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!
Two quick notes: First, 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), Ghiradelli Square, or the Exploratorium (too crowded for my taste). But here are ideas for what to do in San Francisco this winter.
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.
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
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
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
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
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)
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 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
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.
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 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).
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
The Conservatory of Flowers
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
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.
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
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
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
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 Francisco, Cheap 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: