San Francisco with Kids: 11 Top Things to Do

San Francisco is known for its stunning scenery and sophisticated sights, like the Golden Gate Bridge, elegant Nob Hill hotels, and quaint pastel-painted Victorian houses. Many of the city's most important landmarks also happen to be located near favorite children's attractions. On the way to see the Golden Gate Bridge, families can stop in the Presidio National Park to visit the Walt Disney Museum. A drive along the Great Highway to Ocean Beach invites a detour to the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens. A scenic stroll down the Embarcadero leads from the Ferry Building to the Exploratorium, where a fantastic world of scientific discovery awaits youngsters. The city's most popular tourist destination, Fisherman's Wharf, is just a few blocks away from the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39. To keep kids entertained for an entire day, the best place to go is Golden Gate Park, near the famous 1960s hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. Golden Gate Park stretches out over 1,017-acres and has several kid-friendly spots: the California Academy of Sciences with the Steinhart Aquarium, the Japanese Tea Garden, and Stow Lake for paddle boating.

1 Discover the Wonders of the Natural World at the California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Sciences
California Academy of Sciences

In San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the Academy of Sciences is a spacious facility with an aquarium, a state-of-the-art planetarium, a natural history museum, and a rainforest. Exhibits feature animals in environments that replicate their natural habitat. A highlight of the Academy, the Steinhart Aquarium mesmerizes kids with its array of colorful species. This spectacular aquarium contains around 40,000 different sea creatures, many in tanks with real coral reefs. The four-story Osher Rainforest is a lush tropical ecosystem with more than 1,600 animals. Children will be delighted to see hundreds of free-flying birds and beautiful butterflies plus dozens of exotic reptiles and amphibians. The academy also has famous residents, including its African penguins and Claude, the white alligator. The Kimball Natural History Museum teaches kids about evolution and life on Earth.

Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, California

Official site: http://www.calacademy.org

2 Spot Amazing Animals at the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens

San Francisco Zoo
San Francisco Zoo

Founded in 1929, the zoo lies near San Francisco's popular Ocean Beach. It's home to amazing animals, from tiny invertebrate insects to rare species of frogs and endangered mammals. Top attractions at the zoo include the Primate Discovery Center; the amazing Cat Kingdom that houses endangered tigers, snow leopards, and lions; the African Region with zebras, giraffes, and ostriches; and the South American Tropical Rainforest with free-flight birds, exotic reptiles, and a two-toed sloth. Kids will also love the Little Puffer Miniature Steam Train and the 1921 Dentzel Carousel (found next to the Fisher Family Children's Zoo). The Elinor Friend Playground has a River Play Area for toddlers six months to two years old, a Polar Zone exploration area for children from two to five years old, and a Banyan Tree climbing structure for kids aged five to 12 years old. For sporty kids aged four to 14 years old, the Rockin' Ropes Adventure is a challenging action-packed ropes course that requires swinging, jumping, stepping, and sliding.

Address: Sloat Boulevard at the Great Highway, San Francisco, California

Official site: http://www.sfzoo.org

3 Engage Curious Minds at Exploratorium

Exploratorium James / photo modified

This unique museum displays fascinating exhibits about science, art, and human perception. The museum encourages kids to ask questions that lead to discovery about how the world works. Exhibits are presented in an amusing way that gets kids excited about learning. Kids can make paper airplanes, observe the inner-workings of a single cell, learn how proteins make muscles, create fun sounds with a soda straw, find out how to make candy, learn about light pigments, and become engaged in many other interesting topics. The Exploratorium also offers film screening and workshops.

Address: Pier 15, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, California

4 Marvel at the Colorful Underwater World at the Aquarium of the Bay

Aquarium of the Bay
Aquarium of the Bay Jennifer Woodard Maderazo / photo modified

This impressive aquarium at Pier 39 is a top attraction near Fisherman's Wharf. The aquarium contains more than 30,000 marine animals that are indigenous to San Francisco Bay. Interpretive naturalists help visitors understand the sea life and its distinctive ecosystems. Kids will be dazzled by the 300-foot long crystal-clear tunnels offering splendid views of more than 20,000 fish and sea animals. For a close-up view of sharks, stingrays, and sea stars, kids can head to the Touch the Bay exhibit, while the Bay Lab offers more interactive activities. Children especially enjoy seeing the adorable river otters. After visiting the Aquarium of the Bay, many tourists head to the Pier 39 docks to watch the sea lions. Another favorite children's attraction nearby is the old-fashioned San Francisco Carousel, found at the Bay End of Pier 39 at Level One. This whimsical carousel was handcrafted in Italy with 32 seats shaped like animals, including panda bears, horses, dolphins, and sea dragons.

Address: Pier 39, 2 Beach Street, San Francisco, California

5 Take a Chocolate Factory Tour

Take a Chocolate Factory Tour
Take a Chocolate Factory Tour Gabriel Saldana / photo modified

Some children spend years dreaming of scenes from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A trip to San Francisco offers a dream-come-true chance to visit two incredible chocolate factories. Ghirardelli Chocolate Company at Ghirardelli Square (900 North Point Street) is the most famous chocolate maker in San Francisco. Founded in 1952 a few years after the Gold Rush, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was the first to create luxurious chocolate for rich gold miners. Ghirardelli is the oldest continuously operating chocolate maker in the United States and continues to make premium chocolate from cocoa beans to chocolate bars. Although the Ghirardelli Square location is no longer a working factory, the site has some of the original chocolate-making equipment on display. After sampling the Ghirardelli chocolates and perhaps taking an ice cream cone to go, walk over to a scenic attraction nearby. Aquatic Park has a small sandy beach and places to sit outside. Protected by a semicircular pier and seawall, the Aquatic Park waters are safe enough for children to wade and swim.

Another San Francisco-based chocolate factory is in the Mission District. Dandelion Chocolate (740 Valencia Street) is an artisan chocolate factory that makes small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate with cacao beans sourced from small farmers all over the world. Dandelion offers factory tours that show how their chocolate is produced from cacao beans to the cacao processing steps to creating chocolate bars. With immense amounts of liquid chocolate poured from vats into molds to create chocolate bars, it's an exhilarating sight to behold. The Dandelion Factory tours also include a sampling of Dandelion's single-origin chocolate.

6 Ride a Cable Car

Ride a Cable Car
Ride a Cable Car

A ride on one of San Francisco's iconic cable cars is an unforgettable experience for most kids. Cable cars offer an exhilarating way to see San Francisco, traveling through the city's historic neighborhoods - with amazing views along the way. The vistas from Nob Hill and Russian Hill are truly sensational. Kids and adults alike are awed by the sweeping panoramas of the city's rolling hills and the bay with Alcatraz in the distance. Kids will also love the thrill of riding an open-air car and the feeling of refreshing ocean-air breezes. Adding to the fun, the cable car conductors often encourage passengers to cheer and scream as if they were on a roller-coaster ride. Be sure to appreciate the excitement of hearing the car's noisy cables and bells, and contemplate the cable car's unique history.

San Francisco's cable cars were created in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie. He saw the need for a new form of transportation on the city's fearsome hills after viewing a horrible incident with a horse-drawn carriage. After a rainy day, the carriage slipped on the sheer incline of a damp cobblestone street. To prevent future accidents and replace horse-drawn carriages, Hallidie designed a cable car railway system that could handle San Francisco's steepest hills. Although much of the cable car system was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, there are still three cable car lines in operation. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines begin at the cable car turntable at the corner of Powell and Market streets. The Powell-Mason line goes up through Nob Hill and down to Fisherman's Wharf where it stops at Bay Street. The Powell-Hyde line also runs up through Nob Hill but turns to go up through Russian Hill before ending at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square. The California Street line runs from the Financial District through Chinatown and Nob Hill, ending at Van Ness Avenue.

7 Learn about Science at the Randall Museum

Randall Museum
Randall Museum Orin Zebest / photo modified

This community center provides kids with science-themed activities, environmental education, and arts experiences. The museum focuses on hands-on exhibits that promote learning. The STEM Lab offers children the opportunity for interactive experimentation with top-notch technological tools. The Natural Sciences Lab encourages kids to explore nature in its inspiring setting. The Buckley Redwood Room hosts special events in a truly stunning setting. Convenient for families, the museum has a café that serves snacks and light meals. For visitors who have plenty of time, the Ceramics Lab is a great place to take ceramics classes.

Address: Mission Art Center, 745 Treat Avenue, San Francisco, California

8 Spark the Imagination at the Children's Creativity Museum

Children's Creativity Museum
Children's Creativity Museum Agnieszka Koszowska / photo modified

The mission of the Children's Creativity Museum is to celebrate kids' creativity through innovative programs and presentations. Every exhibit is facilitated by a skilled artist or educator, who helps guide youngsters through the creative process. The museum has an Animation Studio, where children can make clay characters for their own animated film. The Music Studio allows kids to perform a singing act that can be recorded on DVD. The Imagination Lab also encourages imagination through hands-on interactive activities. In the Invention Lab, kids use critical thinking skills to create their own inventions.

Address: 221 Fourth Street, San Francisco, California

Official site: http://creativity.org

9 Visit the Walt Disney Family Museum

The Walt Disney Family Museum is dedicated to the life story and creative works of Walt Disney. This museum occupies two historic buildings in the Presidio, one of California's national parks, which was formerly the most important US Army base on the West Coast. With 40,000 square feet of exhibition space, the museum has several galleries that showcase the biography of Walt Disney, from early childhood mementos and drawings to his work as an animator. Other exhibits display original artwork from the Hollywood years (1923 to 1928) such as the first-known drawing of Mickey Mouse. The museum also discusses the highlights of Walt Disney's career, his internationally successful productions of Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. Special temporary exhibits profile other creative artists, like Maurice Sendak and Salvador Dalí. Kids will love the Little Open Studio, where they can create collages, paint the night sky, or create animal portraits after being inspired by the museum's exhibits.

Address: 104 Montgomery Street, The Presidio of San Francisco, California

Official site: http://www.waltdisney.org

10 Rent a Paddle Boat on Stow Lake

Paddle Boat on Stow Lake
Paddle Boat on Stow Lake Trace Nietert / photo modified

Tucked away in a wooded area of Golden Gate Park, Stow Lake is an idyllic retreat. Escape to nature and enjoy a nostalgic outdoor experience. Stow Lake has been a place of family fun times since 1893. Head to the charming Stow Lake Boathouse to rent a paddle boat, pedal boat, or electric boat for the afternoon. For a healthy snack, stop at the Café at Stow Lake Boathouse that has lovely lake views. The café offers house-made organic food and old-fashioned pink popcorn.

Address: 50 Stow Lake Drive E, San Francisco, California

11 Unwind at the Japanese Tea Garden

Japanese Tea Garden
Japanese Tea Garden

Inside Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is a peaceful retreat in nature. This romantic garden allows kids to experience the tranquility of a perfectly landscaped Japanese-style garden. The oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden features all the traditional elements - an arched bridge, vibrantly decorated pagodas, and stepping stone paths. Kids can meander through the stepping stones to discover the native Japanese plants and koi ponds and enjoy watching the bright orange fish glide through the water. During springtime (March-April), the garden's cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. For a delightful snack anytime of year, stop at the Tea House to enjoy an authentic Japanese tea in the irori (Japanese farmhouse) style while admiring the serenity of the south-facing koi pond.

Address: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, California

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Map of Top Things to Do with Kids in San Francisco


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