When you think of San Francisco you may not think of it as being a family vacation destination, but, did you know that there are actually heaps of awesome family-friendly activities available in the golden city. For one, there’s the Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco Zoo and the Exploratorium all within a short distance of downtown. And not forgetting that no visit to San Francisco is complete without exploring Alcatraz or cycling across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! Two activities which kids seem to love!
In this blog post, I will share with you all the best family-friendly activities in San Francisco as well as the best hotels in the city. This guide is all you’ll need if you’re visiting San Francisco as a family at any time of year!
1. Muir Woods
Just 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco is Muir Woods National Monument which is very popular with families especially, in fact, it attracts thousands of tourists daily. A visit to Muir Woods offers the opportunity to see giant redwood trees – one of the few areas to see these trees in the Bay Area. There’s a range of hiking trails at Muir Woods all varying in difficulty and length. Worth noting is reservations are required for all vehicles and tourists to the Woods – you can catch the Route 66 Shuttle from Sausalito, Marin City, or Mill Valley if you don’t fancy driving here. Entrance to Muir Woods can work out pretty costly, current rates are as follows:
- $8.50 per vehicle
- $3.25 per person for a space on the Route 66 shuttle
- $15.00 per person entrance fee to gain entry to Muir Woods
2, Cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge
A great way to get some exercise in as a family is to cycle across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! It is easily one of the most famous sights in San Francisco if not all of California! I highly recommend cycling or walking the bridge, instead of driving it as traffic can be a nightmare at certain times of the day and parking on both sides of the bridge – the San Francisco side and the Sausalito side is very limited.
The Golden Gate Bridge is 2.1 miles in length and it will take approximately 25 minutes to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. Some avid cyclists can complete the one-way journey in 10 minutes, it all depends on how fit you are and how often you stop. You can either cycle both ways or return by ferry from Sausalito and drop your bike back off at the rental store when you come off your ferry. The Western footpath of the bridge is for cyclists only, but beware it is two-ways so cyclists will be coming towards you too.
You can rent a bike from Golden Gate Bridge Bike Rentals on 2157 Lombard St, for as little as $29! They also rent electric bikes available for rent if you’re not keen on a workout.
3. Visit Alcatraz
A must-do in San Francisco for families is to visit one of the most famous prisons in recent history,. It may not sound very family-friendly but believe me, it’s such an interesting tour and kids are sure to love walking around the former prison as well as the boat ride to get there.
Did you know – Alcatraz was once home to infamous gangster Al Capone. Alcatraz closed in the 1970s and started welcoming visitors not long after in 1973. It’s no surprise then that one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco is a guided cruise tour of Alcatraz!
The tour of Alcatraz prison itself is via a self-guided audio tour which is really informative. It’s so interesting to see the prison cells and hear the stories of former inmates. Included in your ticket, you can visit the historical gardens of Alcatraz which has stunning views of San Francisco Bay and explore any exhibitions being hosted in the Industries Building. Allow 2.5 hours on Alcatraz.
4. Aquarium of the Bay
Suitable for the whole family, this huge aquarium is located at Pier 39. Here, there is over 20,000 marine life like octopus, huge jellyfish, sharks and much more!
The ‘Under the Bay’ exhibit is the most popular here, it features two tunnels totalling a length of 300 meters and it houses over 200 different species. It’s also a really cool spot for a family photo! Interestingly, many of the sea animals found here can be found in San Francisco Bay like wolf eels, swell sharks and the unique orange garibaldi fish!
Another firm favorite area with the little ones is the ‘Touch the Bay’ exhibit where children and adults can touch bat rays, skate and sharks.
Tickets for the Aquarium of the Bay cost from $30 USD and can be purchased here!
5. Visit Mrs Doubtfires House
One of my favorite places to visit in San Francisco is the ‘Mrs Doubtfire House’, I’m a huge fan of the 1993 movie and Robin Williams. The house is located at 2640 Steiner Street, near Pacific Heights. It looks a little different to the movie, what you’d expect after almost 30 years but it’s still a must-see for any movie fans. In fact, the house was recently sold for $4.5 million.
Older kids will especially love this stop, and if your little ones have yet to watch this iconic movie I highly recommend having a Mrs Doubtfire movie night pronto!
6. Golden Gate Park
Would you believe this is the 3rd most-visited Park in the U.S (behind Central Park in NY and National Memorial Park in Washington D.C). Golden Gate Park is a whopping 1,017 acres and is home to Bison Paddock where you can spot a herd of bison grazing, unusual for this part of the country. Kids especially love the bisons! Be sure too to check out the Conservatory of Flowers which is the oldest building in the Park. Here, there are over 1,700 species of plants, many of them rare.
The Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest such garden in the country and was constructed in 1894. The Garden is 3.5 acres and filled with Japanese maple, cherry trees and more. Cherry blossom season is an especially popular time here, this is from March to April.
Most of the roads in Golden Gate Park are now car-free and it’s very popular with locals exercising and families playing and picnicking in one of the many green areas.
Right in the heart of Golden Gate Park, is the gorgeous Stow Lake where you can rent rowboats, electric boats, as well as pedal boats. It’s also a great spot to see different birds and even turtles. There’s a boathouse here which houses an awesome Cafe.
Characterized as “a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one. The Exploratorium is more than a museum—it’s a gateway to exploring science, art, and human perception. Let your curiosity roam free through hundreds of exhibits across 6 galleries.
The Exploratorium is located at Pier 15, entrance fee costs from $29.95 per adult. It’s closed on Monday and Tuesday.
8. Cable Car Museum
San Francisco is notorious for its historic cable cars, which would you believe have been in operation since 1873! So besides riding these unique cars a visit to the Cable Car Museum on Nob Hill should be added to everyone’s San Francisco itinerary! Here, you will learn all about the history of the cable car as well as check out the numerous ancient cable cars housed here. Kids can get an up-close look at the mechanical workings of the cable car, which will be a thrill for the machine-obsessed little ones!
Entry to the Cable Car Museum is free! It is located at 1201 Mason Street.
9. San Francisco Zoo
San Francisco Zoo is located on the Southern end of Ocean beach. It’s a fun place to visit for kids of all ages. Here you can see a variety of animals from polar bears to gorillas. In fact, there are over 2000 endangered and rescued animals housed here – what’s great about this zoo is that it’s nice and spacious for the animals, it’s situated on over 100 acres.
Not only will the little ones love seeing the animals close up, but they can also hop on a historic steam train around the zoo, have fun on the carousel and even burn off some energy at the themed play zone.
10. Urban Putt
This unique and quirky indoor miniature golf course is located on South Van Ness Avenue. It is the first indoor miniature golf course in the city and is incredibly popular. There are 14 themed holes here, all designed on some of the best spots in San Francisco. There’s also a bar and restaurants upstairs should the adults wish to enjoy a drink and food while the kids play.
Urban Putt is closed Mondays, open from 4pm Tuesday to Friday and from 12 pm on weekends. It’s important to note that after 8 pm Urban Putt is only open to those over 21 years of age!
Prices are as follows: $13 for those aged 13 years and above, $10 for those aged between 6 – 12 and kids under 5 are free.
11. Day trip to Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, a 1.5 hour drive from San Francisco, is one of the best towns in California for families. It is famous for its long boardwalk, the longest of its kind in the U.S. In fact, the boardwalk which is also home to many rides like the Loggers Revenge and Giant Dipper rollercoasters is often labelled as the “Coney Island of the West”. Of course, the many rides, arcade games and candy stands here at the boardwalk are popular with children and every day in the Summer (and weekends in other seasons) it is rammed with tourists.
To escape the crowds, head into Santa Cruz town which is under-rated and great for boutique stores. The town is also where the best restaurants are, like the kid-friendly and vegan Cafe Gratitude on Lincoln Street and the casual Veg on the Edge in the Cooperhouse Shopping Center. After food, why not treat the kids (and yourself) to an ice cream from the Penny Ice Creamery on Cedar Street, famous because all of their delicious flavors are organic and made from scratch!
The Mystery Spot, just outside of town in the Redwood Forest is a unique family-friendly activity that allows you to defy gravity. There is no real explanation as to why this trail defies the law of gravity, some people say a spaceship is the cause others say it is because of a hole in the Ozone layer, either way, it’s a great way to challenge your thinking.
12. USS Pampanito
A truly unique family activity in San Francisco is to visit the USS Pampanito, a real submarine that is docked at Pier 45. This submarine was used during World War II, so it has a fascinating history and it has recently been turned into a museum. Once inside you will get a true insight into what underwater life was like for its inhabitants – be sure to check out the main console which is what controls the submarine plus you can also see the living quarters of the submarine including the bedrooms and dining areas.
13. Walt Disney Museum
The Walt Disney Museum on 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio district offers a fascinating insight into the life of the famed Walt Disney (creator of Mickey Mouse!) It tells you how Disney came to be, and you will also be able to check out some of his early drawing of Mickey Mouse and other characters.
Top tip – every weekday besides Tuesdays you can watch a Disney movie in the onsite theater. The movie ticket is included with your admission to the museum.
14. Seward Slides
An awesome free activity for families visiting San Francisco is to check out the Seward Street Slides at 70 Corwin Street. These cement slides (there are two of them) were built back in the 1960s and were actually designed by a local teenager. Because these slides aren’t your typical slides and are made of cement, you will need a piece of cardboard to get down them. There is sometimes some cardboard left here, but it’s safest to bring your own.
There’s no fee to use the slides and they typically open at 10 am and close at 5 pm. The slides are closed on Mondays.
15. Lincoln Park Steps
One of the most recent art projects in the city, the Lincoln Park Steps are located very close to Lincoln Park Golf Course on 34th Avenue. The Lincoln Park Steps have 52 steps in total, each step is covered in beautiful colorful mosaic tiles. It’s typically quiet here, especially if you visit in the morning like we did. In fact, try to visit when it’s daylight and ideally a bright day – as this is when the colors of the steps really pop!
It’s a great spot to grab a cute family photo, you can also let the kids burn off some steam by letting them run up and down the 52 steps!
Where to stay in San Francisco
The Westin St Francis – conveniently located at Union Square, all rooms have great city views and there’s a number of on-site dining options as well as a fitness center.
Fairmont San Francisco – a 5-star hotel located at the top of Nob Hill, the Fairmont is renowned with luxury and many of the hotels rooms offer views of Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. The on-site restaurant is famous, the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar serves Polynesian food and has live entertainment nightly.
Hotel Zephyr – is located just 300 meters from Fishermans Wharf plus the rooms are all nautically themed! There’s an on-site mini-mart as well as a shared lounge and a games room.
Phoenix Hotel – this 1950s motor lodge has had a stylish makeover recently. This is one of the only affordable, indie boutique hotels in San Francisco!
Thanks for reading!
As you can see, there are so many family activities in San Francisco and I bet after reading this blog post you can see why it’s one of the best cities in the U.S to visit as a family. I hope I’ve given you loads of inspiration for your upcoming vacation to San Francisco!
While you’re here why not check out my other North America blog posts, some of my favourites include: