Smitten Ice Cream, Hayes Valley

Smitten Ice Cream in Hayes Valley serves cones that are made to order with liquid nitrogen. (©Sarah Deragon)

Where to Learn, Play and Explore With the Kids in San Francisco This Summer

By Renee Brincks on 05/24/16
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With school on break and summer in full swing, it’s high season for family travel. San Francisco offers an inspiring variety of attractions for kids and creative activities, plus plenty of scenic parks, playgrounds, trails and beaches for free outdoor fun. Start planning your most memorable family getaway yet with this handy guide.

Lookout cove at Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito.

For Little Learners

Marvel at quirky, kinetic, self-propelled Strandbeest creations at the Exploratorium (exhibit open through Sept. 5), and then play your way through 600 more interactive art and science activities. Head to the San Francisco Cable Car Museum to watch the giant wheels that power the city’s beloved cable cars, or swing by Golden Gate Park to see San Francisco Model Yacht Club members sail vessels on Spreckels Lake. Sausalito’s Bay Area Discovery Museum debuted its new STEM-focused Fab Lab in May; it complements hands-on educational exhibits and 2.5 acres of Bay Area-inspired outdoor activities in Lookout Cove. 

Baby giraffe joined the San Francisco Zoo family

For Animal Enthusiasts

An adorable baby giraffe joined the San Francisco Zoo family in April 2016, and she shares the stage with 250 species of exotic, endangered and rescued animals. Naturalists age five and under should also visit the Early Explorers Cove at the California Academy of Sciences, a facility with a four-story rainforest, planetarium and aquarium. Check out Pier 39’s Aquarium of the Bay before viewing San Francisco’s famous sea lions that lounge just outside; the Sea Lion Center tells their story. See how researchers rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured marine animals at the Marine Mammal Center near Sausalito, offering enlightening docent-led tours. 

Presidio’s House of Air in San Francisco

For Active Youngsters

Hop over to the Presidio’s House of Air, an indoor trampoline park with dedicated spaces for junior jumpers, and then enjoy more playtime at Marina Green, an ideal avenue for flying kites. Downtown, Yerba Buena Gardens offers a vintage carousel, ice-skating rink, bowling alley and park area. In Golden Gate Park, explore Stow Lake by pedal boat. For bigger aquatic adventures, board a ferry to Angel Island for an afternoon of hiking or biking. 

Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia, San Francisco.

For Young Collectors

Several Valencia corridor stores stock unique goods for families. Parents will find stylish furniture, bedding and basics at Aldea Niños, which also carries books and toys to engage young minds. Look to Paxton Gate for old school games, puzzles, puppets and instruments, and the Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia for toy-making kits, maps and creative novelties. Small Frys in Noe Valley carries children’s clothing by several California designers, along with classic wooden toys, plush animals and books. 

 Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco

For Creative Minds

One Sunday a month through November, families will find things to do with kids, including kid-focused crafts and games, at Sunday Streets gatherings scheduled in various San Francisco neighborhoods. During Pixar Day at the Park on Aug. 21, the San Francisco Giants welcome event ticketholders with a themed gift and post-game field access to view a Disney-Pixar film. At the Children’s Creativity Museum at Yerba Buena Gardens, youngsters channel their creativity to build video games, program robots, play music and animate stories in innovative studios. The San Francisco Children’s Art Center, Asian Art Museum, de Young Museum, Walt Disney Family Museum and Presidio Officers’ Club are among many local museums with special children’s programming, as well. 

Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco

For Budding Explorers

For an alternative to traditional parks and museums, visit under-the-radar destinations like the Hyde Street Pier, home to several historic ships, and Fort Point, a Civil War-era brick fortress at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. With 3.5 miles of white sand, spectacular shorebirds and sea life and winds that make kite flying a breeze, Ocean Beach offers a popular natural playground. Little chefs can chat with farmers and sample fresh food at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. 

Golden Gate Park’s Koret Children’s Quarter in San Francisco

For Classic Children’s Favorites

For a sunny slice of San Francisco, spend a few hours at Dolores Park. Fresh off an extensive renovation, this lively gathering point has playground equipment, bike racks and basketball and tennis courts. Golden Gate Park’s Koret Children’s Quarter boasts playground equipment and a historic carousel, while the park offers plenty of green space for picnicking, tossing Frisbees or kicking a soccer ball. The recently remodeled Lafayette Park also welcomes families with new play facilities and lots of room to run. 

Smitten ice cream

For Hungry Kids

Nothing says summer like ice cream. Smitten dishes up super-smooth, small-batch flavors made with liquid nitrogen; for a more traditional experience, try a house-made scoop at the soda fountain-style Ice Cream Bar. The scent of fresh sourdough draws diners to Boudin on Fisherman’s Wharf, where bakers fashion playful loaves in the demonstration window. For quick-serve burgers, fries and shakes from a local favorite, look for Super Duper Burger locations citywide. And, when the fog rolls in, get cozy with fresh hot chocolate at the Warming Hut on Crissy Field

Rent a bike from Blazing Saddles and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge

For Tweens and Teens

Teenage travelers (and playful parents) can’t beat Pier 45’s Musee Mecanique for fun and value, with more than 200 vintage arcade games priced at $1 or less. Exploring the Sutro Baths ruins, hiking the Coastal Trail and walking the labyrinth at Lands End also appeal to older children. Blazing Saddles, Bay City Bikes and Dylan’s Tours are three of several outfitters that rent bicycles and gear to families ready to pedal across the Golden Gate Bridge. 

The Where® Travel Guide to San Francisco