Tenzing, the new red panda at the SF Zoo (©Jessie Greger)
A family vacation can sometimes feel like leading a small, fickle army. (With troops who aren’t afraid to shout their opinions or cry in public.) Fortunately, San Francisco is abuzz with diverse things to explore, eat, admire and do that appeal to all ages. We’ve organized some of our favorite things to do in San Francisco into categories for families with distinct interests. Whether yours falls firmly into one category or you prefer to pick and choose, these ideas are a foolproof blueprint to ensure fun for the whole flock.
The Golden Gate Bridge
Marvel at San Francisco’s most iconic landmark from the ground up by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on foot. Stop at the Bridge Pavilion to learn about the bridge’s history before hitting the trail at Fort Point.
Golden Gate Park
Less a park than a vast, forested playground well equipped for kids and kids-at-heart, the 1,017 acres of Golden Gate Park house a trove of treasures. To best get the lay of the land, rent a two-wheeler and cruise to kid-approved gems like the Model Yacht Club, the Stow Lake pedal boats, the bison paddock and the carousel at the Koret Children’s Quarter.
San Francisco Giants Pixar Day
Come baseball season, the city bleeds orange and black. If you're visiting in the summer, try to catch a game during the annual Pixar Day at the Park. Special event tickets include the afternoon game and pre- and post-game festivities like an on-field Pixar movie screening that celebrates the beloved Bay Area animation studio.
The San Francisco Zoo
Home to more than 1,000 animals and 250 species, in 2014 the San Francisco Zoo welcomed one resident who’s sure to steal your heart: Tenzing, a young red panda with a rad treehouse (designed and built by Pete Nelson and his crew on Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters”) and a spunky personality (attacking the stuffed toys in his night quarters is one of Tenzing’s most adorable antics, communications director Abbie Tuller says). But Tenzing’s not the only animal who will win your affection. Catch daily bear feedings at 11:30 am at the Hearst Grizzly Gulch and witness rescued grizzly sisters Kiona and Kachina swim for their lunch, or see penguins eat from the hand of a zookeeper on Penguin Island at 10:30 am and 3:30 pm.
Free Saturday Programs at the de Young Museum
The de Young Museum’s Doing and Viewing Art program, a complimentary family tour followed by teacher-led art classes for children ages 4 to 12, was founded on the principle that one is never too young to appreciate art, says Eileen Lew Morris, the museum’s manager of programs for children and families. The weekly themed classes are held on Saturdays as part of the hour-and-a-half-long tour.
The Cartoon Art Museum
The hushed hallways of the Cartoon Art Museum, which hold frames of famous comic art in reverent regard, might best be suited for older children. Exhibitions have included the magnificently detailed of works by Mike Zeck, the artist famed for “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars” and “The Punisher,” as well as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show and an exhibition titled "Darth Vader and Friends."
Children’s Creativity Museum
Attractions like an animation studio, innovation lab and music studio make the Children’s Creativity Museum a place where hours are easily and imaginatively whiled away. The museum lifts the veil on techniques like stop-motion animation, music videos and green screens, so children are empowered to create, rather than consume, their own play.
SFMOMA Sunday Streets
Part of the museum’s families-on-the-go program, SFMOMA Sunday Streets offers free, hands-on art making for families at various spots in the city. Past activities have included a trek out to the Outer Sunset District to craft art inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe's "Lake George."
The Ice Cream Bar
Take the N-Judah Muni line from Union Square to transport the whole family back in time at The Ice Cream Bar, a retro-cool soda fountain that serves classic frozen treats with a San Francisco twist. Owner Juliet Pries recommends ice cream for the little ones (we suggest a scoop of butterscotch in a crispy cornmeal waffle cone), while parents and grandparents will enjoy the seemingly limitless selection of sodas, crafted by mixologists-turned-soda jerks.
The Ferry Building Marketplace
A must-visit for epicures, this marketplace brings together San Francisco’s best food purveyors along a central stretch of the historic ferry terminal. Don’t miss Blue Bottle Coffee and Humphry Slocombe ice cream—two of the city’s biggest artisanal names—conveniently stationed right across from one another. And take advantage of the fresh samples outside on farmers market days.
The Seward Street Slides
Hidden along a winding street in the Eureka Valley neighborhood, these dueling concrete slides offer thrills for both kids and their parents. Bring cardboard and race each other to the bottom.
The Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia
Young swashbucklers will find no shortage of trinkets and curiosities stashed around the wood-paneled front for author Dave Eggers' writing and tutoring non-profit 826 Valencia. So-called “pirates-in-training” and “baby pirates” can dig for coins and treasure in a vat of sand (provided they “haggle” for their findings with the pirate store manager), while parent pirates can buy everything from skipping stones to giant squid repellent. Purchases benefit 826 Valencia.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
San Francisco’s storied history revolves around the ever-changing waters that surround it. Learn what it took to be a sailor in 1886 on a guided tour of the Balclutha, the 19th-century sailing ship moored in the maritime park. Check the park’s website for other seaworthy events and attractions.
On clear days, this nationally protected former U.S. Army airfield offers unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge in one direction and the city in the other, but the walk is worth it even if it’s foggy. Duck into House of Air, an irresistibly fun trampoline park, or sip hot chocolate at the aptly named Warming Hut to fend off the cold.
The new waterfront location of the city’s museum of science, art and human perception warrants a full day for discovery. Be sure to sign up for "The Drawing Board," where you can draw exquisite patterns on a swinging board, and check out "The Fog Bridge," an art installation by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya that shrouds visitors in atmospheric mist.
Aquarium of the Bay
Venture down the Embarcadero to Pier 39 to wander the Aquarium of The Bay, a non-profit nature center home to more than 20,000 local marine animals. Highlights are the "Under the Bay" exhibit, where the wildlife swims directly overhead, and the Touch the Bay exhibit, where kids can feel rays, skates, starfish, sea anemones, sea cucumbers and sharks.
Smitten Ice Cream
Owner Robyn Sue Fisher picked the perfect name to describe the way you’ll feel about her pioneering, made-to-order ice cream. Yes, you read that right. Fisher’s patented machine, Brrr, employs liquid nitrogen to churn tiny liquid ice crystals into extra-smooth ice cream on the spot. Step up to the counter to watch the magic—er, science—happen.
Tip: To take advantage of the city’s best attractions at the best price, purchase a CityPASS.