San Francisco is a small metropolis at about 47 square miles, making it easy to pack a lot of kid-friendly activities into a trip if you’re organized.
This guide, divided by neighborhood, will help you avoid wasting time and keep the focus on fun. You can, for example, combine a visit to the Exploratorium interactive science museum with a walk through the foodie Ferry Building. But you probably don’t want to plan a day with visits to both the Museum of Modern Art and Golden Gate Park because GGP, San Francisco’s Central Park, isn’t central and holds more than a full day of must-see attractions on its own.
If you’re going to be in San Francisco for at least a few days, a CityPASS may help you save on admission costs if you have kids 5 and older. The CityPASS (ages 12 to adult $94, 5–11 $72) includes a three-day cable car and Muni bus passport, a Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure and admission to the Aquarium of the Bay, California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For kids under 5, many attractions are free.
Keep in mind that most tours and sightseeing purchases will code as “entertainment” on your credit card statement, so be sure to use the best credit card for entertainment spending.
1. Fisherman’s Wharf
The Fisherman’s Wharf area is home to touristy attractions such as Madame Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It is also convenient to some unique to San Francisco experiences.
At nearby Hyde Street Pier there’s San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which is managed by the National Park Service. Visitors learn about Pacific Coast maritime history and explore several 19th-century and early 20th-century wooden ships. Admission is $15 per person to board the ships. There’s also a sandy public beach in adjacent Aquatic Park.
Pier 39 offers restaurants and attractions, including the Aquarium of the Bay (adult, $27.95; child 4–12, $17.95; under 3, free; bundle deals available for families). This newer aquarium showcases native sea life of San Francisco Bay, including jellies, sea lions, otters, sharks and lots more. Behind the Scenes tours (45 minutes) are offered at no additional charge (kids must be 5 or over), as is a 75-minute Feed the Sharks tour (ages 8 and up). Another included special program (every two hours, from 10:30am) teaches visitors about the sea lions that have made their home at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Pier 39 is also a departure point for whale-watching tours through San Francisco Whale Tours. March through October, 2.5-hour tours leave at 8am, 11am and 2pm (adult, $45; children, 3–15 $35; college students, seniors over 60 and military, $40). November to March, the company runs three- to four-hour gray whale watching tours Friday through Sunday (adult, $59; child, $49; students, seniors and military, $54). For those with the CityPASS, the Blue & Gold Fleet, San Francisco’s ferry service, operates Bay Cruise Adventures from Pier 39, affording views of Alcatraz Island, Angel Island State Park and the San Francisco skyline (prices without the CityPASS: adult, $34; 12–18, $26; 5–11, $23; family/group discounts available). If the cruise prices seem steep, see the section below under Embarcadero for a cheaper, less touristy way to ride the ferry.
A couple of blocks up from Fisherman’s Wharf is Ghirardelli Square, housed in a former chocolate factory founded in the 1850s. This pleasant, red-brick retail and dining complex includes the flagship Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. A sundae, made with the chocolate-maker’s hot fudge, will set you back $11 or more (download a discount coupon online), but it comes with a lovely bay view and the chance to watch a master chocolatier at work.
At Pier 15, you’ll find The Exploratorium, San Francisco’s exceptional interactive science museum, with dozens of hands-on exhibits and activities for kids, focusing on perception, physics, chemistry, life sciences, language, water and waves and more. When the Exploratorium moved from its previous location to its current bayside home, The New York Times said, “It remains the most important science museum to have opened since the mid-20th century because of the nature of its exhibits, its wide-ranging influence and its sophisticated teacher training program.” (Hours: 10am–5pm, Tuesday–Sunday, plus 6pm–8pm, Thursday. Admission: adults, $29.95; over 65, people with disabilities, teachers, students and kids 13–17, $24.95; 4–12, $19.95; under 3 and California teachers are free.)
At the foot of Market Street, a 10-minute walk from the Exploratorium, is the Ferry Building, which is both an actual ferry hub and a marketplace for San Francisco foodie culture (Monday–Friday, 10am–7pm; Saturday, 8am–6pm; Sunday, 11am–5pm). Try Cowgirl Creamery’s artisanal cheeses, Hog Island oysters, Mariposa Baking’s gluten-free breads and pastries and many more. There are also several outstanding table-service restaurants and picnic tables and benches outside to enjoy your counter purchases and watch the ferries arrive and depart. A farmers market is held Tuesday and Thursday, 10am–2pm, and Saturday, 8am–2pm.
A money-saving idea for those who don’t purchase a CityPASS: Combine a visit to the Ferry Building with a round-trip ride (25 minutes each way) on a Blue & Gold Fleet ferry to/from Oakland. You’ll glide under the Bay Bridge and enjoy spectacular city and bay views for a lot less than the price of an official sightseeing excursion (adult, $14; kids 5–18, $7; under 5, free).
3. Historic San Francisco: Nob Hill, Chinatown and North Beach
The self-proclaimed biggest Chinatown outside of Asia lies between San Francisco’s financial district and upscale Nob Hill. It’s a delightful city within the city, populated with mom-and-pop eateries and import shops, with a history that is intertwined with the challenges faced by Chinese immigrants to the region. For an enriching visit, take a three-hour All About Chinatown Walking Tour (daily at 10am; adults, $33, $60 with lunch; kids 6–17, $23, $50 with lunch). The tour visits a Chinese herbal pharmacy, food markets, a Buddhist temple, Chinese language school, a fortune cookie factory and more. To visit independently, enter through the Dragon Gate at the intersection of Bush and Grant streets.
Uphill and to the west of Chinatown is Nob Hill, with its mansions and luxury hotels. It’s a fun outing to ride the Powell-Hyde cable car up to Powell and California streets and visit the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, where visitors learn about the history and mechanics of San Francisco’s trademark trolleys. You can check out antique vehicles and view engines and winding wheels that pull the cables.
Back at the bottom of the hill, charming North Beach (San Francisco’s Little Italy) is convenient to downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf. You may have passed through on your way to Chinatown. North Beach is a terrific place to eat. Choose a place for a wonderful pasta dinner with ambience. Special places include Sotto Mare on Green, a North Beach classic for pasta and seafood, and Firenze by Night with its Florentine frescoes. Golden Boy Pizza and Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza and Slice House are favorites for pizza and Stella Pastry and Café is a top spot for cannoli and other sweet treats.
SOMA, or South of Market, is the vibrant neighborhood where you’ll find SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), which creates engaging, cutting-edge exhibits, sometimes with interactive elements. Admission is free for everyone 18 and younger, and the museum has prepared a guide to visiting with kids as well as a family activity guide to engage youngsters and suggest exhibits of particular interest.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). (Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Across Third Street from SFMOMA is Yerba Buena Gardens, where you’ll find plenty of green open space for kids to blow off steam, as well as the Children’s Creativity Museum. (Hours: Wednesday–Sunday, 10am–4pm, during the school year; 10am–4pm, Tuesday–Sunday, in summer; admission $12.95, active-duty military families and kids under 2 are free.) This attraction, designed mainly for preschool-aged children and their parents, features workshops and hands-on labs with themes, such as Animation, Tech, Music and Innovation. The museum is adjacent to the beautiful LeRoy King Carousel (daily, 10am–5pm). A ticket for two rides is $4; $3 with museum admission.
Yerba Buena Gardens offers several dining options that are popular with the office crowd. If your kids are adventurous eaters, these present interesting possibilities. If your crowd will be happier with a quick burger or quesadilla, head to the Metreon complex next door, where you’ll find choices such as Buckhorn Grill, Chipotle and Super Duper Burgers. The Metreon also features lots of shops and an AMC multiplex.
Even farther south of Market Street lies the South Park neighborhood, which centers on the San Francisco Giants’ recently renamed Oracle Park. The experience of watching a game at Oracle Park is enhanced by wonderful bay views from the upper deck and a family zone called the Fan Lot, where kids can slide down a giant Coke bottle and little ones can play ball in Little Giants Park, a mini replica of the ballpark. If baseball is your life, maybe you’re up for a pregame tour of the park (dates and times vary, from $35 per person), a small-group VIP tour ($175 per person) or even a private batting practice tour ($500 per guide for group of 30 people max.).
5. Golden Gate Park
Like your kids, you’ve probably been wondering when we’d finally get to the park. San Francisco’s 1,017-acre urban park, which extends from Haight-Ashbury to the Pacific, is full of playgrounds, gardens and attractions. Before you go, visit the Golden Gate Park website for maps and information that will help you plan your time.
If you can get to the park before 10am, make your first stop the Japanese Tea Garden, because admission is free before 10. It’s delightful to wander along the paths and bridges through 5 acres of beautifully designed gardens adorned with water features, sculptures and architectural elements. The garden’s teahouse is a sweet place to stop for a snack of tea and cookies or a light meal. The Tea Garden is open daily, March–October, 9am–5:45pm, and November–February, 9am–4:45pm. Admission for nonresidents after 10am: adult, $9; senior and 12–17, $6; child, 5–11, $3; under 4, free.
On the same side of the Music Concourse as the tea garden is the red-brick de Young Museum, featuring permanent collections of American paintings, graphic arts and photography and works of African and Oceanic artists, as well as important temporary exhibitions. If your kids aren’t up for that kind of museum time, it can still be fun to take a free elevator ride to the top of the tower and enjoy exceptional views of the park. Open Tuesday–Sunday, 9:30am–5:15pm. Admission: Adult, $15; senior, $12; student, $6; 17 and under, free.
Across the concourse is the California Academy of Sciences. Dating to the mid-19th century, this natural sciences museum and research center includes the Rainforests of the World exhibit, which lets you walk through beautifully realized habitats populated by tropical butterflies and birds. You’ll follow a spiral pathway through a changing landscape that emulates the forests of Costa Rica, Borneo and Madagascar. At the Discovery Tidepool, kids can see and touch hermit crabs, sea stars and other sea creatures. Perhaps most memorable, a white alligator lives in The Swamp, where you’ll also see turtles and subtropical fish.
The Academy Café within the Academy of Sciences is a good bet for lunch, with an affordable, varied menu for grown-ups, plus pizzas and a kids’ menu.
A 10-minute walk from the academy, the wonderful Koret Children’s Quarter playground features elaborate climbing structures, picnic areas and a historic carousel. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day; 10am–6pm, Saturday, Sunday and holidays; Monday–Friday, 10:30am–5pm. Between Labor Day and the day before Memorial Day, open Saturday, Sunday, holidays, 10am–4pm, and Monday–Friday, 10:30–4pm. Carousel fee: adult, $2; 6–12, $1; 5 and under, free if accompanied by a paying adult. Children under 40 inches in height must also be accompanied by an adult.
There is lots more to do in Golden Gate Park with kids: paddle-boating on Stow Lake, visiting the Conservatory of Flowers, watching the buffalos roam inside their paddock and more.
Offering fun excursions on land and sea, world-class museums designed just for children, superb cuisine and one of the nation’s largest urban parks, San Francisco shows kids and their parents a wonderful time. Explore these neighborhoods to get a feel for the diversity of this great city.
Here’s some more advice for families planning a vacation to San Francisco:
- Planning a Family Trip to San Francisco
- Family Hikes in San Francisco
- The Ultimate Guide to Priority Pass Lounges and Restaurants at SFO Airport
- Silvercar Adds Rental Location No. 25 at San Francisco’s Union Square
- Your Points and Miles Guide to San Francisco
- 8 Incredible San Francisco Airbnbs for Every Style and Budget
- Alaska Airlines to Open ‘Top Floor’ San Francisco Lounge
Featured photo of Fisherman’s Wharf, SF by Holgs / Getty Images.