Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 & Ghirardelli Square
Amid the waffle cones, overpriced seafood and ‘I escaped Alcatraz’ sweatshirts, there are a few stand-out attractions that will make you glad you brought the kids.
- Sea lions bark, canoodle and belly-flop off the docks at Pier 39 – all part of the free show these marine mammals have put on for more than two decades, ever since the shameless show-offs took over the city’s fanciest yacht marina.
- Curious sharks circle and mesmerizing jellyfish flit past as you stroll through glass tubes at the Aquarium of the Bay. Don’t miss the touch tanks, where you can pet bat rays and sea stars.
- Take a spin through the city on the vintage San Francisco Carousel, featuring hand-painted San Francisco landmarks, wheezing carnival tunes, and toddlers clinging on to their horses while parents angle for holiday photos.
- Pack a century of fun into an hour at the Musée Mécanique, a vintage arcade featuring wily Ms. PacMan, coin-operated saloon brawls, eerily lifelike wooden fortune-tellers and Laffing Sal, terrifying tots with her maniacal guffaw since the 1920s.
- Book at least a week ahead to visit the notorious prison island of Alcatraz – especially the spooky night tour, best for older kids who don’t scare easily. Alcatraz cellhouse rules make the strictest parents seem lenient – prisoners who failed to finish dinner could end up in solitary. Scheduled Alcatraz ferries depart from Pier 33.
- Jump aboard a cable car at the Powell St Turnaround and rattle over steep Nob Hill towards Fisherman’s Wharf. There are no child seats or safety belts on these vintage Victorian contraptions so you’ll need to hold on tight to little ones.
- Hop a ferry to Angel Island to explore ruined old forts, a creepy quarantine hospital and California’s original immigration station. Known as “the Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island was the main detainment facility for immigrants from Asia from 1910-1940 – as you can see from poetry and protests carved into bunkhouse walls by detainees. Pick up the ferry to grab a bite in nearby Tiburon, or head back to San Francisco.
- Ice cream and chocolate await intrepid cable car riders, Angel Island adventurers and Alcatraz escapees near the Friedel Klussmann Cable Car Turnaround at Ghirardelli Square.
Not-so touristy sights & activities
- Science blows minds and leaves hair standing on end with static electricity at the Exploratorium, where the award-winning exhibits are all hands-on science experiments. Here you can star in your own psychedelic fractal music video, trust your sense of touch to guide you through the pitch-black Tactile Dome, and disappear in a mysterious San Francisco fog.
- Fly kites on the former Army airstrip at Crissy Field or build sand castles along the beach where generals once paced. On blustery days stop at Crissy Field’s Warming Hut for hot cocoa on your way to Fort Point, for a glimpse of Civil War history and a close-up view of the orange underbelly of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- At the Children’s Creativity Museum every kid is a child prodigy capable of making stop-motion animations, inventing video games and recording garage band music tracks. Outside you can ride the newly restored 1906 LeRoy King carousel, and just across the street, Yerba Buena Gardens is a prime spot for a picnic. Come for children’s gardening workshops on Saturdays and free lunch concerts in summer.
- Penguins wave hello, blue butterflies land on your shoulders, and an albino alligator eyes you hungrily at the California Academy of Sciences, where the exhibits come to life in the four-storey Rainforest Dome and double-decker Aquarium. Check ahead for Planetarium shows and special Academy Sleepovers, when kids get to stay up past the penguins’ bedtime and sing lullabies to the starfish.
- Let restless kids loose in Golden Gate Park playground, where they can tackle the climbing wall, 1970s concrete slides and vintage 1912 carousel. If they still have energy to spare, try a pedal-boat ride on Stow Lake or head to Ocean Beach at the western edge of the park – it’s not safe for swimming, but it’s great for beachcombing.
- There’s something sad about tropical animals in fog, but the San Francisco Zoo has some standout attractions, including the Lemur Forest and miniature steam train.
- The MH de Young Museum has fierce warrior masks upstairs, fierce fashion exhibits downstairs, and live music and craft projects on Friday nights – plus mac & cheese at the café and free elevator rides up the museum tower. Explore the sculpture garden, and see if you can find James Turrell’s secret underground sky viewing room.
- Hiding in plain sight atop rocky Corona Heights Park in the middle of the city is the Randall Museum, where you can meet weird California animals like the monkey-faced eel and the legless lizard – some critters you can even pet. On Saturdays, kids can take drop-in ceramics classes and watch California’s biggest model railroad in action.
- Many hilltop San Francisco playgrounds have breathtaking views of the city, like the Walter Haas Playground in Diamond Heights (sfrecpark.org/destination/walter-haas-playground). But San Francisco’s best hilltop parks also have daredevil slides – bring cardboard to take on the concrete slides at Seward Mini Park (sfrecpark.org/destination/seward-mini-park/).
- Neighborhood street festivals take place from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and most feature live music and kids’ activities, such as face painting and carnival games. In January-February, you can’t miss Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown, starting with firecrackers and ending with a parade led by a 200-foot dancing dragon.
Some of the city’s lodgings cater to families – including apartment rentals or shares – but the best all-around locations for kids are Fisherman’s Wharf hotels and Marina motels, most of which have parking.
Fishman’s Wharf is lined with kid-friendly restaurants, including popular chains like In-N-Out Burger. Adventurous little eaters will want to try dim sum and noodles in Chinatown, tacos in the Mission district, and sushi and mochi in Japantown. Right outside Golden Gate Park along the N Judah line, 9th Avenue offers quick bites for hungry kids at bakeries, sandwich joints and taquerias. If your kids can’t agree on a restaurant, you’ll find something for everyone at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Food trucks circle their wagons at Off the Grid, featuring free live music Thursdays in the Haight and Fridays at Fort Mason.
This article was originally written by Suki Gear and published in July 2009. It was thoroughly refreshed and updated in January 2015.
For any other tips you might need the San Francisco Pocket Guide could help