San Francisco has always been one of my favorite cities to visit on my own, but I daresay I’m about to bump it to the top of my list for family vacations, too. The city by the bay has plenty to charm children of all ages. Whether your family loves baseball, ice cream, spooky history, unusual land art, hiking, or the chance to pretend you’ve hopped a flight to Asia…San Francisco features plenty of unique and engaging things to do with kids.
Our most recent trip was short, but we took advantage of every second. We tried to cram a week’s worth of activities into 36 hours with my nine-year-old son, in complete violation of my slow travel policy. A family could easily spend a week enjoying all San Francisco has to offer.
I am excited to share with you some of our favorite things to do with with kids in San Francisco. It’s a list that includes must-see tourist attractions as well as some more unusual places to visit. Have you heard of the Wave Organ or the Giant Camera? If not, keep reading. You’ll wonder how you ever missed them!
Admire the Painted Ladies
No, I’m not suggesting you take your children to see women of the night — the “Painted Ladies” are some of the most beautiful houses in a city full of impressive architecture. They are located across the street from Alamo Square Park, which means it’s easy to take a picnic and let the kids run while you gawk and take photos.
This recommendation is a shout-out to all the Full House fans. My son is not normally into architecture, but he IS currently all about Full House and Fuller House. Until recently you could hunt down the actual house in San Francisco that is featured on the show and take photos of the familiar red door, but the exterior has been repainted and the house put up for sale. Bad news for my kiddo, but good news for the neighbors, I bet, who probably didn’t love having hoards of new generation Fuller House fans and their Full House-fan-moms out front.
Instead, just go see the Painted Ladies, which are featured during the opening credits of the show. You won’t be bothering anybody; everyone else is gawking at these houses already.
Watch the Giants Play at Oracle Park
My monsters are huge baseball fans, so there was no way we were getting out of San Francisco without seeing the San Francisco Giants play and getting a Buster Posey jersey (and an obnoxiously loud free hat).
However, even if you don’t have any idea who Buster Posey is (don’t feel bad…neither did I until about three weeks ago), Oracle Park is still something special. After all, it’s a baseball stadium directly on the bay, where home runs end in a splash. We chose to pay for tickets inside the stadium, but you can also kayak in McCovey Cove outside the park, taking in the game by radio, listening to the crowd roar and watching for a ball to land in the bay. Don’t forget your mitt!
Alcatraz Island is so much more than just the site of the infamous penitentiary. Its history stretches back to the Civil War and includes an Indian Occupation in the ‘70s. Plus, it’s a refuge for seabirds and home to carefully tended gardens these days. The Rock is fascinating, and well worth the cost of the ferry to get there. My son still raves about the creepy fun he had on Alcatraz Island.
Bike around the Presidio for Views of the Golden Gate Bridge
The Presidio is another of our national public lands, also part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, that is worth of a visit in San Francisco. If you are looking to get classic photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, check out Crissy Field or Baker Beach. The Presidio is huge!. If your kids are old enough to ride full-size bikes, check out the bike rentals located on the main street by the marina (I walked by them longingly). While you’re here, don’t miss a stroll around the grandeur of The Palace of the Fine Arts, the backdrop for many movie scenes.
Walk Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is the historic waterfront district and a major touristy area in San Francisco. Here you’ll find Ripley’s Believe It or Not (which my nine-year-old loved), Madame Tussauds, the Maritime Museum, Aquarium of the Bay, the Museum of 3D Illusions, Musee Mecanique, and a plethora of restaurants and gift shops.
The picturesque setting — yes, you can see actual fishing boats — tempers the crass consumerism of it all. If you head down there, don’t miss the National Park Service’s San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which gives you a peek into the history of the area. Be sure to take the kids to the Hyde Street Pier section of the National Historic Park, where the fleet of historic sailing vessels is anchored.
Get a Sugar Rush in Ghirardelli Square
Pretty much every time we make chocolate chip cookies, we thank our lucky stars for Dominico “Domingo” Ghirardelli. He studied under a confectioner in his native Italy, eventually traveling to San Francisco (by way of Uruguay and Peru), and founded a chocolate factory and soda fountain. Since 1862, the same location on North Pointe Street has been delighting children with its ice cream sundaes.
Today, Ghirardelli Square is essentially a large shopping complex, anchored by enormous Ghirardelli chocolate and ice cream shops. But if you love chocolate as much as we do, it’s a San Francisco experience you shouldn’t miss. The setting cannot be beat: right behind it is the ocean and Aquatic Park. It’s the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing.
Pro Tip: if you must do the Ghirardelli thing (this is San Francisco, after all), but don’t want to go down to Ghirardelli Square, there is the charming Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop — a smaller version with all the same offerings — near Union Square, in the Palace Hotel on Market Street.
Hike Lands End
If you are up for a little outdoor adventure and looking for stunning views, don’t miss Lands End. This nature reserve is part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate Recreation Area. Here you’ll find a winding trail with quite a few steps, but even from the parking lot the views of the bay are amazing. Look for the remains of the Sutro Baths (a 19th century swimming facility), take photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, and if your kids can handle it, hike all the way down to the beach.
Visit the Giant Camera that is the Camera Obscura
I’m all about unusual city sights, and this is one, for sure. Just south of Lands End is the Camera Obscura. This “giant camera” was built in the 1940s, and sits on the grounds of the historic Cliff House restaurant. Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., for a small fee ($3 when I was there), you can walk inside this giant pinhole camera.
A rotating lens mounted on the roof projects the current image of the San Francisco coast onto the concave focusing table inside the camera. The image is most impressive during sunny conditions (a gray day means you mostly see gray), and the small collection of holographic images on the walls aren’t particularly exciting, but if you have any photography buffs in your family this is a must-see. At any time of day, it’s pretty fun and educational to explain to kids that they are literally inside of a camera.
Experience the Wave Organ
Another slightly obscure attraction, the Wave Organ is a fantastic place to take kids. This is a land art installation at the end of a jetty, made of pipes plunged in to the bay in such a way that the crashing of waves creates amplified sounds. Pipes come out at various heights around the sculpture, and kids will get a kick out of putting their ears up to them and hearing the echoing waves.
It’s free to visit the Wave Organ, which you get to by walking past the marina in the Presidio. It’s a little walk from the parking lot, but worth it. This is one of those quiet, peaceful places in the bay (at least until we showed up with our kids!)
Explore at the Exploratorium
We ran out of time before we made it to the Exploratorium, which means we just have to go back, because all my friends rave about it — and they don’t even have kids! More than just a science museum, San Francisco’s Exploratorium bills itself as a “public learning laboratory.” It’s located at Pier 15. If you have the time to visit, the Exploratorium is something the whole family will love.
Foresee Your Future at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown
Chinatown in general is something not to miss, but if your kids are dragging your feet, just promise them a visit to a cookie factory. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is tiny, essentially a storefront where you get a glimpse of the cookie-making process, but it’s a fun stop for families. My kiddo HAD to have the giant fortune cookie here. For $1, you can also write your own fortunes to put inside cookies — what better souvenir could there be?
No, it’s not Tokyo, but San Francisco’s Japantown is about as close as you can get to Japanese culture without hopping a flight across the Pacific (and I spent all my high school years in Japan, so trust me, I have researched this.) There’s lots to explore here, but my favorite part is the Japan Center Mall (formerly the Japan Cultural and Trade Center).
This is all indoor — perfect for bad weather days — and parts of it are charmingly designed to make you feel as though you have been magically whisked to a small Japanese town, cobblestones and all. There are lots of good restaurants here, including a ramen place that regularly has an hour long wait for noodles. While you’re waiting, check out the fabulous Japanese stationery store, hunt for unique souvenirs, and buy the world’s cutest candy for dessert.
Honk with the Sea Lions at Pier 39
This is a classic San Francisco activity. Sea Lions have been congregating on the docks at the West Marina at Pier 39 for decades, and whether you find them to be annoying or charming is entirely up to you, but as long as you’re nearby, you better take the kids to see the sea lions.
Does your family have a favorite spot in San Francisco that we missed? Email us or a drop us a line on Instagram or Facebook – we love to hear from readers!