I did the San Fran trip about 6 years ago, in the city I didn't have much luck with family photos compared to 1-2 hours North (along coast and Sonoma) and 1-2 hours South (Carmel area). Chinatown is amazing as others have mentioned, but the coastal areas are incredible with the vistas in about any direction.
It is fun to have afternoon sun coming from the water and the rugged coast as a backdrop, lots of kids running towards the waves on shore, and back, etc.
I don't remember where you will be coming from, but a sweater and jacket(s) in No. Cali in August are suggested.
Someone mentioned a children's museum at the Palace of Fine Arts. I think they are referring to the Exploratorium
But it has moved and will soon open at Pier 15 on the waterfront. A great place for kids of all ages, and for adults. Highly recommended, even without seeing the new place. It has been designed by the same firm that did the Monterey Bay Aquarium (another highlight going south), and the Exploratorium people pioneered the whole hands-on science thing, so it should be good.
The Americas Cup sailboat racing is happening this summer. I don't know the schedule. Its main public relations area is right down the waterfront from the Exploratorium, and its main building and piers should be interesting without an actual race. In fact, the actual race days might be a good day to go away from the waterfront!
Then head down to the Ferry Building for some nice food. Maybe keep heading south and catch a ball game at AT&T Park, or maybe they'll be simulcasting the opera with free admission.
I'll agree with others- avoid the Haight Asbury. Tourists and panhandling kids and speed freaks.
And the Fisherman's Wharf area- basically tourist country. If you do end up there, find the energy to keep going west along the waterfront. The Maritime Museum is at Aquatic Park, and the Hyde Street Pier is a collection of great old ships of all types. Go up to the community garden at Fort Mason, then down to the old piers where troops left the US for the Pacific theatre in WWII.
Dolores Park can be a nice afternoon. On the edge of the hipster part of the Mission district. There are some interesting stores on Valencia that would entertain kids. The Dave Eggers literary/art project site at 826 Valencia is worth dropping into- interesting displays, items and books for sale, etc.-
Anyone into pirates needs to visit 826- http://826valencia.org/store/
A few 'curiosity shoppes' with stuffed animals, skulls, bones, etc. further down the street Then head over to 18th Street and Pizzarea Delfina, then get some Bi-Rite ice cream and walk into the park. They recently renovated the playground at the south end- lots of families, musicians, etc. This whole thing- Valencia, Dolores Park, etc.- is a weekend thing for the crowds and energy. Somewhat monocultured, dominated by young techies.
I would suggest avoiding the California Academy of Sciences. Expensive, small, not very kid friendly from what I have observed (I go there and photograph on free days, and notice the lack of engagement by most kids). Well, I'm just one person. If you are thinking of dropping a couple hundred bucks to go there, do some research and see what others have said.
Angel Island is worth a visit. A ferry ride to it, then continue to Tiburon and eat at one of the waterfront restaurants. Then the ferry back to SF. Among other things, Angel Island was a major entrance point for immigrants from Asia.
Sausalito is another tourist trap, especially on weekends.
Try not to wear shorts. If you plan to move more than five three blocks in one day, you will most likely end up in cold wind. Carry clothes for 50 degrees F and fog, no matter what it looks like when you head out.
Oh, photographing people: almost no one cares. The only problems I have had are with street kids who see every encounter as a chance to hustle some money, and older Asian street people (not certain of the reason but am pretty certain it includes Chinese for 'fu** you' and other bodily manipulations). So many tourists, so many people using phones to post every other minute to instagram, just be aware, be ready to smile. And if you are shooting film, be ready to discuss your camera, films, etc....
Oh yeah, speaking of film, there's a nice store in the Lower Haight area, Glass Key Photo. Facebook page only, but worth a visit if you get nearby. Near to Alamo Square and the 'Painted Ladies' houses, near Memphis Minnie's BBQ joint, Rookie Ricoardo's Record Store, Upper Playground if any of the kids like skateboards or street art...
Oh, don't forget Pier 24!!! Fantastic museum devoted exclusively to photography, and it's FREE! Go on their website and book a time slot for visiting. You get a 2-hour time slot to peruse the exhibits at your leisure. It's one of the most interesting photography museum experiences you'll have.
And if you're into motorsports, Laguna Seca isn't far from Carmel.
Exploring the old defense batteries along Lincoln Avenue is fun, as is walking along The Embarcadero on your way to Pier 24. You can also walk out on Pier 1 and get dramatic shots of the ferry building with the city behind it, especially at night.
One of my favorite parts of SF are the Greenwich Street Stairs and Filbert Street Stairs that are right across from Levi's Plaza on Sansome Street. They both lead up to Coit Tower and the houses and gardens along the way are very nice. Also great views as you ascend/descend. It is a bit of climb so if you or the kids aren't up to the challenge it might be better starting from Coit Tower and walking down. Plus Levi's Plaza isn't too far off from the Embarcadero and Pier 39.
Also the Bay Bridge is now lighted up with thousands of LEDs that will be there until 2015. Here is a website about it.
Be ready to suffer thru some of the most frustrating times, going around and around and around while trying to find parking spaces on the street.
Be ready to suffer thru some of the most expensive times, parking both on city streets and in public and private lots and garages.
And be ready to suffer
•Parts of San Francisco have meters which need $2 per hour, and need to be fed hour after hour or high risk of a parking ticket.
•In some places, 'demand based' parking fees at meters can result in $6 per hour meter rates.
•If you arrive before 8am, the meters will SEEM to be dead and therefore seem to be 'free'; but if you park there and fortunately come back at 8am, they will suddenly have woken up...so if you park at 730am and the meter reader comes at 8:15am and you failed to feed the meter at 8:01am, you will have a parking ticket!
•If you park on the street at certain locations, you need to have a local resident parking sticker, or you will receive a parking ticket after 2 hours.
•If you park on the street at certain locations, you might end up with a parking ticket because that side of the street is supposed to be clear on that day in order for street sweeping!
•Certain streets become tow-away zones at peak commute hours.
Take public transit to the popular spots, you'll thank me for saving you money and aggravation! You'll spend $5 merely on bridge toll and another $4 in gas, driving in on congested bridge and highways and around and around finding a parking place. And then feeding the lot or the meter quarters. $25 for three hours in a lot is not unheard of. Or, BART or AC Transit buses into SF from Oakland, and Muni buses and underground streetcars around SF.
Look into a Muni Passport, $27 for 7 days; buy at Passport vendors (listed on line). Or $69 CityPass also gets Muni access and you get into five different attractions. Buy on line.
Lots of very scenic places quite close, less than 1 hour drive!
Belvedere and Tiburon and Sausalito and Marin Headlands, all looking back toward SF
Stinson Beach, Muir Woods, Mount Tamalpais, Muir Beach
Point Reyes, Bolinas, Tomales Bay
Bodega Bay (1.5 hr north of SF)
Angel Island, Alcatraz, Treasure Island (all are interesting and have views of SF)
Of course, there are the wine growing areas in Sonoma and Napa countries
And just south of SF:
Fort Funston area with hang gliding off ocean cliffs in the SW corner of SF
Kite boarding and wind surfing to the immediate north of Coyote Point (30 miles south of SF)
Hwy 1 coastside, including Pacifica surfing (15 min outside SF), Half Moon Bay (30 min), Santa Cruz (1 hr)
- Along the entire northern shore of San Francisco...
Palace of Legion of Honor
the former Presidio
Palace of Fine Arts
- Golden Gate Park
Asian Art Museum
Japanese Tea Garden
Windmills (near Ocean Beach)
- Inside San Francisco
Outside San Francisco (within 15 miles)
USS Midway (Alameda)...famous aircraft carrier, now air musuem
Marin headlands overlooking GG Bridge and SF skyline
Thanks for all the tips and location guys.