Inflation is a budget-killer but some of our favorite Bay Area activities for kids are totally free!
Welcome to San Francisco, one of the most beautiful (and most expensive) cities in the world! San Francisco is home to an array of interesting and unique activities, many of which are free (or cost very little). From exploring the Golden Gate Bridge to visiting the world–renowned Fisherman‘s Wharf, there‘s something for everyone to enjoy. Whether you‘re looking for a free outdoor adventure or a fun night out, this guide will provide you with the best free activities in San Francisco (and the East Bay and South Bay as well!). So grab your friends and family, and get ready to explore this incredible area without busting your budget.
Fun Things to Do in San Francisco for Free
1. Walk or Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge: A quintessential activity for Bay Area residents is walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. You can do that from the Marin side at the water level by parking at Fort Baker (near the Bay Area Discovery Museum) and walking the steep climb a mile uphill to get to the bridge. Another alternative is to park at the North Tower Golden Gate Parking lot (or nearby along Conzelman Road if the lot is full). Don’t miss a walk to the Ridge Battery for some of the best views.
RELATED: Check out some more of our Marin family favorites.
2. Visit Wacky Roadside Attractions: If you need to get out of the house and hit the road, these roadside oddities are the perfect destination. How many can you check off?
3. Play in the Presidio: This former military base turned National Recreation Area has a prime location at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and tons of free options you can explore. The visitor center is a great starting point as it will give you all of the area’s history. Then check out Mountain Lake Park or the abandoned batteries at the north end of Baker Beach. If you time your visit right, you can enjoy some eats at the Presidio Picnic (Sun. from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.) that includes food trucks and fun activities like free bike-riding lessons (first Sunday of the month) and cultural dance performances (fourth Sun. of the month).
4. Visit the Sutro Baths: This super-cool spot over at Land’s End offers visitors a glimpse into a past era of San Francisco history. Here you can explore the ruins of the massive indoor baths that burned to the ground in 1966 and then hike the beautiful coastline above. When you are down by the ruins, there’s even a cave to explore! Some of the paths to get down to the ruins are pretty steep but you can view them from above if you wish. The NPS has a great visitor center in the parking lot above the ruins that has photos that show the history of the area. Bonus for hungry hikers: there’s also a cafe and bathrooms inside!
5. Hike to Kirby Cove: For a totally gorgeous walk with the smell of eucalyptus in the air, hike down to Kirby Cove Beach. You can park at the trailhead near Ridge Battery where you’ll find awesome views of the Golden Gate as well as public restrooms. The hike down to Kirby Cove and back is about two miles and most of it is paved. You’ll reach the Kirby Cove Campground at the bottom where you can check out Battery Kirby before you proceed to the beach. Here you’ll find some of the best views of the Golden Gate in town and if you’re lucky you might even spot some whales offshore.
6. Explore Tilden Farm: It’s almost a Bay Area rite of passage for a child’s first introduction to farm animals to take place at the Tilden free farm. Bring lettuce and celery for the ducks, cows, sheep, chickens, and more, and check back every spring to see if there are any new baby animals crawling around. Afterward, the kids can take a ride on the merry-go-round ($3/ride) or the stream train ($3/ride, under 2 are free) and swim in Lake Anza.
7. Splash Down at These Splash Pads: If your crib doesn’t have a pool and your crew wants to cool off, there’s no better way to do it than at a splash pad. You can frolic in the fountains at Stanford (yep, it’s true!) or check out one of these local gems where the water is on!
8. Explore McLaren Bike Park: This gem of a bike park opened in SF’s Excelsior neighborhood and there are plans underway to expand beyond its current footprint. Bring the kids and the helmets to try out the pump track and the skills course. Perfect for mini BMXers looking to increase their skills, the park is open daily from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
9. Go on a Sea Safari: Check the tide schedule and pick a time when the tide is super low before heading out to one of your local tide pools. Kids will love searching for the colorful sea stars, quick-as-lightning minnows, and clunky sea snails. The James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Half Moon Bay is an ideal spot for tide pool novices as they often have docents on the weekends to point out all the critters to the kids.
10. Explore a New Playground: It seems like there are new playgrounds popping up all the time around here. Now is the perfect time to pack up some snacks and set out to explore a new spot in your ‘hood or a new area altogether. Check out this list of 30 of our favorite parks in SF including the brand-new duo of climbing and swinging structures at the Civic Center. Up for exploring an East Bay park? Spend some time at Oakland’s Frog Park or cool off at San Ramon’s Central Park. The Peninsula is home to our very favorite all-abilities playground, Magical Bridge. Or head south to check out the pirate-themed Seven Seas Playground (perfect on a hot day) or one of these other South Bay faves.
11. Tour the City with SF City Guides: Whether you’ve been itching to explore Chinatown or the Palace of Fine Arts, SF City Guides has a tour for you. All of the walking tours are free and you don’t have to reserve a spot in advance, just show up with your kid crew at the meet-up time and you’re off! Tours like the Ferry Building and Market Street are especially stroller friendly, those like Nob Hill and Chinatown have hills that could be more challenging. The majority of the tours offered are kid-friendly, if they are not it will be stated in the tour details.
12. Tour the Nike Missile Site: During the tense years of the Cold War, from 1953 to 1979, the United States Army built and operated close to 300 Nike missile sites in the United States. These sites were designed as the last line of defense against Soviet bombers. Today, volunteers work in partnership with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on the continuous task of restoration at site SF-88L, the only fully restored Nike missile site in the country. This museum is an enduring reminder of the Cold War and allows visitors to reflect upon the realities of the Cold War and their influence on today’s society.
13. Visit Adventure Playground: For kids who are into painting, building, hammering, painting, climbing, jumping, ziplining, getting dirty and running wild, Adventure Playground is one of the few places left in the world just for them. Disclaimer: it’s not recommended for the youngest ones, and nervous and overprotective parents will have a hard time letting their kids work with real saws and nails. But it can be really empowering for kids who are ready.
14. Hikes Galore: With gorgeous weather pretty much year-round, it’s always a good time to head out and explore a new trail. In the spring you can check out all of the local waterfall hikes. Even the youngest walkers will enjoy these hikes that are perfect for them. Or, strap the kids in the stroller and set out on one of these paths that are perfect for stroller hikes.
Free San Francisco Museums
1. Free Admission to Museums & More with Discover and Go: Did you know that you can get free passes to museums, aquariums, zoos, and more, right from your local library? With your library card, you can log in to your library’s Discover and Go website, pick a date and find out what free passes are available to check out that date. Some attractions offer free admission and others are heavily discounted.
You can have up to two active reservations at a time and reservations can be made up to three months in advance. New passes are released on the first of the month (ex. on January 1st, passes for March are released). You can cancel a reservation as long as the pass has not been printed. Some attractions limit you to one pass per calendar year so check out the details when you log in.
2. Visit the de Young and Legion of Honor Museums: While youth 17 and under have always gotten in free to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (which include Golden Gate Park’s de Young as well as the Legion of Honor), these museums have upped their game and added additional free day initiatives. Bay Area residents now get in free every Saturday! The museums also joined the Museums for All program to offer free admission to individuals receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits). They will continue to offer their free first Tues. admission program.
3. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts: Just a short walk from Crissy Field and the Presidio, you’ll love spending the day at the Palace of Fine Arts. There are a few great climbing trees, shade, and lots of wildlife watching. Can you spot the red-eared sliders sunning themselves on the logs? If you are looking for a picnic, we love grabbing a pizza from A 16 and bringing it over here to eat.
4. Hang Out in Golden Gate Park: Whether your idea of fun is joining in a drum circle, enjoying a cascading waterfall, or spending some time walking through a Japanese tea garden, Golden Gate park is the place to be. It has over 1,000 acres to explore. Check out our handy list of all the free and fun things to do in Golden Gate Park.
5. Explore the Batteries: The Marin Headlands house an amazingly-rich history, which you can see if you visit any of the area’s many batteries. While at Cavallo Point, take the cellphone tour of Fort Baker and then head over to check out Battery Yates and Battery Cavallo. All these spots have informational placards that will give you details about how the area was used in the past.
6. Explore the Bay Model: Kids with an interest in science and the environment will love the Bay Model Visitor Center. Constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers to illustrate and understand the water flow of the Bay, this large-scale working model, complete with replicated tides, is a perfect way to expand your kid’s knowledge of water, waves, and beaches. Starting at the northern end and then working the way down to the south bay, then over to the delta, your child can watch the daily tidal changes take place in just a few minutes. Bonus: the boats docked just outside make for even more fun.
More Free Things to Do around the Bay Area
Explore the Ferry Building: This spot along the Embarcadero is a fun spot to visit if you are hungry but also to explore with the kids. They will love checking out the ferries coming and going, playing at Sue Bierman Park across the street and trying to make their way through the Vaillancourt Fountain without getting wet. The San Francisco Railway Museum is always free and the SF fireboat dock just a short distance away.
Sign Up for Your Free Pre-K Pass to Great America: Kids ages 3-5 can get free admission to California's Great America including The Great Pumpkin Fest and WinterFest. Register online and activate at the park. When signing up for the first time you must bring a birth certificate or passport to the park with you to validate your child's birth date.
Free Animal Encounters: Get up close to a giant pig or pet a bearded dragon at your local nature center. We have this list of local nature centers and many of them offer free admission and hours of animal entertainment.