San Francisco attracts more than 25 million visitors a year, making it one of the most visited cities in the U.S. Many of those visitors are families looking to check out family-friendly things to do in the city. While San Francisco is one of the most-visited cities out there, it is also one of the most expensive. After paying for food, lodging, and entertainment, it’s easy to end your vacation with your wallet much lighter than you thought it would be.
Want to get the most out of your family vacation and not destroy your bank account? Here’s our guide for things to do in the with kids in the Golden Gate city on a budget.
Top 10 Cheap (or Free) Activities in the City
Nothing beats free, and there are plenty of free (or very affordable) things to do in the city. In particular, there are many great outdoor activities.
1. Golden Gate Park
Of all the things to do in San Francisco with kids, visiting Golden Gate Park has to be number one. There are so many things to do in the park, you couldn’t possibly do them all in one day. You might find yourself coming back here more than once on your trip. As one of the most visited parks in the United States, this 1,017-acre area is free to visit during the day. The park is filled with gardens, art, flowers, trees, lakes, birds and wildlife. The nature alone has the potential to provide for endless hours of family fun and exploration.
2. Explore the museums
Speaking of museums, they are a major attraction for locals and tourists alike. The Exploratorium Museum is described as “a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one”. Entrance is free on some days of the year, and always discounted for children.
3. Hit the beach
Southern California may have a greater reputation for beaches, but don’t count out San Francisco. It’s true that the weather and water are cooler here, but the opportunities for exploration make up for it.
Two of the best beaches here are Ocean Beach and Lands End Beach. Ocean Beach is on the west coast of San Francisco, conveniently adjacent to Golden Gate Park. This is a great place to go for a walk and get a breathtaking view of the ocean or have a picnic with your family. Since you’re on the West Coast, you have to catch at least one beach sunset. Bring the camera.
Hiking at Lands End Beach is popular with families. It also offers more spectacular views, and kids love getting a glimpse of the old shipwrecks here. Located at the city’s northwest corner, it’s the last point before the mighty Pacific. Views out over the water and back toward the Golden Gate Bridge are excellent.
4. Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the city’s busiest sections of the city and offers plenty of free entertainment. Stroll along the water and enjoy the people watching (San Francisco is full of characters), watch the street performers painted head to toe in gold and silver, check out the noisy sea lions lounging on the docks at Pier 39, or snaps photos of Bay Bridge and Alcatraz.
5. Hike the Marin Headlands
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge lie the Marin Headlands where tourists can hike for free, explore the old bunkers (the headlands were fortified to defend the Bay Area against Japanese invasion during WWII), all while enjoying the best views in the area not only of the Golden Gate but of the entire Bay Area. If you hang around long enough you might just catch a massive cargo ship finishing a transpacific journey.
6. Twin Peaks
While Marin is the place to go during the day, the city skyline views from Twin Peaks (two hills in the center of the city) are absolutely incredible. Drive up at night (bring warm clothes even in the summer) and be wowed.
7. Lombard Street
You’ve probably seen it in photos, postcards or movies set in the city. The one block section in the neighborhood of Russian Hill is known for its sharp incline and hairpin turns. It’s also a great place to see some of the typical gravity-defying San Francisco architecture found in the neighborhoods built into the hills.
8. Coit Tower
Located on top of Telegraph Hill, Coit tower is a 210-foot tall structure that offers incredible panoramic views of the city. Be sure to check out the murals as well.
9. Muir Woods
Located north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods is a heavily forested park with excellent hiking and quite possibly the largest trees you will ever come across in your life. Muir Woods is full of the massive Redwood Trees commonly associated with Northern California’s wilderness. Some of the trees are over 250 feet tall and have been standing for 800 years. The park itself is actually a national monument. This is an excellent option if a few days in the city have you feeling a little cooped up.
10. The Presidio
A military base dating back to when California was a Spanish territory, the Presidio is one of San Francisco’s most interesting historical locations. Today you can explore the barracks and hike the parks many trails. The views of the bay and especially those of the Golden Gate are excellent.
San Francisco’s accommodations market is one of the priciest in the U.S. and the best way to fight the prices is to explore a wide variety of options. Check out Airbnb, short-term rentals and hotel rentals to make sure you’re getting the best deal and best fit for your trip.