Top Things to do with Kids in San Francisco, CA
San Francisco is a sought-after vacation destination complete with all the action and culture that a big city has to offer. The activities for the kids are endless, the scenery is breathtaking and there is enough culture and great food to keep mom and dad smiling.
My family and I recently came back from a trip to San Francisco, CA. I researched a lot to find family friendly activities so that my husband and our children, as well as I ages 9 and 7 would enjoy the city and get the most out of it. We spend the six days in San Francisco and the following (in no particular order) are things we did that we all really enjoyed.
While it will be one of the more crowded, touristy spots, Fisherman’s Wharf is great fun for both you and the kids. The views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge are fantastic. There is a carnival atmosphere, with plenty of street vendors, outdoor entertainment, souvenir shops, and funky restaurants. The fact that it’s free and easy to get to makes it #1 on our list.
World War II ship (SS Jeremiah O’Brien) and submarine (USS Pampanito)
You can climb aboard and tour both. We went on the USS Pampanito with a guided earphone tour. Although both the submarine and the commentary were very interesting, we went through rather quickly because the rocking motion, enclosed space and smell of oil left us feeling a little sea sick. We decided to skip the larger ship for those reasons and we had recently visited a similar one in Virginia Beach, Va.
Opposite the USS Pampanito on the other side of the pier is Musée Mécanique. It is a privately owned collection of video, arcade and antique carnival and fair games and you can play them all. There are machines there that you can change bills into quarters and most games cost between 25 and 50 cents to play. Between the four of us, we changed $5 and were in there for 20 minutes and we each had a great selection of games and a lot of fun. They are open daily and admission is free.
The Museum & Bakery Tour, opened from 11:30am – 7:00pm, tells the history of the bakery and has an array of interactive exhibits. You can view the bakery in action from the museums windows. There is a small entrance fee to the museum and bakery tour, but is free if you eat at the bakery.
Madame Tussaud’s is full of iconic stars and interactive exhibits. You enter into the “Spirit of San Francisco” where you will meet the mayor, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, mine of gold and meet Al Capone in his Alcatraz cell. Beyond that, you will rub shoulders with some of the most famous stars and sports figures. We had a blast in here!
This isn’t my favorite place to eat, but the kids love it. There is a thunderstorm every fifteen minutes or so and mechanical animals including gorillas and elephants come to life. There are also many aquarium tanks containing exotic fish throughout the restaurant.
Your kids will surely pull you in the direction of the Marina waterfront and Pier 39 for the many kid-friendly activities it has to offer. There is a Venetian carousel, a large arcade and virtual reality theatre, a large marine park (called Underwater World) countless kid-friendly stores (like the Disney store- Puppets on the Pier- Wound About) and an entire flock of local, friendly sea lions that make their home there.
There are a lot of family friendly activities here. In addition to the sea lions, shops and restaurants, you can find street performers both on the stage at Pier 39 and on the outskirts of the pier which the kids loved to watch. I listed what we visited and enjoyed.
You can’t miss the sea lions on Pier 39. They have inhabited the docks and are the second most popular attraction in San Francisco. They started hanging out there after the earthquake of 1989. They are not fenced in, and are free to come and go as they wish, but they are counted numerous times per day and observed for any health issues. If an issue arises, they are taken care of by the Marine Mammal Center. On the second floor of the Pier 39 shopping area, above the sea lions, is a fairly new Sea Lion Center where you can get a free education about the mammals. We spent a lot of time just watching them interact with each other. The kids really enjoyed them.
San Francisco Carousel
This is a beautifully Italian-crafted two-floor carousel featuring thirty-two different animals to ride for a small fee. The kids rode it at least twice, but asked at least 100 times more!
Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze
This was one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had. Once you enter, you are ultimately “lost” trying to find your way through the maze running into dead ends. When we temporarily lost our seven-year-old daughter, I got very nervous, but she had so much fun and thought it was great. The kids had a blast. Tips: stick together to not lose a family member and walk with your hands out in front of you to keep from walking into a mirror.
There are many shops and restaurants on Pier 39. Some of the shops and restaurants we visited:
Wines of California Wine Bar
Some items from the menu are: clam chowder in a bread bowl, antipasto, cheese and meat plates. You can also order wine tasting samplers. It was a nice atmosphere and good food. But, if your kids are picky eaters, this wouldn’t be a good choice.
Hard Rock Café
We ate here one night for dinner. It is basically the same as all Hard Rock Cafes. If you have never been, the menu is American style food (burger, salads, steak, chicken, etc.) The décor consists of music memorabilia such as outfits worn by musicians, signed instruments and pictures and music videos playing on many TV screens throughout the restaurant. There is also a gift shop.
Need I say more? This store offers pre packed chocolate cases filled with fresh made chocolate candy, fudge, etc. and many gifts for the chocolate lover.
Exploratorium Tactile Dome
Located on the grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts the Exploratorium is an interactive science museum. There are many educational exhibits for the entire family as well as a few interactive exhibits, such as having your kids create their own tornado. Make sure to set a reservation for the popular Tactile Dome, where you’ll take a tour in total darkness.
AT&T Park and Candlestick Park
Depending on what time of year you visit, make sure to visit the iconic stadiums of the San Francisco Giants and San Francisco 49ers and catch a game with the whole family. Don’t leave without ordering the famous garlic fries!
It is definitely worth taking the kids to a ball game. The park is beautiful and it is really neat that it is on the water. Whenever a ball goes into the water, they show the kayakers in the water paddling frantically to retrieve it. There is also a cool play area for the kids
California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences contains an aquarium, a planetarium, and a Natural History museum. There is an indoor rainforest you can walk thru. There are over 40,000 live animals to see, as well as dinosaur fossils, earthquake simulators, and much, much more.
This place is amazing! In one building there is earthquake history and simulation, a rainforest, an aquarium, a natural history museum and special exhibits. Each exhibit is very thorough and educational. It is easy to spend an entire day in here with plenty to do for the kids.
Golden Gate Park
Another free and entertaining locale is the Golden Gate Park, which is a large rectangular park in the middle of the city. There you can find a conservatory, a live buffalo herd, a Japanese Tea Garden, a museum of art as well as easy access to iconic neighborhoods like Haight-Ashbury.
We arrived in San Francisco from visiting friends in Santa Cruz and decided before we checked into our hotel in the city we would drive straight over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito for lunch. The drive up to and then over the bridge was magnificent. It truly is a beautiful bridge and provides awesome views of San Francisco. You can also walk or bike over the bridge. (Sausalito has a quaint downtown with restaurants and shops and a nice public sidewalk set up around the marina.)
You can’t visit San Francisco without riding a cable car. There are a couple of different routes; we picked one up right in Fisherman’s Wharf. They still run as they were in the past and it is quite an experience going up and down the hills of San Francisco on a cable car. There is a line that stops right at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is the famous crooked street in San Francisco in which people make a point to drive down. You can also walk down the street on the adjacent sidewalk.
Alcatraz Island is a national park and offers a tour of the prison and grounds. You will encounter great views of the city, view the lighthouse and see many bird colonies as well as entering the cells of many of the most dangerous past prisoners. A self-guided tour is available through a head set as well as park staff on site giving information to tourists throughout the day. Our nine-year-old son really enjoyed this visit
While there is fine dining to be had just about anywhere in this city, Chinatown remains a coveted destination spot. In the 24 blocks of Chinatown, you will find countless restaurants, museums, open-air markets, shops, and temples. The atmosphere is exotic, the smells and sights are vibrant. Make sure to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and show your kids how the fortunes end up inside.
There are many more places to visit so make sure to write down a list of your must-see spots and take advantage of all that San Francisco has to offer for you and your family.
Before you pack your bags, book your hotel, and confirm your trip insurance, make sure you check out our list of fun-packed, family-friendly activities in San Francisco.
Before we get to our must-see list, three things to keep in mind:
- The weather can be finicky. The best, warmest months are September and October; otherwise, pack layers for you and the kids.
- Be wary of the parking situation, because there isn’t much of it. Plan on using public transportation, such as the MUNI or BART or the legendary cable cars.
- There are a lot of very steep hills, so bring some comfortable shoes and a hiker’s mentality if you’re going to be walking.