San Francisco is an urban paradise when it comes to family-friendly activities. Toddlers can take in the sights, enjoy the great outdoors and maybe learn something, too.
The spirit of family fun is contagious in San Francisco, “everyone’s favorite city.” Excitement sparks from the city’s rich history and in the colorful neighborhoods and lively waterfront, making this a great destination with pre-schoolers. Every season comes with a bounty of sights, sounds and things to do. Streets are alive with entertainment and calendars are filled with captivating shows and exhibits for all ages.
A visit to San Francisco would not be complete without crossing the world famous Golden Gate Bridge. Explore the bridge by foot, car, bicycle, tour bus, fire engine tour, or soar over it via a helicopter or seaplane. Get your cameras ready as you trek down Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world.” Ride all three of the hilly city’s cable car lines, the Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and the California Street line.
For a touch of magic, wonder and surprise in the kingdom of sweets, watch chocolate makers at work and sample their wares at Ghiradelli Square. Take a leisurely stroll through Chinatown and let the kids munch the goods at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley. On Grant Avenue, browse the Chinese food stores and souvenir shops and introduce everyone to dim sum at lunch in a picturesque Chinatown restaurant.
Celebrated Attractions Especially for Families
Hang out at the San Francisco Zoo, home to over 250 species of animals, including koalas, tigers, and black rhinoceros. Other special habitats include the Jones Family Gorilla Reserve, Penguin Island, African wart hogs, and an Insect Zoo. A highlight of the zoo is the Doelger Primate Discovery Center with interactive exhibits.
There’s something for everyone at Pier 39. The Pier’s two levels boast numerous attractions including the frolicking California sea lions. For an adventure everyone will be sure to remember, visit the Aquarium of the Bay. Walk through 300 feet of crystal clear tunnels that focuses on the aquatic life and ecosystems of the Bay and its surrounding waters, and get to see an amazing variety of tide pool animals.
Golden Gate National Park encompasses 60 miles of coastline providing plenty of room to play, especially for the outdoor enthusiasts in the family. In Golden Gate Park, a large urban recreation area often compared to New York’s Central Park, there are basketball courts, lawn bowling, an archery field, baseball fields and seven miles of bicycle paths that lead past meadows, lakes, and rose gardens. Especially appealing to the adults, meandering paths lead to the Japanese Tea Garden with fishponds and quiet places to stroll.
San Francisco Museums for Little Ones
Newly located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences (415/379-8000) is the only museum in the world to house an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and 4-story rainforest under one roof.
Art lovers will appreciate the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (415/750-3600)across from the Golden Gate park plaza. The city’s largest permanent art museum contains among its treasures an American art collection from colonial times to the present. Make sure to stroll the Gardens of Enchantment and take in the magnificent view from the top of the tower.
The Bay Area Discovery Museum (415/339-3900) is a one of a kind indoor and outdoor facility at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the only children’s museum in the nation to be located in a national park. A new temporary exhibit entitled “Living in Space” allows kids to explore living, working, and playing in space through hands-on exhibits.
If you’re feeling playful, then the hands-on Exploratorium Museum (415/EX-PLORE) is the place to be. It’s like a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse and an experimental lab, all rolled into one. With hundreds of hands-on exhibits, all you need is curiosity. The Mind Collection lets you hear like a deer does when you try on alternate ears, or listen like a snake, with your teeth and jawbones. While wandering through the rest of the museum you can touch a tornado and shape a glowing electrical current, as well as take a sensory journey in total darkness in the Tactile Dome.
For the budding performers and future Academy Award winners, Zeum (415/820-3320) a multi media museum, teaches kids how to use art and technology to be creative in animation, sound and video production, live performances and visual art.
Cartoon Art Museum (415/CAR-TOON) is a cool little place specializing in the art of comics and cartoons in all their forms. The museum houses over 6,000 original pieces that include animation, comic strips and comic books. Fun for all!
Wells Fargo History Museum (415/396-2619) offers educational exhibits on California Gold Rush history including an original stagecoach built in the 1860s, displays of real gold and sample mining tools. A wide range of interactive exhibits and activities for both adults and children include: trivia treasure hunts, working telegraphy, audio tour option and more.
Guided San Francisco Tours
The Red and White Fleet San Francisco Cruises (415/673-2900) committed to environmental sustainability, are legendary for their premiere sailings highlighting San Francisco’s landmarks and history. The new San Francisco Explorer Cruise focuses on architecture, natural history and Native American culture. There are 14 daily departure times starting at 10am. Boarding is from Pier 43 ½ on Fisherman’s Wharf .
Ride the Ducks (877/887-8225) the ever-popular amphibious tour, is new to San Francisco. The 90-minute sightseeing tour includes about 60 minutes on land and 30 minutes in the water. Sights along the route include: Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Ghiradelli Square, Union Square, AT&T Ballpark and of course, spectaculars views of the City by the Bay. Everyone gets a complimentary yellow-billed duck whistle, the famous Wacky Quakers ™, to quack at pedestrians on this engaging tour. Ticketing and boarding is at Fisherman’s Wharf at the corner of Jefferson and Taylor streets, or at Union Square on Geary Street.
GoCarTours (800/91-GO-CAR) offers the first ever GPS-Guided Storytelling Cars for an incredible way to tour San Francisco. GoCars are easy to drive and fun. As you drive, it tells you where and when to turn, along with stories that bring the city to life. See the places tour buses are not allowed to go and only locals know about.
CityPass is perfect for both first time and repeat visitors. The San Francisco booklet contains a Muni Passport valid for seven consecutive days on all Muni system vehicles, including historic streetcars and world-famous cable cars. In addition there are discount tickets to many of the city’s signature attractions. For information on cost and how to obtain CityPass phone 888/330-5008.
The Go San Francisco Card helps you enhance your visit to the “City by the Bay.” Your card includes admission to 50 included attractions, transportation around the city, and day tours for one low price that helps you save up to 40% off of regular admission prices.
For more information on San Francisco visit the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau or call them at 415/391-2000.
Photos by Mel Greenberg
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.