Luckily, of all the most popular places to visit in California, San Francisco has more top sights that have no admission charge than anywhere else. You can enjoy free concerts, museums, parks, and even sailing in this vibrant California city.
Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
It almost goes without saying, but a walk across one of the most recognizable spots in the U.S. is an absolute must. Bring a sweater along, because there is bound to be a breeze as you walk. Be sure to check out some of the history of the bridge at the visitor’s center in the Presidio. On the other side, take in the Golden Gate Bridge View in Sausalito.
See the Coit Tower Murals
For a completely different art experience, head over to the historic Coit Tower and check out the murals inside Coit Tower’s first-floor lobby—it costs extra to head upstairs—but the lobby contains many of the Diego Rivera-inspired American Social Realism murals painted by students from the nearby California School of Fine Arts.
Explore the Ferry Building
The historic Ferry Building, in the Embarcadero, is home to one of the largest farmers markets in the area, as well as numerous shops featuring local artisanal shops, including Blue Bottle Coffee and Cowgirl Creamery. The Ferry Building also offers a fantastic view of the bay with spots for having a picnic on one of the many benches. At night the Bay Bridge fills up the sky with a beautiful light show.
Boasting the largest Chinese population outside of Asia, San Fransico’s Chinatown is home to a stunning array of architecture, history and of course, food. Spend an afternoon looking for landmarks like Dragon Gate’s, the official entrance to Chinatown, the Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings, the Old Telephone Exchange, and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory—San Fransico is the home of the fortune cookie, after all.
Catch a Free Show at Amoeba Music
Amoeba Music, one of the most famous record shops in the world, frequently plays host to bands of all sizes at their massive shop in the Haight-Ashbury district. Arrive early to ensure you get a good spot AND to have time to explore the racks and racks of music here.
No Fare Necessary for the Cable Car Museum
Not only is the Cable Car Museum in Nob Hill free, but you can actually catch a train there—sort of. Take the California line train to Mason and walk three blocks north to The Cable Car Museum, which also houses all of the cable cars at night. The museum shows off not only the history of the cable car system in San Francisco, but all of the mechanical parts on display are still actually running the system.
Wander the Mural-filled Alleys of the Mission
The Mission District has been home to artists looking to work in the city for a couple of decades now, and it shows in the art covering many buildings and alleyways in the area. Most famously, you’ll want to explore the Clarion Alley between Valencia and Mission streets. Since 1992, this alley has been home to massive murals created by up and coming artists.
Take in a Book Reading at City Lights
The famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach was a frequent haunt of Beat poets—the shop is adjacent to Jack Kerouac alley, after all. City Lights hosts weekly authors and poets for free readings of their recent work.
Listen to the Sea Lions at Pier 39
It may not be the most pleasant thing to hear in the city, but one of the new iconic sounds of San Francisco is the barking of the sea lions that love to sunbathe at Pier 39. The sea lions arrived in the city around 1990 and have been a fixture ever since, much to the chagrin of local boat owners attempting to take couples on romantic cruises. The sea lions typically leave the pier in June and July.
Have Fun at the Seward Street Slides
Located on a steep hill in Noe Valley are two large cement slides that have been bringing thrills to the neighborhood for decades. Designed in 1973 using a design from a 14-year old girl, the slides and the rest of the park were built to save the land from being turned into an apartment complex. It’s best to bring a piece of cardboard or even a plastic tray for getting real speed. There is sand at the bottom, so don’t worry about injuring yourself too much.
Explore San Francisco City Hall
A popular destination for cheap but stunning weddings, San Francisco City Hall is one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings in the country. Built in 1915 by architect Arthur Brown, who also designed Coit Tower and San Francisco Opera House, the building features design elements like carved figures in the Doric columns as well as marble floors and a marble staircase flanked by giant lamps. The Dôme des Invalides in Paris served as the inspiration for the dome. The city hall is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Go to the Real Cheap Seats at Oracle Park
Nothing beats going to a baseball game on a summer day, except maybe paying for the admission and the food. At Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park), baseball fans can watch a game for free, that is if they’re willing to stand outside the gate and watch. The small free-viewing area sits next to the boardwalk at McCovey Cove, and viewers are allowed to stay for three innings at a time. The area is even close enough to shout out to your favorite player (or your least favorite).
People Watch at Dolores Park
Mission Dolores Park is located at the western edge of the Mission district and is home to a colorful cast of characters. The park includes a large slope from the southwest down to the northeast, offering an unobstructed northeast-looking view of downtown San Francisco. This spot is a favorite hang out for young people and families having picnics. Settle in for a nice lunch here with an unbeatable view of the city from within.
Take a Walk Down Lombard Street—The Most Crooked Street in the World
Probably more fun than actually driving down it, having a walk down historic Lombard Street gives you a chance to see the hectic, block-long hill without having to navigate it or drive residents crazy with your squeaky breaks. Make sure you’re in good shape, though, as the slope is still quite steep.
Visit the Rose Garden at Golden Gate Bridge Park
After you’ve walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, take time to sit for a bit at the rose garden inside the Golden Gate Bridge Park. There are more than 60 rose beds planted in the garden by a collection of dedicated locals. Be sure to visit if you’re in the area during the holidays, as many of the roses here are known to bloom yet again around this time.
Go Location Scouting for your Favorite San Francisco Movie and TV Moments
San Francisco has been the setting for many famous films and tv shows over the years. You could spend hours walking around the various sites used for filming, but a few that we love include the famous “Painted Ladies” row of Victorian Alamo Square which were used in the opening titles for Full House. Parts of Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo was shot near the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point. The house from Mrs. Doubtfire is located at the same address given in the film, 2640 Steiner Street, in Pacific Heights.
Take A Free Sailing Class
Ten times a year, the Cal Sailing club offers free introductory sailing lessons on their keelboats and dinghies. The lessons are available on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. You’ll sail around in the San Francisco Bay, learning about boat and waterfront safety, Bay ecology, and the fun of sailing a non-motorized watercraft.
Do an Urban Hike at Mount Sutro
This park, located in the heart of San Francisco, is home to a nearly 100-year-old forest, as well as a 900-foot hill, perfect for urban hiking. Be sure to have a knowledgeable guide, as the park is home to poison oak and other unfriendly forms of flora.