Check out our list of the top free things to do in San Francisco.
Are you planning to explore the beautiful San Francisco bay area soon? Well, today we have the perfect handy guide for you before you head out. San Francisco is easily one of the best places to go to in California. Unfortunately, it also one of the most expensive. Before you dish out any money, check out some of the best 17 free things to do in San Francisco. From entertainment to information, be sure to add these activities to your itinerary list before you head out to the beautiful San Francisco.
1. Explore Lands End
One of the most beautiful places in San Francisco is without a doubt, Lands End. Not only is Lands End super beautiful, but it is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. Along with that, it is easy to get to, easy to park at, and way less crowded than all the other beaches and parks that San Fran has to offer. Lands End is located in the northwest corner of San Francisco. It is a rugged stretch of coast that is unique in its own right. One of the main attractions to do here is exploring the shipwrecks that have called this shore their final resting place.
Not only that, but there is a great trail that is perfect for exploring and hiking through, biking through or trekking through with a furry friend. Finally, if you are looking for something more relaxing, then bring along a picnic lunch to spread out at Lands End Point. Here you will get beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge off in the distance.
If you are traveling to Lands End and want to experience something really neat, then the Labyrinth is a cool maze rock formation to try your hand out at. Finally, you can wrap up your trip here by visiting Mile Rock Beach. Mile Rock Beach is home to hundreds of rocks scattered all around. When you are here you may even get lucky. You may be able to catch sight of one of the rare humpback whales that are known to pass through here during the migration season.
What makes Lands End one of the best landmarks in this city is the fact that it is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. You don’t have to pay anything and you will get to explore nature in an undisturbed, natural setting.
2. Walk or Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
This next activity is a staple if you find yourself in San Francisco. Contrary to what many people think, hiking or biking the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the many free things to do in San Francisco. For starters, if you walk or bike the bridge, you will get the chance to say that you have done it. The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic staple in California and to say that you have walked it is a pretty cool thing to check off your bucket list.
Secondly, you will get to see the bay from one of the coolest perspectives. You can take your time and stroll along at your own pace. You can even stop along and take photos at your leisure. One cool thing about walking the San Fran Golden Gate Bridge is the fact that you will see so many different faces. It is a cool thing to just soak in the reality of people from all across the world sharing such a unique moment with you.
Finally, Although you have the option of walking or biking, we suggest walking. Walking gives you the chance to really enjoy and soak in the atmosphere. If you are looking for free things to do in San Francisco, then walking the Golden Gate Bridge should be number one on your list of things to do here.
3. Zag-Zag Lombard Street
This next activity is an absolute must of free things to do in San Francisco. Lombard Street is so iconic that no matter where you go in the world, you will find someone who recognizes it. Lombard Street is an east to west street in San Francisco that has been portrayed in many movies and stories. What makes this street so unique is the fact that it is incredibly steep and offers eight hairpin turns.
In order to experience one of the best free things to do in San Francisco, we recommend you do it twice. The first time, go at it with a car if you dare. The sharp twists and turns will make you appreciate any other street in the world. Next, if you get the chance then it is an absolute must that you walk down Lombard Street. When you walk down or up you truly get a sense of how steep the street really is. Don’t forget to bring along a camera to take pictures of your hike up here.
Finally, you will enjoy your trip here if you time it just right. For example, you will want to make your trip down here during the late spring or summer season. This is when the beautiful bushes of hydrangeas will greet you. It is truly a beautiful sight if you have never been here before.
4. Walking Tours
Another one of the best free things to do in San Francisco is taking a walking tour. Contrary to popular belief you don’t actually have to pay for them. There are plenty of walking tours for you to choose from that are totally free of charge. In fact, there are usually five to ten walking tours every weekday! With so many tours, why wouldn’t you want to go on one!
Some of the best walking tours will take you to relaxing locations like the Tea Garden. For urban exploration, you can do the City Scapes and Public Spaces walking tour. You can also go out and explore the historic district and tour one of San Francisco’s most beautiful building, the city hall. If you ask anyone who has been on these walking tours, then they will tell you that the Gold Rush City walking tour is one of the best. Here you will learn about the history of San Francisco and what it took to make it what it is today.
There is plenty for you to choose from that you literally can learn everything you want without having to spend any money on anything. If you are interested in checking out some of the best walking tours, click here to see the latest schedules.
5. The Painted Ladies
The Painted Ladies are an iconic part of San Francisco that you do not want to miss out on. Did we mention going to see them is also one of the best free things to do in San Francisco?
When it comes to American architecture, there is a concept used to describe old houses that have been colorfully renovated. Essentially, a painted lady is a Victorian or Edwardian house or building that has been repaired and repainted. Oftentimes, the distinguishing factor is that the paint job includes three or more colors that enhance the overall appeal of the homes.
The most popular painted ladies in San Francisco are the Victorian row of houses that start from 710 to 720 Steiner Street. In fact, these homes are so famous that they have earned their name as the original Painted Ladies. You have likely seen them on TV or in a brochure before. Not only that, but the beauty of these homes is what has also dubbed them to be “Postcard Row.” This is because they have appeared on so many postcards. How neat!
Along with postcards, these homes are popular for being used in mass marketing, TV, and other media forms. Oh, did we forget to mention that these are the same homes that are used in the opening credits of the popular television series Full House? The best way to enjoy the Painted Ladies is by packing along a picnic lunch. Spread out, relax, and enjoy the views on the field that stands across from the Painted Ladies. For a great way to waste a lazy afternoon, this is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco.
6. Watch the Sea Lions at PIER 39
The Loma Prieta earthquake has helped shape the city of San Fransisco in more ways than one. One of the effects of the earthquake can be found at PIER 39’s K dock. After the earthquake in 1898, the sea lions started showing up at the pier in droves. Along with that, the shelter, food supply, and protection from predators encouraged the sea lions to stay. Today, one of the best free things to do in San Francisco is to take a stroll over to PIER 39 and watch these sea lions in what they have claimed to be their new natural habitat.
The number of sea lions you will see on PIER 39 varies by the season. However, it is not uncommon for numbers to climb into the thousands. Come out and watch these awesome sea creatures play and noisily bark around. And here is a fun fact for you to keep in mind. The California sea lions are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This means that it is against the law for any person to feed, handle, or harass them. If you are looking for a super unique activity, then this is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco.
7. Fillmore Jazz Festival
Credit: Fillmore Jazz Festival / Facebook
The 35th Annual Fillmore Jazz Festival is now in full swing. If you will be finding yourself in this lively city, then one of the most popular free things to do in San Francisco it to go to this iconic Jazz festival. Lucky for you, it just happens to be the largest free jazz festival in all of the west coast. What makes this festival so neat is the fact that it draws in over 100,000 visitors each year. Get together with fellow music lovers to experience the eclectic, artsy, and soulful vibes that are waiting for you here.
There are usually four stages that have different jazz musicians playing at a time. After you are done soaking in the beautiful symphonies, you can walk down the sectioned off streets. (The Fillmore streets are Jackson to Eddy). It is on these streets that you will find vendors of all walks of life selling art, food, and other souvenirs to take back home with you. Along with that, the 12 blocks will beckon you with gourmet foods to nibble on as well. Your biggest problem will likely be whether or not you want Asian, Cajun, or anything else in between. If you are looking for one of the best free things to do in San Francisco, then the Fillmore Jazz Festival is one of the best places to start.
8. Golden Gate Park Rose Garden
If you want to enjoy the beauty that San Francisco has to offer but don’t want to spend any money, then this next activity is for you. One of the most impressive free things to do in San Francisco is taking a visit to the Golden Gate Park Rose Garden. The Golden Gate Park Rose Garden is truly like no other.
What once was a testing site for new and unique different types of blooms has now become one of the most beautiful parts in all of California. There are so many varieties of rose bushes to look for here. In fact, there are more than 60 different rose beds planted in the park. Some of the most popular bushes to keep an eye out for are the “Sally Holmes” and “Sweet Briar” varieties.
The best time to come out and experience the beautiful blooms is during the summer season. Although there are different types of roses that bloom throughout the year as well. Along with that, there are specific blooms that are timed just right for different holidays. If you find yourself here during the 4th of July, Labor Day and Columbus Day, there are a range of beautifully customized spreads for you to enjoy as well. Without a doubt, visiting the Golden Gate Park Rose Garden is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco.
9. Explore Strawberry Hill
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
While there are many different parks that cost a fee to enter, there are plenty more that don’t require any money. This next destination will only cost you if you want to rent out of a boat to go on the water. However, you will be glad to know that there are other things to do here for free. Strawberry Hill is a popular hill in San Francisco that is near the center of Golden Gate Park. The hill encompasses an entire island in the parks Stow Lake. (It should be noted that this lake is man-made, not natural.) To get to the hill, there are two bridges that will connect you to the mainland of the park.
When you get to Strawberry Hill, you will be immediately blown away by the different shades of green here. Strawberry Hill is the highest point in all of the Golden Gate Park. The top of the hill offers some of the best views of the city. When you are up here, you will be able to spot Mount Tamalpais as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. The best part? It is absolutely free to take the hike up to the highest peak. When you get here, you will want to take one of the two bridges that connect you to the hill. Take your pick of the Rustic Bridge or the Roman Bridge. Both are located on the lake, and conveniently so. The bridges are located on the opposite ends of the island so you can pick the one that is most convenient to you.
It is by the bridges that you will also find connecting trails to the hike. These trails are will what lead you to the top of Strawberry Hill. If hiking the hill is not something you will be doing, then there is plenty of relaxing for you to do here instead. Bring along a good book to read, a pair of binoculars, and a picnic lunch. Take your pick of all the greenery around you and kick back for a nice and relaxing evening. If you have a camera and want to do a quick photo shoot, then the pavilion is a great place to go to. The Golden Gate Pavilion is a beautiful display of architecture that will have you feeling at peace.
10. Ghirardelli Square
Credit: Ghirardelli Square
If you would like a moment to enjoy the city the way any local would, then Ghirardelli Square is a great place to start. Ghirardelli Square is a landmark that is known throughout San Francisco. It is a public square that is home to a range of shops and restaurants. In fact, there are over 40 shops for you to choose from. Not only that, but many of the shops are original shops from when the square first opened. If you are staying in San Francisco, then some of the best hotels in San Francisco are located here too.
What makes this one of the best places to go out to is the fact that it is a free public space. You do not have to spend any money to enjoy the vibrant environment around you. If you enjoy people watching, then this is a great place to go out and do so in. Stroll through the range of shops that are littered around you and drink in the sights and smells that surround you. If you come during peak season, then you are sure to find free activities such as magic shows happening right on the square.
11. Enjoy the Beauty of the Bay Lights
The Golden Gate Bridge is a pinnacle of San Francisco. Not only does it connect the city, but it is in an iconic landmark that touches the hearts of many. While experiencing the Golden Gate Bridge during the daytime is cool, experiencing it at night is even better. At twilight, the bay lights turn on and instantly transform the Golden Gate Bridge into a beautiful light sculpture. The lights don’t just light up the bridge, they make the bridge center stage in their performance.
This light sculpture is controlled by a series of computers that allow patterns to form together to create a performance. In fact, it is almost rare to see the same light show twice. While there are different places you can see the lights, there are some locations that will give you a more memorable performance.
One of the best places to see the light show is at the end of Pier 39. This location is the furthest away, but it will allow you to see the bridge in its entirety. From the Westside Treasure Island, you will be able to see the whole bridge and the San Francisco skyline. If you want to see the light show from above then the top of Telegraph Hill at Coit Tower is another great location to witness it. Finally, Twin Peaks offers a great viewing area of the bay lights and the whole city in general.
If you have been to San Francisco but don’t remember this light show it’s no surprise. The San Francisco Bay Bridge light show only began just recently. For the bridges 75th anniversary, artist Leo Villareal was the main proponent in turning this iconic structure into a huge LED canvas. We have got to say we are glad he did. Without a doubt, this is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco.
12. Farmers Market
When you think about farmers markets, the first place that should come to mind is California. San Francisco is home to some of the best farmers markets the country has to offer. If you are staying for a long trip, then one of the best free things to do in San Francisco is to go to the farmers market. The great thing about farmers markets is that they are everywhere. Nearly every neighborhood in San Fran will have a farmers market going on at some point. Many of the farmers markets are year-round however, some are only seasonal. Some of the best times to go farmer market hunting is during the weekends. This is when many farmers markets are in operation. However, there are several farmers markets like the Castro Farmers Market that operates only on Wednesdays.
What we love about farmers markets is the fact that they are totally free and super enjoyable. Many times, you will be able to sample some of the treats sold there. While we can promise that it is totally free when you get there, we can’t promise that you won’t be leaving there without having spent any money. There is just so many goodies that you will want to buy! To get a complete list of some of the top farmers markets in San Francisco, click here.
13. The Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers
Lovers of all thing Shakespeare, this next place is for you. One of the best free things to do in San Francisco is to visit the Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers. It is here that you can enjoy such a beautiful spread of more than 200 flowers. Many of the flowers here have been referenced in the work of William Shakespeare.
When you arrive at the garden, you will be quickly be greeted by a sundial. Follow down the path and you will see a variety of flowers that Shakespeare has mentioned in his plays. Stroll down further and you will see bronze panels that are attributed to Shakespeare’s work. There is also a bust of William Shakespeare here too. If you love romanticism that existed in the works of Shakespeare, then you are sure to love this garden that is dedicated to him.
14. Visit an Art Gallery
Credit: Haines Gallery
One of the most beautiful things about San Francisco is the fact that it is home to so many artists. Along with that comes a unique opportunity to visit dozens of galleries. What makes these galleries so awesome is the fact that they are free.
Although many of these galleries are open all week long, you may still want to time your visit. For example, during the week you will find that the galleries are a lot quieter. This is perfect if you were looking for some quiet time to reflect. If you come during the weekend you can expect the galleries to be a little bit busier. However, some travelers prefer the noise of a busy gallery as it makes it more fun.
One of the best galleries to visit in San Francisco is the Haines Gallery. This popular gallery is located downtown and offers some of the best art by contemporary artists. Another great gallery that you should include on your list is Ratio 3 in the Mission. The artists in this gallery get regular artform coverage. Plus it is a great location to explore too. If you are traveling solo, then visiting a gallery on your own is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. You will not regret it.
15. Explore the Cable Car Museum
The cable car is a staple of San Francisco. If you ask anyone, they will tell you about this iconic form of transportation that dominates the city. To really appreciate the cable cars, you may want to time your visit to San Fran so that you have an opportunity to check out the cable car museum.
This museum is unique in so many ways. For starters, this museum houses a collection of historic cable cars that have transformed the city. Not only that, but you will find photographs, mechanical displays and other neat trinkets that you can purchase at the gift shop. By the way, the gift shop is run by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum. This is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving the history of the cable car. Every time you make a purchase here, your money goes right back into helping this museum thrive.
Come out and experience the cable car history and the first run of the cable car in 1873. Learn all that there is to learn about the inventors behind the cable car, the technologies that go into making them function, and how they have shaped not only the city, but the world. Although this is a historic mode of transportation, it has proved to be one that is timeless and will live on. Learn about all the different ways that the heritage of the cable car is being preserved. So, what makes this one of the best things to do in the city? The fact that it is not only a cool experience but one that is one of the neatest free things to do in San Francisco.
16. Explore the Mission District
Credit: Emile Lombard
Bohemian millennials, this next destination is for you. Mission District is one of the coolest places to go to in San Francisco. Not only that but it is one of the free things to do in San Francisco that you will not regret. There is a local ambiance here that is unmatched. For starters, this is the place that introduced the burrito to the rest of the world. There are so many great places to eat out here so be sure to sample a few.
If you want to experience San Francisco as a local would then the Mission District is a great place to go to. There is not a lot of heavy tourist traffic here so you are sure to have an authentic experience. Most of the neighborhood here have a funky vibe that you will absolutely fall in love with. Many of the neighborhoods are also filled with beautiful murals that are more than worthy for Instagram. If you want to get a great view of the city, then walk over to neighboring Bernal Heights Hill. There, you can relax and enjoy the views of the city.
If you do plan on stopping by the Mission District, you will want to take some precaution. It is relatively safe during the daytime but it can be unsafe during the night time. Be sure to follow basic safety rules like walking with a buddy and having a phone with you at all times. If you are traveling with a group of friends, then this is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco.
17. Fisherman’s Wharf
Credit: Fisherman’s Wharf / Facebook
If you want to do something touristy to get a sense of the culture, then visiting the Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. If you want to see the mainstream attractions that San Francisco has to offer then Fisherman’s Wharf is truly a must-see.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a waterfront neighborhood that features so many things to do. One of the most popular things located here is Pier 39. The Fisherman’s Wharf offers so much shopping and restaurant options too. Some of the best bars in San Francisco are also found here. In fact, you can spend an entire day here and not get bored. Not only that, but photographers will love Fisherman’s Wharf. From the Bay Bridge to the buzz around you, there is so much to photograph.
What we love about the Fisherman’s Wharf is that it is for everybody. If you are coming with family, then there are so many family-friendly attractions and activities. It’s not uncommon for a magic show or two to be held on the grounds. Not only that, but you will want to stop by Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The San Francisco Dungeon and the Aquarium of the Bay are also housed here. If you happen to have a deep interest in history, then you will want to explore the San Francisco Maritime Natural National Historic Park and The Maritime Museum.
Because of all these popular attractions, you can see why the Fisherman’s Wharf is so incredibly popular. Although there are different hours of operations for the shops and restaurants, The Wharf is open 24/7. If you are looking for some of the best free things to do in San Francisco, then the Fisherman’s Wharf is the perfect place to start.
Who says you need to have money to have fun? Especially in this beautiful city. Don’t head out before you check out some of these top-ranked free things to do in San Francisco. Here’s to happy exploring!
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