Updated October 16, 2016
- The Best San Francisco Hotels for Families
- Get Your Guide – Great site for booking tours and tickets (with good discounts).
- San Francisco City Pass – Good discounts
- GGMG – Wonderful guide to San Francisco’s best playgrounds.
Top 10 things to do with kids in San Francisco
The Author: Laurie Bouck is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vaccinations.
There are plenty of reasons for adults to love San Francisco – the food, the architecture, the arts, the history – but kids find some of these grown-up pursuits yawn-inducing. Fortunately, there are many kid-friendly activities in San Francisco. As a bonus, many of these activities sneak in a little education and cultural appreciation as well.
The popular Exploratorium, newly located on Pier 15 and completely refurbished, has loads of hands-on science projects for kids. They can make giant soap bubbles, learn about electrical circuits, explore light refraction, and more in a variety of permanent and rotating exhibits. The Exploratorium is located at 3601 Lyon Street. Children five and under are free; admission for older children and adults ranges from $19 to $25 per person. Admission is discounted 50% if you purchase a CityPass.
On a cold or rainy day, many parents realize that many of the kid-friendly activities in San Francisco are outside. The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, though, can keep your kids warm, dry, and entertained for hours. The Academy features a planetarium, an aquarium, a butterfly-filled rainforest dome, and a living roof. The Academy is located at 55 Music Concourse Drive. Children ages 3 and under are free; ticket prices for older children and adults range from $20 to $35 per person.
In Russian Hill just past Hyde Street, Lombard Street plunges down a steep hill that has earned it the nickname “the crookedest street in the world.” The block is riddled with switchbacks to help cars get down Lombard in one piece. Enjoy the view of the Bay from the top of Hyde Street, where the Powell-Hyde Street cable car stops, then walk downhill on the sidewalk past lovely Victorian houses and white-knuckled drivers. Or drive down the hill yourself, if you dare!
Why drive across this San Francisco icon when you can walk across it instead? Pedestrians can walk across the east side of the bridge, which has stunning views of the city and San Francisco Bay, yearlong from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.; hours are longer during Daylight Savings time. There is also a gift center on the southeast (San Francisco) side of the bridge. Take Highway 101 northbound toward the bridge, then turn off at the last San Francisco exit to reach the parking lot for the pedestrian entrance.
5. Cable Cars
San Francisco currently maintains three cable car lines that originate in the downtown area. The cable cars are designed to carry passengers over some hilly sections of San Francisco, and offer a slow but exhilarating ride full of views, screeching cables, and clanging bells. My favorite line, the Powell-Hyde line, begins at Powell Street and Market Street and ends at Aquatic Park on the San Francisco Bay. Children 4 and under ride free, while everyone else pays $5.00 (collected by the conductor). If you plan to take many trips on public transportation during your visit, purchase a SFMUNI 7-day CityPass for free cable car rides. If your kids (or grownups) love cable cars, stop by the free Cable Car Museum at 1201 Mason Street – the Powell-Hyde line goes right by it.
6. Crissy Field
The Marina District’s Crissy Field has something for every nature-lover in the family: a beach with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, a lagoon perfect for bird-watching, paved and unpaved areas for biking, and wide grassy fields for picnics. Crissy Field is located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, at the west end of Marina Boulevard. Park near the Beach Hut Café at the east end of Crissy Field, then stroll west along the beach to reach the Warming Hut, which has a café and a gift shop.
7. Angel Island
Sometimes overlooked in favor of its more popular neighbor, Alcatraz Island, Angel Island State Park is a gold mine of natural and historical assets. Angel Island has been a civil war Army post, an immigration station for Chinese immigrants, a POW camp, and a quarantine station, and it still has building and other structures from each of these eras. This fascinating island in San Francisco Bay is accessible by ferry from San Francisco’s Ferry Building downtown or from Pier 41. You can rent bicycles near the ferry stop on Angel Island to tour the island by bike, or explore the trails and roads by foot.
If you have a boat-lover in your family, the Hyde Street Pier in the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is a must-see. On the pier, you can visit half a dozen ships built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, such as a three-masted cargo ship and a paddle steamboat. Start at the Visitor’s Center at Fisherman’s Wharf, at 499 Jefferson Street. Children under 16 can visit the Hyde Street Pier for free, and adults are charged $5.00 per person.
North of the Financial District, San Francisco boasts the largest and oldest Chinatown in North America. Enter through the Chinatown Gate at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, and explore the shops, restaurants, and bakeries on Grant Avenue and Stockton Avenue. Popular spots include the Golden Gate Bakery at 1029 Grant Avenue, the dim sum restaurant New Asia at 772 Pacific Avenue, and the local park Portsmouth Square.
When the kids are tired of the California Academy of Sciences, cross the lawn to the funky-looking perforated copper deYoung Museum. Look for the crack in the sidewalk that leads you to the deYoung’s entrance, a project created by artist Andy Goldsworthy to symbolize San Francisco’s earthquake history. After you enter the building, walk north to reach the elevators to the museum’s observation tower. This free tower has stunning views of San Francisco.