Best Things to Do with Kids in San Francisco

10 Best San Francisco Adventures for Kids of All Ages

The words "San Francisco" might not immediately bring "kid-friendly activities" to mind, but, with a little imagination and determination, you and your whole family can uncover a treasure trove of fantastic activities. Sure, at first glance, this city is a dense urban area dedicated to adult activities like dining and dancing. But San Francisco's own resident parents have pushed for more kid-friendly activities and accommodations in recent years, such as the enormous, theme-parkish children's playground in the Mission. And, let's face it, California has always been a playland for kids of all ages.

San Francisco has always offered fun family activities like enjoying Italian ices while walking the hills of North Beach or spotting a zebra at San Francisco Zoo. And since San Francisco has one of the greatest percentages of "green areas" of any city in the US, you're never too far from a welcome patch of grass for kids to run and run and run so they will sleep and sleep and sleep when get back to the hotel. Whether it's Golden Gate Park, Buena Vista Park, or the long stretches of Ocean Beach, if all else fails you can simply rely on California's gorgeous natural landscape that both kids and adults can appreciate together.


Photo courtesy of iStock / MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski

During Alcatraz's 34 years as a prison, most of its inmates were simply high-risk escapees and troublemakers. Still, the prison plays strongly in national memory thanks to infamous residents like Al "Scarface" Capone and Robert "Birdman" Stroud. An average stay on "The Rock" lasted five years, and although liberties were abbreviated, prisoners were afforded magnificent views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Tours of the island focus largely on the desolate prison itself, including cell blocks, the cafeteria and the prison yard. Spring for the audio version of the tour, and get tickets in advance if at all possible. Booking windows and departure docks can be found at Pier 33.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Kids of all ages will love the ferry ride over to Alcatraz - and that's just the beginning of the adventure.

Tom's expert tip: Alcatraz now has a garden tour which is ranger-docent led and quite fascinating.

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Touchstone Climbing
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

If the hills of San Francisco weren't enough to poop the kids out, head to Touchstone Climbing in the Mission and let them literally climb the walls. Walls for every age and capability are available, with helpful instructors for those weak-kneed beginners. And if Mom and Dad need a break, let the kids climb while you and your main squeeze sneak away to the indoor sauna. Touchstone's central location in the Mission might be tough for parking, but lots of public transportation options cover that area. And if the climbing builds up a good appetite, head into the Mission neighborhood for that well-deserved chicken taco or beef burrito.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: If your kids are feeling adventurous, this is a thrilling but safe place to go.

Tom's expert tip: Make a full day of it by heading into the Mission for lunch or dinner after your workout.

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Fisherman's Wharf
Photo courtesy of used in book.

No matter your age, you can't take a trip to San Francisco without visiting Fisherman's Wharf. Like the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf is quintessential San Francisco. It's often the first destination for tourists, and its particular brand of energy mixes newcomer excitement, retail kitsch, a strong maritime heritage and a vibrant West Coast welcome. Fisherman's Wharf invites passers-by to sample Dungeness crab and clam chowder, to cruise the Bay, to pick up requisite souvenir t-shirts, and â€" best of all â€" to soak in the temperate sunshine or marvel at the fog as it rolls in across the water. If you happen to be in town on July Fourth, it's a popular place to view the annual fireworks show.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Fisherman's Wharf offers a lot of options for families, all in one convenient space.

Tom's expert tip: If you really want to earn that big seafood platter and San Francisco brewed Anchor Steam beer for dinner, walk the two miles from the Ferry Building down the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf.

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One of the best "default" activities for kids and adults in San Francisco is to explore Golden Gate Park. You can make a full day or it by walking through the park, stopping for paddle boat rides, viewing the famous bison, and enjoying snacks and treats all along the way. But if seeing the entire park feels overwhelming, focus on the Koret Children's Quarter Playground. A snug, playful corner of Golden Gate Park, The Koret's Children's Quarter Playground is completely dedicated to kids. Founded in 1888 and renovated in 2007, the playground features a carousel, see-saws, slides and everything a rambunctious child and adventurous parent needs.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Koret has a "classic fun" feel in this city where the latest tech gadget rules everything.

Tom's expert tip: The Academy of Sciences, a premier natural history museum for kids, is near the playground, as well.

Read more about Koret Children's Quarter Playground →

Mission Dolores Park
Photo courtesy of nguy1

For years, Mission Dolores Park was simply the heart of the Mission district, offering wonderful views of downtown and lots of space for San Francisco hipsters to play frisbee and enjoy a late afternoon beer. This is a true city park: often crowded, usually loud, and a great spot for people-watching. Street performers and food trucks often visit the park for a real "local" feel. After years of outcry from Mission neighborhood families who wanted someplace close to take their kids, Mission Dolores now features a state-of-the art playground for the youngsters. If you don't feel like driving to - and paying for - Great America, take the family to Mission Dolores Park.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Mission Dolores is the favorite spot for locals with kids.

Tom's expert tip: Mission Dolores just finished a remodel and is open to the public.

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If the kids have been on their very best behavior and deserve a real treat, take the time to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and visit the Bay Area Discovery Museum. This premium stretch of real estate just below Sausalito and right on the bay has been completely devoted to keeping the endless imagination of children engaged for a full day. The real highlight is "The Cove," a 2.5 acre interactive exploration area with five iconic structures of the Bay Area and art work for kids to clamber all over. If you want your kids to think you're the coolest parents on the planet, then take them to the Bay Area Discovery Museum.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Believe it or not, Bay Area Discovery Museum really does make learning fun.

Tom's expert tip: Taking the ferry to Sausalito and then hiking or cabbing to the Bay Area Discovery Museum is a fun way to see more of the beautiful Marin Headlands.

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Yuerba Buena Gardens
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

How many times have you taken the kids on a trip and found yourself stuck downtown, surrounded by nothing but adult-centered activities? Yuerba Buena Gardens is the San Francisco city cure for that dilemma. Not only does Yuerba Buena offer large expanses of grass for kids to run to their heart's delight, it also has a carousel, a bowling alley and an indoor ice skating rink. And if those classic kid activities don't work, try "Zeum," an interactive museum with a mission of fostering creativity in young people to ignite the imagination and inspire lifelong learning. Still not enough activities? Then bring the gang over to the nearby Metreon for a well-deserved movie and meal.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Yuerba Buena is the best option downtown when kids need to run around.

Tom's expert tip: The Metreon, right next door to Yuerba Buena, has just been completely remodeled and is worth checking out, too.

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The Exploratorium
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

The Exploratorium believes the fundamental childhood traits of being playful and curious should be fostered for a lifetime. Founder Frank Oppenheimer believed in intertwining art and science to make learning attractive and memorable through exhibits such as the Tactile Dome and Traits of Life. Be sure to check the website for the latest exhibits and family activities. And the family fun doesn't stop at the Exploratorium itself. With its ideal location on the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf and other attractions are right at hand. If you believe that families that learn together stay together, head to the Exploratorium for a lifetime of togetherness in one day.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: It's hard to imagine one experience in San Francisco that sums up the spirit of the city better than The Exploratorium.

Tom's expert tip: Even if you don't have time to visit the inside of the museum, the 1.5 acres of free exhibit space outside is worth the trip.

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Ghirardelli Square

Ghiradelli Square might just be the best example of an adult-friendly and a child-friendly San Francisco activity. For the adults, Ghirardelli Square is the place to go when you're seeking top-tier San Francisco malls. The open-air complex affords great views of Angel and Alcatraz Islands and features art galleries, clothing shops and specialty stores. Shoppers can enjoy a meal at savvy spots like McCormick and Kuleto's and Ana Mandara. Afterwards, dessert at Kara's Cupcakes or the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop provides the perfect finish. There's even a Wattle Creek Winery tasting room on-site. For the kids? Three words: chocolate, chocolate and chocolate. (The adults area allowed to eat the chocolate, too.)

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Ghirardelli Square has been the favorite destination for kids in San Francisco for a long, long time.

Tom's expert tip: Walk off all that chocolate buzz with a fun stroll through nearby Fisherman's Wharf.

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What says family better than Walt Disney? While this Walt Disney attraction can't offer roller coaster rides like Disney World and Disneyland, it can offer an engaging education for the entire family. Some of permanent exhibits include the earliest drawings of Mickey Mouse, the "Multiplane Camera" that Disney developed to bring depth to the early classics like Snow White, and Walt's 26 original Academy Awards. Be sure to check out the Walt Disney Family Museum, and, at least on this Walt Disney experience, you can be sure that Dad won't lose his glasses and his wallet while screaming through a triple loop-de-loop.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: We all just live in the world of Disney, don't we?

Tom's expert tip: While you're in the Presidio, take the kids to Crissy Fields, too.

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Meet Tom Molanphy

The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom.

Tom has lived in the San...  More About Tom