San Francisco with Kids: 12 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 near 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.
Discover more family-friendly attractions with our list of the top things to do with kids in San Francisco.
1. Discover the Wonders of the Natural World at the 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 for children and adults alike, the Steinhart Aquarium mesmerizes kids with its array of colorful species. This spectacular aquarium contains around 40,000 sea creatures, including over 900 different species, many in tanks with real coral reefs.
The four-story Osher Rainforest is a 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 such as its African penguins and Claude, the white alligator. The Kimball Natural History Museum teaches kids about evolution and life on Earth, while the Morrison Planetarium explains theories about the universe, as well as discoveries of stars and galaxies.
Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, California
Official site: http://www.calacademy.org
2. Spot Amazing Animals at the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens
Founded in 1929, this 100-acre zoo is near San Francisco's Ocean Beach. It's home to amazing animals from rare species of frogs to endangered mammals. Interesting exhibits at the zoo include the three-acre Leanne B. Roberts African Savanna with zebras, giraffes, and ostriches; the Jones Family Gorilla Preserve, home to a family of six gorillas; Penguin Island, which has a successful breeding colony; Koala Crossing, where five adorable koalas live in a grove of eucalyptus trees; and the South American Tropical Rainforest & Aviary, a rainforest ecosystem that provides habitat for exotic reptiles, birds, amphibians, and a two-toed sloth.
Youngsters will also love the Fisher Family Children's Zoo, a six-acre park within the San Francisco Zoo that includes a butterfly garden, an insect zoo full of interactive activities, and a nature trail that encourages children's curiosity about the wildlife and their environment. Other favorite kid-friendly attractions at the San Francisco Zoo include the charming Little Puffer Miniature Steam Train, built around 1904 and still used for rides around the zoo, and the old-fashioned Dentzel Carousel, which dates to 1921.
Address: Sloat Boulevard at the Great Highway, San Francisco, California
Official site: http://www.sfzoo.org
3. Engage Curious Minds at Exploratorium
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, and the educational content is presented in an amusing way that gets youngsters excited about learning. Kids can engage in interactive exhibits and fascinating topics. The Exploratorium also presents art exhibits that are designed to spark the imagination.
Address: Pier 15 (Embarcadero at Green Street), San Francisco, California
Official site: http://www.exploratorium.edu
4. Marvel at the Colorful Underwater World at the Aquarium of the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 near Fisherman's Wharf. The aquarium contains more than 20,000 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 the sea creatures, from jellyfish and anchovies to turtles and octopus.
For a close-up view of sharks, stingrays, and sea stars, kids can head to the Touch the Bay exhibit. A group of playful river otters always thrill the young visitors.
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 San Francisco Carousel, found at the Bay End of Pier 39 at Level One. This exquisitely painted vintage carousel was handcrafted in Italy. The carousel seats represent a menagerie of whimsical animals, including panda bears, horses, dolphins, and sea dragons.
Address: Pier 39 (Embarcadero at Beach Street), San Francisco 94133
Official site: https://www.aquariumofthebay.org
5. Take a Chocolate Factory Tour
A trip to San Francisco offers a dream-come-true chance for kids to visit a chocolate factory. Ghirardelli Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square (900 North Point) is the most famous chocolate maker in San Francisco. Founded in 1852 a few years after the Gold Rush, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was the first to create high-quality chocolate for rich gold miners. Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is the oldest continuously operating chocolate maker in the United States and continues to make chocolate from cocoa beans to chocolate bars.
Although the Ghirardelli Square location is no longer a working chocolate 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, tourists can explore the scenic attractions 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, which show how their chocolate is produced from start to finish. With immense amounts of liquid chocolate poured from vats into molds to create chocolate bars, it's a marvelous sight to behold. The Dandelion Factory tours also include a sampling of Dandelion's single-origin chocolate.
6. 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, by traveling in an open-air car through the city's historic neighborhoods. Both kids and adults are awed by the panoramas of the city's rolling hills and the bay with Alcatraz in the distance. Adding to the fun, cable car conductors ring bells at each stop, and during the steepest portion of the rides, encourage passengers to cheer and scream as if they were on a roller-coaster.
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 corner of Powell and Market streets. The Powell-Mason line goes up through Nob Hill and down towards Fisherman's Wharf, where it stops at Taylor and Bay streets. The Powell-Hyde line also runs up through Nob Hill but turns to go through Russian Hill before ending at Aquatic Park (Hyde and Beach streets) near Ghirardelli Square. The California line runs from the Financial District through Chinatown and Nob Hill, ending at Van Ness Avenue.
7. Learn about Science at the Randall Museum
This museum provides science-themed exhibits, environmental education, and arts experiences that promote learning through hands-on activities. Kids can explore the scaled-down models of railway cars and discover more about local wildlife and plants. Creatively inspired kids can make their own pottery in the ceramics studio. Convenient for families, the museum has a café that serves snacks and light meals prepared from organic ingredients.
Address: 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, California
Official site: https://www.randallmuseum.org/
8. Spark the Imagination at the Children's Creativity Museum
The Children's Creativity Museum celebrates and supports creative expression in children, by offering innovative programs and presentations. The museum has an Animation Studio, where children can make clay characters for their own animated film. The Making Music Studio allows kids to perform a singing act that can be recorded on DVD. The Imagination Lab encourages imagination through hands-on interactive activities. In the Innovation 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. 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 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 workshops that teach how to create your own animations.
Address: 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio, San Francisco, California
Official site: http://www.waltdisney.org
10. Rent a Paddle Boat on Stow Lake
In a wooded area of Golden Gate Park, families with kids can escape to nature and enjoy an old-fashioned outdoor experience. Stow Lake has been a place of family fun times since 1893. The Stow Lake Boathouse provides rentals of paddle boats, pedal boats, and electric boats by the hour.
Also well designed for relaxation, the Café at Stow Lake Boathouse serves snacks, sandwiches, and salads in a casual dining area with lovely lake views. The café specializes in local organic food and is known for its pink popcorn.
Address: 50 Stow Lake Drive E, San Francisco, California
Official site: http://stowlakeboathouse.com
11. Unwind at the Japanese Tea Garden
Inside Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden is a peaceful retreat in nature. The oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, San Francisco's perfectly landscaped Japanese Tea Garden features traditional Japanese-style elements: an arched bridge, vibrantly decorated pagodas, and stone paths. Kids can meander along the stepping stones to discover the native Japanese plants. Most children are dazzled by the koi ponds, which are full of bright orange fish gliding through the water.
During springtime (March-April), the garden's cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. Anytime of year, visitors can stop at the charming Tea House overlooking the south-facing koi pond. The Tea House serves guests authentic Japanese refreshments at an irori (Japanese farmhouse) table.
Address: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, California
Official site: http://japaneseteagardensf.com
12. Admire Giant Redwood Trees at Muir Woods
A visit to Muir Woods is sure to provide kids with a memorable taste of the great outdoors. Muir Woods National Monument is one of the few remaining old-growth redwood forests left in the world. Children marvel at the enormity of these majestic giant, thousand-year-old trees, which soar to over 250-feet tall. Sunlight barely trickles into this lush shady environment, a place so different from your average city park that it will certainly leave kids with a lasting impression. Parents will appreciate that this nature preserve has an easy walking trail.
Muir Woods requires visitors to reserve parking or shuttle service in advance. For a more convenient option, families can try an organized tour instead. The four-hour Muir Woods and Sausalito Half Day Tour includes hotel pickup and drop-off, luxurious coach transportation, and entry into Muir Woods National Monument (with over one hour of free time to wander through the amazing forest) plus a short visit to the quaint waterfront town of Sausalito.
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Kid-Friendly Attractions Nearby: Families can also explore nearby cities with kid-friendly attractions. The storybook-theme Fairyland amusement park in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, draws families with children around the age range of three to seven years old. The Beach Boardwalk and the Roaring Camp Railroad makes the beach town of Santa Cruz one of the best places to visit for families with young kids. Half Moon Bay has many things to do that kids love, such as wandering among the pumpkin patches in October and checking out the petting zoo at Lemos Farm.
Planning a Family Vacation in San Francisco: To ensure a relaxing vacation, parents should book hotels ahead of time. Families tend to stay around Fisherman's Wharf, but it's a good idea to learn about the different neighborhoods before deciding where to stay in San Francisco. Visitors are also advised to pack clothes suitable for the local weather, which can be sunny as well as windy and chilly in the summertime, due to the San Francisco fog. Another consideration is that sightseeing in San Francisco requires lots of walking. Good shoes are needed for a San Francisco Walking Tour.