The Best Tip for FREE San Francisco and Bay Area Activities

As I started typing, I realized we rolled into San Francisco exactly two years ago after our 4,500 mile cross-country road trip. I can hardly believe it! In some ways, I still feel like a Virginian; in other ways, I’ve definitely acclimated to the California sunshine. 😉
My very first stop the day after we got to the city was to the library. I was anxious to open up book-borrowing privileges, of course, but more exciting was something I’d researched online before even arriving in town. Discover & Go is a program through local library systems that lends out free passes to various museums and other attractions. It turns out there were TONS of options on there! It was absolutely amazing for making the most of our two months living in downtown without completely breaking the bank.
So here is my biggest tip, regardless of whether you live in the Bay Area or are just visiting: get a Bay Area library card, or several! It turns out even visitors can acquire cards in a couple of cities in the area, which allows them Discover & Go access, as well, and locals have a long list of cities that provide cards to anyone who is a California resident.
After moving out of the city, we lived in Palo Alto and San Jose and got library cards there, while hanging onto our SF ones. I realized that there were a bunch of library systems that granted cards, some to any California resident, and others to anyone with a photo ID.
Having multiple cards opened up so many options for us, especially since you can often make reservations on multiple accounts. Since some of them only require some sort of residency somewhere, it allows even visitors to the area to benefit from free passes.
I wasn’t sure until we got our library cards if it was the type of thing where it wouldn’t really be that useful because there was only one pass for an awesome attraction per year. It turns out that while it can require some on-top-of-it-ness to get passes to some of the more popular attractions, it’s definitely doable. There was not a single attraction we wanted to see in San Francisco that was listed on Discover and Go for which we weren’t able to get tickets. We were even able to visit the Exploratorium – arguably the most popular attraction on there – three different times!
The SF system has an incredible number of passes to some of the very best attractions – including places like the aforementioned Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, and tons of others. These all tend to be pricey, and Discover & Go has passes for FREE (and the ones I mentioned even include family passes that include 2 adults and up to 4 children).
Here are some of the library cards available, all of which have slightly varying offerings in terms of residency requirements, participating attractions, and availability:
San Francisco SF Resident
Palo Alto California Resident
Berkeley North American Resident
San Jose California Resident
Santa Clara North American Resident
Sunnyvale California Resident
Burlingame California Resident
San Mateo California Resident
Alameda County California Resident
Contra Costa County California Resident
I especially love the Berkeley system because it allows anyone to benefit from free passes, and since it’s a big system, tends to have lots of availability. It also has several East Bay options not accessible on other library systems, such as the Chabot Science Center, Lawrence Hall of Science, and the Oakland Zoo. If there were one card I’d recommend, it would be this one.
Here are a few more tips for maximizing the Discover & Go system:
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  • Get passes in multiple cities; if one is unavailable, check another. Especially consider getting the Berkeley library card, as it’s open to anyone and tends to have lots of attractions/availability.
  • Passes typically refresh on the 1st of the month, so if it’s a popular attraction (such as the Exploratorium or the Oakland Zoo), be sure to get on first thing to try to snag them.
  • Since each account can only have two active reservations, consider reserving passes across multiple accounts (e.g., yours and your spouse’s account). Depending on the library system, you can sometimes make reservations with kids’ accounts, but often it needs to be with an account for someone aged 14+ or 18+.
  • Here’s a good tutorial for how to make reservations on Discover & Go.
  • Some attractions will only allow one reservation per year, so decide when is the most efficient use of the pass (when the entire family can go? on a weekday when it’s not as crowded?).
  • DON’T print your pass until you’re about to use it. If you’ve made the reservation but your plans change, you can cancel the reservation so long as you haven’t printed out the pass. That way, you don’t waste an active reservation (or a pass to a location that only allows one visit per year!). This also applies to clicking the link in the confirmation email – once you’ve clicked it, you may no longer cancel, so do so with caution.
  • Some attractions will allow you to show the pass on your smart phone, but most require a printed pass.
  • Some attractions will only cover up to one adult and one or two children, but you may be able to get two passes on two different accounts (check the rules, though, as some only allow one pass per household).


Keep in mind that all of these details are current as of the time of writing, and could change at any time. So take advantage of this amazing program while you can, whether you’re local or just visiting. Plus, a library card is always a terrific souvenir. Now they just need to add Twirl ‘n Dip to the list of venues and we’ll be all set.

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