San Francisco with children

Beaches, cable cars, carousels or penguins? We’ve narrowed down the best kid-friendly options in San Francisco.

Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 & Ghirardelli Square

Amid the waffle cones, overpriced seafood and ‘I escaped Alcatraz’ sweatshirts, a few attractions stand out.

  • Boisterous sea lions don’t charge a fee at Pier 39.
  • Watch sharks and enormous groupers while strolling through glass tubes at the Aquarium of the Bay, or pet friendly bat rays and leopard sharks in the touch tanks.
  • Take a spin on the Venetian Carousel.
  • Check out antique slot machines, Laffing Sal and other oddities at the Musée Méchanique.
  • From Pier 33, catch a ferry to the former prison Alcatraz. Note the tour is more appealing to older children.
  • Pick up a cable car at the Powell-Mason or Powell-Hyde turnarounds and rattle over the hill to Downtown.
  • Hop a ferry to Marin or Angel Island, or just stay on the boat for the roundtrip bay excursion.
  • Ice cream and chocolate await at Ghirardelli Square.

Not-So Touristy Sights & Activities

  • Restless kids get to grab and touch everything in sight at the Exploratorium, and a beach romp at nearby Crissy Field is perfect post-museum.
  • Near SoMa’s multiple museums, Yerba Buena Gardens has free music at noon on summer Thursdays. Next door a playground, carousel and the science-focused Zeum
  • Penguins, butterflies, 38,000 fish and an albino alligator are some of the draws at the California Academy of Sciences.
  • The play structures and carousel at Golden Gate Park are fabulous, but the young’uns also love boat rides on Stow Lake and making sand castles at Ocean Beach at the far-western edge (not good for swimming).
  • There’s something sad about tropical animals in fog, but the San Francisco Zoo has some standouts like Grizzly Gulch.

Local Favorites

  • The MH de Young Museum has free music and craft projects on Friday nights, plus mac & cheese at the café.
  • Pet critters at the Randall Museum, in the center of the city.
  • Many of the San Francisco’s playgrounds have killer views of the city, like Walter Haas Playground in Diamond Heights.
  • Street Festivals – free neighborhood festivals take place from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with music, bounce houses, balloon animals and face painting.

Sleeping

Some of the city’s lodgings cater to families, but the best all-around locations for kids are Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina (and many hotels have parking).

Restaurants

The popular bay-side neighborhoods overflow with kid-friendly restaurants (many of them chains like the Rainforest Café. Brewpubs, city-wide, often have kids’ menus. Of course adventurous little eaters should sample the ethnic eateries in Chinatown, Japantown and the Mission district.
In the Sunset district and convenient to Golden Gate Park, Q Restaurant has blackboard walls, magnets and good food to boot.

Further information

Jump over to the Thorn Tree to hear what the community has to say about the bayside city.

Pick n Mix also do a snazzy San Francisco chapter here.

Want more? Check out our Travel with children resource page, which features links to all our family-travel tips and tricks.

This article was originally published in July 2009. This article was refreshed in August 2012.