Family-Friendly Activities To Add To Your San Francisco Bucket List, According To Online Reviews

Years ago, you might've taken a Californian road trip, either solo or with friends. You remember the adventure fondly, especially in the busy city of San Francisco. It's the fourth most populous city in the state, after all, which means there's definitely tons to do. Isn't it about time you booked another vacation out in the Bay?

But you're no longer on your own. Now, you've got kids in tow, and not every activity will be interesting or age-appropriate for them. Plus, they'll tire quickly, so you'll need to carefully plan your itinerary to ensure everyone stays happy.

It's tough wrangling little ones, and there's not much time or energy for you to sit down and properly research San Francisco's offerings. Fortunately, you won't have to, as we've compiled family-friendly activities everyone needs to add to their San Fran bucket list. The below have been meticulously chosen based on excellent user reviews from sites like Google and Tripadvisor.

Ride the cable cars

If you or your family members need to rest frequently, the perfect thing to do in San Francisco is to take the cable cars. The city invented this mode of transportation over 150 years ago, or rather, Scottish engineer and inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie did. San Francisco became famous for these cars since they not only conquered the steep hills but also survived numerous natural disasters.

You'll see these beautiful cable cars everywhere, as there are three lines. You can board them either at the turntables or where the signposts are. We recommend purchasing tickets ahead of time, as there may be long lines. Payment options include MuniMobile, Clipper Card, or cash (you need to have exact change). Single tickets cost $8 (as of December 2023) for anyone over 4; those younger than 4 ride for free, and seniors and those with disabled statuses can ride for $4 between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

It's nice to hop on a cable car to look at the city's landmarks and conserve energy, especially if you have fussy kids. If you want to get a general idea of where to go, you can go to the SFMTA's website and make use of their Trip Planner function. Otherwise, if you want to take spontaneous rides throughout the day, you should get the Visitor Passport. According to the SFMTA, it's available for "1, 3, or 7 consecutive days of unlimited rides on Muni, Muni Metro, historic streetcars, and cable cars."

Roam Golden Gate Park

The Golden Gate Bridge is probably already on your California bucket list, and you may have already walked across it. It's not as exciting for kids, though, and they won't have the stamina to get across it. A fantastic alternative is to bring your family to Golden Gate Park.

This area is so huge that you can spend several days here if you desire. As with most parks, there are many outdoor activities that are family-friendly. For example, there's the Koret Children's Quarter, with its fun playground and carousel. There's also the Japanese Tea Garden, which is ideal for a peaceful stroll while admiring Japanese architecture and culture. You can also take your children pedal-boating at Stow Lake.

In addition, there are numerous points of interest that'll catch everyone's eye. For instance, there's a bison paddock where you can view these majestic creatures. You can also go picnicking at the Music Concourse, and if you're there on a Sunday during the summer, you'll get to enjoy a free concert. Don't forget to bring your family by the two windmills either — these immense structures add to the serene atmosphere in the park.

Go to the California Academy of Sciences

While you're in the Golden Gate Park, you should head over to the California Academy of Sciences. Its main attractions are Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium, Osher Rainforest, and Kimball Natural History Museum, all of which are excellent for ducking into if it's cold and wet out. They make great natural history learning opportunities for the little ones, too.

According to the California Academy of Sciences, this is the "only place on Earth with an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum ... under one living roof." If your children love animals, they'll have a blast gazing upon almost 60,000 creatures here. The highlight is Claude, the resident albino alligator, who "gives" a daily Swamp Talk. Your family will also be transported into space at the planetarium (they don't admit children under 4, though).

We understand you may not have that much time to spend in such a vast space. In that case, the California Academy of Sciences website has an outstanding page on what you shouldn't miss if you only have a few hours. In addition, they've highlighted specific activities to do with your kids.

Geek out at the Walt Disney Family Museum

Chances are, there's at least one Disney fan in the family, meaning you have to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum. You'll find this museum in The Presidio, a must-visit park if you love history. Combine your love for history with Disney, and you'll surely have an unforgettable time at this museum.

The Walt Disney Family Museum covers this innovator's life and, naturally, his works. Alongside things like his drawings and films, there are interactive galleries, but what's really cool is that many of the exhibits are voiced by Walt himself. Exhibitions have delved into themes like cats and dogs, World War II, and specific movies, and some have also featured student art, showing how Disney left a lasting impression on future generations. One Google Review user says, "It is a very well designed museum with intent to display things well alongside the many types of artifacts. Be sure to fit this in."

Explore Muir Woods

Many parents today struggle with their children constantly being stuck to screens. Not only does this strain their eyes, but it also shuts them off and makes them disengaged. If you want to unglue your kids from their devices, one way to do so is to bring them to Muir Woods. This is a place where everyone can unplug from the digital world and appreciate what nature has to offer, as there's no cell phone service or WiFi in the area; the entire family is in for some quality bonding time.

In Muir Woods, there are 6 miles of trails you can tackle, with ones that range from half an hour to multiple hours long. To incentivize your little ones, go to the visitor center to get a Junior Ranger Booklet. They can fill these out while hiking and return them to the ranger on the way back. The ranger will lead your kids through the Junior Ranger Pledge and present them with badges that signify their achievement.

Do note that it'll cost $15 per person to enter, but children under 15 get in for free. You aren't allowed to bring pets, and you'll also need to make a parking reservation beforehand.

Play on the beaches

Going on vacation with the entire family can be expensive, especially if you go somewhere far from home. Splurging can be a nice treat, but saving money is still much appreciated, which is why we recommend the beaches of San Francisco. Playing on the sandy coast can be a cost-effective way to spend time with each other while enjoying activities like sunbathing, people-watching, swimming, grilling, sandcastle building, kite flying, and more.

The beauty of being in this location is you're spoiled for choice. Most people will want to start with Baker Beach since it has a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's only a mile long, and parking is free at both parking lots. There are BBQ grills and picnic tables, meaning you can sit and have a leisurely cookout. Baker Beach is exceptionally popular, so get there early, especially on weekends.

For a quieter time, consider China Beach. It's next to Baker Beach and isn't overrun with people. One Tripadvisor user says it's a "nice little beach, out of the way ... there were a couple of families visiting."

Watch the sea lions at Pier 39

Your family can get an up-close-and-personal sea lion experience at Pier 39. These little troublemakers have been gathering at the pier since late 1989, and now, they're lovable resident creatures that people come from near and far to see. Unfortunately, if you visit before spring 2024, you'll have to observe the animals at the temporary spot, as the main viewing area is closed for renovations until then. Regardless, it's still a fantastic opportunity to check out sea lions outside of a zoo enclosure.

Plus, Pier 39 itself is filled with wonderful things. In addition to dining options, it has entertainment, such as the 7D experience, bay plunge, carousel, escape rooms, mirror maze, musical stairs, and more. There are also free live shows from street performers and musicians throughout the week at the Smartwater Stage. Needless to say, you and your loved ones can spend hours here without getting bored — and the view isn't too shabby either.

Spend a day at the Aquarium of the Bay

Are your children excited about the sea lions at Pier 39? Be sure to take a short walk over to the Aquarium of the Bay, which is located on the same pier. This aquarium gives you an in-depth look at marine life in the San Francisco Bay, and everyone will have a newfound appreciation for the teeming life found in the region.

The Aquarium of the Bay houses over 24,000 marine animals, so you'll see tank after tank of wondrous creatures. Not only will you view the typical array of beautiful small fish, but you'll also gasp at creepy eels and fearsome sharks and laugh at the playful river otters. Kids will especially enjoy the gallery Touch the Bay. This hands-on experience allows you to feel and pet animals that live both underwater and above it. For example, the Aquarium of the Bay says they have "sharks, rays, skates, sea stars, and anemones" at the touch pools," and "chinchillas, tortoises, and frogs" at the Bay Lab.

Check out the Exploratorium

After the Aquarium of the Bay, take a 20-minute walk to the Exploratorium at Pier 15, as you're spending time down at The Embarcadero anyway. This gives you a spectacular view while also getting fresh air in your lungs. Otherwise, if the little ones are too tired to make the trek, it's only a 3-minute drive or a 5-minute cable car ride there. The latter can be a fun choice, as the F line uses historic streetcars.

Whichever way you get there, you can't miss the Exploratorium. It's a giant metallic and rectangular building that's the gateway to science and art. It's the perfect place for science enthusiasts, and children will go nuts here since it's an interactive museum. In fact, the Exploratorium encourages you to play with the exhibits since that's what they were made for. For instance, the tornado display allows you to step into a container to see what the airflow of a tornado is like in real life. One Tripadvisor user remarked, "The interactive exhibits were so informative and so much fun, for kids and adults alike."

Step into the USS Pampanito

Go past The Embarcadero to Pier 45, where the USS Pampanito is located. History buffs in your family will be stoked for this landmark, as it's an authentic World War II submarine. According to the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association, the USS Pampanito "made six patrols in the Pacific during World War II, during which she sank six Imperial Japanese ships and damaged four others." The submarine has been restored and now functions as a museum for visitors. The tickets are a bit steep at $30 for those over 14 and $15 for children aged 5 to 13, but there's a family ticket for $65 that covers two adults and two juniors (children 4 and under get in for free). Also, your admission goes towards the dry-dock inspections and repairs the sub goes through every seven years.

While on board, you can traverse the decks to see how Marines lived on the sub. To further enhance your experience, you can download free audio explaining exactly what the sailors endured while at sea. As the only West Coast WWII submarine the public can visit, the USS Pampanito offers exclusive insight, especially after an almost perfect restoration.

Have a blast at the San Francisco Zoo

The zoo is always a sure hit with the kids. Unique and exotic animals can bring your children out of their shells, and everyone can talk excitedly about what they're witnessing at the exhibits. Simply put, you can't go wrong with a visit to the San Francisco Zoo; you can bet that your kids will go wild over the 2,000 various creatures going about their day.

The different areas of the San Francisco Zoo are the Leanne Roberts African Region, Valentine Family Savanna, Hearst Grizzly Gulch, Lipman Family Lemur Forest, Penguin Island, Jones Family Gorilla Preserve, and Fisher Family Children's Zoo. As you might imagine, you'll see animals like giraffes, ostriches, grizzly bears, lemurs, penguins, and more. Other areas of interest for children include the Dentzel Carousel, the miniature Little Puffer steam train, and the Elinor Friend Playground, where your little ones can play to their hearts' content.

Tour Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is renowned for its penitentiary, which has seen the incarceration of people like Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. If your family is interested in this island's history, then you'll be pleased to know that it's not far away from Fisherman's Wharf on The Embarcadero, meaning you can fit this into your itinerary easily. The journey over to Alcatraz is gorgeous as well, as the only way to get there is by ferry. Take this opportunity to soak in the water and breathtaking views.

Touring Alcatraz Island can be a more serious activity, but this area is an important part of San Francisco's history. Once inside, you'll see how the world's largest prison system has affected millions of Americans. The exhibits have personal testimonies from those who have been incarcerated, which can put a different perspective on life. In addition, many people don't know that Native Americans occupied the island in 1969, so it's a good chance to educate your children on the critical historical events that happened here.

Take a San Francisco Bay cruise

If you decide to take your family to Alcatraz Island, then you'll already have an outstanding time on the water. However, going on a San Francisco Bay cruise isn't time wasted either, as it'll add to that experience. When it's late in the afternoon, you'll welcome any time off your feet, too, as everyone will be tired and maybe a little bit cranky. Heading out onto the water might be just the remedy everyone needs.

A cruise lets you rest and recuperate while taking in the sights. If you go on a highly-rated boat, you'll have expert guides who tell you all about the Bay's interesting facts. Many companies offer 60-minute cruises, which are short enough to not be intrusive to your itinerary, yet long enough for you to catch a second wind. A good idea is to book one at the end of the day; you'll get to wind down while soaking in the stunning sunset, then go back to the hotel on a positive note.

Eat and shop in Chinatown

San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and it's the oldest such neighborhood in all of North America, too. So, if you want to see a piece of the city's history and astonishing diversity, a trip to this neighborhood will be unforgettable. Foodies will be happy here, as you'll be able to get authentic Asian dishes at the numerous restaurants in Chinatown. It's the ideal place to introduce your kids to other cuisines since it'll be pretty close to what you'd get overseas but without the arduous journeys.

When you've had your fill of delicious food, walk it off by shopping at the various shops in the district. Not only can you purchase beautiful souvenirs, but you can bring home snacks, sauces, cookware, and more from Chinatown, too. And if you're lucky, your family will witness cultural events that give you a glimpse into traditions. Also, don't forget to snap pictures of the gorgeous landmarks, such as Dragon's Gate.

If you've got extra time, head over to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. You and the kids can see how the factory churns out an impressive number of fortune cookies. You can even try them freshly made for free. Be sure to visit the shop to buy the differently flavored fortune cookies.

Our methodology

To compile this article, we drew upon personal experiences to come up with some of the suggested activities here. In addition, we combed through user reviews on Google and Tripadvisor to pick destinations that are highly rated and worth it to visit.