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San Francisco may be a pricey place to live, but one of its beauties is that there is so much packed into this little 7-mile-by-7-mile city. You can have the most luxe, elite experiences, or you can enjoy it without spending much at all. To help you plan a trip that’s light on the wallet, I’m sharing some of my favorite fun and free things to do in San Francisco.
I’ve broken this list down by type of activity. Some are available year-round, others on specific dates or seasons. From the must-visit to the non-touristy things to do in San Francisco, there’s a little something for everyone.
Free parks & hikes in San Francisco
We’re an active bunch out here, even if one of the stereotypes about us is that we’re all tech geeks. While many of us do sit behind a computer most of the day, we also love getting outdoors.
The Bay Area is surrounded by more famous parks and hiking areas, but there are also plenty of parks and hikes to do without leaving town. These are my favorites, but this is by no means a full list of great parks and hikes in San Francisco.
1. Golden Gate Park
Obviously, one cannot talk about San Francisco parks without talking about its crown jewel, Golden Gate Park.
At more than 1,000 acres, it’ll take you a while to hit up all the spots between the entrances adjoining Haight Street and the Dutch Windmill near Ocean Beach on the other end. Even after 7 years in the city, including three living right next to the park, I still find new surprises all the time.
The top free Golden Gate Park highlights to hit, from east to west:
- Conservatory of Flowers – It costs money to go inside (on most days), but the outside is gorgeous, too!
- National Aids Memorial Grove
- Shakespeare Garden
- Rose Garden
- Stow Lake & Strawberry Hill
- Bison Paddock
- Dutch Windmill
2. Lands End & Sutro Baths
Once you’ve hit the western end of Golden Gate Park, you’ll be just south of Lands End.
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Lands End features coastal trails that weave between forest and ocean views. Don’t miss the rock labyrinth and Sutro Baths here!
Northeast of Lands End sits the Presidio, a former military post that is now one of San Francisco’s greenest playgrounds. At approximately 1500 acres, it is 1.5x the size of Golden Gate Park.
Unlike Golden Gate Park, which has many flat meadows great for picnicking and relaxing, the Presidio is much more wooded. There are definitely flat picnicking areas in the Presidio as well, but its location near the water does mean it tends to be windier and cooler.
We come to the Presidio for Off the Grid picnics but mostly for runs (okay, my partner runs, not me) and walks.
4. Golden Gate Bridge
The Presidio is also what you’ll traverse to get to San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe it’s not your standard hike, but a walk across Golden Gate is definitely one of the most iconic options among all the free things to do in San Francisco.
You can also choose to bike across the bridge on the cycling side that’s separate from pedestrians. If you choose to drive across the bridge though, just remember that you’ll have to pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll when you come back.
5. Lyon Street Steps
Looking for a more vertical hike? At the eastern edge of the Presidio are the Lyon Street Steps.
Popular with San Francisco’s many active residents, these steep sets of stairs offer a great workout and a great view of the bay.
6. 16th St. Tiled Steps
For a more manmade view, head down to the 16th St. Tiled Steps in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood (next to Inner Sunset).
This community-driven mosaic project offers 163 steps of colorful tiles. Besides being a nice and quick workout, it’s also fun to explore the different mosaics.
7. Mount Sutro
Just a few blocks away is Mount Sutro, an open reserve that is filled with eucalyptus trees that have been around for more than a century (no koalas, though).
Fun fact: the famous red Sutro Tower that most San Franciscans will recognize is actually not on Mount Sutro.
8. Interior Greenbelt
Adjacent to Mount Sutro is the Interior Greenbelt, a lush forest smack dab in the middle of San Francisco. I still remember the magical feeling of discovering it randomly one day.
Interior Greenbelt is not super popular, so it’s a great place to get some nature without the crowds. Stepping into it, you completely forget that you’re in a big city.
9. Twin Peaks
Another popular spot nearby is Twin Peaks, one of the highest points in San Francisco. It offers a fantastic view of San Francisco, and if you happen to encounter a clear night on the 4th of July, it’s also a prime spot for the city’s fireworks celebration.
10. Painted Ladies in Alamo Square Park
Made famous by the show Full House, Alamo Square Park draws in tourists who want to see the Painted Ladies houses every day.
For the rest of us, it’s one of the nicer parks for picnics and hanging out.
11. Dolores Park
Technically named Mission Dolores Park, this is one of San Francisco’s favorite hangouts. I literally can’t count the number of weekend afternoons I spent there in my 20s hanging out with friends and day drinking.
12. Lafayette Park
Okay, I know I could go on and go about the great neighborhood parks, but I swear I’ll stop with Lafayette Park.
This was a go-to when we lived nearby and has also become one of our favorites to walk to since all the shelter-in-place orders started. We don’t stop in the park much these days, but it’s always nice to walk through and see the dogs running around.
Free art and architecture in San Francisco
If art and architecture are more your jam, San Francisco offers plenty of that as well.
We’ll start with the outdoors options first and hit up the museums in the next section.
1. Clarion Alley murals
Located in the Mission District, the Clarion Alley Mural Project is definitely San Francisco’s most famous street art.
This alley of murals is ever-changing, always reflecting the relevant social issues of the day.
2. Palace of Fine Arts
On the architectural side, the most famous is the Palace of Fine Arts.
The only survivor of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to still be in its original location, the Palace of Fine Arts is a little bit of Europe in San Francisco.
It can get a little crowded at times, but it’s still one of my favorite places to take visitors because it’s so damn beautiful.
3. Coit Tower murals
Coit Tower itself is an architectural work of art, though some say it’s more ugly than beautiful. While it costs money to climb the tower, it’s free to see the murals on the ground floor.
Commissioned during the New Deal of the 1930s, the murals reflect Californian life and were known to be quite radical for the times.
4. San Francisco City Hall
From the outside, our City Hall looks much like capitol buildings around the nation. Inside, there’s more than just municipal offices.
The gorgeous rotunda and stunning staircase remind me of Palais Garnier in Paris. Not surprisingly, it’s one of San Francisco’s most popular indoor spots for weddings.
A lesser-known artistic aspect of city hall? The art in the basement. Yep, there are often art exhibitions in the basement — exhibitions of all sorts.
Free museums in San Francisco
San Francisco has plenty of other art and exhibits housed in its dozens of museums. Some are always free while others have free days throughout the year.
This list includes the most consistent free offerings that I’ve experienced and enjoyed. Almost all of San Francisco’s museums offer some sort of free admission days each year, so check each museum’s website for more details.
1. Cable Car Museum
Taking a ride on one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars isn’t free, but visiting the Cable Car Museum is.
2. Musée Mécanique
Tucked away in what seems like a warehouse are hundreds of old-school mechanical games. Basically, Musée Mécanique is the old-school arcade of your dreams.
Except for Laffing Sal, the huge creepy ass doll at the entrance that deters me from going in often.
(It does cost money to play the games though, so keep that in mind.)
3. Antique vibrator museum
It’s small and it’s quick, but it’s also fascinating. I’m talking about the museum, you dirty mind!
The museum is part of the Good Vibrations chain and located at its Polk Street location. Free tours are available once a month — just RSVP in advance!
4. deYoung Museum
San Francisco’s premier fine arts museum offers free admission to its permanent collections every Tuesday.
Residents of San Francisco County and its surrounding Bay Area counties can also get in for free on Saturdays.
5. Legion of Honor
The other part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is the Legion of Honor.
Like the deYoung, Legion of Honor offers free Tuesday access to its permanent collections and has the same Saturday deal for Bay Area residents.
6. San Francisco Botanical Gardens
If you prefer nature’s art to manmade pieces, head to the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. Located in Golden Gate Park, this 55-acre space houses plants from many parts of the world.
It’s free for early birds on a daily basis between 7:30 to 9 in the morning. Need your coffee before smelling the flowers? SF Botanical Gardens is also free on the second Tuesday of every month and on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. San Francisco residents always get in for free.
7. Conservatory of Flowers
On the other end of Golden Gate Park is another botanical garden. The Conservatory of Flowers is much smaller and specializes in rare and exotic flora.
Like the SF Botanical Gardens, the Conservatory of Flowers is also free once a month: in its case, it’s the first Tuesday of every month.
8. Japanese Tea Garden
Yep, here’s another free thing to do in Golden Gate Park.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S. is free to enjoy from 9-10 a.m.
9. California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco’s natural history museum, which also includes an aquarium, rainforest exhibit, and planetarium, is one of the city’s most popular museums. (And yes, this one is also in Golden Gate Park.)
Non-SF visitors will be out of luck when it comes to free admission, but San Franciscans can get in for free multiple times a year. That’s because Cal Academy offers free neighborhood weekends, where residents of different neighborhoods get free admission on pre-determined weekends.
Free festivals and events in San Francisco
Like many major cities across the U.S., San Francisco has tons of free festivals and events, especially during the summer months. Many of these are funded by donations and legacies willed by former San Franciscans. We can only hope that these come back with a (good) vengeance once it’s safe for folks to gather en masse again.
This, of course, is not a list of all of the free festivals and events that happen in San Francisco every year. But these are perennial ones that fill our calendars, especially in the summer and autumn months.
1. Stern Grove Festival
One of the longest-running free music festivals in San Francisco, Stern Grove Festival is one of my favorite San Francisco “secrets.”
Because it’s a bit farther away from the more central neighborhoods of San Francisco, Stern Grove tends to be missed by visitors and those new to the city. The wide spectrum of musical genres and artists they feature and the gorgeous eucalyptus grove with natural acoustics makes it an unmissable festival.
Every year since 1938, Stern Grove has held these Sunday concerts. Unfortunately, this year no live concerts can be held. You can, however, watch the virtual season online.
2. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a bit younger than Stern Grove at just 20 years old. Held in Golden Gate Park, this fall weekend-long festival features, well, exactly what its name says: music that is strictly bluegrass, and music that is hardly bluegrass.
In other words, pack your picnic blanket, and you’ll probably find something you enjoy.
3. Fillmore Jazz Festival
If you’re more of a one-type-of-music person and jazz is your genre of choice, you’re in luck. The Fillmore Jazz Festival is the West Coast’s largest free jazz festival, located in the historic Fillmore District.
The music, the food, the arts and crafts. The entire ambiance is hard to beat.
4. Golden Gate Park Band
Perhaps the longest running free concert series in San Francisco is that of the Golden Gate Park Band. It’s been playing every April through October since 1882.
Yep, 1882. Damn it, 2020, screwing up streaks and traditions everywhere.
This big band is joined by special guests representing all sorts of musical and artistic traditions, so every Sunday concert is a little different.
5. Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
Another variety-type festival is the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.
Held in the aforementioned garden in downtown San Francisco, this is an annual six-month-long experience of music, dance, theater, and circus performances from around the world.
6. Union Square Live
Nearby in San Francisco’s Union Square, summer weekends are also filled with live performances and interactive events. My favorites are the dance days at Union Square Live, where live bands play while dance lessons are taught and folks practice their new moves.
7. Movie nights in the park(s)
Union Square also hosts outdoors movie nights in the park during the summer months, as do Dolores Park and a few other locations around the Bay Area.
This is summer in San Francisco though (you know, which Mark Twain purportedly called the “coldest winter” he ever spent), so make sure to pack layers, a blanket, and maybe a (spiked) hot drink.
8. Chinese New Year celebrations
Home to one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in the world, San Francisco hosts annual Chinese New Year parades and celebrations.
Having been established since before California was part of the United States, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a time capsule of culture. Dare I say that the Chinese New Year celebrations here may be more traditional than those in China today?
9. Cherry Blossom Festival
A little bit across town sits Japantown, which is nearly as old as Chinatown.
Each spring, it hosts two weekends of its Cherry Blossom Festival, which honors and features both Japanese and Japanese American culture.
10. Neighborhood street fairs
Plenty of other neighborhoods have their own festivals and street fairs as well. The Haight Ashbury Street Fair and North Beach Festival are among the ones that have happened for years on end.
Often, it’s a mix of artisan vendors, food stalls, and live music. It might take a while after the pandemic ends for these to return, but I’m sure we’ll all be ready for some mingling when it’s finally safe to do so!
11. San Francisco Air Show
San Francisco, surrounded by water on three sides, hosts Fleet Week each fall. The highlight of the week is the performances by the famed Blue Angels (or the sailors onshore, depending on who you ask.)
If you can’t find yourself a private rooftop to watch the air show, here are some great spots:
- The fields in front of Fort Mason
- The green areas near the Maritime Museum
- Whatever replaces the Applebees at 2770 Taylor St. (Yes, there was an Applebee’s in San Francisco. It’s now closed, but its upstairs balcony was a great spot to watch the show while sipping on margaritas!)
12. Pride Parade
And of course, you can’t talk about San Francisco events without talking about the annual Pride Parade. Every June, join thousands of Bay Area folks in celebrating the area’s storied LGBTQ+ community.
It’s not just one parade, either. Pride celebrations span multiple weekends with concerts, marches, and more.
13. Kinky festivals
While all of the above free events are family-friendly, you may not necessarily want to bring the kids to San Francisco’s kinky events. From Folsom Street Fair to Up Your Alley, these events would probably cause heart attacks in many other places around the country.
But here in San Francisco, we embrace your sexuality. Just be safe and get consent.
(Fair warning, these events can be really out of your comfort zone. They’re certainly among the unique things to do in San Francisco, though. The community is open to outsiders — as long as you go with an open mind.)
Free food-related things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco has so much good food! How much it costs though can range drastically. More on the best restaurants in San Francisco at another time.
For now, here are some food-related things to do that are free.
1. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory tour
Go watch how the sausage — I mean, fortune cookie — is made! This historic shop has been making fortune cookies by hand since 1962.
The team offers free tastings, but you’ll find it hard to leave without a bag or two, especially of the special flavors. They make custom fortune cookies and themed bags (e.g. “adult X-rated packs”) as well.
2. Ghirardelli Square samples
If chocolate is more your thing, there are always free Ghirardelli squares to be had at Ghirardelli Square. No gimmicks: just go in, get some, and enjoy them out on the square.
You have more self-discipline than me though if you can leave without getting a shake or sundae.
3. Boudin Museum & Bakery tour
Yes, it’s touristy, but who doesn’t love bread? Especially bread in the shape of crabs, alligators, baskets, and more.
If you don’t love bread, feel free to send what you don’t want to me.
4. Crabbing at Torpedo Wharf
Okay, this one takes a little more work than the previous options, but it’s tons of fun and likely something you haven’t done before!
At Torpedo Wharf in the Presidio, you can crab for rock crabs and red crabs for free. Just bring your own net and bait.
I actually haven’t done this while living in San Francisco, but I did this during my first visit to San Francisco as a kid, and it’s still one of my favorite memories from that road trip!
Other free things to do in San Francisco
Okay, now that I’ve categorized as much as I can, here are some other great free things to do in San Francisco.
1. Free walking tours
Like many major cities around the world, San Francisco has free, tip-based walking tours.
San Francisco City Guides offer all sorts of tours in the city, from those in more commonly visited neighborhoods to more obscure ones. I did my first one after having lived in the city for 5 years and still had a great time learning about the history and present of the Embarcadero and FiDi areas, which are normally just “work districts” in my head.
2. Explore the neighborhoods
Or you can take yourself on a walking tour of San Francisco’s many neighborhoods.
I have to admit, many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods used to be much more distinct than they are today. So much has changed even in the years since I first moved to the city.
Chinatown, Japantown, Haight Ashbury, the Mission, and the Castro are among the neighborhoods that still have distinct flavors. Keep a lookout for placards, signs, and other monuments on sidewalks and buildings in these neighborhoods. They’ll often shed a little light on the history and iconic figures of these areas.
3. Walk or drive down Lombard St.
Known as the crookedest street in the world, Lombard St. is a steep, and yes, crooked, street lined with multi-million dollar houses and beautiful landscaping.
Cars will line up for 20-45 minutes just to go down Lombard Street’s hairpin turns. Personally, though, driving down it is not something I’d care to be behind the wheel for. Walking down it is much more my jam.
4. See the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf
Sea lions are the dogs of the ocean, right? Check out these rambunctious barkers at Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf, where approximately 400 of them bask in the sun and in the attention of tourists.
Beware of the sea gulls in the area, though. They’ll poop all over you.
5. Hang out with the bison in Golden Gate Park
Yep, there’s a herd of bison in the middle of Golden Gate Park. While sea lions and seagulls may be part of your idea of San Francisco, bison probably wasn’t what you pictured.
The herd at the Bison Paddock is said to have been initially brought in to honor the population that had been wiped out from mass hunting. Since that first herd in the late 19th-century, however, new bison has been brought in from time to time.
6. Lindy in the Park
Golden Gate Park also hosts plenty of other weekly events, including Lindy in the Park. Every Sunday, dozens of swing dancers congregate and jam for two hours.
Each session starts with a lesson and ends with a massive celebratory dance. No experience required!
7. Join the roller disco
A few blocks down in another open area of Golden Gate Park, roller skating fans gather for Sunday roller discos. These go a bit longer than Lindy in the Park, so if you’ve got the energy, you can even hit up both on the same day.
8. Play disc gulf
Okay, one more Golden Gate Park thing to add to the list. (I told you there was a lot of do in GGP!)
Tucked away near Marx Meadow is the park’s disc golf course. I’ve never actually played disc golf myself, but I’ve watched folks play here and it’s always intrigued me. Maybe one day.
9. Host a bonfire at Ocean Beach
Won’t lie, going to the beach in San Francisco typically doesn’t yield great tans since you’re usually bundled up. Between our foggy marine layer and the strong wind at the beach, it’s not exactly what most visitors have in mind when they think California beaches.
But we do have bonfire pits at Ocean Beach, which are available first-come, first-serve as long as there are no temporary rules disallowing usage (usually during fire season and such).
10. Practice yoga at Grace Cathedral
There are a lot of yogis in San Francisco, which has more than 100 yoga studios.
If you’re looking to practice and take in some sightseeing at the same time, consider Tuesday evening yoga at Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill. These free classes are held under the cathedral’s gorgeous stained glass windows. Donations are requested but not required, and there’s no religious element involved.
11. Learn some circus tricks
San Francisco has many things, so it’s probably not surprising that there’s a circus school. If yoga’s too basic for you, check out Circus Center on Friday nights. They offer weekly free circus skills sessions on a first-RSVP, first-serve basis.
Even if you’ve never done it, the community is incredibly welcoming. My first experience there was a (paid) trapeze class. You can bet that was nerve-wracking!
Hope this list gives you a sense of all the fun things to do in San Francisco for free. Whether you’re just here visiting or you live here, San Francisco can still be a budget-friendly place to explore.
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