San Francisco with kids

The mild-weathered City by the Bay is a compact place, ranked number seven in the US for parks, with tasty food for even the most finicky eaters and with a commitment to accessibility.

San Francisco is an easy and exciting place for families to visit for many reasons – plenty of green space, tons of culture, never too hot, and relatively easy to get around, whether by public transportation, car or stroller.

Is San Francisco good for kids?

Short answer: yes! SF’s public art makes for extra-colorful neighborhood parks and walks. It’s also consistently ranked as a top food city with plenty of affordable choices, from street-cart bacon-wrapped hot dogs to food-truck parks. Car-free weekends on the Great Hwy and JFK Dr in Golden Gate Park (GGP) are ideal for toddler trikes and safe urban exploration on foot. Public transportation infrastructure has improved and expanded in the past few years, including a new MUNI metro line extension to Chinatown and bus-only lanes along the busy Van Ness Ave – and don’t forget about cable cars!

Nearly every establishment has wheel-friendly ramp entrances and family/accessible restrooms, most of which have changing tables. But depending on how hilly your itinerary is for the day, stashing a baby carrier is always a good idea.

While it has many affordable and free activities, San Francisco can still get expensive for a traveling family. City attraction passes save on admission fees for museums and other popular attractions. Check online for free admission days to museums and gardens. Several participate in reciprocal membership programs, so your hometown memberships may get you discounted or free admission to sister institutions in SF. 

A man cycles down Grant Street, the main street in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Kids will love to eat their way through San Francisco’s delicious Chinatown © / Shutterstock

Where is best in SF for kids?

The 4000-plus acres of green and recreational space in San Francisco make much of the city kid-friendly – an obvious big hitter being the sprawling Golden Gate Park, with lesser-known pockets that can make each visit feel new. The former military area of The Presidio in the north part of the city has the buzziest new park in Presidio Tunnel Tops. Other fun outdoor spaces include the foggy Mt Davidson, walkable weekends on the Upper Great Hwy, the celebratory Stern Grove Festival, and Ocean Beach campfires. Add to that numerous vibrant farmers markets, delicious and historical Chinatown, storied and beautiful Angel Island, and cool Beatnik history around North Beach’s City Lights bookstore.

Best things to do in San Francisco with little kids, babies and toddlers

Enjoy the view and more at SF’s Presidio Tunnel Tops park

With more than 220 neighborhood parks, San Francisco welcomed a new one in 2022. From the same design firm behind New York City’s High Line, Tunnel Tops Park is not to be missed, resting on top of the Presidio Parkway Tunnels. Adults and children alike can appreciate the stunning, up-close views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the domed Palace of Fine Arts. 

Different zones of Tunnel Tops include a communal campfire area, picnic tables, a playground made from repurposed materials, an indoor discovery center and plenty of free programming throughout the year, including Intertribal Dance Gatherings and educational ranger campfire talks. Food trucks abound daily, making off-season visits just as delicious. There are plenty of bathrooms, including family and accessible restrooms.

If you’re not totally pooped from exploring Tunnel Tops, the indoor Walt Disney Family Museum lies just two blocks north, still on The Presidio grounds.

Get your hands dirty in the Children’s Garden at SF Botanical Garden

While nearly the entirety of the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park is mesmerizing and kid-friendly (check out the Flower Piano days when there are real-life mermaids and fairies), The Children’s Garden calls itself a “yes space” – meaning yes to little ones touching things and digging around, providing sensory, hands-on exploration.

Just a short stroller walk from the main gate, the garden offers free Bean Sprouts Family Days several times a week, where beekeepers, bug hunts, a planting area and insect-themed arts and crafts await. The Children’s Garden also has a sandbox, mud kitchen, bean tunnel, stump jump and more. Sometimes, there are children’s story times in the Great Meadow by the main garden entrance.

Time and energy permitting, explore other parts of the Botanical Gardens or walk three minutes northeast of the main gate to a GGP classic kids’ favorite: the CalAcademy. For children still in strollers, the museum’s Steinhart Aquarium is particularly stimulating, with tropical-colored fish swimming by in floor-to-ceiling water worlds. And who could forget to say hi to Claude, the giant albino alligator on the main floor?

If you skip the CalAcademy and its decent (albeit museum-priced) pizzas and sandwiches, grab a classic hot dog from one of Annie’s Hot Dogs carts parked around Golden Gate Park. Better yet, walk five minutes south to the food-dense area of 9th Ave and Irving St in the Inner Sunset. The spacious Tartine Manufactory offers artisanal pastries and sandwiches, or fill up on “Korean Seoul food” like fried gochujang chicken wings from the popular or huge and filling burritos from the long-standing Gordo. Car-free weekends along JFK Dr limit parking options but allow more space for little ones to explore safely. Also consider taking MUNI buses 28, 43 or 44.

Have a weekend walk on the Great Highway 

Bordering Ocean Beach are the Great Hwy and the parallel Upper Great Hwy – making for fantastic sunrise and sunset drives against an ocean backdrop. With much less commuter traffic during the pandemic, the city shut down the Upper Great Hwy to cars for pedestrian-only use as a coastal promenade. Residents quickly grew to love walking, running, biking and stroller-ing on the wide, smooth highway roads. Post-pandemic, residents advocated for it to stay car-free, which led to a three-year pilot project that keeps the Upper Great Hwy car-free from noon on Fridays to 6am on Mondays at least through 2025.

Families can take to the highway on scooters, bikes, strollers, wagons, tricycles and roller skates, enjoying the impromptu music performances and informal food and drink vendors that pop up alongside it. Public bathrooms dot the 3.5-mile highway at Sloat, Taraval and Irving streets. You can start your highway walk anywhere along the road, so parking is feasible. Otherwise, take MUNI metro lines L or N, or MUNI buses 18 or 29.

For a snack, stop at Java Beach Cafe at Judah (or sister location Java Beach at the Zoo, near Sloat) for coffee, sandwiches, salads and Irish soda bread. If you want to go off-road to the beach, these ocean waters are for advanced surfers and swimmers only, but the sand is still an excellent place for long walks, (windy) frisbee, playing with dogs and people-watching. The San Francisco Zoo is also near the southern tip of the Great Hwy at Sloat Blvd.

Farmers market hall inside the Ferry building in San Francisco, with vendors displaying quality produce
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is both stroller and noise-friendly © / Shutterstock

Freewheel (your strollers) at a farmers market

Stroller- and noise-friendly farmers markets are a blessing for families. With vendors selling prepared food alongside produce purveyors from nearby Salinas and other parts of Northern California, picky toddlers can find something they’d want to eat, ranging from quesadillas to hummus. There’s often live music and usually areas with tables and chairs to rest.

While the city has about 15 farmers markets during peak summer season, a few are especially worthwhile for the family. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market occurs three times a week, but the Saturday market is the crown jewel, with cooking demos, education programs, and over 100 vendors. It’s easy to link a Ferry Plaza Farmers Market visit with a ferry ride – either a quick one to Treasure Island or a half-day affair to Angel Island.

The Sunday Outer Sunset Farmers Market & Mercantile is a pandemic-born project that’s grown to 100-plus vendors with a massive kids’ play area. Stonestown Farmers Market on Sundays is smaller but plentiful, with free parking and a decently spacious picnic/play area. Opened in the summer of 2023, a farmers market founded by the food justice nonprofit Dragonspunk is open on Thursdays at the Bayview’s also-new Southeast Community Center.

Have a family dance party at the Stern Grove Festival

Aside from internationally famous headlining acts like the San Francisco Symphony and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, one of the best things about the 85-year-old Stern Grove Festival is the sight of dancing toddlers against a sea of smiling people and towering eucalyptus trees – music lovers in the making. The festival runs every Sunday for 10 weeks in the summer. You can reserve free tickets online beginning a month before each performance.

Kids might not have the patience to wait in line before the 2pm concerts to get optimal first-come, first-served grassy viewing spots. The neighboring West Meadow, however, is the spillover area with a huge screen live-streaming the concerts, with proximity to the food trucks and row of portable toilets.

Bring layers, water, sun protection and a blanket to spread out. You also might need baby headphones in case the concert gets too loud. Picnics here are a must, with plenty of food vendors near the main entrance and food trucks in the meadow: think gourmet corn dogs from Batter Up or Argentinian-style empanadas filled with beef or Swiss chard from El Sur.

Best things to do with kids

Staff member holding a tray of fortune cookies
The folks at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory will often throw in free samples with your purchase © Erin Lenczycki / Lonely Planet

Eat and play your way through Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown is a classic visitor destination – one of the biggest Chinatowns outside of Asia. To avoid the battle of narrow street parking, head straight for Portsmouth Square Garage on Kearny Street, where you can linger a bit in Portsmouth Square Park to watch people play chess or practice Tai Chi. Or take MUNI buses 1 California or 8X-Bayshore Express to Clay and Kearny, or the new MUNI metro T line extension to Chinatown – Rose Pak Station.

Make your way a couple blocks northeast to the public-art-covered Ross Alley for the 60-plus-year-old Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. If there’s a line, it will move quickly into the open-plan factory where friendly workers still fold and stuff the golden vanilla-scented cookies by hand. Staff members are open to photo ops and are generous with free samples, often throwing in bonus cookies if you make a purchase. If you’re with mature tweens or teens, check out the 41 Ross art gallery across from the factory for thought-provoking rotating exhibits, like work from Chinatown LGBTQIA+ youth or photo essays of disappearing iconic Chinatown restaurants. 

Head a couple blocks south to the gift-shop-laden Grant Ave and pop in the Chinatown Kite Shop for an affordable fish-shaped kite or a more serious and detailed dragon. Then head two blocks west to Pagoda Pl to visit America’s first dim sum house, the 103-year-old Hang Ah Tea Room, offering an all-day dim sum menu with dumplings and noodles galore. To burn off excess energy after the hearty meal, head across the alleyway to the Chinese zodiac animal-themed Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground.

Speed down the original cement slides in Koret Children’s Quarter

With so much newness in San Francisco, finding vestiges of the old city can feel like striking cultural gold. The original cement slides in Golden Gate Park’s Koret Children’s Quarter (originally built in 1888 as one of America’s earliest playgrounds) hold extra charm and historical significance, where signage states that all adults must be accompanied by minors. It’s the perfect excuse for any SF-bred adult to relieve childhood memories and for the next generation to form new memories of a GGP classic. It’s recommended to bring cardboard to slide on, though there are usually a few pieces left by other sliders for communal use.

Kids will also love riding on the neighboring 1914 Herschell-Spillman carousel – another old-school GGP activity itinerary. The east area of GGP where Koret is located isn’t near as many food options as the Botanical Garden, but there is usually an Annie’s Hot Dogs cart near the playground. Kezar Pizzetta is about a seven-minute walk south for gourmet pizzas – and craft beer and wine for the adults.

A trail up Mount Davidson, amid foggy forest and with trees and green grass on either side of the path
The 1-mile loop up Mt Davidson is both beautiful and not too strenuous for kids © loridambrosio / Getty Images

See Sutro Tower from the top of Mt Davidson

To enjoy more of SF’s great outdoors, look to Mt Davidson Park. Located in a residential area on the central west side, it’s the highest natural peak in San Francisco at 983ft. There’s street parking by the seven entrances (main ones on Dalewood Way and Lansdale Ave, and one further north on Dalewood). Otherwise, take MUNI bus 43 Fort Mason to Portola Dr and Del Sur Ave.

Just a 1-mile loop trail, the native-plant-filled hike to the top is satisfying but not too strenuous for kids. At the peak, you can spot the spindly red-and-white tri-leg structure of Sutro Tower, almost as iconic (to locals) as the Golden Gate Bridge or Transamerica Pyramid. There’s also a towering 103ft-high cement cross memorializing the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Pop down to the nearby family-friendly West Portal neighborhood to get a picnic-suitable takeout for the hike or visit afterward. For food, try a comforting toasted sub from neighborhood favorite Submarine Center. The allergen-friendly Lazy Susan serves a curated take on Cantonese American classics like broccoli beef, and pizza lovers will be happy with local joints Mozzarella di Bufala or Goat Hill Pizza. The West Portal Library and playground across the street also make a nice rest stop before the next adventure.

Visit the locally loved Randall Museum up in the hills

Up in the hills of Corona Heights Park sits the Randall Museum. Admission is free to this established but lesser-known children’s museum run by SF Recs and Parks. Emphasizing natural history, science and the arts, its discovery zones range from a working model train to live animals in replica native habitat spaces.

Bonus: there’s a secret cityscape view from the back of the museum. Paired with plenty of grassy space and outdoor sculptures, it makes for a lovely picnic ambiance. You can grab focaccia sandwiches from the small Café Josephine on the grounds, which also offers locally loved Andytown coffee – try the signature (fizzy and creamy) Snowy Plover made with espresso, brown sugar syrup, sparkling water and housemade vanilla whipped cream.

It’s easiest to get to the Randall via car, but you can also take the K, L or M MUNI metro lines to Castro Station or MUNI bus 24 Divisadero to 16th St and Castro, then do a bit of uphill urban hiking (10–15 minutes) to get to the museum. Grab some Marcello’s pizza near the MUNI station before the walk if you want to picnic at the Randall with takeout.

Electrify your senses at the Exploratorium

While every major city has children’s museums, few are as cool and widely appealing as the electrifying Exploratorium, with its 600-plus interactive exhibits that let you experience such wonders as touching a tornado and capturing images of your own shadow.

Set by the waterfront along the Embarcadero, adjacent itineraries for post-museum exploration will lean classic tourist – ride on the F Market (streetcars) a few minutes north to get to the sea lions at Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf. Or walk/take the F 10 minutes south to connect to the Ferry Building activities mentioned above.

Best things to do with tweens and teens

A person reading at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco
You could get lost in the shelves of City Lights Bookstore © Anthony Pidgeon / Lonely Planet

Soak in Beat Generation vibes at City Lights Book Sellers

Give your older kids a Beatnik history lesson in North Beach at City Lights bookstore, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Open until 10pm, its three floors of progressive literature can easily entertain book lovers for hours. A creaky set of stairs leads to the poetry room, a serene space that houses one of the country’s largest poetry collections, including copies of Allen Ginsberg’s controversial “Howl.” There are also free readings in-store or in Jack Kerouac Alley right next door. Craving more hipness? Cross Columbus Ave to the small, privately owned Beat Museum ($5–8 admission), with Beat ephemera such as Allen Ginsberg’s organ. 

While too young to visit neighboring Beat bars, minors can sip on a hot chocolate or even a sophisticated espresso at the nearby Caffe Trieste, favored in the past by the likes of Ferlinghetti.

Build a campfire at Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach stretches for 3 miles along the westernmost edge of the city. With a strong, cold undertow, swimming here is better left to advanced surfers. However, the flat grounds are perfect for long walks and playing with dogs, and offer various vantage points to watch an epic sunset (it’s cool even if it’s foggy).

Another draw is the 16 public fire rings that open during burn season (usually March through October) between Stairwells 15–20. There are two nearby parking lots and street parking, or you can take the N Judah MUNI metro line to La Playa St (Ocean Beach). Public bathrooms are located behind Beach Chalet across the highway and inside Safeway on La Playa St, about a seven-minute walk north of the pits, where you can get firewood and provisions. You can also grab takeout from nearby restaurants, like Hakka Restaurant or Beach Chalet.

Tourists enjoying a picnic in Angel Island with the view of Alcatraz Island and San Francisco
Angel Island has a nice balance of natural beauty and history © Eloi_Omella / Getty Images

Ride the ferry to Angel Island for immigration history and hiking

Just a 30-minute ferry ride from the city, Angel Island encompasses incredible natural beauty while providing a history lesson about the USA’s immigration history – especially for early Chinese Americans in San Francisco. While it’s a hallmark field trip for local elementary school students, the optional 1.5-mile hike up to the barracks (there is a shuttle with limited run times) and the Immigration Museum are suitable for tweens and teens.

The Immigration Station consists of two buildings. The established Barracks Museum is an immersive time capsule of immigration detention on the island in the early 19th century – walk among triple-tiered bunk beds covered in clothing and mementos from migrants’ home countries and see Chinese poetry carved into the walls lamenting the loneliness and anger of being detained. The Immigration Museum, opened in 2022 and housed in the island’s former hospital, further links Angel Island’s immigration history to today’s events, like migrant detention at the US border and first-person family immigration stories of Bay Area celebrities like news anchors and authors. Its content is heavy but also hopeful.

The outdoor recreation available on the island makes for a balanced experience. You can watch deer graze on the trails, gaze out at the water from waterside picnic areas and even rent bikes and book the campgrounds in advance.

Angel Island Cafe has patio seating overlooking the harbor for a casual al fresco lunch, perhaps a hearty chili or bratwurst. You can also grab gourmet takeout from the Ferry Building before boarding the boat, like boiled, wood-fired bagel sandwiches from Daily Driver, Jamaican beef patties from Peaches Patties, or a Filipino-Mexican tofu sisig burrito from Señor Sisig.

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