If there is one thing that comes to mind when I think of San Francisco, it is how ridiculously pricey the city is. I end up there a number of times every year for either work or personal reasons, and I never cease to be amazed at how expensive it is to enjoy anything in the City by the Bay. With hotels prices over $300 per night, meals that cost twice what they do in other parts of the country, and toll bridges and parking charges everywhere, it’s hard to plan an inexpensive visit. Are there any things to do in San Francisco that won’t break the bank?

There certainly are! If you can cut cost of the flights and hotel using miles and points and pick up a few Clipper cards to get around on the mass transit, you’ll only be left with the cost of food and attractions. While I don’t have tips for cutting the cost of the former, you can certainly find plenty of cheap things to do in San Francisco with kids during a weekend visit. Here are my top five:

cheap things to do in San Francisco with kids

Musée Mécanique

Old and young alike can have hours of fun at this place. Musée Mécanique is located within Fisherman’s Wharf, at/near Pier 45. In an area with numerous restaurants and tourist attractions, it is a bit off the radar. I’d been to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf a couple times before I even knew Musée Mécanique existed!

Inside the old pier building is a treasure trove of old game machines. As the name would imply, they are generally mechanical, although there are a number of electronic games as well. The few pinball machines are especially cool, with some classic Star Wars and Indiana Jones-themed machines among them.

One of my favorites is the mechanical baseball, as insanely hard as it is. Had I not been with the kids, I probably would have chewed through quite a few quarters playing this.

I introduced my kids to Musée Mécanique last time we were in San Francisco. They played for a solid hour on a mere $20 converted into quarters. Compared to many attractions, this isn’t bad at all. And they had a ball. It might not be free, but Musée Mécanique is one of the best cheap things to do in San Francisco with kids.

cheap things to do in San Francisco with kids

Walk the Golden Gate Bridge

There is nothing better than getting an up-close-and-personal view of San Francisco’s most iconic landmark. The Golden Gate Bridge still awes me every time I drive over it. The setting is incredible, as are the views, whether you’re heading into the city and get an awesome view of San Francisco and the Bay to the east, or the Marin headlands when you’re leaving town.

If the weather is nice (i.e. it’s clear enough for a good view), walking the bridge should be at the top of your list. We were treated to an incredible day when we were in “the city” last. November isn’t the best in terms of temperature. But just bundle up. The views are worth it, and the kids will love the experience.

The best part? You’ll own nothing more than a parking fee or the cost of public transportation.

Hike the Filbert Stair and Enjoy the View

The Telegraph Hill neighborhood within North Beach is the place I’ve stayed most in San Francisco (mainly because I have a place I can often stay at for free). It’s a great area, with the Coit Tower above you and nice views of the Bay and downtown is you’re near the top. You’re also steps from Little Italy and not far from Chinatown.

The best way to get up here, in my opinion, is the Filbert Stair. The hill at this location is way too steep for a normal street, so there is a footpath instead, consisting of 99% steps. It’s a bit exhausting to climb all the way from Sansome Street up to Coit Tower, but the views at the top and the lovely gardens along the way are worth it.

If you’re kids are anything like mine, they may not care for the climb. But it’s an experience that you shouldn’t miss. Coit Tower at the top is cool as well, but there is an entry fee.

cheap things to do in San Francisco with kids

Ride The Streetcar Along Embarcadero

In addition to their iconic cable cars, consider riding the the less-well-known streetcars. San Francisco has an historic streetcar line that runs above ground, including down Market Street and along the Embarcadero.

The F line is the one you want. It runs all the way from The Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf. Standard tickets cost $2.25 while kids are only $1.00. This is some enjoyment that certainly won’t break the bank.

If you’re not actually trying to get anywhere, you can make an excellent loop by riding the streetcar from Fisherman’s Wharf to Powell Street, and then take the Powell Street Cable Car for its entire length basically all the way back to where you started. The cable cars are far more expensive at $8.00 per person.

cheap things to do in san francisco as a family

Grandview Park and the Tiled Steps

It’s been a while since I’ve made this trek, but Grandview Park might just be my favorite green space in the city, as tiny as it is. But I’m really more about views than the actual space. It’s best to ascend the steep hill from the west side, as you get a chance to enjoy the beautiful tiled steps.

I’ve not actually taken my kids up here, and they would likely protest. But the view at the top of both the ocean and the city is more than worth it. Plus, it gives you a chance to head out to the lovely neighborhoods in Sunset, which are some of the best in San Francisco, in my opinion.

The Expensive Things I’ve Passed Up

Every time I travel to San Francisco, I am blown away by the prices. Luckily, work is often covering my $20 lunch. The pricing for tourist attractions is no different. If you are not careful, you can spend a pretty penny in the city in just a couple days. There are a few things I have yet to do, as the prices have always turned me off. But I know I’ll get to them someday.

At the top of my list is a tour of Alcatraz. Experiencing this infamous island prison piques my interest. It’s certainly one of the top things to do inn San Francisco. Tours start at $40 for adults and $25 for kids, making this a decent cost for a family looking to experience Alcatraz.

The Exploratorium is another top San Francisco attraction for families. I remember visiting it years ago as a kid, and I hope we can take our kids fairly soon. Located at Pier 15, the Exploratorium is a science museum that has been located in San Francisco for many years (although it has changed locations). Tickets cost $30 for adults and $20 for kids, although 3 and under are free. Not exactly cheap or free. But it is one of the best things to do in San Francisco.

You can always wander Fisherman’s Wharf. But I find that it is a total tourist trap. It’s worth going to see once, briefly, and then never heading back. Aside from visiting Musée Mécanique, that is.

Other Cheap Things to Do in San Francisco with a Family?

Even though most things cost an arm and a leg, there are still quite a few cheap things to do in San Francisco as a family. You just need to keep your expectations reasonable. It’s absolutely possible to enjoy the City by the Bay without breaking the bank.

Any of the above suggestions are a great way to keep your budget in check, yet still see the city. My other quick suggestions are to spend some time in Chinatown, especially if you don’t mind spending some money at one of the better Chinese restaurants. Golden Gate Park is another place worth spending some time. And then there is always driving down the iconic section of Lombard Street.

Have you visited the Bay Area? What are some other things to do in San Francisco that you enjoy most? 

Grandview Park image courtesy of Daniel Ramirez used under CC BY 2.0 license