What to Do for Free in San Francisco
This post covers free things to do in San Francisco, including a top 10 list, things to do at night, family-friendly, as well as listings by month and neighborhood. Be sure to also read our master post on things to do in San Francisco for more ideas.
- Top 10
- Things to Do at Night
- Family-Friendly 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. Whenever possible, we will note if any of these activities are either family-friendly or available after dark.
If you’re trying to save money while sightseeing, you may want to consider getting a San Francisco tourist 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, and it attracts a wide variety of visitors every year. 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. Cars will start lining up from several blocks away for the chance to drive down Lombard Street.
Even if you don’t have a car or you don’t feel like driving, you may still want to come and see this interesting architectural feat for yourself. Thankfully, you can get here by taking either the cable car or other public transport available in the city.
NOTE: This road is just a few blocks away from Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can enjoy even more free activities and get a good view of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge without paying a dime.
2) Visit a Free Museum
The city by the bay has several museums that are either always free or regularly offer free hours. 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.
3) 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 actually depicted as living in one of these houses, and they can be clearly seen in the intro for the series.
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.
That being said, there are actually a lot of great places to take pictures of the houses, and you can find the best spots with the help of our full post about the Painted Ladies.
4) Take a Ride on the Cable Cars
The San Francisco cable cars are one of the most well-known sights in the city. Although we’ve seen some variant of these vehicles in other locations around the country, the city by the bay is actually home to the very first cable car system in the United States.
With such a strong history, you might want to consider visiting the free cable car museum. Although you’ll have to pay for a ticket to jump on board, it won’t cost much and you can reach a lot of popular landmarks such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Lombard Street and more.
If you’re in the mood to do some sightseeing, it’s worth noting that this is also a great way to see sites such as Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower, and Market Street.
For more details, please read our post about how to use the San Francisco Cable Car.
5) 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. Although you won’t necessarily have an opportunity to interact with them, you can come and see how these animals live their lives.
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.
6) 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. Here are some of the options you may want to consider:
- The Wild West, the Gold Rush and the Early Years
- Secrets, Scandals and Scoundrels of San Francisco
- Lombard Street, Little Italy and Fisherman’s Wharf
- The Castro and the Fight for LGBT Equality
- San Francisco in One Day
- Golden Gate Bridge
7) Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
This is one of the most famous bridges in the world, and it attracts more than 10 million visitors per year. There are several different ways to see the Golden Gate Bridge – boat tours, bike tours, bus tours and more – but you can also see it for free by simply walking across.
For a full list of things to see and do here, check our post about the Golden Gate Bridge.
8) Check Out Golden Gate Park
If you are planning to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, you might want to stop and take a look around the Golden Gate Park as well. This location is just a few blocks South of the bridge, and there are some pretty great things to see in the area.
Families will enjoy locations such as the Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Garden. There is also a small lake where you can rent a boat to spend some time out on the water. For a free family activity, head to Robin Williams Meadow and then go to the Koret Playground or the Bison Paddock.
Golden Gate Park is also the home of the de Young Museum, noted for their fine arts and sculpture garden. Just South of this location, you’ll find the California Academy of Sciences, a wonderful natural history museum with a planetarium, an aquarium and an indoor rainforest. Alternatively, you might also want to play a round at the golf course which is just across the street from the beach.
NOTE: Admission to the de Young Museum is included with almost every San Francisco tourist pass. Many services also offer admission to the California Academy of Sciences and guided tours of Golden Gate Park.
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 enter the tower, you can make the hike here for free. Since the structure is on top of a hill, you’ll still be able to get some pretty good views from nearby Pioneer Park, which is also found at the top of Telegraph Hill.
If you choose to enter Coit Tower, there are some pretty amazing and historic murals inside that art lovers will definitely appreciate. Needless to say, they also have an observation deck where you can get one of the best views in San Francisco.
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.
Take a Drive Down the Pacific Coast Highway
This is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States, as you will enjoy views of sites such as the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur. If you’re in the mood for a road trip, consider using our Pacific Coast Highway guide to find all the best stops along the way.
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. This is a great location to get fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and other popular locations in the city. If you want to visit, you can go for a free hike on the Land’s End Coastal Trail.
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 artistic 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.
Take a Tour of City Hall
San Francisco City Hall provides a free docent-led tour of the building. At approximately one hour in length, you’ll learn a lot of information about the history of this location and the city itself. If you are interested, look for the docent tour kiosk near the Goodlett Place lobby.
In this section, we will discuss some of the best things you can do for free in San Francisco after dark. Don’t forget to read our other sections for ideas like driving down Lombard Street or riding the cable cars, which you could also do 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. And it’s free (see video above).
Whether you choose to visit the bridge or see it from afar, there are many different ways to enjoy the Bay Lights. You can get a good view from Land’s End, Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island and several other locations in San Francisco.
3 Innings of San Francisco Giants Game
Believe it or not, you can actually go to a San Francisco Giants game without paying a dime. You won’t get to see the whole game, but there is an area in AT&T Park where visitors can enjoy 3 innings of every home game for free.
The viewing area is a bit small and it only fits about 100 people reasonably. Staff at the park keep track of how long people stay here to make sure that visitors will only see 3 innings maximum, but at least you won’t have to pay for a ticket.
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 $10-15 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 each night, 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. Many of these machines are still functional and work perfectly fine.
Although it won’t be free to play all of the games, you can come and see them all without paying a dime. That being said, we definitely recommend bringing some pocket change in the event that you want to try some of the historic machines for yourself.
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!
Even if the shows are free, you might want to bring at least a little money to have a few drinks while you’re laughing up a storm.
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. In addition to festivals and other fun neighborhood activities, there are also concerts, outdoor movies and more. 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 such as a trip to Musée Mécanique, experiencing the Bay Lights, going to a baseball game, visiting the de Young Observation Tower or seeing the Sea Lions at Pier 39.
If you’re looking for a way to save money on even more kid-friendly activities, make sure to read our post comparing each San Francisco tourist pass.
Get Free Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
What 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.
Located just a few blocks West of Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s not too difficult to fit this historic site into your itinerary.
Even if you don’t intend to do any shopping or buy anything while you’re there, Ghirardelli Square is a great place to visit. If for nothing else, you’ll definitely want to take the opportunity to snap a photo of you and the family in front of the giant Ghirardelli sign.
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.
Ghirardelli Square is also just a few blocks from Lombard Street, so you may want to think about heading there either before or after you satisfy your sweet tooth!
Visit the Fortune Cookie Factory
If you’re planning to spend some time in Chinatown, it simply wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Visitors can take a free tour to see how these confections are made. At the end of the tour, you’ll receive a free sample!
Visitors who want more than just one sample can actually purchase a variety of different fortune cookies in their store. Some cookies are huge while others are dipped in chocolate and covered in sprinkles.
For more details on how to get here, when to come and what you can expect, please 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 1800’s, providing visitors with an opportunity to see what has sadly become a fairly rare sight around the United States.
The nice thing about this Bison Paddock is that it’s actually free to visit. All you have to do is show up and spend some time looking at the animals. 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.
NOTE: There are a lot of fun family-friendly attractions in Golden Gate Park, including more than one garden, a playground, the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. Some of these locations are free to visit and others are included with various San Francisco tourist passes.
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. Some of these locations aren’t going to be of interest to most younger visitors, but there are a few options you may want to consider.
Needless to say, 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. Located at the Hyde Street Pier, this museum has several historic ships, some that have been in use since the 1800’s.
The SF Fire Department Historical Society is another interesting museum that children might enjoy. Kids love firemen, and this location has a lot of historic artifacts showing the progress of this profession throughout the years.
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.
Even though quite a few parrots live here, there is a chance that you might not see them at all during your visit. 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
If you’re visiting San Francisco before Halloween and you want to enjoy a somewhat spooky activity with your kids, consider making a trip to the Presidio Pet Cemetery. This 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
There are a lot of famous filming locations in San Francisco, but this is probably one of the more interesting family-friendly examples in the city. 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. When Robin Williams passed away, fans left flowers, trinkets and other items outside the house to show their appreciation for the film and his work as an actor.
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