Things to Do In San Francisco With Kids

My love affair with San Francisco began nearly thirty years ago, and it has been one of my favorite cities in the United States since.  I visited many times as a child and once with just my husband (as a surprise for his 25th birthday!), but I was super excited to introduce our kids to “the City by the Bay” on our cross-country road trip.  We had a whirlwind weekend in the city, nowhere near enough time to see and do everything, but here are some of our favorite things to do in San Francisco with kids.

San Francisco Pin Image

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Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge across the San Francisco Bay with the city blanketed in fog

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in San Francisco, connecting San Francisco with Marin County to the North.  It opened in May 1938 and boasted the longest main bridge span (that’s the part between the two main towers– and for the GGB, it’s 4200 feet) in the world at the time.  The Golden Gate Bridge utilizes a one-way tolling system, so you’re only assessed the toll when traveling towards San Francisco, and the whole thing is done electronically- there are no toll booths; you will receive an invoice in the mail a few weeks after you cross the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge across the San Francisco Bay with the city blanketed in fog; yellow flowers

There are many vantage points on both the north and south side for viewing the Golden Gate Bridge. Many tout Crissy Field and Baker Beach as the best spots in the city, but we much prefer the view from the Marin Headlands as it allows you to see the city as well.  Battery Spencer, an old artillery battery from the late 1800s that was responsible for protecting the San Francisco Bay until World War II, offers one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco (depending on the fog).  Parking is free but extremely limited.

If you have more time: Check out Golden Gate Park, which has gardens (including the Japanese Tea Garden- the oldest of its kind in the US), playgrounds, picnic areas, lakes (yes, more than one!), and even a carousel.

Cable Cars

Cable Car Turnaround in San Francisco

You can’t go to San Francisco and not ride on one of the iconic cable cars! There are three cable car routes in operation- the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde lines run mostly North-South, while the California Street line runs East-West.  While you can board from any cable car stop along the line, as a party of 7, we decided it would be a safer bet to start at the end of the line in order to ensure we were all on the same car.  We opted to take the Powell/Hyde line from Aquatic Park near Ghiradelli Square, and after a half-hour wait, we boarded our cable car.

Smiling Kids on cable car in San Francisco

The kids were super excited for their first time on a cable car!  While they really wanted to stand and hold onto the poles (like they’d seen in many movies), we chose to sit so that it was easier to hold on to everyone– the cable cars really get moving on those San Francisco hills!  For the best views, you want to be on the eastern side of the car, so you’re on the side that faces the San Francisco Bay.  If you’re debating between the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde lines, Mason offers a view of Lombard Street (the Crookedest Street in the World) from the bottom, while Hyde has a great view of Alcatraz.

Cable Car on the streets of San Francisco at night

We got off at Powell and Market (the end of the line) and had fun watching the cable car turnaround before hopping back in line to take the cable car back to Aquatic Park (where our car was parked).  We didn’t use the cable car as a means of transportation between two places but rather a fun round-trip full of San Francisco sights and sounds.

If you have more time: Stop by the Cable Car Museum, convenient to both the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde lines.  This free museum houses antique cable cars, cable car history, and even offers a view of the cables in action.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Fish Alley Fisherman's Wharf

You cannot go to San Francisco and skip lunch (or shopping!) at Fisherman’s Wharf.  Fish Alley offers a great selection of vendors, and while they all have the standard seafood fare, including clam chowder, each has its own recipe and specialties, so check them all out before placing your order.

Smiling kids with clam chowder bread bowls in San Francisco

After you get your lunch, clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls in our case, find a table to enjoy your meal, or look for a bench by the water.  The crowd is an interesting mix of tourists, the business crowd, and homeless people who provided (totally obscene) humor for our table, inspiring a conversation on how to behave in public.

If you have more time: Check out Boudin Bakery At the Wharf for delicious sourdough bread as well as a bakery museum and tour.

Pier 39

Sea lion at Pier 39

Pier 39, technically part of Fisherman’s Wharf, is home to many restaurants and some of the best shopping on the wharf, but our favorite spot is the Sea Lion Center.  After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, K-Dock on Pier 39 became the go-to place for sea lions, in part for the protection from predators and easy access to food in the bay.  Hundreds of sea lions call K-Dock home throughout the year, but their numbers rise and fall depending on food supply and migration habits (most migrate to Southern California for the summer).

If you have more time: The Aquarium of the Bay offers a unique look at the sea life that actually inhabits the San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz in the middle of San Francisco Bay

First, a military prison in the late 1800s and then a federal penitentiary in the mid-1900s, Alcatraz Island is also home to the oldest working lighthouse on the West Coast.  While you can see Alcatraz from many locations throughout the city, the absolute best way to experience it is by going to “The Rock” itself.  Tours are offered through Alcatraz Cruises and need to be booked well in advance (ideally 60-90 days ahead of time during the peak season).

Cell in Alcatraz during the night tour

Once on the island, the Award-winning Cellhouse audio tour walks you through the halls of Alcatraz at your own pace.  On the 45-minute tour, you’re able to see the various cell blocks as well as hear stories from real prisoners– our kids really enjoyed the “Escape from Alcatraz” cell, especially since they watched the movie before our visit.

If you have more time: Do the Alcatraz Night Tour (head here for tickets!) with drastically lower crowds, a guided tour around the island before docking on the island, and the setting sun creating eerie shadows throughout the prison. Plus, if you time your return to the city just right, you can watch the sun setting over the San Francisco Bay.

Walt Disney Family Museum

Exterior of Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the heart of the Presidio, a former US military fort.  This is definitely a must-do for any die-hard Disney fan, but even the casual fan will have a great time.  The museum walks you through the life and legacy of Walt Disney, including his creation of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland.  Check out the details of our visit here.

Disneyland of Walt's Imagination at Walt Disney Family Museum

The 13-foot model of the “Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination” was easily the highlight of the museum.  We loved looking for our favorite attractions and seeing the ones that had been changed or added as well as the ones that never came to be.

If you have more time: Walk around the Presidio, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  There’s a life-sized Yoda statue at the Lucasfilms Headquarters entrance, a fun stop for any Star Wars fans.

Muir Woods

Towering trees at Muir Woods

Muir Woods National Monument, just north of San Francisco (you get to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge!), is a welcome respite from the city’s hustle and bustle.  The coastal redwoods that make up this old-growth forest are the tallest living things on earth, and some of the trees are nearly 1000 years old.

Peace and quiet at Muir Woods

Make sure to arrive early in the day to experience Muir Woods with lower crowds and the peacefulness that it’s known for.  Parking is extremely limited and must be booked online in advance– check out all the details here.

If you have more time: Head down to Muir Beach, three miles west of Muir Woods, a popular beach with locals (and sometimes the clothing-optional crowd).  In the winter, keep your eyes open for migrating humpback whales as they pass.

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Tunnel through the mountain to get to Point Bonita Lighthouse

It’s only open on Sundays and Mondays from 1230pm-330pm, and the half-mile path to Point Bonita Lighthouse includes a steep trail and a tunnel through the cliffs, but the reward is well worth it.  Check out the details of our visit here!

View of Point Bonita Lighthouse looking out over the Pacific

Originally built in 1855, the Point Bonita Lighthouse had to be moved to its current location in the 1870s. The original spot proved to be too high with the lighthouse often blanketed in the dense San Francisco fog, and it was unable to prevent shipwrecks.  By moving it to lower ground, the lighthouse remained visible under the fog layer and has effectively guided ships into the Bay for over 100 years.

Point Bonita Lighthouse suspension bridge

The Point Bonita Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in the United States that is only accessible by a suspension bridge.  The redesigned bridge opened in 2012, and though it sways in the wind, it was designed to withstand the 100mph winds that commonly occur.

If you have more time: Visit the quaint seaside town of Sausalito before heading back into the city.

San Francisco is a fantastic vacation destination, as there really is something for everyone.  History buffs can get their fix at Alcatraz or many other spots in the city, those that yearn for time with nature will love Muir Woods, foodies can eat their fill on Fisherman’s Wharf, and there are several major league sports teams for the athletes in your group. Whether you have a weekend, a week, or a lifetime, the City by the Bay has plenty of options to fill your days!

Have you been to San Francisco before??  Any tips for families looking to explore??

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2 Comments

  1. Kelly
    November 4, 2019 / 1:17 pm

    I really enjoyed this post! We are a family of 6 that is currently planning a trip to San Francisco in March 2020.
    Do you have any tips for parking?
    Thank you for any advice you can give me!

    • Jennifer
      Author
      November 7, 2019 / 2:38 pm

      How exciting! Have you been before? We typically park at the hotel and then use public transportation to get around town, but like any big city, parking costs are $$$. We make sure to include the nightly parking price (and if there’s in/out privileges) when we’re comparing total hotel costs.

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