With its green parks, innovative museums, and outdoor fun, San Francisco is a paradise for families. Here are the top picks for seeing San Francisco with kids.
Golden Gate Park is a 1,017 acre sanctuary stretching from the Haight to the Pacific Ocean. It houses a multitude of attractions, from museums to botanical gardens and recreation facilities. Of particular interest for travelers with kids: The Koret Children’s Quarter, with its merry-go- round and newly built playground; paddle boat rentals at Stowe Lake; a picnic at the Botanical Gardens. The impressive Academy of Sciences warrants a full afternoon in and of itself.
Conveniently situated downtown, Yerba Buena Gardens is a quick walk from Union Square and Moscone Convention Center. This well-planned, multi-use facility is centered on a grassy park and includes a large playground, ice skating rink, and bowling alley. In addition, Zeum, a cutting-edge museum for kids, is a terrific place to spend an hour or two with the family. There’s also a delightful merry-go-round and some solid family-friendly restaurants. In the summer, free concerts and performances for kids take place in the Children’s Garden next to the playground.
Location: Bordered by 3rd, 4th, Mission, and Folsom Streets
Website: Yerba Buena Gardens
Abutting Ocean Beach, the San Francisco Zoo is home to more than 250 species, including the endangered snow leopard, Sumatran tiger, and grizzly bear. Of special interest is the Gorilla Preserve, one of the largest habitats of its kind in the world,; the Primate Discovery Center featuring ten species of rare monkeys; Koala Crossing; and the African Savanna Exhibit. A 6-acre petting zoo ideal for toddlers.
Location: Sloat Blvd. and 47th Avenue
Website: San Francisco Zoo
4. Musee Mecanique
Musee Mecanique consists of one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines. Here you’ll find the giant Laughing Sal, through whose gaping mouth you enter the museum, the world’s only steam-powered motorcycle, and mechanical fortune-telling figures.
Location: Pier 45; Shed A; at the end of Taylor Street at Fisherman’s Wharf
Website: Musee Mechanique
5. Hyde Street Pier
This collection of historic vessels, part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, is impressive. Most of the ships, including the 250-foot long 1886 Balclutha, can be boarded. Across the street the visitors center features engaging large-scale exhibits.
Location: Hyde and Jefferson Streets at Fisherman’s Wharf
Website: San Francisco Maritime National Museum
Housed next to the majestic Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium is a fascinating “museum of science, art and human perception.” There are more than 650 exhibits that focus on everything from sea life to the weather to electricity. Themed areas like the shadow room, the distortion room, and the tactile dome are perennial favorites among kids and adults of all ages. Note that mornings are often crowded with school groups while afternoons are less so.
Location: Pier 15/17 San Francisco
7. Crissy Field
A 100-acre shoreline park and restored marshland along the Bay, Crissy Field is one of the most scenic spots in San Francisco. Get up close and personal views of the Golden Gate Bridge while dipping your toes in the Pacific along the shore or stroll the paved path along the waterfront. Families come here to picnic and barbecue or ride bikes. The Warming Hut café and gift shop is worth a stop for a hot chocolate and sandwich and sells great souvenirs.
Location: Marine Drive
8. Cable Cars
There is no better way to experience the hills and views of San Francisco than aboard one of the city’s famous open-air cable cars. To get the most bang for your buck (a ride costs $5), hop a Powell-Hyde car on at Powell and Market Streets and head towards Fisherman’s Wharf—you’ll see the sparkling San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island in the distance.
Location: Powell and Market Streets
Website: San Francisco Cable Cars
9. Ferry Ride Across the Bay
A scenic ferry ride across the Bay is an adventure regardless of your destination (and it’s less expensive than a formal bay cruise.) Whether you head to Alcatraz to tour the old federal penitentiary, picnic and hike on Angel Island or stop at the quaint towns of Tiburon and Sausalito for lunch, a ferry cruise is a must on any San Francisco visit—with or without the kids.
10. Bay Area Discovery Museum
Located just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito, the Discovery Museum may be the most scenically situated kids destination around (you’ll notice the sweeping views of the bay and bridge as soon as you exit your car and look south). This well designed museum has interactive and hands-on exhibits both indoors and out for kids of all ages. Children can play in water that flows through a multi-level faux rock streambed, paint in an art studio, and explore an authentic fishing boat.
Location: 557 McReynolds Rd.; Sausalito
Website: Bay Area Discovery Museum