Cable cars. Famous hills. The Golden Gate. There are a lot of reasons to visit San Francisco with kids, but it’s also easy to spend a lot of money in the city by the bay. There’s no reason, however, to blow your family travel budget on your next trip. Let a TravelingMom local show you lots of fun and totally free things to do in San Francisco with kids.
San Francisco, California, is one of the most popular family travel destinations in the United States. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive. Hotel prices have surged in recent years. Many attractions that tourists want to visit can really break the bank too.
As a San Francisco local, paying big bucks to entertain my little ones isn’t doable on a regular basis. I’m always on the hunt for cheap (or better yet, free!) things to do with my 7 year old and 2 year old in the city by the bay. Luckily, the city of San Francisco has a lot of world class, family-friendly activities that don’t cost a penny. Here are 10 free and fun things to do in San Francisco with kids on your next Bay Area vacation.
1. Drive or Walk Down Lombard Street
The “crookedest street in the the world,” Lombard Street in Russian Hill, is a must-do for any tourist to San Francisco. Kids especially love the twists and turns. The beautiful flowers and landscaping make it especially alluring for parents and children alike. Lines to drive the street are exceptionally long in the busy summer tourist season – often several blocks – so I actually recommend walking it. You’ll have a more relaxing experience with time to observe the little details of the street.
2. Watch Sea Lions at Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco gets a bit of a bum rap as a tourist trap but it’s also an captivating destination to visit with children. Travelers can easily spend a full day visiting (as well as spending a ton of money), but there are also quite a few things to do in the area that are free. The most interesting of all the free attractions is simply observing the famous sea lions that took up residence on the docks of Pier 39 in 1990 and now rarely ever leave. These creatures play, splash, and sometimes even fight, all while hundreds of tourists look on. It’s an amazing animal encounter that is hard to have in the busy city without visiting a zoo.
3. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge
Wait for the infamous San Francisco fog to subside and head out for a stroll with your children over the country’s most iconic bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge has a protected (albeit narrow) walking path that pedestrians can use to catch a glimpse of the majestic bay views.
4. Visit the Cable Car Museum
The San Francisco cable cars are the most expensive of San Francisco transit to ride ($7 per trip as of summer 2016), but getting an even closer look at them is totally free. The Cable Car Museum in Chinatown along the Powell-Hyde line is an excellent place to get an up close view. Learn a bit about the history of San Francisco’s unique method of transportation while you’re at it.
5. Slide Down the Seward Street Slides
One of San Francisco’s best kept secrets is a pair of concrete slides in the Castro/Eureka Valley neighborhood. This attraction is decidedly for families with older kids as the slides are extremely fast and not exactly up to modern safety standards. But that’s what makes them all the more fun! Bring a sheet of cardboard to slide on or borrow one that is often left by previous visitors.
6. Climb to Coit Tower
San Francisco’s many hills can often be a challenge for family travelers, especially those with young kids. But Telegraph Hill is one hill worth climbing for a visit to historic Coit Tower. Ascending up the elevators within the tower requires paying a small fee, but seeing everything else at the top of the hill and in the tower (including some gorgeous murals) is totally free. Just remember that a baby carrier is a must if you plan to tour with babies and toddlers. This is one hike that isn’t stroller-friendly!
7. Tour Golden Gate Park
Home of some of San Francisco’s best museums and attractions (the de Young, the Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the Conservatory of Flowers), Golden Gate Park is an exceptionally family-friendly destination for travelers to the city. Stroll along the park paths, site by one of the park’s two lakes, look for the man-made waterfall, or simply let your kids run wild at the enormous Koret’s Children’s Playground. While visiting a museum is often a bit pricey, some do offer free days on occasion, so take advantage of those if you find yourself in town on the right day. The Japanese Tea Garden is the easiest to visit for free, as it doesn’t charge admission on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for visitors who come before 10am.
8. Hit the Beach
San Francisco’s often foggy weather means that the city doesn’t quite have the beach reputation that Southern California does. On warmer days, however, the Bay Area beaches are truly glorious. Baker Beach and Ocean Beach are two of the most famous, so pack up the kids and the sand toys for a chance to experience the truly unique Northern California beach scene. When the waves are right, surfers are in abundance to observe too.
9. Picnic Full House-style in Alamo Square
San Francisco’s iconic Painted Ladies are five beautifully maintained historic Victorian homes on Alamo Square. If you grew up in the 1980s, you probably remember the characters from the sitcom Full House picnicking in this spot in the opening credits. Recreate your childhood TV memories with your own kids by bringing some food for a picnic in the park and taking some photos of these San Francisco gems.
10. Be a San Francisco Giant for the Day
Although I happen to be an Oakland A’s fan, it’s hard to deny that the San Francisco Giants have taken the baseball world by storm in recent years with two World Series Championships. San Francisco’s AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, offers a kid-friendly fan lot that is open to the public – totally free – even when the team isn’t in town. The lot offers slides, a giant baseball glove, and a miniature replica of the stadium for kids to run the bases.
Taking a family vacation to the Bay Area? Don’t miss these 10 fun things to do in San Francisco with kids either!