Going tête-à-tête with belching sea lions, running wild in Golden Gate Park, watching butterflies flit through a living rainforest, riding cable cars, playing dodgeball on a giant trampoline—there are so many fun things to do in San Francisco, the city sometimes feels like a 49-square-mile amusement park. Luckily for parents, most of San Francisco’s kid-friendly attractions have a lot of grown-up appeal, too. And when it's time to recharge, kids can pick from a multitude of restaurants that offer fresh kid-appealing fare that goes way beyond the standard chicken nuggets and hot dogs, including healthy picnics foraged from gourmet food trucks.
Things to do in San Francisco with kids
Alcatraz is hands-down one of the best bets for your tourist buck, starting with the scenic ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf to the island. The formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay known as “The Rock” was a maximum-security prison between 1934 and 1963. Housed behind its bars were notorious inmates such as Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the notorious "Birdman of Alcatraz." For kids and parents alike, the outing offers a fascinating look at local history and lore, as well as a ton of spooky-good fun. Be sure to get the audio cellhouse tour, narrated by former inmates and guards.
Clear, acrylic underwater tunnels offer visitors a diver's-eye view of the Bay, while moving walkways take you through 300 feet of water, and past more than 30,000 aquatic creatures, including swirling schools of anchovies, spiny dogfish, and sevengill sharks. Upstairs, Touch the Bay offers a number of touch tidepools with leopard sharks, bat rays, and skates; Otters: Watershed Ambassadors features three playful North American river otters. If you've got time, combine your visit with the San Francisco Magic Show, an all-ages comedy and magic show at the Bay Theater, or an island hop or Bay cruise (Blue & Gold Fleet, 415-705-8200, blueandgoldfleet.com).
One of two moving National Historic Landmarks, the cable cars still climb halfway to the stars between Powell and the end of Hyde Street at Fisherman's Wharf. Hop aboard and you'll be treated to a unique 9 mph rolling tour of the city that includes views of Nob Hill, Fisherman's Wharf, the Bay and Alcatraz Island. Try to get a spot where you can hang off the running boards, Doris Day-style. You may even get a bell-ringing serenade from the conductor. It's worth jumping off at Mason and Washington streets for the Cable Car Museum, where you can learn about the history of the cable car and watch giant wheels turn the underground cables that power the cars (1201 Mason St, 415-474-1887).
Considered the world’s “greenest” museum, the Academy combines an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and scientific research program under one roof. The complex is anchored by a four-story rainforest dome that’s home to flitting butterflies and birds, and a “living roof” that features some 1.7 million native plant species. In between is the Steinhart Aquarium with the world’s deepest living coral reef display, an Amazonian “flooded forest” viewed via an acrylic tunnel, the all-digital Morrison Planetarium, a live penguin habitat, an African Hall with lifesize dioramas of lions and gazelles, and a swamp featuring Claude, the albino alligator.
Formerly an army airstrip, Crissy Field is now a restored wetlands recreation area, with a walking and biking promenade that wanders through grassy fields, a sculpture park, beaches, picnic areas and kid-friendly attractions that include a trampoline park and climbing gym. Start at the Crissy Field Center for a little history and pick up a Mystery Trail booklet with clues that kids can solve to find bronze rubbing plaques along the way. Follow the bayfront path past the Farallones Marine Sanctuary center, where you can feed an anemone or hold a shark tooth. Walk out onto Torpedo Wharf for a postcard photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, and make a pit stop at the Warming Hut for organic soups, sandwiches, and only-in-San-Francisco books, games and souvenirs. The trail ends at Fort Point, built during the Civil War to defend against a battle that never happened. Be sure to leave time for House of Air, a wildly popular indoor trampoline park, and Planet Granite, an all-ages climbing gym.
Covering the length of three football fields along the Embarcadero waterfront, the Exploratorium is a kids’ and science nerds’ nirvana, offering more than 600 touch exhibits that challenge the principles of physics and human perception. Every aspect of the Exploratorium is hands-on—from the storage lockers that play musical tones when you touch them, to the outdoor “fog bridge” by artist Fujiko Nakaya that shrouds visitors in mist created by more than 800 high-pressure nozzles. New exhibits are introduced regularly, but the most popular mainstays include the Sweeper's Clock, a fascinating movie on a loop in which two street sweepers keep time by pushing around piles of trash; a marble maze you build from hardware store odds and ends; a mind-blowing parabolic mirror; a diorama of San Francisco made from 100,000 toothpicks; and the Tactile Dome, a crawl-through maze navigated in complete darkness using your sense of touch (advance reservations required).
San Francisco’s collective backyard, Golden Gate Park is a mecca for families who flock to its gardens, museums and myriad attractions. On Sundays when the main drive is closed to cars, strollers, cyclists and skaters take over the streets. Kids will want to head to Stow Lake, where they can hike up to Strawberry Hill or rent bikes, pedal- and rowboats. Stop by Spreckels Lake and marvel at the model sailboats and yachts (John F. Kennedy Dr at 35th Ave), then wander down to the buffalo paddock to see the small herd of bison that have been residents in the park since 1892. Don’t miss the Japanese Tea Garden (9th Ave and Tea Garden Dr), where you can sip tea and treats in a teahouse and climb the moon bridge; and the Koret Children’s Quarter playground, built in 1887 as America’s first municipal playground, featuring a huge climbing net, old-school cement slides, and the historic Herschell-Spillman Carousel.
Part museum, part old-fashioned arcade, the Musée Mécanique houses Ed Zelinsky's collection of more than 200 coin-operated games and amusements dating back to the 1880s. The result is a love letter to the era before video games, as well as to turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Gypsy fortune tellers, giant mechanical-circus dioramas, can-can girl stereoscopes, carnival strength testers, player pianos, and a looming Laughing Sal (a cackling mechanical relic salvaged from San Francisco's defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park) are among the games that delight kids and adults alike. Along the walls, photos of early San Francisco and earthquake memorabilia set the mood for a time when the city was still something of a western outpost on the edge of the Pacific. Step out back and you'll find the USS Pampanito, a restored World War II submarine that's open for tours.
A combination street festival and eating extravaganza, Off the Grid is a regular gathering of gourmet food trucks spread across the city on different days of the week. The kid-friendly gatherings feature a mind-boggling melting pot of ethnic cuisines—from Asian BBQ and chocolate tacos to Indian soul food and the infamous Bacon Bacon truck with over-the-top creations such as the bacon-fried chicken burger and pork belly fries. A dozen standing weekly markets feature dozens of trucks, plus music, crafts and activities. Along with regular gatherings on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at Civic Center, Haight Street, and Fort Mason, families shouldn’t miss Picnic at the Presidio on Sundays (April–Oct), a giant picnic on the lawn of the Presidio’s Main Post overlooking the Golden Gate, with food vendors, free lawn games, music, and a “bubble bar” for grown-ups. If there’s time, the Walt Disney Family Museum is located at the north end of the Main Post.
The three-acre African Savanna, Grizzly Gulch, a children's petting zoo, a gorilla preserve, and the expansive Lemur Forest are among the highlights of the zoo, where more than 1,000 species of mammals and birds make their home. Spread across 100 acres across from the Pacific Ocean, the zoo features environments from around the world, including an Australian Walkabout with kangaroos and emus, Sumatran and Siberian tigers, and Amazonian anacondas. Don't miss the thoroughly entertaining meerkat habitat, the insect zoo, with its tarantulas and giant hissing cockroaches, and the Little Puffer Train. Combine your visit with a walk along Ocean Beach and maybe lunch at the Beach Chalet or Louis' Diner.
Though not aimed full-throttle at kids, the Walt Disney Family Museum still offers enough entertaining fare—including classic cartoons and listening stations—that young ’uns won't get bored. Housed in repurposed brick army barracks, its galleries take a chronological look at Walt’s life and work, from his early cartoons to his revolutionary innovations in dimensional animation and sound. Highlights include an original multiplane camera that you can look through to see how dimensional animation works, original artwork from Dumbo and Snow White, and a 13-foot model of Disneyland as Walt originally envisioned it. Don't miss the gallery where kids get to add sound effects to Steamboat Willie. The Fantasia-themed theater shows Disney classics six days a week.