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10 Almost Free Things to See & Do in San Francisco

Author: JillW
Date of Trip: July 2011

10 Free (or Almost) Things To See & Do in San Francisco

Want to know why 16 million people visit San Francisco each year? Not only is it one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it also offers many free activities for families. Where else can you see seals up close, taste the sweetness of jellybeans, and learn the history of the cable car?

Since there is so much to see and do, I recommend staying at our two favorite hotels: Hilton San Francisco (750 Kearny Street, San Francisco, 415-433-6600) due to its central location. It’s in the Financial District, next to Chinatown, North Beach and blocks from Embarcadero. Across the street is a children’s park with two playground areas in Portsmouth Square. Many of the rooms offer two comfortable full size beds and a lounge sleeper for small children. Ask for a room on the odd number side for views of Coit Towers, Alcatraz Island, and the East Bay.

The Hyatt Regency is the largest waterfront hotel in San Francisco. On Hotwire we were able to secure a room for $99 a night. Located across from the Ferry Building and next to Cable Car stops, it’s an ideal location for families. For reservations: (800) 233-1234.

Chinese Cultural Center

The Hilton houses the Chinese Cultural Center. Located on the third floor, this non-profit museum displayed a Chinese puzzles exhibit that entertained my girls for an hour. In China, puzzles are intelligence games and for centuries challenged the minds of young and old. The Center fosters an understanding and appreciation of Chinese and Chinese American art, history, and culture in the US.


Walk through the coolest water/artwork in San Francisco. The Vaillancourt Fountain, built in 1971 by a French-Canadian sculptor, Francois Vaillancourt, releases thousands of gallons of recycled water from its apertures. All ages enjoy the thrill of walking on the path of large stepping stones through the roaring water and climbing the metal stairs up to a second story gangplank.

The Ferry Building

Samples of the most delicious artisanal cheese, gourmet mustards, flavored olive oils, and delicious breads are waiting inside this landmark building. It’s a great place to pick up picnic items for lunch and sit outside overlooking the Bay Bridge and boats. Get a freshly baked French baguette for under $2 and a hunk of cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery. Many of the shops and restaurants close around dinnertime, so come early in the day. If you are there on a local Farmer’s Market day, there are booths of fresh fruit and vegetables to sample. Outside there may be a Farmer’s Market with tons of fresh fruit and vegetables to sample.

TCHO Chocolate

Walk along the pier promenade up to Fisherman’s’ Village and stop for samples of delicious chocolates at Pier 17. They allow you to sample their “Fruity” and “Nutty” tasting chocolates. I enjoyed the macadamias drenched in dark chocolate. It you feel obligated to buy some delicious treats, the little square bars are only $1.

Pier 39

Walk over or take the antique streetcars to Fisherman’s Wharf and walk out to the end of Pier 39 to see hundreds of Sea Lions fighting over their harems, sleeping on wooden docks and swimming around the harbor in their own private sanctuary. They arrived in 1990 after the 1989 earthquake and have stayed. Sometimes in the winter months there are as many as 900 of these playful pinnipeds.

Musee Mecanique

Nearby at Pier 45, at the foot of Taylor Street, is a favorite spot for families. Inside is a collection of over 300 mechanically operated musical machines, antique slot and arcade machines, orchestrations and animations. It’s the largest private collection of items “Laffing Sal” greets visitors with her boisterous and jolly laugh. This collection used to be housed in the lower level of the Cliff House until 2002. Today, it’s located in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s free to enter, but bring some quarters for your kids to watch “Susie the Can-Can Dancer” or arm wrestle a mechanical man. It’s a trip down memory lane that everyone will enjoy.

Ghiradelli Square

Inside the Ghiradelli ice cream store at 900 N. Point Street, is the original chocolate-making machine. Pick up your ticket for a free chocolate at the Visitors Center.

Levi Strauss Museum

Levi Strauss came to San Francisco in 1860 to make blue work pants for the gold miners. The small museum offers a walking tour to see a video and original designs of clothing made from the late 1800s to 2009. The nearby park is a perfect place to rest and relax. 250 Valencia Street (near Duboce), San Francisco, CA 94110.

Jelly Belly Factory Tour

Located about one hour from San Francisco in Fairfield, is a FREE candy factory tour. It’s worth the drive once you step into the brightly colored factory, your senses will be bedazzled as you see and smell chocolate, jelly beans, taffy and gummy creatures being made before your eyes. Every guest receives a jelly belly paper hat before taking the 40-minute tour. Your picture is taken next to the jelly belly mascot, yet is a steep $20 momento. Instead, we took the tour of the working factory and learned how these sweet creations are made daily. Afterwards, guests receive a bag of jellybeans filled with assorted flavors. There is a cafe and gift shop. The factory tour starts at the Jelly Belly Candy Company, One Jelly Belly Lane, Fairfield, CA 94533.

Cable Car Museum

The viewing area of winding wheels, engines, large sheaves and cable lines entering the building through a channel under the street will fascinate kids and adults alike. Located in the historic cable barn at Washington/Mason (1201 Mason Street), the museum houses 3 cable cars from the 1870s. The Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason stop at the museum. Riding a cable car is under $5 a ticket, however the museum admission is FREE. Open from 10 am to 6 pm in high season.

Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory

Up in Petaluma, just 40 miles north of San Francisco, is a scrapbook hobbyist dream come true. Families can tour a Sticker factory to learn how stickers are printed, packaged, and shipped. Visitors receive stickers, do a fun sticker craft, and visit a sticker museum to see every sticker made. This dog-friendly company allows employees to bring their four legged friends, so be prepared to see many of man’s best friends. Reservations are required by calling (800) 429-4549. Tours are available Monday – Friday. 3810 Cypress Drive, Petaluma, CA 94954.

With plenty of free things to see and do in San Francisco and its neighboring areas, families will enjoy the beauty and diversity of a city where Frank Sinatra “left his heart.”

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