Why travel when there’s so much to offer here in our own urban backyard? Grab your little explorers and trek to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park! This 1,017 acre urban oasis offers loads of free and cheap activities to keep the kids busy for days. Scroll through for 20 of our faves!
1. Vist the deYoungsters Studio
Find It: deyoung.famsf.org
2. Rock Out at Spreckels Temple of Music
This gorgeous spot in the Music Concourse is the perfect spot to enjoy a free musical performance. The Golden Gate Park Band has been playing free public concerts on Sundays every year since 1882. Check the schedule here and look for especially family-friendly performances where they play the music of Disney and Pixar.
Find it: goldengateparkband.org
3. Learn to Fly Cast
The Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club's monthly free fly casting lessons are generally held on the second Saturday of each month year-round from 9:30 a.m.-noon at the Golden Gate casting ponds. These lessons are followed by a free small lunch courtesy of GGACC. Free loaner equipment is also available on a first come, first served basis, but please try to arrive by 8:45 a.m. to take advantage of this limited free equipment.
Find it: Golden Gate Park casting ponds (1232 JFK Dr., across from the Buffalo Paddock), San Francisco
4. Tower Over the City
Give your kids a taste of the de Young without stepping foot in a gallery. Head up to the Hamon Education Tower Observation Deck, which you can access for free (pay admission to access the rest of the museum). Simply turn right after entering the de Young and find the elevators that'll transport you to the glass enclosed room featuring stunning panoramic views of the city.
Find It: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA
5. Dance to the Beat at Hippie Hill
Every weekend drummers and dancers gather at Hippie Hill for a drum circle. Just follow the beat and whoops of singing and laughter to join in the merriment with this group of musicians. Bring your own drums, dance, or picnic on the large expanse of grass with your kids who always seem to march to the beat of their own drum.
Find It: Enter on John F. Kennedy Drive, behind the tennis courts, north of the Koret Children’s Quarter
6. Wheel Around
Take advantage of the Park's street closures and hit the pavement on your wheels. Whether you're a biker, love the tricycle, or can't get enough of your rollerblades, this is a prime time to cruise the Park without worrying about cars. Be sure to stop by at 6th Avenue Skate Park right off of JFK Drive to see the roller- and inline-skaters who put on moves that include backflips, the electric slide, and more—all while skating to funk music coming from an old school speaker and boom box.
The closure details: Every Sunday JFK Drive is closed from the East End (Kezar Drive) to Traverse Drive. Saturdays April through September cars aren't allowed on JFK Drive from 8th Avenue to Traverse Drive.
Find It: 6th Avenue and John F. Kennedy Drive
7. Visit the de Young 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.
Find it here: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA
8. Plan a Picnic
It almost goes without saying that nothing beats an afternoon picnicking in the Park. Pack a basket full of goodies (if you're on the East end of the park we suggest picking up sandwiches from the Haight Street Market or Say Cheese in Cole Valley) and plop down on the grass. A couple of favorite spots include the AIDS Memorial Grove and Shakespeare Garden. Both offer a tranquil and less-crowded area for lunch.
Find It: AIDS Memorial Grove (Intersection of Bowling Green Drive & Nancy Pelosi Drive) and Shakespeare Garden (Martin Luther King Drive, Between Nancy Pelosi Drive & Music Concourse Drive)
9. Travel to Japan
Step into the Japanese Tea Garden and you're immediately transported to the Land of the Rising Sun. Explore the Garden's statues, waterfalls, gorgeous landscaping and regal lanterns. The serene environment may just have the calming effect on your kids you were looking for.
Good to Know: Enter before 10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday or Friday and admission is free. Other times and dates cost $6 for residents ($9 for non-residents); $2/kids 5-11; kids 4 and under get in free.
Find It: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA
10. Throw a Frisbee
18 holes of fun aren't just for golfers anymore. The Park's frisbee golf course is a great place to learn how to throw a frisbee. Wind your way through the woodsy course where you'll find trees, bushes and other obstacles blocking your way to the hole.
Find It: Marx Meadow between 25th and 30th Avenues on the North side of the Park
11. Enjoy the Cascading Falls
Be sure to stop by the two waterfalls in the park: Huntington Falls and Rainbow Falls—both captivating with lots of area to explore. Take the stairs and the trails, encounter the local wildlife and take in the views. You won't be disappointed!
Good to Know: Prayerbook Cross is situated near the top of Rainbow Falls, follow the trail off of JFK Drive and check out this historic, Celtic-style, local landmark.
Find It: Rainbow Falls (John F. Kennedy Drive near Crossover Drive) and Huntington Falls (at Stow Lake)
12. Visit an Official Landmark
Take a break from the norm and escape into a world of rare and exotic plants, at the official landmark—Conservatory of Flowers. Visit different ecosystems, engage all of your senses and enjoy the welcoming gardens.
Good to Know: Open Tues.-Sun. 10-4:30 p.m. Free to all visitors on the first Tuesday of the month. Residents: $6/Adults, $4/youth 12-17, seniors and college students with ID, $3/children 5-11 and children 4 and under are free. General Public: $9/adults, $6/youth, seniors and college students, $3/children 5-11 and children 4 and under are free.
Find It: 100 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco, CA
13. Spruce Up On Your Flora
It’s always a good time of the year to visit the San Francisco Botanical Garden. The Bay Area’s weather and signature fog provide the perfect conditions for several plants from all over the world to thrive. Enjoy a walk through its 55 acres of green, open space and learn about over 8,500 kinds of plants from all over the world.
Good to know: Admission is free for all San Francisco residents (with proof of residency) and daily to all between 7:30-9 a.m. Non-residents: $8/Adults, $6/Youth 12-17, $2/Children 5-11 and children under 4 are free.
Find It: 1199 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA
14. Catch the Boat Races
Spreckles Lake on the north entrance of the park is home to the San Francisco Model Yacht Club, the only venue left in the U.S. that is home to racing freesail yachts. Stop by the club house (open when attended by a member) and check out their collection of boats. Bring your little captains and enjoy watching these miniature models parade and race across the lake, Tues.-Thurs., 1 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays as early as 9:30 a.m. Don’t miss the Rubber Ducky Round-Up!
Find It: Spreckles Drive at 36th Ave., at the Park's Fulton St. entrance.
15. Stop and Smell the Tulips
The North (Dutch) Windmill located on the western section of the park is one of two historic icons dating back to 1902. Serving once as a water pump for the area, the Dutch Windmill is now home to the Queen Wilhelmina (late queen of the Netherlands) Tulip Garden. Take in the lovely sight of bright colored tulips and other blooms in the serene surroundings. Relax on a bench or on the inviting grass and listen to the crash of the waves near by.
Good to Know: This garden is quite a sight when in full bloom. The best times to visit are in February and March. The South (Murphy) Windmill is not too far away. Be sure to stop by and see this impressive model, which is the largest of its kind. Don’t forget your camera!
Find It: 1690 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco, CA; The South (Murphy) Windmill (Lincoln Blvd and La Playa St.)
16. Put On Your Dancing Shoes
Since 1996, every Sunday you can boogie on down with festive and boisterous swing dancers on JFK Drive (all for free!). From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. shimmy with the best of 'em and if you're a beginner and need instruction, show up for the noon to 12:30 p.m. novice lesson. Lindy in the Park brings the music and instruction, you bring the dance moves and the cheer. All ages and abilities are welcome.
Find It: South sidewalk of John F. Kennedy Drive, between the de Young Museum and the north entrance to the Music Concourse
17. See The City’s First Real Zoo
Playgrounds. Check. Running Paths. Bison. Double check. While bison (aka buffalo) aren't the first thing that you think would belong in an urban park, the huge shaggy creatures are nonetheless breathtaking. Visit the Bison Paddock to get a glimpse of these huge animals as they roam around their grassy enclosure.
Fun Fact: Before the city opened its first zoo in the 1930s, animals like elk, deer and bison were corralled in Golden Gate Park for visitors to experience. The bison in the paddock today are cared for by the SF Zoo staff.
Find It: 1237 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco, CA
18. Climb, Slide and Ride
There's no denying that the Koret Children’s Quarter (formerly the Children's Playground) is always high up on any Bay Area parent's list of must-visit playgrounds. After getting your fill of swinging, crawling, and sliding, pop over to the historic carousel to take a spin on the merry-go-round that was originally carved in 1914.
Good to Know: The carousel is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and Friday through Sunday the rest of the year. Year-round hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with the last ride at 4:15 p.m.
Cost: $2/adults, $1/children 6-12, children under 5 are free with a paying adult. Children under 40″ must ride with a paying adult.
Find It: Martin Luther King Jr Dr & Bowling Green Dr, San Francisco, CA
19. Paddle Around the Lake
Bring extra bread and crackers to feed the ducks at Stow Lake. Looking for more adventure? Rent a boat and cruise around the Lake. The boathouse offers a fleet of rowboats, pedal boats and electric boats, though if you want a more relaxing experience without having to pedal the entire time, we suggest the latter
Good to Know: Boathouse open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Rates: $22-$37.50/hour. depending on boat. Rentals are first-come, first-served.
Find It: 50 Stow Lake Drive E, San Francisco, CA
20. Grab a Bite
Park adventures create big appetites. Head to Park Chalet's back grassy patio where you can lay out a picnic blanket or grab an Adirondack chair, and indulge in bites and brews. The summer at Park Chalet brings live music, so be sure to check their weekend music schedule.
Find It: 1000 Great Highway, at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, CA
—Kate Loweth, Nella DuBon-Koch and Erin Lem
Photos by Nella DuBon-Koch except where noted.