line is the quietest if you want the experience without the queues. Hold on tight and don’t try riding outside unless you’re a local.
24. Discover the twisty turns of Lombard Street, either in a car or on foot (start at the top and work down). The ‘Crookedest Street’, running between Hyde and Leavenworth is not even the crookedest in San Francisco – Vermont Street in the Potrero Hill neighbourhood claims that title – but it’s definitely impressively bendy and pretty.
25. Rent paddleboats on Stow Lake.
26. Take a stroll, enjoy the views of the city skyline and learn some interesting history on Angel Island, which was known as ‘Ellis Island of the West’.
27. Enjoy the unique view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge from 19th century Fort Point, which Hitchcock fans might recognize from Vertigo.
28. Head over to Fort Funston to see hang gliders floating out over the Pacific.
29. Snap up the family photo opportunity at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina neighborhood.
30. And get a photo of the Painted Ladies – a colourful row of Victoran Houses along Alamo Square Park.
31. Pose for a different photo opp with San Francisco celebs like Janis Joplin and Steve Jobs at Madame Tussauds.
32. Shoot your own music video (complete with costumes and green screen) at the Children’s Creativity Museum’s Music Studio.
33. Inspire budding animators at the Walt Disney Family Museum, learning about Disney’s own rise to celebrity.
34. See the Yoda Fountain at the Presidio, with a life-sized Yoda statue at the entrance to the Lucasfilm offices (open during weekday working hours).
35. If you’re a fan of anime, visit the Japan Center and Japantown Collectibles in the Japantown neighborhood.
36. See some of the city’s most colorful murals as you walk along Balmy Alley in the Mission District.
37. Check out the 16th Avenue Mosaic Steps, a series of tiled steps put together by more than 300 local people, with sun, stars and bright colours as you climb.
38. Play Where’s Wally (well, Waldo in the US) at Russian Hill, where Waldo Street’s signs have had a bit of a makeover.
39. Stop off at 3 Fish Studios to see locally made artwork or take a printmaking class.
40. Pick up an Explorer Pack at the Asian Art Museum. Available from the family activity table in South Court, there are props and playthings to introduce young visitors to line, shape, color, and texture. Check out the daily events for extra activities such as storytelling.
41. Think deep thoughts while staring at a cast of Rodin’s sculpture ‘The Thinker’, at the main entrance to the Legion of Honor’s art collection.
42. Soak up some culture during one of the San Francisco Symphony’s family concert performances, known as Music for Families.
43. Take a writing workshop for kids at the 826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store, where you can also buy a few unusual souvenirs.
44. Spend your pocket money at the Musée Mecanique, with its collection of early-20th century arcade games.
45. Stand on the deck of a 19th century square-rigger ship at the Maritime National Historic Park. If you’ve been to the Pirate Supply Store beforehand, so much the better.
46. Dive dive dive! Well sort of… let your imagination roam free in the USS Pampanito submarine, docked in pier 45 near Fisherman’s Wharf.
47. Across the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito is the Bay Area Discovery Museum, which mixes science and creativity.
48. Or build contraptions in the Exploratorium’s South Gallery, where the exhibits are dedicated to the art of tinkering.
49. Find out more about the city’s geology with the Discovery Street Tours which take strolls along hidden alleyways and up hills as they delve into the science of everyday life.
50. Learn about the city’s fire of 1906 at the San Francisco Fire Department Museum, along with historic fire engines. Admission is free.
51. Spot the Golden Fire Hydrant – set at the corner of 20th and Church Streets, it was one of the few which worked during the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire, so it gets a new coat of gold paint every year.
52. Splash in the fountain on the Embarcadero, just across from the Ferry Building. The huge sculpture has ladders and stepping stones to encourage you to get up close – although recently the water has been turned off during the California drought.
53. Or see the giant sundial sculpture on the Ingleside Terraces – the largest in San Francisco, it’s even pretty accurate (when there’s no Daylight Savings at least).
54. Take a spin on the historic carousel in the Koret’s Children’s Quarter of the Golden Gate Park. The merry-go-round was originally built in 1914.
55. Ride down the concrete Seward Street Slides – designed in 1973 by a 14-year-old. Bring a piece of cardboard to sit on, although you might find a few leftover to borrow.
56. Or whoosh down the Bernal Slides in Bernal Heights – the top is at Winfield and Esmerelda. Don’t try this in shorts…
57. Younger kids will prefer Dolores Park playground, just off 20th street – slide down a Mayan pyramid and dash across a suspension bridge.
58. Learn juggling and tightrope skills at the Circus Center with classes from 7-9pm every Friday – over-eights only, but all levels encouraged.
59. Get lost (for a bit) in Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze on Pier 39.
60. Go to a ballgame – watch the Giants play at AT&T Park.
61. Strap on some skates at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating rink, open year-round – or the seasonal Union Square and Embarcadero Center rinks open in the run-up to Christmas.
62. This is your lucky day – find out how the fortunes get inside the cookies, with a trip to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown.
63. Have an ice cream. Ghirardelli Square is the classic spot, but for funkier flavours head to the Mission district and Bi-Rite Creamery or Humphry Slocombe, which also has a stand in the Ferry Building.
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Disclosure: this post contains some affiliate links, including links to websites offering discounted tickets or skip-the-queue options. Any purchases you make are unaffected but I may receive a few pennies to put towards my return visit. All options are ones I’ve tried or recommend.
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