Contrary to what you might expect from such a well known, tourist-heavy city, San Francisco quietly delivers a lot for the money. And so much of the fun in San Francisco is free.
From free museums to public art and architectural highlights, here's a list of the best options for travelers on a budget.
1. The Golden Gate Bridge
It's completely free to marvel at this feat of art-deco design and engineering. On sunny days, it's a brilliant radiant orange (International Orange, to be specific), and when the fog rolls in it's a moody only-in-San Francisco vista. You can bike across, but it’s just as fun – if you are dressed right – to walk across the world’s most beautiful bridge. It’s 1.7 miles across (it’s possible to catch a bus back – though some visitors just walk halfway across, take in the scene, and return).
2. Free First Tuesdays
If you're in San Francisco on the first Tuesday of the month, get thee to either the Legion of Honor or the de Young Museum, both of which are free on those days. The former features a collection ranging from Monet to John Cage soundscapes, ancient Iraqi ivories to R Crumb comics. The latter houses items from Oceanic ceremonial masks and trippy-hippie handmade fashion to a James Turrell domed skyspace installation built into the side of a hill.
3. Amoeba Music
Amoeba Music is a huge record/CD store made out of a former bowling alley on Haight Street. A music lover could spend hours there. Either troll the $1 bins for the glory of vinyl, or time it for the frequent free shows set up in the corner.
4. Pier 39
Don't pretend you're too cool to gawk at the sea lions, who canoodle, belch and scratch their backsides on the docks of Pier 39. As many as 1300 come to laze in the sun, as they have since 1990, providing many photo ops from January to July.
5. Café Royale
Always free, this Parisian-styled café hosts a variety of events including live music and DJ sets several days a week.
6. Coit Tower murals and the Filbert Street Steps
Coit Tower (1934) is a beloved part of the San Francisco skyline, but not free to go up. However, the murals that line the lobby are free to see. Embracing San Francisco’s heritage of labor reform and glorifying the worker, the murals were created by 25 artists, many of whom were denounced as communists. It’s a steep walk up from any side, so you may be tempted to lay down a few dollars to reach the top. It’s worth it.
Speaking of which... the famed Filbert Street Steps up to Coit Tower are quite steep but tap into a hidden North Beach world of cottages along a wooden boardwalk called Napier Lane, with sculpture tucked in among gardens year-round and sweeping views of the Bay Bridge. Plus wild parrots. If you're heading back down, try the neighboring Greenwich St Stairs for an alternative route and more chances for parrot-spotting.
7. Art galleries
San Francisco overflows with wild, unexpected art shows at dozens of galleries that are free to visit. They’re quieter during the week, but simply more fun at openings or weekends.
An excellent starting place is the gallery-packed four-floor 49 Geary downtown. Other favorites include Ratio 3 in the Mission, whose artists regularly get Artforum coverage; the Diego Rivera Gallery featuring the artist's trompe l’oeil 1931 mural The Making of a Fresco Showing a Building of a City; and the Tenderloin’s plucky Luggage Store Gallery.
8. San Francisco Center for the Book
Remember books? The San Francisco Center for the Book not only displays elaborate Coptic binding and wooden typesetting machines used to make the things, but offers a wide display of changing exhibits and workshops. All free.
Read more: How to spend a perfect weekend in San Francisco
9. City Hall
Inside the mighty beaux-arts dome, the splendid rotunda of San Francisco City Hall has ringing acoustics – a worthwhile spot to sit and consider of triumph and tragedy that has occurred here, including Harvey Milk's 1978 assassination. There are public art exhibits in the basement, and free tours from the tour kiosk.
Read more: First time San Francisco: discover the best of the City by the Bay
10. Fort Point
Built in 1861 to protect the city from – get this – Confederate attacks that never came, Fort Point is now more famous as the spot where Kim Novak lept into the frigid waters of the bay in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s an ideal vantage point for views of the Golden Gate Bridge if you aren’t up to the walk across.
11. Clarion Alley
The Mission's hot spot for trial by fire is on wee Clarion Alley, where street artworks are peed on or painted over in a jiff unless they deliver enough to last a little while. Nothing stays (art) gold here. Even Andrew Schoultz's mural of gentrifying elephants displacing scraggly birds – a local favorite – faded over time. Go see what's new.
12. Rincon Annex Post Office
Anton Refregier won the WPA’s largest commission to depict the history of Northern California in murals at the Rincon Annex Post Office, just as WWII erupted. Work resumed in 1945, finished in 1948, and was deemed "communist" by McCarthyists in 1953. The murals are now a national landmark.
13. Musée Mécanique
Sinister, freckle-faced Laughing Sal has creeped out kiddies for over a hundred years at this wonderful vintage arcade museum that’s as fun to look at (for free) as play. If you splurge a few quarters you can play everything from start-your-own bar brawls in coin-operated Wild West saloons, peep at belly dancers or feed your inner Ms Pac-Man.
14. Golden Gate Park
When the weather cooperates, the 1017-acre park of redwood, green meadows, and museums is a perfect setting to laze half a San Francisco day. Plus a lot is free, including weekly concerts and events like Hardly Strictly (an annual bluegrass festival) and Shakespeare in the Park. But better yet there are free lawn bowling lessons every Wednesday at noon. Yes, some dreams do come true.
Read more: The best day trips from San Francisco
15. Volunteer-guided walking tours
Local volunteer-historians lead roughly eight daily one- to two-hour walking tours by neighborhood and theme – ranging from Chinatown alleys and gold rush history sites to a Japanese Tea Garden and the Public Library. It’s volunteer-based, with dozens of options, and completely free, though donations are accepted.
16. Randall Museum
Near Corona Heights Park, a 520ft summit near the Castro with superb views over the city, the Randall Museum is a free, family-ready place with live-animal exhibits and hands-on workshops.
17. City Lights & Green Apple
SF's literary scene is legendary, perhaps nowhere more so than City Lights, founded by city poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti, next to Jack Kerouac Alley. Look for readings here, or at other beloved bookstores including the Richmond District's Green Apple.
18. Seward Street slides
Lost in the Castro – near the corner of Douglas St and Seward St, about five or six blocks southwest of Market St and Castro – this tiny park has a couple of curving concrete slides that are fun to slide down. There are usually cardboard boxes handy to sit on and go, but BYOB (bring your own box) to be sure. Seriously, does any city have more fun?
19. Cable Car Museum
Putting the cable in "cable car," this museum occupies a still-functioning cable-car barn, and shows off three 1870s cable cars as well as those famed cables that pull those cute open carriages stuffed with tourists up and over the hills.
20. Stern Grove Festival
If you're visiting in summer (late June through late August), definitely look up a city classic: the Stern Grove Festival's calendar of free concerts on Sundays that's become a local icon for three-quarters of a century. The season schedule is announced each year at the beginning of May; past artists include Neko Case, the English Beat and the San Francisco Opera.
21. Transamerica Pyramid’s fake observatory
A keystone of the San Francisco skyline since 1972 – though its blast-off pyramid shape is sometimes dismissed as "Pereira’s Pr*ck" (after architect William Pereira). While the Transamerica Pyramid’s observation deck has been closed since 9/11, there is a virtual observation deck to see, a half-acre Redwood Park at its base, and a visitor center looking at the history of the building.
22. Twin Peaks or Bernal Heights views
Perfectly situated in the geographical center of San Francisco, the twin 922ft peaks offer towering views of the city and bay – generally one of the must-sees of visitors with cars. Those without, and reluctant to take the steep climb up from Market Street, consider a quieter alternative, Bernal Heights, with lovely looks from south of the Mission, and no tour buses.
23. Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is a sound system of PVC tubes and concrete pipes capped with marble from an old cemetery built right into the tip of the Marina Boat Harbor jetty. Tones shift depending on waves, winds and tide – sounding alternately like spooky breathing on a phone to the nervous humming of a dinnertime line chef.
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This article was originally published in June 2019 and last updated in February 2021.