Looking for some free things to do in San Francisco? Well, here are over 120 of them for you!
San Francisco may have a reputation as being one of the most expensive cities in the world, but you know what they say – the best things in life are free! San Francisco may be home of $400 tasting menus and $10 coffees, but many of my favorite things to do in the city don’t cost a single penny.
To prove the point that you don’t need to spend a fortune to have a great time in the city by the Bay, I came up with a list of free things to do in San Francisco – over 120 of them, to be exact! Check out this list for lots of ideas for fun AND free things to do in San Francisco:
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What to pack for San Francisco
A jacket: San Francisco tends to have some schizo weather – one minute it will be warm, and then the fog will roll and it becomes freezing cold in a matter of minutes. Dressing in layers and keeping a jacket on you at all times is a must!
Consider a lightweight, packable jacket that you can roll it up and keep in your bag. Weatherproofing is also handy as drizzle is common when it’s foggy, and it gets rainy in the winter. For the warmer months, pack a jacket like this one for women, and this one for men.
Comfortable shoes or boots: You will want to wear comfortable shoes because let’s face it – getting up those hills is a lot of work!). Definitely get a pair of comfortable flats like these or these – they are stylish but won’t slow you down as you explore the city!
In the winter, you’ll want boots that keep you warm and dry. I wear these boots almost every day in the winter – they are comfy even when walking around the city all day, waterproof, and help me stay warm because they are tall boots!
A power bank + adapter: You’ll want to stay connected to help you get around the city, and this power bank will help ensure that your phone never runs out of juice! I never leave home without mine, and it is a MUST on every single trip that I take – both in the US and internationally! If you’re from abroad, you may also need a power adapter to charge your devices – I always travel with this one.
Reusable water bottle: Staying hydrated during all that walking and exploring is essential! Be nice to the environment and avoid buying plastic bottles of water – in fact, you won’t even be able to buy plastic bottles of water at the SFO airport. Be sure to carry a reusable water bottle – this is the one I carry with me at all times. I love that it is screw top but has a spot so it’s easy to take quick sips without spilling all over yourself. The great thing is that San Francisco has excellent tap water quality – our water comes from the Heth Hetchy Reservoir up in the Sierras, near Yosemite and doesn’t have that chemical aftertaste that is so common in tap water in other cities.
The Main Attractions
1. Walk or bike the Golden Gate Bridge – Bridge toll may set you back almost $8, but walking and biking won’t cost you a penny. Plus, it gives you more time to soak in those pretty view of the city, the bay, and the Marin Headlands.
2. Or, photograph the bridge from one of these best views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
3. Watch the Bay Lights twinkle on the Bay Bridge (my favorite time to view these are during “pink hour,” in the 20 minutes or so right after the sun sets).
4. Go say hi to the sea lions at Pier 39…ok, so I haaaaate Pier 39, but I guess the sea lions are cute.
5. Walk down Lombard Street, which is not actually the “crookedest” street in the world, but close enough.
6. Take in the view and admire the picture-perfect Victorian houses from Alamo Square (and have the Full House song stuck in your head forever).
7-9. Get lost in Lands End – you’ll almost forget you’re still in a big city. The hike features incredible views of the Pacific Ocean, and the Golden Gate Bridge. You can see remains of a shipwreck, and you can also walk down to see a cool labyrinth.
10. And then trek down to Sutro Baths to check out the cool ruins of what used to be the world’s largest indoor swimming complex. One of my absolute favorite spots in the city and definitely one of the best free things to do in San Francisco! Here is more about my experience hiking Lands End.
11&12. Admire the beautiful architecture of the San Francisco City Hall – did you know that the dome is the fifth largest in the world? There are also various exhibits inside, as well as a basement art gallery. You can also take a docent-led tour.
13. Also admire the impressive Palace of Fine Arts, a monumental structure created to exhibit artwork at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. You can sit and relax in the grassy knoll, stroll around the perimeter, or have a picnic there.
14-16. Climb up the Filbert Street Steps – one of San Francisco’s most famous stairways – up to the base of Coit Tower. Although it costs money to go up to the top, the view from the bottom is still worth checking out – you can see the city’s many hills, the Bay, and the bridges. Also worth a look are the murals inside the base of the tower, which depict life in California during the Depression. It is one of the most controversial art pieces in the city.
Wander Through the Natural Beauty of the Presidio
The Presidio is San Francisco’s own National Park. The 1500 acre former military post offers some of the best free things to do in San Francisco, and has plenty of natural beauty, stunning vistas, hiking trails, beaches, forests, and more. Here are some of the best (and absolutely free) highlights:
17. Learn more about San Francisco’s military history, and take in a unique view of the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point.
19. This also connects to another trail which leads you to Marshall’s Beach, which has a bit of a hidden beach feel and has unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
21. Hang out at Crissy Field – sit in the grass and soak up the sun, relax at the beach, have a picnic, or walk along the Presidio Promenade (it’s also one of the best places to go for a run in SF).
22. Take advantage of the free PresidiGo shuttle, which you between many points of interest within the Presidio, and to downtown San Francisco.
25. Also check out Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire sculpture, which stands over 100 feet tall.
26. Check out the Presidio Chapel. This small chapel is a classic example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, and is adorned with beautiful stained glass and a large mural by Victor Arnautoff, the famed Coit Tower muralist.
27. Have a beach day at Baker Beach, and take in some beautiful views of the bridge. Just remember that it’s also a nude beach, so don’t be alarmed when some naked guy just keeps casually photo bombing you (yes, it’s happened to me. Multiple times).
Explore Golden Gate Park
At 1017 acres, Golden Gate Park is one of the largest urban parks in the world (yes, even bigger than NYC’s Central Park), and over 13 million people visit it each year (it is the fifth most visited park in the United States). There is so much to do in see in this urban oasis, from museums, gardens, lakes, playground, windmills, monuments, and more. And the best part? There are plenty of free things to do there! Here are some of the highlights:
28-30. Take a walk around Stow Lake – it may you cost money to rent a boat to row or paddle on the lake, but you can enjoy it for free by walking around the trail that surrounds the perimeter of the pretty 12 acre lake. From this path, you can check out the lake’s two bridges, the colorful Chinese Pavilion, a gift from San Francisco’s sister city Taipei, and Huntington Falls, that cascades down from 110 feet above.
31. You can also check out the top of the falls from Strawberry Hill. The summit of the hill, at 430 feet, is also the highest point in the park. This spot also features sweeping views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, and on a clear day, as far as Mt. Tamalpais.
32. Go say hi to the bison – Golden Gate Park is home to a herd of bison, which reside on the western end of the park, next to Spreckels lake.
33. Stop and smell the roses in the Rose Garden – the best time to go is in the summer, when blooms are at their peak.
34. Take in the view from the Harmon Tower Observation Tower at the de Young Museum. This is one of the hidden gems and one of the best free things to do in San Francisco – most people don’t know that you don’t need to pay for admission into the museum to go up to the tower.
35. Check out Shakespeare’s Garden – the small but pretty garden houses more than 200 plants and flowers that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.
36. Get a taste of Holland at the Dutch Windmill and tulip garden – located on the western end of the park, the windmill originally served as an irrigation system for the park. The surrounding garden is at its peak in February and March, when the tulips are in full bloom, but there are flowers blooming there year-round.
Parks, Beaches, and Hiking
One of the best things about San Francisco is that it is a large urban city, yet there are so many ways to experience nature. The best thing about all the nature in the city? They are all free things to do in San Francisco. Check out the spots below if you want a respite from the city life.
37. After wandering around Golden Gate Park, head on over to Ocean Beach. You probably won’t have your traditional beach day there (because let’s face it, it’s too damn cold in San Francisco), but you can watch the waves and observe the surfers, or explore the sand dunes. This is also a perfect spot for a good ‘ol bonfire.
38. You may go longer be able to go up to the top of the Transamerica Pyramid, but did you know that there is a small redwood forest at the base? The half-acre grove of redwood trees provides a serene space in the middle of San Francisco’s busy downtown, and also has a fountain honoring Mark Twain.
39. Tucked away in between Baker Beach and Lands End, China Beach is a hidden gem and a local favorite. The small beach features a sheltered cove with beautiful views of the bridge and the Marin Headlands.
40. Hike (or drive) up to the top of Twin Peaks for one of the most iconic views in San Francisco.
41. Soak up the sunshine at Dolores Park on one of those rare warm San Francisco days – along with seemingly every other San Franciscan. Seriously guys, this is apparently our favorite sunny day activity.
42. Located on the southwestern corner of the city, Fort Funston features 200 foot high bluffs, and provides ample opportunities for hiking and horseback riding. It’s also known for its wind, so it is one of the premier spots for hang-gliding.
43. Climb up to the top of Mt. Davidson, which at 928 feet tall, is the highest natural point in the city. The summit also features an iconic 103-foot tall concrete cross.
44. Hike to the top of Bernal Heights Park, which provides you with a panoramic view of the entire city and beyond. There is also sometimes a swing there, which also makes another perfect photo op. One of my absolute favorite and free things to do in San Francisco!
45. Explore the trails of John McLaren Park in the southern end of the city, and also the third largest park in San Francisco, after the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. The Philosopher’s Way is a well-known hike here, and is a 2.7 mile loop that is a public art project dedicated to philosophers in the country, with 14 stone-marked “musing stations.”
46. Laying on a large canyon in the middle of the city, Glen Canyon Park features rock formations, a creek, plenty of trails, and wildflowers in the spring. Glen Canyon Park has a rugged, rustic feel that makes you forget you’re in the middle of a big city.
47. Billy Goat Hill – This little gem is hidden away in the Diamond Heights neighborhood, and combines urban forest and grassland plants. It also has spectacular views of the city’s skyline and bay.
48. Get lost under the eucalyptus trees of the Mt. Sutro Forest. This 80 acre forest is located on the climb up to the 900foot Mt. Sutro, and is what remains of the eucalyptus forest that was planted over 100 years ago by Alfred Sutro, a former mayor of the city, and one of the most colorful characters in the city’s history. The forest is situated in one of the foggiest part of the city, but the fog lends a mysterious, mythical feel, creating a unique experience.
49. Ina Coolbrith Park sits on top of a pedestrian-only street that is too steep for cars – once you huff and puff up that giant hill, you are rewarded with spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline, the waterfront, and the bay. It is a tiny park, but has sort of a hidden garden sort of feel to it.
50. Buena Vista Park is the oldest park in San Francisco, and was established in 1867 as “Hill Park,” but was renamed to to Buena Vista Park, referring to the spectacular views from the top. The park also features winding, secluded trails, along with one of the last remaining oak groves in the city.
51. Located just south of Buena Vista Park is Corona Heights Park, which also offers spectacular views of the city. It is also a great place to see wildflowers in the spring, and has a unique butterfly population.
52. Grandview Park sits perched on top of a hill in the Sunset District, and well, there are definitely grand views here. You can see everything from the Pacific Ocean, Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sutro Tower, and downtown San Francisco from here. This is a worthwhile stop after climbing up the 16th Avenue Steps (more on that later).
Museums + Monuments
53. Learn more about the history and technology of San Francisco’s famous cable cars at the Cable Car Museum. The museum displays several examples of old cable cars, as well as provide a unique insight into how the cable cars work.
54. The SF Railway Museum also provides an insight into the city’s rail history and its historic street cars and cable cars. It also shares a retrospective about the 1906 earthquake.
55. Antique Vibrator Museum – yes, really…because #onlyinsf.
56. The Randall Museum is a science museum, natural history museum, and arts center that offers a variety of hands-on exhibits, classes and live animal exhibits.
57. Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, Hyde Street Pier showcases a fleet of historical maritime vessels. While there is a small fee to see the insides of the boats, it is free to walk around and take photos of them.
58. Right next to the pier is also the Maritime Museum, which gives an insight into how maritime history shaped the city. The museum also showcases pieces of maritime art, and is located in the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, which is a boat-shaped Art Deco style piece of art itself.
59. Wells Fargo History Museum – this museum stands on the site of where Wells Fargo first opened for business in 1852, and features a stagecoach that carried people and gold across the country, along with gold dust and ore from Gold Country, and letters from the Gold Rush era.
60. The SF Fire Museum displays antique fire engines and artifacts, including the first fire engine built in California. You can also learn about the significant role that the fire department played during the tragic 1906 earthquakes and Great Fire.
61. While you need to buy a ticket to see the upper galleries at the SF MOMA, the exhibits on the first two floors of the museum are are free public spaces, and contain 45,000 square feet of rotating and permanent exhibits.
62. Musee Mecanique is showcases the world’s largest collection of coin-operated musical instruments and antique arcade games. Technically, you have to pay to use the machines, but wandering through looking at the unique (and sometimes creepy) collection is worth a stop. (If you feel like paying for something, they also have the best photo booth in the city – the legit old-school kind, not the crappy digitally printed ones you see everywhere these days).
Art, Murals, Mosaics, Sculptures, and more
63. Located in the Mission between Mission and Valencia Streets and 17th and 18th Streets, Clarion Alley features constantly changing murals that are “socially engaged and aesthetically innovative.”
64. Also in the Mission is Balmy Alley, which is the most concentrated collection of murals in the city. The alleys here contain works that in a a range of styles that depict a range of subject matters, including human rights and gentrification.
65. San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral is famed for its “Gates of Paradise” mosaic. It also contains two labyrinths, and also has beautiful stained glass windows. Pssst….they also offer free yoga classes.
66. Climb up the tiled 16th Avenue steps – more than 220 neighbors (whose names are embedded within the steps) sponsored this neighborhood project, which feature an impressive 163 tiled mosaic steps. Once you reach the top of the steps, you can keep going up towards Grandview Park, which I mentioned earlier.
67. Just a few streets over from the 16th Avenue steps are the Hidden Garden steps, which are the result of another community project – this one features flowers and butterflies in a psychedelic design.
68. Walk through the fog bridge – this unique installation from the Exploratorium shrouds participants in a fog-like mist as they walk on a pedestrian bridge between Piers 15 and 17.
69. Check out Diego Rivera’s murals – San Francisco is home to 3 of the famous Mexican artist’s murals, including the first he finished in the United States. Out of the 3, only the one at the SF Art Institute has regular viewing hours open to the public, but you can read more about the others (and how to see them) here.
70. Admire the Cupid’s Span along with the bay views – This giant bow and arrow sculpture on the Embarcadero was commissioned by GAP founder Donald Fisher and created by artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. It is inspired by San Francisco’s reputation as the home port of Eros.
71. Find all the Hearts of San Francisco – You may recognize the iconic red heart sculpture at the entrance of Union Square, but did you know that there are hearts all over the city as well? The Hearts of San Francisco is part of a fundraising project for the San Francisco General Hospital. There is no official list of all the locations available, but you can see where some of them are here.
72. Check out the murals at the Rincon Center, which were commissioned by the Work Projects Administration and show a radical (and maybe scandalous) look into California’s past.
73. Learn more about the art of the book and the printing process at the SF Center for the Book – there are many free exhibitions, events, workshops, and more!
74. Climb the Lincoln Park steps – These steps have sat on the western edge of the city (near the Legion of Honor) since the early 1900s, but underwent a complete makeover in 2007. The result is a gorgeous Beaux Arts-inspired art installation.
75. Listen to the sounds of the Wave Organ – this installation, created by the Exploratorium, is essentially a musical instrument that is played by the waves of the ocean. The sounds are usually low and subtle, but you can really hear the music if you go at high tide.
76. Check out the photography exhibits at Pier 24 – free by appointment.
77. Self-guided Japantown history tour – This self-guided tour takes you through 16 stops in a 10-block radius of San Francisco’s historic Japantown, giving you an insight into the history of the city’s Japanese American community.
78. Free City Guides walking tours – City Guides offers an extensive list of volunteer-led tours throughout the city, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, Chinatown, SOMA architecture, and more!
79. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory – Take a look at how fortune cookies are made! Please note that while entry into factory is free, f you take photos, they ask that you leave 50 cents in the tip jar, or buy some cookies.
Concerts, Performances, and More
80. Watch 3 innings of a Giants Game – there is a small standing room only area at AT&T Park that has room for 100 people at a time, every 3 innings.
81. Sunday Concerts at Glide Memorial Church – these weekly concerts are designed to lift up spirits, nourish the soul, and inspire people to work for justice.
83. Check out a free reading at City Lights Bookstore, one of the most iconic bookstores in the country.
84. Watch a show from the SF Mime Troupe – the group uses a mix of “political satire, original music, and general hijinks.”
Other Cool Free Things to Do in San Francisco
85. Hang out in one of San Francisco’s POPOS (Privately owned, public open spaces) – there are over 50 gardens, atriums, plazas, and terraces, which are all publicly accessible and privately maintained.
86. Climb the Lyon Street Steps, which boasts a reputation as being the “perfect steps” in San Francisco, for their perfect steepness, perfect amount of sunshine, width, and beautiful landscaping. It is a favorite workout spot of locals, and you are rewarded with a beautiful view at the top.
87. And then admire the mansions of Billionaire’s Row – just because I can’t afford them doesn’t mean I can’t pretend I can.
88. Slide down the Seward Park slides – These thrilling slides are a hidden gem tucked away in a small park near the Castro. This isn’t for the faint of heart – bring your own cardboard and wear sturdy pants!
92. Stroll through Macondray Lane, a beautiful cobblestone walkway, covered in flowering plants and trees, and lined with Edwardian cottages. If you are familiar with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of a City series, this is said to be the inspiration for Barbary Lane.
93. Hang out on the rooftop at the SF Art Institute – the campus’s rooftop cafe offers unparalleled views of the bay.
94. De Young Museum – first Tuesday of the month
95. Asian Art Museum – first Sunday of the month
96. Legion of Honor – first Tuesday of the month
97. Exploratorium – Free days occur on 5 days in the year – see website for current free days.
98. Contemporary Jewish Museum – first Tuesday of the month
99. Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) – first Tuesday of the month
100. California Academy of Sciences – Free community days occur throughout the year. In 2018, it is 3 days in September for their 10th anniversary. See website for dates. Free days also occur for San Francisco residents, based on neighborhood.
101. Museum of Craft and Design – first Tuesday of the month
102. If you are a Bank of America customer, also check for BofA free days.
105. Conservatory of Flowers – first Tuesday of the month
Free Events and Festivals:
106. Cherry Blossom Festival – This festival usually takes place on 2 weekends in April, and celebrates spring and Japanese culture. A big parade takes place on the second weekend.
107. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – This concert festival in Golden Gate Park, usually in the first weekend of October, brings over over 100 national and local acts over 2 days. One of the most popular events in the city, and absolutely free!
108. Fillmore Jazz Fest – This is the largest jazz festival on the west coast, and takes place over fourth of July weekend. There are lots of free concerts on multiple stages.
109. Stern Grove Festival – Taking place every Sunday in the summer months, and featuring a variety of acts, including the SF Ballet , Symphony, and Opera, national musical acts, and more. Get there early as spots fill up FAST (you’ll literally be watching from the hills if you don’t get there fast enough)
110. Film night in the park – Enjoy classic and modern movie favorites at Dolores Park, Union Square, and Washington Square Park. On select dates throughout the summer – see website for calendar.
111. Opera in the park – September. Enjoy a free performance from the SF Opera at Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park.
112. SF Pride – Usually the last weekend of June. Self-explanatory, don’t you think?
113. North Beach Festival – mid-June
114. Folsom Street Fair – end of September. If you’re into that kinda BDSM thing, or if you’ve always just been curious.
115. Nihonmachi Street Fair – August
116. Union Street Fair – first weekend of June.
117. Golden Gate Park Band concerts – every Sunday from April to October. Held in the Music Concourse and performing a variety of musical styles and themed programs.
118. Shakespeare in the Park – Summer, held at various parks in the Bay Area (see website for updated dates and performances).
119. Yerba Buena festival – Over 75 performances at the Yerba Buena Gardens between May and October. Perfect to listen to while enjoying your lunch!
120. Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema – September. Showcasing the best of local filmmakers.
121. Lindy in the Park – take a free swing lesson in Golden Gate Park – every Sunday.
122. Skating in the Park – Lace up your roller skates (or blades) and skate around Golden Gate Park! Sundays from noon-5.
123. Salsa Festival Fillmore – June. Featuring salsa lessons, live music, performances, and a big dance party!
124. Autumn Moon Festival – celebrating the Chinese culture and the traditional mid-autumn festival in Chinatown. September/October
Need even more things to do in San Francisco? Check out this San Francisco bucket list!
What are some of your favorite free things to do in San Francisco?
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