You don't need deep pockets to get a taste of San Francisco. (©Campbell/NPS)
On a budget? Here's your guide to exploring some of San Francisco's best sights, entertainment and culture without opening your wallet.
San Francisco Parks
To get a real feel for San Francisco, spend some time in one of its many public green spaces.
Located in the sunny Mission District, this palm-tree-flanked space has an elevated view of downtown, a colossal new playground and prime people-watching.
Right in the middle of the city, this hilltop park overlooks the Painted Ladies, a postcard-perfect row of Victorian houses made famous by the “Full House” opening credits. The urban skyline juts out above them, making for a scene that attracts busloads of amateur photographers.
This park in well-heeled Pacific Heights has a spiffy new playground, dog park and restrooms, plus it offers stellar 360-degree views of San Francisco.
Have a picnic with views of the Golden Gate Bridge at this popular patch of lawn in the Marina neighborhood.
Quirky San Francisco Museums
Indulge your curiouity at these small admission-free institutions.
This new educational center right above the marine mammals’ famous Pier 39 hangout offers tours and an exhibit space.
Learn all about the history and mechanics of San Francisco’s most iconic mode of transportation at this small museum in Nob Hill, which is also home to the cable car depot and a viewing gallery overlooking the cable powerhouse.
A family-owned gem in Fisherman’s Wharf, this charming museum showcases one of the world’s largest collections of working antique arcade machines, and you can actually play them!
Come here to discover the history of the city’s streetcar system and examine local railway artifacts.
In stunning Corona Heights, this kid-friendly museum run by the parks and recreation department houses science, art and craft exhibits plus rescue animals.
San Francisco Tours
Here are three distinctive excursions for taking in the city’s sights, brews and eats.
Follow the retro signs marked with a seagull to hit all of San Francisco’s picturesque highlights, from the Palace of Fine Arts to Stow Lake. The winding route was first designed in 1938.
Go behind the scenes at the country’s first craft brewery. Reservations are required for the 90-minute tour and tasting, offered twice each weekday.
Watch bakers make the city’s legendary sourdough bread inside a glass-walled demonstration bakery and learn about the bread’s Gold-Rush roots with interactive exhibits. While not free, admission is a modest $3.
San Francisco Entertainment
Get a dose of local flavor at concerts, urban bazaars and sporting events.
This polished group brings classical music to the people with free performances at prime venues throughout the city.
Catch an eclectic range of complimentary in-store shows and DJ sets at this Haight Street institution.
You can watch three innings of the game without a ticket if you stand in the archway beside the public waterfront walkway by McCovey Cove on the east side of the stadium.
This open-air indie market occurring on the final weekend of each month brings together vintage and antique finds, wares from local artisans, and food and fashion trucks. With a $3 entry fee, it’s not quite gratis, but it is a bargain. Take the Muni 108 line from the city.
A local tradition since 1882, this 30-piece symphonic band performs for a diverse crowd in Golden Gate Park each Sunday April through October.
Peruse Union Square galleries, sip wine and hobnob with local artists during this monthly art crawl. Aim to stop at 77 and 49 Geary St. as well as 251 Post St. addresses that contain multiple galleries.
This beloved Noe Valley bookshop regularly hosts free lectures and signings with big-name chefs, sommeliers and authors.
San Francisco Vistas
Savoring San Francisco’s world-renowned hilltop panoramas won’t cost you a cent.
This is San Francisco’s best-known lookout point for a reason.
Popular with locals, the short hike to the summit of this grassy mound on the south side of the city affords spectacular views.
Ascend Telegraph Hill via the Filbert Steps or the 39-Coit bus to admire the surrounding vistas of the bay and the Diego Rivera-style WPA murals at the base of the tower. (You’ll have to pay $7 to take the elevator to the top.)
You can walk right into the Spanish colonial structure housing the oldest art school in the West and admire the artwork on display, including Diego Rivera murals. But the real crowd-pleaser is the view from the rooftop—the romance is off the charts.
San Francisco Architectural Icons
San Francisco is known for its landmark structures, and exploring them is absolutely free.
This striking ferry terminal is now also home to a gorgeous marketplace showcasing the Bay Area’s agricultural bounty. Catch free cooking demos during the Saturday farmers market, where you can also eat your fill of fresh produce samples.
Walk, bike or drive across what is arguably the world’s most recognizable overpass and be sure to stop at the slick new Bridge Pavilion visitor center.
This historic waterfront landmark is home to shopping, dining, live music and one very famous ice-cream parlor. Soak up the festive atmosphere at no charge.
A visit to the grand rotunda of this mammoth Beaux-Arts building is a must for architecture aficionados.
This Civil War-era brick fort has a magnificent setting at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
San Francisco Neighborhood Exploration
San Francisco is a mosaic of distinct neighborhoods that are villages in and of themselves. Here are sights worth seeking out in four of these diverse areas.
This vibrant street art is the pride of the community. Head to Clarion Alley or Balmy Alley to survey a high concentration of murals in a single destination.
A stroll through the largest Chinese community outside of Asia is sensory overload, especially if you veer off the main drag of Grant Avenue. The gallery at the Chinese Culture Center on the third floor of the Hilton Hotel on Kearny Street is donation only.
Walk or drive down this lushly landscaped, outrageously curved block in Russian Hill, located between Hyde and Leavenworth streets.
In Fisherman’s Wharf, a fleet of historic ships and museum and visitor center provide a glimpse of Pacific maritime history.
Explore the bookshops, record stores, cafes and vintage boutiques in the neighborhood synonymous with 1960s culture.
Free San Francisco Museum Days
The city is home to a number of world-class museums, most of which offer free admission days throughout the year.
Free the first Tuesday of each month:
- Legion of Honor
- de Young Museum (The tower observation deck is always free to access.)
- Contemporary Jewish Museum
- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (The surrounding gardens and frequent outdoor performances are always free to enjoy, and the Yerba Buena neighborhood hosts a free gallery crawl on the third Thursday of the month.)
- Cartoon Museum
Free the first Wednesday of each month:
- GLBT History Museum (admission is normally only $5)
Free the first Sunday of each month:
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