One of my family’s favorite places to visit in San Francisco at Pier 39. Yes, the part of the city many locals think is just for visiting tourists is special for East Bay kids, too. We love to visit Pier 39 and Aquarium of the Bay for a fun day trip that’s all about sea creatures and the waters of the Bay.
Experience sea life at Aquarium of the Bay
My kids are all about the ocean. A visit to any aquarium is a perfect day trip to introduce children to the variety of animals that live under the water. Aquarium of the Bay has a plethora of fish, sharks, crustaceans, reptiles, and mammals on display.
Aquarium of the Bay stands out from other options in the area—Monterey Bay Aquarium or Cal Academy of Sciences aquarium—because of its compact layout. You can easily see all the exhibits in about 90 minutes or less. No need to worry about dragging your overtired children through the entire building to see all the exhibits. I often visit on a weekday to avoid crowds and we’re typically just one of a just handful of families on-site.
The aquarium of made up of several rooms and you’ll need to travel up and down an elevator via a one-way path (like Ikea, but much smaller). The designated path makes the exhibits easy to navigate. You’re rarely put in a situation where you need to cross paths with another family to sneak a peek at a fish or shark. Let’s dive in and explore this fun destination that’s perfect for tots, preschoolers, and younger grade schoolers.
Discover the Bay
The Aquarium of the Bay is dedicated to protecting the Bay and its wildlife. It strives to educate visitors about the unique ecosystem in our backyard. The first room is full of local sea life and conservation information. Don’t worry—the informative displays are available to those who want to learn more, but little kids can bypass and go right viewing the fish. You’ll spot bright Garibaldi fish, sneaky Moray eels, chill Rockfish, and feisty crabs in the tanks. Plus, there’s a mesmerizing swimming anchovy display and a fun Megaladon shark jaw replica.
Take the elevator down and enter an area that’s all about jellyfish. This is a great place to linger if your little one has patience because the flowing creatures are so beautiful and peaceful. There are a few varieties of jellyfish, ranging in age, umbrella size, and tentacle length.
Underwater Viewing Tunnel
The underwater viewing tunnels are the main attraction. You’ll be able to have a 180-degree view of two habitats that are similar to the Bay: a near-shore area filled with Rockfish, Starfish, Giant Sea Bass, and Giant Pacific Octopus (which you may see swimming if you’re really lucky); and a display of sharks, rays and sturgeon that live in the deeper waters around Alcatraz. The acrylic tunnel viewing area is 300 feet long and divided by a room featuring a Giant Pacific Octopus, shrimp, and lumpsuckers. My kids love peering into the octopus exhibit via the viewing bubble and watching the short video showcasing the octopus’s masterful hunting skills and all-around intelligence.
If you can’t get enough of the tunnels, you’re welcome to walk through them more than once. Just follow the flow of traffic and start again instead of boarding the back entrance to the elevator. The viewing tunnels may not be ideal for individuals who are claustrophobic. Skip it by going back to the elevators after viewing the jellyfish.
Touch Pools and Bay Lab
Ride the elevator upstairs and walk out to the touch pools and Bay Lab. As the name suggests, this area is all about touching and exploring the various sea creatures. Kids can pat sea life skull replicas, feel the smooth skin of a baby bat ray, or tickle a sea anemone. Staff is on hand to teach children how to safely touch the marine life in the pools. Be aware that the water is a bit cold and deep, plus the baby sharks, skates, and rays aren’t always within reach. Little kids may not be able to feel the animals, but the attempt is part of the fun. There are also a number of land-dwelling animals, including a tortoise, chinchilla, snakes, and frogs, available for viewing.
Older kids can easily move through this area on their own while parents sit back on the handful of benches. Stations for cleaning hands are located in a few areas within the exhibit so you don’t have to run to the restroom to wash little hands after touching a sea star.
Past the second touch pool and down a little ramp is the River Otter Exhibit. These playful creatures run, swim, climb and splash throughout most of the day. Four otters call the aquarium home and they are a joy to watch. Similar to the Oakland Zoo, you can walk all the way around the exhibit to see different elements of their habitat.
After the River Otter exhibit is the gift shop; the restrooms and exit are just beyond the registers. Whether you buy a souvenir or not, I find it always helps to know where the gift shop is located so parents can plan accordingly.
Plan a Day Trip to Aquarium of the Bay
Taking the Ferry and Streetcar
Make it a day trip by taking the ferry into San Francisco. I love traveling via San Francisco Ferry. It’s clean, comfortable, quicker than driving and free to children under 5. There are a handful of East Bay terminals in Oakland, Richmond, and Alameda. Many terminals have free or validated parking for ferry riders. Use your clipper card to skip waiting in the ticket line that’s onboard. Eat a sandwich from home at one of the tables in the cabin or purchase a snack or beverage (the menu includes adult ones!) from the concession stand. If traveling during non-commute hours on a weekday, there will only be a few dozen other passengers on your boat. Giving your family plenty of room to spread out, and gawk at the views of the container ships, tug boats, and city views.
Pro Tip: Schedule your Aquarium of the Bay visit to take advantage of the Short Hop ferry route, which runs on weekends between the Ferry Building and Pier 41, a 5-minute walk to the aquarium.
Historic Streetcar or Famous Cable Cars?
If your child is more into public transportation vehicles on land, catch a ride on the historic F line streetcar down The Embarcadero. It’s a total throwback, but relatively clean and easy to use. I’ve brought an umbrella stroller onto the streetcar, but it’s a tight space and may not be convenient if you’re outnumbered by children. The ride costs $3 per adult if paying with cash or $2.50 when using a clipper card. Kids 18 and younger ride free.
Pier 39 and Nearby Attractions
It’s exciting to incorporate other local attractions along the Fisherman’s Wharf and waterfront into your visit. Shops and attractions on Pier 39 are compelling, but I find them to be largely gimmicky and expensive.
I like to warn my children in advance about what we’ll be buying and doing versus what we’ll just be looking at. My recommendation is to focus on the natural beauty and wildlife whenever possible:
- Say “hi” to the popular California sea lions. They are usually around all year, but you’ll view the greatest number of sea lions from early fall to late spring. There can be anywhere from a few dozen to a couple of hundred animals lounging on the docks. Heads-up that their odor can be overwhelming at first.
- Look for our local landmarks. Walk along the boardwalk along the waterfront to spot the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and Mt. Tamalpais. It’s a great place to be reminded of all the natural beauty in our region.
- Ride the Carousel at Pier 39. It’s located near shops and food stands that can be tempting to kids (looking at you, mini donut shop), so be ready to hear some requests for sweets or souvenirs.
- Seek out the “Sea Lions in San Francisco” statues on display outside the Aquarium of the Bay. These works of art were made to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pier 39 in 2020.
- Find historic large ships. Walk down to Pier 45 to view two WWII vessels: SS Jeremiah O’Brien and the USS Pampanito. You can look from a distance or enter into the historic museum to get a closer look.
- A small tot lot is located next to the aquarium in Plaza de California, but it’s closed for an upgrade as of August 2022.
- Add in another museum. If you’re looking for a double-header, go to the Exploratorium for science-centered fun.
Where to Eat near Fisherman’s Wharf with kids
Grabbing a bite to eat near Aquarium of the Bay can be tricky. Restaurants and snack stands on Pier 39 or the larger Fisherman’s Wharf area can be low quality and expensive. I typically bring food from home or eat at the Ferry Building—all those options are really convenient. But, I do have some favorites close to the aquarium in a pinch. I grab a coffee at the Biscoff Coffee Corner. If we’re visiting with family and making a big day of it, we make early dinner reservations at Scoma’s, an old-school fish house that has a kids’ menu. I’ve also read that Fog City has delicious food despite its tourist trap status. Of course, there are plenty of kid-friendly options not far like In-N-Out Burger and Krispy Krunchy Fried Chicken.
Plan your visit to Aquarium of the Bay & Pier 39
Location: PIER 39, The Embarcadero & Beach St, San Francisco
Getting there: Travel by car, ferry, streetcar, or a combination. We love traveling via ferry from Oakland or Richmond, then taking the historic F line from the Ferry Building to right in front of the aquarium.
Parking: There’s a public parking garage at Pier 35 or street parking along The Embarcadero if you’re willing to walk a bit. Be prepared to pay steep prices and make sure your car doesn’t have any valuables left inside.
Hours: Monday – Sunday: 11:00am – 6:00pm; December 24: 11am – 3pm (Last ticket sold at 2pm); December 25: closed
Prices: Age 3 and under are FREE; Youth (4-12): $19.75 ; Adult (13-64): $29.95; Senior (65+): $24.75. Recommended reserving timed-entry tickets in advance of a weekend or holiday visit. Or become a member if you think you’ll be back a few times a year.
Pro tip: Members of Oakland Zoo or San Francisco Zoo can receive 50% off tickets purchased in person with proof of zoo membership.
Get your tickets >
Food: No food or drinks are sold on site. Bring your own snacks or lunch to enjoy outside on a bench along the pier, or eat at one of the many restaurants in or around Pier 39 (our favorite is Scoma’s), or take the F line down to the Ferry Building for a meal.
The Bottom Line on Aquarium of the Bay
Aquarium of the Bay is a fabulous place to take your young children. I’d say 3-5 is the magic age. It’s small enough to manage multiple kids at once while exploring the exhibits. Plus, I think it’s a great destination to go to with grandparents because, like little kids, they may not be interested in an exhausting day trip. Everyone will be entertained by the beautiful sea life but not overwhelmed by the aquarium’s size. Sure, it’s pricey, but the proximity to the East Bay and zoo membership reciprocity are added bonuses that make a trip worth it. Amp up the excitement by making your voyage to Aquarium of the Bay equally as exciting by taking the ferry or riding on the F line streetcar. This isn’t the Monterey Bay Aquarium so be sure to adjust your expectations down a notch or so.