San Francisco is expensive. The average hotel price is about $200, and during this year’s America’s Cup, the Oracle convention in the fall, and during pretty much any festival or celebration, the price can often triple.
But that doesn’t mean you should not come visit. Especially now that summer is here!!!!! (can you see my cartwheel?). Yup, San Francisco summer starts right when all the local kids gussy up and go back to school (today). So now is the time to plan a trip.
What to do: With a gazillion attractions and museums, it may seem like you have to bleed money to have fun in the city. However, now that the fog is taking its summer vacation, the outdoors offers free guaranteed fun in the city.
Golden Gate Park: Juggling the green space needs of San Francisco is not an easy feat. On weekends you’ll find 75,000 intrepid nature seekers riding bikes, attending music festivals, canoeing, drumming, drinking, hiking, viewing art, picnicking in gardens, sliding down the city’s fastest slide, or playing soccer.
These 1000 acres were deeded to San Franciscans in 1870 to combat urban growth—though on a busy weekend, you can’t help but wonder whether the park should have been given an even larger swath of land.
Flying above the park you see the rectangle of greenery, but it is not until you enter that you can truly enjoy the wildness of the eucalyptus shaded trails, the rich culture of the museums, the manicured gardens, and hidden lakes.
Don’t skip the expansive (and recently renovated) playground—complete with a toddler and older kids’ area, grassy fields, shade, a carousel, and the water play area (bring extra clothes and towels in summer). Other free or low cost highlights include the family of bison near the north west edge of the park, Stow Lake, Strybing Botanical Gardens, and the weekend street closures, ideal for nascent tricyclers and their wobbly biker parents.
Dolores Park: San Francisco’s unofficial beach party spot (sans the strands) is the place to be when the fog hugs the rest of the city. As long as you don’t mind half naked sunbathers, plenty of drinking (and not just smoothies), and puffs of smoke, this is San Francisco’s Venice Beach. While our real strands suffer wind storms and dense fog, summer heats up on this grassy swath of land, drawing endless crowds of partying sun worshippers.
In the shadow of the Mission Dolores, this area was once a graveyard—don’t fret, the remains have since been transported to the “City of the Dead”—that’s Colma, not “Deadwood” City.
These days Mission District dog-totting hipsters congregate at the bottom of the hill, picnicking on Bi Rite, while the Castro cuties show their stuff at the top of the hill—which has a photo worthy view of downtown. Families end up in the middle, by the gigantic play structure.
Crissy Field: Not much halts a determined child from getting wet when she sets her mind to it. And anyone who has dipped a pinky toe in the Bay knows that you probably don’t want Little Miss [insert whining here] I Wanna Swim wading around in the icy waters. But if she has to, I mean, really has to, your future wind surfer will be eternally grateful for a trip to Crissy Field beach. Sans the massive waves Ocean Beach, kids (dressed in wetsuits) can jump right in without a fear of getting careened by whitewater. When the kiddos tire of sand castle building, take the bike/walking trail to the Warming Hut for Let’s Be Frank hot dogs, hot cocoa, and clean-ish toilets.
If the thought of the gritty bay grosses you out, this green space is also a prime choice for soccer games, Frisbee, biking, or picnicking with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Crissy Field boasts prime viewing area for 4th of July fireworks, America’s Cup, and the Blue Angels extravaganza in October (bring noise cancellation headphones—for you too).
Presidio: Once a major military base, now the Presidio is one of San Francisco’s most adored green spaces. 1491 acres of greenery cuddle up to the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean and make this an ideal place to hike, bike, explore and rest.
The two tree hugged playgrounds (Julius Kahn Playground and Mountain Lake Park) reek of eucalyptus and bring a dash of calm to energetic children. And while not the most exceptional structures, the setting makes even the most urban children more interested in playing with pine cones than swings. Throw in miles of hiking trails, the Bowling Alley, a number of restaurants, events like the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, the Hawaiian Festival, Shakespeare in the Park and Film in the Fog, a pet cemetery and a campground.
For more ideas of free and cheap activities, pick up a copy of Northern California: An Explorer’s Guide.