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 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.
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Down By the Bay
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 fun, free things to do and cool stuff to see that will have you playing and exploring in, on and around the water.
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. The faint of heart may find the 220-foot height daunting, preferring to keep their feet on terra firma and enjoy unobstructed views and great photo ops from the gardens to the south.
Another 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.
Get your sea legs on at the non-profit Cal Sailing Club where a free ride will teach you how to set the mainsail. Open houses are scheduled from 1 P.M. to 4 P.M. on the first Sunday of every month.
Head to The Wharf
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, entertainment day and night, history and more there really is something foreveryone, and much of it can be enjoyed for free.
If you’ve come to see the sea lions, peer off Pier 39, where you’ll find them playing and sunning.
Also within the Fisherman’s Wharf neighbourhood is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park which has the distinction of being the only floating National Park and 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.
If the sound of the ocean is music to your ears check out the Wave Organ – this unique sculpture uses the motion of the bay’s waters to create sounds.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
There’s so many free things to see and do at the Presidio of San Francisco that one doesn’t know where to begin.
Historically the west coast’s most important military post, it has become 1,491 acres of fun stuff and adventure, boasting great views, miles of hiking and biking trails, military ruins and more and is certainly a free thing worth checking out in San Francisco.
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.
Gardens and Parks
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, 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.
Where Unique Spots are Free Spots
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. Be cautioned, however, they’ve been known to have a cheeky word for dawdlers.
Check out the murals of Clarion Alley, where street art gains street cred when the self-proclaimed art critics refrain from peeing on it.
Feeling the need for a free read? The books at the Bay Area’s Free Book Store are free for the taking, but they set the limit at 100 books per day per person, sorry.
Chocoholics will appreciate a visit to the site of Ghiradelli Chocolate’s former factory and flagship store, particularly as you’ll be rewarded with a free sample for your efforts.
And everyone is sure to get in touch with their inner child at the Seaward Street Slides – grab a piece of cardboard and give it a go – wheeeeeeee for freeeeeeee.
Art and Other Old Stuff
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.
Be transported back in time with a free visit to the Cable Car Museum, commemorating the history of the San Francisco icon, declared the only moving national landmark. Its collection includes antique cable cars, historic photographs and tools.
For more history-on-the-move try a free visit to the San Francisco Railway Museum where history comes to life when you take the controls of the full-size replica motorman’s platform.
Pearls of Culture and other Gems
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 freething 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.
From Gold Rush to Sugar Rush
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 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 tours in San Francisco to satisfy your cravings. The TCHO Chocolate Factory Tour includes an in-depth, guided tasting during its 1 hour tour, which hopefully makes 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.
Don’t forget to Check Groupon for San Francisco Deals
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.
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