For the last 15 years, I’ve been lucky enough to call the San Francisco Bay Area home. San Francisco is a destination that travelers from all over the world yearn to visit, and all of it is in my backyard. But don’t be too jealous! As great as the city is, I also know firsthand how expensive it can be – one of the priciest in the country. Activities and outings with kids in San Francisco can really add up quickly.
After more than a dozen of my years in San Francisco with at least one child in tow, I’ve learned to find lots of budget-friendly things to do with my kids. Free activities balance out those times we have to pay the big bucks for outings and events. Whether you are a local just looking for something free to entertain your kids on a school holiday or a visitor to the city planning a few days or more to see the sights, here are 25 free things to do in San Francisco with kids. I’ve included a map as well so you can find a few free activities near where you are staying or near other attractions you are visiting.
The 25 Best Free Activities for Families in San Francisco
1. Stroll the Golden Gate Bridge
On a clear day, the views of San Francisco don’t get any better than from the country’s most iconic bridge. Take your children for a walk along the Golden Gate Bridge on the pedestrian path for a true San Francisco experience. Just remember to pack several layers because it can get very cold and windy at those heights over the open water.
2. Observe the Fisherman’s Wharf Sea Lions
The playful animals that have made San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 area home are a must-do with children. No zoo admission required to see animals here – just camp out on the pier and watch them in action. These creatures play, splash, and sometimes even fight, all while hundreds of tourists look on.
3. Visit the Cable Car Museum
Riding a cable car gets expensive, running $8 per person for one way fares in 2021/ But getting an up close and personal look at these transportation marvels is totally free at San Francisco’s Cable Car Museum. Located in Nob Hill along the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines, it’s an easy stop for tourists exploring Union Square, Chinatown, or the surrounding areas.
4. Build a Sand Castle on Ocean Beach
Southern California may have the state’s famous big name beaches, but on days where the fog rolls away, San Francisco has some pretty amazing beaches too. Ocean Beach is part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area (one of the National Parks Service administered areas in the Bay Area) and is popular with surfers. The water is rough and chilly, so stick to the sand activities with little ones.
5. Stroll through Chinatown
Exploring Chinatown’s unique nooks and crannies is a lot of fun for adults and kids alike. Walk through the Chinatown gate on Grant and Bush streets and window shop at the various trinket stores and dim sum restaurants. Should you get hungry, you won’t need to bust your budget to sample the authentic dim sum either. You can truly feast at most of the takeaway shops for just a few dollars. Many of the vendors speak only Cantonese, but just point at whatever looks good (tip: it’s all good!).
6. Spend an Afternoon in Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a quiet oasis in the middle of the bustling city and is also full of kid-friendly activities. While visiting museums like the Academy of Sciences or the de Young is well-worth it, they can also be pretty expensive. For free fun, stroll along the park paths, picnic by one of the park’s two lakes, explore the man-made waterfall, or simply let your kids run wild at the enormous Koret’s Children’s Playground.
7. Hike up to Coit Tower
Ready to tackle an iconic San Francisco hill? It doesn’t get any better than hiking up Telegraph Hill to historic Coit Tower. Everything else at the top of the hill is free (except the elevators to the top of the tower), including some gorgeous murals. You’ll have earned some gelato in neighboring North Beach when you descend.
8. Take in the Smells and Sights of the Ferry Building
The Ferry Building along the waterfront overlooking the Bay Bridge is a foodie’s delight but the delicious sights and smells are fun for kids too. The farmer’s market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays is well worth a visit. Plus, stroll through the gourmet restaurants and shops and enjoy the recently restored historic architecture. At Christmas, the building comes alive with decorations, lights, and a gingerbread house.
9. Zip Down the Seward Street Slides
The Seward Street Slides are a San Francisco secret in the Castro/Eureka Valley area. This is good old fashioned fun that personal injury lawyers love – the slides are extremely fast and not exactly up to modern safety standards. But that’s what makes them awesome! Bring a sheet of cardboard for sliding and supervise (and ideally ride with) younger kids.
10. Picnic Full House-style in Alamo Square
If you are a child of the 1980s like I am, you probably remember well the family from Full House picnicking in front of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco’s Alamo Square in the show’s opening credits. Visiting these Victorian gems is a must-do, so pack a picnic for your own kids and recreate the scene!
11. Hang Out on the Corner of Haight & Ashbury
Play hippie for the day with your kids on the famous corner of Haight & Ashbury where the Summer of Love started. Don’t stick around for too long or your children may inhale a little too much local air, but snap a photo and browse some of the shops for memorabilia.
12. Enjoy the Outdoors at Crissy Field
One of San Francisco’s best green spaces – and best Golden Gate Bridge views when the fog cooperates – is Crissy Field. The field is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Walk, bike, bring a picnic, or watch the kite-surfers and boats on the bay. The Warming Hut on the west end of the field sells snack and other merchandise.
13. Get Dizzy on Lombard Street
The crookedest street in the the world, Lombard Street in Russian Hill, is a can’t-miss for any tourist to San Francisco. Kids love the twists and turns and the gardens along the block are usually breathtaking too. While driving it can be a thrill, lines of cars on weekends back up for blocks, so consider walking it if your time is limited.
14. Window Shop in Union Square
Union Square is the place to shop in San Francisco but it’s also lots of fun for exploring and people watching with kids. During Christmas time, the area is especially fun, with gorgeous decorations adorning the storefronts, a window of adoptable pets from the SPCA, and – of course – Santa visits in Macy’s.
15. Take Advantage of Museum Freebie Days
While many of San Francisco’s most kid-friendly museums are quite pricey, you can save a bundle by scheduling a visit. The de Young Museum is free every first Tuesday of the month and the California Academy of Sciences offers free days to San Francisco area residents (based on zip code – schedule here).
If you are a Bank of America credit or debit card holder, also take advantage of their “Museums on Us” program the first weekend of every month – the de Young Museum, Legion of Honor, and Contemporary Jewish Museum all participate. Of course, crowds can often be quite big on these free days so I suggest arriving at opening time to beat some of the longest lines.
(Editor’s Note for 2021: Some museums may not be offering free days as usual due to capacity restrictions. Check museum websites for the latest as this changes.)
16. Sail Away with the San Francisco Maritime Museum
Hyde Street Pier near Fisherman’s Wharf is home to eight historic sailing ships sure to fascinate any pirate-loving kid. There are a few free ways to experience this attraction.
Because it is run by the National Park Service, 4th graders and their families can access this museum for free as part of the National Park Service’s Every Kid Outdoors program (formerly known as Every Kid in a Park). The NPS also offers several fee-free days every year. Otherwise the museum is $10 for adults and kids 15 and under are free, so you can still do it on the cheap with kids!
17. Be a San Francisco Giant for the Day
The home of the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park offers a kid-friendly fan lot that is open to the public – totally free – even when the team isn’t in town. With slides, a giant baseball glove, and a miniature replica of the stadium for kids to run the bases, it’s a great place to blow off some kid steam for a short visit. (Editor’s Note for 2021: The fan lot is still closed at the moment, but may reopen later this summer.)
18. Take in a Street Festival
Much to the frustration of locals trying to drive, it seems like San Francisco shuts down a few city blocks each weekend to host one of many street festivals. But those festivals bring a lot of neighborhood vitality to the city. Check out the Chinese New Year celebration, the North Beach Festival each summer, the Fillmore Jazz Festival, Fleet Week, and many more that will hopefully be making their returns in 2021!
19. Tour San Francisco’s Majestic City Hall
San Francisco has one of the most beautiful city hall buildings in the world, and it is worth a short visit both inside and out. Older kids may enjoy one of the free tours (offered Monday through Friday at 10:00am, Noon, and 2:00pm, which run about 45 minutes to 1 hour) to learn about the building and San Francisco history. (Editor’s Note for 2021: Tours are currently paused at this time.)
20. Climb a Hidden Stairway
With all of its hills, San Francisco not surprisingly has quite a few secret staircases carved into some of the steepest slopes so that pedestrians can navigate the city. Most famous among them include the Filbert Street steps (leading to Coit Tower from the waterfront), the 16th Avenue Steps (covered in a breathtaking mosaic in the inner Sunset), and the Lyon Street steps (on the east edge of the Presidio). Just beware – these hikes are not for the faint of heart or anyone afraid of heights!
21. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a Greco-Roman structure built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Now a historic landmark with a gorgeous reflecting lagoon, it’s a nice spot to escape the city bustle for a picnic.
22. Geek out on All Things Star Wars
The Presidio in San Francisco is home to LucasFilm’s headquarters and the Letterman Digital Arts Center, created by George Lucas in partnership with the Presidio Trust. If your kid is a Star Wars fan, a visit to the area is well worth it. Snap a shot with the Yoda fountain outside. During regular weekday hours, you can also enter the lobby of LucasFilm to see a Darth Vader statue and other film memorabilia. The area is surrounded by a large park for outdoor playtime too.
23. Take in the View from Twin Peaks
The very best view of the city by the bay can be had from atop Twin Peaks – assuming the fog isn’t blocking the views. There are some short hiking trails to take so you can get views from lots of different angles. Just remember to pack a jacket, as it can be quite windy!
24. Go on a Mission Mural Walk
San Francisco’s Mission District is one of the most vibrant artistic centers of the city, with an amazing collection of murals dotting the urban landscape. Balmy Alley is the neighborhood’s most famous, but also consider a walking tour of others in the neighborhood like Clarion Alley and the recently-restored Carnaval Mural (complete tour of many of the offerings here).
25. Tour the Sutro Baths & Land’s End
The San Francisco Bay Area was once home to several seaside recreational areas and the Sutro Baths were some of the most famous. Now only ruins remain of this once family-friendly swimming establishment near Land’s End and the former Cliff House. Kids will enjoy exploring the ruins (careful with younger ones!) and learning about the baths’ rich history.