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February 28, 2018

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 is full of things to do, places to go and sights to see that come 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 of 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 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday), the Conservatory of Flowers and the beautifully restored carousel in the Children’s Playground. The first Tuesday of each month, admission charges are waived at the de Young Museum. Four select Sundays are free for all comers at the California Academy of Sciences. On Sundays and holidays, the park is free of cars on Kennedy Drive from 19th Avenue to Stanyan Street, allowing bicyclists and skaters bring their own “vehicles” or rent from a nearby vendor.

2. Museums San Francisco’s family-oriented museums are free at least one day each month and in many cases, always free for children 12 and under.

The Asian Art Museum has created its special Target Sundays family programming. The free admission on the first Sunday of each month features storytelling and yoga sessions. 

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) offers free public access to nearly 45,000 square feet of ground-floor galleries, as well as free admission for visitors 18 and younger. 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 the 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 each year.

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 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. Through the coupling of art, culture and technology, MoAD 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.

The Exploratorium, along the waterfront at Pier 15, is a playground for ideas. 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 Cartoon Art Museum, located on Fisherman's Wharf, is always free for children five and younger. Let the little ones see where their favorite characters began, with a tremendous archive of comic strips, graphic novels, and animated films. Your aspiring artist can even make his or her own cartoon!

The Randall Museum reopened in February 2018 after a $9 million renovation and focuses on exposing children to the wonder of the sciences. It's free and not far from the breathtaking views atop Corona Heights Park.

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 one dating from 1873. The museum is always free and it only takes $7 to ride a cable car.

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), but 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 to's” 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.

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 San Francisco 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; 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; abandoned barracks; and guided walking tours through historic military ruins, artillery batteries and the National Cemetery. 

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 expanses of Crissy Field, located along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay, offer picnic tables, walking paths, and viewing areas. Using the ocean as a classroom is the mission 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 (where many a "Shark Week" documentary has been filmed).

4. Historic Fort Baker Across the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, a series of military fortifications can be found at Fort Baker. Dating back to the 1870s, the brick-built Battery Cavallo is a protected refuge for the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. Other gun batteries were built to replace the old brick-made fortifications, including 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. From Hawk Hill in the autumn one can spot some 20,000 to 40,000 hawks, falcons, eagles and other birds migrate south.

This is also a good time to head to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, a hands-all-over-the-place museum for children and families housed in a complex of historic buildings beneath the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Permanent exhibits include a life-sized shipwreck, a fishing boat that can be boarded, and a simulated tide pool.

5. The San Francisco Zoo and Gardens is Northern California’s largest zoological park, with more than 225 species of animals in naturalistic settings. 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.

6. Yerba Buena Gardens Festival A splendid array of 100 events unfolds from May through October in The Esplanade of Yerba Buena Gardens at 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 circus performances, puppetry and storytelling, and an annual Halloween costume parade.

7. City Guides Walking Tours Locals know the best way to discover the heart of San Francisco is to take a stroll through its 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 along 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.

8. 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?

Two of the newest playgrounds in San Francisco can be found in Dolores Park in the Mission and in Civic Center, right between City Hall and the Asian Art Museum. There is also a new playground in South Park, the neighborhood that gave rise to Twitter.

Other neighborhood playgrounds include the North Beach Playground at Lombard and Mason Streets, Mountain Lake Park at Lake Street and Ninth Avenue, and Nob Hill’s Huntington Park at California and Taylor Streets.

9. Get to Know San Francisco's Sea Lions The most famous residents of San Francisco aren't even human. They're the sea lions who have made their home at PIER 39 for the past 28 years. There's no charge to hang out along the pier, observing them as they bark and swim. There's also the free Sea Lion Center on the pier's upper level, where you can learn more about these boisterous creatures from interactive displays, engaging videos, and friendly experts.

10. Explore PIER 39 Besides the sea lions, there are plenty of free, family-friendly activities at PIER 39. There are always musicians, jugglers, and acrobats performing along the pier. Seasonal events, including fireworks shows and outdoor film screenings, are also free to the public.

Looking for additional ideas? We have a more robust round-up that includes activities that charge admission, as well as one for how to enjoy San Francisco with your toddler.

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