San Fransisco is anything but cheap when it comes to food, accommodations, and living costs for the locals. If you’re just visiting, though, you can find yourself fun and lots to do for free or nearly-free all over the city. There are plenty of free things to do in San Francisco all the way from the Golden Gate bridge to China Town so you can have an amazing trip without breaking the bank.
San Francisco is one of the most vibrant and interesting cities in California – perfect for adventure lovers, site-seeing, a romantic getaway, and definitely anyone that loves food.
On my first morning in the city, one happy coincidence led to another and I discovered a whole host of things to do that are completely free. I did not travel full-blown budget, and opted to buy a City Pass and splurge on a 24-hours bike to see the Golden Bridge, and kayak rental to see the bay. The rest of my 7 day adventure? Absolutely free, so pack up your bags and put your wallet away!
20 Free Things to do in San Francisco
The Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park was my first stop in San Fransisco. Admission is free before 10 a.m. The Tea Garden tour moved me to tears. Over 100 years of heart-wrenching history is contained in that garden. You’ll have an opportunity to see the stunning gardens, and learn it’s truly remarkable past.
Tour City Hall
San Francisco’s City Hall is an absolutely beautiful building, and own our tour you will have a chance to explore it and learn about San Francisco’s history and the architecture of City Hall. City Hall tours are Monday to Friday at 10,12, and 2.
The DeYoung Art Museum Look Out
The that DeYoung Art Museum itself is not free, but it has an observation tower that you can go up for free, without paying entry to the galleries. The Hamon observation tower gives you an incredible 360 degree view of the city of San Fransisco, the nearby ocean, and the surrounding Golden Gate Park. There are a lot of free things to do in San Francisco that include look outs, but this one is a little lesser known!
One of the most famous China Town’s in the world, San Fransisco’s China Town is definitely worth exploring. Join a free walking tour or explore on your own! I spent an entire afternoon walking up and down the busy streets, popping in to interesting shops and trying different food samples.
There are lots of shops and restaurants in China Town, but you can have a great afternoon exploring the area for free.
The Sea Lions at Pier 39
There’s lots of free fun to be had watching the sea lions at Pier 39. I don’t know quite why the sea lions took up residence in this spot, but they love laying out on the piers and occasionally pushing each other off and getting in to loud “discussions” with each other. Get an ice cream (which is not free, but pretty close) and take a seat on a nearby bench to enjoy the fun.
The Crookedest Street
One of the most popular free things to do in San Francisco is to visit Lombardo Street, known as the crookedest street in the world. Lombardo Street is a short walk from Pier 39, one of the main tourist areas in San Fransisco. It’s a busy spot, but I think it’s worth seeing! The street is really beautiful, and if you make your way up and look back down you have a great view of the city below.
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps a.k.a. the Mosaic Staircase is one of the top Pinterest-hits when you search San Fransisco, so I was excited to find it. The staircase is a 6 story masterpiece of tiles in dozens of colours, and if you follow it all the way up there’s also an incredible look out from Grandview Park. This will provide some of your best photo ops! The Tiled Steps are located at 16th Avenue and Morgan Street.
Try Different Foods
Many large cities are famous for food, and San Francisco is no exception. How to experience the best food around when you’re on a budget, though? Rather than sitting down for full meals, explore and try some samples. Candy in Little Italy, teas and cakes in China Town, breads, oils, and (my personal favourite) chocolate almond brittle in the Ferry Building are just a few of the delicious things that I tried on my trip. Many of the most-visited tourist neighbourhoods in San Fransisco.
The Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is one of the most interesting free things to do in San Francisco. It’s an artistic installation near Fisherman’s Wharf, unlike any other. The Wave Organ is made of a series of pipes to capture the energy of the ocean and turn it in to music. The artist put a lot of time in attention in to developing the piece and the result is amazing.
The Cable Car Museum
This is one of my favourite free things to do in San Francisco, I loved the Cable Car Museum so much that I went twice. Of course, you have to ride the cable cars while you’re in San Francisco, and this museum is along the route. Inside they’ve opened up the floors so that you can see the enormous gears spinning the cables that the cars use to move down the street. Bonus: they’re got the best gift shop in the city!
Victorian San Francisco
The old neighbourhoods of San Francisco are rich with history and interesting architecture. Make sure to find the Painted Ladies while you’re exploring. The most famous set of houses is at Alamo Square Park, and many think of these are the Painted Ladies but really, any Victorian style house painted in 3 colours is a Painted Lady!
The Clarion Alley Murals
Clarion Alley is between Mission and Valencia Streets and 17th and 18th Streets, and is famous for it’s collection of murals painted by the Clarion Alley Mural Project. CAMP supports socially engaged and innovate public art, and has created over 700 murals since it started. The murals are amazing, and express all ranges of political views, conversations, and creativity.
Free Walking Tours.
I love free walking tours! I went on several with the San Francisco Public Library during my visit to San Francisco, and there are also tours offered by Free Tours by Foot. On my visit, I also took their tour of Victorian San Francisco, Public Spaces, and China Town, and there were so many other tours I would have loved to do. Note: “free” should be interpreted as “by donation” for both of these companies!
- Nob Hill
- North Beach
- China Town
- Fisherman’s Wharf
The Palace of Fine Arts
Bring a picnic and enjoy the Palace of Fine Arts. This is one of the most beautiful structures in San Francisco, originally built to present art exhibits for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. The site was renovated to include a lagoon and walkways, and today is a popular destination for engagement and wedding photos.
Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
An obvious but necessary addition to any list of free things to do in San Francisco is walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. Park at Golden Gate Bridge Parking. There are washrooms on either side of the bridge, and the walk across takes about one hour… but, if I’m being totally honest I think the views of the bridge are a lot better than the views from the bridge. There are walking paths and several look out points on both sides!
Hike at Land’s End
Going to Land’s End is a what I imagine it would be like to step inside a post card. This is a beautiful park with a wide view of the Golden Gate bridge and the bay. There’s a small trail winding along the cliff edge where you can enjoy a short hike and if you’re lucky, you might spot whales in the bay!
San Francisco Maritime Park
The San Francisco Maritime Park is located in Fisherman’s Wharf and offers a taste of Pacific Coast maritime history. I had a great time exploring the historic ships and learning about their history. There’s a visitor centre, museum, and lots of knowledgeable staff! This attraction has free days, but typically has an entry fee of $15 for a 7 day pass. There’s some conflicting information online, I believe it used to be free to enter at all times but is not anymore.
Musée Mécanique is a quirky, old-style penny arcade also found at Fisherman’s Wharf. All of the games are coin operated in range in price for 1 cent to a dollar, and entry is free. This is a collection of over 300 items included slot machines, animations, and other games.
San Francisco is a great city for music and live entertainment, and there are lots of opportunities to enjoy it for free! Here are a few places that regularly offer free shows:
If you’re looking for more relaxing free things to do in San Francisco, look no further than the beach! Ocean Beach is where the locals go to surf, relax, and hang out by fire pits (I stayed with a friend in San Francisco, and this is what we did!) Enjoy a day at the beach, and be sure to check out the Cliff House at the Northern most point of the beach.