21 Off-the-Beaten-Path Favorites of San Francisco Families

No Pier 39, Union Square or Crooked Street from this local mom. Instead, a long list of Covid excursion-worthy attractions that SF kids and parents love.

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? Read on, and we bet you find at least a few new things to do in the City by the Bay.

*** During the pandemic, be sure to check in advance whether each attraction is open before you make plans. ***


1. Just when San Francisco really needed a reason to be happy, the giant SkyStar Wheel with 1,000,000 colored LED lights—with super-cleaning, CDC-guided protocols as well as climate control—opened in Golden Gate Park. This is the first time an observation wheel of this scale has operated in San Francisco since the park hosted the Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, when the Firth Wheel stood at 120 feet tall. General admission rides are 9–12 minutes and the VIP experience is 20 minutes; $18 per adult and $12 for kids 3–12. While you’re in the park you might as well also visit the bison herd that originally got transplanted here as part of the California Pacific World’s Fair. 


2. 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.


3. Still in the park the fam can go roller skating at the Skatin’ Place. 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 since he relocated from Kansas City to S.F. in 1979.


4. If donning a pair of skates and dancing to a disco beat is a little too intense for you or your kid, check out the biggest playground in Golden Gate Park, Koret Playground, which also has a carousel and a snack bar. The big draw here are the giant concrete slides set into the side of the hill. Grab some cardboard and get ready to swoosh down!

5. 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 grown 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 (pronounced Cle-ment, with the stress on the “ment”) for some of the most authentic Chinese food this side of Shanghai.

6. You can really tire the littles out by exploring the remains of the Sutro Baths, a 3-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.


7. If it happens to be a Sunday in summertime, plan your day around a Stern Grove Festival concert. No word yet whether the 2021 season will go on, but if you have a chance bring a picnic and let your little ones dance the afternoon away to artists like Michael Franti, Kool & the Gang, George Clinton and Parliament, the Doobie Brothers and Sheila E. Best of all: All Stern Grove concerts are free. If it’s near Halloween you can visit Stern Grove in the late afternoon or nighttime for Scaregrove, which typically features a costume contest and parade, haunted houses, carnival rides, food and live entertainment. Admission: $12. 


8. If indoor dining ever returns, have dinner at El Toreador, an authentic Mexican restaurant in West Portal, a quintessential family neighborhood, featuring Xmas 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 excelled in authentic Mexican).

9. Now that you’ve been to West Portal, explore the nearby Glen Park neighborhood, home to Glen Park park, the second-largest S.F. park this side of Golden Gate. Have a hike and see if you can find the fairy house and the rope swing. 


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. See the Golden Gate Bridge from two wheels! For older kids, there are a number of bike rental outfits that specialize in self-guided bridge treks, including Unlimited Biking and Golden Gate Bridge Bike Rentals. Don’t fret, there’s concrete barrier between car traffic and the bike lane. Pro tip: Bike to the Marin side and down into the town of Sausalito. Have a grown-up lunch by the water and bring your bike onto the Sausalito-S.F. ferry.


12. Speaking of the ferry, there’s no better way to see the San Francisco Bay. And there’s really no reason to shell out the bucks for a touristy boat tour. Just board either of the Golden Gate Ferry or Blue and Gold commuter boats (named for the bay-adjacent U.C. Berkeley Golden Bears) and you’ve got your bay tour, kiddos.


13. If your ferry disembarks at Pier 39, and if your kids aren’t tired out yet, bike west past Fisherman’s Wharf (OK, stop for some tourist clam chowder or Dungeness crab if you must) and consider a dip in the bay. Yes, the cold, cold, cold San Francisco Bay. Just past Ghirardelli Square is the Dolphin Club building and right next to that is a tiny beach where you can enter the bay for a quick dip. Kids don’t get cold, right? 

14. After that bucket list item is crossed off, head on down to the Dynamo Donuts kiosk in the Marina on the S.F. Bay Trail. This donutemporium features regular, vegan and gluten-free options, so there’s something for everyone here. 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. (Note: You can also enjoy Dynamo Donuts in the Latinx/hipster Mission neighborhood, so don’t fret if you can’t handle dessert yet. 


15. Now if your ferry disembarks at the Ferry Building downtown, you can hit local artisanal ice cream shop Humphry Slocombe. Adults will probably want to try the S.F. favorite bourbon and cornflakes flavor (the kids might not be so enamored). Of course, there’s also a Humphry Slocum in the Mission.

16. Walk a bit north along the Embarcadero, and you’ll come upon a children’s science and tinkering museum, the Exploratorium. While the Exploratorium is currently closed, the outside “Fog Bridge 72494”  installation pumps water, at high pressure, through more than 800 nozzles, covering visitors in fog daily. At 10:00 a.m., noon, 2:00 and 4:00 p.m.; Thursday evenings at 7:00 p.m.


17. Up one of San Francisco’s nearby ubiquitous hills, check out the Tonga Room at the famed Fairmont Hotel. A report by the City of San Francisco Planning Department called the Tonga Room a historical resource, citing the Polynesian-themed bar’s artificial lagoon, indoor rainstorms and decorative lava rock, the report said: “The Tonga Room exhibits exceptional importance due to its rarity and as one of the best examples of ‘high-style’ tiki bar/restaurant in San Francisco.” Currently closed because of COVID, we hope it will be back soon.  


18. Founded in 1985 and located in the heart of the Castro district, the city’s LGBT Museum is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of LGBTQ history. The permanent collection includes Harvey Milk’s suit, Pride Parade photos throughout the years and archived periodicals from the height of LGBT magazine publishing in the early ’90s. Temporary exhibitions have focused on such subjects as anti-Nazi lesbian artists during World War II as well as activist and intellectual Angela Davis. Currently all visits to the museum must be reserved online in advance; note that admission is free the first Tuesday of every month and children under 12 are always free.

19. Just north of the Castro, on a hill topped by red-colored boulders (it’s a former quarry), is the free Randall Museum where the little ones can say hello to San Francisco native racoon, rabbit, tortoise, lizard, hawk, owl and more. Even though the museum is temporarily closed at the time of this writing, it’s still worth a hike up the hill because of the stunning views and wildflowers in the surrounding Corona Heights wild space. (Note that coyotes are frequently spotted here.) 


20. A bit east, beckons Mission Dolores, founded in 1776 and still an active Catholic Church. Take the kids here for some history and follow it up with a visit to Dolores Park just down the street. The park, home to cannabis-smoking sunbathers the moment the sun breaks through in the city, features one of the best playgrounds in the city. Stand in line for ice cream at Bi-Rite on the northeast side of the park.


21. Finally, no visit to the Mission would be complete without a walk by the stunning murals of Clarion and Balmy Alleys. (Click here to read our route for walking through the Mission.) The murals began in the mid-’80s as an expression of artists’ outrage over human rights and political abuses in Central America. Today the alleys feature murals in myriad styles and subjects from human rights to local gentrification—stories that are more relevant than ever




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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