30 Things to Do in San Francisco with or without Kids

30 Things to Do in San Francisco

If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, this list of things to do in San Francisco with kids (or without them) is a good start. I’ve been there many times and try to find somewhat lesser known attractions that all travelers will enjoy. San Francisco is one of my favorite places and definitely at the top of my list when I want to get away either just as adults or with my kids.

I feel so fortunate to live close by, and even though staying there takes a dent out of our budget, my family and I are totally in love with the City (as it’s known around here). Our kids are now smitten with San Francisco and always begging to go back!

Three quick notes before I dive into my list…1) For more specifics about where to eat and where to stay, try post with San Francisco day trip ideas and these:

My favorite guidebooks for San Francisco: (click on the image for a link to the book)


2) This list of what to do in San Francisco doesn’t include the most famous family attractions, such as Pier 39 and the sea lions (don’t bother to go, or go in the morning before everyone else gets there), Boudin (overpriced clam chowder in a bread bowl), or the Exploratorium (too crowded for my taste). But here are ideas for what to do in San Francisco in winter.

3) You’ll also notice that there isn’t much food on this list. Our kids are 8 and 5 years old, and if you’ve had kids, you know how challenging it can be to sit in a restaurant with two of them. That’s why we stay in a vacation rental with a kitchen and get takeout or buy groceries for most of our meals, though we loved Greens, Trattoria da Vittorio, Alimento in North Beach, and the Ferry Building for quick bites. But really, San Francisco is an amazing city for food, and I hope to try much more of it as my kids get a bit older.

30 Things to Do in San Francisco with kids (or without!) | This Is My Happiness.com

Click on the image for the Google map

These are our favorite 30 things to do in San Francisco, some without kids and some as a family (additional resources at the bottom of this page):

 Without the Kids

Peek at the Beaux-Arts interior of Neiman Marcus on Union Square

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When San Francisco was hit by the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, this landmark building on the corner of Union Square was destroyed. It was rebuilt with a rotunda in the Beaux-Arts style. The stained glass ceiling and ornamental details of the architecture are reminiscent of the grand architecture of Europe. After gawking from just inside the entrance, you can get a closer look plus a view of the square below by enjoying high tea in the rotunda restaurant.

See the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright

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Just a half block off Union Square at 140 Maiden Lane is the Xanadu Gallery, a showroom of fine Asian arts and artifacts. The building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with repeated circular shapes and a flowing  interior. It is #126 on the American Institute of Architects’ list of 150 American buildings and definitely worth a quick stop when you are in the Union Square area.

The de Young  Museum

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The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is one of San Francisco’s best museums and coolest buildings. Besides world-class exhibitions of both modern art and ancient art (e.g. the huge King Tut exhibition), the museum has fine collections of African, Oceanic, Native American, and American art.

The Legion of Honor Museum

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Photo credit: Wally Gobetz on Flickr

The Legion of Honor is another excellent San Francisco museum. This one is worth visiting first for its location (in a park on the water with views of the Marin Headlands and water), second for its presence (a grand Neo-Classical building with Rodin’s Thinker at the entrance), and third for its collections of European and ancient art that includes beautiful examples of Impressionism.

A show at the War Memorial Opera House (or another of the city’s theaters)

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I recently had the great pleasure of seeing the classic ballet “Giselle” with my mom at the grand War Memorial Opera House. This was a night of entertainment at its finest–the building itself and the quality of the ballet made me feel like I was in New York City. But the city is home to many excellent theaters. See the current schedule of events here.

Greens Restaurant

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Greens was at the center of the organic and vegetarian food movement in California when it opened in 1979 at the San Francisco Zen Center in Marin County. It still gets all its seasonal produce from the center’s Green Gulch Farm though the restaurant has since moved from the hills of Marin to the waterfront of San Francisco. While the city has many other excellent vegetarian restaurants, I like Greens for its history and the fact that your table can be right on the water. The food reflects the California trend of fusion of ethnic cuisines and fresh local ingredients.

With the Kids (or without!)

We tend to enjoy traveling in ways that have no age. As a family, we do activities that we all enjoy, like hiking, seeing nature, and experiencing local culture, but because my kids are still little, we have to include some activities that allow them to just be kids. Therefore, the following items are mostly appropriate for any age, but some are clearly just for kids. Based on your family’s interests, you can decide which ones would be most appropriate for you.

The Presidio National Park

These first three tips can be accessed in the Presidio, one of the country’s newest (and smallest) national parks, located in the northwest corner of San Francisco. These beautiful hills used to be a military base used by Spanish, Mexican, and American militaries, but it now includes trails for hiking or biking, a historic cemetery, scenic drives, and some fun things to do:

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

Things to do in San Francisco with Kids

Sure, the bridge is noisy from all the traffic going by, windy from the ocean currents flowing into the bay, and even a little sad since this is the place where over 1000 people have committed suicide (and you’ll see the suicide prevention signs), but the Golden Gate Bridge is iconic and beautiful. Walking across it brings you face to face with its powerful construction and allows for striking views of the surroundings. With small children, you might want to walk just half way and back. You can also bike across. Free parking is available at Fort Point or just off Lincoln Blvd. in the Presidio.

Wood Line

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Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who makes large installations in nature and urban settings. Wood Line is a series of tree pieces that form a serpentine shape in the middle of a eucalyptus grove. To get here, take the Presidio Blvd. entrance to the park and look for a small parking area to the left. Lover’s Lane begins there; you won’t miss Wood Line to the right after just a couple of minutes.

Crissy Field

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Photo credit: rocor on Flickr.

Crissy Field is a flat grassy area and beach at the bottom of the Presidio. It now also has several colorful sculptures on loan from the SF MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).

Sutro Baths

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Farther west of the Presidio is Lands End, one of San Francisco’s most picturesque spots. The park includes the Legion of Honor (mentioned above) and plenty of hiking trails leading down to spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the hills of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

At the end of the park are the ruins of the Sutro Baths, the nation’s largest public swimming pools–they were built here on the ocean in 1896 but burned down in the 1960s. Kids will love climbing on the stones and walking through the tunnel, but remember that the water here can be dangerous–keep kids away from waves. This spot is particularly nice at sunset but expect crowds. Free parking can be found at the Lands End visitor’s center near the Cliff House.

Explore the community of Chinatown

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I honestly don’t hope to ever walk the main drag of Chinatown again. The novelty of seeing the gates and Chinese style architecture quickly wears off once the mass of souvenir shops and crowds of people appear. But Chinatown has its own charm a little farther in. The smaller streets and the neighborhood’s large park and playground give an opportunity to see the culture–people huddled together playing all sorts of games, older people performing Tai Chi or sitting in groups just chatting. Take the kids to the playground and enjoy this historic immigrant neighborhood for what it really is, not through its tacky souvenir stores.

Eat at Gott’s

Honestly, we don’t go out to eat with our small kids much when we travel, but Gott’s is one of our favorite family-friendly restaurants in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. My kids love the juicy chicken tenders and sweet potato fries, but my husband and I go for the zesty fish tacos or perfect tuna melt. You order at the counter and eat in the casual environment.

The Ferry Building Marketplace

Things to do in San Francisco with Kids

The Ferry Building Marketplace is a food lover’s dream. There are restaurants serving all kinds of trendy food, but what will appeal to the kids are the small shops that sell snacks and specialty products. Cowgirl Creamery sells artisan cheeses and will gladly give you samples and help you choose just the right cheese. Snack-size foods like empanadas, ice-cream, pastries, and chocolate are also for sale in the marketplace. An expensive but beautiful farmer’s market takes place here Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:00-2:00 and Saturdays 8:00-2:00.

Take a ferry ride

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After perusing the food at the Ferry Building Marketplace, take a ferry ride. This is not a tourist ride–it’s how commuters come and go to work, but kids love to take boat rides, and the ones in the San Francisco Bay are beautiful. Ferries to the waterfront town of Sausalito run a twice an hour on weekdays and once an hour on weekends. The trip lasts 25-30 minutes, and a one-way ticket costs about $10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 5 and over. Access schedules here.

A kid’s dream fountain across from the Ferry Building

Embarcadero30 Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids (or without!) | This Is My Happiness.com

On the Embarcadero, just across from the Ferry Building, is one amazing fountain. Water gushes out from all sides of this massive sculpture, and ladders and stepping stones invite you to climb up or walk under it. The steps can be wet, so be careful with little ones, but take some time to explore this unusual fountain. (The fountain was off last year due to the California drought).

Fort Mason

Things to do in San Francisco with Kids

Fort Mason is just one of the former military compounds in San Francisco that is now used for completely different purposes. After seeing the boats, take the kids to the huge farmer’s market here on Sundays 9:30-1:30 (year round), stop at Readers Cafe and Bookstore for a hot drink and used books, and grab lunch at the take-out section of Greens. If your kids enjoy art, consider one of the many cultural events happening at Fort Mason year round.

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You can also walk up above Fort Mason where a small road offers nice views of the Bay and a park for the kiddos to run.

Ride a cable car

OK, few locals ride cable cars, but they are a quintessential San Francisco experience. Start at Powell and Market Streets where cable cars arrive and then turn around at the turntable. Of the three lines, the Powell-Hyde line is the most scenic and includes a stop at Union Square, where you can descend for a little fun. Rides are $6 each way for children and adults 5 years and older, and an all-day pass costs $15.

The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Market lines stop right at the Cable Car Museum. Admission is free, and the museum is open every day except major holidays, 10:00-6:00 April-September and 10:00-5:00 October-March.

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is our favorite place in the city. There is just so much to see and do in this 1000+ acre urban park (which is 20% larger than Central Park, by the way).

The Botanical Garden

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The Botanical Garden is my favorite part of Golden Gate Park. We love to spend a couple of hours there walking while the kids have an adventure exploring the maze of small paths. Highlights of this huge garden include the Redwood Grove, the Succulent Garden, the Ancient Plant Garden (with dinosaur footprints), and the Great Meadow where you can relax on the grass and view the towering cypress trees. Admission is $2 for kids ages 5-11, $5 for ages 12-17, $7 for adults, and $15 for two adults and their children. The garden opens at 7:30 a.m. and is free until 9:30 a.m.

The Japanese Tea Garden

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The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco. It was built in 1894 and reflects the city’s role as a home for Japanese immigrants. The architect actually lived in the garden’s 5 acres but was forced to leave for an internment camp during World War II and was never allowed to return to his home in the garden. The garden shows the characteristics of traditional Japanese gardens–harmony and tranquility with classic elements such as pagodas, a Zen garden, Japanese maples (see their colors in late fall), and cherry blossoms (see them in bloom in spring). Save time to get tea and a snack at the tea house.

If you’re with small children, keep in mind that it’s not easy to maneuver with a stroller and it’s full of water, so you’ll need to keep a close eye on them. Also, like many other places in San Francisco, this one can be very crowded in the summer–try to come early or late on a weekday to avoid crowds. Tuesday morning before 10:00 a.m. is a good choice because it’s free, and it’s not too hard to find nearby street parking then.

Golden Gate Park details: The buffalo

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Photo credit: Ludivine B. on Flickr.

Two bison were brought from the Great Plains to Golden Gate Park in 1890, and a small herd of them still survives here. Because it’s so unusual to see buffalo (especially here!), it’s worth a quick stop to see them.

and the windmills

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At the western edge of Golden Gate Park are two large windmills which used to actually pump water for the city. The North Windmill has a tulip garden that blooms in February and March. Nearby is the Beach Chalet where you can stop for a meal or drink, and just down the street is the beach.

The Music Concourse and de Young Sculpture Garden

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Between the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences is the Music Concourse, a beautiful outdoor area that includes the Spreckels Temple of Music, snack vendors, and fountains. This is a good place to let your kids run around. As you leave, you can swing by the outdoor areas of the de Young Museum, including the Sculpture Garden on one side and a garden on the other.

The view from the de Young observation deck

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While you’re in Golden Gate Park, leave a little time to the de Young observation deck and take in the 360-degree view. Enter the museum, go to the right, and continue back until you see the elevator to the tower. You can do this for free even if you don’t want to take your kids inside the museum exhibitions.

The California Academy of Sciences

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Photo credit: Alastair Green on Flickr.

The California Academy of Sciences is expensive but worth a visit for families. Inside is an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest with butterflies and birds, natural history exhibits, and interactive science exhibits. There are also exciting temporary exhibitions such as “Skulls” happening in 2014. Be sure to visit the unusual green roof (entirely covered in plants). The museum is open daily 9:30-5:00 and Sundays 11:00-5:00. Tickets are $25-35 but free for ages 3 and below, but the museum is included in the San Francisco City Pass, which provides museum discounts and cable car passes.

Koret Children’s Quarter and the Historic Carousel

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The oldest public playground in the U.S. is probably also the most awesome. The last time we were in San Francisco, it seemed like all the kids wanted to do was go to this playground or play the Wii at the vacation rental! Located in Golden Gate Park, there’s free public parking at the playground’s entrance. Besides the unusual and super high slide, sculptures add to the playground’s sense of wonder.

The playground is also home to a beautiful historic carousel from 1914.

30 Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids (or without!) | This Is My Happiness.com

The Conservatory of Flowers

30 Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids (or without!) | This Is My Happiness.com

My family loves plants, so we love the Conservatory of Flowers. Its mission is to “connect people and plants in a place of exceptional beauty.” The 19th-century Victorian building itself is a treasure, the oldest conservatory of its kind in North America. It houses 1700 species of exotic and aquatic plants including orchids, carnivorous plants, and water lilies. It’s very hot inside, so plan accordingly. Outside are beautiful flower gardens including dahlias to the side of the building in the summer. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for ages 12-17, and $2 for kids 5-11. Entrance is Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-4:00.

Near San Francisco

Military remnants

Things to do in San Francisco with Kids

Leftovers from San Francisco’s days as a military outpost are strewn along the shore of San Francisco, too, but these unusual structures on the Marin side of the bridge really caught our attention. You can see them by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, driving into the Golden Gate Recreation Area, and following signs to Point Bonita. Park and walk to the lighthouse; they’re located at the beginning of the walk to the lighthouse.

Golden Gate Recreation Area & Point Bonita Lighthouse

The Golden Gate Recreation Area is a must! The best views of the ocean and the city can be found on the peaceful hiking trails just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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The Point Bonita Lighthouse is possibly the most dramatic lighthouse in California. It’s located at the end of a small, rocky peninsula where the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean meet. Be prepared for a steep half-mile walk to the lighthouse and enjoy views of the ocean, Golden Gate Bridge, and even seals playing in the water below. The lighthouse is reached by walking through a tunnel and then across a crazy (but safe) bridge. The hours are limited: Saturday-Monday 12:30-3:30. Admission is free.

See the houseboats in Sausalito

Things to do in San Francisco with Kids

Sausalito is the first town after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and also the best known town in Marin. While the center of town is busy and full of expensive shops and restaurants aimed at tourists, the docks of sailboats and especially the houseboats, or “floating homes,” (around Gate 5 and 6 Roads) are a fun stop for kids.

Marine Mammal Center

Things to do in San Francisco with Kids

The Marine Mammal Center, located in the Marin Headlands, is a non-profit organization that cares for sick and injured marine mammals from nearby areas of the coast as far south as Monterey Bay.

In spring, seal pups sometimes get separated from their mothers (often because people getting too close make the mother alarmed, causing her to retreat), so depending on the time of year, there may be many animals there to view. The center’s mission is not only to care for these animals until they can be released, but also to educate the public about ocean pollution and other dangers to its wildlife.

You can take a guided tour for a donation fee or a self-guided tour of the facility. Check out the solar panels that also provide shade for the animals in their care. The gift shop makes a nice place to buy a gift and support the center at the same time.

Berkeley and the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

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This hilltop botanical garden is spread out over 34 acres and contains more than 13,000 plants including rare and endangered species. The location in the Berkeley Hills really is stunning, and the garden makes a nice way to cap off a day trip to Berkeley, where you can visit the UC Berkeley campus (Valley Life Sciences Building has a couple of dinosaur skeletons!), get excellent food on Telegraph Ave., and relax with coffee and some shopping on First Street.

What are your suggestions for things to do in San Francisco with kids (or without!)? Please share!

There is so much more to San Francisco than this post covers. Check out a pocket planner to San FranciscoCheap Eats in San Francisco and Exploring SF with Kids on AFAR.com and San Francisco Finds on Pinterest.

P.S. More about San Francisco and the Bay Area on this blog:

Build the Perfect Day Trip to San Francisco

5 Days in San Francisco

24 Hours in San Francisco

The de Young and Legion of Honor Museums in San Francisco

Getting Back to Nature in Marin County

In the Marin Headlands, the Perfect Family Day

The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

37 Comments

  • Cassie says:

    Great collection, and lots of things I’ve never done! Check out the Exploratoreum next time you are in town. I haven’t been yet, but Kevin has been *twice* already with his co-workers and he’s been bugging me to join them again soon. He says it’s interesting for both adults and kids.
    Cassie recently posted..5 Photos I Took With My DadMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Wow, that’s great to know that it’s fun for adults, too. We keep meaning to go but have been worried that it would be too crowded for them to be able to really do anything since the new location opened not too long ago.

  • Alexandra says:

    Good for you for compiling such a useful list of things that are close to home. I find that blogging about familiar things is more of a chore – I often write this kind of post (though not 30 items!!) as guest posts and then realize on my own blog I only write eclectic stuff.

    The adult activities look right up my alley, esp those veggie rolls! On my list for when I come visit you 🙂
    Alexandra recently posted..Cucina! New market cooking school teaches the culture of foodMy Profile

  • noel says:

    Wow great list, i’ve done everything here except Gott’s which I have no idea what that is as a food venue, will have to check it out next time I go back to the city.
    noel recently posted..Travel photo: town hall at Trieste, ItalyMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I like Gott’s since it’s easy and tasty. There are a couple more of them, including 2 (and the original one) in Napa Valley.

  • Andrew says:

    A really good list of attractions here, some of which I’ve visited, but others not, so many thanks. I actually love the colorful vintage streetcars even more than the cable cars. They’re a nice way to get around, too.
    Andrew recently posted..Pichidangui, tonight: Church at twilightMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      I haven’t ridden those street cars although I’ve seen them pass by before. Good suggestion.

  • I cannot believe that I haven’t been to San Francisco yet. I’mon the look out for places to visit for my next visa run from Mexico and San Fran just might make the cut 🙂
    David @ That Gay Backpacker recently posted..The 50 Coolest Things To Do in Mexico CityMy Profile

  • Awesome list, Jenna. I’d add one more thing: See the sun! I can’t believe you manage to visit on days where it’s not only sunny, but there doesn’t appear to be a cloud in the sky. I’m looking out my window now at Karl, our resident marine layer who’s so prominent, he has his own Twitter account. Totally agree that Botanical Gardens (SF and Berkeley) are very special places – like you my fave part of GG Park. Ditto the Tea Gardens and De Young Sculpture Garden. Next time, try the pedal boats at nearby Stow Lake. And here’s my 2 cents re: Exploratorium: I liked it just fine when at Palace of Fine Arts, but never rushed back. When they opened at ballyhooed new location, I was indifferent thinking it was same old levitating inflatable ball over same old stream of air, just in a new location. I was wrong: the new museum is massive, with smartly designed new exhibits and most importantly, is an engaging place for kids and adults. They’ve succeeded in ways most museums have not in participatory learning/exploring. As for the crowds: they’re there, but it’s so big they have not detracted me from enjoying it. If you want quiet: add the Chinese Historical Society Museum in Chinatown to your list. It’s my fave under-the-radar museum hidden down a side street in a *beautiful* Julia Morgan building. Good for kids too!
    Garrick Ramirez recently posted..A Perfect Day Trip to SonomaMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for the information about the Exploratorium and for the additional tips! And yes, we had great weather on our last few trips to SF, partly because most of them were in winter or early spring.

  • Corinne says:

    Great tips! San Fran is definitely on the “must visit” list 🙂

  • Allison says:

    Pinning! San Francisco is on our short list. I’m glad to have this list of recommendations in one place.
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  • LOVE this! Whenever I find myself in San Francisco, I feel like I don’t really know what to do there so I wind up doing the same old touristy stuff over & over. Will need to remember this article (pinning!) so I can do some of your suggestions!
    Colleen Lanin recently posted..Award-winning Family Travel Book – The Travel Mamas’ Guide!My Profile

    • Jenna says:

      So glad you found this helpful, Colleen! There’s a lot to discover in SF beyond just the touristy stuff. One place I’d like to take my kids is Japantown, but I just haven’t done it yet.

  • Sara C says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write up and share all of this information! We are traveling to San Fran this Spring with our little one and there was tons of great info! I appreciate it!

    • Jenna says:

      So glad you found this helpful, Sara! I’ll be going to SF with my kids again soon, so check back for more updates about traveling there with kids. 🙂

  • SF’s natural setting is so seductive that I can see I’ve never spent enough time indoors there. I’m hoping to visit again in the coming year and will be sure to check out Neiman Marcus, Xanadu Gallery and Greens Restaurant. Printworthy (and pinworthy!) post. LOVE SF.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..The Lost Dhow exhibition, Aga Khan Museum, TorontoMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      You said it exactly…SF has such amazing natural beauty (and so much green space!) that it’s hard to spend much time indoors. We did today, actually, but that’s because it was very cold!

  • My finance, daughter and myself went to SF this past summer and I wish I had seen this blog (and that it was posted prior to our trip) however, I will keep a lot of these suggestions in mind for our next trip this Spring! Thank you Jenna!
    Ashley Harrison recently posted..Selling My House Fast in Los Angeles and Orange CountiesMy Profile

  • Claire May says:

    Thanks for the great list. We are travelling to SF from Australia in October with a 5 year old and one year old. We will definitely be checking out a number of your suggestions!

  • Katie says:

    Hi! Love this! We have been to SF with kids more times than I can count but never know f the wood line or kids quarters; so cool, thanks! Will check those out this week!

  • Amanda says:

    Great list! I pinned it. Land’s End trails are a favorite for our family. We are also big baseball fans. How lucky are we to have such a gorgeous waterfront stadium? Twin Peaks and Coit Tower have great views although admittedly are touristy. Mission Delores park has a great kids playground, views of the city, and some of the best people watching in the city!

    • Jenna says:

      I haven’t been to a baseball game in SF, but I agree, the waterfront stadium is such a plus.

  • How wonderful, loved all of these places that I can visit again and again. Funny, I just did a list of some of my favorite and fun new things to do in the city also, there’s always so many new things to see each time I visit the city.

  • Alison says:

    I absolutely love this series of 30 things to do. I love to travel and this is an awesome place to look at the best places to possibly travel to and fun things to do.

    • Jenna says:

      I’m so glad you enjoy them! Thanks for the kind words. I have another one coming soon on my hometown, Sacramento 🙂

  • Natasha says:

    We are travelling from England to San Francisco in December with a toddler so have found this really helpful in getting ideas.
    Thank you 🙂

  • The wood line looks pretty cool.
    northierthanthou recently posted..The Fog of HedgesMy Profile

  • Lisa says:

    I’m enjoying your blog (and pinning!). Great ideas for California. This is helping me plan our next trip.

  • I love how you incorporated things “outside” of the city, even if they are in the city still. I would be all over the woodlines, botanical gardens, windmills! My husband I like venturing into the city, but love finding trails and those sort of things outside of the city that is the best!

    • Jenna says:

      San Francisco is nice for people who want to be in a city but also feel connected to nature. Not only do you have the views of the water from almost all sides, but you also have the parks, eucalyptus groves, beach, hiking, etc. right in the city.

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