San Francisco on a Budget

San Francisco abounds with hundreds of family-oriented things to do – many at no charge, or small fees. Fun for all ages, with inspiration for birthday or teen adventures, here is a simple list of family-friendly suggestions during your summer excursion to this exciting and beautiful area:

Golden Gate Park. Explore its 1,017 acres encompassing free-to-the-public meadows, lakes, rose gardens, an arboretum, a rhododendron dell, music concourse, a children’s playground, a buffalo paddock and the tallest artificial waterfall in the West. Visit the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers and the beautifully restored carousel in the Children’s Playground.

California Academy of Sciences “Inside-out” design provides a behind-the-scenes look at aquatic life support systems for the Steinhart Aquarium. Visitors can meet biologists who care for more than 5,000 animals.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) offers public access to nearly 45,000 square feet of ground-floor galleries, as well as free admission for visitors 18 and younger to educational experiences for the entire family. See new exhibitions and events since its expansion.

The rooftop above Moscone Center South on Howard Street is the perfect setting for a lighthearted escape. There’s a playground, carousel, ice skating rink and bowling alley. Children’s Creativity Museum, is a multimedia arts and technology museum where kids and families can explore creativity through hands-on programs such as clay animation, video production and more.

Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), located at Third and Mission streets, is a collector of stories and through the coupling of art, culture and technology it is telling the story of the African Diaspora. The Face of a Child is composed of more than 2,000 photographs submitted from individuals around the world. MoAD is free for children 12 and under.

The Exploratorium is a playground for ideas at its new location along the waterfront at Pier 15. It offers hundreds of interactive exhibits in the areas of science, art and human perception. Admission is free on five select days each year.

San Francisco Cable Car Museum is one-of-a-kind and deserves special attention. In the historic Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse, visitors can view the actual cable winding machinery where the cable system has operated since 1907. Antique cable cars are also on display, including the first one dating from 1873. Always free.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in Fisherman’s Wharf is the United States’ only floating National Park and is home to the world’s largest collection of historic ships. Admission to board the ships is $10, age 15 and under free when accompanied by an adult.

Bay Area Discovery Museum is a hands-on museum for children and families housed in a complex of historic buildings beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Permanent exhibits include a life-sized shipwreck, a fishing boat that can be boarded, simulated tide pool and a tot spot.

Aquarium of the Bay is at Pier 39, The Embarcadero. Free for ages three & under. Explore below San Francisco Bay by getting up close and personal with more than 20,000 local marine animals. Interpretative naturalists are always nearby to guide you through hands-on animal encounters.

The San Francisco Zoo and Gardens is Northern California’s largest zoological park with more than 225 species of animals in naturalistic settings. The Children’s Zoo gives young folks the thrill of feeding and petting their favorite barnyard animals, and the Little Puffer Zoo Train ($5) makes regular circuits of the grounds.

Yerba Buena Gardens Festival is a splendid array of 100 events May – October in The Esplanade of Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth and Mission Streets. Enjoy San Francisco Theater Festival, Opera, performance art, international music concerts, dance performances, children’s programs, theatre, visual arts, puppet shows, cultural festivals, special events, classical and jazz concerts.

San Francisco City Guides Walking Tours are the best way to discover the heart of San Francisco by taking a stroll through unique neighborhoods. Contact City Guides at (415) 557-4266 to discuss which tours are most appropriate for toddlers, school-age kids or teens.

Meander among the Murals of the Mission to experience vivid artwork-covered walls. Start this walking tour of the Mission’s vibrant street art from 16th and Mission, walk north along Mission Street where patches of murals wrap around alleyways and intersections. This cultural heritage is the highest concentration of street art in San Francisco.

Playgrounds. While Golden Gate Park’s cherished Children’s Playground is currently being renovated, there are several other playgrounds within the park to discover such as Fulton Playground, J.F. Kennedy Drive at Ninth Avenue; Panhandle Playground, between Oak and Fell streets; and Mother’s Meadow, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive near 19th Avenue. Also discover the Chinese Recreation Center located at Washington and Mason Streets, Portsmouth Square at Kearny and Clay streets; North Beach Playground at Lombard and Mason Streets; Mountain Lake at Lake and Ninth Avenue; Nob Hill’s Huntington Park at California and Taylor Streets; and Balboa Park at Ocean and San Jose Avenues.

Kate, a fourth generation San Franciscan, reminds us, “San Francisco proper is cold in the summertime so be sure to bring a coat, and long pants, not shorts. It can warm up after the fog burns off, and tends to be warmer on the east side of Twin Peaks, but rarely is it hot. So be prepared for cool weather.” Kate also highlights a few more great spots:

  • The Musee Mécanique. Located on Pier 45 at the foot of Taylor Street in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Free admission every day. This is an old penny arcade with many of the “old school” games and things that used to be at Playland and other amusement parks of the 40s and 50s. It’s very different from today’s computer and video games.
  • Lands End Trail. Out near the Cliff House at Ocean Beach is a great 3.5 mile trail that has some wonderful views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. They have a new interpretation center there with a snack bar.
  • Off The Grid. A collection of food trucks are positioned at different locations around the city and they are great! There are many different cuisines, and it’s a lot of fun to cruise and share a lot of different foods. Friday nights at Fort Mason and the Presidio Picnic on Sundays from 11am-4pm.

The San Francisco Travel Association is the official destination marketing organization for the City and County of San Francisco. For information on reservations, activities and more, visit, read the Visitors Planning Guide or call (415) 391-2000.

North State Parent
About North State Parent

North State Parent is a free monthly publication that circulates within five California counties: Butte, Glenn, Shasta, Southern Siskiyou and Tehama. Our pages are filled with family-oriented places to go, services and products geared for women and things to do; a focus on parenting, community, health, education, teens, youth, and much more.

Comment Policy: All viewpoints are welcome, but comments should remain relevant. Personal attacks, profanity, and aggressive behavior are not allowed. No spam, advertising, or promoting of products/services. Please, only use your real name and limit the amount of links submitted in your comment.

Leave a Reply