Contrary to what you might expect from such a well known, tourist-heavy city, San Francisco quietly delivers a lot for the money. Many of its hotels offer comfort and location for a third of the cost of a comparable New York or London hotel; public transit is part of the fun (cheaper Market Street vintage street cars are better than the famous cable cars), and for food you can’t beat a $4 burrito in the Mission. And so much of the fun in San Francisco is free. Here's a list of 24 options.
1. Amoeba Music’s free shows
When I lived in San Francisco, I spent at least a couple hours a week at Amoeba Music, a huge record/CD store made out of a former bowling alley on Haight Street. Either troll the $1 bins for the glory of vinyl, or time it for the frequent free show set up in the corner.
2. 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 (49 Geary St; www.sfada.com) downtown. Other favorites include Ratio 3 (1447 Stevenson St; www.ratio3.org) in the Mission, whose artists regularly get Artforum coverage; the Diego Rivera Gallery (800 Chestnut St; www.sfai.edu) 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 (1007 Market St; www.luggagestoregallery.org).
3. Baseball for free (sort of)
Everyone loves the Giants AT&T Park for its bay-front views during baseball season (April to October). If you can't get a ticket, you can watch for free from the archway along the waterfront promenade on the east side of the park.
4. 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.
5. Café Royale’s events
Always free, this Parisian-styled café (caferoyale-sf.com) hosts a variety of events (karaoke, jazz, open-mic poetry slams and film screenings) several days a week.
6. 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's occurred here, including Harvey Milk's 1978 assassination. There are public art exhibits in the basement, and free tours from the tour kiosk.
7. Clarion Alley street art
The Mission's hot spot for trial by fire is on wee Clarion Alley (off Valencia St, between 17th & 18th streets), 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.
8. Coit Tower murals and the Filbert Street Steps
Coit Tower (1934) is a beloved part of the San Francisco skyline, and not free to go up. But the WPA murals that line the lobby are free to see – glorifying the worker, the murals were created by 25 artists, many of whom were denounced as communist. 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.
9. 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.
10. Golden Gate Bridge
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 half-way across, take in the scene, and return). The walkway is on the eastern side – facing the bay, Alcatraz and the city – so it’s hard to get much of a Pacific view through the traffic. It’s not open to pedestrians 24 hours; check the website for opening hours.
11. Golden Gate Park
When weather cooperates, the 1017-acre park of redwood, green meadows, and museums is an unreal setting to laze half a San Francisco day. Plus a lot is free, including weekly concerts and events like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Shakespeare in the Park. But better yet there are free lawn bowling lessons every Wednesday at noon. Yes, some dreams do come true.
12. 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.
13. Public Library City Guides walking tours
Local volunteer-historians lead roughly five daily one- to two-hour walking tours (sfcityguides.org) by neighborhood and theme – ranging from Chinatown alleys and Alfred Hitchcock film sites to Coit Tower murals. It’s volunteer-based, with dozens of options, and completely free, though donations are accepted.
14. Randall Museum
Near Corona Heights Park, a 520-foot 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.
15. Readings at City Lights & Green Apple
SF's literary scene is legendary, perhaps nowhere more so than City Lights (261 Columbus Ave), 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 (506 Clement St).
16. Rincon Annex Post Office murals
Anton Refregier won the WPA’s largest commission to depict the history of Northern California in the Rincon Annex Post Office, just as WWII erupted. Work resumed in 1945, finished in 1948, and was deemed ‘communist’ by McCarthyists in 1953. They’re now a National Landmark.
17. 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.
18. Sea Lions at Pier 39
Don't pretend you're too cool to gawk at these guys, who canoodle, belch and scratch their backsides on the docks of Pier 39. As many as 1300 come, as they have since 1990, providing many photo ops from January to July.
19. 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?
20. Stern Grove Festival's concerts
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. 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) – the Transamerica Pyramid’s observation deck has been closed since 9/11, but there’s 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. 600 Montgomery St.
22. Twin Peaks or Bernal Heights views
Perfectly situated in the geographical center of San Francisco, the twin 922-feet 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 nervous humming of a dinnertime line chef.
24. Free First Tuesdays
Amazing experiences don't have to cost the earth. Visit our Best Things in Life are Free hub for more budget-friendly travel tips.
Originally published in December 2011 and updated in July 2016.