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San Francisco: Family-Friendly Vacation Ideas

San Francisco: Family-Friendly Vacation Ideas

There’s fun for the whole family in the City by the Bay, with a mix of shopping, cultural attractions, and outdoor adventures you won’t find anywhere else

While small in size, the sheer number of San Francisco family attractions all but guarantees a new adventure every day. Within the city’s seven-square-mile radius, you can stay at luxury hotels with kid-sized amenities, play at waterfront parks, and see famous landmarks loom larger than life. The list of things to do in San Francisco is wide-ranging and unexpected—families may start a day wandering secret rooftop gardens before immersing themselves in interactive play at an award-winning museum. Discover all this City by the Bay has to offer with this guide to San Francisco’s family-friendly vacation ideas.

See Iconic Sights at Fisherman’s Wharf

Where to Stay: Hotel Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square

Why It’s a Top Spot for a Family Vacation: The top-rated destination along the bay, Fisherman’s Wharf has the greatest mix of land and sea attractions to explore on a San Francisco vacation with kids.

The energy is electric at Fisherman’s Wharf on the northern coast of San Francisco. At its most popular attraction, Pier 39, happy barks from dozens of sea lions lounging on floating docks mingle with the chatter of excited tourists. Here you can discover 20,000 species of marine life at the Aquarium of the Bay, navigate a mirror maze, and sample some of San Francisco’s legendary dishes like clam chowder in a sourdough bowl from Boudin Bakery. Enjoy a blast from the past at Musée Mécanique at Pier 45, which features hundreds of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade games that visitors are invited to play. Catch a cable car at Hyde and Beach and ride the Powell-Hyde line to the top of Lombard Street. Known for its steep, curvy turns that zig zag through the neighborhood, Lombard Street also has a set of stairs on each side of the road for families to make their way up or down on foot. Stay at the center of it all near the historic chocolate factory in Ghirardelli Square, where the Fairmont Heritage Place offers multi-room residences with plenty of space for families to spread out and cook ensuite.

San Francisco Family-Friendly Vacation Ideas, Exploratorium

Walk the Waterfront Along the Embarcadero

Where to Stay: Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco at Embarcadero

Why It’s a Top Spot for a Family Vacation: From Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39 down to Oracle Park, the Embarcadero provides families with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks great for on-foot exploration.

There are landmarks and city sights galore along the Embarcadero waterfront. If you’ve booked a tour of Alcatraz Island, your cruise to the former federal penitentiary will depart from Pier 33. On your way out to sea, look inland to view a defining point on the San Francisco skyline: Coit Tower, perched at the top of Telegraph Hill. (Pro tip: Take a guided tour of the tower for 360-degree city views.) Down at Pier 15, the Exploratorium features dozens of interactive exhibits that will captivate kids for hours. Curious minds can tinker and explore exhibits like a giant mirror that flips reflections upside down. When it’s time to eat, head to the Ferry Building at Pier 3 for a collection of upscale and casual eateries including Humphry Slocombe, where kids will discover some of the Bay Area’s most unique seasonal ice cream flavors such as cornflake crunch (adults, try a scoop of the bourbon-infused Secret Breakfast). After a long day on your feet, you’ll rest easy at the Four Seasons with its myriad family amenities that include slippers and robes for kids, welcome milk and cookies, and complimentary childproofing equipment. Don’t forget to check in with the kids’ concierge for custom itineraries of things to do in San Francisco.

Embark on an Urban Adventure Through Union Square

Where to Stay: The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square

Why It’s a Top Spot for a Family Vacation: A hub for arts, culture, shopping, and dining, its central location gives families access to numerous kid-friendly attractions in Union Square, Chinatown, and Nob Hill.

Like the city itself, Union Square is small yet packed with things to do. A 2.6-acre urban plaza is the heart of the neighborhood, surrounded by major shopping brands and malls including Westfield San Francisco Centre and a two-story It’Sugar candy emporium. Over the holidays, a corner of the plaza transforms into an outdoor ice rink; in the warmer months, it springs to life with colorful events like Union Square in Bloom, which offers music, arts and crafts, and other entertainment. Take a short walk up to Chinatown to tour the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where up to 10,000 treats are made from scratch daily. A few blocks away in Nob Hill, the Cable Car Museum is a free spot to see antiques dating back to the 1870s as well as the giant mechanisms that power the current cable lines. A stay at the Westin puts families within convenient walking distance to major attractions, plus the hotel’s kids club program encourages children to plan their own adventures with a travel journal, activity guide, and healthy menu items for those 12 and under at the on-site Oak Room restaurant. 

Escape to the Outdoors at the Presidio

Where to Stay: The Laurel Inn

Why It’s a Top Spot for a Family Vacation: For families who love the great outdoors, the Presidio delivers with miles of trails and scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge on the site of a former U.S. Army post.

At the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula sits one of the city’s outdoor treasures: an urban forest with more than a dozen hiking trails and overlooks, giant eucalyptus trees, an 18-hole public golf course, and hidden gems such as a historic pet cemetery. Take the family-friendly Presidio Promenade Trail for an easy walk along the waterfront. Along the way, you can pause to take a snapshot with the life-sized Yoda fountain outside the entrance to Lucasfilm Ltd. headquarters. Stop at the Crissy Field Overlook for panoramic views of the former airfield, the city skyline, and landmarks such as Alcatraz. Presidio Tunnel Tops is also a fun place to spend an afternoon—pack a picnic and hit up the Bay Area’s largest play space so kids can climb and swing on oversized structures built from fallen tree trunks, boulders, and other nature-inspired elements. If the weather is chilly, head to the Walt Disney Family Museum to catch an exhibition featuring kids’ favorite fairy tales and animated characters. Just be sure to make it back to The Laurel Inn by 3 p.m. for some complimentary afternoon cookies.

Take a Culture Walk Through SoMa

Where to Stay: The St. Regis San Francisco

Why It’s a Top Spot for a Family Vacation: Between the luxury high-rises and skyscrapers, the streets of the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood are bursting with creative institutions and experiences for all ages.

No San Francisco vacation with kids is complete without a trip to the Yerba Buena Gardens, a sprawling esplanade featuring landscaped lawns, public art, and children’s play spaces. It serves as a backyard to numerous nearby attractions including a year-round skating rink, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Children’s Creativity Museum, where kids 12 and under can enjoy hands-on multimedia and technology experiences. Make time for a ride on the LeRoy King Carousel, a historic Coney Island–style attraction that was originally commissioned in 1904. Baseball fans should also visit Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Even when the three-time World Series Champions aren’t playing, you can still root for the home team on a public tour that includes stops in the dugout and press box. Book a luxury room at the St. Regis, located next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for its family amenities that include child-sized robes and slippers and a lending library of bedtime books.

Hang with Hippie Vibes in Haight-Ashbury

Where to Stay: San Francisco Proper Hotel

Why It’s a Top Spot for a Family Vacation: Take your kids on a trip through San Francisco history, reliving the peace, love, and music that the blossoming neighborhood became known for during the 1960s flower power era.

Since this colorful neighborhood is largely residential, your best bet is to book a stay a few blocks east in the mid-Market district. The San Francisco Proper Hotel, housed in a historic flatiron building, offers luxury amenities that include a house car that will transport up to six guests within three miles of the property. Take advantage of the complimentary service to ride to the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, where you can shop at only-in-San Francisco boutiques filled with vintage finds, vinyl records, and souvenirs. Many are housed in historic Victorian buildings, similar to those in Alamo Square made famous by the TV show Full House. To explore the area (and visit the Painted Ladies), book a GPS-guided Go Car tour in a two-passenger storytelling vehicle. You can drive at your own pace and access nearby San Francisco family attractions including Golden Gate Park, home to the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the California Academy of Sciences.

Cross the Bay to Relax in Marin County

Where to Stay: Cavallo Point, The Lodge at the Golden Gate

Why It’s a Top Spot for a Family Vacation: Make Marin County your home base for a more laid-back way to experience San Francisco. You’ll be surrounded by the Bay Area’s natural beauty, with iconic city attractions just a car, ferry, or bus ride away.

Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County is home to diverse landscapes ranging from the giant redwoods of Muir Woods to the foggy Marin Headlands. At the latter, you can tour Point Bonita Lighthouse, which was the last manned lighthouse in California, and catch a great viewing angle for watching the gray whale migration during winter and spring. With 72 miles of coastline, beaches abound in Marin County—but keep in mind that your shore experience may vary. Families tend to favor Muir Beach’s quiet cove and tide pools, as well as the 3.5-mile-long stretch of Stinson Beach, where a surf shop and snack bar make it easy to swim and lounge on the white sand. Kids up to age eight will enjoy the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, which has playful activities ranging from iceless skating to an outdoor shipwreck exhibit. Cavallo Point offers accommodations within walking distance from the museum, and its proximity to the Golden Gate Bridge places it just minutes away from things to do in San Francisco.

From iconic landmarks like Alcatraz to hidden gems deep in the Presidio, there are countless things to see and do during a San Francisco vacation with kids. Shop for unique gifts in Union Square, hack San Francisco with the help of an expert tour guide, or discover new secrets at tried-and-true destinations like Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s really no wrong way for families to experience the City by the Bay and its myriad attractions that cater to all ages and interests.

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