San Francisco’s family-oriented museums are free at least one day each month and in many cases, free always for children 12 and under. The Asian Art Museum has created special Target Sundays family programming. The free admission on the first Sunday of each month features storytelling and yoga sessions each month. On Target First Free Sundays during special exhibitions, the museum often presents films and performances related to the cultural background of the artworks on view.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in Yerba Buena Gardens also has an appealing array of kid-friendly activities. Free the first Tuesday of every month, SFMOMA’s second floor houses the Koret Visitor Information Center which is staffed by friendly educators eager to answer questions and help young artists browse through art books, view a community art gallery and play with Art Cards, a gallery exploration activity.
Located in Golden Gate Park and newly remodeled, the California Academy of Sciences’ “inside-out” design provides a behind-the-scenes look at aquatic life support systems for the Steinhart Aquarium. Visitors can meet biologists who care for more than 5,000 animals, and — if they’re lucky — can even help them feed the fish. Admission is free the third Wednesday of the month.
While there’s some usually pretty serious business going on down below, the rooftop above Moscone Center South on Howard Street is the perfect setting for a lighthearted escape. There’s a playground, carousel, ice skating rink and bowling alley. The western corner is anchored by Zeum, a multimedia arts and technology museum where kids and families can explore creativity through hands-on programs such as clay animation, video production and more. It’s free for tots two and under.
The face of a child, composed of more than 2,000 photographs submitted from individuals around the world, beckons at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) located at Third and Mission streets. MoAD is a collector of stories and through the coupling of art, culture and technology it is telling the story of the African Diaspora. History comes alive with “first person” narratives, storytelling and poetry events, and living history presentations. MoAD is free for children 12 and under.
Located on the same block of Mission Street, 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 Tuesday of every month is “pay what you wish day.”
At its new location along the waterfront at Pier 15, the Exploratorium is a playground for ideas. In the vanguard of the movement of the “museum as an educational center,” the Exploratorium offers hundreds of interactive exhibits in the areas of science, art and human perception. Admission is free on 5 select days each year.
The Wells Fargo History Museum in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District takes visitors back to the Gold Rush era with its displays of gold nuggets, rare artifacts, interactive exhibits 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 $5 to ride a cable car, the only moving national historic landmark in America, to the museum via the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason lines.
Just as the cable car is the United States’ only mobile national landmark, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in Fisherman’s Wharf is its only floating National Park. Home to the world’s largest collection of historic ships, it includes the 1886 square rigger Balclutha, an 1890 ferryboat Eureka and the steam tug Hercules. Admission to board the ships is $5, under age 17 free; strolling the pier is free. Scheduled events and activities include sea chantey sing-a-longs, birding, tours of the Eureka engine room and crabbin’ “how tos” off Municipal Pier. An enormous Fresnel lens, once used in the Farallon Island lighthouse, marks the entrance of the nearby Visitor Center at the corner of Hyde and Jefferson streets in the 1907 Haslett Warehouse building. Uniformed rangers staff the information desk or one can just simply sail through the fun and interactive panels and displays to learn more about San Francisco’s colorful and diverse maritime heritage.
A project of the San Francisco Fire Department Historical Society, the San Francisco Fire Department Museum displays a collection of vintage equipment including hose tenders and steamers; photographs and memorabilia, especially from the dozens of volunteer fire companies. Always free.
Snuggled up against Potrero Hill, the San Francisco Center for the Book offers free Family Bookmaking Days in addition to exhibits celebrating the book arts. Kids learn the intricacies of pop-ups, accordion folds and discover even a CD case has literary inclinations.