San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in California. And with its array of diverse attractions, it’s a great destination for a family vacation. Especially if you’re traveling with teens who can appreciate all the things to do in San Francisco. From Alcatraz Island to cable cars and the famous Golden Gate Bridge, here are 15 fun things to do in San Francisco with a teenager.
Arguably one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks, Alcatraz Island is a must-do excursion when visiting San Francisco with teens. The infamous prison once housed Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz. Today, it is run by the National Park Service and you can tour the old prison and the island’s grounds.
There is an excellent audio guide that includes memories of former prisoners and guards. The night tour is especially spooky, and offers extras like the slamming of the cell block and access to the prison’s hospital.
Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay and can be reached only via Alcatraz Cruises. The Alcatraz Ferry Terminal is located at Pier 33 on The Embarcadero, and the trip each way takes only about 15 minutes. This is a very popular tour, with tickets sometimes selling out weeks in advance. Make sure to reserve your tickets as soon as you have a date!
Looking for more info on what to do on Alcatraz Island? Read more about Alcatraz here.
2. Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
Biking across the bridge was the thing I was most looking forward to on our trip and it did not disappoint! We took a tour with Unlimited Biking, which is located at Ghirardelli Square. The tour includes lots of stops and photo ops. Plus, it makes such a difference to have a knowledgeable guide along for the ride to point out landmarks and share some interesting facts.
If you’re looking to explore San Francisco by bike, Unlimited Biking makes it a fun and convenient experience. The tour rolls through Fisherman’s Wharf, the Presidio, the Marina, the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field and across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito.
If you are not sure you can handle the ride, have no fear! Bikes with an electric assist for going uphill are available for just a small extra surcharge.
Read More: Best Bay Area Beaches Near San Francisco
3. Visit Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
Follow the sounds of barking sea lions to Pier 39 where you can sail the bay on one of the many water excursions, ride the carousel, shop, dine and more. Enjoy free daily shows by local street performers and musicians or explore a variety of attractions. Yes, it is touristy, but you can’t visit San Francisco without checking out the area! Walk out to the end of the pier for some of the best views of Alcatraz, Angel Island and the bridge.
We chose to ride The Flyer— an attraction on Pier 39 that combines motion seats, live-action and computer-generated imagery to simulate flight and in-theater special effects! Launch over the Golden Gate Bridge, barrel down Coit Tower, zoom through Lombard Street and Chinatown and soar through the Redwood National Forest. To be honest, if you have ever gone on Soarin’ at Epcot or Disney California Adventure you’ll see the similarities right away! But as an intro to San Francisco, it is worth the ride!
4. Ride a Cable Car
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without hopping on a cable car! My son absolutely loved hanging off the side of the cable car – it made some great photos, too! We took the cable cars just about everywhere. Did you know that the San Francisco Cable Cars are the only moving National Monuments in the entire country?
Two of San Francisco’s three cable car lines come into the Fisherman’s Wharf area: the Powell-Hyde and the Powell-Mason lines. Both originate in Union Square. The California line runs the other way, originating in the Financial District. Make sure you look down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world, as you pass. You’ll also get treated to a breathtaking view of the bay!
At $8 per ticket, cable car rides are expensive, so if you plan to use other San Francisco public transit, purchase a Muni passport that provides unlimited access.
5. Aquarium of the Bay
Who says the Aquarium is just for little kids? Teens and adults will love it, too! Located at the foot of Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf, the Aquarium of the Bay is a great stop to spend an hour or two.
The Aquarium’s coolest feature is its 300 feet of clear tunnels. You’ll get a scuba diver’s view as 20,000 of San Francisco Bay’s most amazing animals (including sharks, eels, fish and octopus) swim overhead. There are also daily educator-led animal feedings and interactions, hands-on science experiments, sustainable seafood discussions and more. There are nice views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge from the Aquarium’s outdoor decks. Enjoy them in June, a great time of year to visit San Fran.
6. Hard Rock Cafe
This isn’t an attraction per se, but if your teen is a music-lover like mine, dining at the Hard Rock Café is an experience not to be missed! Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco is located at Fisherman’s Wharf, so it is convenient to pop in for a bite between activities.
In addition to a yummy meal, you’ll experience a one-of-a-kind rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere with over 250 pieces of memorabilia.
The food was fantastic, too! My son had a steak and I enjoyed an amazing steak salad. The salad was huge! Fresh mixed greens tossed in a blue cheese vinaigrette, with pickled red onions, red peppers and Roma tomatoes, finished with crispy shoestring onions and blue cheese crumbles. My son also ordered the Strawberry Basil Lemonade, which looked like a beautiful cocktail but of course was non-alcoholic.
6. Walking Tour in Chinatown
Chinatown is one of San Francisco’s most notable neighborhoods, but often overlooked by travelers visiting San Francisco. However, it’s worth visiting Chinatown, which is actually North America’s first and largest. Of course, the best way to take in Chinatown is on a walking tour. We did it with Walks (as part of its Alcatraz Island Ticket with Chinatown Tour & Cable Car tour). It was such a benefit to be able to explore the streets while hearing back stories and bits of history from a professional tour guide. It made the visit very engaging, especially for my teen who might otherwise not have been very interested. Located next to North Beach and the Financial District, Chinatown is easy to reach on foot or by cable car. Chinatown’s distinct architecture, exotic shops and restaurants, abundant street art and even a fortune cookie factory make it worth a spot on your San Francisco itinerary.
Located in a historic building in the Presidio, the Walt Disney Family Museum honors the remarkable life story of Walt Disney. The museum features 40,000-square-feet of interactive exhibits and galleries detailing the life and legacy of Walt Disney and the company he founded. Enjoy daily screenings of Disney classics, a scale model of Disneyland and contemporary interactive exhibits.
Since we are huge Disney fans, and my teen has been visiting Disneyland since he was a toddler, this museum was a must for us! Highly recommended.
9. Go on a Ghost Tour
Is your teen thrilled by ghost stories and the macabre? Then you will definitely want to take a ghost tour!
Wild SF offers a nightly Haunted San Francisco Ghost Tour through Union Square streets and hotel lobbies. This tour is family friendly and not too scary.
This is not “just a ghost tour.” Rather, this nighttime walking tour includes tales of unexplained deaths, scandalous murders, ruthless cult leaders, famed spirits, serial killers, assassins, the Black Plague and much more.
10. The Dungeon & Madame Tussauds
Located at Fisherman’s Wharf, The Dungeon brings to life stories of the old Bay Area. It features a full theatrical cast, special effects, gripping storytelling, 360-degree sets, an underground boat ride and a drop ride! With its edgy humor and dark winding halls, The San Francisco Dungeon is not your typical visitor attraction!
The Dungeon will take you on a 60-minute journey through nine live-actor shows, from Gold Rush Greed to Gangs of San Francisco to the black trade of “shanghaiing.” To be honest – The Dungeon is a little hard to describe. You just have to experience it for yourself. But I can tell you, teens will love it! It was definitely one of my son’s favorite parts of our trip.
While we were waiting to start our Dungeon experience, we went next door to the world-famous Madame Tussauds wax figure museum. It’s a little pricey and honestly not really my thing, but I do have to admit the artistry is amazing! Some of the wax figures are dead ringers for the stars they represent. What’s awesome is that Madame Tussauds encourages visitors to get up close and personal with the wax figures. So, if you have a selfie-loving teen the photo ops are fun.
11. Boudin Bakery
If San Francisco is synonymous with any one food, it’s sourdough bread. And as someone who never turns down some good carbs (kinda my downfall in life), you better believe we were not visiting San Francisco without a stop at Boudin Bakery Café!
Downstairs is the retail shop where you can buy fresh-baked bread and other treats to go. At the café, order the soup of the day in a sourdough bread bowl or one of the many fresh sandwiches and salads.
We had lunch one day at the Bistro Boudin Restaurant, which is a more upscale eatery located on the café’s upstairs level. My son and I shared a Caesar salad and an amazing sandwich, but honestly the real star of the meal was the basket of fresh bread they bring to the table beforehand.
The other great thing about visiting Boudin’s two-story flagship building is the Museum and Bakery Tour. Located upstairs and totally free to enter, the San Francisco History Museum and Bakery Tour showcases the history of Boudin, along with exhibits on the history of San Francisco. This one-of-a-kind San Francisco history museum also provides wonderful views of Boudin’s legendary bakers at work in the bakery.
12. Go Ice Skating
Want to watch a sporting event? You can catch the MLB Giants at Oracle Park, if you’re in town during baseball season.
But if you’d rather do, than watch, and you’re in town during the holidays, take your teen ice skating!
There are three major rinks in San Francisco:
- The Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center: Located adjacent to the Hyatt Regency and across from San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building, the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center offers views of the Bay Bridge and waterfront.
- T-Mobile Winter Park at Civic Center: This rink debuted in 2018 in the heart of San Francisco. It is the newest seasonal ice skating attraction. Located in Civic Center Plaza, The Winter Park features an ice rink and expanded skating track that weaves through a lighted tree forest.
- The Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square: This is probably the most popular of all the San Francisco Bay Area outdoor ice skating rinks. Families can skate in San Francisco’s iconic plaza beside a gorgeous tree and surrounded by festive lights and the sounds of the holiday season. If you’ve ever visited Rockefeller Center in New York City during the holidays, you’ll definitely get that same vibe in Union Square!
13. Cartoon Art Museum
Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, the Cartoon Art Museum houses nearly 7,000 original pieces of cartoon art, including comic books, graphic novels, anime, political cartoons and much more! Visitors of all ages can view original cartoon art, as well as have fun making their own comics and animations.
14. The Escape Game
Have you ever gone to an Escape Room? It has been on our list of things to try for a while, so when we discovered that San Francisco had an awesome one, we signed right up!
Located in the Financial District, The Escape Game is San Francisco’s #1 escape room and immersive adventure. There are five 60-minute adventures to choose from – Gold Rush, Special Ops, The Heist, Prison Break and Playground. We did the Gold Rush room; it was very challenging and super fun, and gave us a good chance to work together and bond solving problems and decoding the clues.
Since the Escape Game is very challenging and only recommended for ages 13 and older, this is the perfect activity to experience with your teens!
15. The Ferry Building
Opened in 1898 as a train transportation hub, the Ferry Building is now a waterfront farmers market, shopping mall and gourmet food hall. Stroll through the gourmet eateries and shops and take in the building’s historic architecture and the wonderful Bay Bridge views! It’s an excellent place for families to grab a casual meal or even just an ice cream.
Where to Stay
During our visit, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco and it was the perfect hotel for us! Located on the Embarcadero, this waterfront hotel provides easy access to all transportation. In fact, the cable cars, F-line street cars, BART and ferry are all just steps away!
The Hyatt Regency San Francisco has a gorgeous 17-story atrium lobby, fantastic Eclipse Kitchen & Bar restaurant and – if you are so inclined to upgrade – a Club Level that offers breakfast, evening hors d’oeuvres with an honor bar and nighttime desserts. It was great to not only be able to start our day with a quick and convenient continental breakfast, but also end it with a relaxing glass of wine (for me) and hot cocoa (my teen) and cookies overlooking San Francisco Bay.
We stayed in one of the hotel’s new King Water View rooms. These rooms are only 185-square-feet in size and perfect for two people max. The room may sound small, but with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the bay and historic Ferry Building, flexible storage space and a surprisingly spacious bathroom, the size was not an issue for us at all! (Trust me, we’ve taken lots of cruises and this room was grand compared to cruise ship cabins!)
The Hyatt’s Teen Appeal
What makes these rooms even more special for a stay with a teen is that they are chock full of smart technology! The Hyatt’s new rooms include a 65” flat-screen TV (compared to 47” TVs in the hotel’s traditional rooms), Alexa voice-controlled thermostat, lighting, and blackout curtains, Google Chromecast and more! A virtual concierge with streamlined voice command allows you to easily contact room service, the valet or front desk.
As a fun added bonus, these waterfront rooms feature binoculars and a selfie stick to help make the most of the view! For more information on the Hyatt Regency San Francisco or to make a reservation, visit their website at hyatt.com.
Another excellent lodging choice is The Jay Hotel, the old Le Meridien that was recently renovated and reopened.
For more information on planning your trip to San Francisco, check out the San Francisco Travel Association.