San Francisco is perfect for a family vacation. This amazing city has plenty of kid-friendly open spaces, educational facilities and unforgettable attractions to keep everyone entertained. There is so much to do that it is difficult to choose, but here are our top 15 family activities that you need to do when visiting San Francisco.
Don’t forget that Tailor-Made Itineraries delights in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these family attractions appeals to you, reach out to me my email. I would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating plenty of fun for the family, or indeed, a general tour for your family.
15. House of Air Trampoline Park
The House of Air is a large trampoline park with aerial & workout classes, plus dodgeball leagues & children's programs. We booked Ythan in online for an hour-long session and he enjoyed it to the max, and needless to say he was complaining that he hadn’t had long enough! The trampoline areas are segregated by age, which ensures that the children can play together without fear of being knocked about by older kids.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The House of Air are located at Crissy Field, and adjacent to West Bluff, which are both excellent areas to have a picnic.
14. Aquarium of the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay is focused on local aquatic animals from the San Francisco Bay and neighbouring waters. The aquarium's signature attraction are two acrylic tunnels 360-foot (110 m) long overall that cuts through two tanks filled with total of 707,000 US gallons (2,680,000 l; 589,000 imp gal) of filtered water from the bay. The aquarium includes over 50 sharks, skates, bat rays and occasionally octopus, as well as a river otter exhibit.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: There are two pools where, with care, you are allowed to touch baby rays, anemones and starfish.
13. Musée Mécanique
The Musée Mécanique is an interactive museum consisting of 20th-century penny arcade games and artefacts. The collection consists of more than 300 items, ranging from orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines, and animations, down to small bird boxes, as well as fortune tellers, love testers, pinball machines and more. Entry to the museum is free, but most machines cost 25 or 50 cents to play.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Musée Mécanique is on the same pier as the USS Pampanito and SS Jeremiah O’Brien. This submarine and Liberty ship, both from the Second World War, would also be a great visit for older children.
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The biggest surprise we had during our time in San Francisco was the number and quality of the playgrounds scattered throughout the city. Whether it was in the city centre or in the more suburban districts, we found that most parks had a well kitted out playground, with equipment and facilities that looked less than five years old. Many playgrounds also had clean restrooms and water fountains. We also found that the playgrounds were well utilised by the locals, meaning that Ythan had plenty of new friends to play with.
Ythan managed to try out over twenty playgrounds during our time in San Francisco and enjoyed them all. Notable ones are the award-winning Helen Diller Civic Center Playground in front of the City Hall, with playstructures that were inspired by the San Francisco weather: ‘Fog Valley,’ ‘Sky Punch,’ and ‘Lenticular Cloud;’ the Koret Children’s Quarter in Golden Gate Park, which is thought to be the nation’s first public playground, having opened in 1888; and the Helen Diller Playground in Mission Dolores Park, which must have one of the best views of all playgrounds!
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Yerba Buena Children’s Garden, near the Yerba Buena Gardens, is hidden away on top of the Moscone Center South, and is an excellent little playground in the city center where kids can let off a little steam before visiting the likes of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
11. Walt Disney Family Museum
The museum was created by the Disney family and features the life and legacy of Walt Disney. More appropriate for older children and those young at heart Disney fans, the 40,000 square foot space features the newest technology and historic materials and artifacts to bring Disney’s achievements to life. There are interactive galleries that include early drawings and animation, movies, music, listening stations, and a 12-foot diameter model of Disneyland.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Watch out for the one full-sized Oscar alongside seven miniature ones (representing the Seven Dwarfs), which is on display in the lobby.
Read on to find out which attractions are in our top ten.
10. Randall Museum
Located below the Corona Heights Park hill, the Randall Museum is a museum focused on science, nature and the arts. On exhibit are live native and domestic animals and interactive displays about nature. Other facilities include a theatre, a wood shop, and art and ceramics studios.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The museum has a carpark, and it is free!
9. San Francisco Public Library
The Main Library, opposite the City Hall, is over 376,000 square feet (34,900 m2) and with six floors above ground and one below. It has a large, dedicated children’s library, called the Children’s Center, and a superbly equipped youth area called The Mix.
The Children’s Centre has interactive learning spaces, international publications in multiple languages and regular activities and workshops.
The Mix, meanwhile, boasts workshop areas that have been designed by teenagers themselves, with spaces focusing on state-of-the-art digital media, video/sound recording, computers, manga publications and a performance area.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Helen Diller Civic Center Playground is immediately opposite the Main Library on the Larkin Street side.
San Francisco has a plethora of beautifully kept parks ideal for family activities. The most impressive park being Golden Gate Park, whose 1,017 acres were developed during the 1870's and 1880's, and now contains gardens, playgrounds, lakes, picnic groves, trails, and monuments, plus an array of cultural venues, events, and activities. It is over three miles (4.8 km) long east to west, and about half a mile (0.8 km) north to south, being 20% larger than Central Park.
Other favourites of ours were Alamo Square Park, which is situated at the top of a hill overlooking much of downtown San Francisco, including the "Painted Ladies"; Buena Vista Park whose steep hill peaks at 575 feet (175 m), and has lovely paths to walk along; and Lafayette Park, with its’ green spaces, playground, and facilities.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Presidio Tunnel Tops is due to open in July 2022 and is scheduled to become an exciting addition to the city’s parks.
Read on to find out which attraction tops the list.
7. San Francisco Botanical Garden
A highlight of the Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Botanical Garden grows more than 8,000 plant varieties in 55 acres of landscaped gardens and open spaces. The gardens are divided into various geographic areas, such as a Mediterranean garden, cloud forests from meso-America and southeast Asia, and gardens from Chile, Australia, Japan, California, and more. The garden’s special collections include rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, and succulents.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Children’s Garden can be found in the westernmost corner of the gardens. Here there are many areas that allow kids to get their hands dirty and interact with nature, such as the ‘creation station,’ ‘stump jump,’ and ‘sensory garden.’
6. Palace of Fine Arts
One of the most striking buildings in San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit works of art presented there. One of only a few surviving structures from the Exposition, it is still situated on its original site. It was rebuilt in 1965, and renovation of the lagoon, walkways, and a seismic retrofit were completed in early 2009.
The palace is a great place to walk around and marvel at this monumental structure. Perfectly framed by the large pond that is positioned in front, it is a haven for newlyweds and graduates getting their photographic portraits taken.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Palace of Fine Arts is the perfect picnic location for the family.
5. San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo is a 100-acre (40 ha) zoo, housing more than 1000 individual animals representing over 250 species. The zoo includes animals and exhibits from the African Savannah, an African Aviary, Primate Discovery Center, Cat Kingdom, South America, Bear Country, Insect Zoo and a Children's Zoo.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Note that the Family Farm closes earlier than the zoo itself, so make sure to get to this area in time.
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4. Children's Creativity Museum
The Children's Creativity Museum is a hands-on art and technology experience for families with children ages 2-12. Activities include creating animated stories with Lego and Duplo bricks in the Animation Studio, exploring music and sound in the Making Music Studio, literary activities in Storybook Park, relaxing in the Mood Room and hands-on design activities in the Innovation Lab.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Note that the classic Carousel, which is sited at the entrance of the museum, is only operational Friday to Sunday, 11:30-16:30.
3. Pier 39
Pier 39 is an amusement and shopping centre spread across two levels that stretches out from the Embarcadero. Arcades, a carousel, street performers, donut and ice-cream vendors and souvenir shops all vie for your attention.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Pier 39 is also the best place to see San Francisco’s famous sea lions, as they spread languidly across the floating platforms. There is an observation platform on the left-hand side of the pier which allows you to watch them.
Have you guessed yet which attraction tops the list?
2. California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is a massive and engaging natural history museum, housing over 46 million specimens over 400,000 square feet (37,000 m2) and is arguably the main attraction of Golden Gate Park.
The highlights of the museum include the Morrison Planetarium, which boasts a dome measuring 90 feet (27 m) in diameter with a 75 feet (23 m) diameter screen; the 90-foot (27 m) glass dome housing the Rainforests of the World exhibit; the Africa Hall in the Kimball Natural History area; and the massive Steinhart Aquarium, with its coral reef, tidepool, and swamp habitats.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Make sure to visit the Shake House while you are at the museum. This earthquake simulator lets you experience the strength of the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake and the 7.9-magnitude Great San Francisco quake of 1906. It will truly (after)shock you! Please note only ages 4 and upwards are allowed to enter.
The Exploratorium is a museum of science, technology, and arts. The museum is divided into several galleries mainly separated by content, including the physics of seeing and listening (Light and Sound), Human Behaviour, Living Systems, Tinkering (including electricity and magnetism), the Outdoor Gallery, and the Bay Observatory Gallery, which focuses on local environment, weather, and landscape. There are approximately 600 exhibits on show at any given time. The Exploratorium campus comprises 330,000 sq ft (31,000 m2) of indoor and outdoor exhibit space.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: You can easily spend three hours or more at the Exploratorium, so this is always an excellent destination to visit on a rainy day, since most of the exhibits are inside.
San Francisco is an excellent destination for families, with many amazing attractions specifically catering for children. There are also many other must-see spots throughout the city which, although not necessarily aimed at families, are also fun and interesting, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower.
Comment below and let us know what your favourite family experience in San Francisco was.
Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these family attractions appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating plenty of fun for the family, or indeed, a general tour for your family.
Join me next time when I experience San Francisco’s craft beer scene. Tailor-Made Itineraries posts every two weeks, and you can subscribe to the latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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