Free Things to Do in the City
Iconic San Francisco
The Golden Gate Bridge
You haven’t been to San Francisco until you’re strolled across this massive landmark. Luckily for you, the city’s biggest icon is always free for pedestrians. With breathtaking views of the city, as well as Alcatraz and Angel Island, this one-of-a-kind experience should top your list.
San Francisco Cable Car Museum
While it costs $7 to ride the historic cable cars of San Francisco, it’s free to visit the Cable Car Museum at the corner of Mason and Washington Streets. Not only can you learn the history of the cable cars, but also you can see how the entire system runs. This facility isn’t just a museum; it’s a crucial and operational part of the city’s transit system.
Exploring San Francisco’s famous Chinatown is best done on foot. This historic neighborhood is always busy, and is full of hidden gems that welcome the curious traveler. If you’ve still got some pep in your step after ducking into many shops and restaurants, continue on to North Beach to experience San Francisco’s Italian-American heritage.
The Castro is an important historic place for the gay rights movement. Visit important sites like Pink Triangle Park and the Rainbow Honor Walk to see plaques honoring significant GLBT activists. The first Wednesday of the month is always free at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender History Museum (4127 18th St.). One of the first museums in the world dedicated to the subject, the institution offers a look into the past century of local events that have shaped this global community, and this neighborhood in particular.
City Guides Walking Tours
No matter your interest, City Guides has a tour for you. All of their programs are led by local volunteers and they’re all free! Despite San Francisco’s hilly terrain, it’s a very walkable city, which makes City Guides a terrific option for getting your bearings, learning a little, and discovering some local favorites.
For something a little more high-adrenaline, visit the City by the Bay during its annual Fleet Week in October. The Blue Angels fly high-octane routines above San Francisco throughout the weekend. You can see them from almost anywhere in the city, but head to the waterfront for a truly staggering view of the action.
While some of the attractions contained within may charge, exploring PIER 39 itself is completely free. There are performers, movie screenings, and of course the lovable sea lions. For a full list of upcoming events at PIER 39, click here.
This beautiful brick complex at the water’s edge was once where famous Ghirardelli chocolate was made. While production has since moved to the East Bay, there are still plenty of sweet treats to enjoy at Ghirardelli Square, which is home to a number of shops and restaurants. Just enjoying the view and the outstanding seasonal decorations won’t set you back, though.
Did you know that the dome that caps San Francisco City Hall is bigger than the one atop the U.S. Capitol? See it from inside on a free tour, offered weekdays at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Bringing a big group? You’ll need a reservation.
Outdoor San Francisco
Urban hiking? Yes, please! A 1,500 acre national park, the Presidio is a true gem within city limits. The former military base now offers hiking trails, historic buildings and epic views. There are multiple entry points to the Presidio. Find out which attractions are nearest to each gate and plan your visit.
Land’s End and the Sutro Baths
Lands End is just what it sounds like: the western-most public park in San Francisco, where steep cliffs plunge into the swirling Pacific Ocean. You’ll find beautiful trees, spectacular views, and a stone labyrinth as you travel along the paths (and please, stick to the paths!). If you want to feel like Indiana Jones, be sure to visit the site of the Sutro Baths. Once a tremendous indoor swimming facility built in the 1890s by entrepreneur and former mayor Adolph Sutro, all that remains today are the foundations of what was once the city’s premier attraction.
Golden Gate Park
Independent of its incredible attractions, Golden Gate Park is still a world-class, urban green space. Wide lawns, hidden groves, and rolling hills make it an easy and memorable place to explore. Entrance to the park is free, and it’s also no charge to see the park’s towering windmills, resident bison herd, or flowing waterfall (yes, a waterfall).
Alamo Square Park
Home to one of San Francisco’s most noteworthy views, Alamo Square Park is where you’ll find the Painted Ladies, a row of classically beautiful Victorian homes. On clear days, the city skyline in the distance creates a backdrop that stuns visitors and locals alike. Don’t forget to pack a blanket; Alamo Square Park is an excellent spot for a picnic.
It’s far from being San Francisco’s largest green space, but Dolores Park in the Mission is certainly among the most popular with the locals. With killer views of the downtown skyline, new amenities and recreational areas, and unobstructed sunlight, Dolores is where San Franciscans go instead of the beach. If you want to simultaneously commune with nature and with your fellow man, Dolores Park is the place to go.
In the geographic center of the city, you’ll find one of the highest natural points at which to observe San Francisco. The path to the top can be steep and winding, but the view is a terrific reward. Just be sure to bring an extra layer; the wind at the summit can be fairly strong.
Though perhaps not as famous as Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson is in fact taller (but just by a smidge). The benefit of Mount Davidson, though, is that it tends to be the less visited of the two sites, meaning that your time in the parkland on Davidson’s slopes will feel much more like an escape from the urban jungle below.
Located underneath the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point is one of the oldest American military bases on the west coast. Now decommissioned, Fort Point is a free museum that not only educates you about San Francisco’s military history but also offers some awe-inspiring perspectives of the enormous bridge above.
Alta Plaza Park
Alta Plaza Park is a charming open space in the heart of the Pacific Heights neighborhood. There are lots of fun things for families to do in the park, including a playground, tennis courts, a basketball court, a dog run, and more. One of the best parts of the park is its stunning view. At the top of the hill, you can see the surrounding cityscape and bay. There is a grand staircase that will help you get to the top of the park.
Want to see some art while you’re outside? Take in Fog Bridge #72494, an installation created for the Exploratorium by Fujiko Nakaya. Fog Bridge stretches 150 feet between Piers 15 and 17 and is shrouded in mist created by water that is pumped through many nozzles at a very high level of pressure. Pedestrians can walk through the fog and cool down, and they can get a taste for the cool and quirky exhibits that the Exploratorium offers. Fog Bridge is now powered by desalinated water from the bay, which means that it has minimal impact on the environment.
Artistic San Francisco
Free Museum Days
Most of the museums in San Francisco open their doors for free to visitors at least once a month. The free days are usually the first Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday of each month. While these days can get crowded, they’re still a great deal. Participating museums include the Asian Art Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, and many more. For more about San Francisco’s must-see museums, click here.
Public art is everywhere in San Francisco, but nowhere is it more abundant than in the Mission. Colorful murals in a variety of styles, created by many different artists over the years, each with their own unique viewpoint, can be found all over the neighborhood. The most popular ones can be observed in Clarion and Balmy Alleys, where the art flows uninterrupted from one building to another.
The Wave Organ
This permanent artistic installation at the water’s edge in San Francisco’s Marina uses the shifting tides to create music. When the waters of the bay lap against the Wave Organ’s PVC piping, it produces sound. It’s a wholly natural aquatic symphony that’s guaranteed never to sound the same—and it’s free to enjoy.
Readings at City Lights
Any literature lover should visit City Lights, the legendary bookstore in North Beach (261 Columbus Ave.). This historic shop was once a popular hangout for legendary writers of the Beat movement like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Today, you can go to City Lights to hear regular readings by famous authors and up-and-coming writers, as well as poets, performance artists, and more.
Palace of Fine Arts
The only remaining structure from 1915’s legendary Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts is an open-air, classical structure partially surrounded by a man-made lake. In short, it’s one of the most beautiful and peaceful spots in the entire city. There’s no charge to explore the grounds or watch the guaranteed parade of wedding parties pass through as they line up for that perfect picture.
Stern Grove Festival
From mid-June to mid-August, you can attend a series of free Sunday concerts at Sigmund Stern Grove. This popular performance series in the Sunset features a wide range of genres, from classical music to rock.
Lindy in the Park
Do you like to dance? Then head to Golden Gate Park on Sundays for Lindy in the Park. You can take a free half-hour swing dance lesson starting at 12:00 p.m. You don’t need a partner, just a willingness to learn!
Renegade Craft Fair
The Renegade Craft Fair happens four times a year at the Fort Mason Center Festival Pavilion and features handmade contemporary crafts from standout artists and designers. In addition, you can taste food from local restaurants, dance to live music, and meet other art aficionados.
Free Concerts at Amoeba Music
Amoeba Music (1855 Haight St.) is legendary because it’s the world’s largest independent record store. You can browse their selection of CDs, records, and more. If you’re lucky, you can catch a live concert while you’re there. Check the store’s website for a calendar of performances.
Atop Nob Hill sits Grace Cathedral, a massive Gothic structure that includes labyrinths, gardens, and a regular schedule of excellent free musical performances. There’s no charge to enter, even if all you want to do is marvel at its incredible architecture.
The Harmon Observation Tower at the de Young Museum
Rising high above the trees on the north side of Golden Gate Park is the de Young’s Harmon Observation Tower. It’s free for all, whether or not you’ve visited the museum (but you really should; it’s great). An artistic piece in its own right, the Tower was a bit controversial when it was built; but once naysayers stepped inside and took in the 360-degree views of the city from the top, they quickly changed their tune.