Family Fun in San Francisco

Filed Under: Family, San Francisco

With plenty of parks and a prime waterfront location, San Francisco is a great destination for a family vacation. You can’t lose with a rental in any of San Francisco’s vibrant neighborhoods, including posh Nob Hill, the hip Mission District or just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Walk San Francisco’s famed hills, or better yet ride a cable car, watch the sea lions play at Pier 39 and soak up some culture in San Francisco’s many museums. Just bring a sweatshirt -- this is California, but the City by the Bay is notorious for its foggy, cool days even in the height of summer.

Cable Car Museum

Explore the old-school world of cable cars at San Francisco’s Cable Car Museum. This free museum may not have interactive hands-on exhibits or tours, but little train lovers and their parents can learn about the history of San Francisco’s cable cars, which have been running in San Francisco since 1873. Admire the antique cable cars (but don’t attempt to climb aboard -- no touching allowed) and peer into the viewing area of cable line and sheaves (insider’s lingo for the inner workings of the cable car systems). The gift shop carries prints and authentic chunks of cable for grown-ups, and books and model toys for kids.

Insider’s Tip: Enrich the experience by riding an operating cable car to and from the museum, which is easy accessible along the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines.
California Academy of Sciences
California Academy of Sciences

California Academy of Arts and Sciences

Natural wonders abound at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. A rainforest, aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum all reside under 1 roof --, topped by 2.5 acres of native plants that can be explored on a rooftop stroll. See African penguins and other living creatures, including sharks, stingrays and reef fish at the Steinhart Aquarium. Admire the T. rex or let yourself be mesmerized by Earth’s rotations by watching the swaying Foucault pendulum in the Kimball Natural History Museum. Or see the stars in the cool digital dome at the Morrison Planetarium (just stop by the cart outside of the planetarium to pick up the complimentary tickets that are available on a first-come, first-serve basis). Check the daily programs before you arrive to take advantage of the plethora of free programming, including penguin feedings, snake encounters, story times and opportunities to meet the scientists referred to as the Academy’s own Indiana Joneses. Not to be left out of the fun, your littlest scientists can spend the day in the toddler-friendly Early Explorers Cove with activity areas that guide kids on a trip to the farmers’ market, a garden shed and the Galapagos Islands aboard the child-sized schooner Academy.

Insider’s Tip: Get some fuel to power through your excursion with a lunch break at the casual and kid-friendly Academy Café where you might indulge in spring rolls, steamed pork buns or tacos capped off with a glass of local California wine.
Crissy Field
Alejandro De La Cruz, flickr

Crissy Field at Presidio Park

Once a military airfield, Crissy Field at Presidio Park is a popular spot with locals to enjoy San Francisco’s great outdoors overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Pack a picnic and enjoy lunch on the grassy fields alongside the paved walking path that runs alongside the Bay, or get your feet wet while strolling the sand at the Crissy Field Marsh and Beach. Renovated airplane hangars at the west end of Crissy Field are outfitted with high-tech trampolines at the House of Air. Make reservations online for an hour-session to bounce away as a family (with kids ages 7 and older) in rooms like the Matrix with 42 connected trampolines or the Colosseum with 22 trampolines where you might even play a game of dodgeball with extra bounce. Children between 3 and 6 can make reservations for tots-only jump times during the Junior Geronimo program or stick to the Bounce House, but hours are limited.

Insider’s Tip: Dress in plenty of layers as the winds can pick up near the water, even on a sunny day. If you’re feeling chilly, head to the Warming Hut, Presidio Park’s gift shop and café where you can get a cup of coffee and snacks.
k1ng, flickr


Witness one of the world’s most participatory museums at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. Everything can be touched in this vast open space, which is shaped like airplane hangar with towering ceilings and 110,000 square feet filled with nearly 475 active exhibits. Watch a giant tornado form and stick in your hand to interrupt this mighty force of nature or interact with your shadow in various hues in the Colored Shadows exhibit. Older kids can test emotions at the Emotion Tracer, evaluate the “cuteness” of items in the Cute Nook or see if they are thirsty enough to sip from a toilet (don’t worry, it’s clean) in the Mind section. Kids can also explore how their bodies move in the Shadow Box or Push Over in the museum’s Seeing section. Check out cutting-edge biological sciences with a look at live mouse stem cells at the Microscope Imaging Station. After exploring the exhibits, get busy in the Tinkering Studio where you can use the available tools to create your own artistic masterpiece.

Insider’s Tip: Have a question? Docents in distinctive orange jackets will answer your questions about exhibits and show their skills at daily demonstrations like the cow’s eye dissection in the Life Sciences section.
Marine Mammal Center

Marine Mammal Center

Kids love a visit to San Francisco’s Pier 39 to see the barking sea lions playing on the docks and basking in the sun. Delve deeper into the life of these animals just across the Golden Gate Bridge at Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center where staff care for rescued marine mammals. During the summer months, you can expect to find patients such as California sea lions and northern elephant seals. Tour the waterfront facilities on your own for free or sign-up for a docent-led tour to learn more about the work that goes on behind the scenes at the world’s largest marine mammal hospital.

Insider’s Tip: Now that you’ve crossed the bridge, stick around Marin County for a quiet afternoon watching the boats in Sausalito and drive just 10 miles north on highways 101/1 to Mill Valley. The picturesque Lytton Square is perfectly befitting this charming small town with open space for the kids to run and tasty cafes like the Depot, which doubles as a bookstore.
Pirate Supply Shop
Justin Carder

Pirate Supply Shop at 826 Valencia

On the prowl for beard extensions, mermaid bait or a new monkey leash? Stock up on souvenirs you didn’t even know you needed at the Pirate Supply Shop at 826 Valencia. The surroundings inspire imaginations of the young and old with its authentic pirate decor, drawers to open and dark corners to discover unique pirate goods. And unlike many of the tchotchkes from the souvenir shops along Fishermen’s Wharf, you can feel good about these purchases: all profits support 826 Valencia, the on-site writing and tutoring center cofounded by author Dave Eggers.

Insider’s Tip: Want to check out the goods before you make an investment? The shop also carries anthologies of work published by 826 Valencia’s students that just may inspire your own budding writers at home.