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.
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.
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.
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 – best of all – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.