10 Things to do in San Francisco with kids
San Francisco is a city known for the Golden Gate Bridge, beautifully painted victorians, historical cable cars rumbling down its streets, and so much more. We moved to the San Francisco area with our toddler three years ago. We wanted to explore and discover the city, but also have fun as a family.
The streets are steep and hilly, and the temperatures unpredictable (make sure to bring a sweater). But you will find the city to be fun-loving and kid friendly. Here are some of the top touristy things to do in San Francisco with kids.
1) Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39, right by the water has something for everyone. It’s a touristy stretch of seafront with a lot of souvenir shops, restaurants, and activities. It isn’t unusual to see street buskers, musicians and colourful displays along the way.
If you like seafood, there are plenty of restaurants with a view of the ocean – though they can be pricey and the price doesn’t entirely reflect the quality. There are also quite a few family-friendly restaurants with kids menus and yummy fish and chips. The fresh market seafood stalls offer amazing food to cook later or freshly prepared seafood to go.
If you don’t have a lot of time in San Francisco, Fisherman’s wharf lets you cover a lot of activities without wandering too far. There is an aquarium (though if you have time to take a day trip to Monterey’s aquarium, I’d skip this one). You can go see the sea lions for free just off the pier – fair warning, they get pretty stinky! Many bussed San Francisco city tours start and end around Fisherman’s wharf. From Fisherman’s wharf you can also visit The madam Tuessauds museum, Alcatraz island tours and Ghiradeli square, as well as the exploratorium – though you might want to dedicate a whole day to that. You can also easily take an iconic Cable Car ride from the wharf to Lombard street and other parts of downtown.
The Exploratorium is great for school-aged children, teens and adults. There is not much for toddlers to do, though kids under 3 get in for free.
The exploratorium in San Francisco has so many different spaces, you and your kids will enjoy playing with lights, magnets, bubbles or building your own tinker toys. There is even an art studio space on the top floor with sketching tools and a great view of the ocean.
The dining options in the Exploratorium are limited and not so great, But it is very close to fisherman’s wharf as well as the Ferry Building Marketplace, which is worth checking out for delicious food and a fun market experience.
If you have young kids, toddlers and preschoolers, the Bay Area children’s museum is amazing. It’s north of the city, in Sausalito, which means that you get to drive across the Golden Gate bridge to get there. With amazing views of the Bay and the Golden gate bridge, this is mostly an outdoor museum, though “museum” is hardly a word I’d use to describe it.
This is such a hands-on experience for kids. As soon as you walk in, you will see giant musical instruments for the kids to try out. There is a construction site space where kids can don a hard hat to shovel dirt and use real wheelbarrows. Giants building blocks let them build forts big enough to climb into. The tinkering spaces and classes are great for more structures STEM play. There is a designated baby and toddler space with water play for the littlest ones.
One of my favourite things about this place is how spacious it is. I can get pretty overwhelmed in busy places designed for little children, especially when the littles are running around excitedly, yelling or crying. But this open air museum is mostly designed to not be overwhelming. The spaces between buildings and displays are large and people don’t crowd each other.
If you have access to a car and want to spend a couple hours in nature, you need to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit the Muir Woods National Monument and see the huge redwoods. These ancient trees are giant and the hike through them is very unique. The hiking loops are very accessible and easy to do with kids. The first two loops are on a wide boardwalk path that’s stroller friendly. They’ll take you about 30-45 minutes depending on how much you stop to take pictures or explore. If you decide to take the largest loop, there is a portion of it that is not stroller friendly, but even that loop can be easily hiked while baby wearing, and even by a school aged child. Count on about an hour for the longest loop.
The parking lots for Muir Woods do get filled, so if you can get there first thing in the morning (by about 9am) that would be best. You can count on spending a total of couple hours here and be back in the city for lunch.
5) The Golden Gate Bridge
A trip to San Francisco would not be complete without seeing the golden gate bridge first hand. There are a lot of great spots to see the bridge from, some busier and more crowded than others.
If you’re heading to the Bay Area discovery museum or Muir woods as mentioned above, that is your opportunity to drive across the bridge. There are also a couple of great observation points across the bridge which give you a picturesque view of the bridge with the city of San Francisco in the background. Keep in mind that there is a toll for driving across the bridge.
On the side of the city there are a few great spots to experience the bridge from as well. Drive through the presidio and head towards the bridge. The obvious spot, which would also be the busiest is the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome center. From there you can hike down to get the best “post-card” angle of the bridge.
Personally, I like to drive past the welcome centre, Golden Gate overlook. The couple times we went there we were the only ones wandering around that space. It gave the kids some freedom to run around and climb and we took lots of great pictures with no one photobombing.
If you want a more dramatic view of the bridge, drive down Marine Dr. toward Fort Point. You’ll get a looming view of the bridge from the bottom rarely shown in movies and postcards. However, this road and the parking along it tend to get really busy and full of tourists and cars. Fort Point itself is pretty interesting but probably not ideal to visit with small children as there are a lot of steep stairs and easy-to-fall-off places.
6) Ghirardelli square is within a nice short walk of Fisherman’s wharf.
It isn’t a chocolate factory anymore, but there is a Ghirardelli chocolate store as well as ice cream shops, cafes and restaurants and cute boutiques. Great place to relax with a San Franciscan treat.
7) Alamo Square Park and The Painted Ladies
Head over to Alamo Square park to see an iconic part of San Francisco: The Painted Ladies. These are 6 Victorian homes that are beautifully painted and as unique to San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge. Aside from these 6 well known homes, the park is surrounded by rows of not so famous but equally beautifully decorated victorians.
Alamo Square park is pretty rugged in places with large trees and hilly terrain. There is a great playground designed in the theme of the famous Painted Ladies. Bring a picnic lunch, and you can even recreate the picnic scene from the opening song of Full House!
8) Golden Gate Park
This is a huge urban green space with lots to do. Koret playground is every kid’s dream come true, and right next to it is an old timey carousel. There is also a Japanese Tea Garden (though I would not recommend taking toddlers here), a beautiful conservatory of flowers with gorgeous gardens and fountain out front, California academy of science, a couple of museums, memorials and much more. You could spend a few days just exploring everything there is to explore in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. But if you don’t have days, just walking along the paths around the park is worth exploring.
9) Ride a cable car
San Francisco is famous for its cable cars. At $7 per ride, riding a cable car isn’t cheap, but children under 5 ride free! If you don’t have much time in San Francisco, a strategic cable car ride will allow you to see more of the city and some things in between. I recommend taking the Powell-Hyde line (https://www.streetcar.org/wheels-motion/ride-cable-car-lines/). Riding through the most scenic parts of the city, the cable car slows down so you can see famous Lombard street, the crookedest street in the world (it’s fun to see, but not so fun to walk, especially with kids and strollers). The line ends – or begins – at Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli square.
is a fun place to visit with children of all ages. It’s free and not very big so it won’t take up an entire day. San Francisco is full of historic cable cars and street cars that converge on this area. It’s a nice way to tie in the cable car ride around the city. If you’re familiar with Toronto, you might get nostalgic when you see some old refurbished TTC street cars in the museum and on the streets.
Honorary mention: If you enjoy walking tours, check out these free walking tours from San Francisco City Guides. They offer free tours of different San Francisco neighborhoods. We’ve taken a couple of these and really enjoyed them. The tours are roughly an hour, not so long that kids can’t handle it.
If you will be walking with kids, pay special attention to the description to check how difficult and hilly the walk is. Hills aside, San Francisco is pretty stroller friendly and we’ve definitely done a walking tour while pushing a stroller. Just make sure to tip your guide!
This post was written by…
Diana Turetsky from Bee Happy
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