How to Plan a Family Vacation for San Francisco

With 182 playgrounds, 82 recreation centers, 60 soccer fields, and more than 300 coffee shops (that one’s for you, mom and dad), it’s no wonder our 49 square miles are perfect for your next San Francisco family vacation. Looking for kiddo-friendly culture? We got it. Outdoor space to play? Plenty of it. Educational experiences so fun that the kids won’t even realize they’re learning? We basically invented it.

Here are 10 family-friendly activities we recommend for your next San Francisco family vacation:

1. Walt Disney Family Museum

Don’t let the title fool you — this isn’t Disneyland (although there is a miniature replica of the park in the museum). But there is magic within these walls. Parents will love browsing memorabilia collected by the Disney family and reminiscing about the life of Walt Disney, his films and Disneyland. While the grown-ups are learning about the evolution of Mickey, little ones can participate in the museum’s Little Open Studio to enjoy story time and family-friendly activities geared towards children seven and under. Also check the calendar for special film screenings (including those locked away in the infamous Disney vault).


2. Exploratorium

The old Exploratorium was awesome. The totally reimagined Exploratorium in its new waterfront home at Pier 15 is nothing short of spectacular. Named by CNN as the #1 Spot for Kids in the country, the museum encourages guests of all ages to touch, explore and play with 600 exhibits. Investigate the living world, experiment with thoughts, feelings and behavior, explore the local environment, think with your hands and much more. All this science making you hungry? The Exploratorium houses a cafe and a waterfront restaurant, both serving seasonal and sustainable cuisine prepared by local chefs. All ages are welcome, and if you’ve got toddlers in tow, just follow the giant bubbles. Strollers are also available on a first-come, first-serve basis.


3. PIER 39

Often referred to as the “Disneyland of San Francisco,” a family vacation isn’t complete without a trip to PIER 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf. Visit the resident sea lions who mysteriously took over the PIER’s docks after the 1989 earthquake, watch magicians, jugglers, comedians and more during daily street performer shows, and run down oversized musical stairs — all for free! Other activities for the little kids (or big ones) include Aquarium of the BayPlayers Sports Grill & Arcade, Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, the San Francisco Carousel, a classic Caricature stand and Frequent Flyers (think bungee cords + giant trampoline).


4. Children’s Creativity Museum

As any parent or guardian knows, exposing children to creativity is one of the most valuable tools you can offer a child. The Children’s Creativity Museum goes beyond the conventional environment of play by inspiring kids to imagine, create and share in their multimedia environment. With exhibits including an Animation Studio, Imagination Lab, Music Studio and even a Cloud Gallery, the museum is packed with workshops and hands-on activities suitable for kids of all ages.

5. Bay Cruise and Water Taxis

Exploring San Francisco’s bay is nothing short of magical, no matter what age. While there are many ways to stretch your sea legs, the most popular for families is a classic Bay Cruise. Get up close and personal with the city skyline, the Bay Bridge, and Alcatraz Island (to get on the Island, take take Alcatraz Cruises). If you’re lucky you may even spot some sea life. If that doesn’t take your breath away, ride Blue & Gold Fleet or Red and White Fleet to sail smoothly under the Golden Gate Bridge will.

6. Chinatown

Experience the bright colors and fascinating facades of the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. Explore the golden dragons and emerald roofs of Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, then follow the scent of fresh fortune cookies to the famed Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley to witness first-hand how the fortune actually makes it into the cookie.


7. Golden Gate Park

San Francisco sets the bar high when it comes to parks. Nearly every neighborhood has one, although the grandest of all is Golden Gate Park, which stretches from the Haight to the Pacific Ocean. With more than 1,000 acres of plush greenery, it’s also home to The Koret Children’s Quarter (a merry-go-round and playground), the de Young MuseumConservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake and, if you’re lucky, a resident herd of buffalo. There’s plenty of room to spread out for a picnic, go on a hunt for waterfalls, or polish a few soccer moves in an open meadow.

8. California Academy of Sciences

Want to earn cool points with the kids? They’re guaranteed to pop a smile amidst the aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, rain forest, and home to 40,000 live animals — all under one living roof. Set time aside for a penguin feeding, dive show or swamp talk with the Academy’s celebrity albino alligator, Claude. All that knowledge is sure to work up an appetite, which makes the Academy’s casual Academy Cafe ideal for a mid-afternoon break.


9. Historic Streetcar Ride

A cross between a cable car and one of the sleek light rail vehicles that run underground along Market Street, San Franciso’s fleet of historic streetcars runs aboveground on Market Street between the Castro District and Fisherman’s Wharf. And to learn the full story behind these historic cars, visit the free San Francisco Railway Museum. There are great photo ops, simple didactics that explain the history of the fleet and a gift shop with unique items and memorabilia. The whole experience is right on track for little train buffs.


10. Musee Mechanique

Bring the kids back to a time when texting consisted of a pen and paper and social networking was only available with face-to-face contact at Musee Mecanique at Fisherman’s Wharf. This antique arcade is one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical instruments and arcade games, all available for play. Don’t worry about paying “Laughing Sal” as you walk through his open mouth to enter the Musee —admission is free (although the games do require some coins).

Honorable Mentions

Take in the San Francisco Giants with an AT&T Park Tour. Grab your cardboard and ride down the Seward Street Slides. Step inside a real-life stagecoach at the Wells Fargo History Museum.

Photo by Kevin Krejci / CC BY