10 Free Things to Do in San Francisco for Families
Worried about how the family can vacation together without breaking the piggy bank? San Francisco abounds with things to do, places to go and sights to see, many at no charge.
1. Golden Gate Park is an oasis for outdoor enthusiasts and one full day is barely enough to explore its 1,017 acres encompassing free-to-the-public meadows, lakes, rose gardens, an arboretum, a rhododendron dell, music concourse, a children’s playground, a buffalo paddock and the tallest artificial waterfall in the West. Nominal admission fees are charged at the Japanese Tea Garden (free from 9 to 10 am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday), the Conservatory of Flowers and the beautifully restored carousel in the Children’s Playground (open on a daily basis from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Friday through Sunday from the day after Labor Day through the day before Memorial Day. Year-round hours for carousel rides are from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). The first Tuesday of each month admission charges are banished at the de Young Museum (see “Museums”). The new design offers twice the exhibition space of the old building and gives the public access to a third of the museum free of charge day in and day out. Four select Sundays are free for all comers at the new California Academy of Sciences. On Sundays and holidays, the park is free of cars on Kennedy Drive from 19th Avenue to Stanyan, when bicyclists and in-line skaters bring their own “vehicles” or rent from a nearby shop or stand.
2. Museums San Francisco’s family-oriented museums are free at least one day each month and in many cases, free always for children 12 and under. The Asian Art Museum has created special Target Sundays family programming. The free admission on the first Sunday of each month features storytelling and yoga sessions each month. On Target First Free Sundays during special exhibitions, the museum often presents films and performances related to the cultural background of the artworks on view.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is open and offers free public acces to nearly 45,000 square feet of ground-floor galleries, as well as free admission for visitors 18 and younger. Presenting dynamic new exhibitions and events post its expansion, the SFMOMA offers educational experiences for the entire family with the looming curves of Richard Serra’s Sequence sculpture (Floor 1, Atrium), the Alexander Calder: Motion Lab (Floor 3), the largest living wall in the United States (Floor 3), and the Photography Interpretive Gallery (Floor 3). The Museum Store offers an amazing selection of kid-friendly items from modern and contemporary art books, innovative design objects, children's books and toys, posters and stationery and more.
Located in Golden Gate Park the California Academy of Sciences' “inside-out” design provides a behind-the-scenes look at aquatic life support systems for the Steinhart Aquarium. Visitors can meet biologists who care for more than 5,000 animals, and — if they’re lucky — can even help them feed the fish. Admission is free on four select Sundays per year.
While there’s some usually pretty serious business going on down below, the rooftop above Moscone Center South on Howard Street is the perfect setting for a lighthearted escape. There’s a playground, carousel, ice skating rink and bowling alley. The western corner is anchored by the Children's Creativity Museum, a multimedia arts and technology museum where kids and families can explore creativity through hands-on programs such as clay animation, video production and more. It’s free for tots two and under.
The face of a child, composed of more than 2,000 photographs submitted from individuals around the world, beckons at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) located at Third and Mission streets. MoAD is a collector of stories and through the coupling of art, culture and technology it is telling the story of the African Diaspora. History comes alive with “first person” narratives, storytelling and poetry events, and living history presentations. MoAD is free for children 12 and under.
At its new location along the waterfront at Pier 15, the Exploratorium is a playground for ideas. In the vanguard of the movement of the “museum as an educational center,” the Exploratorium offers hundreds of interactive exhibits in the areas of science, art and human perception. Admission is free on five select days each year.
The Wells Fargo History Museum in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District takes visitors back to the Gold Rush era with its displays of gold nuggets, rare artifacts, interactive exhibits and a stagecoach that visitors can hop aboard. Always free.
The one-of-a-kind San Francisco Cable Car Museum deserves special attention. In the historic Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse, the site where the cable system has operated since 1907, visitors can view the actual cable winding machinery as it reels 11 miles of steel at a steady pace of nine-and-a-half miles per hour. Antique cable cars are also on display, including the first one dating from 1873. Always free. It only takes $7 to ride a cable car, the only moving national historic landmark in America, to the museum via the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason lines.
Just as the cable car is the United States’ only mobile national landmark, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in Fisherman’s Wharf is its only floating National Park. Home to the world’s largest collection of historic ships, it includes the 1886 square rigger Balclutha, an 1890 ferryboat Eureka and the steam tug Hercules. Admission to board the ships is $10, age 15 and under free when accompanied by an adult; strolling the pier is free. Scheduled events and activities include sea chantey sing-a-longs, birding, tours of the Eureka engine room and crabbin’ “how tos” off Municipal Pier. An enormous Fresnel lens, once used in the Farallon Island lighthouse, marks the entrance of the nearby Visitor Center at the corner of Hyde and Jefferson streets in the 1907 Haslett Warehouse building. Uniformed rangers staff the information desk or one can just simply sail through the fun and interactive panels and displays to learn more about San Francisco’s colorful and diverse maritime heritage..
A project of the San Francisco Fire Department Historical Society, the San Francisco Fire Department Museum displays a collection of vintage equipment including hose tenders and steamers; photographs and memorabilia, especially from the dozens of volunteer fire companies. Always free.
Snuggled up against Potrero Hill, the San Francisco Center for the Book offers free Family Bookmaking Days in addition to exhibits celebrating the book arts. Kids learn the intricacies of pop-ups, accordion folds and discover even a CD case has literary inclinations.
3. The Presidio of San Francisco was once the most important military post on the West Coast. Over the span of 200 years, three flags flew over the base — Spanish, Mexican and American.
The Presidio’s 1,491 acres of prime real estate next to the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay have some of the best views in town. And there’s so much more to experience, including a new museum in the Presidio Officer's Club; miles of hiking trails; signed bike routes; hidden picnic sites with lavish backdrops of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean; eucalyptus and cypress groves; cannons dating from the late 1700s; a pet cemetery (not accessible to public); abandoned barracks where Indian fighters once slept; and guided walking tours through historic military ruins, artillery batteries and the National Cemetery. A 20-page guide to the two-mile Ecology Trail highlights the Presidio’s oldest redwood trees and Inspiration Point and includes pages for children to journal their own experiences. Guides are also available for the Mountain Lake Park area.
Rangers with the National Park Service also lead free tours at Fort Point, a four-tiered brick and granite fortress built between 1853 and 1861, tucked under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The reclaimed wetlands and grassy knolls of Crissy Field, located along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay not far from the Exploratorium, offer picnic tables, walking paths, viewing areas and an energetic schedule of family-friendly activities in the Crissy Field Center. Using the ocean as a classroom is the province of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary visitor center, which guides groups through more than 1,200 miles of open ocean surrounding the Farallon Islands off the Golden Gate.
4. Historic Abandoned Fortifications Across the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, a series of fortifications, some dating to the Civil War era, can be found at Fort Baker and the Marin Headlands. Dating back to the 1870s, the brick-built Battery Cavallo is a protected refuge for the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. Other gun batteries built to replace the old brick-made fortifications, include Battery Spencer, constructed in the 1890s with concrete. Both can be explored without restrictions.
The top of Battery construction Number 129, located on Conzelman Road, is the best place for unobstructed 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, the City and the Golden Gate Bridge. Its tunnels and walls, designed to house cannons measuring 16 inches in diameter, are just the right size for children to crawl through. On Hawk Hill, Wednesdays are “for the birds,” especially in the autumn when some 20,000 to 40,000 hawks, falcons, eagles and other birds migrate south.
A flashlight and serious play clothes are strongly recommended for exploring the tunnels and walkways of these fortifications.
This is also a good time to head to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, a hands-all-over-the-place museum of children and families housed in a complex of historic buildings beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Permanent exhibits include a life-sized shipwreck, a fishing boat that can be boarded, simulated tide pool and a tot spot.
5. Beaches Visitors expecting bikinis and suntan oil will rarely find them at Northern California beaches. The weather and water here are much cooler than in Southern California. They are, nevertheless, blessed with San Francisco’s views and the Pacific’s rolling waves. Due to dangerous undertow, swimming and wading at these beaches is dangerous and strongly discouraged.
Ocean Beach along the western edge of the city features four miles of sandy shoreline waiting to be explored. At the north end of the beach, the historic Cliff House sits high above the shore and is a spectacular viewpoint for observing the powerful Pacific. Nearby is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Visitor Center, stocked with informational pamphlets and maps. Check here for the latest policy on small bonfires, no more than three feet in diameter, which are currently permitted between Lincoln Avenue and Fulton Street; regulations are also posted on www.nps.gov/goga/.
The historic Beach Chalet also houses a visitor center for Golden Gate Park on the first level. Windmills bracket this span of the Great Highway. A four-mile walk down the Ocean Beach Esplanade or a short drive south on the scenic Great Highway leads to Fort Funston. From the wooden observation deck built into the hillside, daring hang-gliders can be seen soaring over the cliffs and sea.
Tucked away behind the million-dollar homes of the Seacliff district is China Beach. The beach is accessible from Seacliff and 28th Avenue, near El Camino del Mar. A game of Frisbee, volleyball or smash-ball is a great way to warm up on this sandy playground.
Baker Beach stretches along the western shore of the Presidio below Lincoln Boulevard. Hikers and sunbathers here are treated to beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands from the ocean side of the peninsula. A word of advance to parents — nude sunbathing is popular at the northern end of the beach as one gets closer to the bridge.
6. The San Francisco Zoo and Gardens is Northern California’s largest zoological park with more than 225 species of animals in naturalistic settings. Highlights include the Grizzly Gulch, Mexican Gray Wolves, African Savanna, Lemur Forest, Meerkats and Prairie Dogs, the Feline Conservation Center, Otter River, Eagle Island, Gorilla World, Penguin Island, Sumatran tigers, African wart hog exhibit and Koala Crossing. The Children’s Zoo gives young folks the thrill of feeding and petting their favorite barnyard animals, and if little legs are starting to weary, the Little Puffer Zoo Train ($5) makes regular circuits of the grounds. The zoo is free on the first Wednesday of every month for San Francisco residents.
7. Yerba Buena Gardens Festival A splendid array of 100 events unfolds from May through October in The Esplanade of Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth and Mission streets. Opera, performance art, international music concerts, dance performances, children’s programs, theatre, visual arts, puppet shows, cultural festivals, special events, classical and jazz concerts — hardly a day passes without something scheduled. This hothouse of culture also includes the annual San Francisco Theater Festival in July, puppetry and storytelling, and an annual Halloween costume parade.
8. Guided City Walking Tours Locals know the best way to discover the heart of San Francisco is to take a stroll through her unique neighborhoods. While self-guided walking tours are easy, ambling with the experts can be even more fun. San Francisco’s historical and architectural highlights, tall tales, and Gold Rush lore unfold at your feet thanks to narrated San Francisco City Guides walking tours. Most walks take one to two hours and reservations are not needed, except for groups of eight or more.
Stroll through the haunts of the original 49ers — the 1849ers — on the "Gold Rush City" tour. Learn the story of the Golden Gate Bridge or meander among the murals of the Mission to experience vivid artwork-covered walls. Kids will enjoy the Fire Department Museum Tour, where they can take a look at San Francisco’s first fire truck and other relics as well as listen to stories of fires gone by. Tours are also offered through the Ferry Building, North Beach, Chinatown, Market Street, the Palace of Fine Arts, Japantown and more. Contact City Guides, 415-557-4266, to discuss which tours are most appropriate for toddlers, school-age kids or teens.
Tours of San Francisco’s majestic City Hall are also offered Monday-Friday at 10 am, noon and 2 pm. Designed by architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and John Bakewell, Jr., it is regarded by many as one of the finest examples of municipal Beaux Arts architecture in the world. Sign up for tours at the information desk on the first floor.
9. 49-Mile Scenic Drive The famous 49-Mile Scenic Drive through San Francisco is dotted with 49 renowned places, such as Civic Center, Chinatown, Twin Peaks, Lake Merced, Mission Dolores, Fisherman’s Wharf and Fort Mason Center. For a break from the road, savor a picnic lunch at Marina Green and watch the weekend yacht races, windsurfing and sail boating. Be sure to look up, too. Master kite flyers practice their craft here with centipede and delta style kites. When summer comes around, Sigmund Stern Grove is the place to go for free concerts on Sunday afternoons. Performers are always top notch and include the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet. Maps outlining the drive are available at the San Francisco Travel Association Visitor Information Centers, 900 Market St. (lower level, Hallidie Plaza at Market and Powell streets, where the Powell Street cable cars turn around) and on the lower level of Macy's Union Square.
10. Playgrounds and Playing Fields Even on vacation, kids sometimes just want to play. So why not take a play break in one of San Francisco’s playgrounds?
While Golden Gate Park’s cherished Children’s Playground, the first children’s playground in a public park in America, is currently being renovated to comply with ADA requirements, there are several other playgrounds within the park: Fulton Playground, J.F. Kennedy Drive at Ninth Avenue; Panhandle Playground, between Oak and Fell streets; and Mother’s Meadow, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive near 19th Avenue.
Other neighborhood playgrounds include the Chinese Recreation Center located at Washington and Mason streets, Portsmouth Square at Kearny and Clay streets, North Beach Playground at Lombard and Mason streets, Mountain Lake at Lake and Ninth avenue, the Rooftop at Moscone Center at Fourth and Howard streets, and Nob Hill’s Huntington Park at California and Taylor streets, and Balboa Park, Ocean and San Jose avenues.
The San Francisco Giants have created some fan-friendly spots at their ballpark, AT&T Park. Located beyond the outfield wall, the Portwalk offers sweeping views of San Francisco Bay and a peek at the game. Fans are encouraged to take in an inning or two and then give way to others. McCovey Point and China Basin Park, directly across from AT&T Park, yields dramatic vistas, picnic areas and even a small baseball diamond. A statue of Willie McCovey, perhaps the most beloved Giant of all, anchors the northeastern portion of the park. A 570-foot-long seat wall features historic markers representing every Giants team from 1958 through 1999.
BEACHES (Swimming and wading is strongly discouraged because of strong currents and undertow.)
Ocean Beach Point Lobos and Great Highway
Chine Beach Twenty-Eighth Avenue and Seacliff
Baker Beach Off Lincoln Boulevard and Twenty-Fifth Avenue in the Presidio
Golden Gate Park Main entrance off Stanyan Street at Fell Maps are available at park headquarters in McLaren Lodge, 501 Stanyan St., Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 415-831-2700
The National Liberty Ship Memorial Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf Free: Children four and under 415-544-0100 www.ssjeremiahobrien.org
San Francisco Center for the Book 375 Rhode Island St. Free: More than 50 free events per year 415-565-0545www.sfcb.org
San Francisco Fire Department Museum 655 Presidio Ave. Free: Always 415-558-3210 www.sffiremuseum.org
San Francisco International Airport -- Aviation Library and Museum Free: Always 650-821-5000 www.flysfo.com
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Hyde Street Pier, one block from Beach Street cable car turnaround Age 15 and under free when accompanied by an adult 415-561-7100 www.maritime.org Visitor Center Hyde and Jefferson streets Free: Always 415-447-5000 www.nps.gov/safr
City Hall 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place Free: Always 415-554-4933 www.sfgov.org
Marin Headlands Information Center From Highway 101, Alexander Avenue Exit, Turn left under 101 overpass 415-331-1540
The Presidio There are several visitor information centers located in the Presidio of San Francisco: www.presidio.gov
Presidio Visitor Center 36 Lincoln Blvd. 415-561-4323 View the Presidio visitor guide for suggested activities; new visitor center will open in February 2017 at the north end of the Parade Grounds.
Crissy Field Center 603 Mason Street at Crissy Field 415-561-7690 www.crissyfield.org Mail inquiries: Crissy Field Center, P.O. Box 29410, San Francisco, CA 94129br>
Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Crissy Field, Building 991 415-561-6625 www.farallones.org Mail inquiries: Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, The Presidio, P.O. Box 29386, San Francisco, CA 94129
Mail can also be directed to: The Presidio Trust, 34 Graham St., P.O. Box 29052, San Francisco, CA 94129-0052, 415-561-5418
Fort Point Lincoln Boulevard to Long Avenue, under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge 415-556-1693 www.nps.gov/fopo/ Free: Always Open Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mail inquiries: Fort Point NHS, Fort Mason, Bldg. 201, San Francisco, CA 94123
San Francisco Botanical Garden Society at Strybing Arboretum Golden Gate Park, Ninth Avenue at Lincoln Way Free: children 4 and under 415-661-1316 www.sfbotanicalgarden.org
San Francisco City Guides Main Library, Civic Center 100 Larkin St. Free: Always 415-557-4266 www.sfcityguides.org
Submarine USS Pampanito Pier 45, Fisherman’s Wharf Free: children age five and under 415-775-1943 www.maritime.org
Sigmund Stern Grove Sloat Boulevard at 19th Avenue Free: Always 415-252-6252 www.sterngrove.org
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in June 2016 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.