San Francisco is a small city, jam-packed full of amazing sights and things to do and see. We loved our time in the city, which is full of history, great neighbourhoods, parks, beaches, museums, and a whole host of entertainment options.
Here are some of our favourite finds, including things we didn’t get time to do but wished we could have squeezed into our trip to San Francisco!
Most of the family-friendly activities and sights we enjoyed in San Francisco were free, though there were a couple of things we splashed out on.
Cable Car Museum
The Cable Car Museum is in Nob Hill and is free to enter! Donations are welcome, and there is a gift shop. You can see some retired cable cars, and learn the history of cable cars in San Francisco. I found the displays of the fare tokens really interesting, especially the various business-produced tokens that were given to employees and guests to use in San Francisco. James, who learned about the Great Fire of London in school recently, enjoyed learning about the earthquake and fire of 1906 that devastated the city and was the beginning of the end for the cable car as the transportation of choice for the people of San Francisco.
All exhibits were accessible and informative, and the smell of the building is fabulous – it’s a working museum as the cables are used to move the cars around the city even today, so there is a real industrial feel to the place.
Read more about the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco on their website.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate, the one-mile-wide strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. There’s a toll to pay if you drive across it, but there’s limited parking on site at the visitor centres – so, click for more information on public transport to the bridge visitor centre. We walked from our hotel near Union Square and caught the bus back. The south side visitor centre has a gift shop, restrooms and STEM activities to learn about the bridge’s structure nearby. The views of the bridge are amazing!
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a gorgeous building near to the marina and on the edge of the Presidio. It was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a historic World’s Fair-style event that put San Francisco back on the map as a major global city after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Today it’s a regular backdrop for wedding photos, and the occasional movie. Spot turtles in the lake, and enjoy the Greek-style colonnades and central rotunda. It’s a unique building and worth a visit.
Golden Gate Park
The Golden Gate Park is a massive place – about 1.5 miles of parkland, playgrounds, lakes, picnic areas and more. For a map of the park, click here. Free street parking is available along Martin Luther King Jr Drive, and if you need to buy a picnic, there’s a Safeway along 31st Ave, which is next to the park entrance. You can enjoy the parklands for free, although there are events, museums and art galleries that you can visit for a fee.
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Japanese Tea Garden
This is one of the places in the Golden Gate Park with an entrance fee (unless you go in before 10 am when it’s free!). It’s a large landscaped area and is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. It is a beautiful, peaceful space. There is a moon bridge, which has a high arch, and when reflected in the pond looks like a circle. Elsewhere in the garden, there are pagodas, stone lanterns, stepping stone paths, native Japanese plants, serene koi ponds and a zen garden. We were lucky to see the cherry blossom trees bloom throughout the garden.
Children’s Playground at Kezar Drive
This playground looks amazing, especially the slides! You need to take cardboard to ride on down the slide (and adults can ride too!). Read more in this post about the Top 5 slides in San Francisco!
I spied this playground from the road (it has an enormous wave structure) while we were driving to the Mosaic Staircase, but we didn’t get to try it out on this trip!
I posted this on Instagram and got loads of messages telling me these stairs were featured in the Netflix series The OA. The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, located at the end of Moraga St. The mosaic, running up 163 steps and completed in 2005, was inspired by the Santa Teresa Steps of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a beautiful place, with gardens maintained by the community on either side of the stairs.
In the Mission area of San Francisco, there are so many cool things to see and do (including the oldest building in San Francisco). We didn’t get to see the famous murals this time but we did have them on the plan! We also missed the pirate store, which we would loved to have visited, but time didn’t allow. Next time…
Paxton Gate is a cool shop, full of curios and interesting things, like taxidermy, books, crystals, plants and so much more. You can browse for a while – check out the dancing mice, the collection of rocks that have been ground into spheres, and the pig foetus in a jar! Not for the squeamish, I guess, but interesting to kids and grown-ups.
Smitten ice cream shop
Nearby to Paxton Gate is Smitten. This is an ice cream shop with a difference – the ice cream is made fresh in front of you thanks to the founder Robyn Sue Fisher, who worked with a retired aerospace engineer to design and build the contraption that freezes ice cream in about 90 seconds (it’s super cool, literally) and churns fresh ice cream that’s free of stabilisers or preservatives. One scoop costs $5.50, so it’s not the cheapest, but I reckon it will be the freshest ice cream you eat, even if you make your own in a bag!
We visited Dolores Park while the Hunky Jesus event was on, which was a fab Easter event in the park! People, mostly wearing amazing costumes, met with their friends, and enjoyed picnics while music played. It was a nice atmosphere. Also in Dolores Park is the wonderful Helen Diller playground, which was renovated a few years ago. It’s got two awesome slides (you can see the view from the top of one above) and we spent quite a while enjoying just those, even though there are several other pieces of equipment in this play park.
Lombard Street crooked section
Lombard Street is actually a really long street – as in most US cities, the streets are set out in a grid formation and the crooked part is a small section. We walked down it and also drove down a couple of times. There are quite a few neat pieces of street art and a small but gorgeous park (not play area) if you turn left at the bottom of the crooked street section of Lombard Street.
Alamo Square is famous for the Painted Ladies houses that appear very frequently in media and mass-market photographs of the city and its tourist attractions. The houses have appeared in an estimated 70 movies, TV programs, and ads, including Mrs Doubtfire and Full House. We drove past, but apparently the done thing is to take a picnic to the park opposite, just like in the opening credits of Full House.
The view from Coit Tower is probably amazing – we were happy enough with the view from the base, as that’s already pretty high! We were there on a weekend when parking isn’t allowed, so we didn’t stop for long. You can get tickets for the elevator and the murals on the ground floor here. Tickets cost $9 per adult, plus an extra $8 for the mural tour and further $5 for the second floor. We didn’t do the tour, so I don’t know if it’s worth all that money.
The Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is out on a jetty. If you walk from Pier 39 area towards the Golden Gate bridge, as we did, you will pass it. The concrete, granite and PVC structure makes different noises as the water interacts with it all. It’s quite a subtle noise, and best heard at high tide. Read more about it and plan your visit here.
Pier 39 is a shopping centre, has some eateries, and is a major tourist attraction. We met Bumblebee and saw street theatre, before heading round to see the sea lions at the end of the pier. There is a seal information centre upstairs from the main sea lion platforms – it’s not well signposted so just head towards the land while moving up any stairs you find! Inside there are children’s craft activities, and you can learn about why the seals visit Pier 39, and see also what is living in the water! We enjoyed the centre, and although it’s not very big, it is free.
This is a huge warehouse full of old fashioned penny machines, which mostly all take a quarter to work. Musee Mecanique is definitely worth a visit, and I recommend you take a bag of quarters with you. Some of the mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines are just astonishing. They play elaborate tunes or fantastical scenes play out in front of you after you drop your coin in. Watch my Instagram stories highlight – San Francisco to see some of the machines we watched.
San Francisco Maritime Museum
We stumbled upon this one due to the boys eating ice cream from Fisherman’s Wharf Ben and Jerry’s. While we waited for them to slurp up, we spotted a museum near the end of the row. Free to explore, this shows life in San Francisco on the water. The museum is well curated and informative. The displays are imaginative and interactive. It is quite small so a visit won’t take very long but the volunteers are interesting and helpful.
Maritime National Historical Park
While we were in San Francisco, we bought an annual pass for the National Parks we were going to visit on the rest of our road trip. The annual pass cost $85, but without it, the entrance at every park costs around $35, so by the end of the holiday it had paid for itself about 5 times over.
The Maritime National Historical Park is included in the annual pass, but otherwise would cost $15 per adult. Children under the age of 15 are free.
You can explore the ships in the harbour, including going under the decks of the tall ships and pretend to drive the tug boat. You can go in the galleys and cabins, too!
You can see Alcatraz from so many places in San Francisco – it’s not massive but the cross streets and touristy areas allow a good view of the island. If you don’t want to spend any money, then maybe a glimpse of Alcatraz is all you need? Otherwise, book well in advance and grab some tickets. Alcatraz Tours is the official seller – you can access their site here – all the others skim some money off the ticket price and charge you more. The boat ride and tour are brilliant – I can recommend this attraction in San Francisco, even though it isn’t free. Via the Cellhouse audio tour, you hear the voices of the prisoners and learn about life incarcerated in Alcatraz.