San Francisco skyline

You don't need deep pockets to get a taste of San Francisco. (©Campbell/NPS)

40 Free Ways to Explore San Francisco

By Rachel Ward on 03/25/14

Here's your guide to discovering some of the city’s best sights, entertainment and culture without opening your wallet.

Parks

To get a real feel for San Francisco, spend some time in one of its many public green spaces.

Dolores Park

Dolores Park (©Gwen Park)
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.

Alamo Square

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.

Alta Plaza Park

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.

Fort Mason

Have a picnic with views of the Golden Gate Bridge at this popular patch of lawn in the Marina neighborhood.

Quirky Museums

Indulge your curiouity at these small admission-free institutions.

Sea Lion Center

Sea Lion Center

This new educational center right above the marine mammals’ famous Pier 39 hangout offers tours and an exhibit space. 

Cable Car Museum

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. 

Musée Mécanique

Musee Mecanique

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! 

San Francisco Railway Museum

San Francisco Railway Museum

Come here to discover the history of the city’s streetcar system and examine local railway artifacts. 

Randall Museum

In stunning Corona Heights, this kid-friendly museum run by the parks and recreation department houses science, art and craft exhibits plus rescue animals.  

Tours

Here are three distinctive excursions for taking in the city’s sights, brews and eats.

49-Mile Scenic Drive

49-Mile Drive (©SF Travel)
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. 

Anchor Brewing

Anchor Brewery

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.  

Boudin Bakery

Boudin Bakery & Museum (©Boudin Bakery)

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. 

Entertainment

Get a dose of local flavor at concerts, urban bazaars and sporting events. 

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (©M Kitaoka)

This polished group brings classical music to the people with free performances at prime venues throughout the city. 

Amoeba Music

Amoeba Music

Catch an eclectic range of complimentary in-store shows and DJ sets at this Haight Street institution. 

Giants at AT&T Park

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.  

Treasure Island Flea

Treasure Island Flea

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.

Golden Gate Park Band

Golden Gate Park Band

A local tradition since 1882, this 30-piece symphonic band performs for a diverse crowd in Golden Gate Park each Sunday April through October.  

First Thursday Art Walk

Caldwell Snyder Gallery (©Gwen Park)
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.  

Omnivore Books

This beloved Noe Valley bookshop regularly hosts free lectures and signings with big-name chefs, sommeliers and authors. 

Vistas

Savoring San Francisco’s world-renowned hilltop panoramas won’t cost you a cent.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks
This is San Francisco’s best-known lookout point for a reason.

Bernal Hill

Popular with locals, the short hike to the summit of this grassy mound on the south side of the city affords spectacular views.

Coit Tower

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.)

San Francisco Art Institute

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.  

Architectural Icons

San Francisco is known for its landmark structures, and exploring them is absolutely free.

Ferry Building

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

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.

Golden Gate Bridge

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. 

Ghirardelli Square

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. 

City Hall


A visit to the grand rotunda of this mammoth Beaux-Arts building is a must for architecture aficionados. 

Fort Point

Fort Point

This Civil War-era brick fort has a magnificent setting at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

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.

Mission Murals

Mission Murals (©Gwen Park)
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. 

Chinatown

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. 

Lombard Street

Lombard Street
Walk or drive down this lushly landscaped, outrageously curved block in Russian Hill, located between Hyde and Leavenworth streets.

San Francisco National Maritime Historic Park

San Francisco National Maritime Historic Park

In Fisherman’s Wharf, a fleet of historic ships and museum and visitor center provide a glimpse of Pacific maritime history. 

Haight Ashbury District

Explore the bookshops, record stores, cafes and vintage boutiques in the neighborhood synonymous with 1960s culture.

Free 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:

(©Museum of Craft and Design)

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Free the first Wednesday of each month:

Free the first Sunday of each month:

Additional San Francisco resources: