Planning a family vacation to the Bay Area? Here are our favorite things to do in San Francisco with kids–big tourist stops and hidden gems that the whole family will LOVE!San Francisco is my favorite big city in the United States. And yes, I realize that is a big claim. But the truth is, it’s a fabulous city–especially for families with young kids.
If you’ve been around here long, you know I LOVE to travel…and I love sharing my adventures with you! Many of the locations I write about I’ve only been to once or twice, but San Francisco is different. It’s been in my heart since before I can even remember.
You see, my parents were both raised in the Bay Area, and my grandparents were both raised in the city itself, so it’s a place we visited A LOT growing up.
As a child, I remember climbing the big bridge at the Japanese Garden in Golden Gate Park and eating Ghiradelli chocolate as I walked down the Embarcadero. I love the ding of the trolleys and the cool mist of the fog rolling over the hills and blanketing the city like clockwork every evening.
These days, my husband and I both have siblings who live in the Bay Area, so this summer we decided to take a trip to visit them! We spent some time in the city, and we also explored some new spots in the surrounding areas.
Below are my very favorite things to do in San Francisco with kids (and a few fabulous finds within an hour of the city). Happy travels!
8 Can’t-miss things to do in San Francisco with kids
1. The Exploratorium
I still remember standing inside a tornado as a kid at the Exploratorium; it was mesmerizing to watch the funnel form and swirl around inside the chamber.
The museum moved locations a few years ago (from the Palace of Fine Arts to a huge space near the Ferry Building right on the bay), but the almost endless supply of hands-on science experiments has only gotten better over the years.
This museum is all about learning through experience, so it’s perfect for kids! They can touch just about everything and explore color, sound, magnetism, physics, and so much more! We spent three hours here, and there was still MUCH left undone (I would have stayed longer, but the kids were getting hangry).
It’s a bit pricey, so you want to plan to spend at least a few hours there to get your money’s worth. Also, the museum is a little bit of a labyrinth with all it’s different exhibits, so watch your kids carefully. I was glad we had almost a 1:1 ratio of adults to kids so the kids could explore whatever they wanted but I wasn’t (too) stressed about losing someone.
PRO TIP: When you first get to the museum, go to the giant spirograph and sign up for a time to make your own unique drawing. They have limited space, and you have to reserve a time in advance, so go early!
2. Pier 39
Pier 39 is iconic–and extremely touristy–but it really is a fun place to visit. You’ll find lots of restaurants (Bubba Gump, Hard Rock Cafe, and Boudin, etc.), so it’s a nice place to stobp by around lunch time.
Make sure you say hello to the sea lions (on the NW corner of the pier). It’s always great entertainment watching them climb over each other and shove one another off the floating docks. My boys had a great time impersonating their loud barking sounds.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at The Candy Baron (an old fashioned sweet shop at the very end of the pier). Fair warning…it’s not cheap and it’s easy to spend a lot if you’re not careful. BUT, they have more flavors of taffy than you’ve probably ever seen in your life, and they also carry a great assortment of other old-timey candies (hello, root beer barrels), too. I let my boys each pick out six different pieces of candy (grown ups picked some, too). By giving them a set number, we got a fun little sample and escaped for less than five dollars.
Sit and rest while you watch a cheesy magic show. Right by the carousel (which is WAY expensive…ride the one in Golden Gate Park instead) is a small stage that has various performances throughout the day. They are REALLY cheesy, but my boys always enjoy it.
3. Boudin Bakery
Sourdough bread is a San Francisco tradition, and nobody does it quite like Boudin. You can grab some quickly at Pier 39, but the BIG store is a few minutes farther NW down the Embarcadero.
The fun thing about going to the big store is that you can watch through a huge window as bakers shape loaves into all kinds of crazy shapes: bears, lobsters, turtles, and more! Everyone in our group was intrigued by how they could make such art out of simple dough.
4. Trolley Tours (cable cars)
Long before the resurgence of Daniel Tiger, kids and adults alike considered a trolley ride in the City by the Bay a must-do. After all, what could be more fun than hanging off the side of an antique cable car as you ride the roller coaster of hills through the city?
Be aware, however, that the lines to get on the cable cars can get CRAZY long (over an hour wait), so you need to be smart if you don’t want to spend half the day waiting in line. Good news: if you know the insider tricks, you can totally avoid those ridiculous lines.
PRO TIP: Click here to learn everything you need to know about navigating the trolley system in San Francisco. We followed the advice of walking down a block or two past the turn around and getting on at a smaller stop. It worked like a charm!
5. Vintage Buses on the Embarcadero (street cars)
Trolleys aren’t the only fun way to travel in San Francisco. If the craziness of the trolleys is just too much for you, consider riding a vintage streetcar down the Embarcadero (the street that runs around the edge of the city closest to the bay). They are much cheaper, and many of them are antiques from 50+ years ago.
Fair warning: these oldies-but-goodies often don’t have air conditioning, so on a warm day they can get pretty uncomfortable. But, it’s San Francisco, so usually the weather won’t get much above 70 degrees.
6. Ferry rides
San Francisco really is heaven for little boys who love all “things that go.” In addition to the trolleys and streetcars, kids will LOVE hopping on a ferry for a new view of the city.
For little ones, it doesn’t even matter where you’re going…the boat ride is the main attraction. You can hop on ferries at Fisherman’s Wharf or at the main Ferry Building, depending on where you want to go.One option is to use the ferry as your transportation into and out of the city (this way you avoid expensive parking fees). Take the ferry from South San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, etc.
If you’re already in the city and looking to get out on the bay, consider a ferry trip over to Sausalito (see below for fun things to do there) or to Angel Island (a fabulous place to hike and explore with kids).
7. Golden Gate Park
Before our most recent trip to San Francisco, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in Golden Gate park, so this time I made it a priority. Why? Because Golden Gate Park has SO much to offer, especially for families of young kids! You could EASILY spend a whole day exploring just this one park.
Take a walk around Stowe Lake. My sister (a local who frequents the park) took us on what she called “the shortest and most interesting path.” See the map below for her recommended route which starts on the south side of the lake, curves around to the east past the Golden Gate Pavillion, then over to Huntington Falls. If you’re feeling adventurous, hike up the stairs by the waterfall to the top of Strawberry Hill–a great place for a picnic lunch, fabulous view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, and lots of tree stumps and logs to climb on.
Bonus: If you fancy a great leg workout, you can rent a paddle boat and scoot around on the lake. But seriously, it’s really hard work.
Visit the Koret Children’s Quarter playground and ride one of the concrete slides. You can usually find discarded scraps of cardboard lying around to sit on and ride this unique feature. Even if your kids don’t want to do the slides, it’s a fabulous (and large) playground–a great place to turn the kids loose for some good free play time!
When you’re done at the playground, entice your kids to leave by promising them a ride on the vintage carousel. It’s only about $1.00 per person, so it won’t break the bank.
Still not done with the park?
You can go up the De Young Museum tower (the museum requires admission, but the observation tower is free) for great views of the city.
(Side note: We debated between taking our kids to the Exploratorium or the Academy of Sciences. This time, we opted for the Exploratorium, but next time I want to try out the Academy.)
8. The Golden Gate Bridge
With its cheery red color, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the world. At the time it was built (during the Great Depression), it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. There are lots of ways to experience the Golden Gate Bridge.
Easy option: Just drive across it. *Note: It is free to drive north across the bridge out of the city, but there is a toll to cross the bridge driving south into the city. Just FYI. If you’re going to venture north anyway, this is a great option.
Harder option: Walk or bike across the bridge. I REALLY wanted to bike across the bridge, but after doing a lot of research, I realized that it might not be the most kid-friendly activity…at least for young kids. It’s a pretty tough ride (read: not flat), and if you want to ride down into Sausalito you have to ride down a pretty steep road that doesn’t have an official bike lane. I decided I’ll fulfill that dream when my kids get a little older.
You could definitely walk across, or just walk part of the way (my brother-in-law pushed himself the whole way in a wheelchair, so I know it’s possible), you just have to judge your kids’ stamina.
By the way, if your kids ask (because mine certainly did) why the Golden gate bridge is red, you can explain to them that it got its name because it spans the Golden Gate Strait, a narrow waterway that connects the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean (It has nothing to do with the California gold rush, BTW). Who knew?!
More fun family attractions near San Francisco – North Bay
Muir Woods is located northwest of San Francisco, about a twenty minute drive past the Golden Gate Bridge.
Named for naturalist John Muir, this national monument offers visitors an easy stroll through some of the tallest trees in the world: the coastal redwoods. The main trail is paved, making it great for families that need to bring a stroller along. Wander for a couple hours and enjoy a picnic lunch or eat at the cafe near the entrance.
If you can leave the stroller behind, there are many trails that venture off a little farther into the wild. You could spend a whole day wandering among the silent giants of these mountains (or as long as your little ones’ legs last).
PRO TIPS: Make sure you reserve your parking or shuttle transportation through the National Park Service website in advance (reservations are now required).
If you have kids age 5-12, check out the Junior Ranger program. Almost all national parks & monuments offer this awesome program where kids can complete learning activities during their visit and talk to a ranger about what they learned to earn an official Junior Ranger badge. We do this every time we visit one of the parks, and it’s been a great way to give my boys something to do and encourage them to engage in learning about the places we visit!
Bay Area Discovery Museum
(In Sausalito, about 5 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge)
Nestled right at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, The Bay Area Discovery Museum is unlike any children’s museum I’ve ever visited. At first, it didn’t look like much…a few rows of beige buildings that looked like old army barracks. However, once we got “inside” (which was really an outdoor space), I was drawn in by the magic of bubbles lazily floating through the air, and the variety of indoor and outdoor exhibits.
My boys immediately wanted to explore the construction zone where they were able to use real rasps and sandpaper to work on a maze of nailed-together wood beams. “You mean I can use the REAL grown-up tools, Mom?” My five-year-old questioned in disbelief.
The museum has a series of themed rooms inside three long rows of buildings as well as several outdoor exhibits dotting the breezeways in between: wooden trains, boats, giant foam building blocks, an art space, and more. My kids were in heaven.
At the far end, there is a fabulous outdoor playground with ships to explore, a crow’s nest to climb, an outdoor gravel pit to dig, and enchanting wooded pathways to wander through.
They also have a really yummy little cafe we splurged on for lunch. The food there is actually healthy and the kids’ meals are truly works of art!
PRO TIP: If you have a membership to a children’s museum/zoo/aquarium in your hometown, check to see if they have a reciprocal agreement with any of the attractions in the cities you travel to. We have gotten free admission to several museums in various cities nationwide because of our membership back home. There are several different organizations you can check:
(About 10 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge)
Sausalito is an old fishing village that got a trendy tourist make-over. It really is crawling with tourists, but it’s still a fun place to spend an hour or two. After we finished up at the Discovery Museum (see above), we drove into downtown (a five-minute drive).
If you do only ONE thing in Sausalito, get ice cream at Lappert’s. It is the best ice cream I’ve ever had in my life…and I’ve had a LOT of ice cream. I’m still dreaming of the creaminess of the Coconut Caramel Macadamia…Mmmm. Word of the wise: upgrade to the waffle cone. You won’t be disappointed.
Once you have ice cream in hand, you can wander across the street to Gabrielson Park and watch the happenings on the bay. There’s a walkway that goes along the waterfront, and we had a great time watching the boats coming and going, hunting for crabs scuttling among the rocky shore, and being equally amazed and amused by the youth sailing lessons that were going on nearby. That 20 minutes of simple people-watching was actually one of my favorite simple moments of the trip.
There’s even a small beach in Sausalito if you want a place for the kids to play in the sand and dip their toes in the water.
(About 40 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge)
Stinson Beach is a quintessential Northern California beach: sandy shores, cold water, windy. Still, it’s lots of fun for building sandcastles and jumping the waves. On warm days, parking can fill up before noon and there is no overflow parking, so be sure to get there early in the day.
Note: nearby Agate Beach has some great tide pools that are fun to explore at low tide.
Half Moon Bay Tide Pools
(About 45 minutes south of San Francisco)
This gem was near my grandparents house, so I have many memories of going here as a child. It’s a treasure trove of marine life, and sure to thrill little ones. In these extensive tide pools, you’ll see anemones, hermit crabs, sea stars, mussels, and so much more! Just make sure you keep a hand on little ones as you scramble over the slippery, wet rocks.
PRO TIP: Be sure to check the tide tables and show up at low tide for the best views. If you end up there at high tide and all the fun stuff will be underwater.