Visiting San Francisco on a budget? Here are the best free things to do.
San Francisco is known to be one of the most expensive cities in the US, but you can enjoy plenty of what the city has to offer, including many iconic tourist attractions for free. We, personally, like to save all our money for food, so we like to find great ways to balance how much we spend on our bellies. Today, we’ve put together some of the best free things to do in the city.
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Last Updated: February 15, 2024
25 Free THings to Do in San Francisco
1. Visit the Largest Chinatown Outside of Asia
Dragon’s Gate is at Bush St & Grant Ave, map
Not only is this the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, but it’s also the oldest Chinatown in North America. A great place to start is the iconic Dragon’s Gate. You can then walk through the streets, people-watch, or peruse trinkets.
2. GOlden Gate FOrtune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Aly, map
Did you know that fortune cookies were not invented in China? It was first made in California in the 1890s or early 1900s, and there is a dispute on whether it was in San Francisco or LA. If you’ve ever wondered how they are made, you can stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown to learn more about the process and munch on a few samples. They’ve been making fortune cookies since 1962, so they know a thing or two about it.
3. Picnic Across the Painted Ladies
Steiner St & Hayes St, map
This iconic row of Victorian homes is probably best known from the intro of Full House. There’s a park across the street where you can enjoy the views. If you’re into famous shoot locations, you can visit the actual Full House house, Sister Act 2 church, and Mrs. Doubtfire’s house.
4. Ferry Building Farmer’s Market
One Ferry Building #50, map
This farmer’s market is known as one of the best in the country because of its diversity and freshness of products. On weekends, you may even spot some of the city’s most well-known chefs at the market.
5. Walk Across the GOlden Gate bridge
Start at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, map
If you drive across the bridge, you only experience it for a moment, but if you walk or bike across the bridge, you can stop as many times as you like to take in the views. There’s also a small outdoor museum telling you more about the history of the bridge. It’s not for inexperienced bikers. It gets pretty scary on the Sausalito side. Jacob has done this but doesn’t recommend the activity to someone like me.
8. Climb Beautiful Stairs
16th Ave Tiled Steps, map
San Francisco is definitely known for its steep hills, but there are also some beautiful stairs (which take you to beautiful views). The Filbert St steps are really popular and take you up to Coit Tower. You can also check out the Lyon Street Steps for views of the bay, the 16th Ave Tiled Steps for some artwork, and the Vallejo Street Steps for a great view of the city.
9. Drive or Walk the Crookedest Street in the World
Lombard St & Hyde St, map
This famous street is claimed to be the most crooked street in the world (in actuality, it’s Vermont Street which is also in SF). It is so popular that there are lines of cars waiting to drive down. You can also walk up or down the street at your own pace. There’s a great view of the city from the top.
10. Get SPrayed at Fog Bridge
Pier 15 The Embarcadero, map
Imagine water pumped at high pressure through over 800 nozzles along a bridge. Get sprayed by the mist that rains down at this permanent installation.
14. 49-Mile Scenic Drive
1 Dr. Carlton B Goodlett Pl, map
You technically are spending money on this through gas, but it’s still a relatively free activity. The route was created in 1938 and has taken different forms over the years, but it gives you a great tour of the city and takes you through all the iconic spots.
Remember that SF is not the best city to drive around. If the steep hills don’t terrify you, then maybe having to look for parking for an hour will.
15. Listen to the Sea Lions at Pier 39
Beach St & The Embarcadero, map
One of the most popular spots in Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39. Flocks of people visit every day to see and listen to sea lions. P.S. they’re pretty smelly.
On days you want to get inside, check out one of the free museums in San Francisco, like the Cable Car Museum, San Francisco Railway Museum, Randall Museum, and San Francisco Center for the Books. Other museums have free days (see below).
17. Art Galleries
Galleries and temporary art shows will keep any art lover busy.
Most Popular Area: 49 Geary downtown has a large concentration of galleries. You can also check out Ratio 3, Diego Rivera Gallery, and Luggage Store Gallery. If you prefer murals, head to Clarion Alley in the Mission or the Rincon Annex Post Office murals.
19. Explore Lands End
680 Point Lobos Ave, map
Lands End gives you one of the best views in San Francisco but also has a lot to explore in the area. Start at the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center to learn what you can find, then see old shipwrecks, the Sutro Baths, packed beaches, and more.
20. Golden Gate Park
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA CA 94118, map
Golden Gate Park was modeled after Central Park in NYC and is 1017 acres and 20% larger than Central Park. It can keep you busy all day. Watch boats on Stow Lake, stroll through the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, or see Bisons at Bison Paddock. You can also climb Strawberry Hill, which is the highest point in the park. If you go before 10 am on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, the Japanese Tea Garden is also free to visit.
22. Baker Beach
There are a couple of parking lots close by, map
If you’re looking for one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head to Baker Beach. There’s a mile of coast to explore and plenty of places to shoot.
23. Hike to an Amazing View of the City
Bernal Heights Parking Lot: 3450 Folsom St, map
Twin Peaks or Bernal Heights are known for spectacular city views! If you’re hoping to avoid the crowds, head up for sunrise instead of sunset.
24. Coastal Views from the Presidio
6302 Merchant Rd, map
The 1,500-acre National Park is on a former military post. 12 scenic hikes give you everything from stunning coastal views to a nice walk through the forest. A great place to start is at the view parking lot listed below. Also, you’ll find the Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy here.
25. Crissy Field
924 Mason St 94129, map
Crissy Field has something for everyone. You can spend the day at the beach, fly a kite, bring your four-legged friend, or even crab and fish without a license at Torpedo Wharf. Be sure to check out the Wave Organ too! These strategically placed pipes use the waves and water to create music.
Map of Free Things to Do in San Francisco
Do a Free Walking Tour
The easiest way to see many landmarks is to do a walking tour. San Francisco City Guides run free walking tours throughout the city with different focuses. Run by volunteers, learn more from passionate residents about everything from the 1906 fire to more information about specific neighborhoods. All these tours are donation-based or pay-what-you-wish.
- SF City Guides Tours (part of the SF Public Library) – various tours based on neighborhoods and time periods – see upcoming tours
- Free Tours by Foot – various areas
- Free SF Tour through Downtown San Francisco: Chinatown, Financial District, and Embarcadero
- Wild SF Alternative and Free Walking Tours (some are not free)
Free Museum Days
Keep in mind these days get crowded
- California Academy of Sciences (Free Sundays Quarterly) – reserve your free ticket in advance
- de Young Museum (Free First Tuesdays Monthly)
- Legion of Honor (Free First Tuesdays Monthly)
- Exploratorium (Free Events – check calendar)
- GLBT History Museum (Free First Wednesdays Monthly)
- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Galleries (Free First Tuesdays Monthly)
- Asian Art Museum (Free First Sundays Monthly)
- Museum of Craft and Design (Free First Tuesdays Monthly)
- Contemporary Jewish Museum (Free First Tuesdays Monthly)
- Cable Car Heritage Museum (Always Free)
- SF Museum of Modern Art (Always Free for 18 and Under)
- Museum of African Diaspora (Free Third Thursday Evenings Monthly)
- SFO Museum (Portions Always Free)
- BAMPFA Berkeley Art Museum (Free First Thursdays)
More Free Things to DO in San Francisco (Seasonal + Special Events)
- Golden Gate Park Band (April to October)
- Bay to Breakers (May 3rd Sunday)
- Stern Grove Festival Concerts (June to August)
- Yerba Buena Gardens Free Concerts (May to October)
- North Beach Festival (June)
- SF Pride Week (June)
- Shakespeare in the Park (June to September)
- Salsa Festival on the Fillmore (June)
- Filmore Jazz Festival (July)
- Folsom Street Festival (September)
- Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (October)
Where to Stay
Can you think of other fun, free things to do in San Francisco? Did we miss anything?
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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust
Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.