San Francisco brings to mind the Golden Gate Bridge, trolley cars, bowls of clam chowder and warm sourdough bread. We've had many adventures in and around this exciting city by the bay, from exploring the iconic sights to discovering hidden gems on the street and in alleyways. Put on your walking shoes, grab a jacket, bring your appetite and let’s hop to it and explore the top things to do in San Francisco with kids.
Our Top Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids
San Francisco is a unique city with its steep hills, water views and historic Victorian homes and forms of public transportation. But this otherwise modern city also offers parks, museums and cultural neighborhoods. You can even visit the famous Alcatraz Island penitentiary! One thing is for sure: Your kids are going to love San Fran!
Hop on a Hop-on, Hop-off Tour
No matter what city you visit, a hop-on hop-off bus tour always helps you get your bearings. San Francisco is no different. A bus tour provides transportation to all of the biggest can’t-miss sightseeing spots and quaint neighborhoods, while entertaining you with interesting facts and history behind the sights you’ll see on the way. Plus, for the tadpoles (that’s kids to us), it’s exciting to sit up on the top deck and see the city from up high. You'll stop at Ghirardelli Square (yum!), Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge and more! There's even a double decker night tour!
View the Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most famous views on the West Coast is the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the tallest bridge in the United States, and whether you drive over it, walk or bike across it, or travel under it by boat, no trip to San Francisco is complete until you have taken in this towering civil engineering wonder. If you plan to walk across it, there is a visitor’s center and gift shop on the San Francisco side. You can explore it on your own or join a free walking tour.
Pop into Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf
One of the most popular spots for visitors, and one of the top things to do in San Francisco with kids, is to visit Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf. This is where you can watch the California Sea Lions sunning themselves and fighting for dock space. Kids will flip for the double-decker carousel, candy stores, souvenir shops, and places to taste shrimp cocktail, clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, crab and other yummy flavors of San Francisco.
The Pier 39 Attraction Pass offers nonstop fun at a one-stop location. With the pass, you can gain access to Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze, the Big Bus, The Flyer, Blue & Gold Fleet and a 7D Experience. You may also want to visit the arcade, street performers, a sea lion center, the Aquarium of the Bay, a bungee trampoline, restaurants and more. There are several ways to get on the water from there. You'll find sailing charters, whale watching tours and other sightseeing tours. You can hop on bikes there, as well, if you prefer to explore by land. You might want to consider renting E-bikes if you are not used to climbing hills!
San Francisco is home to great museums for kids. For animal lovers, the Aquarium of the Bay at Fisherman’s Pier lets you get up close and personal with over 20,000 local sea creatures. Kids and parents won’t believe their eyes at the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! San Francisco museum. You can probably get through it in 45 minutes to an hour. You’ll find a Madame Tussauds wax museum, the California Academy of Sciences and the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, along with our Frog Family favorite, The Exploratorium, at Pier 15. It perfect for hands-on fun! The kids won’t even realize they are learning. The downside is they’ll never want to leave. The San Francisco Explorer Pass includes some museums, such as the Walt Disney Family Museum and Exploratorium among its activities.
Escape to Alcatraz
Older children will be mesmerized (or scared into behaving) with a tour of Alcatraz Island and its prison cells. The self-guided tours with headphones will take you through the prison and stories of the infamous inmates who were held there. Step outside for gorgeous views of the city. You can pair a 4 in 1 Hop On Hop Off ticket that includes a ferry ride to Alcatraz and the cell blocks audio tour to simplify your plans and save your sanity when planning.
Board a Boat Cruise
There is a boating adventure for every kind of family in San Francisco. Some boat tours are more adventurous. Whale watching excursions will take you out to open sea. A trip to Alcatraz Island will take you to the famous prison, while you enjoy the sights along the way. There are bridge to bridge cruises that will take you from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, around Alcatraz Island, past historic sites and under the Golden Gate Bridge for a little taste of everything, including spectacular views of the city itself. Other options for water lovers include sailing trips and whale watching tours.
Ride the Cable Cars and Streetcars
Riding the trolley cable cars in San Francisco is one of the best simple pleasures in life. Both cable cars and streetcars are scheduled modes of transportation that come from the past. In fact, San Francisco is home to the last manually operated cable cars in the world! You don’t even need a destination (but it helps if you have one so you can pair transportation with the adventure!). The journey itself is so much fun. Older children will love standing on the edges of the cable cars, feeling the breeze as the trolley climbs and winds it way through the city. Besides the trolleys, you can also hop aboard a streetcar to get around. The streetcars have a trolley pole connected to an overhead wire.
Visit China Town
Walk through the Dragon Gate to enter the oldest Chinatown in North America. Kids will enjoy shopping for souvenirs, trying new and exciting foods, taking photos and visiting the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory at 56 Ross Alley. It’s a quick stop, but a great spot to pick up a tasty and inexpensive treat — fresh fortune cookie rounds!
Take Day Trips to the Surrounding Areas
Within an hour or two of San Francisco, you can find cool spots to explore to get a taste of something different. Just north of San Francisco, it’s like entering another world. Sausalito is a seaside village accessible by ferry from San Francisco. Just outside the bustling city of San Francisco, you can immerse yourself among the ancient redwood trees at Muir Woods. Take a short journey to the wilderness after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. The area is not too far from wine country, but your kids don’t want to know about that.
About an hour to the south is San Jose — do you know the way to San Jose? Rent a car and take the drive. You’ll find California’s Great America theme park just north of San Jose. San Jose is home to the Winchester Mystery House. Keep traveling south to get to Santa Cruz. This quintessential California beach town is a cool spot to take in the surf, play at a super cool amusement park boardwalk by the sand, and dine or shop in an artsy downtown area. If you make it there, definitely head to the Mystery Spot for some fun with gravity and optical illusions. The kids will be mystified! Santa Cruz is also a great spot to take in the tall redwood trees. You can take the coastal route to Santa Cruz from San Francisco to explore beaches, coastal towns and Half Moon Bay.
Be Prepared for Weather
It’s best to do a little research on weather and safety tips before visiting San Francisco with kids. You’ll want to dress in layers because the city can be windy and chilly (or even foggy or rainy) even in summer. It’s also very hilly — although still a great city to explore on foot — so you’ll want to dress everyone in good walking shoes. If you do leave the city, you may need to shed a layer because the surrounding areas can warm up. Check the weather to be prepared in any case.
How to Save Money and Time on Activities in San Francisco with Kids
We frogs are all about saving a little green and skipping the lines on our vacations. If you plan on visiting museums or taking tours or cruises while in San Francisco with kids, the San Francisco Explorer Pass allows you to skip the ticket lines while saving up to 50% off attraction prices. You can choose 3, 4, or 5 Explorer Pass attractions from a list of 24 fun adventures, plus you have 30 days from first attraction use to use them.
Besides helping with discount attraction tickets, Undercover Tourist has some hoppin’ deals on family-friendly hotels in San Francisco and rental cars. For more friendly travel tips, be sure to visit tips for visiting San Francisco with kids.