(Just a quick note: ThriftyTourist.ca may be compensated through the links in the post below, but the opinions are our own.)
You’ll leave your heart in San Francisco. With Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, museums and more, you’ll soon to discover that there are definitely a lot of free, cheap and fun things to do in this song-worthy city overlooking the bay, and indeed, some of this stuff may just steal a small piece of your heart.
Hotel Zephyr, TripAdvisor “Certificate of Excellence” winner.
Hotel Rex, TripAdvisor “Certificate of Excellence” winner.
Holiday Inn Golden Gateway, rated 4 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.
Best Western Plus Americania, rated 3.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.
You’re sure to live the life aquatic in this city –San Francisco sits at the tip of its namesake peninsula, separating San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean – and there are lots of free, cheap and fun things to do and cool stuff to see that will have you playing and exploring in, on and around the water.
A memorable free and fun thing to do is to take a stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge, the 1.7-mile expanse that links the city to Marin County. The bridge is free to pedestrians and cyclists daily during daylight hours.
When you get back on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge you have a couple of options.
The first option is to go and explore the Presidio.
The Presidio, is a former army post that was in use for 218 years. In 1994 it became a National Park. Almost six square kilometres, the Presidio is home to a 29-acre national cemetery, 24 miles of hiking trails, eight scenic lookouts, the Walt Disney Family Museum and more. Many of the things to do here are free.
A second option to consider after returning from the Golden Gate Bridge is to work your way down to the free-access Crissy Field by the water’s edge. A former US Army airfield on the Presidio grounds, Crissy Field boasts a long beach. Take off your shoes or sandals and meander your way along the bay letting the surf sooth the soles of your feet. Pause to take in the gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the beautiful bay, Alcatraz and the people passing by.
A cool free thing to do in San Francisco for land lubbers is to enjoy an Ocean Beach bonfire, permitted in the provided fire rings that are available for free on a first-come, first-served basis.
Interested in testing out your sea legs? Make your way to the non-profit Cal Sailing Club where they’ll take you out on the water and teach you how to set the mainsail for free. Open houses are scheduled from 1 P.M. to 4 P.M. on the first Sunday of every month.
The world famous Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s number one attraction for good reason. With numerous seafood dining options, great views of the bay and Alcatraz, shops, buskers, history and more there really is something for everyone, and much of it can be enjoyed for free.
TIP: Hungry for a cheap lunch? Down at Fisherman’s Wharf a popular choice is chowder in a big sourdough bread bowl. At the time of this writing it cost $9. There are multiple food stops that sell it including the seafood stands by Musee Mecanique and the famous Boudin Bakery & Cafe.
Speaking of the Boudin Bakery & Cafe be sure and take a few minutes to pause and look in their Jefferson Street window to see their bakers busy at work making sourdough bread the way Boudin’s has been doing it since 1849.
The street side window is also the place to see Boudin’s latest, amazing sculpted bread creations such as crabs, cable cars, teddy bears and, if you’re passing by on the right day at the right time, a five-foot alligator!
One of the most popular free things to visit at Fisherman’s Wharf are the sea lions that chill at Pier 39.
Stop by here and you’ll find them swimming in the water or barking and sunning (actually, mostly sunning) on the docks.
The sea lions on display are males who congregate down at K-dock at Pier 39 because of the plentiful herring and protection from predators. Why are there only males here? Because the females are down in Southern California caring for their seal pups.
Also within the Fisherman’s Wharf neighbourhood is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. This affordable thing to do has the distinction of being the only floating National Park and the home to the largest collection of historic ships. The ships can be viewed for free by strolling the Hyde Street Pier but boarding will set you back $5; the Visitor Centre is also free.
Are you a chocoholic? Be sure to visit the site of Ghiradelli Chocolate’s former factory and flagship store, particularly as you’ll be rewarded with a free chocolate sample for your efforts.
TIP: there is more than one entrance into the Ghiradelli store, so if you’re craving a second sample of free chocolate just exit the store and enter again through a different entrance!!
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without taking a ride on one of the city’s famous cable cars.
At the time of this writing, a single-ride cable car ticket for this cheap thing to do was $7. If you feel you’re going to be riding the cable cars more than once you can purchase a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day pass. Prices for these are $21, $32 and $42 respectively.
Which cable car line should you go on? You have three to choose from: Powell-Hyde Line, Powell-Mason Line and the California Line.
If you want to take a ride on the cable car line made famous in the old Rice-A-Roni TV commercial, you want the Powell-Hyde Line. This line also happens to be the the steepest grade of the three lines. If you want to ride on the very first line ever built in San Francisco, then you want the California Line.
TIP: Plan ahead and have exact change for your cable car ride as the driver’s can only make change for up to $20.
And to round out your cable car experience be sure to make time to visit the Cable Car Museum. This free museum commeorates the history of the San Francisco icon, declared the only moving national landmark. The museum’s collection includes antique cable cars, historic photographs and tools.
During our 6-day visit to San Francisco we took a number of tours.
The first tour we booked was the the Big Bus San Francisco Hop-On Hop-Off Tour. This was an open-top, double-decker bus tour. They offer 1-day and 2-day tours. We opted for the 2-Day Deluxe ticket.
Whenever we visit a new city one of the first things we like to do is take a bus tour on our first day to help us get a feel for the city and where the key sights are located. The Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off Tour did a perfect job of that.
Our 2-day Deluxe ticket included a daytime tour, nighttime tour, Sausalito tour, as well as four walking tours.
It was great value for the money as not only did we get to see a lot of the city, we got to know a lot about it as well. The guides on the tours were very knowledgeable, shared a lot of memorable insights and had some fun one-liners too. You can read our full review by clicking here.
Considering the popularity of Alcatraz (according to a TripAdvisor poll, tourists voted it the most popular thing to do in the United States) the cost to take the Alcatraz tour was surprising. It’s actually free (it’s operated by the US National Parks Service). What costs money is the ferry ride over from Pier 33 but it’s still quite reasonable.
In case you’re unaware, Alcatraz was a Federal prison from 1934-1963. It’s located on Alcatraz island which is just over a mile off shore in the San Francisco Bay.
The worst of the worst criminals in America were incarcerated at Alcatraz, among them infamous gangster Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud.
No one ever successfully escaped Alcatraz although some tried. During the audio tour (which is excellent by the way) of the cell block, you get to see how the ingenuity of three prisoners allowed them to escape their cells, elude the guards and get to the ocean waters. Whether they were successful in completing their escape no one has been able to confirm or deny. Prison authorities chose to believe they were unsuccessful.
Tickets for the ferry ride over to Alcatraz sell out in advance, up to three weeks in advance during the busy season. To get our tickets we added an Alcatraz Package to our Big Bus San Francisco Hop-on Hop-off bus tour.
The Chinatown Walking Food Tour we took was one of the highlights of our trip. It was very interesting and fun.
Part of what makes San Francisco’s Chinatown so intriguing is that it is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. When you walk its streets you really feel like you’re in another world from the rest of the city.
We wanted to learn about the history of Chinatown, discover some of the things we wouldn’t have if we were on our own and we were hungry to sample some of the foods. The affordably-priced Chinatown Walking Food Tour provided this and more.
Our guide. Esther, was the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who worked all his life at Eastern Bakery, the oldest Chinese bakery in San Francisco. Esther painted a vivid picture of what life was like, and still is today in many respects, for Chinese people immigrating to San Francisco.
The food stops were sprinkled throughout the tour. We learned about and sampled various types of dim sum, moon cake and teas. We also picked up some pointers on Chinese cultural etiquette when we dined as a group.
The tour definitely took us places we wouldn’t have normally gone, including a back alley that led to a small fortune cookie factory where you can have customized fortune cookies made, and a Chinese grocery story where you could buy a wide variety of fresh meats–our attention was particularly captured by the bucket of live frogs.
The Chinatown Walking Food Tour is a Certificate of Excellence winner on TripAdvisor and has a 4.5 out of 5 rating. We couldn’t agree more. Well worth taking.
It’s not very often you get the opportunity to go inside a real submarine so take advantage of the the USS Pampanito Submarine Tour.
You’ll find this fun thing to do docked at Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf.
The USS Pampanito is a World War II class Fleet sub. It made six patrols in the Pacific during the second world war.
For a couple bucks more you can get an audio tour. It’s a good investment as it leads you throughout the sub, including the torpedo room. Interspersed throughout the narration are firsthand accounts of what life aboard the USS Pampanito was like as told by former military personnel who served aboard her.
A visit to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without getting a taste of the area’s famous wine country.
To accomplish this feat we booked a one-day tour with Napa Valley Wine Country Tours.
We knew we were in for a fun time when we stepped onto the bus and discovered it was a party bus.
Abe, the driver and guide, was a gregarious, hilarious host. He got everyone loosened up with his jokes and mischievous looks. Of course the samosas he served up helped too. A continental breakfast was provided as well.
In total we visited four wineries. They ranged from a family-run, understated operation to a contemporary-modern facility.
At each winery we tasted between four and five wines. One of them also provided an olive oil tasting session.
To top it off the tour included a picnic lunch. There was appetizing fare to choose from and since lunch was held outside at one of the wineries, you could purchase and enjoy a bottle of wine with your meal too.
Another fun aspect of this affordably-priced thing to do is you will more than likely meet people from a variety of places. We spoke with people from Peru for example as well as US destinations such as Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and New York.
It’s not often that you see something rated 5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor but Napa Valley Wine Country Tours is which also explains why it has earned a Certificate of Excellence award as well.
If you’ve got time, the Monterey, Carmel and 17-mile Drive Day Trip bus tour from San Francisco is an awesome thing to do.
The bus tour takes you on the famed Pacific Coast Highway 1 which runs along the Pacific Ocean.
The views are breathtaking. The water, the sky, the rocks, the sand–it’s impossible not to ooh and awe at different times. Depending on when you visit you can see sea lions and whales too (watch for them blowing air out of their blow holes).
The guide/driver stops the bus at a few different places along the way so you can take in the scenery up close. Don’t forget to dip your hand in the water and taste the sea salt.
The mid-trip stop is Monterey.
Most people went for lunch and explored the shops of Cannery Row in Monterey, which was a cannery district back in the day and the inspiration for many of the characters in author John Stienbeck’s novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, The Pearl and East of Eden.
My travelling partner is an animal nut, so we chose, instead, to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Monterey is located within the National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), a federally-protected marine area offshore of California’s central coast. Some have called this area the “Serengeti of the Sea” because it offers some of the best sea life viewing in the world.
With this in mind, is it any wonder the Monterey Bay Aquarium is so cool? We especially enjoyed the outdoor observation deck that overlooks the Bay. We spent a lot of time out there watching two harbour seals playing. One of the aquarium’s interpreters told us that the day before, for over a half an hour, a blue whale put on a great show , including breaching.
The displays inside the aquarium are mesmerizing too. There are also touch tanks.
TIP: When you step out of the main entrance of the aquarium, turn right and walk down a roadway for a couple of hundred feet and you’ll come to a spot where you can usually see harbour seals sunning on the beach.
The next stage of our bus tour was 17-mile drive, one of the most famous scenic drives in the world.
17-mile drive provides you with more spectacular views of the ocean. Photo opps include the Lone Cypress, a solitary tree that has stood defiantly on a rocky outcrop for over 250 years. One memorable stop is incredible Pebble Beach Golf Course where you can exit the bus to walk the grounds and see the world famous 18th hole.
You’ll find over 5 pages of San Francisco tours on Viator.
Looking for some intriguing stuff to do? Take a free walk or drive down the famously crooked Lombard Street. It’s got more twists and turns than a bad soap opera plot—there are nine within a single block.
Or enjoy the view from the top of the town–Coit Tower sits atop Telegraph Hill and offers free access to the lobby murals and outside vista points, but a ride up the elevator will cost ya. If you’re feeling fit you can access the summit of Telegraph Hill by climbing the Fillbert Street Steps, and with luck you’ll glimpse the wild parrots along the way.
According to some of the locals, the best time to see the parrots is dawn and dusk. If you go to the effort of climbing the Fillbert Street Steps during mid-day you are likely to end up disappointed, as apparently the wild parrots are usually away at this time looking for food.
The original parrots were pets. The species of parrot you see here is the cherry-headed conure. These birds were originally brought to America to sell as pets prior to the U.S. 1992 wild exotic bird ban.
These particular birds are loud, a bit of handful to take care of and they live a long time. As a result, many pet owners got tired of them and released them to the wild. The Coit Tower area became one of their primary hangouts.
Another unique, free thing to do is to check out the murals of Clarion Alley, where street art gains street cred when the self-proclaimed art critics refrain from peeing on it.
Want to get in touch with your inner child? Make your way to the Seaward Street Slides – grab a piece of cardboard and give this fun thing to do a go – wheeeeeeee for freeeeeeee.
San Francisco’s notoriously changeable weather most resembles the mild Mediterranean climate, providing ideal conditions for a planet’s worth of plants to flourish.
Checking out the 8,000 varieties at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens won’t cost a dime on the second Tuesday of every month, plus Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The Yerba Beuna Gardens are not only fun to say, they’re fun and free to visit daily from 6 A.M. to 10 P.M., offering over 200 free arts and cultural programs from May to October.
Put on your sensible shoes and bring a flashlight if you decide to freely explore the historic abandoned fortifications at Fort Baker and the Marin Headlands, some dating back to the Civil War.
The preserved and protected shoreline of Point Reyes National Park is worth the one hour jaunt up the highway, made all the more enticing by its free admission. This stretch of coastline remains as some of the last undeveloped land on the west coast and features terrain that varies from rocky headlands to grasslands, and it’s home to 1,500 species of plants and animals.
You don’t need to leave the city, however, to find a piece of paradise. There are plenty of free things to do at Golden Gate Park, the 1,017 acre oasis in the heart of the city. It’s beautiful stuff and whether you choose to laze or play, you’ll have a great day.
Further liberate your child within at the Musee Mecanique on Pier 45. This free thing to do boasts the largest collection of mechanically-operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines–cool stuff or what! While admission is free, firing up some of the machines is hard to resist, so prepare to part with some loose change.
Apparently someone left their art in San Francisco because there is certainly no shortage. On the first Tuesday of the month entry to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprised of the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, as well as the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, won’t cost a thing. The de Young is your destination for American paintings and international art, textiles and costumes while the Legion of Honor is your go-to for ancient and European art.
If you prefer your art cob-web free, the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, comprised of more than 27,000 modern and contemporary works, is for you.
If you still have some spring in your step after your art marathon, hop across the bay for a day. The Oakland Museum of California offers a comprehensive collection of California art and design and is free on the second Sunday of the month.
For the past 100 years the Golden Gate Park Band has upheld a tradition of free Sunday afternoon concerts – we’ll assume none of the musicians are original.
Stop by the Spreckels Temple of Music at 1:00 P.M. to enjoy a musical journey through time featuring pleasing stuff such as marches, Broadway tunes, swing and more.
If you like your classical with a side of class-in-session the Main Stage Concerts, offered by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, are a free thing to do in San Francisco. Maestro Ben Simon opens with an entertaining, yet educational, 30 minute talk before the concert.
The entertainment goes alfresco at the Stern Grove Festival. The varied performances are always fresh and free, beginning each Sunday at 2 P.M. from mid-June through mid-August.
Mid-week music can be had for free at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral (although a $5 donation is encouraged) – come by the Noontime Concerts on Tuesdays at 12:30 P.M. for a lunch-time treat that is sure to satisfy your appetite for a taste of culture.
If you’re most comfortable when the wildlife is well contained, try the San Francisco Zoo, free to city residents on the first Wednesday of every month. The playfully named exhibits–Gorilla World, Penguin Island, Koala Crossing, etc.–showcase the animals in naturalistic settings, while the Children’s Zoo is an ever-popular opportunity for the little ones to pet and feed their farmyard favourites.
San Francisco is one of those rare places where you can literally walk uphill both ways and you may have to do just that on one of the San Francisco City Guides free 1 1/2 to 2 hour walking tours. These themed tours are cheap things to do and sure to appeal to a broad range of tastes and interests from the historic “Gold Rush City” to the titillating, yet historic “Bawdy & Naughty”, they cover all the stuff you want to know about.
Speaking of naughty, if your guilty pleasure is to indulge your sweet tooth, you’ll be pleased to know that there are two free, must-see tasty tours in San Francisco.
The TCHO Chocolate Factory Tour promises to satisfy your cravings. The in-depth, guided tasting which is included in this one hour tour makes having to wear the mandatory hair net and close-toed shoes worthwhile (and a beard guard for those of you exercising your facial follicles).
If you still don’t have enough of a sugar rush, try the free Jelly Belly Factory tour – you’ll get an inside look at the facilities where they make 150+ varieties of their famous jelly beans and be rewarded with a free sample.
Be warned, the factory is actually located about 1 hour out of the city in Fairfield, and while it’s worth the trip it could be a long drive back in a car loaded with kids (and adults) hopped up on sugar. Bring them back down to earth again in the serene surroundings of Golden Gate Park and one of the free tours offered by the San Francisco Park Trust.
Be thrifty and practical! This information was accurate when published, but can change without notice. We recommend you confirm all details with the provider in question before planning your excursion.
One great way to save on local fun things to do in San Francisco is to peruse Groupon, the money-saving website that features local discounts in 150 cities. Visit the San Francisco “Things to Do” Groupon page or San Francisco “Food & Drink” Groupon pageand you’ll find savings of anywhere from 40-90% on attractions, tours, boat cruises, theatre tickets, dinner spots and accommodations. The Groupon San Francisco pages are a smart place to start when you’re first planning your trip and even when you’re in the middle of your San Francisco visit because new deals get added weekly and even daily many times.
Photo Credits: Salim Virji, urbanists, Hey Paul, ebbandflowphotography, Wildcat Dunny, *~Dawn~*, Nimmi S, Jeffrey Strain, D&S McSpadden, Phillie Casablanca, Orin Zebest, kowitz, David Gallagher, Georg Lester, Allie_Caulfield, 305 Seahill and TripAdvisor.