San Francisco is one of the most unique and interesting cities in the United States and should be on every family’s bucket list. With its many distinctive landmarks and diverse neighborhoods, San Francisco’s 7×7 square radius (and how they got the name 49ers) is sure to leave an impression on your entire family!
Top 5 recommendations for things to do in San Francisco with kids
1. Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
The iconic symbol of San Francisco is not only an engineering marvel, but an awesome sight to visit. You can see the bridge from many different angles from the city, but your whole family will get a thrill walking across the bridge using the pedestrian walkways. It was my 12-year old son’s favorite part of San Francisco!
Recommended Itinerary: Start at Crissy Field (where you can also enjoy the beach and dip your feet into the cold water) to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a distance. Walk along the Torpedo Wharf where you can observe people fishing and peek at their catch in buckets (my kids enjoyed this). Slowly make your way towards the bridge by going up the path behind the Warming Hut Park Store. The path is beautiful with lots of flowers and trees.
The path will lead you up to the Welcome Center “plaza” and steps to the Golden Gate Bridge’s pedestrian walkway. The area displays the history of the structure and inside the Welcome Center is a gift shop with San Francisco-branded items.
A dark side to mention about the Golden Gate Bridge is the staggering number of people who try to end their lives by jumping off the bridge. In fact, on the day that we visited, the middle part of the bridge was blocked off because a person was trying to jump. The Coast Guard were waiting below and helicopters were flying above. Recommended movie to watch (mature audiences only, but worth a discussion with your kids): The Bridge
Do the Audio Tour of Alcatraz
Alcatraz is an infamous prison that operated as a federal penitentiary from 1934 until 1963. It is located on an island a short distance from San Francisco. Tickets to visit include a 15-minute ferry ride which is an adventure in itself (we saw dolphins on the way to Alcatraz!). The island itself has beautiful gardens and interesting historical buildings (which you’ll find out about during the audio tour).
Plan Ahead: Advanced reservations for Alcatraz are required, so book your tickets at least 2-3 weeks before your visit. I would get tickets at the same time you make your hotel/Airbnb reservations. Make sure to get this on your itinerary. In my opinion, it’s a can’t miss! (Then again, I have an abnormal obsession with prisons. See my post of Philadelphia sights).
The audio tour is excellent. As you walk around the inside of the prison, the audio recording recreates sounds from the prison, tells prisoner stories, explains details of the famous escape (recommended movie to watch based on the true story starring Clint Eastwood is “Escape from Alcatraz”), and provides information about the notorious criminals that stayed there, including Al Capone.
While you are on the island, take some time to check out Red Power, the exhibit showcasing the 50th anniversary of the movement in which Native Americans and allies inhabited Alcatraz island for 19 months to protest the treatment of indigenous people in the United States.
Explore Golden Gate Park, including the botanical gardens and Japanese Tea Garden
The Golden Gate Park is an expansive park located in the middle of San Francisco. It showcases the beauty and biodiversity of Northern California and has a variety of sights within the park. Renting bikes is a good way to cover more ground in the large park!
Botanical Gardens at Strybing Arboretum. This lovely and biodiverse botanical gardens is easy to access from the Inner Sunset neighborhood and inexpensive to get in ($21 for a family with children). Explore the world as you meander through the different areas of the botanical gardens, including the California redwood grove, Southeast Asian Cloud Forest, Chile, South Africa, and the Mediterranean Garden. There is also a children’s garden and many lovely spots to have a picnic.
Japanese Tea Garden. This beautiful area of the park has walking paths along koi ponds, as well as a Japanese tea house, pagodas, and a bridge.
California Academy of Sciences or de Young art museum. An area of the Golden Gate Park houses two museums right across from another and a Ferris wheel just north of the two museums. Have your family decide whether they want to explore sciences or art!
Stowe Lake. A peaceful lake with an island in the middle (Strawberry Hill). You can walk around the lake and also rent paddle boats.
Embrace Japanese culture in Japantown
The largest Japantown in the U.S. and one of only three left in the U.S., Japantown is a unique neighborhood in San Francisco worth exploring. Although not as popular or big as Chinatown, the entire family can find something here to enjoy. After all, what kid doesn’t like anime, Pokémon, cute Japanese things (like Hello Kitty and friends), and delicious Japanese desserts?
Japantown makes its mark with the Peace Tower in the middle of Japantown Peace Square and the Japan Center Mall on either side. Go to the east for the world-famous ramen shop (Marafuku Ramen), cute stationary shop, and Japanese bookstore. The west mall has Daiso, the Japanese dollar store with tons of cute housewares, office and school supplies, snacks, and more. You can get souvenirs here for cheap!
There are many other things to check out in Japantown including other Asian restaurants (Korean and Thai, for example), spas, a Japanese kitchen supply shop, and Shiseido Cosmetics store.
Observe the antics of Sea Lions at Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39
This area of San Francisco can be a tourist trap, but Fisherman’s Wharf has many sights to keep kids entertained, especially the sea lions on Pier 39. The sea lions took ownership of the docks in 1990 and are quite a draw for out-of-town visitors! My kids were enthralled and we probably spent a good hour observing the sea lions’ antics (including rolling into the water, swimming, barking, fighting, but mostly basking).
Fisherman’s Wharf offers many activities and museums for children, including the Exploratorium, Aquarium of the Bay, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, Ridley’s Believe it or Not museum, 3D Illusion museum, and USS ship museums. This area by the waterfront has a fair-like feel and offers plenty of cute shops (including one specifically for left-handed folks!), restaurants, and a merry-go-round. There’s also Boudin Bakery, the famous sourdough bakery where you can watch the bakers make bread into cute animal shapes.
Other cheap things to do in San Francisco
Walk down Lombard Street, a.k.a. the World’s Crookedest Street.
Although not actually the world’s crookedest street, Lombard Street in the Russian Hill neighborhood is still worth driving or walking down. This famous windy residential street has beautiful landscaping and is a good place to snap some pictures.
Eat a sundae at Ghirardelli’s.
Ice cream in a famous chocolate shop. Need I say more?
Walk around cute neighborhoods.
San Francisco has no shortage of cute neighborhoods where you can enjoy cafes, shops, and the culture of San Francisco. Grab a coffee or boba tea, people-watch, walk the hilly streets and enjoy the flora and beautiful homes, and take in the hustle and bustle of eclectic city life.
Neighborhoods to check out (other than the ones mentioned in this post):
- Inner Sunset
- Noe Valley
- Pacific Heights
- Marina/Cow Hollow
Ride the cable car
Nothing screams San Francisco than the image of a cable car going down the hill with a view of the city and bay beyond. Not only is it an iconic must-do activity in San Francisco, but it conveniently takes you to the Ferry Building on the waterfront!
Visit an ethnic enclave (neighborhood)
San Francisco is a true melting pot and well-known for its inclusivity, so you will find international markets and cuisines in any part of the city. You can find certain ethnic neighborhoods throughout the city as well, including:
- Outer Richmond – Russian neighborhood
- Inner Richmond – pan-Asian (Burmese, Vietnamese) restaurants and shops
- Japantown – see more above
- Mission, Outer Mission – Mexican
- North Beach – Italian neighborhood
San Francisco has the biggest and oldest Chinatown in the United States with many of its inhabitants speaking Mandarin or Cantonese exclusively. Spanning several blocks, Chinatown is decorated with Chinese-inspired lanterns, street lights, and friendship gates. Here you’ll find many restaurants, gift stores, and markets.
Highlights: Fortune Cookie House, the Wok Shop
With California’s vast agricultural industry and plethora of small farmers and growers, the farmers’ markets in San Francisco are unlike any you’ve seen in other parts of the United States of America. Stall after stall showcase the most beautifully ripe fruit and vegetables! Plus you can get other handmade items, such as jewelry, soaps, home decor, and other gifts.
The biggest farmers’ market is at the Ferry Building on Saturday mornings. Put this on your schedule if your visit to San Francisco includes a Saturday morning. Your senses will be overwhelmed (in a good way)!
San Francisco has a ton of unique and interesting museums that will pique any kids’ interests. Some of the ones dedicated for children that have high ratings include:
- California Academy of Sciences. Science museum with aquarium on lower level, enclosed rainforest, and simulation of earthquakes. They even have penguins and an albino alligator!
- Exploratorium. Hands-on, interactive museum dedicated to science and exploring your senses.
- Walt Disney Family Museum. Any fan of Disney will appreciate this museum featuring the life story of Walt Disney. It includes interactive galleries and some of the early animation of Disney characters.
There are so many other interesting museums scattered around the city. You can find unique museums featuring Asian art, cable cars, graffiti, the Beat Generation, and even the African diaspora!
Transportation around San Francisco
Although San Francisco is a walking city, it can be a bit far to get from one destination to another. You can always take a car, but the city busses are safe and the N-JUDAH (lines down Judah to downtown) are convenient to take you downtown. The BART is not as safe but it is an option to get to and from the airport.
Renting a car is not recommended, as San Francisco can be a bit difficult to navigate and parking is a nightmare. If you do go this route, make sure you take all valuables out any time you park the vehicle. Vehicle break-ins and theft have been a problem since the pandemic.
Weather in San Francisco & What to Pack
San Francisco is known for its “micro-climates”, meaning that one section of San Francisco can have a completely different weather pattern than another! Be prepared and dress in layers.
The summer is colder than you would think, and when we went at the end of May, my children complained that it was cold (I also visited in July and had my sister’s space heater going at full blast). Make sure you bring along jackets, warm socks, and clothes that can be easily layered. Comfortable walking shoes are a must.
What to Eat in San Francisco – Guide to cheap eats
There are way too many restaurants to recommend in San Francisco, a mecca for the ultimate foodie. It’s a bit trickier to get good food for cheap in the country’s most expensive city. Here are some recommendations for what to eat while in San Francisco:
From French croissants to pineapple buns to mochi donuts to babkas, San Francisco has a variety of bakeries where you can grab a cheap(er) breakfast from around the world. Some of the delicious baked goods we tried included:
Pineapple buns (Chinese) at Pineapple King Bakery in Outer Sunset
Mochi donuts (Japanese) – Japantown, Outer Sunset, other places
Cinderella Bakery (Russian) – Inner Richmond, north of Golden Gate Park
Miette Patisserie (French) – Hayes Valley off of Market Street and near City Hall
Almond or Chocolate Croissants at Tartine Bakery (French) – Inner Sunset, and the Mission District
Arizmendi Bakery (co-op with sourdough bread, pizza, focaccia, babkas, scones, etc.) – Inner Sunset and Mission District
Ethnic cuisines that you can’t find in your hometown
Take advantage of the wide array of ethnic cuisines you can find in San Francisco, scattered around town! There are so many restaurants with cuisine from around the world. Take advantage of being in San Francisco’s melting pot and try something new! Here are some suggestions:
Afghani food – multiple restaurants around San Francisco. We ate at Helmand Restaurant
Burmese Superstar in Inner Richmond
Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant (western Chinese cuisine)
Uzbek cuisine at halal Dastarkhan
Moroccan cuisine – find a restaurant that has belly dancing!
The best dim sum is not found in San Francisco’s Chinatown (and I can vouch for that, since the dim sum we did eat there wasn’t great), according to locals! If you’re not familiar with the dim sum experience, a variety of Chinese dumplings are brought to your table on rolling carts by restaurant staff. It’s easy to pick and choose based on what looks good instead of being overwhelmed by the menu! Not so good for my vegan husband, though.
Recommended: Hong Kong Cafe in Richmond
Being right by the water, San Francisco has a ton of fresh seafood from raw oysters to fresh crab to sushi to fish sandwiches. Seafood is expensive no matter what, but some recommendations for seafood restaurants that aren’t crazy expensive include Pacific Catch, Hog Island Oyster Company, Franciscan Carb, Hook Fish, Waterbar, and Codmother Fish & Chips food truck near Fisherman’s Wharf.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
As the most expensive city in the United States, accommodations in San Francisco can be equally expensive. Aside from staying in a place for free, I would recommend looking for an Airbnb or bed and breakfast in a neighborhood that’s convenient to some of the sights on your list. This does not include the downtown/Financial district or Union Square. Although it’s convenient to many sights, it will limit the family’s perspective of San Francisco’s vibrant and eccentric character. Try to get an AirBnB in one of the neighborhoods mentioned above to get a real feel for the city.
Before you go: Book a reservation for Alcatraz.
I suggest that you plan your itinerary based on the weather, as some outdoor activities won’t be fun if it’s too cold and rainy (or sometimes, hot and sunny!)
Day 1: Alcatraz/Waterfront Day/Fisherman’s Wharf
Hit some of the major tourist sights today and get your walking shoes on!
- Grab breakfast and head to the Fisherman’s Wharf/waterfront area.
- If you have reservations for Alcatraz, go to Pier 33 on the waterfront to catch the ferry.
- Walk around Alcatraz Island, do the audio tour of the prison, check out Red Power.
- Take the ferry back to Pier 33 and walk over to Pier 39 at the Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Grab a snack of waffle cones or sourdough bread from Boudin Bakery. Observe the bakers for a while while you snack on bread.
- Sit down and take a break to watch the sea lions (they are a bit stinky so you might not want to eat anything while you watch them)
- Visit a museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, browse the gift shops, or get a good view of the city at Coit Tower.
- Grab pizza or Italian food at North Beach. Tony’s has world-famous pizza of all types, including Neapolitan (thin-crust), California-style, New York, Detroit (thick crust), and gluten-free pizza.
- Get a sundae at Ghirardelli’s Square.
Day 2: Lombard Street, Golden Gate Bridge, Japantown, mansions
- Grab breakfast and visit Lombard Street. Take in the views from the highest point of San Francisco.
- See the Palace of Fine Arts.
- Go to Crissy Field and walk along the water.
- Walk to the Torpedo Wharf to see people fishing and get a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Head up the path behind the Warming Hut Park store to make your way toward the bridge.
- Use the pedestrian walkway to go across the bridge.
- Check out at the Welcome Center and browse souvenirs at the gift shop.
- After Golden Gate Bridge (you may want to come back for a sunset), head to Japantown for a bowl of ramen, mochi donuts, matcha ice cream.
- Admire the beauty of the Victorian mansions, including the Painted Ladies and Spreckels Mansion.
- Hit the Haight-Ashbury area for a beer and quirky shops to finish off the day.
Day 3: Golden Gate Park
Take a day to explore Golden Gate Park when the weather is nice. Rent bikes, walk, play, and visit the various sites in the park.
- Grab baked goods from Inner or Outer Sunset and head to the botanical gardens for a morning stroll or picnic.
- Check out the Academy of Sciences.
- Rent bikes and hit the various sites of Golden Gate Park, such as the Palace of Fine Arts, Japanese tea garden, waterfall, windmill
- After exploring Golden Gate Park, head to the Richmond area for a visit to any of its ethnic restaurants.
- Sneak away from the family to get a foot massage. It’ll feel great after all the walking you’ve done!
Day 4: Chinatown, Farmers’ Market, Foodie and Artsy jaunts in cute neighborhoods
- Go to Miette Patisserie in the Mission for breakfast goodies.
- Take the cable car to Embarcadero and the Ferry Building on Saturday morning to check out the huge Farmers’ Market.
- Head down to Chinatown to check out the wares, grab some boba tea, and watch fortune cookies being made.
- Head down to the Mission to check out the murals, eat some Mexican food, and visit the cultural center.
- Check out some other cute neighborhoods.
These recommendations would be good for any family’s first-time visit to San Francisco. Also, always get a local’s recommendations on places to visit and unique experiences in their hometown.
A visit to San Francisco may be better suited for older kids who won’t complain (too much) about walking up and down hills and going long distances to various destinations. My kids were 10 and 12 on their first visit to San Francisco, which is a good age to remember the vacation, appreciate the city’s diversity and quirkiness, and enjoy the unique activities, sights and food that San Francisco has to offer.
San Francisco is the type of city that you can visit again and again. What do you like to do when you go to San Francisco? Or if it’s your first visit, what are you most excited about doing there?