Have you ever surprised your kids with a fun adventure? My husband, Chris, and I knew there would be a lot of fun things to do in San Francisco with kids over Spring Break one year way back in 2010 and decided a “guess where we are going” surprise was in order.
It took a few clues, but since they were into watching Full House at the time, the clue of “Where does DJ Tanner live?” was the last clue they needed. It was definitely one of the fun ways to surprise someone with a trip
We spent a few more days in San Francisco with our girls in 2022, and it was fun to relive moments, explore new things, and take more pictures.
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What to Do in Three Days in San Francisco?
If your time is limited and you need to find fun family things to do in the San Francisco Bay area for 2 to 3 days, let me share a little bit of our research with you. This post will help narrow down some of the best things for you to do and see in San Francisco with YOUR family. San Francisco is one of the top 21 places to visit in California; you don’t want to miss it.
1. Ride the Cable Cars
Riding the cable cars (or trolleys) in San Francisco is one of the iconic things to do. With Covid and other safety restrictions now in place, it is a little harder to capture in photos the true joy of riding the trolley while you are trundling down the street. However, Trolley #23 at Fisherman’s Wharf may be the perfect opportunity to stage your photos.
2. Explore the Cable Car Museum
Located at 1201 Mason Street, the Cable Car Museum takes a step back in time to discover the invention of the cable car (trolley). Learn about the technology required in the late 1870s to run the cars as well as modern-day efforts to maintain the cable cars of San Francisco today. If you love to learn the history of an area, this is one of the fun things to do in San Francisco with family.
- Free Admission
- Closed on Mondays
3. Visit the Golden Gate Bridge
Did you know that over 10 million people travel to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge every year? They come for the towers and cables and brilliant International Orange color. It is definitely a must-see if you are visiting San Francisco with kids.
You are able to walk along the 1.7 miles of the bridge, but if you are with kids, they might tire before you ever get to the first tower! The pedestrian walkway is on the east side of the bridge. If you are riding a bike you can take the sidewalk on the east or west side of the bridge.
Drivers are required to pay a toll if they are coming into San Francisco. There is no toll to leave the city.
Toll Payment Options are available online. The fee is under $9 for 2-axle vehicles and motorcycles.
4. Take Sunset Pictures at the Golden Gate Bridge
Take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge for your Instagram feed, whether at sunset, sunrise, or any other time in between. Scope out your favorite spot on the east or west side of the bridge. In the evening, with the sun setting in the west, you may find the best vantage point is on the east side of the bridge.
A few location options include: Fort Point, Battery Spencer Overlook, and the newly opened Battery Bluff Park.
Whatever your skill level with a camera, be prepared for some amazing photos as you explore San Francisco.
Here are a few camera suggestions if you are wondering which one to choose for your skill level:
Canon Powershot G1 – This camera is great if you are most comfortable leaving the camera in AUTO mode and work well with a point and shoot. It gives you options for some manual photos if you want to begin expanding your skills.
Canon T8i – If you are a beginner with your photography skills and want to switch back and forth between Auto, Aperture Priority, or Manual Mode, this is a great entry level DSLR.
Canon 6d Mark II – A great camera for advanced photographers who are comfortable with shooting in Manual Mode. You’ll get some outstanding shots with this DSLR. You will need to consider lenses to add to this camera.
Smart Phone – Cameras on your phone nowadays are amazing. If this is your picture-taking device, you will surely capture some amazing images. I usually “tourist” with my DSLR around my neck and my Smart Phone in hand! And yes, I probably don’t “blend in” that well.
Whatever you choose as your camera as you discover fun things to do in San Francisco with kids, you will want to have the battery charged and ready to go for the day (maybe bring a back up battery just in case).
5. Take a Ferry to Alcatraz Island
If you have never taken the ferry out to Alcatraz Island, be ready to step back in time and learn a little history along the way. The island itself is lush and green with beautiful flowers. Did you know there are historical gardens on Alcatraz?
Your Alcatraz tour tickets include the round-trip ferry ride and an audio tour of the inside of the Alcatraz prison cell house.
The island has served as a civil war fort, a military prison, and one of the most notorious federal penitentiaries.
As a bonus, Alcatraz Island is part of the national park’s Junior Ranger program. Your kids might enjoy that!
Take note that the roads and paths on the island are steep. It is recommended that you wear suitable athletic or walking shoes for your 1/4 mile walk from the dock to the cell house.
6. Explore Chinatown
Did you know…
- San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia?
- It was voted the #1 Chinatown in the USA by USA Today?
- It is the oldest Chinatown in North America?
- It is the second biggest Chinatown in the USA (Manhattan Chinatown is the biggest)?
- It is also one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco as you walk through the Dragon Gate?
You’ll find some of the best dim sum restaurants as you wander the walkable neighborhoods of Chinatown. These neighborhoods are filled with hills, like much of San Francisco. Keep an eye out for vibrant alleyways, shops filled with treasures, and colorful markets.
7. Sample Cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Since 1962, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown has been making custom fortune cookies by hand. The factory is tucked into a side street at 56 Ross Alley between Stockton and Kearny streets (on the right-hand side of the street).
The owner, Kevin, enthusiastically greets visitors, invites you to try a cookie, and happily takes your family’s photo in the factory. Feel free to buy a bag of fortune cookies or even create your own fortune!
8. Wander Through the Presidio
The Presidio was once a military post where soldiers and their families lived. Now a historic national park site, anyone can rent a home or just stay the night here.
Enjoy the views of the Golden Gate Bridge, find a new trail to explore, eat a fabulous meal, browse through local stores, spot the Yoda statue, visit the Disney museum, or find a place to stay in the historic lodge.
The Presidio is a family-friendly area in San Francisco with myriads of nature programs, kids activities, family events, and picnic areas to enjoy a sunny afternoon.
9. Explore Coit Tower
Coit Tower offers 360° views. Drive to the top of Telegraph Hill to visit the slender column rising above the city.
Purchase tickets in the gift shop to ride the elevator to Coit Tower’s observation deck where you can enjoy the views of the city, the bridges, and the bay.
10. Drive down Lombard Street
Lombard Street. My impression of it was similar to the yellow brick road. Except for this road was made of red bricks. Lombard street, made famous in art, movies and television, is beautiful when you get up close and personal.
You may be surprised to see door fronts along the street as you twist and turn your way to the bottom of the street. It is beautifully landscaped from top to bottom.
Visiting Lombard Street is one of the most iconic things to do in San Francisco with your family.
11. Visit the Exploratorium
If you have ever purchased a family membership to a museum close to you, check to see if your museum participates in the ASTC Passport Program. The program allows you to “take your membership on the road” where you will receive discounts or free admission at over 360 museums and science centers around the world. The participating museums must be at least 90 miles away from your “home” museum.
Coming from Denver, our girls were thrilled to visit San Francisco’s Exploratorium in 2010. I was thrilled that it was free.
Amy loved the pendulum with markers attached, Misha loved the bubbles, and Kristen could have stayed all day long playing with the beach ball being blown in the air.
12. Spend Time at Pier 39
Come to Pier 39 for shopping, dining and attractions—the Aquarium of the Bay is filled with more than 20,000 different local sea creatures.
You might enjoy simply watching the California sea lions as they sprawl out on docks in the marina. They are noisy, comical, and just a touch aromatic!
At Pier 39, there are shops, restaurants, a video arcade, street performances, virtual 3D rides… a little something for everyone. Want to rent bikes? You can. Want to schedule a whale watching tour? You can.
If you are looking for fun things to do in San Francisco with kids, be sure to plan to spend time at Pier 39.
13. Visit Fisherman’s Wharf
Explore one of San Francisco’s busiest tourist areas—Fisherman’s Wharf. You can find souvenir shops, enjoy some clam chowder, or take pictures of the bay (along with Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge).
If you are taking a ferry to Alcatraz or a cruise of the bay, your adventure begins at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Explore the small San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park which includes a fleet of historic ships, a Visitor Center, the Maritime Museum, and the Maritime Research Center.
Take a stroll along the waterfront or venture into Ghirardelli Square for a little chocolate and a variety of restaurants.
14. Visit Ghirardelli’s Chocolate Shop
Speaking of chocolate, Ghirardelli Square is just a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. Ghirardelli Square is located at 900 North Point Street at the corner of Beach and Larkin Streets.
Ghirardelli Square, a specialty retail and dining complex with unique shops and restaurants, was originally a chocolate factory.
Visit the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Store for the world famous hot fudge sundae and discover how Ghirardelli Chocolate is made with the self-guided tour of the historic chocolate making equipment. Be sure to enjoy the chocolate squares in all flavors.
15. Relax in Golden Gate Park and Ride the Carousel
If you are looking for family things to do in San Francisco, be sure to plan to spend some time at Golden Gate Park.
There are plenty of activities to keep little ones, teens, and adults occupied.
- Ride the Carousel
- Visit the de Young Museum
- Explore the Aquarium
- Enjoy Sports – horseshoes, horse back riding, golf, baseball
- Take a Segway Tour
- Visit the Bandshell for FREE live concerts
16. Enjoy the Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.
The garden features architectural elements such as an arched drum bridge and pagodas along with classic stone lanterns, stone paths, native Japanese plants, koi ponds and a zen garden. Be sure to make a stop at the Tea House and Gift Shop.
If you want to experience the beauty of cherry trees blossoming, plan your visit to the garden in March and April.
Tickets can be purchased through the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department.
17. Visit the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden and Windmill
A popular tourist attraction for families visiting San Francisco is the Dutch windmill at the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, also in Golden Gate Park.
The windmill, designed originally as an irrigation system to pump water to the plants in the park, simply stands as tourist attraction today. In the spring, brightly colored red and yellow tulips surround the windmill.
Be sure to stop at the Park Chalet Garden Restaurant, an open-air restaurant close by, for delicious flatbread pizzas and BBQ menu options.
Not too far from the tulip garden windmill is Ocean Beach. If your kids love playing at the beach, this one is perfect as an add-on to your day. This white beach stretches for
3.5 miles and is rarely crowded.
18. Race Your Friends on a Scavenger Hunt
If you have never experienced racing through San Francisco on a scavenger hunt adventure, you are in for a real treat with the Urban Adventure Quest Scavenger Hunts.
I am not an affiliate for Urban Adventure Quest, however, our family has enjoyed these scavenger hunts all over the United States. (Check online coupon sites for 25% off coupons.)
“Your amazing scavenger hunt adventure will begin in the Union Square area and will take you through Chinatown and other historical neighborhoods as you wind your way through the famous Wharf District. You will traverse San Francisco’s contoured landscape both on foot and by Cable Car.“Urban Adventure Quest San Francisco
19. Eat Good Food
One of the best things about visiting a new location is trying out the local fare. Eating is always a great family thing to do in San Francisco. Here are a few options (among thousands):
Mediterranean – Try an eclectic small restaurant and bar at 6101 California Street, Pearl 1601 offers mediterranean style, California inspired appetizers, drinks, and entrees.
Dim Sum – There are many options for great dim sum throughout Chinatown and San Francisco. Start with Good Luck Dim Sum, Dumpling House, Palette Tea House, or Lee’s Dim Sum to find one of your favorite restaurants.
San Francisco Sourdough – Boudin is one of San Francisco’s most famous sourdough producer with locations as Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. You may be interested to know that Boudin has been using a sourdough starter that dates to 1849!
Pizza – You could eat your way through San Francisco on delicious pizza alone! Try Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Norcina, A16, or Golden Boy Pizza for starters.
Seafood – Fisherman’s Wharf is a seafood lover’s paradise. Visit Alioto’s #8, Sotto Mare, or The Old Clam House.
Clam Chowder – Seriously, you can’t visit San Francisco without enjoying a hearty bowl of creamy clam chowder (eat it from a sourdough bread bowl for a full meal treat at Boudin’s!). Try also Chowders, Fog Harbor Fish House, The Ramp, or Woodhouse Fish Co.
20. Plan for Day Trips
If you have a little extra time after 3 days of sightseeing and experiencing the best things to do in San Francisco with family, how about a few days trips?
Drive to the Coast to Visit Half Moon Bay
As you drive to and from San Francisco, you will pass through cool beach towns that just make you want to buy a vacation home. Half Moon Bay is a vibrant coastal town just 40 minutes from San Francisco.
Half Moon Bay has quaint little downtown shops—the kind you love to explore—and makes for a popular day trip or weekend getaway from San Francisco complete with good food and quaint bed-and-breakfasts.
You will love the beautiful beaches and dramatic ocean scenery. It makes the perfect place to enjoy hiking, fishing, horseback riding, golfing, and even sunbathing on a sunny day.
A little further away from San Francisco, you’ll find Capitola. It’s a cute little seaside town with distinctive colorful homes right along the beach and boardwalk. These beach houses are some of the most Instagram Worthy Insanely Colorful Destinations Around the World.
I highly recommend trying the GyPSy Guide audio tours (affiliate link) if you have never listened to one before and take a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. It will take you further away from San Francisco and will be a long day trip, but oh, the views.
Discover 17-mile Drive in the upscale Pebble Beach neighborhood.
The first stop along the drive is Spanish Bay Beach. Some of the other points of interest along 17-Mile Drive are:
- Point Joe
- China Rock
- Bird Rock (which is covered in bird poop)
- Seal Rock (didn’t see any seals on it)
- Fan Shell Beach (we did see seals basking in the sunshine here)
- Crocker Grove (oldest living Monterey Cypress trees here)
- Loan Cypress
- Visitor Center (nothing too impressive unless you are wowed by golf and the Famous Pebble Beach Golf Tournament that takes place here)
North of San Francisco, experience the towering old-growth of redwood trees in Muir Woods National Monument. The national monument is only 16 miles from San Francisco, but traffic will add time to your travels.
You will need your America the Beautiful Park Pass (or buy a day pass), a parking reservation, and a good pair of walking shoes if you plan to explore any of the numerous trails that wind among the trees.
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Final Thoughts on 20 Fun Things to Do in San Francisco with Kids
There you have it. Whether your kids are 10 or 20, they will enjoy all of the sights and sounds and amazing things to do in the San Francisco Bay area.
If you love to take pictures as you make memories, there are plenty of options with colorful street murals, picturesque beach homes, and dramatic views. Visiting San Francisco with kids will build memories to last a lifetime.