San Francisco in the Outdoors

The city welcomes you back with 21 spots to explore in 2021.

By Maria De La O

San Francisco is one of the most touristed cities in the world, but who says there’s nothing left to discover? Check out these 21 ideas for Covid-safe, mostly free outings around the City by the Bay.

1. Just when San Francisco really needed a reason to be happy, the giant SkyStar Wheel with 1,000,000 colored LED lights arrived to celebrate the 150th birthday of Golden Gate Park. It’s the first time an observation wheel of this scale has operated in the city since 1894, and though the ride ain’t cheap nor long, we love the bright scene the SkyStar brings to the heart of the park.


2. Still in Golden Gate Park, the fam can go roller-skating at the 6th Avenue Skatin’ Place. No wheels? No worries! Just sit and watch the happy rollers. Alternatively, you can try the only other roller-skating venue in the city, the Church of 8 Wheels, located in the erstwhile Sacred Heart Church on Fillmore Street. Both are the brainchildren of David Miles Jr., known to San Franciscans as the Godfather of Skate.


3. Just steps away from the SkyStar Wheel sits the Hamon Observation Tower at the DeYoung Museum. While the museum itself is on the pricey side, the observation tower—probably the most interesting part of the DeYoung for kids anyway—is entirely free. On a clear day, you can see forever. On a foggy day, not so much, but the mood is mesmerizing.


4. Plan to spend several hours at Golden Gate Park’s Koret Playground, which also has a carousel and a snack bar. The big draws here are the tall climbing spire, the wave sculpture, and the giant concrete slides set into the side of the hill. Grab some cardboard (usually piled near the slides) and get ready to swoosh down!


5. There are few views in the city like the one from China Beach. Named for the Chinese fishermen who camped in the cove in the 1800s, the small strand in the tony Sea Cliff neighborhood delivers 180-degrees of views from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands to the Farallon Islands. Today, locals pitch tents for shelter from the wind as kids boogie board, fishermen wade, and sun-lovers bake. If you can find a parking spot, lug your gear down (and back up) the hill for the perfect place to picnic, build a sandcastle, or ship watch.


6. Since you’re on the west side of the city already, take an ice cream break at Toy Boat—not to be confused with the real toy boats that serious men sail at Stowe Lake on the north side of the park. Toy Boat showcases kitschy old-school toys in its parlor as well as a mechanical riding horse. And if it’s time to actually get some nourishment in you, take a stroll down Clement Street for some of the most authentic Chinese food this side of Shanghai.


7. You can really tire the littles out by exploring the remains of the Sutro Baths, a three-acre public bathhouse built in 1894, located where the Presidio meets the Pacific. A freshwater stream meets the ocean here to form a brackish lagoon (when California isn’t experiencing drought conditions), and a few years back San Franciscans crowded the area to spot a wayward river otter named “Sutro Sam” who had taken up residence here, the first otter of its kind seen in the city in half a century. 


8. Explore the Glen Park neighborhood, home to Glen Canyon Park. Have a hike through the eucalyptus trees and into the urban canyon. See if you can find the fairy house!


9. Head south to West Portal and eat at El Toreador, a quintessential family neighborhood haunt, featuring happy parklets, twinkling lights, black-and-white photos of celebrities who have crossed its threshold, and bright, kitschy art. El Toreador serves just about the best Mexican food you’ll find in San Francisco (a city that invented the Mission burrito but really hasn’t ever excelled in authentic Mexican).


10. While you’re somewhat in the area, it’s worth a trip to Cayuga Playground in the far south of the city. The park is a creation of Demetrio Braceros, who worked on the park for more than 20 years. Braceros transformed a barren landscape into a park that features lush vegetation, trails, themed gardens, and, most prominently, over 375 figurines, totem poles, and statues as well as several observation decks, all carved from wood.


11. Fort Funston features 200-foot high sandy bluffs on San Francisco’s southwest coast, where the winds blow reliably wildly. No surprise it is one of the premier hang-gliding spots in the country. A network of trails makes it ideal for hiking and horseback riding. (Dog owners will be happy to know they can take leashes off here.)


12. Spend a day adventuring in McLaren Park, the second-largest park in S.F. (Golden Gate is, of course, the largest.) Miles of trails pass marsh, meadows, redwoods, and lakes on their way to stunning views, including an intimate look at the landmark La Grande Water Tower. Play golf with clubs or discs, ride trails with mountain or BMX bikes, or get in line to test your mettle on the new ropes course.


13. Head to Candlestick Point in the southeast corner of San Francisco to set out on the 17-mile Crosstown Trail. The route connects neighborhoods and open spaces across the city before ending, appropriately, at Land’s End in the northwest corner of the city above Sutro Baths. The route is usable by both pedestrians and bicyclists, and it connects to parks, business districts, residential areas, and public transit. Read more about the Crosstown Trail from the SF Chronicle.


14. The multistory Salesforce Transit Center transforms a commuter hub into an urban destination. With interiors open to the light, it’s a social, open space for people to gather, topped by a leafy park where the sky is the roof. Both kids and parents will love the views, exotic plants, and challenging rope play structure.


15. Opened in September 2020, the seven-acre Crane Cove Park on San Francisco’s Pier 70 includes a multi-purpose lawn, plazas, barbecue areas, and a pocket beach. The park also features pathways for pedestrian and bicycle access, gardens, and historic interpretations of the rich history of Pier 70.


16. Play a round of minigolf and get a history lesson too! Stagecoach Greens draws groups of family and friends to its holes in Mission Bay. Each tee on the “Boom and Bust” course tells the tale of one of San Francisco’s many gold rushes. Just don’t get left behind: Book your tee time well in advance.


17. There’s no better way to see the San Francisco Bay than from the water. And there’s really no reason to shell out the bucks for a touristy boat tour. Just head to the Ferry Building, grab food for your trip (or buy onboard), embark either the Golden Gate Ferry or the Blue and Gold commuter boat, and you’ve got your bay tour, people.


18. Don’t miss a chance to stop at the Dynamo Donuts kiosk in the Marina. This “donutemporium” features regular, vegan and gluten-free options, so there’s something for everyone. With seasonal flavors that include cornmeal rosemary cherry and sweet potato marshmallow along with more pedestrian options like vanilla milk chocolate, you really can’t go wrong.


19. If your kids aren’t tired out yet, stop at the massive Boudin’s for some clam chowder in a bread bowl made from classic SF sourdough (sure it’s touristy, but it’s oh-so-decadent), and consider a dip in the Bay. Yes, the cold, cold, cold San Francisco Bay. Just across from Ghirardelli Square is Aquatic Park’s tiny beach, where you can get your feet wet or dive in for a full-on open water swim with the sea lions. You brought your wetsuit, right?


20.Saved by residents from the wrecking ball after the 1915 Panama Pacific exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts has long been on everyone’s list of favorite SF spots. Though foot traffic has declined since the hands-on science center, the Exploratorium, moved to Pier 15 in 2013, both kids and parents will love strolling around the building’s massive columns, sprawling on its sunny lawn, and Instagramming the entire experience.


21. Perhaps the greatest upside of the pandemic shutdown has been the transformation of the Great Highway into the “Great Walkway.” As part of the Slow Streets Program and Covid response, the city closed the coastal road along Ocean Beach from Golden Gate Park to the San Francisco Zoo in April 2020. Everyone hopes the miles of strolling, skating, dog walking, stroller-pushing, bike-riding heaven alongside the Pacific will never end!



Maria De La O

ROAM Executive Editor


Magazine editor. Documentary filmmaker. Copy expert. Mother. Traveler. Maria brings it all to the pages of ROAM. 

November 2020

© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved


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