15 FREE & Awesome Things to Do in San Francisco


san francisco union square

You are having fun in San Francisco for free!

Like all cities, San Francisco has lots to do and see. But like all cities, this is going to cost you, anything from a few dollars to a month's allowance.

But if you know where to look, there are plenty of places to visit, plenty of things to do and see for free.

So whether you are a traveller on a budget or a local looking for a fun time free of charge, San Francisco can prove to be excellent value for money.

 

Free Music

music store

 

We always hear about the cost of going to live music shows that it is becoming too expensive and difficult to get tickets. But San Francisco is world-famous for its grassroots music scene. And even if you are not old enough to get into the bars and venues that cater for those sorts of shows, there are plenty of good alternatives.

Places such as Amoeba Music, a huge CD and record store housed in a former bowling alley on Haight Street. It is a music lovers paradise and the $1 bargain bins often prove to be treasure troves of underground music and forgotten gems. But the icing on the cake is that if you time things right, you can catch free live shows. You'll find performances hosted by all sorts of rising stars, up and coming bands and touring icons of the future.

From late June until late August more free music is on tap at Stern Grove Festival. This stalwart event has, over the last three-quarters of a century, become a staple of the city's cultural calendar. Its eclectic schedule has seen everything from The English Beat to Neko Case to The San Francisco Opera grace its stage. One to check out for music lovers of all tastes.

Another, more bizarre, the offering is The Wave Organ found at the tip of the Marina Boat Harbour jetty. A series of PVC and concrete tubes thread through the quayside below you and as wind and waves surge in and out of them they make strange, otherworldly music. Expect to hear everything from the anxious humming of an employee waiting to head into their yearly appraisal to haunting sounds from beyond the grave. Strange and bewitching!

 

Free Art

free arts in sf

 

If anywhere in America is known for being a culture capital, it is San Francisco. And again, culture doesn't have to cost. There is a massive selection of places to visit and attractions to access that won't cost you a dime. The city's eclectic nature and non-conformist vibe mean that all manner of wild and off-beat, free art shows can be found. Sometimes in the most unexpected of places. 

 

A great place to start is the downtown, four-story of 49 Geary. The first Thursday is the event to find unexpected and unusual new art, popcorn and lively crowds.  The two dozen galleries feature everything from local art to stand-out international works. For a quieter, and often free, experience visit on a weekday.

 

Ration 3 is always worth checking out. This trippy gallery, which is all black outside and all white inside, has a definite "art-fair" buzz about it. Its artists are often featured in industry bibles such as Artforum, but owner Chris Perez is a champion of the underground. Expect to find off the radar creatives, street-artists and rising stars featured.

 

Other places for your free pass art list should include the Diego Rivera Gallery and the Luggage Store Gallery. Both galleries mix big, international names with cool, underground, ones to watch.

 

Just as the world was plunged into World War Two, Anton Refregier was granted a commission to depict the history of Northern California via a series of murals at the Rincon Annex Post Office. They were finished in 1948 and 5 years later they were deemed too "communist" by the McCarthyists. They are now rightly regarded as a National Landmark. Certainly worth a look around. A great slice of controversial history and no cost to visit.

 

Another fantastic and different place to visit is Museo Italo Americano. This small gallery space dedicated to Italian-American culture is located above Caffe Malvina in North Beach. The room is small and intimate and thus allows for only one exhibition at a time. But its ever-changing roster of things to see it is somewhere you can revisit regularly. The size of the gallery means that it is easily fitted into a day of shortstop visits around the North Beach area.

 

The ultimate critical response to public art is found at The Mission's Clarion Alley and the street murals found there. Being back alley, public works it is open to the elements meaning that even the most popular pieces fade over time. And murals which don't meet the standards set by the public will find themselves painted over or even peed on. Perhaps the ultimate act of public criticism!

 

Free Literature

book store in sf

 

Anyone who knows anything about San Francisco's literary scene will have heard of City Lights book shop. Founded by city poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it was a hub America's beat scene of the '50s and '60s.

The best-known writer of that genre even has his name immortalised in the nearby street - Jack Kerouac Alley. Book lovers can browse and take in the history of the place but will also find free readings both here and at Green Apple by the latest writers, poets and free-thinkers.

If you are a book lover or just someone who revels in the artistry of the book as a concept, then head over to the San Francisco Centre for the book. Displays highlight the history and art of bookmaking via old typesetting machines and examples of exquisite Coptic binding. There is an ever-changing offering of educational displays and hands-on workshops and they are all free.

 

Free Fun

free fun thing in sf

 

One hidden gem that everyone should check out is the Seward Street Slides. The slides do state "no adults unless accompanied by a child", but the slides are found tucked away in a residential area.

This means that there is no one enforcing the policy so kids of all ages should definitely get involved. The slides are concrete and sometimes a bit of a rough ride, but there are generally cardboard boxes around for you to sit on.

This will save on wear and tear to both your pants and your delicate places alike! It's a place that will keep you occupied for 30 minutes or so, perfect as an interlude between one location and the next but really worth adding to a days exploration.

 

 

Free History

sf city hall

If you have any questions on politics, law, history or just how a city as big as San Francisco is run, then City Hall is the place with all the answers.

Built-in the wake of the 1906 earthquake it has been the site of many important political demonstrations. It was also the site of the assassination of America's first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. Public gallery spaces feature free exhibitions where you will see everything from portraits of iconic performers to photographs of early railroad journeys.

There are free tours to be had, but the best way to see democracy in action is to witness Tuesday's weekly 2 pm Board of Supervisors meetings. Technically visitors can be removed from the gallery for anything deemed "boisterous behaviour."

But don't worry, San Francisco democracy is pretty lively to start with, and so the security guards are pretty relaxed about what might constitute inappropriate behaviour.

 

If San Francisco is closely associated with its steep hills, it is equally known for the cable-cars which help people travel on them. The Cable Car Museum has three 1870's cable cars as well as many other more contemporary items. Another quick stop as part of a day's adventures but a must for any fans of old transport and engineering.

 

 

Free Landmarks

golden gate bridge

Fort Point was built to protect the city against Confederate attacks during the Civil War. Attacks which thankfully never came. In more recent times it is perhaps better known as the spot where Kim Novak jumps to her death in Hitchcock's classic movie Vertigo.

But the main reason that you will want to head here is for the striking views of that most iconic landmark in a city full of iconic landmarks — the Golden Gate Bridge.

Once you have had your fill of the Fort, pretended to be a 50's, black and white starlet and even watched the Union soldiers from the local re-enactment society march solemnly past there is still much to do.

Such as the Golden Gate Visitors centre and there are plenty of bays, coastal paths and beaches to stroll along, all stunning witchy views. Remember to wrap up warm, unsurprisingly it will be breezy here, even in the middle of summer.

There are plenty of other ways to experience the bridge too. You can jump on a bike or even walk across. Your view of the Pacific Ocean will likely be through streams of traffic, but even so, it is a great experience.

 

 

Free Hang-outs

golden gate park

One of the best ways to explore on a budget, or for free in San Francisco is to find a somewhere that has plenty going on all in one place. Much better than crisscrossing your way all over the city to find the best deals.

And if this is your approach, Golden Gate Park is the perfect place to spend the day…or even a week! This gorgeous location contains something for everyone and offers a real snap-shot of what makes the city and Northern California so great.

Some of the attractions and locations do require an admission fee.

However, wandering through bonsai gardens and giant redwoods, from well-manicured formal lawns to wild dunes is free to everyone. And as much as the park is a celebration of nature, it is also a tribute to the spirit of the city.

So, expect to stumble across many unusual and spontaneous "happenings." Everything from drum circles to free live music, playgrounds and roller discos, a garden dedicated to plants found in the writings of Shakespeare and even wild bison roaming around. Not what you expect in the heart of a major city. And for extra value for money plan to be here on a Tuesday when the de Young Museum is free admission.

Another great place to use as a base and explore all the free fun amongst the playing attractions is Fisherman's Wharf. Family-friendly and geared up for the tourists, this vital part of the city is a great place to sit and watch the world go by.

Take your lunch or find a cheap cafe and then spend the day strolling along the piers and exploring the side streets.  Find quirky shops, take in the views and contemplate Alcatraz Island which sits menacingly out in the bay.

No matter what else you do, head down to Pier 39 where you will find basking and barking sea lions on the floating jetties. It's a site which never fails to be amusing and enthral, and the views of the bay from here are the best you will find in the area.

It is also in this part of the Wharf that you will encounter the best street performers. You never know what you will bump into, but the standard is always high.

While there is so much to do if you do have a few dollars to spend, it is also the sort of place where you can wander casually around or sit and nurse a coffee — the perfect place to soak up the vibes for free. 

 

Free Walking Tours

 

You can find excellent walking tours all over the city, which are great value for money. But if you are looking for the best, free options, you will find some great, volunteer-run tours.

These tours do accept donations, so perhaps the budget for a few coins to be polite. Some follow a theme, others a geographical route through a neighborhood and some focus on one aspect of the cities history and culture.

Whichever you choose, they are the perfect way to explore the city in the company of a knowledgeable local guide to educate and entertain you.

 

Conclusion 

San Francisco might seem like an expensive place to explore, mainly if you stick to the tourist trail.

But, perhaps more than most cities, there is a wealth of free things and cheap attractions to be found.

With a bit of research, choosing the right day and a touch of imagination, you will find ways to explore the city without having to apply for a significant bank loan.

You will find yourself navigating the lesser-known backroads and byways through parts of the city. Components that the guide books rarely talk about. And that always has to be the best way to travel.