What to Do for Free in San Francisco
This post covers free things to do in San Francisco, including nighttime, family-friendly, as well as listings by month and neighborhood.
- Top 10
- Nighttime Activities
- By Month/Neighborhood
- 1-Day on a Budget
- Free Tours By Foot
TOP 10 FREE THINGS TO DO
In this section, we will focus on the 10 best free things to do in San Francisco.
If you’re trying to save money while sightseeing, you may want to consider getting a San Francisco tourist attraction discount pass.
For additional ideas, don’t forget to check our master post on things to do in San Francisco.
1) Take a Drive Down Lombard Street
This is one of the most unique roads in San Francisco. Full of twists and turns, this one-way street is almost like a roller coaster.
The road is lined with beautiful bushes, flowers, trees and more and can be walked or driven.
You can also get here by taking either the cable car or other public transport available in the city.
Most hop-on-hop-off bus tours also provide a stop close to this notable site.
For more details on how to get here, read our post about Lombard Street.
2) Take a Walking Tour
There are several pay-what-you-wish walking tours you can take for free in San Francisco.
Some of these tours focus on legends and stories from throughout the history of the city, but others will give you a close look at notable neighborhoods.
3) Visit a Free Museum
The city has several museums that are either always free or regularly offer free hours. Free really means pay-what-you-wish or donation.
Here are a few of the more notable locations you might want to visit during your trip:
- The Cable Car Museum
- San Francisco Maritime Park
- Musée Mécanique (Classic Arcade)
- The Wells Fargo History Museum
- The Japanese Tea Garden
- And more!
If you want to know more about each of these options and more, read our full post about free museums in San Francisco.
4) See the Painted Ladies
Anyone familiar with the hit television show Full House will want to consider a visit to the Painted Ladies. The Tanner family is depicted as living in one of these houses.
These are arguably some of the most beautiful houses in all of San Francisco, and you are free to come and see them for yourself.
Sadly, you can’t actually enter any of these buildings because they are privately owned, but let us show you a great photo spot and how to get here.
5) Take a Ride on the Cable Cars
The San Francisco cable cars are one of the most well-known sights in the city and the city is actually home to the very first cable car system in the United States.
For more details, please read our post about how to use the San Francisco Cable Car.
6) See the Sea Lions at Pier 39
If you’re looking for something fun to do with the family, consider taking them down to Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf.
There are a lot of fun things to see and experience here, but one of the most popular attractions is the Sea Lions that tend to show up at the pier.
These funny and interesting animals have chosen this particular spot to spend their time lounging in San Francisco.
Aquarium of the Bay is also located at Pier 39, so you can take your kids to see even more aquatic animals if they are interested.
Admission to this attraction is included with every San Francisco tourist pass.
7) Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
8) Check Out Golden Gate Park
Just a few blocks south of the bridge is Golden Gate Park and there are some pretty great things to see here.
Families will enjoy locations such as the Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Golden Gate Park is also the home of the de Young Museum, noted for their fine arts and sculpture garden, as well as the California Academy of Sciences, a wonderful natural history museum with a planetarium, an aquarium, and an indoor rainforest.
9) Hike to Coit Tower
For some of the best views in San Francisco, you might want to think about making the hike to Coit Tower.
Located just a few blocks from Pier 39 on top of Telegraph Hill, this tower provides a great vantage point to see a variety of notable sites such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Downtown area.
Although it’s not free to reach the top of the tower, you can hike here and enter the tower for free. There are some pretty amazing and historic murals on the ground floor.
For more information about what you can see and do in the area, please read our full post about visiting Coit Tower.
10) Consider Getting an All-Inclusive Tourist Pass
Tourist passes might not be free, but they can help you save so much money that you could enjoy some activities without paying a dime.
To show you what we mean, we’ll use the 3-Day San Francisco Sightseeing Pass ($149).
- Aquarium of the Bay | $24
- Madame Tussauds | $26
- USS Pampanito | $20
- 7D Experience | $14
- Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze | $5
- Total Value | $89
- Hop-on-Hop-off Bus Tour | $52
- AT&T Park Tour | $22
- De Young Museum | $15
- Legion of Honor | $15
- Total Value | $193
- Everything is free!
As you can see, by the time you’re halfway through the second day, this pass has already paid for itself and you won’t have to pay anything more to continue using it on other activities.
In addition to the attractions we already mentioned, the San Francisco Sightseeing Pass can also be used for a variety of guided walking tours, bike tours, cruises, and more.
For information on this and other all-inclusive passes, make sure to read our full post comparing each San Francisco tourist pass.
This section will include a handful of additional activities that we couldn’t fit into the top 10. Even though they didn’t make the list, these are still fantastic ideas for free things to do in San Francisco.
Enjoy Great Photo Ops
There are a lot of great places to take fantastic pictures in the city by the bay.
If you want to know where the best spots are, check our post about the top 10 photography locations in San Francisco.
See the Mission Murals
The Mission District in San Francisco has several beautiful murals painted on the walls of various buildings and structures in the area.
You can take a self-guided tour of the Mission Murals and enjoy all of this fantastic street art for free.
Go to the Japanese Tea Garden
This is actually the oldest public Japanese Garden in the United States, and it’s entirely free to visit on Monday, Wednesday and Friday if you enter before 10 am.
Although it won’t take you long to see everything, there are a lot of beautiful plants and trees in the area.
Hike Land’s End Coastal Trail
At the Northwest end of San Francisco, you will find a small stretch of forest known as Land’s End.
A free hike on the Land’s End Coastal Trail will afford you fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and other popular locations in the city.
Experience the Wave Organ
Just west of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Wave Organ is one of the most interesting locations in the city – and it’s entirely free to visit.
This art installation was developed to create sounds with the waves of the ocean. If you’re looking for a great family activity, this is an excellent option.
In this section, we will discuss some of the best things you can do for free in San Francisco after dark.
Many items listed in the other sections of this post can also be experienced at night.
For even more great activities, check our full post about things to do at night in San Francisco.
Experience the Bay Lights
The Golden Gate Bridge really shines during the day, but thanks to the Bay Lights installation, it also glows after dark.
This display lights up the bridge every night from dusk until dawn with over 25,000 LEDs.
3 Innings of San Francisco Giants Game
There is an area at Oracle Stadium (AT&T Park) where visitors can enjoy 3 innings of every home game for free.
The viewing area is located on the McCovey Cove side of the stadium (map).
It is a bit small and it only fits about 100 people reasonably and staff is there to make sure that visitors stay for 3 innings maximum.
Many San Francisco Giants games take place after dark (at about 7 pm), so this could easily be a great nighttime activity.
If you do feel like seeing the whole game, it’s worth noting that some tickets are as low as $6 per person and they regularly offer discounts on ticket packages.
TIP: If you’re interested in seeing more of AT&T Park, don’t forget that you can take a tour of the stadium for free with most San Francisco tourist passes.
Go to Musée Mécanique
Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, Musée Mécanique is one of the best attractions to enjoy after dark in San Francisco.
This free museum is open until 8 pm (20:00) every night of the week, and there are a lot of great things to see and do here.
In this museum, you will find arcade games, pinball tables, slot machines, coin-operated pianos, crane games and more from throughout the past 100 years.
Although it won’t be free to play all of the games, you can come and see them all without paying a dime, though playing a few games is inexpensive.
Prices for each machine range from 1¢ – $1, with the average price being either 25¢ or 50¢ per play.
Go to a Comedy Club
Although you will require a ticket for most comedy shows in San Francisco, many clubs offer an open mic night or another special performance at least once per month that won’t cost you a thing.
Here are a few locations where you can enjoy a free comedy performance:
- Cobb’s Comedy Club
- Kozy Kar Bar
- Bar Fluxus
- Slate Bar
- Murphy’s Pub
- The Rite Spot Cafe
- And More!
Enjoy Free Live Events
No matter when you choose to visit San Francisco, chances are that you’ll have the opportunity to see a live event for free.
Some of these events are seasonal, but others take place on a monthly or weekly basis.
Here are a few locations you may want to visit to see if they’ve got any free live events planned:
- Amoeba Music
- SVN West
- Pier 39
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Union Square Park
- Fillmore Mini Park
- San Francisco Public Library
- And More!
For specific events, you can enjoy when you visit, make sure to check our monthly posts about things to do in San Francisco.
Take Some Great Photographs After Dark
Although you’ll need daylight some of the best photo ops in San Francisco, there are some pretty great places to take pictures after the sun goes down.
If you’re interested in taking photos of the Bay Lights display, a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge will be in order.
You might also want to consider taking a trip to Treasure Island to get one of the best views of the San Francisco skyline as it lights up after dark.
Alternatively, you could also head to the Marin Headlands near Sausalito for another great vantage point of the city.
NOTE: Some of the San Francisco night bus tours will actually take you to Treasure Island to give you a good look at the skyline from afar.
The following section will focus on free activities in San Francisco that parents can enjoy with their kids.
Remember to check our other sections for additional family-friendly things to do.
If you’re looking for a way to save money on the more popular kid-friendly activities, make sure to read our post comparing each San Francisco tourist pass.
Get Free Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
Just a few blocks away from Fisherman’s Wharf, was once a famous chocolate factory has now become the home of an entire shopping center.
At the center of this square is a Ghirardelli chocolate store where you can actually get a free piece of chocolate just for visiting.
NOTE: In addition to the chocolate, families may also be interested in visiting the nearby Cartoon Art Museum. Admission isn’t free, but kids are sure to love all of the amazing and memorable artwork on display.
Visit the Fortune Cookie Factory
Located in Chinatown, Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory offers visitors a free tour to see how fortune cookies are made, and at the end of the tour, you’ll receive a free sample!
A variety of different fortune cookies are also available for purchase in their store
Read our full post about visiting San Francisco’s Fortune Cookie Factory.
Take the Kids to a Playground
There are a lot of great public playgrounds where you can take your kids in San Francisco, and many of them are fairly close to all of the major landmarks in the city.
Here are a few locations you may want to consider:
- Joe DiMaggio Playground
- Julius Kahn Playground
- Helen Wills Playground
- Washington Square Playground
- Michelangelo Playground
- Presidio Heights Playground
- Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground
- Koret Playground
- And More!
See the Bison in Golden Gate Park
Did you know there are actual Bison living in San Francisco?
The Bison Paddock in Golden Gate Park has been around since the 1800s, providing visitors with an opportunity to see what has sadly become a fairly rare sight around the United States.
If your kids love visiting the zoo, this is a wonderful chance for them to experience a somewhat threatened species that once roamed the land all across this country.
Go to a Family-Friendly Museum
As we mentioned in our top 10 section, there are a lot of museums you can visit for free in San Francisco.
Musée Mécanique is likely to be a hit with most children. With several modern and historic arcade games to play, this is one of the best family-friendly activities in the city.
If your kids are interested in boats and naval history, you may want to consider making a trip to the San Francisco Maritime Park.
The SF Fire Department Historical Society is another interesting museum that children might enjoy.
For additional information about each of these locations and more, make sure to read our full post about free museums in San Francisco.
See the Parrots at Coit Tower
One of the more surprising things about the area around Coit Tower is the fact that it is the home of a flock of parrots.
Nobody knows exactly how they got there, but chances are that they were imported from South America at some point before the 90’s when that practice was restricted.
For the best chance to see them, head to North waterfront area. You’re also most likely to see them during warmer months than in the winter.
Look for fruit trees and you’ll probably see or hear at least a few of them!
Visit the Presidio Pet Cemetery
The Presidio Pet Cemetery was the burial site for several pets owned by military families when there was an army post in the area.
Although most of the animals were cats and dogs, there are also some rodents, birds, and reptiles buried here.
Although it’s a bit sad, this could be a great creepy location to visit either before or after a haunted house or a ghost tour.
See the Mrs. Doubtfire House
The main household used in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire can be found at 2640 Steiner, just a few blocks from the Alta Plaza Park.
Although you can’t enter the house, you can take a look at it from outside.
NOTE: If you head South about a mile on this street, you’ll find the famous Painted Ladies which were featured in Full House.
If you’re looking for free activities that are only available during a specific time of the year, the following monthly posts provide quite a few ideas you might want to consider.
FREE THINGS TO DO BY NEIGHBORHOOD
There are a lot of popular neighborhoods in San Francisco, and we’ve got several posts covering all of the different things you can do in these areas. If you plan to visit one of these locations while in the city, check our posts for even more activities and attractions you can see without paying a dime.
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- North Beach
- Mission District
- Things to Do in San Francisco
- San Francisco Tourist Discount Passes
- Which San Francisco Bus Tour Is Best?