Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in San Mateo, CA

  • Published 2023/01/13

San Mateo is a city on the San Francisco Peninsula, just around 20 miles from San Francisco.

It’s the seat of San Mateo County and is an economic hub thanks to its strong tourism and employment.

Because of this, there are several excellent attractions in the bustling urban corners of the city.

Many of their best attractions are also free to enter, so San Mateo is an excellent option for budget travelers or those who want to maximize their stay in the San Francisco area.

Check this list of the free things to do in San Mateo, California, for a comprehensive view of what the city offers.

Appreciate San Francisco Bay at Seal Point Park

Binoculars at Seal Point Park

Jayce Gispan /

One of the best things about San Mateo is its proximity to San Francisco Bay, and Seal Point Park is a great place to experience it for free.

As a seaside park that also doubles as a dog park, Seal Point Park is one of the best family-oriented destinations in the city.

The place is sprawling with walking and biking trails, making it a great place to break a sweat while also experiencing the Bay up close.

Trail overlooking the bay at Seal Point Park

Bill Abbott, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another favorite activity here is windsurfing, as the side of San Mateo facing the Bay is known for strong winds in the afternoon.

Seal Point Park is one of the best free areas in San Mateo.

You can access it along J Hart Clinton Drive.

A bridge at Seal Point Park

King of Hearts, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Take a Self-Guided Tour at Old Downtown San Mateo

One of your first free activities in the city should be exploring Old Downtown San Mateo, a picturesque shopping district perfect for urban exploration.

Old Downtown San Mateo has roots dating back to 1863, sprawling with all sorts of historic buildings still around up to this day.

Like many historic downtown areas in the Bay Area, San Mateo shares the classic Mediterranean look with sprawling Spanish-style architecture and vintage red brick roads.

The city encourages you to take a self-guided tour, which can double as a street art tour since the place is teeming with all sorts of local art.

Old Downtown San Mateo can be accessed along 1st Avenue.

See the Roses at San Mateo Central Park

Once you’re done with the Bay, go to San Mateo Central Park.

One of the best things about this park is its rose garden, teeming with beautiful pink and red roses that make for an intimate dating spot with your partner.

Besides the flowers, San Mateo Central Park is also full of large trees, making it a great place to trek and stay in touch with nature.

Children can also enjoy this park as there are amenities here, like a mini-train ride, tennis courts, and a baseball field.

Located along East 5th Avenue, San Mateo Central Park is a great afternoon activity for everyone.

Enjoy Panoramic Views at Laurelwood Park

Playground at Laurelwood Park

mliu92 from San Mateo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you want an exciting excursion to San Mateo, Laurelwood Park should be on your list.

Laurelwood Park is the city’s biggest park that has various trails leading up to a local mountain called Sugarloaf Mountain.

Reaching the summit gives you amazing views of San Mateo County, including a picturesque sunset view during the early evening.

Less of an actual mountain and more of a large hill, Laurelwood Park is an excellent place for newbie hikers as the trails won’t exceed more than two miles.

You can also hike the place on your bike because of its leveled terrain.

Laurelwood Park is accessible along Glendora Drive in the city’s residential areas.

Experience Japan at San Mateo Japanese Gardens

Within San Mateo Central Park lies a separate garden that deserves recognition as it’s one of the most popular attractions in the city, the San Mateo Japanese Garden.

As a separate area from San Mateo Central Park, this area offers a serene respite in your travels to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Entering this garden feels like going on a quick detour to rural Japan.

The place is full of Japanese aesthetic elements designed by Nagao Sakurai, a renowned landscape architect from the Imperial Palace of Tokyo.

A granite pagoda, koi pond, Japanese teahouse, Buddhist statues, and gardens sprawling with bonsai and cherry blossom trees are in San Mateo Japanese Gardens.

This awe-inspiring garden is easily one of the best free attractions in California.

Hike along Sawyer Camp Trail

View of Crystal Springs at Sawyer Camp Trail

SawBear /

If you can’t wait for Bicycle Sunday, Sawyer Camp Trail is another must-try biking path.

Once a wagon road during the mid-1800s, Sawyer Camp Trail has scenic access to the rural areas of San Mateo.

Mainly, you’ll have up-close views of the waters of Upper Crystal Springs and its surrounding wetlands and wooded areas.

People along Sawyer Camp Trail

Neeta Lind, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The trail spans around six miles, making for a fantastic morning activity that lets you experience the historical and rural charm of San Mateo.

Sawyer Camp Trail lies at the city’s western end, a few miles from Cañada Road.

Join Bicycle Sunday

One of the unique things about San Mateo is the city’s love for biking, and you can join the locals through a weekly event called Bicycle Sunday.

San Mateo County closes around four to five miles of car lanes during this free event for non-motorized activities such as biking, jogging, and even roller-skating.

Strollers are also allowed in this activity, making it a great all-rounder for families.

Bicycle Sunday typically happens along Cañada Road but keep an eye out for announcements during your visit.

Not only is this a fun activity, but it’s also a great way to see the scenery of San Mateo and other neighboring towns like Redwood and Woodside without spending a dime.

Enjoy the Lagoon at Parkside Aquatic Park

The waters of Parkside Aquatic Park

mliu92, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Parkside Aquatic Park is tucked in the dense residential districts of San Mateo along Seal Street.

The area is an urban recreational space along a city lagoon connected to San Francisco Bay.

Because it’s further inland than the shores of the San Francisco Bay itself, the winds here are much calmer, making it an excellent place for swimming and kayaking.

There’s also a sizable beach area that’s perfect for sunbathing and entertaining children.

As one of the best places to cool down and enjoy the California climate of San Mateo, Parkside Aquatic Park is an excellent addition to your itinerary.

Visit the Junipero Serra Statue

You can visit the Junipero Serra Statue if you want something quirky during your trip.

Junipero Serra is a Spanish priest who played an integral role in the religious formation of the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego and Baja California in Mexico.

The statue is a weathered stone replica of the priest found in the rural parts of the city.

Still, if you’re into 18th-century history, this makes for a great souvenir photo while also acting as a rest stop for travelers.

There are also a couple of information boards about the geography and ecology of the area, which is a great bonus.

Take a Breather at Ryder Park

Bridge at Ryder Park

Michael Rivera, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ryder Park is adjacent to Seal Point Park, famous among locals for its child-oriented activities, making this one of the best free places for kids to enjoy.

In particular, the park is known for its splash pad and robust playgrounds, which are a great family activity, especially during the hot months in California.

Ryder Park also has access to San Francisco Bay, which makes it a picturesque area.

The grounds of Ryder Park

Michael Rivera, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Besides these, the place has lots of beautiful greenery and sanded areas and allows dogs.

Barbecues and picnics are famous in this well-maintained park, so try to visit if you have some downtime with the family.

Celebrate September Nights on B Street

The city government of San Mateo hosts several free events throughout the year, and one of the highly anticipated gigs is September Nights on B Street.

This event features a festive celebration of music, food, and entertainment involving adults and children.

The streets of Downtown San Mateo are transformed into dining areas and mini concert grounds during September Nights on B Street.

While the live performances and food are the main attraction, kids also are given access to a sizable play area.

As one of the best annual events in San Mateo, September Nights on B Street is an excellent complement to your trip if you’re visiting during that month.

Spot the Birds at De Anza Historical Park

Daytime view of the De Anza Historical Park

mliu92, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The De Anza Historical Park is a hidden gem in the city’s haven for history and nature lovers.

This historical park is named after Juan Bautista De Anza, an expeditionary pioneer who explored much of California during the late 1700s.

Anza and his men once camped in this area during their mission in the San Francisco Peninsula, making this part of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

Situated along San Mateo Creek, the park also doubles as a rustic place to do birdwatching.

You can find many great herons, ducks, and various other birds that made the creek their habitat.

De Anza Historical Park can be found along Crystal Springs Road.

Watch the Performances at Spring Dance Show

Another famous annual event in the city is the Spring Dance Show, typically held in the city’s major urban parks.

The Spring Dance Show is the culmination of the hard work done by the city’s Spring Dance Association.

Together with the city government, this free event lets you see the various themed dance performances of the locals ranging from hip-hop to folk.

As a laid-back event that’s great for families, Spring Dance Show is a fun way to immerse yourself in San Mateo’s local community.

If you’re visiting during the spring, be on the lookout for announcements for the dates and location of this fun and free show.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Take in the Views at Leo J. Ryan Park

Amphitheatre at Leo J. Ryan Park

portecuaphoto /

One of the best free attractions is Leo J. Ryan Park, located in Foster City, California, which you can reach in five to seven minutes.

It’s a gigantic park with almost everything you can imagine, such as a theater, a skate park, ball courts, and picnic grounds.

Similar to Parkside Aquatic Park in San Mateo, Leo J. Ryan Park is also situated in another lagoon.

View of the waters from Leo J. Ryan Park

portecuaphoto /

The waters of this lagoon, and the beauty of the park, make this one of the prettiest areas in San Mateo County; it’s no surprise tons of city events occur here.

Watch for public events like the yearly Water Lantern Festival during your visit.

The grounds of Leo J. Ryan Park

Ashish-Sharma /

Cross the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge

Aerial view of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge

Bill Roque /

While the San Francisco Bay Area is known chiefly for its Golden State Bridge, crossing the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge is an experience.

It’s only 8-10 minutes from the city and 23 minutes from San Mateo.

This massive bridge is one of the longest in the world because of its construction.

Structure of the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge

jejim /

Unlike most bridges, San Mateo-Hayward Bridge isn’t a straight line, giving you more viewpoints of the bay and city skyline at different angles.

Of course, the bridge is beautiful, best seen from Bridgeview Park, right beside the entrance.

Still, driving along this scenic route is the best way to experience it.

Cars along the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge

TierneyMJ /

Final Thoughts

San Mateo is a picturesque city in the Bay Area that warrants a few days to appreciate fully.

San Mateo is full of adventure for all sorts of visitors, from its scenic waterfront views to its more underrated trails and city parks.

With this list of free things to do in San Mateo, California, you should enjoy a memorable budget-friendly experience.

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