Looking to stretch your vacation budget a little further? San Francisco is not only a diverse and colorful destination loaded with history, it is also filled with family-friendly free or cheap things to do. Here are my top 10 cheap or free things to do in San Francisco with kids:
1. MUSÉE MÉCANIQUE
Musée Mécanique houses an enchanting collection of arcade games that span childhoods from the 1900s on. Admission is free; visitors simply pay to play the games. Drop your silver to see scenes like Santa’s Workshop, a carnival, and a hoedown come to life. Peep into a projector to view a silent movie. Participate in a bicycle race by cranking your rider to the finish line. There are even plenty of feats of strength to test your brawn!
2. THE RANDALL MUSEUM
Owned and operated by San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, the admission-free Randall Museum focuses on the arts, crafts, sciences, and natural history. Dedicated special topic days at the museum include, bugs, mushrooms, as well as water and sun. Movies, plays, lectures, exhibits and classes are part of the offerings also here. Should you have a train lover in the family, longtime museum tenant, the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club, will be a delight to them. Children run HO-scale trains during Junior Engineer Days on the third Saturday of every odd month.
3. COCA-COLA FAN LOT AT AT&T PARK
When the Giants are away, your family can play! The Coca-Cola Fan Lot is open to the public — free of charge — when the baseball team is on the road. So take the kids out there to enjoy the Coke bottle shaped super slide, the 26-foot high replica of a vintage 1927 four-fingered baseball glove, and the Little Giants Park, a shrunken version of AT&T Park intended to give smaller children a big league experience. Kids can hit softballs and run steal, run, and slide into the bases.
4. BOUDIN DEMONSTRATION BAKERY
If you find yourself in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, you aren’t imagining that magnificent smell of fresh sourdough bread just out of the oven. Don’t fight it, the scent will eventually pull you toward the demonstration window at the Boudin Bakery. Visitors can watch the entire baking process at the 30-foot observation window. Bread is twisted and shaped into alligators, turtles and crabs. Visitors can also ask questions and have them answered through a wired microphone system.
5. SAN FRANCISCO FIRE DEPARTMENT MUSEUM
Dedicated to firefighters who have given their lives on the job, the San Francisco Fire Department Museum is a collection of vintage equipment. Hoses and steamers, along with photos and memorabilia from dozens of volunteer fire companies, are among the items visitors enjoy without having to pay an admission fee. Donations are always appreciated though.
6. THE CARTOON ART MUSEUM
The first Tuesday of each month is “pay what you wish day,” at the Cartoon Art Museum featuring art from comic books, animated movies, magazines, sculpture and more. Works date from the 1730s to the present and they include a children’s gallery, caricatures, editorial cartoons and even underground comics.
7. THE SAN FRANCISCO CENTER FOR THE BOOK
Free family bookmaking days as well as exhibits celebrating the art of books are offered at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Kids also get to learn the intricacies of pop-ups, accordion folds and discover the literary inclinations of a CD case.
8. WELLS FARGO HISTORY MUSEUM
Located in San Francisco’s Financial District, the admission-free Wells Fargo History Museum takes visitors back to the Gold Rush era with its displays of gold nuggets, rare artifacts, interactive exhibits as well as a stagecoach which visitors are allowed to hop aboard.
9. SAN FRANCISCO CABLE CAR MUSEUM
Venture to the site where San Francisco’s famous cable car system has operated since 1907, the historic Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse. In this free museum, visitors get a look at cable winding machinery as it reels 11 miles of steel at a steady pace of nine-and-a-half miles per hour. You can also check out antique cable cars, including one from 1873. For just $6, you can hop on an historic cable car! The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines stop at the museum.
10. SAN FRANCISCO MARITIME NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
The world’s largest collection of historic ships is housed at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park including: the 1886 Balclutha, a three masted, steel-hulled, square-rigged ship built to carry a variety of cargo all over the world; the Eureka, a sidewheel paddle steamboat complete with cars parked in its hull; and Hercules, a steam powered tug built for ocean towing. For $5 visitors can board the ships and explore how crews lived, strolling the park though is free of charge.