San Francisco is a fantastic city, filled with incredible landmarks, attractions, and tours all crammed into a small, compact city area. It is not, however, a particularly cheap place to visit, Hotels are pricey food is expensive and there are endless tourist traps out to get your $. However, there are tons of fun and exciting things you can do while exploring the City that will not cost you a bean!
In The 10 Best Things To Do In San Francisco For Free guide, we show you all the best sights, attractions, and landmarks the City has to offer that have no entry fee or price tag associated with them at all. You may need to pay to get there or spend money on food and drink but the attraction itself is always free. So take a look at the city’s best free attractions and things to do!
Other Money-Saving Ideas…
This article is concerned solely with free attractions. We have loads of other tips on spending less and Visiting San Francisco on a budget in our Money Saving Article.
Some of the below attractions can be vastly improved with a small spend and we point out the cost of that in each item, but rest assured they are not essential and you can still have a great trip spending nothing on attractions, or just paying for a few things to do and supplementing with our list of FREE attractions. Let’s get started:
1 – Golden Gate Bridge
The shining beacon of San Francisco’s success, the world-famous Golden gate bridge is one of the USA’s most visited tourist attractions and the most photographed bridge in the world. No trip to San Francisco is complete without a trip to the bridge and in fact, many people come to San Francisco solely for the bridge!
The Golden Gate is not a particularly special bridge, it is not that tall, nor that long. It is really quite unremarkable from a statistical point of view. This would be to miss the point of the bridge, however. The Design and location of the bridge make it a visually stunning masterpiece, the steep mountainous terrain and plunging depths of the Bay’s mouth along with the fantastic architecture of the bridge all sit in stark contrast making for a wonderful scene. The highlight of any trip to San Francisco and of course totally free!…Depending on how you visit it.
The Bridge can be seen from many vantage points around the city and the only cost incurred is getting to them. While the bridge can be seen from many central locations such as Fishermans Wharf or Russian Hill, these are quite distant from the bridge and it pays to get a bit closer. Walking the bridge is fantastic fun and getting up into the Marin highlands provides views of the bridge, with the San Francisco Skyline in the background, that are hard to beat.
Check out our full Guide to Golden Gate Bridge for visitors.
2 – Fishermans Wharf
Fishermans Wharf is Tourist Central! The area is filled with cafes, restaurants, and shops all catering to the San Franciscan tourist. This is not really authentic San Fran, but it is a must-stop place for all visitors to the City. The waterfront location is seriously beautiful with views of the bay and Alcatraz Island with the Golden Gate in the distance. The City looms up behind and everything that is San Francisco is visible from this one location.
From a Free perspective, there is little to here other than take in the vibe and watch the locals and tourists go about their days. But that is exactly the point; the area is beautifully vibrant and filled with iconic locations, the Boudin Bakery, Endless Crab Stands, Ciopinio Restaurants, and of course, places serving Clam Chowder in a Sour Dough Bread Bowl. While not technically free, we all have to eat and this is one San Francisco Tradition that should not be missed, a piping hot soup is eaten directly from the bread bowl while the humungous seagulls await your leftovers…seriously they are nearly as big as turkeys!
It is the perfect place to while away a few hours of people-watching and taking in the San Franciscan lifestyle. And when you are done head next door, straight to our next item, Pier 39.
3 – Pier 39
Pier 39 is two things really, a fun family tourist pier with shops and restaurants, very similar to the rest of Fishermans Wharf, not really worth a separate mention. The other Pier 39 is the abandoned jetty and dock that has become the home to a colony of California Sea Lions.
Around 30 Years ago, members of a colony of Seal Lions arrived at the dock from their natural home of Seal Rock, out in the Gulf. They decided, for one reason or another, that this location was safer and better than their home out in the open ocean so they stayed. Word got around and more and more Sea Lions Abandoned Seal rock and took up residence on the dock, eventually forcing its human owners to abandon the dock and leave it to the wildlife.
The Sea Lions can be seen lounging around on their pontoons from the nearby Pier 39. They are completely unfazed by the human presence and simply ignore the crowds gawking at them. Watching them lounge around, play and try and eat the seagulls is endlessly entertaining, but the lasting memory you will have is the Smell! A diet of raw fish and crabs makes for one smelly animal, several hundred packed together and things get stinky!
4 – Parks and Green Spaces
San Francisco is a bustling city but like most large cities its occupants need a place they can visit to relax and escape the city, as such large portions of the city are set aside for parks, recreation areas, and green spaces. We think San Francisco has some of the most beautiful green space of any US city and you can while away hours exploring the vast open parklands and gardens the City’s park offers.
Presidio of San Francisco
The Presidio is a huge area of open land set aside with only very limited development allowed. The 2.3 Square mile park that occupies the whole northwest corner of the peninsular offers miles of hiking trails, Woodlands, and amazing overlooks with some of the best views of the Golden Gate bridge. The park is partially built up and has many roads crisscrossing it but on the whole, it is green and undeveloped.
Crissy Fields, Marine Drive, The California Coastal Trail, and the Batter East Trail offer stunning views of the bridge and the Marin Highlands! The Park is home to the Walt Disney Family Museum and the Yoda Fountain at Lucasfilm HQ.
Golden Gate Park
Oddly nowhere near the Golden Gate Bridge but a seriously wonderful park, reminiscent of New York’s Central Park in many ways, The shape, the landscaping, and even the integration of world-class museums into park grounds! While the PArk lacks the iconic feel of Central Park it is every bit as wonderful and nearly as popular.
Golden Gate Park is a little more rugged than Central Park with towering redwoods, coastal pines, and Cypress trees giving a real natural wild feel to the park. In truth, the park is almost completely planted and unnatural with few native plants and trees, but the species chosen are all found in the nearby vicinity and bring a little slice of the California Coastline to the City.
The Botanical Gardens, The Japanese Tea Gardens, the conservatory of flowers, and the area directly surrounding the Acadamy of Sciences and De Young Museum are ar more manicured. These areas are stunningly beautiful and very peaceful, with the west of the park more given over to rugged wilderness.
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and Fort Mason Golden Gate National Recreational area.
Just to the west of Fisherman’s Wharf, the old Maritime District of San Francisco is set aside as a park area. This is connected to the Fort Mason, Golden Gate recreation area giving an uninterrupted green belt along the bay’s coastline right up until it meets Crissy Fields in the Paradiso, in fact, you can continue right around the peninsular as far as Golden Gate Park without ever really stepping out of the park network!
The Maritime park overlooks the bay and offers some stunning vistas as you explore the old harbor and head into fort mason and hunt out the old gun emplacements and imagine them protecting the bay.
On top of the big parks, there are many other smaller little green spaces that pop up all over the City. Small patches of green in the sprawling metropolis. Portsmouth Square, Wahington Square, The coit Towers Gardens, Lafete Park, and Buena Vista Park all provide a little piece of rest and relaxation.
Overall for such a huge metropolis, the city is incredibly green, with HUGE areas given over to nature, and the well-being of the resident’s souls. This is typical of the City and one of the things that make San Fran such a remarkable location. There are literally hundreds of miles of footpaths and hiking trails right in the heart of the second-most densely populated city in the USA.
5 – Watching the Cable Cars
Cable Cars are an intrinsic part of San Francisco’s life and simply have to be a part of EVERY trip. However, if you are looking for FREE activities, riding the Cable Cars is out, as this costs $8 per trip! That money is well spent but it’s not free.
However, you can still enjoy the Cable car spectacle as a bystander watching the cars chug up and career down San Francisco’s impossibly steep streets. These relics of yesteryear have a real old-world charm about them and just watching them ferry people around is a pure pleasure and you don’t have to wait in an hour-long queue for the privilege either.
You can also check out the Cable Car Museum which has free entry and learn all about the elegant and historic method of transport.
6 – China Town
San Francisco’s China Town is the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia and the oldest in America dating back to 1848. It is a buzzing hub of activity and life. While the area is very tourist-orientated it is still the home of over 35,000 residents mostly of Chinese or Asian descent so the whole area is a bustling metropolis reminiscent of a real Chinese suburb.
The Star of several movies, as either its actual self or as a fictional Chinese city. The district is a wonderful place to explore, to check out the many junk shops, Chinese apothecaries, restaurants, jewelry, and electronics shops, Temples, and Asian grocery markets. It is a wonderful place to explore and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the area.
The district is the founder of the Fortune cookie and the Western interpretation of Dim Sum. While we heartily encourage you to sample some cuisine when visiting that is technically a cost, but again, we all have to eat and you can bag some real bargain eats in the enclave.
If you can time your visit to one of the Lunar Festivals, such as the Chinese New Year, or the Autumn Moon Festival you are in for a really special treat!
Check out our full San Francisco Chinatown Guide here
7 – The Hills
San Francisco has an incredibly unique geographical makeup. The City is built on seven large hills, the same as Rome or Sheffield in the UK, and these create some stunning reliefs as the houses line the impossibly steep streets. Exploring and walking these streets and hills is one of the most quintessential San Franciscan experiences.
The Streets really are far steeper than you can imagine, the photos you see can help show the savage gradients but amazingly they do not do them justice, only by hiking up the backbreaking slopes do you realize just how severe they are. The Views from the tops are quite unlike anything we have seen before.
Nob Hill is our favorite, mainly as the name just makes us giggle. but also with the Grace Cathedral perch atop the streets plunge down into the city below providing some seriously special views. Russian Hill is one of the most dramatic Hills, with its near-vertical streets plunging down to meet the coast. Watching (or better still riding) the Cable Cars up or down Hyde street to the marina is a thrilling experience that really shows why these relics of yesteryear managed to hang on so long.
On the East side of Russian Hill is the infamous Lombard Street. This crooked and Quirky street is a must-see and you will certainly not be alone as over 20,000 people can visit in a single day. If you want uncrowded photo’s we recommend very early morning or low season!
The Coit Tower sits aloft on Telegraph Hill and offers some staggering views of the city due to the undeveloped nature of the hill. The Tower grounds and lower level are free to all and still offer some nice views of the city, but it’s worth the $10 to go up in the elevator for some of the BEST views in San Francisco!
8 – Union Square
Usually considered the heart of the city and the first stop for most people. However, Union Square is not always the place it is hyped up to be, it is really just a tacky tourist-filled city square filled lined with chain shops, similar to any square in any city. That is not to say it is to be avoided, just not something to get too excited about.
The Many Hotels, Restaurants, and high-end chain shops and boutiques make this a natural confluence of tourists. While the Square is not high on our list it is still a must-see location, one you find you naturally end up frequenting at one time or another on your tip.
The Square is also only a couple of blocks from Market street another huge shopping destination and one that is more wallet-friendly than the high-end luxury brands surrounding Union Square.
Essentially the Square and its surrounding streets and boulevards are an essential part of any trip to San Francisco, just to say you have been there and ticked it off, but also for anyone wanting to get some shopping in then it is a must-visit location.
9 – Haight-Ashbury – Hippies!
The Haight-Ashbury district is not what it used to be but it’s still an essential part of San Francisco’s history and a location of huge cultural and social significance. The district was the birthplace of the Hippy!
There is not that much to see and do in the area now, certainly not with any real hippy vibe, but it is still a worthwhile pilgrimage to visit the birthplace of one of the most powerful cultural shifts of the last century. While most people think of the Hippy movement as little more than layabouts taking drugs, it changed the world in an incredibly powerful way, The cultural significance of the movement cannot be overstated, no matter how much disdain for its proponents you had.
Walking around the district is very different from the time the culture started up and spread to the surrounding world, and is now an eclectic mix of art shops, boutiques, Thrift shops, and cheap(but good) eateries. It is hard to describe and not really our first choice of a recommended location, but the cultural significance is still hugely felt and this makes the area one definitely not to miss.
We are still not sure we would visit at night, however…
10 – 49-Mile Scenic Drive
The 49-Mile Scenic Drive is a tourist route designed to take in just about every sight and landmark of the city in one continuous loop drive of around 47 miles (the original route was 49).
The Route is notoriously difficult to follow as it passes through the very heart of the city with chaotic traffic and congestion, taking many switchbacks and doglegs to highlight all the city has to offer. The small signs on the required junctions are very easy to miss, Often drying up just when you need them the most, and almost everyone attempting the loop will get lost at some point or other, usually several times.
The rather large distance of 47+ Miles is also a bit of a hassle as well and really it’s not that great of a drive, but some parts of the loop are really stunning and while we don’t suggest sticking too religiously to the exact route taking a drive around San Francisco is an excellent way to see the City. The Coast loop around Golden Gate and down Ocean Beach and through Golden Gate Park are particularly nice sections of the drive to hit.
Have Your Say
What are your favorite things to do in San Francisco that are free? Did we miss your favorite off the list? Or have you been disappointed with one of our options? Feel free to weigh in below in the comments section. If you have any questions, again feel free to drop us a comment below.