Planning on visiting San Francisco? San Francisco is such a fun city to explore as a family, couple, or on your own. There’s no shortage of interesting neighborhoods and sites. Here’s some of our favorite family friendly things to do in San Francisco.
1. Golden Gate Park
Whoever coined the term “It’s a walk in the park” to imply something is simple or easy, clearly hasn’t been to Golden Gate Park. With so many activities and places to see, it’s anything but easy to decide what to do. In fact, the park is enormous and full of possibilities. It’s a good idea to plan ahead.
Golden Gate Park is home to the California Academy of Science, one of our top-rated family museums, but that’s only a starter. The children’s playground on the Lincoln Ave side of the park has a slide rumored to have the fastest ride in the west; the 1912 carousel has no less than 62 menagerie animals and the Japanese Tea Garden is especially popular as an exotic tea-and-cookie break.
2. Union Square
Union Square is probably best-known as the third largest shopping area in the United States. It is the home to the largest Macy’s west of New York and many designer boutiques. It’s also one of San Francisco’s oldest city parks, created when the city was founded.
The central public space is great for people-watching and street performers are often showing off nearby. You can have a bit to eat and a cup of coffee at the small cafe, or young girls might enjoy afternoon tea at one of the many upscale hotels nearby.
3. Haight Ashbury
The Haight is an area of San Francisco that evokes the long-gone ’60s hippie culture. It was ground zero for the famous Summer of Love. Fragments of that flower-power, incense-burning, acid-dropping, tie-dye-wearing, peace-and-love-vibing era can be purchased at smoke shops and Eastern-influenced outlets. But save for the few hippie relics, the Haight today is a whole new scene. Exclusive boutiques, high-end vintage-clothing shops, second-hand stores, Internet cafés and hip restaurants have all settled in, making the Haight one of San Francisco’s commercial centers.
Haight Ashbury is a favorite among my teenagers. It’s a unique and eclectic street full of fun people and even some hippies. The diversity of people on the street and the different subcultures coexisting is really something to observe. Definitely a sight to see!
4. Ride on a Cable Car
Iconic, fun and uniquely San Francisco, the cable cars are often called San Francisco’s moving landmark.
A cable car ride can be a bit of a thrill as they clatter up and down the hills, bells ringing. You’ll some interesting neighborhoods along your route – or someone else’s backside the whole way, depending on whether you’re lucky enough to snag an outside seat or get stuck inside.
A ride is a true San Francisco treat and many visitors don’t want to go home until they’ve done it. On the downside, there are only a few places they go, the wait to get on can at high season sometimes seem endless – and there are only a few of the highly-prized places to stand outside.
If you need more information, check the Complete Guide to Cable Cars . It will tell you how to get on (and off), where to get tickets – and clue you in to the place with the shortest lines.
Just 8 short blocks long and scarcely 3 blocks wide, San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest outside China. There is a long complicated history of Chinese in America and many remain living inside Chinatown. However, the style today is what early 20th Century Western architects thought Chinese buildings should look like – and much is created just for the tourist.
Most Chinatown visitors stroll along one of the two major streets, buy a few souvenirs, eat, gawk and take photos. The more adventurous ones enjoy checking out the markets, herbalist shops, tea stores and alleyways.
The name Ghirardelli may sound familiar because it is a famous chocolate candy brand. They haven’t made it in Ghirardelli Square since the 1960s, but the former Pioneer Woolen Mills was their manufacturing site for almost seven decades before that. Today, it’s a shopping and dining complex centered on their “Chocolate Manufactory” and Soda Fountain. The retail shop is a good place to buy San Francisco-themed chocolates for the chocoholics back home.
The chocolate lovers in your family will enjoy the soda fountain treats, shakes and sundaes, which are more than big enough to share. Otherwise, you’ll find a small shopping area and a couple of restaurants.
Fisherman’s Wharf is an iconic San Francisco sight, with colorful boats, street performers and lots of those goofy tourist attractions that many kids love to visit.
Among those attractions are the Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, but if you can pry the kids away from them, try the Musee Mecanique, located off the main street near Fisherman’s Grotto. It’s a collection of old-fashioned arcade games that somehow still hold appeal for adults and youngsters used to the latest digital amusements. It’s my husband’s and son’s favorite site in San Francisco.
Kids with maritime interests can get them satisfied here, too. The Liberty ship Jeremiah O’Brien and the Pampanito submarine are open for tours, as is the Hyde Street Pier Maritime Museum.
Is a former penitentiary really an appropriate place to take kids? Absolutely. Most of them enjoy the ferry ride to reach it, and on the island, they’re oddly fascinated by the old prison.
Entry to Alcatraz is free, but you’ll have to pay for transportation. It’s a long-ish boat ride to get there and requires a bit of advance planning. Buy tickets in advance months before to avoid standing in line and possible disappointment as Alcatraz tours often sell out.
The line to get on the ferry can be long, but there’s a lot to watch while you wait – people, sea lions and other goings-on. For kids on the go, an even better strategy is to wait until a few minutes before sailing time to get into the line. After all, the last person on the boat arrives at the Alcatraz pier at the same time as the one who stood in line for an hour.
Cell house audio tour is included in the price of the ticket; not only is it a great way to keep the kids occupied, but it will help you answer any questions they may ask.
Lombard Street is billed as the “crookedest street,” so how could kids resist seeing it? They’ll get a kick out of driving down it, squealing in mock fear at every turn, and there are plenty in this short, one-block long stretch of street.
Almost as much fun as driving on Lombard is walking down it (or up), watching all the goings-on. During spring and summer, you can capture photos like the one above with all the pink flowers in bloom. Also, during high seasons, cars line up to go down the street so that’s another advantage to walking it.
Lombard Street is very popular, which on a busy day translates to a long wait before your turn to drive down. It takes less than a minute, which might seem like a little time for all the hoopla, but we’ve known people to wait hours for roller coaster rides that last only a few seconds.
10. Marin Headlands
The Marin Headlands is a hilly peninsula at the southernmost end of Marin County, California, located just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. The ride up into the Marin Headlands is an absolute must for any visitor to San Francisco. Make sure to stop and get out and take the short walks to the remarkable historic sites (Point Bonita Lighthouse, Fort Cronkhite, Nike Missile Site, Battery Townsley).
The 360 degree views are wonderful and you can really get a great all around panorama view. It’s really nice to stay late and catch the sunset over the Pacific, then if you stay just a bit longer you can see the Golden Gate bridge lit up in the dark which should not be missed.
Got your own San Francisco tips? Leave them in the comments!