Help Me, I’m Two: Toddler-Sized Fun in San Francisco
San Francisco is plenty of fun for grown-ups, but it can be a great city for kids, too. On behalf of the little ones, here are our picks for guaranteed pint-sized fun in the City by the Bay.
Aquarium of the Bay (Embarcadero and Beach St.)
After a ride on the PIER 39 carousel, a visit with the sea lions and a walk on the musical stairs (created by the same artist who designed the floor piano in the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks), head for Aquarium of the Bay. The tide pool is very toddler/pre-K friendly and the otter exhibit is particularly exciting when Tahoe, Baxter and Ryer are taking a swim. Also highly recommended are the octopus tank and the eelgrass/pipefish tank. If anyone needs a little quiet time, there’s a corner in the Sea Lion Center stocked with books, crayons, and puzzles.
Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St.)
Stroller Tours at the Asian Art Museum are just the ticket for caregivers with babies up to two years old. Offered before the museum opens to the public, the 60-minute, docent-led tours are $25 per adult and are offered the first Friday of every month. Tickets must be purchased in advance. As part of Target first free Sundays each month, the stART tour for ages three to six combines play with stories to introduce Asian culture to early learners and relates these activities to the museum collection. Meet at the information desk between 10:30 and 11 a.m.
California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Dr.)
Located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences is a haven for toddlers, from its light-filled atrium to the kid-sized opening in the Children’s Eel Garden located next to the Philippine Coral Reef Tank. Located on the ground-floor, the Curiosity Grove is home to a colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches and an Eastern box turtle house. Eye-level tanks make observing these animals easier for wee ones. Toddlers are also welcomed at the Discovery Tidepool and are able to touch the starfish, sea urchins and other animals in the tank.
Children’s Creativity Museum (221 Fourth St.)
Perhaps one of the most toddler-friendly museums in the Bay Area, the Children’s Creativity Museum in Yerba Buena offers seasonal programs such as Early Childhood S.T.E.A.M Workshops as well as ongoing Early Explorers activities and experiments every Thursday tied into a monthly theme. Make sure everyone is dressed for a bit of a mess. There are also Bouncy Bears and Mixed Bears musical programs. It's right next to The Moscone Center, so if you are visiting with a family member attending a convention, it's an easy place to meet up.
Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St.)
The staff at the Contemporary Jewish Museum steers families with toddlers to the permanent family play area called the Zim Zoom Family Room. Most of the elements in the room, especially the Light Box Theater, are very toddler-friendly. Puppet shows are on the schedule quite often and are often tied to special holidays such as Rosh Hashanah. Drop-in art studios on the first and second Sundays of the month, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., offer experiences from clay modeling to puppetry that can be modified for wee ones.
de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.)
Adults and children 18 to 36 months are invited to experience works of art together on Toddler Tours at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. After a guided gallery viewing of one or two works of arts, groups then engage in age-appropriate learning and art making in the de Young’s studio space. Strollers are welcome. Morning or afternoon sessions are offered on select Thursdays.
Exploratorium (Pier 15)
While the Exploratorium is geared for visitors of all ages, they offer exhibits that are particularly appealing to toddlers. With color, bubbles, light and shadows these installations get a five-rattle rating from toddlers and younger children. Admission is always free for children ages three and under. If staying outdoors is what's required, you can always take a stroll along the Embarcadero.
Presidio of San Francisco (Visitor Center at 210 Lincoln Blvd.)
Covering a little over five percent of San Francisco, the Presidio of San Francisco is 100 percent kid-friendly, from the drop-in crafts and art workshops at the Presidio Officers’ Club to the Julius Kahn Playground, where toddlers exercise on slides and swings. Families are particularly fond of Off the Grid's Presidio Picnic. From April through early October, Off the Grid offers plenty of food options for the pickiest eaters. If that doesn’t work out, there are nature-based crafts for kids, many of whom will be just as happy scooting up and down the giant red “Presidio Share Chairs.”
There is also a three-mile loop that provides access to the Presidio’s trails no matter what your mode of travel: foot, wheelchair or stroller. The loop showcases the best of the Presidio and includes portions of six trails. Along the way, you'll enjoy gentle slopes and firm surfaces, forest groves, historic buildings and views of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean (with the Golden Gate Bridge in view, naturally).
San Francisco Botanical Garden (1199 Ninth Ave.)
Children four and under enter free at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. This oasis in the middle of Golden Gate Park beckons with bug hunts and garden crafts in the Children’s Garden. Bean Sprouts Family Days from April through October are free with regular admission to all visitors. Activities include watering plants, creating a crazy critter, digging in the dune sandpit or sharing a book in the Living Room. Preschool children and their caregivers are encouraged to stop by the Garden for stories, nature explorations, and crafts in July and August. You’re never too young to start growing a green thumb!
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 Third St.)
SFMOMA has a raft of suggestions for things to do with kids. Wander through Richard Serra’s sculpture “Serra,” which one of Donald and Doris Fisher's sons dubbed the “fourth brother” because it was so beloved by the Fisher family. The gentle movement of mobiles by Alexander Calder on Floor 3 can be mesmerizing and just the tonic for a tired tot. Young ones will also gravitate to the bold colors of paintings by artists such as Josef Albers who watched his father paint doors as a child and was later inspired by the shapes of buildings. When it’s time for a snack, Café 5 on Floor 5 is particularly kid-friendly.
San Francisco Public Library (Multiple locations)
Most any of the day of the week, a branch of the San Francisco Public Library offers “Toddler Tales,” geared to 16 months through age two. With books, rhymes, music and more, the 30-minute story times usually start at approximately 10 a.m.
San Francisco City Guides
While not offered on a scheduled basis, San Francisco City Guides, which offers free walking tours throughout San Francisco, offers a stroller walk in Golden Gate Park. Be sure to check availability; the stroller walk is not regularly scheduled. The tour explores 12 scenic areas of Golden Gate Park and is done in concert with the San Francisco Parks Alliance. This wheel-friendly course is also ideal for seniors and those with mobility impairment. The terrain is generally flat and the tour lasts one hour.
San Francisco Zoo & Gardens (1 Zoo Rd.)
Two words: Little Puffer. Park that stroller and climb aboard this miniature steam train, one of only three 22-inch gauge engines left in the world. Historic records trace the origin of this Zoo treasure to 1904 to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Children under three ride for free when accompanied by an adult. The Zoo also boasts a renovated playground with three distinct play areas. The River Play section is expressly designed for toddlers up to two years old. And, of course, the Children’s Zoo is one of the most popular areas of the Zoo.
Going farther afield during your visit? Here are some fun family-friendly activities nearby:
San Francisco International Airport
The folks at SFO created two Kids’ Spots in Terminals 2 and 3 for tiny travelers to let off steam prior to their flights. Terminal 2’s Kids' Spot is located post-security near Gates 54A and 58B, and features original artworks by Bay Area artists Walter Kitundu and Charles Sowers that operate as interactive learning and play stations. Terminal 3’s play area is located post-security near Gate 87A and features interactive displays of weather elements from the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
Bay Area Discovery Museum (557 McReynolds Rd., Sausalito)
Even if you don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you should bookmark the website for the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. Their Center for Childhood Creativity publishes tips on kid-friendly art projects as well as research on early childhood development. However, if you are in Marin County be sure to visit the Tot Spot & Tot Lot which offers a multi-sensory experience for infants and toddlers under 42 inches, or pick up a snack in the Bean Sprouts Café. Stretch those muscles afterward with a visit to the Play Patio, which encourages large-scale construction using wooden building logs.
Oakland Zoo (9777 Golf Links Rd., Oakland)
Home to more than 700 native and exotic animals, the Oakland Zoo invites guests to follow the animal prints as they meander through the Children’s Zoo. Along the way, watch otters swim and see what it’s like to crawl into a tortoise shell. Hop across the Lily Pad Pond and cross a wooden rope bridge to see lemurs lounging in the sun. A new attraction, the California Trail, includes a four-minute gondola ride up to The Landing Café, where the observation deck offers a six-county view!
Tilden Regional Park
Nestled in the Oakland hills, Tilden Park has long been a favorite of Bay Area families who have fond memories of birthday parties and summer outings here. Some favorites include the Redwood Valley Railway steam train (two and under ride for free), which offers scenic rides through a redwood grove, and the Little Farm, which features a variety of farm animals, including cows, goats, rabbits and pigs. Before you go, stock up on lettuce or celery to feed the animals.