27 Free (or Cheap) Things to Do with Kids in the Bay Area
Spring is here and that means we are all looking for things to do with kids in the Bay Area and that won’t break the bank. Don’t worry, there are loads of free things to do this weekend from train rides to museums to even a Nike missile site where you can kill some time with the kids and keep the bucks in your wallet. Check our faves below!
Walk or bike across the Golden Gate Bridge
A quintessential activity for Bay Area residents is walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. You can do that from the Marin side at the water level by parking at Fort Baker (near the Bay Area Discovery Museum) and walking the steep climb a mile uphill to get to the bridge. Another alternative is to park at the North Tower Golden Gate Parking lot (or nearby along Conzelman Road if the lot is full). Don't miss a walk to the Ridge Battery for some of the best views. See more of our Marin Headlands faves here.
More info: freetoursbyfoot.com
Check out these roadside oddities
If you need to get out of the house and hit the road, these roadside oddities are the perfect destination. Can you check them all off?
More info: redtri.com
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.
Sign Up for Your Free Pre-K Pass to Great America
Kids ages 3-5 can get free admission to California's Great America including The Great Pumpkin Fest and WinterFest. Register online and activate at the park. When signing up for the first time you must bring a birth certificate or passport to the park with you to validate your child's birth date.
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!
Hike to Kirby Cove
For a totally gorgeous walk with the smell of eucalyptus in the air, hike down to Kirby Cove Beach. You can park at the trailhead near Ridge Battery where you'll find awesome views of the Golden Gate as well as public restrooms. The hike down to Kirby Cove and back is about two miles and most of it is paved. You'll reach the Kirby Cove Campground at the bottom where you can check out Battery Kirby before you proceed to the beach. Here you'll find some of the best views of the Golden Gate in town and if you're lucky you might even spot some whales off shore.
More info: nps.gov
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.
Visit the Palace of Fine Arts
Just a short walk from Crissy Field and the Presidio, you'll love spending the day at the Palace of Fine Arts. There are a few great climbing trees, shade and lots of wildlife watching. Can you spot the red-eared sliders sunning themselves on the logs? If you are looking for a picnic, we love grabbing a pizza from A 16 and bringing it over.
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.
Explore history at the area's many batteries
The Marin Headlands house an amazingly-rich history, which you can see if you visit any of the area's many batteries. While at Cavallo Point, take the cellphone tour of Fort Baker and then head over to check out Battery Yates and Battery Cavallo. All these spots have informational placards that will give you details about how the area was used in the past.
More info: nps.gov
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 have upped their game and added additional free day initiatives. Bay Area residents now get in free every Saturday! The museums also joined the Museums for All program to offer free admission to individuals receiving food assistance (SNAP benefits). They will continue to offer their free first Tuesday admission program.
Explore the Ferry Building
This spot along the Embarcadero is a fun spot to visit if you are hungry but also to explore with the kids. They will love checking out the ferries coming and going, playing at Sue Bierman Park across the street and trying to make their way through the Vaillancourt Fountain without getting wet. The San Francisco Railway Museum is always free and the SF fireboat dock just a short distance away. Read all there is to do near the Ferry Building here.
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.
Splash Down at These Splash Pads
If your crib doesn't have a pool and your crew wants to cool off, there's no better way to do it than at a splash pad. You can frolic in the fountains at Stanford (yep, it's true!) or check out one of these local gems where the water is on!
Tour the Nike missile site
During the tense years of the Cold War, from 1953 to 1979, the United States Army built and operated close to 300 Nike missile sites in the United States. These sites were designed as the last line of defense against Soviet bombers. Today, volunteers work in partnership with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on the continuous task of restoration at site SF-88L, the only fully restored Nike missile site in the country. This museum is an enduring reminder of the Cold War and allows visitors to reflect upon the realities of the Cold War and their influence on today's society.
The Nike missile site is open Saturdays from 12:30-3:30 p.m. with tours at 12:45, 1:30, and 2:15 p.m. It's definitely worth a visit for kids with an interest in history.
See more of our Marin Headlands faves here.
More info: nps.gov
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
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?
Editor's note: The Randall Museum is still closed due to COVID. Check the list for other options.
Up your adventure in Berkeley
Editor's note: Adventure Playground is open with limited numbers. Reserve your spot in advance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meet the Marine Mammals in Sausalito
Editor's note: The Marine Mammal Center is currently closed due to COVID. Check back for updates!
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. See more of our Marin Headlands faves here.
The Marine Mammal Center
2000 Bunker Road
Root for the home team (while they are away)
Editor's note: The Fan Lot is currently closed due to COVID. Check back for updates!
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.
Hike to the Point Bonita Lighthouse
Editor's note: Still closed due to COVID. Check here for updates.
A secret jewel of the Bay Area, the Point Bonita Lighthouse, built in 1855, was the third lighthouse built on the West Coast and helped shepherd ships through the treacherous Golden Gate straits. Today, the lighthouse is still active and is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Discover Point Bonita's wild landscape, geology and fascinating history by hiking the partially-steep, half-mile trail to the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is only open to the public on Sundays and Mondays, 12:30-3:30 p.m. Parking is limited by the lighthouse and you may have to park at the Battery Alexander lot and walk up to find the trail to the lighthouse. Don't miss a stop at Battery Mendell and a walk down to Rodeo Beach, both which can be accessed from this parking lot.
See more of our Marin Headlands faves here.
More info: nps.gov
Vist the deYoungsters Studio
Editor's note: Currently closed due to COVID.
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: Tues.-Sun., 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.
Cost: Admission to the deYoungsters Studio is free of charge
—Kate Loweth and Yannina Pacis
Featured photo: iStock