Aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and Marin Headlands
Destinations

17 Free Things To Do in San Francisco

Keri Bridgwater

Keri Bridgwater

November 29, 2023

7 min read

Table of Contents

San Francisco might be an expensive city, but there are plenty of things to do without breaking your travel budget. From traversing the Golden Gate Bridge and exploring trails and historic sites in former-military-base-turned-national-park-site the Presidio to looking at street art in the Mission and strolling through Chinatown, the city has an abundance of fantastic free attractions to enjoy all without spending a dime. 

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Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

Close-up of cars driving across and a boat going under the Golden Gate Bridge

With its epic views of the bay and city skyline, this iconic landmark is easily one of the best free things to do in San Francisco—and it makes for a nice bit of exercise too. The 3.4-mile round-trip walk takes 1–2 hours, depending on your pace and how often you stop to take pictures. A walkway on the eastern side of the bridge near Vista Point South is open to pedestrians 5am–6:30pm; the west side is reserved for bicyclists on weekends and after 3:30pm during the week. Dogs are not allowed. There is a small parking lot at the Welcome Center and free parking on the Marin (north) side of the bridge. If you’d rather admire the view without the walk, the nearby Golden Gate Overlook observation deck located in the Presidio is a great alternative. 

Picnic in the Presidio

Woman having a picnic on the beach in San Francisco

Located at the northern tip of San Francisco, the Presidio was formerly a military base. Today, it’s known as Golden Gate National Recreation Area with miles of hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, and historical landmarks to explore. The PresidiGo Shuttle provides free public transportation around the park seven days a week, including service to and from downtown. Start at the Presidio Visitor Center, located near the Presidio Transit Center, before setting off to find sculptural installations, like Wood Line (near Lover’s Lane) and Spire (near Inspiration Point) by British artist Andrew Goldsworthy. There are also exhibitions on Presidio history at the Officers’ Club, which was formerly an exclusive gathering place for Army brass and their families; the club is open to the public on Saturdays from 11am–4pm. The park’s newest addition, Presidio Tunnel Tops, features 14 urban acres with more spectacular views, walking trails, lawns, picnic tables, and playgrounds.

Listen to live music in Golden Gate Park

A Dutch windmill in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Tucked between westernmost neighborhoods Richmond and Sunset, this 1,017-acre oasis draws 24 million visitors annually, making it one of the most visited city parks in the country. It’s home to a herd of bison and several of San Francisco’s top attractions, including the Japanese Tea Garden, which is free to visit from 9–10am every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Golden Gate Park Bandshell also runs weekly free and family-friendly concerts from March 1 through mid-November as part of its Illuminate Live series. There are over 5,000 free parking spaces here, but it can be challenging to find a spot; the Golden Gate Park Free Shuttle, which operates seven days a week, is a great option, particularly on weekends and major holidays.

Stroll through Chinatown

Chinatown, San Francisco

Covering 24 square blocks, San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and most established in the US. Beyond its iconic Dragon’s Gate and ornate temples like Tien How, the maze of streets and alleyways—many adorned with colorful storefronts, murals, and decorative street lamps—are best explored on a free or self-guided tour. A must-see, though, is the Golden Gate Cookie Factory. While the factory is free to enter, if you plan to take photos, a donation or purchase of handmade cookies is appreciated. On the second Sunday of each month, the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum is open and free of charge to all visitors. 

Check out the Ferry Building

Ferry Building, San Francisco

Located on the Embarcadero, the Ferry Building is a historic landmark built in 1898 to serve as the city's central transportation hub for ferry traffic across the San Francisco Bay. Today, it's a popular tourist attraction and bustling marketplace featuring a variety of restaurants and specialty food shops. Enjoy views of the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Bay while strolling through the outdoor farmers market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. 

See the Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

Designed by architect Bernard Maybeck, the Palace of Fine Arts was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, which was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and showcase San Francisco's recovery from the 1906 earthquake. Located in the Marina district, the beautiful Beaux-Arts style landmark is a popular spot for taking photographs, with plenty of green space in its surrounding gardens to sit with a coffee and enjoy the scenery.

Take a (free) guided walking tour

The Painted Ladies Victorian houses in San Francisco

Whether Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic vision of San Francisco, the famous Victorian Painted Ladies of Alamo Square, or the hippie capital of Haight Ashbury piques your interest, San Francisco’s City Guides offer over 80 free historical and architectural walking tours. Usually lasting from 90–120 minutes, they are led by a team of local expert volunteers. Register online to receive a confirmation email with details on where to meet. While walks and tours are free, donations to the nonprofit organization and tips for your guide are greatly appreciated.  

Learn about the Mission street murals

An old orange car sits in an alleyway covered in street art in San Francisco's Mission district

San Francisco’s buzzy but laid-back Mission district might be home to the city’s oldest intact building, Misión San Francisco de Asís, but it’s also where you’ll find vibrant street art. Best explored on a self-guided walking tour, Balmy Alley features many murals in various styles, tackling subjects from human rights to gentrification. San Francisco City Guides offers a free guided walking tour every Saturday that starts in Precita Park and ends in Balmy Alley.  

Visit the Cable Car Museum

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

August 2, 2023 marks the 150th anniversary of when cable cars began operating in San Francisco—the world's last manually operated system of its kind, which is used by over 9.7 million people annually. Located steps from the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable stops in the Nob Hill district, the Cable Car Museum (which doubles as a storage facility for the cars at night) is a fun place to learn all about these iconic streetcars that have connected the city since 1873. Admission is free, and there is a well-curated collection of historic cars, photographs, and mechanical displays. 

See contemporary art

Opened in October 2022 and located in the half-industrial, half-residential Dogpatch neighborhood, the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (ICA SF) features contemporary art exhibitions, performances, and events by rotating artists in its 11,000-square-foot gallery space. Cozy couches and a pop-up Mexican coffee cart in the foyer invite visitors to linger. ICA SF is open Wednesday through Sunday, and there is free two-hour street parking nearby; there are also several SFMTA bus stops and the 22nd Street CalTrain station blocks away.

Enjoy free museum days

The De Young Museum in San Francisco

On certain days, many museums and attractions around the city offer free admission throughout the month, including the Asian Art Museum (first Sundays), the Museum of the African Diaspora (every second Saturday), and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens (every second Tuesday). The Presidio’s Walt Disney Family Museum has one free day a year on Walt Disney’s birthday (December 5). Some museums also offer free general admission to their permanent collections, such as the De Young Museum (daily starting at 4:30pm and the first Tuesday of every month).

Wander along Fisherman’s Wharf

The sea lions lay on the docks at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco

One of the city's busiest tourist areas, Fisherman's Wharf might be packed with souvenir shops and stalls selling sourdough bread bowls filled with tasty crab chowder. However, there are plenty of free fun things to see and experience by wandering along repurposed wooden Pier 39. Find the raft of rowdy sea lions on K-Dock, a set of symphonic stairs located mid-pier (inspired by the Tom Hanks' movie "Big"), free shows by street performers on the Smartwater Stage at the Bay end of the pier, and musicians at the Entrance Plaza on Friday and Saturday nights. A five-minute walk away on Pier 45, admission to the Musée Mécanique is free 365 days a year.

Hike Lands End

People walk on the beach near Lands End Train in San Francisco

The Sutro district of Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the northwestern corner of San Francisco has miles of hiking trails, but the Lands End Trail is considered the most scenic. With fantastic views at almost every turn (think fabulous sunsets, pelicans wheeling above the Pacific, and the Golden Gate Bridge from different angles), the four-mile trail is dog-friendly, but bring a leash. It features nine detours and landmarks, including a stone labyrinth by artist Eduardo Aguilera at Mile Rock Beach and the Sutro Baths, a once privately-owned public saltwater swimming pool complex constructed in 1894 that is now an epic ruin. At its start, the Lands End Lookout features a visitor center, retail space, café, and restroom. With room for 75 cars, the Sutro Baths parking lot (1004 Point Lobos Ave.) often fills up fast on weekends, but if you're using public transport, the 38R Geary Rapid Bus can drop you at 48th Street nearby. 

And hike Twin Peaks

People overlook the city on Twin Peaks in San Francisco

Rising 992 feet above the city and sitting almost in its geographical center, Twin Peaks—a grassy 64-acre hilltop park—is a popular attraction and where locals like to take guests from out of town. The 0.7-mile hiking trail network here leads to a wind-swept summit and 360-degree postcard views of the city and entire Bay Area. If you’re coming by car, park along Crestline Drive and use the gate off Portola Drive to access the park. If you’re using public transport, Muni Line 37 stops along Crestline Drive and Muni Line 48 stops along Portola.

Going Picks for best free things to do in San Francisco

Stern Grove Concert Meadow

A beautiful spot for hanging out with friends and listening to live music, beloved venue space Stern Grove Concert Meadow (or just Stern Grove to locals) is located at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard in Pine Lake Park. Big names and rising stars alike have headlined here—think Carlos Santana and Janelle Monae—with shows supported by donations and free to the public. 

Jack Kerouac Alley

Literary fans and those interested in Beat Generation history will enjoy strolling through this one-way pedestrian alley connecting Grant Avenue in Chinatown to Columbus Avenue in North Beach. Named after novelist Jack Kerouac, who used to hang out at a nearby pub, the hidden-gem spot features colorful murals and engraved poems with verses by John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, and Kerouac himself. It's also located beside one of San Francisco's best bookstores—a sacred stop for book lovers—City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, which often hosts free author talks and readings. 

Hamon Observation Tower

For panoramic 360-degree views of downtown San Francisco, head to the Hamon Observation Tower inside the De Young Museum. It's free and open to the public Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am–4:30pm (even if you don’t have a ticket to the museum). This one is best saved for a sunny day, as you’ll be able to see across Golden Gate Park, the Richmond district, and miles beyond.

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Keri Bridgwater

Keri Bridgwater

Freelance Writer

Originally from England, Keri Bridgwater is a freelance writer who swapped Cornwall for California over a decade ago. When not on the road, happy places include the Mojave Desert and spending time at home with her boyfriend and their cats.

Published November 29, 2023

Last updated December 21, 2023

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