One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, 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. While there are more things to do here than can be covered in any one vacation (or perhaps even any dozen), we've rounded up 18 of our favorites, ranging from the tried-and-true like Alcatraz to hidden parks and unique museums.
Check Out a Cable Car
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, usually has the shortest lines, but also the least exciting surroundings to wait in. If you're also going to take a walk on Lombard Street (the "most crooked" 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.
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.
Visit the Best Beach for Kids
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 excellent 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 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.
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.
Check Out Chinatown
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
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.
Let the Kids Play at Pier 39
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.
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 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.
Get the Kids Some Wheels
No, don't buy a Ferrari for your four-year-old, but biking, skating and other unusual wheeled transport is a great way to see San Francisco and get active at the same time. Unless everyone in your family is an avid biker and strong pedaler, 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.
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 models. All three have tandem bicycles, tag-a-longs, and trailers. And most have baby seats.
Eat Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
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.
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.
Visit Fisherman's Wharf
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.
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 no guard rails and you'll need to keep a sharp eye on the kids.
Take the Kids to Alcatraz
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 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.
Visit San Francisco's Exploratorium
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.
Check Out "Crookedest" Street
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 of all the pink flowers in bloom.
Spend an Afternoon in Union Square
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 kid, the theater district is right next door.
Spend a Day at Golden Gate Park
Whoever coined the term “it’s a walk in the park” to imply something is simple or easy 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. 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 Avenue 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 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.
Ride the Seward Street Slides
Head to the bustling Castro neighborhood for this easy, yet entertaining, outing. This postage-stamp of a park was built in 1973 and is home to a beautiful community garden, filled with native plants, but kids will love the unique concrete slides that provide hours of endless entertainment. Afterward, adults can enjoy a cocktail in one of the Castro's many bars.
Visit the Children's Creativity Museum
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.
Learn About San Francisco's Cable Car System
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.
Visit One of San Francisco's Unique Museums
In San Francisco, there's a museum for almost every interest. 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.
California Academy of Sciences may sound like a school, but it's actually a 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 stagecoach, get their picture put on money and even get a souvenir token to take home. Admission and several little mementos are all free.
Explore the Presidio
If your kids want to burn off energy outside, head to the Presidio. Kid-friendly (but still scenic) hikes abound here and children can safely run through the groves of trees and explore the hidden forts at this unique recreation area. Afterward, have a picnic in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Play a Unique Game of Miniature Golf
If you love miniature golf, head to Urban Putt, a genuinely wacky indoor course with 14 holes. You might even recognize a San Francisco landmark or two. An outing to Urban Putt is an ideal option for a rainy day, plus there's a restaurant and bar upstairs—parents can enjoy a tipple while the kids play downstairs.