Top 10 Family Fun Adventures
in San Francisco

the best places to take the kids

article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

1.  Alcatraz Island

Enjoy a short, scenic boat ride over, then wander the prison cell blocks at Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Cruises boats depart from Pier 33, on The Embarcadero betw. Chestnut & Bay sts.  Reservations advised.  Fee. 
After a short, scenic boat ride to this infamous island that served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, visitors follow a self-guided audio tour of the cell block narrated in part by former inmates and guards.  A trivia tidbit is that George Lucas recorded the sound of all the cell doors slamming shut and used that sound to make the sound of the door slamming shut on Darth Vader’s star cruiser.  Now it is run by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area–the largest urban park in the world—and is the most visited landmark in the U.S.  And it is as good as it’s cracked up to be–the boat ride, the tour, and the 360-degree bay view. 

Alcatraz Island viewed beneath moody skies in San Francisco, California
Alcatraz Island viewed beneath moody skies in San Francisco, California

2.  Exploratorium

Have fun and learn about science at the same time at the cavernous Exploratorium.
Pier 15, The Embarcadero.  Fee. 
More than 600 interactive exhibits here are as much fun for adults as for for kids.  Teenage “Explainers” are found throughout, wearing easy-to-see orange vests and wandering the premises ready to assist. 
I recommend walking down the museum’s center, then returning via the corridor down the south side.  And don’t miss the upstairs gallery for a dead-on view of Treasure Island and the bay. 

exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California
exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California

3.  Koret Children’s Quarter playground and antique carousel

Frolic for a while at the Koret Children’s Quarter–the first public playground in a U.S. park–then take a whirl on an adjacent antique carousel.
320 Bowling Green Dr., betw. King & Kennedy drives, E of California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park.  Playground is free. 
Opened in 1888, the country’s first public playground in a U.S. park is today equipped with creative modern play structures.  Nearby, an antique carousel makes its rounds within a protective hippodrome enclosure.  Built in 1914 by Herschel-Spillman and originally powered by steam, it has 62 beautifully painted hand-carved animals–among them lions, tigers, and bears, as well as frogs, a dragon, a camel, a giraffe, and a chicken–plus its original Gebruder band organ. 

Koret Children's Quarter playground in San Francisco, California
Koret Children’s Quarter playground in San Francisco, California

4.  Chinatown

Stroll through Chinatown and stop for lunch in one of the old-time, curtain-enclosed booths at Far East Cafe.
631 Grant Ave./Sacramento St., Chinatown.  Fee at restaurant. 
Looking much as it did when it opened in 1920, this intriguing restaurant has seven private wooden booths with curtains for a door.  These wonderful, cozy enclosures provide the ultimate in privacy.  The extensive a la carte menu includes sizzling rice soup, fried won tons, cashew chicken, deep-fried squab, and a variety of chow mein and chop suey dishes, and the family-style Cantonese dinner is always a good choice.   Exotic shark’s fin, bird’s nest, and seaweed soups are also available.  If you’re lucky, you might see a Lion Dance performed right in front!  As you stroll, don’t forget to select a souvenir.  Favorite items with children include golden dragon-decorated velvet slippers, silk coin purses, and rice candy in edible wrappers.

interior of Far East Cafe in San Francisco's Chinatown
interior of Far East Cafe in San Francisco’s Chinatown

5.  USS Pampanito submarine

Tour the World War II submarine USS Pampanito.  (Though the ships moored at the Hyde Street Pier are also great to explore with children, the pier is scheduled to be rebuilt and will be closed during that time.) 
Pier 45, foot of Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf.  Fee. 
This 312-foot-long World War II submarine built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1943 is credited with sinking six Japanese ships and damaging four others.  She also rescued a group of British and Australian POWs from the South China Sea.  The self-guided tour through her cramped belly and meticulously restored compartments is enhanced with a recorded audio tour that provides narrative by former crew members and helps listeners imagine what it must have been like for men to be cooped up in this small space for months at a time.

USS Pampanito submarine seen above water in San Francisco, California; courtesy of venue
USS Pampanito submarine seen above water in San Francisco, California; courtesy of venue

6.  The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop at Ghirardelli Square 

Stuff yourself with a specialty sundae at The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop at Ghirardelli Square.
900 North Point, in Ghirardelli Square.  Fee. 
A small working chocolate factory using original equipment from the early 1900s still operates for show in the back of this classic ice cream parlor.  All of the chocolate sauces and syrups are made on site, as is the fudge sold in the shop.  After selecting from the mouth-watering menu, ice cream-lovers take a seat and await the fulfillment of their ice cream fantasy.  Special sundae concoctions include the Earthquake, which serves four or more people and consists of eight flavors of ice cream with eight different toppings accented with bananas, whipped cream, chopped almonds, and cherries, and the Alcatraz Rock, available only by request (rocky road and vanilla ice cream covered with a shell of chocolate, chopped almonds, whipped cream, and a whole cherry).  Hot fudge sundaes, sodas, and milkshakes are also available.  Ghirardelli chocolate goodies, including a 5-pound chocolate bar, are sold in an adjoining shop.  This ice cream shop has several outlets around the square, so if the line is too long move on. 

Earthquake Sundae at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, California; courtesy of venue
Earthquake Sundae at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, California; courtesy of venue

7.  Boudin at the Wharf 

Watch the bakers at Boudin at the Wharf make this famous sourdough bread.
160 Jefferson St./Taylor St., Fisherman’s Wharf.  Viewing free.   
After watching the bakers through a sidewalk window, where they sometimes respond to questions via a two-way speaker, visitors can choose enjoy a meal of ever-popular clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, meaty crab cakes, or pizza.  Purchase the perfect souvenir–a loaf of bread in the shape of a darling turtle or alligator. 

baker and child display large crocodile sourdough bread sculpture at Boudin Bakery in San Francisco, California
baker and child display large crocodile sourdough bread sculpture at Boudin Bakery
in San Francisco, California

8.  The Walt Disney Family Museum 

Peek into Disney’s magic-making as you view video clips and plenty of Mickey Mouse collectibles at The Walt Disney Family Museum
104 Montgomery St., in The Presidio.  Fee. 
Three 19th-century brick buildings that were formerly army barracks now house ten galleries devoted to telling the Walt Disney story.  For baby boomers it is a step into the nostalgic past, while for younger people it is more educational and a bit of a history lesson.  As would be expected, creative use of film and video is used and cartoons are shown throughout.  Framed videos mix in with walls of photos, and you’ll pick up a few fascinating factoids, such as that “Snow White” was the first feature-length cartoon, and that “Bambi” was the first to feature only animals.  A “Fantasia”-themed theater shows classic Disney films several times daily at additional charge.  Museum admission is not required to see the special Oscar for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” displayed in the lobby, to browse the well-stocked gift shop, or to patronize the cafe. 

exterior of The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California
exterior of The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California

9.  San Francisco Fire Engine Tour  

Old and young alike will enjoy riding in this fire-engine-red fire engine on the San Francisco Fire Engine Tour.
650 Beach St., Fisherman’s Wharf.  Reservations advised.  Fee. 
This happy, exhilarating 90-minute excursion takes sightseers over the Golden Gate Bridge in a bright-red 1955 Mack fire engine.  Because it can get chilly in the open-air truck, authentic insulated fire-fighter jackets are available for passengers to bundle up in.  Children get a lesson in fire safety through original sing-along songs. 

San Francisco Fire Engine Tour; image courtesy of venue
San Francisco Fire Engine Tour; image courtesy of venue

10.  San Francisco Zoo 

Spend a day at the San Francisco Zoo, which has a special Children’s Zoo and another antique carousel. 
Sloat Blvd./47th Ave., by Great Highway, Outer Sunset.  Fee; parking fee. 
Of special note are the Grizzly Gulch bear exhibit; the ½-acre Gorilla Preserve, which is one of the world’s largest gorilla habitats; the 3-acre African Savanna habitat for giraffes, zebras, and antelope as well as a host of African bird species; and the Lipman Family Lemur Forest featuring species of this endangered primate in the largest outdoor lemur habitat in the U.S.  Also, the zoo’s collection of extremely endangered snow leopards is one of the most successful breeding groups in the world, and the lions and tigers are particularly interesting to visit when they are fed each afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m.–except on Monday, when they fast (this is the only remaining scheduled public feeding of lions and tigers in North America). 
                A separate Children’s Zoo has a petting area with sheep and goats.  Its Insect Zoo is populated with the likes of 6- to 8-inch-long walking sticks and giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and it has a functioning honeybee hive.  And an adjacent butterfly garden features native plants labeled with the type of butterfly they attract.  Kids also especially enjoy the main zoo’s large playground, a recently restored antique carousel built in 1921 by the William Dentzel Carving Company, and the circa 1904 Little Puffer steam train.  The perfect souvenir is a plastic Storybox Key that children can insert in boxes throughout the zoo to hear information about the animals. 

child petting a tarantula at San Francisco Zoo's Children's Zoo; image c Michael Shay, courtesy of venue
child petting a tarantula at San Francisco Zoo’s Children’s Zoo;
image c Michael Shay, courtesy of venue

(www.berkeleyandbeyond2.com; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)