Bordered on three sides by water, San Francisco is a city where most of the best places for families to visit are on the bay or the ocean—whether on a beach, in a boat or at a waterfront attraction.

Play on the bay

The entire six-mile-long waterfront on San Francisco Bay is a succession of family-friendly attractions—from AT&T Park where Giants players smash "splash hits" (home runs) into the bay, to the historic Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Thousands flock to Fisherman's Wharf and adjacent Pier 39, where the Aquarium of the Bay and the Maritime National Historical Park's floating ships are the highlights. A few piers to the south is the Exploratorium, a hands-on museum of science, art and human perception geared towards curious kids. And a slightly longer walk to the north brings you to kite-flying fields, a windsurfing beach and the House of Air—an indoor "adrenaline park" with trampolines and climbing walls for ages as young as 3 to 6.

Cruise in the bay

The waterfront is also where you can depart on any of several boat trips. These include leisurely bay cruises that take you out to the Golden Gate and past Alcatraz, plus one high-speed option (May to October) that kids adore: the RocketBoat, which literally finishes with a splash. The most popular boat ride, however, is the short trip to the notorious prison island, Alcatraz, where tour choices include a self-guided day trip, a guided behind-the-scenes tour, a guided night tour and a combo tour that also stops at Angel Island—where you can hike or take a tram around the large island's perimeter.

Cross the Gate

The best way to cross the world's most photogenic bridge is not by car. It is on the pedestrian pavement on a bike or on foot. Walking across the Golden Gate is easy. Start at the Welcome Centre, take some selfies, then begin the walk. Biking the bridge on your own or with a guided group is nearly as popular, with most rental locations clustered around Fisherman's Wharf (Blazing Saddles alone has six). You start out with three miles of mostly easy pedalling along the bay, then climb to the iconic span, cross it, and continue on down to picturesque Sausalito where you can take a ferry back to the city. The views are constant.

Hit the beach

Ocean Beach is 3.5 miles long and up to two football fields wide, so it is never crowded, and Baker Beach is blessed with a Golden Gate Bridge view. Both are superb for sandcastle building and big-wave watching, though rip currents make swimming perilous. Between these beaches lies the Coastal Trail, a magical three-mile round trip hike that follows a bluff high above crashing waves and the open sea below. Start hiking at the Lands End Lookout Visitor Centre—and check out the Sutro Baths ruins just below. The 100-acre San Francisco Zoo is also an option.

Explore the park

Golden Gate Park stretches four miles from the two restored windmills at Ocean Beach to the middle of the city, but most of its family-friendly delights are walking distance apart. The most impressive of these is the California Academy of Sciences—an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum rolled into one. Tickets are $26-$36 per ticket (free for children under 4), but you can save a great deal by purchasing a CityPASS or GO Card that also includes admission to other top attractions. Close by are rowing boat rentals at Stow Lake, a 1914 carousel and America's oldest public playground.

If you go

United Airlines offers flights to San Francisco International Airport from numerous cities throughout the U.S. and abroad, and MileagePlus® Rewardscan help pay for your car rental and hotel room once you arrive. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your family getaway.