The Best Things To Do In San Francisco With Kids That Will Not Break The Bank

San Francisco is considered a financial, transportation, and cultural center in the US. After New York City, it is the most densely populated larger city in the nation. This, coupled with its long and rich history, results in many attractions, natural sights, and entertainment options for those traveling from near or far. No matter what time of year a visit is planned, we have unearthed the best things to do in San Francisco with kids and on a budget.

While adult travelers appreciate the beauty of San Francisco, kids just want to get out of the hotel and do something. Whether they drive, walk, or take public transportation, getting around town is not difficult for a family of any size. Though this is a large city, there always seem to be parking spots available. San Francisco is such a kid-friendly town that adults may find themselves wishing they could nap in the car while the kids explore.

Beach with water covering it and golden gate bridge in the background
"Where Land Meets Water"; Beach at Sea Cliff with the Golden Gate Bridge in the Background. Photo by Arex.

Families who love the outdoors will appreciate the several national parks and beaches within the city or a short driving distance. Several of the parks and nearly of the beaches in San Francisco are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which has more than 13 million visitors annually. Ocean Beach runs along the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean and is great for kids who enjoy surfing. Baker Beach is situated in a cove near the Golden Gate Bridge and is part of a former military base called the Presidio.

The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department maintains over 200 parks. Golden Gate Park is the largest and most well-known park in the city. It spans from the center of San Francisco to the Pacific Ocean. Inside its boards are the San Francisco Botanical Garden, Japanese Tea Garden, and Conservatory of Flowers. Muir Woods, located 12 miles north of the city, allows families to take a nature walk amidst 554 acres of towering Coast Redwoods at no fee for children age 15 and younger. On certain days of the year, the $5 entrance fee is waived for visitors age 16 and older.

Once the children have had their fill of the flora, they can check out the fauna at the San Francisco Zoo, which is home to over 250 species of animals, many designated as endangered. Included are a children’s zoo, carousel, and miniature train for the youngest guests. General admission is free for children three and younger, $9 for kids ages four to 14, and $15 for ages 14 to 64. For an additional charge, families can even stay overnight at the zoo on designated dates, camping outdoors and enjoying guided tours and a hot breakfast.

Americans are known for their love of baseball, and foreign visitors should check out what all the fuss is about when visiting San Francisco. The Giants are the Major League Baseball team in this city and home games are held in the conveniently located AT&T Park. Individual game tickets are reasonably priced and can be purchased online in advance, downloaded to a mobile phone, or bought at the stadium. If the adults do not drive to the stadium, they can take Caltrain, the San Francisco Municipal Railroad, or the Larkspur Ferry from Marin County.

The Morrison Planetarium and Steinhart Aquarium are located in the California Academy of Sciences natural history museum. Morrison is the largest entirely digital planetarium in the world. Kids will love the “Tour of the Universe” show that takes them from the solar system all the way to the edge of the observable cosmos and has them back on Earth within just 20 minutes. Steinhart Aquarium features 38,000 live animals from all over the world including penguins, sharks, and stingrays.

The Philippine Coral Reef is the centrepiece of the Steinhart Aquarium, and showcases "one of the most diverse reef systems in the world". Photo by Shubert Ciencia.

A “Rainforests of the World” exhibit is currently housed at the California Academy of Sciences. Adults and children explore the living four-story rainforest that includes bat caves and a journey under swimming catfish and arapaima. General admission to the Academy is free for children ages three and younger, $19.95 for children ages four to 11, and $24.95 for older children, students, and seniors. Adults pay $29.95 for a general admission ticket. By showing the Pocket Penguins app on their phone at the ticket window, visitors can get $5 off general admission.

Alcatraz Island is home to the famous prison of the same name. Visitors are shuttled to and from the island on a ferry across San Francisco Bay, the same way the prisoners who once resided there made their journey. After a ten minute ferry ride, visitors are met by a park ranger, who provides a tour of the guard barracks, guard house, and cell house. An audio tour of the cell house is included with the ticket price for the ferry ride, which is $16 for children ages five to 11, $26.00 for children 12 to 17 years old and adults, and free for children up to four years old. There is no entrance fee to the Island or the prison.

No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a ride in a cable car. A one-day pass for the city’s MUNI system enables visitors to ride these notable cars, the MUNI buses, and the electric trains throughout the city. Kids will love zooming down Hyde Street, which features some of the steepest hills in the city. Take the car from Powell Station to Ghirardelli Square to enjoy a great meal and of course, chocolate. Cost for a single ticket for all MUNI transport except cable cars (valid for 90 minutes) is only 75 cents for children over age four and $2 for adults, while children ages four and younger ride free. Cable cars are pay per trip, and one day, three day and seven day “passports” are also available which cover all MUNI transport including cable cars.

These are just a few of the best things to do in San Francisco with kids and they are very reasonably priced. Of course, this city does not lack when it comes to dining experiences. Families can find everything from fast food, to delicious sandwiches at Fisherman’s Wharf, to the finest restaurants within a short distance of each other. A family trip to San Francisco is something everyone should plan to do, whether traveling domestically or from outside the US.