San Francisco is home to a little bit of everything. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the top 10 travel destinations in the US. There are so many free things for families to do in San Francisco that you don’t need to go broke while having a great time on vacation. We have previously shared a half dozen free things to do in City By the Bay. That post has been very popular so we are sharing another half dozen suggestions for attractions that are uniquely San Francisco and free.
Fort Point National Historic Site
This fort was completed just before the American Civil War by the US Army, to defend San Francisco Bay against hostile warships. You can join a scheduled docents tour near the front entrance of the Fort and learn about the soldiers’ lives at Fort Point, the Fort’s unique architecture, the defenses of the Golden Gate, and lots more. Or take a look around Fort Point at your own pace. A booklet available at the fort that provides information about the fort and its history. Afterwards, you and your family can demonstrate your knowledge and become certified Fort Point cannoneers!
Make sure to climb to the top level and marvel at the archways of the Golden Gate as well as the gun turrets mounted on the top of the fort. You can see the city from Fort Point or look out towards the ocean and even the massive iron works that make up the bottom part of the Golden Gate.
Chinatown and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory Tour
SF Chinatown is filled with vibrant culture, foods, and trinkets. The moment you enter, you’re in a different world. What’s great about Chinatown is the uniqueness of all the culture combined in one place. Explore the streets and alleys of this SF neighborhood and be immersed in Chinese culture. You see shops selling BBQ meats, baked goods, and produce. There are also the alleyways that offer some smaller shops and where you can hear the mah jong players.
Inside the historic Ross Alley, Golden Gate Fortune Cookies is one of SF Chinatown’s oldest establishments. (They’ve been making fortune cookies since 1962.) You can see the contraptions that rapidly cooks the dough into fortune cookies in a two-woman assembly line. The workers quickly take the flat cookies to bend them before they cool. The whole affair takes less than 10 minutes to see and it’s free. The whole process was simple, yet mesmerizing.
Randall Museum focuses on the arts, crafts, sciences, and natural history. On view are over 100 live native and domestic animals and interactive displays. There are plenty of rotating and permanent exhibits. The museum provides exhibits, classes, workshops, presentations, special events, and many other hands-on learning experiences for children and adults. These animals can help visitors learn about and appreciate California’s diverse and disappearing wildlife.
Ferry Building Marketplace
The Ferry Building Marketplace is a people’s marketplace serving residents and travelers alike. Located within the historic Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, shops large and small celebrate food in all its forms, offering everything from artisan cheeses to the freshest of local fish. Restaurants and cafés serve cuisine representing the quality and cultural diversity of San Francisco’s best chefs. Eat oysters, chowder, chocolate and cheese at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Check out the food wares from local vendors throughout the Marketplace.
Ghirardelli Square is one of San Francisco’s top-rated sights. This historic San Francisco landmark is located on the beautiful San Francisco bay just a block from the cable car turnaround on the west side of Fisherman’s Wharf. The brick structures in Ghirardelli Square were once the original factory of the famous chocolate-maker.
Ghirardelli Square is not just about chocolate. It’s about history, tradition, and enjoyment. It’s a bustling shopping center, home to boutiques, toy shops, and fine dining establishments, and entertainment. In addition to regular live entertainment, Ghirardelli Square hosts several annual events that include the Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival, held in September.
The chocolate factory is elsewhere these days, but you’ll find a retail outlet and sweet shop here. Kids will especially love the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop where they can check out chocolate manufacturing equipment and eat hot fudge sundaes or just try the free chocolate samples. After you’ve snagged some free chocolate samples, sit by the fountain and enjoy some great people-watching.
The museum consists of 20th-century penny arcade games and artifacts and is located at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. This is one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of antique arcade games and machines. Musee Mechanique is home to more than 300 antique mechanical items and games that still work.
Admission is free, but you have to pay anywhere from $0.01 to $1 to operate the machines. Grab a roll of quarters and go nuts with Laffing Sal (described as a “famously creepy” 6-foot-tall, laughing automaton.) There are also mechanical monkey bands, coin-operated fortune tellers, music boxes, photo booths, and 1980’s arcade games. The museum also owns a collection of machines made out of toothpicks by prisoners at Alcatraz.
For more suggestions on the free things in San Francisco check out our post, A Half Dozen Free Things to Do With Kids in San Francisco.