Let’s not beat around the bush: San Francisco isn’t cheap. But just because the city is known for its upscale restaurants and pricey hotel rooms doesn’t mean you have to shell out mega bucks to see all it has to offer. Plenty of San Francisco’s best attractions—and many of its must-sees—are available at zero cost, making the foggy city surprisingly cost-effective. Here, eight free ways to get your San Francisco fix.
It’s no secret that the Bay Area has some breathtaking views—a glittering city, a spectacular bridge over the deep blue waters of the bay, a shore of dramatic green hills. For one of the best views of the city, head to the Twin Peaks neighborhood and drive up its namesake hills. The two peaks are located at the center of San Francisco’s seven-by-seven-mile grid, and the 1,000 or so feet of altitude they have on the streets below makes them the ideal place for 360-degree views of the downtown skyline, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Market Street, and more. Make an Instagram tour of it and visit some other great photo ops at Kirby Cove (which offers a killer angle on the Golden Gate Bridge from across the bay in the Marin Headlands), Lands End (unbeatable views of waves crushing the sand from just west of the Sea Cliff neighborhood), and Alamo Square (the neighborhood and park are quintessential San Francisco, Painted Ladies and all).
Meet the locals at Dolores Park
There’s something so San Francisco about a Saturday afternoon at Dolores Park. The nearly 16-acre Mission neighborhood park is a gathering point for the city’s colorful cast of characters. Artsy types sip (contraband) small-label beers while off-duty finance guys play aggressive matches of spike ball and groups of friends host birthday parties, baby showers, and engagement celebrations in clusters on the sloping lawns. The people- (and dog-) watching here is unmatched, and on sunny days especially, the park is teeming with activity.
The Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco what the Colosseum is to Rome: A visit to the city is incomplete until you’ve experienced it. Our recommendation? Walk it. The 1.7-mile-long red-orange (technically, International Orange) icon is open to pedestrians every day of the year—including holidays—from 5 a.m. until just after sunset. Without pausing, a round-trip stroll might take about an hour, but make sure to budget plenty of time to snap photos of the bay, ocean, and Marin Headlands. Pro tip: After 3:30 p.m. on weekdays or on the weekends, bicyclists are confined to the west side of the bridge, so pedestrians can take in the scenery at a leisurely pace. Plus, the golden hour light can’t be beat for the perfect photo. Before or after your trek, spend time exploring Presidio Park, which hugs the entrance to the bridge from the city. Crissy Field, the Wave Organ, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the Lyon Street Steps are all worth carving out time to see.
There is a compelling reason to brave the throngs of people at Fisherman’s Wharf: the sloth-like sea lions lounging there. A few gray and noisy tenants began hanging out on Pier 39 in 1989 after the Loma Prieta earthquake. By 1990, a whole brood had arrived, and ever since the sea lions have returned year after year in droves (sometimes as many as 1,700 in a season). These guys (they are, in fact, mostly male) laze around like it’s their job, pick playful fights with one another, flop into the water for a quick cool down, and bark like mad. They’re endearing as heck, though, and on any given day at the docks you’ll find plenty of families camped out watching their every move.
See how the fortune gets in the cookie
One eclectic food tour that’s very San Francisco is Chinatown’s Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory Tour. The tiny factory has embraced the open-kitchen concept since 1962, when the shop started. On a free tour, the cookie-curious can peek at the process of hand-making over 10,000 cookies a day. Down the block, Aroma Tea Shop offers free tea tastings daily from 10:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.
See Giants at play
Whether or not you’re a sports fan, nothing will get you that feeling of San Francisco camaraderie quite like witnessing a Giants home game. While there’s no way (short of having some “major league” connections) to see a whole game for free, you can catch a few innings gratis in a small standing-room-only area beside McCovey Cove in Mission Bay, along the right side of the field. The public promenade offers a partially obstructed view of the action through the ballpark’s archways, but the folks who cluster there include diehard fans.
Check out the city’s free museums
Come at the right time of the month (every first Tuesday), when a slew of San Francisco’s most popular museums offer free admission, and your toughest challenge will be how to fit in all the greatness. Stroll around the fine art–focused De Young (located on the northeast side of Golden Gate Park) or Legion of Honor (in Lincoln Park), and still have time to check out the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (both in SOMA), the Cartoon Art Museum (at Fisherman’s Wharf), and the Museum of Craft and Design (in the Dogpatch).
Any other day of the month, you can pop over to the Mission to view the epic murals of Clarion Alley, or hit Chinatown for a history lesson of San Francisco’s classic transit at the Cable Car Museum, Fisherman’s Wharf for Musée Mécanique, North Beach for the Beat Museum, and the Castro for the Randall Museum (a children’s museum centered on natural history, science, and the arts), all for free 365 days a year.
Find the artistic soul of the city
With all the talk of the tech takeover of the city, it can be easy to forget that San Francisco is, at heart, a place that loves art and artists. Whether it’s music, comedy, poetry, photography, painting, or something else entirely, there’s a cult following for it here—and plenty of ways to get your fix for free. For starters, Amnesia in the Mission offers everything from jazz to psychedelic rock, bluegrass, and even comedy showcases, all without a cover. The Amoeba Music shop in the Haight is a prime place to browse for used CDs and music memorabilia, plus it hosts frequent free concerts (check its online calendar for details).
For art, galleries including 49 Geary in Downtown (go on the first Thursday of the month for art plus drinks and bites), Ratio 3 in the Mission, and the Tenderloin’s Luggage Store Gallery all showcase exceptional exhibits for free. And, for laughs, you can’t beat free nights at the Haight’s Milk Bar, Inner Richmond’s Neck of the Woods, and FiDi’s Bar Fluxus. For an experience in a category all its own, head to Johnny Foley’s near Union Square on a Wednesday or Thursday night, when the dueling pianos show has no cover charge.
>>Next: Plan Your Next Visit With AFAR’s San Francisco Travel Guide