15 Fun & Free Things to Do in San Francisco

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On a budget but traveling to the City by the Bay? Check out these 15 free things to do in San Francisco!

Mark Twain once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” The first time I arrived in San Francisco, traveling up from L.A., it was August. The first thing I did was buy a sweatshirt because it was cold! Nevertheless, I immediately fell in love.  There was something about the air and the vibe that made me feel relaxed and yet energized at the same time.  San Francisco just made me feel good! 

Despite those immediate good vibes, I have to admit that San Francisco is pretty pricey. The cost of living in San Francisco is 62.6% higher than the cost of living in the rest of the U.S. The median cost to rent a 1bedroom apartment is a whopping $3108/month.  Eating out, even at a mid-priced restaurant, can cost about double the U.S. average. 

So if you’re on a budget you might be thinking – maybe San Francisco shouldn’t be on my travel list. NONSENSE! 

You can find lots of free and almost free things to do in San Francisco. Here are my favorite 15.  

1) Take a Free Walking Tour with San Francisco City Guides 

Whether you want to visit Chinatown, Nob Hill, Sacred Places in San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco, Victorian San Francisco, Fisherman’s Warf, the Pacific Heights Mansions or many other themed destinations of San Francisco, there’s a walk for you. These guided tours are free, but donations are welcomed.  

You can see the full schedule at: http://www.sfcityguides.org/ 

An image of a pagoda amid evergreen trees in the fog in Golden Gate Park San Francisco

2) Visit Golden Gate Park 

Golden Gate Park covers more than 1000 acres and is over 3 miles long. So give yourself a little time to check out some of the awesome things to do here. I could write a post of 15 Fun & Free Things to Do at Golden Gate Park and I may do that someday, but here are just a few.  

In the park there is a botanical garden and a tea garden, these both require an entrance fee. But there is also a rose garden (with roses blooming from late spring to early fall), a tulip garden and a garden of Shakespeare’s flowers complete with quotations throughout the garden.  

The Golden Gate Park Carousel was built in 1914 and is beautiful to watch and listen to with its German band organ.  

If you’re under 5 you can ride for free. Adults ride for $2, Children 6-12 ride for $1. 

De Young Museum – While there is an entry fee for anyone over 17, there is no fee charged for visiting the museum courtyard, cafe, store, sculpture garden or tower. 

Strybring Arboretum If you’re from San Francisco (city or county) you can get in free any time. If you’re not but you’re an early bird, the gardens, which include various gardens like the Mediterranean, Japanese, Southeastern Asian Cloud Forest, and specialty collections like the Garden of Fragrance, are free from 7:30-9:00 daily, or free all day on the Second Tuesday of each month.  

A cable car on a San Francisco street with a view of the Bay

3) Check out the Cable Car Museum – 1201 Mason Street

The cable cars of San Francisco are renowned in film and song. 

Tony Bennet and others have sung the famous verse: 

“I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care” 

So if you’d like to find out more about them you can visit the Cable Car Museum for free to learn about the history, see historical cable cars along with mechanical exhibits and more.  

Admission is free and the museum is open 7 days a week. 

You can find out more here: http://www.cablecarmuseum.org/info.html 

San Francisco City Hall at Night

4) Fight (or just visit) City Hall – 1 Dr Carlton B Goodlett Pl 

San Francisco has an amazing City Hall. It’s a Beaux-Arts landmark building with gilt and lots of fancy flourishes. Its dome is larger than the dome on the Capitol in Washington D.C. and is the 5th largest dome in the world. There are free art exhibitions on the ground floor as well as free docent-led tours. You can find them at a Docent Tour kiosk located next to the elevators in the Goodlett Place lobby. 

It’s open Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM with free hour-long tours at 10:00, Noon and 2:00. 

An image of San Francisco's Coit Tower from the bottom of the hill looking up

5) Hike to Coit Tower – 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.

Although It’s not free to go up in the tower (the elevator ticket costs $9.00 for adults and $6.00 or $3.00 for kids depending on the age) you can visit the tower lobby with its famous murals for free! 

If you do go up the tower you’ll be treated to amazing 360-degree views of the city, the bay, and of course the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.  

For a scenic hike to the tower, climb Telegraph Hill’s eastern slope via the Filbert Street stairs, which pass through the Grace Marchant Garden. On your way down try the Greenwich Street stairs.  Be sure to keep an eye out for the wild parrots that inhabit the area. 

6) Dueling Pianos  

Like music? Like fun? Check out the Dueling Piano show at Johnny Foley’s near Union Square on Wednesday and Thursday nights from 9:30 PM to 12:30 AM. The piano players play the requests of the audience and every night is different.  

 Doors open at 8:30 PM and this is a popular venue so you might want to get there when the doors open to be sure you get a seat. No cover charge on Wednesday and Thursday.  

A street in China Town San Francisco

7) See the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory – 56 Ross Alley, San Francisco 

San Francisco’s China Town is an amazing place that you won’t want to miss. And, while you are wandering around its fascinating streets you might want to look for 56 Ross Alley, the home of San Francisco’s last fortune cookie factory. The alley is kind of dark and narrow, but the strong smell of vanilla cookies will help lead you to the right place.  

If you’re picturing some huge factory with a bunch of assembly lines – it’s not. These cookies are all handmade – up to 10,000 cookies a day!  

The shop is open 7 days a week. It can be a little tricky to find but according to the owners, the best way to get here is from the Powell Street Cable Car (Powell Street & Market – Bay + Taylor line). 

Just exit at Powell St & Jackson St., then walk down Jackson St. past Stockton. Ross Alley will be on the right-hand side, between Stockton and Kearny. 

A rocky shoreline and the ruins of the sutro baths on the edge of the Pacific shoreline

8) Visit the Sutro Bath Ruins on the Pacific Ocean  – 1004 Point Lobos Ave 

Part of Golden Gate National Recreation area, and located right on the Pacific coast (so close it’s even covered over at high tide sometimes). These fascinating ruins are the site of what was once an amazing recreation complex that was built between 1894 and 1896 and covered over 3 acres of land. It was designed to allow San Franciscans to enjoy swimming and frolicking in the waters of the Pacific, in a more refined way. There were 7 different temperature pools of Pacific seawater that visitors could enjoy, 300 dressing rooms and seating for 3700 spectators where visitors would watch events like beauty pageants and boxing matches. 

These ruins are located near the famous Cliff House, so if you’re planning on having a drink or lunch here, you might want to check out the Sutro Bath Ruins as well. The ground is uneven and difficult, so bring along some appropriate shoes if you want to hike to the ruins to get a better view.  

You can find out more about the Sutro Baths here: https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/historyculture/vestiges-sutro-baths.htm 

Sea Lions at Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco

9) See the Sealions at Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf  

Fisherman’s Warf is a bit of a tourist trap. Lots of souvenir shops and restaurants selling clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls and of course, lots and lots of tourists. But it’s sort of a “must-go” place if you’re in San Francisco, and when you go, because I know you will, remember to check out the sea lions that hang out there. This isn’t a choreographed animal show, the sea lions are just there because they like it there, and they are so fun to watch and take pictures of.  

If you’re looking for a bite to eat with a view check out the Eagle Café on Pier 39. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The prices aren’t bad and the view is terrific! 

Victorian Houses in San Francisco and the San Francisco Skyline behind

10) The Painted Ladies – Steiner St & Hayes St

No, not that kind of painted lady. You can visit the famous row of Victorian houses shown in so many films that take place in San Francisco (and, of course, where the family from the sitcom Full House supposedly lived). You can’t go inside because all of the homes are privately owned, but you can take great pictures of them from Alamo Square Park. And it’s a cool neighborhood to walk around in a bit.  

The Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco

11) Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge 

Yep, you can really do that and it’s free. It’s 1.7 miles from abutment to abutment and, of course, you need to get there by some means. This is a here is a great guide about the best ways to do this and other good info about the bridge: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/walking-the-golden-gate-bridge/ 

12) Take in the Golden Gate Bridge Light Show 

 If you’re not feeling motivated enough to walk the Golden Gate Bridge be sure to check out the nightly light show that lights up the iconic bridge and runs from dusk until dawn. It includes over 25,000 LED lights. Coit Tower and Fisherman’s Warf will both give you a good view. 

The outside of the shopping complex - Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco

13) Visit Ghirardelli Square 

This onetime chocolate factory on the West side of Fisherman’s Warf is now home to unique shops and a variety of restaurants. It’s fun to browse for free and in the middle is a Ghirardelli shop where you can get a free piece of chocolate just for visiting.  

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14) Check out Musée Mécanique  

It’s reportedly one of the world’s largest privately-owned collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines. There are over 200 you can see for free AND, if you’re willing to splurge a couple of pennies, you can actually play them as well! Prices to play the games range from 1 cent to 1 dollar. It’s a great family activity and also located on Fisherman’s Wharf.  

The hairpin curves of Lombard Street with beautiful flowers and shrubs

15) Drive down the famous Lombard Street 

Or, actually, due to the traffic in San Francisco I’d suggest just walking it. It’s that street with the very steep one-block section with 8 hairpin turns. Yes – that one. I’m sure you’ve seen it in the movies. It’s great for car chases. The 1000 block is the one with all the turns. It’s planted with beautiful shrubs and flowers and it’s a great spot to take photos.  

And there you have it! 15 Fun & Free Things to Do in San Francisco. If you want ideas for fun things to do in other great cities check out: 

15 Fun & Free Things to do in Las Vegas

Or take a look at:

15 Fun & Free Things to do in Chicago

15 Fun & Free Things to do in New Orleans

40 Fun & Free Things to do in New York City

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