Free Fun in San Francisco

25 free things to do in San Francisco

With so much to do in San Francisco, a visit to this west coast culture hub can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned traveler. From its many neighborhoods, hilltop vistas, foodie spots and beyond, this glorious city is basically the poster child for the United States. Although you can virtually never go wrong with a trip to San Fran, here’s what you’ll definitely want to check off your list. Here are our favorite free things to do with kids in the San Francisco area:

Golden Gate Bridge image

Secrets of Angel Island

Angel Island For thousands of years, Miwok Indians came to the island to catch salmon, the Spanish named the island Isla de Los Angeles, the Russians hunted otters, the Mexicans brought cattle, and between 1910 and 1940 Chinese immigrants were detained here.

This is a great place to hike, bike, picnic, camp, play volleyball, baseball, fish or take a tour to soak in the rich but storied history. There are 13 miles of hiking trails and 8 miles of bike trails.

Angel Island is the largest island in San Francisco Bay, located one mile south of the Tiburon Peninsula. Park Headquarters and the main visitor’s center are in Ayala Cove on the Northside of the Island, accessible by commercial ferries and private boats. See www.angelisland.org for more

Fisherman’s Wharf

If you’re just getting into San Francisco, the famous wharf is a good place to start. Grab a fresh sourdough bread bowl of clam chowder and an Anchor Steam Beer, shop around and enjoy the views of Alcatraz and the bay.

Fishermans Wharf image

 

 

Muir Woods – Enchanting Forest

You don’t always need to trek into the wild to lose yourself in nature. Just 12 miles north of San Francisco you’ll find one of the most extraordinary natural spots on the planet: Muir Woods, which became a national monument 100 years ago.

Muir Woods

Amid its 560 acres of ancient coast redwoods, you might see coho salmon running up Redwood Creek, some 200 varieties of mushrooms emerging after the first rains, or ladybugs clustered on the fronds of a horsetail fern. You can thank philanthropist William Kent for buying and donating the land, and President Teddy Roosevelt for knowing what to do with the gift.

California Academy of Science Museum

The Academy’s recent rebuilding project provided a rare opportunity to rethink the entire museum-going experience. Rather than recreate the 12 separate structures that previously existed, the Academy chose to build a single entity that is physically and thematically intertwined.

California Academy of Science

The animals of the Steinhart Aquarium, for example, once confined to their own hall, are now found throughout the building. And the building, itself, now functions as an exhibit – inviting discussion about sustainable architecture and green practices.

One of the most notable changes to the Academy is simply the growth in its animal and plant population. The new Academy is now home to nearly 40,000 animals, more than six times the number at the old Academy.

Leafy Sea Dragons, Anaconda, Giant Octopuses, Amazonian Piranhas, Borneo fruit bats, Leaf-tailed Geckos, Tortoises, Stick Insects, Doves, Tanagers, Butterflies, and more!

Chocolate Tour of San Francisco

Take a walking tour of San Francisco’s best and famous chocolate eateries. For your own walking tour:

  • Scharffenberger Chocolate Maker – Ferry Building Marketplace, One Ferry Building, Shop #14. 415-981-9150. Better yet, drive to Berkeley to visit their headquarters. www.scharfenberger.com
  • Recchiuti Confections – Ferry Building Marketplace, One Ferry Building, Shop #30. www.recchiuti.com
  • Fog City News – 455 Market Street. www.fogcitynews.com
  • Leonidas Fresh Belgium Chocolates – Crocker Galleria, 50 Post St. www.leonidas.com
  • Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland – 307 Sutter St. www.teuschersf.com
  • Ghirardelli Chocolate Union Square – 44 Stockton St. www.ghirardelli.com

Ghirardelli Square

Did somebody say chocolate? Located across from Fisherman’s Wharf is the original home to Ghirardelli. This might be a touristy stop, but who can resist a free chocolate sample (or two… or three)? Visit each of the three shops around the property to fully satisfy your sweet tooth.

Ghirardelli Square

Fly to the home of flight

At the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Manteo, North Carolina, you and the kids can stand in the exact spot where Orville and Wilbur first flew, see full-scale reproductions of their 1902 glider and 1903 flier, and learn about the brothers through exhibitions, films, and other programs.

wright brothers

Want more? See the original 1903 flier—and thousands of other historic artifacts—at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Or head to the other state that claims rights to the Wrights: Ohio, where the brothers cooked up their flying plans. At Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, you’ll find their original 1905 Flyer III, the only airplane designated a National Historic Landmark. Pretty soon, you’ll be quoting hydrogen balloon inventor Jacques Alexandre Cesar Charles: “I care not what may be the condition of the earth: it is the sky that is for me now.

Parrot Spotting

Explore Telegraph Hill on foot looking for the wild parrot flock that roosts there in all their green and red squawking glory.  Trust me, you can’t miss them.  Meander down the pedestrian-only Filbert Steps, just under Coit Tower.  If you don’t find them there, try the park at Drumm and Clay.

Chinatown

A walk in this iconic SF neighborhood is like stepping into a different world. Enter through the Dragon’s Gate and gaze up at the lanterns strung above the street. If you’re hungry, be sure to stop in to a couple restaurants for some unforgettable dim sum.

Chinatown image

Sea Lions at Pier 39

Skirt around the left side of Pier 39 avoiding the myriad spending opportunities contained therein.  Walk down to the end of the pier, and you’ll find an enormous, vociferous, and pungent colony of California sea lions.

Pug Sunday

On the first Sunday of every month, pug owners from miles around congregate in Alta Plaza Park from 2pm to 4pm.  Even if you don’t appreciate the humor of this only-in-San Francisco event, you’ll like the views of Twin Peaks and Marin County.  There is a nice gated playground here as well.

Haight-Ashbury District

Feeling groovy? Head down to the land of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. One look at the psychedelic flairs all over this part of town, and it’s abundantly clear why it was the center of the 1960s hippie movement. If your nose doesn’t lead you there already, be sure to stop into Ben & Jerry’s (located right on the corner of Haight and Ashbury) for some peace, love and ice cream.

Haight-Ashbury District image

Chinese New Year Parade

A disarmingly small-town event in this big city, the annual parade usually takes place on the first Saturday in February and is free.  Watch for the mayor waving from a convertible, troops of girl scouts marching by, dragon dancers, and Miss Chinatown.  Start out on the corner of Kearney and Bush, and wander over to Union Square when it gets dark.

Crissy Field

Stroll the waterfront here, play on the beach, and take a few photos of the Golden Gate Bridge overhead (it’s compulsory).  It’s a nice and safe place to let the kids off-leash, and the views of Alcatraz and the city skyline are gorgeous.

Sitting at the edge of the Presidio, Crissy Field began as a marsh and seasonal home of Ohlone Indians, and later hosted Spanish and Mexican ships, a Grand Prix raceway, a historic army airfield, and a Coast Guard station. Today, the shoreline provides both indoor and outdoor amenities, including a well-groomed promenade trail, beaches, picnic tables, tidal marsh overlooks, and a renowned windsurfing site, as well as cafés, bookstores, and an environmental education center. Our 3-year-old daughter can spend hours watching the windsurfers, run along the sand amidst all the local dogs, or roll down the hill at the mini-amphitheater near the Warming Hut. It’s always chilly and windy here, so pack layers. Free parking is a piece of cake, right behind the Warming Hut. You can walk along the pier and watch people fishing before picnicking along the shore. The recent renovation of Crissy Field is beautiful. It’s a showstopper, all that nature.

Dolores Park

On a warm day, this is the perfect place to soak up the sun in a hip atmosphere. Not to mention, it’s a great place to people watch! Locals adore this spot for its incredible views of the city.

Dolores Park image

Sea Lions at Pier 39

When we have visitors, Pier 39 is the bane of my existence. It’s hokey, it’s cheesy, it has a fake earthquake zone. But it also has one of the coolest free attractions in town: hundreds and hundreds of loud, barky, pushy sea lions. After the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989,  the sea lions migrated from their previous home at Seal Rock to the docks at Pier 39. Lucky us! You can stand mere feet from them and watch as they fight for primo space on the docks, sun themselves, or take a dip. Man, they are loud. Staff from the Marine Mammal Center’s kiosk, located next to the sea lions, are happy to inform visitors about the animals. Each weekend, weather permitting, the center provides volunteer docents at K-Dock who explain sea lion behaviors and answer visitors’ questions. As frightening a tourist trap as it is, Pier 39 is one of our favorite weekend destinations. Like Crissy Field, the weather can be mercurial. We always have a few sweatshirts tucked into the stroller. Parking is tough (and usually not free), but you can always park in neighboring North Beach and walk over if you are committed to a fully free outing.

Lombard Street

The other day we took Sy to Crissy Field and promised her we’d drive down the illustrious Lombard Street Hill, a.k.a. “the most crooked street in the world,” on the way home. As we twisted and turned down the hill (at a heart-stopping speed of 7 m.p.h.), Sy started squealing and shouting about how we were on our very own rollercoaster ride. The gauntlet had been thrown. My husband threw the car into third gear and told her she ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We took her on her very own roller coaster ride through the hills of Russian Hill and North Beach. I’ve never heard her yell with more excitement and we weren’t even speeding. I wouldn’t suggest this if you are new to San Francisco or driving a rented stick shift, but if you are even a decent hill driver, then buckle up and enjoy the ride. Of course, the price of gas is far from free, but the reaction of your kid will be priceless. Check out our rollercoaster hills route.

Lombard Street image

Take a stroll down the most crooked street in the world. This steep and winding trail is best viewed from the bottom looking up. The Powell-Hyde cable car stops here, in case you want to knock two items off your list at once!

Koret Children’s Quarter in Golden Gate Park

When friends with kids come to visit, this park, the oldest children’s playground in the country, is one of my favorite places to show off. The carousel has been in operation since 1888 and the hill slides will have you back for more.

Little Farm

Tilden Park in nearby Berkeley is a magical place. It has a steam train, an impossibly fast merry-go-round, many acres of parkland and picnic areas and even its own little farm called, conveniently enough, Little Farm. Built in 1955, it features a variety of farm animals including cows, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, and pigs. Several heritage breeds are preserved here, including Milking Shorthorn Cattle. Visitors are welcome to bring lettuce or celery (but nothing else) to feed the residents. The animals are well taken care of and the staff is happy to chat with you. Our little girl is a big fan of the cows. There are gorgeous trails and places to picnic within Tilden Park. You can definitely make a day of it.

Salmon Creek Beach

If you come to California expecting to swim in the beaches in and around San Francisco, you have another thing coming. And that thing is frostbite. Our family enjoys the beaches on the Sonoma Coast even though we know we can’t swim and it’s often not even sunny. Our kids run from the waves, hunt for jellyfish, and make sandcastles. Older kids can learn to surf. Some beaches charge a fee for parking, but Salmon Creek is totally free.

Cline Cellars

Some people think that visiting wine country with kids is inappropriate. I am not one of those people. However, some wineries are better for families than others. Cline, in Sonoma, does a great job of catering to families with a mini bird-zoo, large koi pond, and a fabulous museum with scale models of all the California missions. Admission to the winery and museum is free and they have free wine tastings every day from 10am to 6pm.

Bay Area Discovery Museum

I’ve been to my fair share of children’s museums around the US and I have to admit that I find most of them to be pretty similar. Maybe I’m biased because I’m from the Bay Area, but I think our museum in Sausalito does a great job of teaching kids the great things about Northern California. Plus, you can’t beat the views from the outdoor play area. And you can’t beat the fact that museum admission is free on the first Wednesday of every month.

Marin Cheese Factory

Ever since our boys have been old enough not to run into the duck pond, The Marin Cheese Factory, in Petaluma, has been one of our favorite destinations. The cheese isn’t free (unless you count the free samples), but the tours and picnicking don’t cost a thing. This is also a great place to stop on your way to the beaches in West Marin.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on scenic Highway 1. We love it because of the views and because there’s no entrance fee to the park. There are more rugged trails that we took in our single days, but there are also trails suitable for families. Don’t miss Earthquake Trail where kids can explore the San Andreas Fault Zone.

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