Whenever anyone asks me for advice about things to do in San Francisco with kids, my mind immediately turns to one thing: ice cream.

Everyone knows about the steep hills, the bone-chilling summer fog, and the wild, yawping barks of wharf-happy sea lions, but when it comes to the simple pleasure of grabbing a cone and taking a break with the kids, San Francisco is the perfect place.

As a resident and stay-at-home dad in the city, I receive frequent requests about things to do in the city with kids. So here are my go-to hits between favorite activities for younger kids and older kids, and for visits when you have just a little bit of time as well as visits when you can explore more. 

But no matter how you’re looking to spend your time in San Francisco, please, I beg you, don’t skip the ice cream. Not only is it delicious pretty much anywhere you choose, it provides the perfect pit-stop between adventures.

So lace up your boots and break out your spoons. Here we go.

Younger kids: Toddlers to 5 or 6

Smitten Ice Cream  This place is crazy for its show-stopping method of making ice cream by the batch using…wait for it…liquid nitrogen. There are a few places around town now tat do this, and it’s worth a stop at any one of them. You order from a small menu of items that change daily, then watch as the makers mix cream and toppings before your eyes and fit the bowl under a mixing machine. Soon enough, a gray, swirling fog begins to cloud up the counters—and a few moments later…voila! Your ice cream is ready. Kids young and old like to watch, and each place has a cool poster that explains the science behind the process. Fun times, yum times.

Yerba Buena Gardens  Nestled amid towering hotels, expansive malls, and crowded convention centers, this place is a gem for younger kids—especially if you’ve just given them a mammoth dose of frozen sugar. There’s a carousel, a bowling alley, an ice skating rink, a children’s museum, and, my favorite, a set of enormous, twisting slides. These things are monsters. Carved from smooth metal and spitting you out onto padded ground, these slides offer a wonderful—and free—break from shopping or downtown tourist hotspots.

The Exploratorium  I always say if you have just one day, make sure this is on your agenda. World famous for its hands-on approach to teaching science, the Exploratorium offers endless experiments that put all your senses to the test. Plus, it recently moved to a larger place along the Embarcadero and offers much, much better food when it’s time for a snack break. I always try to go is just after lunch, when all the younger kids have been taken home for naps and field trip groups begin to wander out. You’ll probably have most of the place to yourself for a few hours, and believe me, when you see the experiments, you’ll appreciate the extra playing time. (I put this in the younger kid category, but it can really bridge any age. We take toddlers to teens here and they all love it and appreciate it for different reasons.)

Older kids: 6 to teens

The Academy of Sciences  Yes, you can take much younger kids, and there are plenty of things to explore, such as the jungle-like butterfly habitat and the expansive aquariums—but over the years I’ve found that the planetarium and mini-nature shows are better suited for older kids. Again, try to plan for after lunch when the crowds tend to move on to other things. You can probably do everything in a half day, as its less hands-on than the Exploratorium. Make sure you catch the great shows in the Planetarium, especially if you have any star-struck visitors with you.

Ice Cream Bar  This is one of our favorites—a real, old-timey soda fountain complete with incredibly nice soda jerks trained in the sciences of ice cream mixology. The ice cream is made in-house and the spices and sugars and potions that line the walls make it worth your while. Ask for anything with a toasted marshmallow, and you’ll get a home-made sample torched right before your eyes. The whole place smells like burnt sugar and deliciousness. From there, it’s a longish walk up from Golden Gate Park and the Haight-Ashbury District—if you’re game to walk off all that sugar.

Stow Lake  In the middle of Golden Gate Park is this quiet, lazy lagoon that wraps around a towering island. You can rent paddle boats and row boats from the concession stand and happily explore the lake for hours, stopping to gaze at a mammoth waterfall or docking on the island to hike to the top for views. Although it seems like a touristy thing to do, Stow Lake is almost always magically uncrowded and offers a wonderful, natural respite from the rushing crowds of museums or downtown. Kids love to steer the boats and ramble over the island. As a plus, the concession stand was recently redone and now offers a wonderful selection of delicious snacks and lunch options. 

Glen Park  As my daughter, 10 now, grows older, we’re finding more joy in natural, wild adventures than standing in lines. So if you want a great escape from the city while not even leaving it, Glen Park is your go-to place for an easy, quick hike. On the outskirts of town past Noe Valley, you can take BART to the Glen Park Station and then walk to the park, which features a few meandering trail loops. Some form a lazy circle while others wander up steep hills and rocky faces. There are lots of lookout points that provide a great place to stop for a packed lunch. In spring kids can play in a trickling creek, and in the fall you can find endless blackberry bushes to snack on. It’s out of the way, but worth it for an off-the-beaten-path look at a city that teems with natural open spaces like this.

Mitchell’s  If all the walking and exploring has you ready for a healthy snack, I have just the place for…ice cream. Even on the coldest, foggiest nights, Mitchell’s Ice Cream in the outer reaches of Noe Valley sports a crowd of people outside. With tickets in hand, everyone’s waiting for flavors you just can’t find anywhere else: sweet purple yam, avocado, young coconut, Halo Halo, and so many more. Yes, you can get all the traditional flavors as well, and they’re delicious—Mitchell’s is an institution because it’s just downright god—but don’t pass up the chance to have Ube, the purple yam. Trust me. I know.

Humphry Slocombe  Speaking of fun flavors, Humphry Slocombe ice cream is our go-to favorite after exploring the Mission and Valencia street with guests. A simple BART trip to the 24th Street Station gives you many options for fun city walks. You can stroll east on 24th for about 10 blocks, sampling the traditional panaderias or taquerias, or just popping into store after store. We like to explore the hipster Valencia Street corridor before circling back on Mission Street and then winding down to Humphry Slocombe for a break. They’ve got flavors like cornflakes and bourbon, bacon, or fois gras. (Fun tip: This is a great walking tour for much older teens who are looking to shop or explore interesting local stores, rather than going to one more museum with dad.)

Fort Point  If you’re standing along the waterfront and look out to sea toward the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll notice on the south side of the bridge an arch that spans an enormous brick building. The arch was created specifically to save Fort Point, a Civil War-era fort that offers a glimpse into the history of San Francisco, complete with munitions and bunk rooms to explore. But the really cool thing? You can explore pretty much all of it: four stories of hidden caverns and secret rooms, a roof that affords some of the best views of the bridge and the city, and an enormous courtyard in the middle. Kids can get lost for hours in this place. 

Other hits to explore:

The new Museum of Modern Art is well worth your time, and you can never go wrong at the Ferry Building, which has been rebuilt into a foodie mecca. It’s crowded, but worth it on farmers market days when you can sample all the goods Northern California has to offer.

And although we avoid Fisherman’s Wharf like the plague, I’m always charmed by the sea lions and a small cup of crab cocktail from one of the sidewalk vendors. It’s crowded and hokey, so we try to find a quick bite and then head off to Aquatic Park nearby to sit and watch the waves.

In the end, San Francisco is packed with great things to do with your kids. But seriously, no matter what adventure you choose, don’t skip the ice cream.

—Mike Adamick
Mike is an author and blogger.