Fifteen free activities for kids to do in San Francisco. You don’t have to spend a lot to have a great time in the city!
I am completely convinced that I am a city girl. I also love the beach so San Francisco has become one of my favorite getaway spots. For fifteen years my husband and I have traveled back here on a semi regular basis. Our honeymoon was even spent here! Our kids were so excited at Christmas time they learned they would be joining us on our winter getaway this year. Since the trip got cut short by a day, we had to cram a lot into the one day remaining. We focused on Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square.
As we prepped for our trip, we knew staying on budget was going to be key. Food in the city (even at the grocery stores) is quite a bit higher than outside the city. We typically stay in Union Square where deals on hotels are easier to find and access to transportation is easy. We love being able to hop on and off trolleys, cable cars and buses right in one location. It’s also a shorter walk to the hotels from Union Square. This trip we stayed at the Hilton Union Square. The hotel was located just a block or two off of the cable car lines and was nice and quiet! Walgreen’s and CVS with access to diapers, formula and snacks for the kids was on the way back to the hotel so it was an easy nightly stop in for us.
We printed off and gave this list of free things for the kids to do in San Francisco and let them pick what they wanted to do. We had “splurges” that they were allowed–a little more expensive meal out or an activity that cost money that they wanted to try. They got to choose one splurge a day. For one child, after seeing the Ghiradelli dessert menu online that’s what they wanted to try. Another wanted to have lunch at Boudin.
The kids had a great trip and can’t wait for their next trip to the city!
Pier 39: Located at the marina waterfront, Pier 39 ranks at the top of many children’s lists of the best attraction in San Francisco. We loved the double decker Venetian Carousel, and some great stores including a toy store stacked ceiling to floor with wind up toys, a puppet store, The Disney Store, the Biscoff Store, NFL shop, the Pearl Factory, a magic store, and plenty of chocolate stores and ice cream! We had a lot of fun just walking around and sightseeing here, but you can also splurge on the game arcade and virtual reality theater. Underwater World is also located here–a 2,000 fish, 707,000 gallon marine park. Just be warned! It is pricey to go and when my husband and I visited alone sans children we were in and out in just shy of an hour. For our whole family it would have been close to $100 to go–we felt a trip to Alcatraz for the same price was a better deal.
Sea Lions at Pier 39: Don’t forget to see the sea lions! These residents will keep your kids entertained for at least 20 minutes. We usually grab an ice cream cone or treat and sit and watch them play. Our three year old got a kick out of watching the seals banter back and forth over who got the coveted spot on the sunniest spot on the docks.
Hyde Street Pier: this pier, part of the San Francisco National Historic Park houses some of the largest collections of historic ships. For a small admissions charge, kids can walk on board each ship. You’ll find a three masted schooner, the 1886 square rigged sailing ship Balclutha, a steam powered ocean tug boat, a World War II submarine and more. The pier is located just south of Hyde Street. We opted to walk down the pier to see the ships, but not on board. Several of the ships can also be seen from various local piers.
Fisherman’s Wharf: This area houses a number of shopping and fun attractions, including the Wharf itself. You can’t miss out on visiting Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory with great chocolate and ice cream desserts. The Cannery, once the world’s largest fruit canning plant, houses a number of kid friendly stores as well. Our favorite stores were the unique toy shop and an upper end dog store with clothing and accessories galore! My soon to be teen daughter loved smelling all the puppy perfumes and colognes with fun knock off names like “Pucci” instead of “Gucci.” If you want to splurge, you’ll also find the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum, the Wax Museum and Guinness Book of World Records.
Beach Front: Across the street from the Cannery shopping areas is one of our favorite places to play. Locals love walking and biking through here. A set of stairs leads down to the waterfront where the kids can play in the sand while the parents enjoy a quiet moment on the stairs. There is also a fun pier to walk on that gets you as close to Alcatraz as you can without paying. Fishermen were out when we went with traps and lines and they are always willing to show the kids what crabs and fish they caught. At one point of our walk the fishermen began pulling up traps when a pesky sea lion tried catching a lazy Saturday lunch out of their traps. The kids were completely entertained by that. Along the waterfront are also a couple of museums and even an old air siren.
Golden Gate Park: This is one of the most beautiful, most family friendly parks siting on 1,017 acres and nearly three miles. The park is filled with huge stands of eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees and smells wonderful as you walk, bike or run through the park. Free or very inexpensive activities include riding on the historic carousel, viewing the buffaloes roaming in the Buffalo Paddock, feeding the ducks, or biking or rollerblading Kennedy Drive on Sundays when it’s closed to traffic. On Sundays, the local model boat club often sails their elaborate power and sailboats on Spreckels Lake near the west end of the park. The park is SO big that my husband and I haven’t even had a chance to visit all of it. Everytime we go we visit some new part of the park so you know that when you take the kids there you will be able to burn a lot of time there! Splurges in the park include the Japanese Tea Garden where you can enjoy tea and fortune cookies for a small fee. There is also the California Academy of Sciences, and the De Young Museum.
Golden Gate Bridge: The Golden Gate Bridge is iconic San Francisco. A trip out there is a must for height lovers and budding engineers. Bike or walk across the bridge and have fun watching boats pass underneath.
Chinatown/Japantown: Kids love Chinatown and Japantown! Walk through the grand gateway at Grand and Bush streets, and inside you’ll find over twenty blocks of restaurants, gift shops, temples and museums. Kids will ooh and aah over the stone lions, dragon lampposts, and pagoda roofs. When the kids tire of walking, stop inside the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on 56 Ross Alley. The kids will love watching the cookies being made and watching the fortunes get placed inside the cookies. Chinatown is just a short walk off of the cable car line.
Lombard Street: Lombard Street is known as the crookedest street. While it’s now mainly a tourist attraction, kids will get a kick out of walking up and down the street and watching cars try to manuever their way down. Plan on about fifteen minutes here. Which makes it a great rest stop that’s right off the cable car line.
Cable Car: Cable cars are just as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The kids will love sitting inside a working cable car. Get a spot outside on the cable car so the driver is right behind them and they can see him use the brakes. Just warn them that people hop on and off. If the kids don’t like being invaded, have them hang on the outside or sit inside the cable car. Lines are long at the Union Square station and down by Fisherman’s Wharf. Consider walking up a stop or two to catch a ride or using other modes of transportation. Rides are $6 per person so your best bet if you’re going to be navigating the city for the day is to get a MUNI pass that allows you to ride all the different transportation that San Francisco offers for one lower price.
FREE and FUN Museums: San Francisco is full of fun and free museums for kids! Try the Randall Museum, a popular local museum with fun interactive exhibits and close to 100 live animals. We loved reading about some of the endangered animals that are rehabilitating at the museum. On Saturdays the Randall Museum hosts model trains. The museum is convienently located right off of the outbound train line. If your budding engineer was fascinated by the cable cars, try the Cable Car Museum. The museum is located off the cable car line at Mason and Washington. See how the cable cars move along the city and be amazed by how often the brakes on a cable car have to be replaced. (Big kids will enjoy this museum too. As in the Mom and Dad big kids). The Disney Family Museum is also located in the city, and it’s full of all kinds of things Disney. The museum has something for little kids and is an ideal museum for kids over the age of 10. It is a little bit harder to reach by public transportation though.
Union Square: Union Square is the shopping hub of San Francisco, but there are plenty of fun things to do for kids too! Try the outdoor skating rink in the winter (we caught a great view from our window at the hotel) or go up the spiral escalators at the San Francisco Shopping Center just off of Market Street. Teens will love all the higher end shops. Younger kids will get overwhelmed by the crowds and keeping them in a stroller while you shop will be best.
Seward Street Slides: Grab your cardboard and slide down fun cement slides in the middle of the city! Located at 59 Seward Street, San Francisco.