You don’t have to break the bank to make the most out of your Bay Area day. This list will give you tons of ideas for free and nearly-free activities that the kids will love. Tour a new part of the city with a guide, check out a new museum or meet some friendly farm animals. There’s so much to explore!
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.
Vist the deYoungsters Studio
Kids break dancing against a laser-light backdrop, toddlers finger painting without making any mess at all and tiny artists admiring their sculptures displayed among blue chip masterpieces—all this and more happens inside the brand new de Youngsters Studio, an interactive (and always FREE) play space and gallery at the de Young Museum. Read all about it here.
de Youngsters Studio
de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco
Hours: ., 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.
Cost: Admission to the deYoungsters Studio is free of charge
Scoot on Over to 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!
Visit the de Young and Legion of Honor for Free
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 recently upped their game and added additional free day initiatives. San Francisco residents now get in free every Saturday! The museums also joined the Museums for All program to offer free admission to individuals with disabilities. They will continue to offer their free first Tuesday admission program.
Get in Free to Museums and 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.
Meet the Marine Mammals in Sausalito
Head over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito where you can meet the marine mammals who are receiving treatment at the Marine Mammal Center. This educational center always has free admission and is a great way for kids to learn how to protect our delicate ecosystem. You can explore on your own or join a docent-led tour for more in-depth information ($9/adults, $5/seniors and kids 5 and up, under 5 are free). Visit on the second or fourth Sunday of the month and you'll be in for an extra-special treat—Marine Science Sunday, which is an engaging ocean-inspired classroom series from education experts.
The Marine Mammal Center
2000 Bunker Road
Root for the home team (while they are away)
Attention little sluggers: when the Giants are away, you can play! When the SF baseball team is on the road, the Fan Lot is open to the public (and it’s always free for ticket holders to visit during games). Along with a great view of the field, there’s a superslide to whiz down, a fun photo booth, a giant baseball glove, and a mini-replica of the ball park so kids can practice their steals and slides.
2 Willie Mays Plaza
San Francisco, CA
Hours: June-August, daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (when Giants are on the road), Sept.-May, Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Spend some time in Golden Gate Park
Whether your idea of fun is joining in a drum circle, enjoying a cascading waterfall or spending some time walking trough a Japanese tea garden, Golden Gate park is the place to be. It has over 1,000 acres to explore. Find a full list of all the free fun in Golden Gate Park here.
Make it a museum day
Lucky for us, the Bay Area is loaded with free museums like the kid-fave Randall Museum in SF and the Edward Peterman Museum of Railroad History in the South Bay. We have a full list of museums that are always free here, as well as an awesome list of museums that offer occasional free days here. What are you waiting for?
Take the tots to Tilden
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. Afterwards, 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.
600 Canon Dr.
Make Your Way to 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. Read more here.
McLaren Bike Park
2050 Sunnydale Ave.
San Francisco, CA
Up your adventure in Berkeley
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. And for individual families dropping in together it's completely free! (But make sure to read the fine print on the website about groups and dropping off unattended children, as there are nominal fees for those).
160 University Ave. (in the Berkeley Marina)
Get your hike on
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.
Meet some animals at your local nature center
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. Head to Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills ($10/parking, free admission) to check out the goats and chickens, or learn all about the animals that reside in our tide pools at the East Bay's Crab Cove Visitor Center ($5/parking, free admission). Bring a picnic and find a shady spot under a tree to spread out your picnic blanket to make a day of it.
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.
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 (Sundays 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 Sunday of the month).
For more Presidio ideas, read this post.
See the sea life at a nearby tide pool
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 there on the weekends to point out all the critters to the kids.
Check out 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.
—Kate Loweth and Yannina Pacis