Top Things to Do in San Francisco With Kids

Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco
••• Betsy Malloy Photography
  • 01 of 12

    Check Out a Cable Car

    Cable Car in San Francisco Chinatown
    ••• Betsy Malloy Photography

    San Francisco is a great city to visit for people of all ages, but especially for the younger set. Its small size and relatively few tall buildings make it seem more comfortable to little kids than the looming skyscrapers of larger cities.

    There are more things to do here than can be covered in any one vacation (or perhaps even any dozen). To be sure you and the kids have a great time, click through our list for a few things to do that the whole family will enjoy.

    If you need more help to plan your trip to San Francisco with the kids, look no further than the San Francisco Vacation Planner. It covers where to stay when to go - and more.

    Take the Kids on a Cable Car Ride

    It's not often you can see a National Landmark and take a ride at the same time, but that's exactly what you can do on a San Francisco cable car. They're an old-fashioned mode of transportation kept alive by the public's enthusiasm for the experience.

    The turnaround at Bay and Taylor, just up from Fisherman's Wharf,...MORE usually has the shortest lines, but also the least interesting surroundings to wait in. If you're also going to take a walk on Lombard Street (the "crookedest" street), take the Powell-Hyde line and get off at Lombard. It will save you a long walk up a steep hill. Otherwise, think about catching the cable car on California Street near the Ferry Building, for a short wait and a thrilling uphill climb that can take you to Chinatown.

    Pros and Cons

    The San Francisco cable cars are a unique and iconic way to get around. Standing on the sideboards, holding on as you go down the hills is at least as much fun as a mild roller coaster. On the downside, the lines to get on can be quite long, and the cars get crowded. They may not be a good choice for families with strollers or very active little ones.

    More About the Cable Cars

    See more about what they're like: browse the photo gallery.

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  • 02 of 12

    Ocean Beach is Best for Kids

    Playing on Ocean Beach
    ••• Betsy Malloy Photography

    At the beach, kids can let their imaginations go wild, building sand castles, flying kites and playing tag with the waves.

    In San Francisco, the best family beach is (not so imaginatively) named Ocean Beach. It's on the city's west side, outside the Golden Gate, the last bit of sand before the Pacific. Its long, flat stretch of sand is perfect for beach play and even if you just stand and watch, you'll see people doing all kinds of things: kite-sailing, skimboarding, fishing and surfing.

    Nearby is the Cliff House, where you can have a meal. Behind it, you'll find the Camera Obscura housed in a funny-looking little building that resembles an old-fashioned camera. It's fun to look at and surprisingly lovely inside, but holds no appeal for smaller children. Just down the beach is the Beach Chalet, a microbrewery restaurant with nice ocean views (and better prices and food than the Cliff House).

    San Francisco only has a couple of beaches. If you've heard about Baker Beach and its Golden...MORE Gate Bridge views, you may wonder why we're suggesting Ocean Beach instead. The answer is simple. Part of Baker is a nude beach, which some parents might prefer to avoid.

    Pros and Cons

    Ocean Beach is a great place to play and the best place in the city for kite-flying. However, the water is too cold for most people and strong waves and currents make it simply dangerous to go into the water, unless you're a strong and experienced swimmer. It's prone to be foggy in summer and is far from other tourist attractions.

    More about Ocean Beach

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  • 03 of 12

    Check Out Chinatown

    Mid-autumn festival in chinatown, San Francisco, California, USA
    ••• Rosanna U / Getty Images

    Chinatown is colorful and energetic and if you haven't been there before, it looks a bit exotic. Chinatown is also full of shops selling all kinds of cool things kids enjoy like tacky souvenirs, kites, and fortune cookies. The proactive parent can make sure the kids learn a little about Chinese culture along the way, too

    Pros and Cons

    Chinatown is a good place for the kids to buy themselves a souvenir and they'll love watching that goofy contraption at the fortune cookie factory make the little treats (and eating the bag of them you buy while there).

    Go on a weekday for smaller crowds, but if your child doesn't like crowds and noise or unfamiliar smells that waft out of the herbalist shops, Chinatown could be a bad choice any day of the week. For anyone, it gets so crowded at Chinese New Year that you can barely move on the sidewalks.

    More About Chinatown

    Get some insider tips, find out where the fortune cookie factory is and more about taking the kids to Chinatown.

    See where it is on a map....MORE It's the purple balloon.

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  • 04 of 12

    Kids Love Pier 39

    Pier 39
    ••• Pier 39. Betsy Malloy Photography

    If your kids would like to take home something with San Francisco written all over it, Pier 39's souvenir and specialty shops will tempt them to spend (or ask you to). There's also a double-decker Venetian carousel in the center of the complex, frequent free performances that kids love on the stage near the end of the pier and the Aquarium of the Bay, a unique, walk-through underwater attraction. On the west side of the complex, you'll find where the California sea lions hang out.

    San Francisco has great street performers and most kids love to watch them. You'll find some of the best of them between Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf.

    Pros and Cons of Going to Pier 39 with Kids

    Children (and the adults) enjoy watching the sea lions who have taken over the small marina beside the pier. It's a good place to get a bite to eat and when the kids are ready to "go," Pier 39 has free public restrooms.

    On the downside, Pier 39 gets very crowded and noisy, especially during the summer, making it hard to...MORE navigate with active kids and strollers. Some people think Pier 39 is a tourist trap and according to the official definition, it probably is, created with the aim of attracting tourists and offering overpriced goods and services. This may be more of a turn-off to adults than to the kids, who tend to care less about such things than they do about having fun.

    More about Pier 39

    See what it looks like before you go. Check out the image gallery.

    See where it is on a map. It's the orange balloon with a black dot.

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  • 05 of 12

    Get the Kids Some Wheels

    Bicycle and Golden Gate Bridge
    ••• Esteban/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    When I say get some wheels, I'm not advocating buying a Ferrari for a four-year-old or having the teenagers retrofitted with spoked rims, but biking, skating and other unusual wheeled transport is a great way to see San Francisco and get active at the same time.

    Don't expect to see the whole city from pedal-powered transport, though. Unless your whole family are avid bikers and strong pedalers, you'll be limited to the waterfront and other non-hilly parts, but there's plenty to see there, including many of the most popular tourist spots.

    Families on Wheels - Most Popular Spots

    For an active, do-it-yourself tour of San Francisco, rent bicycles from Blazing Saddles, Bay City Bike or Bike and Roll. They'll give you a map with several route ideas, the most fun being a two-hour ride that will lead you over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back on the ferry.

    If you like the idea of biking but worry about wearing yourself out, Blazing Saddles and Bay City Bike also rent electric-assisted...MORE models. All three have tandem bicycles, tag-a-longs, and trailers. And most have baby seats.

    Skates: Bike and Roll also rents inline skates. 

    Ride a Segway: If the kids are old enough (over 12), the San Francisco Electric Tour Company offers fun tours on Segway personal transporters. They'll give you a lesson and then take you out to see the sights.

    More Places to Bike, Skate, Play

    If you'd just like to pedal around the Crissy Field area, Sports Basement rents a nice range of bikes at their Presidio location, and their rates are significantly lower than the places in the more touristy areas.

    For a nice ride in Golden Gate Park (a great idea on weekends when some of the roads are car-free), try Golden Gate Park Bike & Skate where you can choose from bikes or skates - and even rent a disc golf setup. Also in the park, Wheel Fun rents a dizzying array of wheeled vehicles, including some really cute pedal-powered surreys.

    If you take the ferry to Angel Island, you can take a Segway tour there, rent bicycles or try a fun, electric-powered scooter.

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  • 06 of 12

    Ghirardelli Square: Chocolate and More

    Ghirardelli Square
    ••• Ghirardelli Square. Doug Kerr/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    The name Ghirardelli may sound familiar because they make chocolate candy. They haven't made it at Ghirardelli Square since the 1960s, but the former Pioneer Woolen Mills was their manufacturing site for almost seven decades before that. Today it's a shopping and dining complex centered on their "Chocolate Manufactory" and Soda Fountain. The retail shop is a good place to buy San Francisco-themed chocolates for the chocoholics back home.

    The chocolate lovers in your family will enjoy the soda fountain treats, shakes, and sundaes, which are more than big enough to share. Otherwise, you'll find a small shopping area and a couple of restaurants.

    Pros and Cons

    A trip to Ghirardelli could easily overload the kids' energy meter, but it's also a fun place for a sweet vacation treat. To bring the bouncing-off-the-walls level back down to normal, head for the park just down the hill or hike up Hyde to the top of Lombard Street and back down again.

    If you aren't interested in the chocolate or...MORE the restaurants, there's not much here that you can't find somewhere else.

    More about Ghirardelli Square

    See where it is on a map. It's the medium-blue balloon with a black dot.

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  • 07 of 12

    Fisherman's Wharf, Iconic San Francisco

    Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco
    ••• Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco. Betsy Malloy Photography

    Fisherman's Wharf is an iconic San Francisco sight, with colorful boats, street performers and lots of those goofy tourist attractions that many kids love to visit.

    Among those attractions are the Wax Museum and Ripley's Believe it Or Not, but if you can pry the kids away from them, try the Musee Mecanique, located off the main street near Fisherman's Grotto. It's a collection of old-fashioned arcade games that somehow still hold appeal even for youngsters used to the latest digital amusements.

    Kids with maritime interests can get them satisfied at Fishermans Wharf, too. The Liberty ship Jeremiah O'Brien and the Pampanito submarine are open for tours, as is the Hyde Street Pier Maritime Museum.

    Pros and Cons

    Fisherman's Wharf is always crowded, and the kids may not be too interested in looking at a bunch of docked fishing boats. If the other attractions appeal to them, they'll have a lot of fun. Going behind the touristy facade is also fun, but remember it's a working pier with...MORE no guard rails and you'll need to keep a sharp eye on the kids.

    More About Fisherman's Wharf

    This guide to Fisherman's Wharf will help you find the fun stuff behind the scenes and make the most of your visit.

    Find out what it looks like before you go: Take a photo tour.

    See where it is on a map. It's the bright green balloon with a black dot.

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  • 08 of 12

    Take the Kids to Alcatraz

    Taking the Audio Tour at Alcatraz
    ••• Courtesy of John A. Martini and Alcatraz Cruises

    Is a former penitentiary really an appropriate place to take kids? Absolutely. Most of them enjoy the ferry ride to reach it, and on the island, they're oddly fascinated by the old prison.

    Entry to Alcatraz itself is free, but you’ll have to pay for transportation. It's a long-ish boat ride to get there and requires a bit of planning. Buy tickets in advance to avoid standing in line and possible disappointment because Alcatraz tours often sell out.

    The line to get onto the ferry can be long, but there's a lot to watch while you wait - people, sea lions, and other goings-on. For kids on the go, an even better strategy is to wait until a few minutes before sailing time to get into the line. After all, the last person on the boat arrives at the Alcatraz pier at the same time as the one who stood in line for an hour.

    The cell house audio tour is included in the price of the ticket; not only is it a great way to keep the kids occupied, but it will help you answer any questions they may ask.

    Pros...MORE and Cons

    Maybe it's because of all the movies about it, but children seem to love visiting Alcatraz. Older ones may appreciate the inmates' stories and enjoy the beautiful views.

    On the downside, visiting Alcatraz takes up almost half a day. Going there could not only take up a big part of a short trip, but it might be longer than the kids' attention span. If your kids tire easily or are prone to run around without paying attention to where they're going, Alcatraz might not be the best place to take them. The only way to see the place is on foot and obstacles abound. It's best for ages six and up - or maybe older depending on your child.

    If the kids (or you) are fussy about smells and messes, you should know that the seagulls can make quite a stink while they're nesting (late June) and drop unwanted "gifts" (aka poop) anytime.

    More About Alcatraz

    Find out how to get tickets, what you really need to take along and how to avoid earning a "white badge of courage" in the Alcatraz Visitor Guide.

    Scenes from Alcatraz

    Enjoy some of our best shots on this Photo Tour of Alcatraz.

    See where it is on a map. It's the bright pink marker.

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  • 09 of 12

    Sh-h... Don't Tell Them It's a Museum

    The Exploratorium is Fun for the Whole Family
    ••• Amy Snyder

    These places are so much fun to visit that if you don't tell the kids they're museums, they'll have such a good time that they won't realize they're learning something.

    Some museums are fun, while others are educational; the Exploratorium is the best of both worlds. It’s a hands-on science museum that’s sure to keep kids of all ages engaged and teach them something, too.

    Depending on their inclinations and what's available where you live, kids a bit older might enjoy the Children’s Creativity Museum, an interactive art museum (previously called just Zeum) where kids can learn how to create claymation movies, music videos, and much more.

    If your budding engineer was fascinated by the cable cars, try the Cable Car Museum. Get off the cable car at Mason and Washington and watch the cables being pulled by giant motors, then go downstairs to see the giant sheaves, big wheels that keep it all straight.

    California Academy of Sciences may sound like a school, but it's actually a...MORE state-of-the-art natural history museum, with a garden on the roof, a colony of penguins, dinosaur skeletons, and a white alligator, along with other stuff that kids like to see.

    It's a little outside the standard tourist circuit, but the Randall Museum is popular with local families, with lots of fun, interactive exhibits - and it's easily accessible by public transportation.

    The Fire Department Museum is a hit with all ages. It's jam-packed with firefighting memorabilia, and they have six antique fire engines on display.

    Kids may also enjoy the Wells Fargo Museum, where they can see (and sit in) a real stage coach, get their picture put on money and even get a souvenir token to take home. Admission and several little mementos are all free.

    You might not think of Walt Disney when you think of San Francisco, but the Disney Family Museum is located here, and it's chock-full of all kinds of things Disney. While the Disney films are fun for the little ones, this museum is probably better for children older than 10. There's more about it in this guide.

    Pros and Cons

    Museums cater to people of all ages, so there's little chance that anyone will get bored, and they're a great option when weather drives you indoors.

    On the downside, most of San Francisco's family-friendly museums are popular with tourists and locals alike. They can get crowded, especially during school holidays and summer vacation. Admission fees for the whole family can add up, too. And if you have similar facilities at home, you may prefer to spend your time doing something more uniquely San Francisco.

    What's Going On?

    The photo above was taken at the Plankton Populations exhibit at the Exploratorium.  The table-sized, interactive display shows how the world’s phytoplankton population changes when ocean conditions change.

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  • 10 of 12

    Check Out Crookedest - aka Lombard - Street

    Lombard Street, San Francisco
    ••• Betsy Malloy Photography

    Lombard Street is billed as the "crookedest street," so how could kids resist seeing it? They'll get a kick out of sitting in a car driving down it, squealing in mock fear at every turn, and there are plenty of them in this short, one-block-long stretch of street.

    Almost as much fun as driving on Lombard is walking down it (or up), watching all the goings-on. During spring and summer, you can capture photos like the one above with all the pink flowers in bloom.

    Pros and Cons

    Once you've been there, you'll have bragging rights to having seen the crookedest street - and probably photos to prove it.

    Know your family's patience factor. Lombard Street is very popular, which on a busy day translates to a long wait before your turn to drive down. It takes less than a minute, which might seem like a little time for all the hoopla, but we've known people to wait hours for roller coaster rides that last only a few seconds.

    If you're taking our advice and skipping the rental car, you'll have...MORE to hire a taxi or get an Uber if you want to drive down the street. That's an expensive strategy you might regret on a busy day, sitting at the top waiting to go down, with the meter racking up the charges.

    More about Lombard Street

    Lombard has the reputation, but it's not the only crooked street in San Francisco.   Check out the Lombard Street Visitor Guide to get more tips for visiting it - and we'll also tell you where the real "crookedest" street is.

    See where it is on a map. It's the turquoise-colored marker.

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  • 11 of 12

    There's More to Union Square than Shopping

    Left My Heart in Union Square
    ••• Left My Heart in Union Square. Betsy Malloy Photography

    Union Square is probably best-known as the third largest shopping area in the United States, home to the largest Macy’s west of New York and many designer boutiques. It's also one of San Francisco's oldest city parks, created when the city was founded.

    The central public space is great for people-watching and street performers are often showing off nearby. You can have a bit to eat, and a cup of coffee at the small cafe or young girls might enjoy afternoon tea at one of the upscale hotels nearby.

    During the summer, you can enjoy live music and other activities in the park, and there's an outdoor ice-skating rink in November and December. Not far away on Market Street, the San Francisco Shopping Center has some unusual, spiral escalators that kids like to ride. And for the artsy kinda kid, the theater district is right next door.

    Pros and Cons

    Union Square is fun to see, lively and close to both Chinatown and the cable car line. Of all the tourist spots in San Francisco, it feels most...MORE citified.

    Union Square is also the city's most expensive shopping area, and many of the stores are nationwide chains, but it's also home to some places that are uniquely San Francisco, like Gump's department store and multistory fabric emporium Britex, although neither of those may appeal to youngsters.

    On the downside, parking near Union Square is exasperating and expensive — and if you don't want to shop or watch people, you'll be done with it in just a few minutes.

    More about Union Square

    Use the Union Square guide to get more ideas and find out all the places of note.

    Take a photo tour to see what it's like. There's a map, too.

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  • 12 of 12

    Golden Gate Park: Plenty to Do

    Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park
    ••• Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. Betsy Malloy Photography

    Whoever coined the term “It’s a walk in the park” to imply something is simple or easy clearly hasn’t been to Golden Gate Park. With so many activities and places to see, it’s anything but easy to decide what to do. In fact, the park is so big that it's best to plan ahead.

    Golden Gate Park is home to the California Academy of Sciences, one of our top-rated family museums, but that's only a starter. The children's playground on the Lincoln Ave side of the park has a slide rumored to have the fastest ride in the west; the 1912 carousel has no less than 62 menagerie animals and at the Japanese Tea Garden is especially popular for a tea-and-cookie break.

    Other fun family activities include renting a boat on Stow Lake or watching the radio-controlled boats on Spreckels Lake. You can even see a real live buffalo while you're there.

    Pros and Cons

    Golden Gate Park has a lot of things to do, plenty of room to play and entrance is free. On weekends, the main streets are blocked for automobiles, so...MORE it's easy to get around without worrying about traffic.

    On the downside, San Francisco weather doesn't always cooperate with plans for outdoor activities and the park is not close to the main tourist track. If you drive there, parking can be a hassle.

    More about Golden Gate Park

    Check the Complete Guide to Golden Gate Park to get all the info about the most popular spots.

    See where it is on a map. It's the solid, bright green marker.

    More Things You Can Do in San Francisco

    There's a lot more to do in San Francisco, for you and your kids. If you're a contrarian traveler who seeks out the undiscovered spots, then don't miss these Things You Didn't Know You Wanted to Do in San Francisco. And of course, you'll want to take a look at the top things for everyone to do in San Francisco.

    San Francisco is one of California's best places to have fun without spending a penny. Just use the Guide to Things to Do for Free in San Francisco

    It might rain in the winter. Here's what to do in San Francisco when it's raining. And if it's summertime when you visit, you'll definitely want to know What to Do on a Summer Night in San Franciso. Or that matter, find out what you can do at night in San Francisco anytime.

    What Not to Do

    You don't want to sound and look like a dumb San Francisco tourist or waste your time on trashy tourist spots. Whatever you do, don't do these 16 things when you go to San Francisco.