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10 Free Things For Families To Do In San Francisco

Powell Street, San FranciscoWorried about how the family can vacation together without breaking the piggy bank? San Francisco abounds with things to do, places to go and sights to see, many at no charge.

1. Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is an oasis for outdoor enthusiasts and one full day rarely suffices to exhaust all the opportunities the park offers. Its 1,017 acres encompass free-to-the-public meadows, lakes, rose gardens, an arboretum, a rhododendron dell, an open-air music concourse, a children's playground, a buffalo paddock and the tallest artificial waterfall in the West. Nominal admission fees are charged at the horseback riding stables, Japanese Tea Garden and the beautifully restored carousel in the children's playground. One day each month admission charges are banished at the California Academy of Sciences, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (closed until 2005 for renovation) and the Asian Art Museum. Friends of Recreation and Parks lead free walking tours, weekends from May through October. Call ahead for tour times and departure points, 415-263-0991. On weekends and holidays, the park is free of cars on Kennedy Drive from 19th Avenue to Stanyan, when bicyclists and in-line skaters bring their own "vehicles" or rent from a nearby shop or stand.

2. Museums
San Francisco's family-oriented museums are free at least one day each month. Located in Golden Gate Park, The California Academy of Sciences is three museums in one including the Natural History Museum, one of the world's ten largest museums of its kind. The Morrison Planetarium allows you to view the heavenly constellations during the day. The Steinhart Aquarium, the oldest and most diversely-populated North American aquarium, features a living coral reef tank and a Fish Roundabout that surrounds viewers with schools of ocean fish. Admission is free the first Wednesday of the month.

The Cartoon Art Museum, the only one of its kind on the West Coast, displays rotating exhibitions of art from comic books, animated movies, magazines, advertisements and newspapers as well as sculpture and video, with works dating from the 1730s to the present. The museum exhibits range from a children's gallery and caricatures to editorial cartoons, the avant-garde and underground comics. The first Wednesday of every month is "pay what you wish day."

At the Exploratorium, under the exquisite dome of the Palace of Fine Arts, folks of all ages can tinker with more than 600 hands-on exhibits designed to foster the understanding of science with fun in mind. Admission is free the first Wednesday of every month.

The San Francisco National Historical Park Maritime Museum has a collection of ship models and relics that will inspire sailors and landlubbers alike. Always free.

The Wells Fargo History Museum takes visitors back to the Gold Rush era with its displays of gold nuggets and a stagecoach that visitors can hop aboard. Always free.

The one-of-a-kind San Francisco Cable Car Museum deserves special attention. In the historic Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse, the site where the cable system has operated since 1907, visitors can view the actual cable winding machinery as it reels 11 miles of steel at a steady pace of nine and a half miles per hour. Antique cable cars are also on display, including the first one dating from 1873. Always free. It only takes $2 to ride a cable car, the only moving national historic landmark in America, to the museum via the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason lines.

The San Francisco Fire Department Museum displays a collection of equipment, photographs and memorabilia from The City's fire department. Always free.

3. The Presidio
The Presidio of San Francisco, one of America's newest national parks, was once the most important military post on the West Coast. Over the span of 200 years, three flags flew over the base--Spanish, Mexican and American.

The Presidio's 1,480 acres of prime real estate next to the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay have some of the best views in town. And there's so much more to experience, including 11 miles of hiking trails; 14 miles of bike routes; hidden picnic sites with lavish backdrops of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean; eucalyptus and cypress groves; cannons dating from the late 1700s; a pet cemetery; abandoned barracks where Indian fighters once slept; and guided walking tours through historic military ruins, artillery batteries and the National Cemetery. Rangers also lead free tours at Fort Point, a four-tiered brick and granite fortress built between 1853 and 1861, tucked under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Presidio Museum (free admission) focuses on the role of the military in the history and development of The City from 1776, through the earthquake and fire of 1906 to the present. For more information call 415-561-4323 or write the visitor information center, Presidio of San Francisco, National Park Service, Building 102, Montgomery Street, Presidio of San Francisco, CA 94129.

4. Historic Abandoned Fortifications
Across the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, a series of fortifications, some dating to the Civil War era, can be found at Fort Baker and the Marin Headlands. Dating back to the 1870s, the brick-built Battery Cavallo is a protected refuge for the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. Other gun batteries built to replace the old brick-made fortifications, include Battery Spencer, constructed in the 1890s with concrete. Both can be explored without restrictions.

The top of Battery construction Number 129, located on Conzelman Road, is the best place for unobstructed 360 degree views of the San Francisco Bay, The City and the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as excellent bird-watching. Its tunnels and walls, designed to house cannons measuring 16 inches in diameter, are just the right size for children to crawl through.

A flashlight and serious play clothes are strongly recommended for exploring the tunnels and walkways of these fortifications.

5. Beaches
Visitors expecting bikinis and suntan oil will rarely find them at Northern California beaches. The weather and water here are usually cooler than in Southern California. They are, nevertheless, blessed with San Francisco's views and the Pacific's rolling waves.

Ocean Beach along the western edge of The City features four miles of sandy shoreline waiting to be explored. At the north end of the beach, the historic Cliff House sits high above the shore and is a spectacular viewpoint for observing the powerful Pacific. Nearby is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Visitor Center, stocked with informational pamphlets and maps. A four-mile walk down the Ocean Beach Esplanade or a short drive south on the scenic Great Highway leads to Fort Funston. From the wooden observation deck built into the hillside, daring hang-gliders can be seen soaring over the cliffs and sea.

Tucked away behind the million-dollar homes of the Seacliff district is China Beach, one of San Francisco's few beaches safe for swimming. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer, and there are changing rooms, barbecue pits, and an enclosed sun deck. The beach is accessible from Seacliff and 28th Avenue, near El Camino del Mar. After a chilly swim (water temperatures hover in the 60s in summer), a game of frisbee, volleyball or smash-ball is a great way to warm up on this sandy playground.

Baker Beach stretches along the western shore of the Presidio below Lincoln Boulevard. Although swimming is dangerous, hikers and sunbathers here are treated to beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands from the ocean side of the peninsula. A word of advance to parents --nude sunbathing is popular at the northern end of the beach.

6. The Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo is home to more than 800 animals and birds, including a rare white tiger and black rhinoceros. The Primate Discovery Center, one of the zoo's highlights, uses computers and interactive exhibits to teach about the various monkeys and apes. The Children's Zoo gives young folks the thrill of feeding and petting their favorite barnyard animals. Other special habitats include the Feline Conservation Center, Otter River, Gorilla World, Penguin Island, Sumatran tigers, African wart hog exhibit and Koala Crossing. The zoo is free on the first Wednesday of every month.

7. Make*A*Circus
Learn juggling, stilt walking and clowning, and put on a zany show during Make*A*Circus' free Summer Festival Days. Each three-part festival starts with the Make*A*Circus company professional theater show, followed by a free Circus Skills Workshop for audience members. Then, the amateur clowns join company members in the circus ring to present a hilarious Community Show. The entire event is free to the public and lasts about three hours. Summer Festival Days take place in parks throughout California from June through August with several dates in San Francisco. Call 415-242-1414 for dates and locations.

8. Guided City Walking Tours
Locals know the best way to discover the heart of San Francisco is to take a stroll through her unique neighborhoods. While self-guided walking tours are easy (information is available from the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau), ambling with the experts can be even more fun. San Francisco's historical and architectural highlights, tall tales, and gold rush lore unfold at your feet thanks to narrated City Guide Walking Tours, presented free by the San Francisco Friends of the Library. Most walks take one to two hours and reservations are not needed, except for groups.

Stroll through the haunts of the original 49ers -- the 1849ers -- on the "Gold Rush City" tour. Learn the story of the Golden Gate Bridge or meander among the murals of the Mission to experience vivid artwork-covered walls. Kids will enjoy the Fire Department Museum Tour, where they can take a look at San Francisco's first fire truck and other relics as well as listen to stories of fires gone by. Tours are also offered through North Beach, Chinatown, Market Street, the Palace of Fine Arts and more. Call City Guides, 415-557-4266, to discuss which tours are most appropriate for toddlers, school-age kids or teens.

9. 49-Mile Scenic Drive
The famous 49-Mile Scenic Drive through San Francisco is dotted with 49 renowned places, such as Chinatown, the Cable Car Barn, Aquatic Park, Fisherman's Wharf and the Maritime Museum. For a break from the road, savor a picnic lunch at Marina Green and watch the weekend yacht races, windsurfers and sailboaters. When summer comes around, Sigmund Stern Grove is the place to go for free concerts and performances of such classics as opera and Shakespeare. Maps outlining the drive are available at the SFCVB Visitor Information Center (lower level, Hallidie Plaza, at Market and Powell streets, where the Powell Street cable cars turn around).

10. Playgrounds
Even on vacation, kids sometimes just want to play. So why not take a play break in one of San Francisco's playgrounds?

Golden Gate Park's Children's Playground offers a diverse collection of climbing equipment, slides, swings and sandboxes. There is a small fee to ride on the restored Herschel- Spillman Carousel with its 62 beautifully painted animals

Other playgrounds in The City's colorful neighborhoods include the Chinese Recreation Center located at Washington and Mason Streets, North Beach Playground at Lombard and Mason Streets and Nob Hill's Huntington Park at California and Taylor Streets.

MORE on SF at

MORE info on San Francisco: Family Adventure Destination here

....... last updated August 29, 2001.......





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