San Francisco: 25 Fun things to do with kids in December

Best family activities for the holiday season in San Francisco!

Giant gingerbread house, Ghirardelli chocolates, glowing museum exhibits, live reindeer, fun food, ice skating, best parks, seasonal events, insider secrets (redwood grove, fairy doors, Angel Island) and more.

Tip: All these activities are accessible with public transportation – cable cars, buses, BART (subway), trams, ferries – use all-in-one Clipper card.

Exploratorium: GLOW

The Exploratorium science and creativity museum is our favorite kids’ museum in San Francisco, and it’s always changing, every time we visit.

Everything in the Exploratorium is hands-on – play with colored shadows, see yourself in a mirror upside down, watch water freeze, make your own creation in the Tinkering Studio, find out what microscopic creatures live in San Francisco Bay, play in the fog bridge, and much more.

Current exhibit: Glow: Discover the Art of Light.

Mesmerizing interactive exhibits – crystal paintings, sound and light experiences, giant moon in the gallery, twirling coils of light.

This museum is fabulous for kids from toddlers to teens, and allow plenty of time to explore the many exhibits. It’s a big noisy place, strollers okay, cafes and lockers on-site.

Exploratorium is located at Pier 15, on the Embarcadero.

Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop

Anyone in the family who loves chocolate, head over to Ghirardelli Square, for ice cream and chocolates, a San Francisco tradition.

Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop was established in 1852. Inside, kids will have fun watching a flowing chocolate wall and rollers of chocolate swirling round and round.

Chocolate shop has a wide selection of chocolates Christmas flavors are fun – gingerbread cookie, peppermint bark, hot cocoa, sugar cookie.

Ghirardelli Square is located at 900 North Point St., Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Fairmont Hotel gingerbread house

The Fairmont Hotel has a lovely Christmas display in he lobby with soaring Christmas tree glowing with lights and ornaments, two story gingerbread house (real gingerbread bricks), toy trains zipping around, snowmen and fluffy white bears (pick your favorite bear).

Holiday Tea with children’s menu – sandwiches, scones, brownies, chocolate “Kingle” cookies. Also, check with the concierge about holiday programs for kids, such as decorating cookies, letter to Santa.

Tip: Ride the California line cable car from Embarcadero up to Nob Hill and the hotel.

California Academy of Sciences

You can easily spend the whole day at Cal Academy in Golden Gate Park.

Museum includes superb aquarium, planetarium, and multi-story rainforest, penguin feedings, and living roof.

Walk up a four-story living Rainforest, passing by blue and yellow macaws, amazing geckos, tomato frog, silk spider, throughout the rainforest are free-flying butterflies.

The aquarium has marine life of California Coast, Twilight Zone (deep ocean), Philippine Coral Reef. On the ground floor, don’t miss “Claude,” white alligator swimming around in his pool.

In December are holiday exhibits where kids can see snow swirling down in the Piazza, learn about animals that live in snowy climates, and pop up programs such as Ice Lab, penguin puppet show, caribou crafts.

Dec. 5 is a special event – “Welcome Winter Night” with magic shows, cookie decorating, snowflake craft, face painting, planetarium stargazing show.

Museum has excellent self-service cafe with fresh made food – sandwiches, pizza, hamburgers, salads, sushi, vegetarian dishes, seating indoors and outdoors, space for kids to run around.

Cal Academy is located in Golden Gate Park.

Ferry Building

Saturday at the Ferry Building is always busy.

Outside the Farmers Market is in full swing, inside the Ferry Building are popular restaurants, cafes and shops with fun food. Golden Gate ferries arrive and depart, carrying passengers to Sausalito and Angel Island.

At this season, vendors have oranges, apples, strawberries, tangerines, dried fruits, locally-made pies, cookies, doughnuts, cheesecakes, fruit tarts, bread, bagels, cheese, nuts, juices and honey.

Inside the Ferry Building are lots of choices for lunch and snacks – sandwiches, tacos, hamburgers, hot dogs, empanadas, crepes, bento boxes, pastries, ice cream, coffee. Tables and benches are available to sit outside.

Saturday Farmers Market is open 8am – 2pm.

Ferry Building is located on The Embarcadero, at Market St.

Swedish Christmas Fair

Fun for the whole family, Christmas crafts, cookie decorating, live music with traditional Swedish nyckelharpa, shop for straw Yule horses and Lucia figurines, enjoy gingerbread cookies, waffles with lingonberry jame and whipped cream, cinnamon rolls, golden saffron buns (lussekatt).

At 10:00am and 1:00pm is the Lucia procession with singing and candles.

Fair is December 2, 9:00am – 3:00pm at Saint Mary’s Cathedral (1111 Gough St.)

Tip: Best way to get there, from Union Square take the 38R bus that goes down Geary St. (cathedral is located on corner of Geary St. and Gough St.)

Chinatown – look for dragons, lions, lucky fish

On a family trip to San Francisco, plan to spend a fun morning in Chinatown.

Wander through side streets looking for dragon and lion murals on walls, lucky fish on the sidewalk, visit one of oldest Chinese temples in United States, shop for souvenirs on Grant St., grab takeout lunch, then eat outdoors at Chinatown parks with kids’ play areas.

Read our blog post: Explore San Francisco Chinatown

Tips for how to get to Chinatown (Central subway), streets to explore, where to find bakeries and shops for takeout lunch and sweets, four favorite parks, all with children’s play areas.

Picnic on Angel Island

Take a very scenic ferry ride, and explore Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

For all the details, read our blog post: Hidden Gem in San Francisco – Angel Island.

How to take the ferry, picnic areas at Ayala Cove, where to get snacks, find restrooms, rent bikes, map of hiking trails.

Green Apple Books

Stop into Green Apple Books, especially when weather is gray or rainy. Children’s book section has a great selection of picture books and chapter books, new and used.

Books are our Friends
Take a look –
Help yourself!
Please put books
Back on the shelf!

On right are storage cubbies with books – feel free to sit down and read a book.

Bookstore is located at 1231 9th Ave., one block from Golden Gate Park.

Boudin Bakery bread animals

The Boudin family has been making sourdough bread in the city since 1849.

At the Boudin Bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf, pick up sourdough bread for your picnic or to eat right now. Bread comes in delightful shapes – crabs, alligators, bears, turtles.

In the demonstration bakery, watch sourdough bread being made.

Cafe also has indoor and outdoor dining, wide variety of sandwiches on sourdough bread, hamburgers, salads, soup in sourdough bowl, family meals.

Boudin at the Wharf is located at 160 Jefferson St.

Lands End hike

One of the most beautiful hikes in San Francisco starts at Lands End Overlook, goes around Lands End to Eagles Point Overlook, scenic stretch of coastline with spectacular views of Golden Gate Bridge.

Trail starts at the Lands End parking lot, it’s about one mile to Eagles Point. Here’s a map.

Kids of any age can start down trail, first half of the trail is wide and level, okay for strollers. Walk as far as you like, views keep changing.

After your hike, stop into Lands End Lookout for snacks, drinks, books and San Francisco souvenirs.

Tip: Best way to get to Lands End, from Union Square take the 38R rapid bus.

Fly kites

Near the Golden Gate Bridge, fly kites at Crissy Field, also at Tunnel Tops Park at the Presidio.

Tunnel Tops is a stellar park with large children’s play area, food trucks, and lots of room to spread out a picnic.

Buy kites at Sports Basement (610 Old Mason Rd.), near Crissy Field and Tunnel Tops Park.

Or if you visit Chinatown, Chinatown Kites on Grant St. has a good selection.


Japantown is a great neighborhood to come for lunch.

Restaurants have steaming ramen, gyoza (dumplings) and sushi. Also try okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) and takoyaki (octopus and vegetables folded in batter, cooked in a special cast iron pan).

For dessert, stop in at Mochill for seasonal mochi donuts. Fun flavors – cinnamon sugar, salted caramel reindeer, blue snowflake (photo), cookies n’ cream, matcha xmas tree, fruity pebbles, milk tea snowman, and more!

Paper Source – Stop into this store to see examples of origami paper folding in very creative shapes – dragons, dinosaurs, birthday cake. Kids can learn to fold origami, plus children’s books and beautiful selection of paper to buy.

Fortune cookies in Chinatown

Ever wondered how fortunes get inside fortune cookies?

Watch fortune cookies being made at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown.

Smell of fresh-baked cookies is delicious! Buy a large bag of cookies, and munch away, your fortunes are sure to be sweet.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is located at 56 Ross Alley.

Pier 39 – Sea lion carousel

Pier 39 is famous for groups of sea lions lolling on wooden platforms above the water. You can’t miss them on the west side of Pier 39, noisily barking away.

At the double-decker carousel on the pier, kids will have fun riding round-and-round on this smiling sea lion.

Behind the carousel are free shows daily – magicians, street performers, jugglers at Smartwater Stage.

Every night from 5pm – 10pm, on the half hour Christmas tree has a light show, synchronized with holiday music.

Balclutha sailing ship

San Francisco is a “city of ships.”

Located at Fisherman’s Wharf, SF Maritime National Historical Park has visitor center museum and historic ships.

At Hyde Street Pier, kids can take a turn the helm of 1886 sailing ship, the Balclutha. Go down into the ship, tour the captain’s comfy quarters and cargo hold. More historic ships – passenger and car rail ferry, ocean-going tug, replicas of colorful Italian fishing boats, 1890’s houseboat.


In free Visitor Center museum, “A Walk Along the Waterfront” exhibit re-creates scenes of historic San Francisco.

SF Maritime NHP Visitor Center is located on 499 Jefferson St. at Fisherman’s Wharf, Hyde Street Pier is across the street from Visitor Center.

Japanese Tea Garden

In Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden, created for the 1894 Exposition, was designed by Makoto Hagiwara who is also credited with invention of the fortune cookie.

Today, explore the garden with a beautiful red pagoda and temple gate, ponds, waterfalls, sunken gardens. Kids will want to go over the Moon Bridge more than once.

See if you can find statues of one deer, two wading birds, four frogs throughout the garden.

At the Tea House are Japanese snacks, sweets, udon, mochi ice cream, hot tea and soft drinks.

Ferry map

For a spectacular (and cheapest) San Francisco Bay cruise – take a ferry ride.

From the Ferry Building, take the Golden Gate Ferry to Sausalito.

On the ferry trip to Sausalito, ferry goes right next to Alcatraz Island, and there are super views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ferries for Sausalito depart from the Ferry Building, Gate B or C.

san francisco ferry ride view golden gate bridge

Asian Art Museum

San Francisco has always had a vibrant Asian community, and visit to Asian Art Museum is a good introduction to arts and culture of Asia.

In museum galleries are Chinese ceramic horses and camels, Bronze Age daggers and bells, guardian lions squishing their enemies, Japanese suits of armor, swords and masks, Javanese puppets, sculptures from Hindu temples in India.

And don’t miss one of our favorites, this 3,000 year old bronze rhinoceros!

Union Square ice skating

A huge Christmas tree soars over Holiday Ice Rink, hop on your skates and take a turn on the ice. Penguin and polar bear “skate helpers” for younger kids, rink is open now until Jan. 15.

Vendors around the square make fun balloon creations, such as reindeer or Santa.

December 18 is Menorah lighting ceremony and music, also kid’s dreidel crafts and entertainment at Union Square.

Salesforce Park Winterfest

Salesforce Park is a stellar rooftop park with children’s play area, free games, art and reading carts, tables and chairs, grass for outdoor picnics.

Free kids programs every Wednesday and Thursday. Wednesday at 10am is family storytime, Toddler Thursday is music and movement for little ones at 10:30am.

Winterfest is December 8 and 9 – free live music, tree lighting, and kid’s activities.

December 8 – 5pm – 7pm – lighting and music in the Main Plaza.
December 9 is Kid’s Day with special story time, face painting, caroling and circus performance.

Salesforce Park is located on top of the Salesforce Transit Center, between 2nd and Beale Streets, Howard and Mission Streets.

Fairy doors – Golden Gate Park

Did you know there are fairy doors in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco?

Fairy doors are miniature doors, set in an opening at base of a tree, or a fallen log. Hinged doors open up – inside are often flowers, or sometimes notes for fairies.

Read our blog post about three fairy doors, and maps to locate each door in the park: Fairy Doors in Golden Gate Park

“Welcome Fairies!”

Ride the cable cars

Riding San Francisco cable cars is always fun, especially in the holiday season.

Two cable car lines, Powell – Hyde and Powell – Mason, go from Powell Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, third line goes on California Street from the Embarcadero up to Nob Hill.

Powell – Hyde line to Fisherman’s Wharf is a favorite, but waiting line at Powell St. on weekends can be quite long. Instead, take the F Tram on Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, then get on the cable car at Hyde and Beach St., next to Ghirardelli Square.

For a shorter cable car ride, but less waiting in line, take the California line at Drumm and Market Streets. This cable car line is a convenient way to get to the Fairmont Hotel to see holiday two story gingerbread house, get off at Powell Street.

More information about schedule and stops on each line: Cable Cars

Tip: Use all-in-one Clipper card to ride the cable cars. Clipper card is good for transportation throughout San Francisco – buses, BART (subway), trams, light rail, ferries, and cable cars.

Heroes Redwood Grove

In Golden Gate Park, next to the Rose Garden is a mini-grove of redwoods.

Take a walk through soaring redwood trees, light filtering through the branches, the busy city seems far away.

Follow the path east, trail ends at JFK Promenade, behind de Young Museum Observation Tower.

To continue this walk, go into de Young Museum, and take elevator up Hamon Observation Tower. (Tower is free.) From the top are panoramic views of Golden Gate park, Golden Gate Bridge and Marin headlands in the distance.

And who knows, perhaps at the holiday season, in the forest is a reindeer and penguin from Cal Academy close by?

Westin St. Francis Hotel sugar castle

Pop into the lobby of the Westin St. Francis hotel on Union Square to see this year’s 12 foot high “Sugar Castle.”

Multi-story castle is decorated with spun sugar trees, a winter village, elves playing, and miniature train carrying candies going round and round.

On Travel for Kids, find detailed information about many more San Francisco fun things to do with kids.

Also Tips for San Francisco, including best hotels for families.