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 to visit California, it turned out to be a fantastic place to visit with kids.
contains affiliate links*
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 are 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… in fact, so much that I found 63 things to do in San Francisco with kids.
If you’re spending longer than our couple of days, it’s worth looking at a San Francisco CityPass or Go San Francisco Explorer Pass to help keep costs down although you needn’t spend a fortune with some great free things to do in San Francisco among my pick of the best for families.
Take a vintage fire truck tour
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.
Head turned as our bright red conveyance trundled along, definitely one of the most fun ways to see some of the sights.
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, sunbathing and scuffling over the best spots on the pontoons.
Take a cruise
While you’re on the waterfront, take a cruise on the San Francisco Bay for great views of the skyline, bridge and Alcatraz.
If you want to take a day trip from this city, try this tour to see Sausalito, Muir Woods and the giant redwoods, with the option of a half day or full day
Escape to Alcatraz
Even better, take the cruise out to Alcatraz itself to combine sightseeing with a visit – book in advance as tickets get snapped up, but even young kids will be fascinated by the famous prison and there’s plenty of space to run around as well as cells to hide in.
Hit the beach
Although Ocean Beach, on the city’s western edge, isn’t great for swimming because of the strong currents, you can very easily while away a few hours building sandcastles or flying a kite in the ocean breeze.
Explore Golden Gate Park
Head across the road, and you can spot the windmills in Golden Gate Park, before a gentle wander under the trees. At 2.5 square miles, that’s only the first of the park’s attractions too.
Discover the San Francisco botanical gardens
Also in the park near the corner of Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way, the San Francisco botanical gardens have more than 50,000 individual plants in its 55 acres.
Visit at weekends, and there are interpretation stations with staff to explain more about the gardens, plus some family activities at different times during the year.
Stop and smell the roses
And orchids, begonias, hibiscus… plus hundreds of other species) at the nearby Conservatory of Flowers too – the Victorian-era greenhouse holds over 2,000 species of plants & flowers.
Pop to Japan
Or you can transport yourself to another world without leaving the park, in the Japanese tea garden. It’s a big park… Stop for tea and a fortune cookie along the way.
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).
Click here to book tickets and tours for the best things to do in San Francisco with kids
For more animals, see rare species like the snow leopard during a visit to the San Francisco Zoo – set just beyond Lake Merced and alongside the ocean, it’s home to over 2,000 animals, many of them rescued.
From tiny insects to giraffe, no-one’s going to be bored, especially with lions, bears and tigers on display as well.
Enter the urban jungle
Spy some of the flock of wild parrots who live on Telegraph Hill, with Coit Tower nearby. Bright green with vibrant red heads, the cherry-headed conures have found an urban jungle to enjoy.
If you (or your kids) don’t fancy climbing up or down the steep Filbert steps with the beautiful gardens surrounding them, you can also spot the birds in Sue Bierman Park near the Ferry building.
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.
Discover the world (and space)
If you’re wondering how to fit all of it in, the behind-the-scenes tour has express entry and reserved seats, plus an insider guide to share its secrets. Suitable for 8+.
Enjoy the music of the waves
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.
Easily the most unusual concert and entirely child-friendly.
Take a drive
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.
Join a bus tour
Or if you’d rather let someone else do all the hard work, join a Big Bus Tour around the city’s different neighbourhoods.
With 24 stops, you can hop on and off as the fancy takes you, and there’s the option to upgrade your ticket to include a Sausalito trolley tour and nighttime tour, or a Big Bus Tour plus Alcatraz visit.
See the views
Head to the top of Twin Peaks to enjoy panoramic views of the city. Unless you’re very fit, it’s better to drive rather than hike.
Bike the bridge
Rent bikes and cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge for another experience of the iconic landmark – there are a mix of guided bike tours as well as the chance to explore at your own pace.
If you’re visiting San Francisco with teens or older kids, this two-day tour package takes you across the bridge by bike as well as including entry to Alcatraz.
Take a walk
Ride (or walk) one of the trails at The Presidio – The Batteries to Bluffs trail is a great one: less than a mile long, it’s short, not too challenging and with some amazing views out across the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Discover the labyrinth
Or for a longer walk, follow the trail from the Land’s End Lookout to see the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a labyrinth, and more fabulous views of the coastline. There’s a five-mile circular version although you could choose a shorter section to get a taste.
Ride the cable car
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.
And see what powers them
You can see the massive mechanisms which keep the city’s famous cable cars running too, with a visit to the free Cable Car Museum on Nob Hill.
Take the crooked street
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 famously 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.
Boat on the lake
Rent paddleboats on Stow Lake, another of the many attractions in the Golden Gate Park. There are rowing boats as well as pedal boats, plus electric versions if you want a more relaxed experience
Ride the ferry
Venture out to Angel Island state park, known as ‘Ellis Island of the West’. Discover its history on the tram tour – or with a guided Segway tour – as well as taking a stroll around to enjoy the views of the city skyline and the bay.
View the bay
For another spot to gaze to the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, find a viewpoint with a rather different history at 19th century Fort Point – which Hitchcock fans will recognize from Vertigo.
Watch the gliders
Head over to Fort Funston, one of the best hang-gliding spots in the country – you might not fancy taking to the air with kids, but watching them soar from the 200ft high cliffs is a great sight.
San Francisco’s stylish spot
Choose one of the city’s most elegant spots for a family photo opportunity, at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina neighborhood. Used for events, you can wander around snapping or bag a bench to soak up the architecture.
Get a photo of the Painted Ladies
The colourful row of Victoran Houses along Alamo Square Park is one of San Francisco’s most famous spots, which have appeared in a string of movies and TV shows.
Snap a celeb
Pose for a different photo opp with San Francisco celebs like Janis Joplin and Steve Jobs at Madame Tussauds.
As well as the usual big name stars and politicians, this particular branch of the waxwork museum celebrates local artists, activists and lawmakers who’ve played a role in the city’s history.
Shoot your own music video
Be the director of your own video (complete with costumes and green screen) at the Children’s Creativity Museum’s Music Studio.
Originally called ZEUM, the interactive arts and technology museum has plenty to encourage kids to be creative, from animation to sculpting and play areas too.
Inspire budding animators at the Walt Disney Family Museum, learning about Disney’s own rise to celebrity.
As well as seeing some of his own early cartoons and discovering more about his life, narrated by Disney himself, the cinema also shows classic movies.
See the Yoda Fountain
At the Presidio, the life-sized Yoda statue is at the entrance to the Lucasfilm offices (open during weekday working hours with more Star Wars memorabilia inside, including a life size Darth Vader).
If you’re a fan of anime, visit the Japan Center and Japantown Collectibles in the Japantown neighborhood – one of only three Japantowns left in the USA.
Debate the murals
See some of the city’s most colorful murals as you walk along Balmy Alley in the Mission District. There are guided tours, and the murals are constantly changing, but you can see artistic commentary on everything from human rights to local politics.
If you fancy combining street art and food, there’s this great Mission District tour that’s great with older kids, mini foodies or babies who’ll snooze in their buggy!
Climb the mosaic steps
Check out the 16th Avenue Mosaic Steps, a series of 163 tiled steps put together by more than 300 local people. Featuring fish and birds, as well as sun, moon and stars, the bright colours and intricate designs are gorgeous and constantly changing as you climb.
Play Where’s Wally
It’s Where’s Waldo in the US – but the stripy clothes are the same. And at Russian Hill, where Waldo Street’s signs have had a brightly striped makeover.
Stop in at de Young on Saturdays and there are free family art activities from 11am to 4pm, linked to one of the pieces from the gallery’s collection or to one of the special exhibitions.
Explore some art
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, colour and texture.
Keep an eye out for the daily events including extra activities such as storytelling.
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 – and take a look inside at the collection and temporary exhibitions too.
Enjoy some music
Soak up some more culture during one of the San Francisco Symphony’s family concert performances, known as Music for Families.
Taking place on Saturday afternoons, there are pre-concert activities and interactive performances, as well as family-friendly concerts at other times throughout the year.
Take a writing workshop
The 826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store has writing workshops for kids, plus you can also buy a few unusual souvenirs. The free workshops at weekends and evenings are open to ages eight to 18 – sign up online.
Hit the arcade
Spend your pocket money at the Musée Mecanique, with its collection of early-20th century arcade games – it’s free to enter, but with over 300 different machines, you’ll want some change to make the most of them.
Stand on the deck of a 19th century square-rigger ship at the Maritime National Historic Park – one of half a dozen historic vessels on the site. If you’ve been to the Pirate Supply Store beforehand, so much the better.
Dive dive dive!
Well sort of… let your imagination roam free in the USS Pampanito submarine, docked in pier 45 near Fisherman’s Wharf. The sub, used during the Second World War, is now a museum with torpedoes, engine room and mess hall on display.
Get curious at a museum
Across the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito is the Bay Area Discovery Museum, which mixes science and creativity. With seven different exhibition spaces, it’s aimed at children under 10 with daily drop-in programmes as well as plenty to explore.
Or invent your own design
Build contraptions in the Exploratorium’s’s South Gallery, where the exhibits are dedicated to the art of tinkering – skip the queue with this ticket to discover more than 650 different interactive exhibits.
Discover what’s below the city surface
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. Groups of six or more can arrange private tours.
Learn about the great fire
Learn about the city’s fire of 1906 at the San Francisco Fire Department Museum, along with historic fire engines – including the first built in California. Admission is free but as it’s staffed by volunteers, opening hours are limited so check the site before you turn up.
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.
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.
See the giant sundial sculpture
On the Ingleside Terraces, it’s the largest in San Francisco – it’s even pretty accurate (when there’s no Daylight Savings at least).
Ride the carousel
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, and is still twirling after renovations.
Forget ordinary everyday horses and take your pick from dragon, camel, and goat, as well as frogs, dogs, roosters, and pigs.
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.
And more sliding
Or whoosh down the Bernal Slides in Bernal Heights – the top is at Winfield and Esmerelda. Don’t try this in shorts…
Find a playground
Younger kids will prefer Dolores Park playground, just off 20th street – slide down a Mayan pyramid and dash across a suspension bridge.
Run off to the circus
Learn juggling and tightrope skills at the Circus Center with after-school classes – over-eights only, but all levels encouraged. And even better, it’s free!
At least for a bit – in Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze on Pier 39. Black lights make the reflective labyrinth glow so you might just stand and stare between exploring the maze – free for unde-fives.
Go to a ballgame
Watch the Giants play at AT&T Park. You can pick up tickets for $20 and even if it’s not the best view, it’s a great experience.
Strap on some skates
The Yerba Buena Ice Skating rink is open year-round – or the seasonal Union Square and Embarcadero Center rinks open in the run-up to Christmas as well.
Learn your fortune
This is your lucky day – maybe. Find out how the fortunes get inside the cookies, with a trip to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown.
Join a free tour and pick up a sample at the end… fortune-free. Or splash out to find out what’s in store for the rest of your visit.
Have an ice cream
**First published 2016, updated 2020**
PIN FOR LATER: TOP THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO WITH KIDS
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 small commission. All options are ones I’ve tried or recommend as the best things to do in San Francisco with kids.
Main image/Golden Gate bridge courtesy Depositphotos/all other images copyright MummyTravelsLIKED THIS? SIGN UP FOR MY EMAIL NEWSLETTER