1. Take a photo on the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s number one destination. Built in 1937, the 2.7-kilometer (1.7-mile) long suspension bridge serves as the only road connection from the city of San Francisco to Marin County. This iconic attraction is not only the most internationally renowned symbol of California, but is also said to be one of the most photographed things on Earth!
If you’re traveling with family, you can choose to either walk or cycle across the bridge. Both options are equally fun and guarantee a spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline and waterfront. It is an experience not to be missed, and is entirely different from just admiring the bridge from afar. For the curious, pop in to the visitor’s center to find out more on the history of the park and fun facts about the bridge’s construction.
2. Tinker with the exhibits at the Exploratorium
If you are in visiting San Francisco with your kids, the Exploratorium is one museum you must stop by. This public learning laboratory provides a full hands-on experience on learning about both sciences and art. With so many eye-opening exhibits like the anti-gravity mirror and navigation maze, this educational museum will surely keep your kids engaged while having tons of fun.
The institution has been hailed by New York Times as “the most important science museum to have opened since the mid-20th century, an achievement attributed to ‘the nature of its exhibits, its wide-ranging influence and its sophisticated teacher training program’”. It is the ideal place to be spending a fruitful afternoon and your kids will definitely enjoy having their curiosity fed here.
3. Get your pictures taken at Madame Tussauds
The famed wax museum of Madame Tussauds opened its doors in San Francisco in 2014, so it is fairly new and worth checking out if you have spare time. With the amazingly life-like wax statues here, you can get close to your favorite celebrities from film, TV, music, sports and even politics.
Some of the celebrities featured here include Lady Gaga, Abraham Lincoln and Steven Spielberg. Madame Tussauds San Francisco also has figures that were vital to the city’s history, such as actor Robin Williams, the first openly gay official Harvey Milk, and Facebook’s co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
You will be in for a fun time here with your kids meeting the celebrities and taking selfies with each of them.
4. Enjoy a cable car ride
It is almost an unspoken rule to have to hop on the iconic cable car while you are visiting San Francisco. For first-timers, take the Powell / Hyde line, which runs from Union Square to the western side of Fisherman’s Wharf. This line offers the best views around the city, plus there is a thrilling ride down one of the steepest streets in San Francisco.
The Powell / Hyde and Powell / Mason lines stop at the Cable Car Museum, and it is worth checking out. It provides a history of the cable cars and how they work. Your kids will be fascinated to see the real cables below ground!
5. Drive down the crooked Lombard Street
From the top of Lombard Street, you can take in the spectacular view, looking out to the city landscape that includes the Bay Bridge and Coit Tower.
As San Francisco is well-known for its steep hills, it is only natural for travelers to flock here - one of the world’s crookedest streets. If you have a vehicle, drive down the eight sharp hairpin turns. It is definitely a thrilling ride down the one-way street from the top and will leave your kids begging for more.
6. Play antique arcade games at Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique guarantees a fun time for your whole family. It is the world’s largest privately-owned collection of coin-operated antique arcade machines. There are approximately 200 machines and they are all in original working condition, which means you can play them!
It can be a trip down memory lane for parents, as you can show your kids or grandkids what you played with when you were their age instead of modern video arcade games. Admission is free, but quarters are needed if you want to have a go on the machines.
7. Get to know sea creatures at Aquarium of the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay is a popular destination for travelers visiting San Francisco with kids, and with good reason. Located at Pier 39, it is easily accessible from anywhere in the city.
There are three main exhibit areas, housing 20,000 local sea creatures like the Sevengill shark and moon jellies. Kids can even interact with some of them during the daily special events like animal feedings and behind-the-scenes tours.
8. Visit San Francisco Zoo
San Francisco Zoo is another attraction that kids will enjoy. Here, you can see over 250 species and more than 1,000 endangered and rescued animals. The zoo is also home to some exotic and rare animals such as the snow leopard, a black rhinoceros, and polar bears.
Similar to the Aquarium of the Bay, the zoo also offers animal-feeding sessions, so make you you check out the schedules.
9. Visit the buffalo at Golden Gate Park
If you are in the Golden Gate Park area, remember to keep a lookout for the American Bison at the Buffalo Paddock. Take your kids here and admire the majestic bison lounging around the trees. Given the fact that the bison is nearly extinct, it is pretty amazing that there is a small herd roaming in the compound right in the city.
10. Say "Hello" to the sea lions at Pier 39
The sea lions at the K-Dock on Pier 39 are so famous that they are also known as the pier’s “Sea Lebrities”. These creatures began coming to the pier in 1990 after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that hit San Francisco. In recent years, the population can even reach up to 900! Be sure to head down with your kids to have a glimpse of these sea lions lazing in the sun and posing for photos.
11. Tour a WWII submarine on Pier 45
Take your kids back to the past on this floating submarine. The USS Pampanito on Pier 45 is an actual historic ship that went on six missions in the Pacific during World War II. Families can take a tour around the ship and have a close look at the sleeping bunks and engine rooms where the control panels are located. You can even see the mission route maps in one of the rooms. This will be an eye-opening experience for adults and kids alike.
12. Paddle a boat at Stow Lake
Located in the heart of Golden Gate Park, Stow Lake is a stunning man-made gem. Renting a boat here is a very popular activity, especially for families with kids. You can rent either pedal boats or rowboats from Stow Lake Boathouse, located on the north-western side of the lake. If you have an hour or two to spare and love the outdoors, you will not regret spending time relaxing on the boat with your family.
13. Take a hike at Lands End
For the adventurous family, Lands End will surely hit the spot. You won’t go wrong taking a hike here as you can see San Francisco’s coast line, as well as both the Golden Gate Bridge and Oakland Bridge. The walk here is suitable for the young hiker, being fairly easy, with stairs on all the trails making it a simple hike up the hills. Be sure to stay here long enough for the spectacular sunset. It’ll be worth it.
14. Treat your kids to an ice cream sundae at Ghirardelli Square
You can never go wrong with chocolates, and a trip to San Francisco will never be complete without stopping by Ghirardelli Chocolate. Drop by the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop and see the chocolate manufacturing equipment. Then, order a Hot Fudge Ice Cream Sundae to share. Your kids will love you for it.
15. Eat seafood at one of the oldest restaurants - Swan Oyster Depot
Open since 1912, Swan Oyster Depot is an establishment that has been consistently known for its unbelievably fresh seafood. With an extensive menu, including sashimi platters, clams, oysters and Dungeness crab, there is bound to be something to cater to every picky eater. Remember to get their clam chowder in a bread bowl to complete your meal.
16. Sing along to a film at The Castro Theatre
If your family loves movies, the Castro Theatre is definitely a treat. Take your movie-going experience to a whole new level at this classical old theater. Complete with the bright neon lights of the marquee, and built in the Roaring Twenties, the Castro Theatre is one of the few motion picture palaces left in the country.
For families with younger kids, check out the special Sing Alongs to films like The Sound of Music, The Little Mermaid, and even Frozen.
17. See how fortune cookies are made
Being the oldest and second-largest Chinatown in North America, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a must-go. Strung with lanterns and sheltered by pagoda roofs, San Francisco’s Chinatown really transports you to somewhere in China. Bring your kids here to sample the Chinese culture.
Be sure to have a quick stop at The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to witness how this little snack is made from scratch, while munching on some freshly-made ones. Afterall, the fortune cookie was actually invented in San Francisco!
18. Visit the Children’s Creativity Museum
If you are looking for fun activities for you kids, give the Children’s Creativity Museum a go. This museum is filled with interactive exhibits that teach the young ones about music, animation, and digital media. It provides a very hands-on experience, with several studios, like the Animation Studio that lets children create their own clay characters and bring them to life on screen. Let your kids’ imaginations run wild here while they go on their own adventure. This activity is perfect for a free afternoon and suitable even if it is raining outside.
19. Visit the four-floor rainforest at the California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is the most-visited museum in San Francisco, with good reason. The four-storey rainforest is one of the highlights of this institution. You feel like you are in an actual rainforest in this large enclosure, with butterflies and birds flying free above your heads.
On top of that, this museum also houses an aquarium, a planetarium and a national history museum. There is even an earthquake simulator for you to feel an actual earthquake. With so many things to explore and see, adults and kids are guaranteed a fully-engaging time here.
20. See a classic Disney movie at the Walt Disney Family Museum
The Walt Disney Museum is a fairly new museum in San Francisco, having opened its doors in 2009. Even if you are not an avid fan of Disney, you can feel rewarded after spending a few hours here. This is a museum that celebrates the life and work of Walt Disney. There are interactive galleries narrated in Walt’s voice. You can see old drawings and a storyboard that documents his life and outlines the path of events that led to his success.
There is also a Fantasia Theater in the compound, where they screen a classic Disney movie every day of the week, except on Tuesdays. The films range from The Sword in The Stone (1963) and Bambi (1942), to Mary Poppins (1964). There is usually one show in the morning and a few more in the afternoon. Tickets to these screenings are free as long as you purchase a ticket to the museum.
Immerse your kids in diversity
Even if you are traveling with kids, there are countless things to do in San Francisco. From vintage streetcars to the range of museums, this city will surely leave your kids wanting more. Whether it will be your first visit to the city or you are just looking for new ideas, this list should provide plenty of inspiration.
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