San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in the United States and for good reason. It has a vibrant culture, delicious food, and so many things to do. It’s no surprise that people want to visit San Francisco for vacation. But sometimes you need some ideas on what to do when you’re there.
So in this list, I wanted to provide you with some ideas on what to do for free. From breathtaking nature walks to captivating cultural experiences, we’ll reveal the best offerings this iconic city has to offer without costing you a single penny.
If you’re arriving at the San Francisco cruise port or visiting the city for a vacation, a must-visit attraction is Fisherman’s Wharf. Located just a 10-to-15-minute walk from the cruise port, it offers a range of free activities.
Fisherman’s Wharf is not just a single pier but an entire area encompassing various attractions. It is home to an active fishing community and has popular tourist attractions.
The area includes Piers 39 to 49, home to the Aquarium of the Bay, Musee Mecanique, and Madame Tussauds San Francisco. While many places entice you to spend money, it’s a great destination to enjoy for free.
Heading along the Bay Walk allows you to view the traffic on the water. You might even catch a glimpse of the local sea lions. A stroll down Pier 39 provides for window shopping in places like Lefty’s Novelty Store and Charms By The Bay.
At the end of the pier, check out the vintage Carousel. Another must-see is the staircase to the Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. Instead of regular steps, you can hop and down and play music on piano stairs.
Should you get hungry, you have many seafood choices, from the Crab House at Pier 39 to the Fog Harbor Fish House.
Before you leave, remember to get a selfie with the colourful sea lion statues outside the Aquarium.
Visiting the Painted Ladies is not only one of the best things to do in San Francisco but also a fantastic option for those seeking a free attraction in the city.
The Painted Ladies are a row of famous colourful Victorian homes symbolising the city’s architectural heritage. They have been featured in many photographs, postcards, and TV shows, making them instantly recognizable worldwide. Needless to say, seeing them is part of the quintessential San Francisco experience.
To view the famous Painted Ladies in San Francisco, head to Alamo Square Park. The park is located at the intersection of Hayes Street and Steiner Street.
Once you arrive at Alamo Square Park, you can find a spot on the grassy area or one of the benches. From there, you’ll have a clear view of the Painted Ladies, which are situated across the street from the park. You can admire the colourful houses and their architectural details against the stunning backdrop of the city skyline.
After taking in the views of the Painted Ladies, you can explore the surrounding neighbourhood, which also features many other beautiful Victorian and Edwardian houses.
The Painted Ladies offers an exceptional and cost-free experience that allows you to appreciate the city’s beauty, capture memorable photos, and enjoy the charm of both the landmark and its surrounding neighbourhood.
Take a Walk
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest and most famous ones in the world, and wandering around this neighbourhood is one of the best free things to do in the city. You can choose to explore and wander around this area on your own, have a more organized walk on a free self-guided tour, or join a group for a free walking tour.
Chinatown is pretty easy to get to no matter where you are staying in the city by either walking, taking an Uber ride, or using the famous cable car public transportation. It is easy to walk around Chinatown but there are still some steep streets in this neighborhood so it can get tiring.
If you visit this neighbourhood on the weekend, they often have activities or events happening in the streets, as long as the weather is good, and you can also typically hear traditional Chinese music being played by street performers.
This is a great place to grab a bite of traditional Chinese food but you should be a fairly adventurous eater because you won’t always know exactly what you’re ordering depending on the restaurant. This is also a great place to shop and get some of the cheapest souvenirs in San Francisco.
On Pier 39 at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, sea lions can be spotted swimming and hanging out on the wooden platforms on the water.
Enjoy stunning panoramic views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island from various vantage points along the pier. You can also take one of the San Francisco boat tours to get up close to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Make sure to capture memorable photos of the city’s iconic landmarks.
Depending on the time of year and the weather, there may be hundreds of sea lions at Pier 39 or just a few. The population increases in the winter months and lessens in the summer months or on rainy days. For those who want to see what the current situation is, you can view a live-stream camera of the San Francisco sea lions.
The sea lions have been hanging out in San Francisco for more than 30 years and have become one of the best free things to see while in San Francisco. Visitors crowd around the fence where the sea lions can be seen, and there are also steps behind the viewing fence so that more people can watch the sea lions without needing to wait for a turn.
Fisherman’s Wharf is free to walk around, though besides the sea lions, just about everything else there costs money including eating at restaurants, riding the rides, and seeing more sea life in the aquarium.
Sample a variety of delicious street food available at Pier 39’s food stalls and kiosks. Indulge in local favourites such as clam chowder in a bread bowl or fresh seafood. Visiting Pier 39 in San Francisco is a fantastic way to spend a day for free or cheap. With its array of free activities and attractions, it offers something for everyone, ensuring an enjoyable experience by the waterfront.
Shuttle Around The Presidio
The Presidio of San Francisco is a historic military base turned national park located at the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula. With a rich history dating back to the late 18th century, the Presidio served as a Spanish fort, a Mexican outpost, and eventually a U.S. Army post.
Today the Presidio is a picturesque urban park that seamlessly blends natural beauty, cultural heritage, and recreational opportunities. Spanning over 1,500 acres, the Presidio is home to lush forests, scenic coastal bluffs, historic buildings, museums, art installations, and a variety of outdoor activities.
A great way to see the Presidio is on the PresidiGo Shuttle. This is a free shuttle service that offers transportation within the Presidio and connects visitors to various points of interest, trails, recreational areas, and cultural sites.
The Around the Park Route is a 30-minute loop that circulates within the Presidio, making stops at various visitor destinations, including the Main Post, Crissy Field, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Presidio Visitor Center.
While in the Presidio you can explore the Golden Gate Promenade. This picturesque trail runs along the waterfront, providing a scenic walk with panoramic vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the city skyline.
Before your bus tour, be sure to stop in at the Presidio Visitor Center. Located near the Main Post, the Visitor Center provides information, maps, and exhibits about the Presidio’s history, trails, and activities.
Whether you’re a nature lover, history enthusiast, or simply looking to enjoy the beautiful San Francisco scenery, the free bus service within the Presidio offers a convenient and environmentally friendly way to experience all that this remarkable area has to offer.
A Visit to Mrs Doubtfire House
A visit to the Mrs Doubtfire House is sure to bring back lots of memories of the film. The house has been painted a slightly different colour since the movie was filmed, plus a small tree has been planted in front of the house. Nevertheless, the house is instantly recognisable and still looks remarkably similar to how it did in the movie.
On the tree outside the house, you’ll see many tributes, letters, quotes and captions in memory of Robin Williams, which is incredibly moving. Remember that this is somebody’s home so you can’t go inside, but just seeing it from the outside and taking some photos is great: it’s one of the best things to do in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Park
Visiting Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is a fantastic free activity that offers a lot of fun for both locals and tourists. This massive park, spanning over 1,000 acres, provides a peaceful escape from the city and a chance to enjoy nature.
When you enter the park, you’ll find yourself surrounded by beautiful greenery, winding paths, and colourful flowers. There are many cool things to see and do here without spending any money. You can explore the Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers, and the famous de Young Museum. These places are filled with art, history, and lovely gardens.
If you love nature, Golden Gate Park is perfect for you. You can take leisurely walks along its trails, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the peaceful lakes and open fields. Don’t forget to check out the bison paddock, where you can see these magnificent creatures up close.
The park also hosts lots of events and festivals throughout the year. You can attend free concerts, outdoor movie screenings, and other exciting activities. Keep an eye on the park’s calendar to see what’s happening during your visit.
Golden Gate Park is loved by locals and is a must-visit for anyone exploring San Francisco on a budget. It’s sure to be a highlight of your San Francisco itinerary. So, put on some comfortable shoes, bring a picnic, and let Golden Gate Park enchant you with its natural beauty and free attractions.
Historic Ships at Hyde Street Pier
Historic Ships at Hyde Street Pier are a great place to visit in San Francisco if you are into ships or nautical history.
You can start your exploration at the park’s visitor centre at the corner of Jefferson and Hyde Streets. The visitor centre is free to visit. It is open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can explore the visitor centre at your own pace while learning more about the history of commercial sailing. Don’t forget to stop by the massive Fresnel lighthouse lens.
You have a few options for exploring the Historic Ships after the visitor centre. You can admire them from afar, completely for free. Stroll across the Aquatic Cove embankment to catch a glimpse of all the ships. Alternatively, walk up Hyde Street to get a bird’s-eye view of the ships. Use the time there to visit the renowned Lombard Street.
You can visit the Historic Ships for free if you have an Interagency annual pass. There are also 5 fee-free days each year even if you don’t have the pass. Plan your visit to take advantage of these free days.
There are 6 historic ships at Hyde Street Pier. There is a schooner, a paddlewheel tugboat, a square rigger, a ferryboat, and a steam tug. You can board and explore three of the ships. Chat with the volunteers to learn more about the ships, their history and the restoration process.
Battery Spencer is hands down the best spot to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco.
Across the bay from the city and high up on the hillside from the bridge is an old military battery that was used until WWII. It served as a lookout point to see potential threats coming from a long distance away.
After crossing the bridge, exit Alexander Avenue and make your way up the winding road to Battery Spencer. Although it hasn’t been in use for decades, it serves as a prime location for visitors to enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city, and San Francisco Bay.
I recommend going at sunrise or near sunset for the best lighting. If you are going at sunset, plan to go early so you can get a parking spot and take in the scenery before dark hits. As a bonus, you will get to see ships and sailboats passing under the bridge for an unforgettable view.
A visit to the museums
If you are looking for free things to do in San Francisco with kids but realize a lot of the best activities like going to museums cost money, I have a secret for you!
If you plan you can get access to museums like the Exploratorium, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and the Children’s Creativity Museum free. How you ask? Well, if you have an ASTC-participating museum in your home state, you can get a membership to your local museum that can be used in other states! WHAT!!! Yes!!! It is awesome!
Rain is very common from November to April. If you are visiting San Francisco and find the weather isn’t wonderful, visiting a museum for free is the perfect thing to do! These museums are so fun! The Exploratorium is great for all ages and the Children’s museums cater to a younger crowd.
These activities will entertain your family for hours! The exhibits at the Exploratorium give hands-on fun that everyone in our family will love. If you have little kids, both of the children’s museums are awesome!
San Francisco is such a fun city and finding free things to do is always nice!
San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in the U.S. for good reason. During your visit, you’ll find stunning viewpoints, limitless outdoor adventures and one of the best culinary scenes on the West Coast. Unfortunately, San Francisco is not exactly a budget-friendly city.
When it comes to free things to do in San Francisco, scoping out the best viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge has earned a spot on every budget traveller’s to-do list. If you’re willing to venture a bit off the beaten path, Marshall’s Beach offers stunning views in a blissfully unpopulated corner of San Francisco.
This pristine beach is located just north of the popular Baker Beach and about 0.7 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. From popular neighbourhoods like Nob Hill or Chinatown, it takes around 20 minutes to reach Marshall’s Beach by car. Alternatively, you could take public transit – which typically takes around 1 hour each way.
When you arrive in the parking area, it’s a short, 15-minute walk down to the beach. It’s here that you’ll find the best views of the bay and the bridge! Keep in mind, the path is rocky and windy and the walk back is mostly uphill. This hike isn’t treacherous, but it’s also not for the mobility impaired.
Don’t fret – your hard work will pay off in the end! You’ll be greeted with an unbelievable view of San Francisco that will guarantee unforgettable memories for years to come.
Picnic in Mission Dolores Park
Mission Dolores Park is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. Located in the trendy Mission district, a day in the park offers stunning views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay. It’s also a great place to have a picnic. A great free addition or alternative to staying in an SF hotel with views.
First, grab a few picnic ingredients from the nearby Tartine Bakery, famous for its bread and pastries. For a few complimentary condiments stop by the neighborhood haunt of Bi-Rite market, full of local and high-quality products.
Suss out a spot on the hilly lawn for a day of people-watching, sun-catching and enjoying your or others’ company. You are bound to see people practising acro, tossing a frisbee or playing fetch with their dogs. For something more active, take advantage of the onsite tennis courts or basketball courts. There are free public restrooms on the property, as well.
To top off your afternoon, grab a sweet treat at Bi-Rite Creamery, one of the best places to enjoy ice cream in the city.
Getting to the park is easy peasy. From downtown Union Square, you can walk 3 minutes to Powell Station. Take the J tram 5 stops and you are right at Mission Dolores Park. Albeit taking the tram isn’t free (USD 3.00), it is the most economical way to make the journey.
If you’re looking for a fun and free activity to do in San Francisco, I highly recommend having a picnic in Mission Dolores Park. It’s a great way to enjoy the city and its people.
By Haley of Haley Blackall Travel