The best cheap things to do in San Francisco
If you’ve already been to San Francisco, you know one thing: San Francisco is not cheap! If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, get ready, it is one of the most expensive cities in the US, but don’t let that discourage you! There are tons of free and cheap things to do in San Francisco that can save you money while you travel but also expose you to amazing activities around the city.
There are tons of things to do around San Francisco, and the great thing is that so many of them are free or under $10! In this blog post, travel bloggers have compiled their tips on the best cheap and free stuff in San Francisco – you’ll find San Francisco family attractions, and tons of free fun things to do in San Francisco!
Hungry for more California travel tips? Check out these posts:
- What to do in Sacramento, California’s farm-to-fork capital
- Amazing Mammoth Lakes: explore the eastern sierras
- California adventures: your ultimate California bucket list
- The 10 day Southern California road trip itinerary
- Visit Pinnacles National Park, California’s best hidden secret
Hike the Marin Headlands
Hit the coast at Baker Beach
Spot Sea Lions at Pier 39
From Lora of Explore with Lora
Ride the cable car
From Halef and Michael of the Round the World Guys
Visit the Fortune Cookie Factory
If you want to take a picture inside the factory you’ll have to pay $1 so instead I’d recommend you buy a bag of cookies for $5. They sell a variety of different bags and flavors and they are all the yummier when they are fresh! And yes, there are free samples. Cookies and one of the best free things to do in San Francisco? Sounds like a win!
Visit the Palace of Fine Arts
Explore the Japanese Tea Gardens
They were enamored with the enormous carp in the ponds. The serene beauty of the Gardens makes it a great place for adults to meditate and for children to quietly observe. The Japanese Tea Gardens were the perfect place for our family to slow down after visiting the city and enjoy nature. We definitely recommend visiting with the Japanese Tea Gardens kids.
From Catherine D’Cruz from We Go With Kids, read more on her post San Francisco with kids
Head to Coit Tower
Coit Tower sits atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and can be seen from vantage points all over the city. Patron Lillie Hitchcock Coit left funds when she died in 1929 “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.” The slender tower resulted, rising more than 200 feet from its base.
For $9 you can ride the elevator to the top and enjoy the 360-degree observation deck. From here you can see the densely built neighborhoods of San Francisco, the very crooked Lombard Street, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the former prison island of Alcatraz.
Colorful murals decorate the ground floor of Coit Tower. A group of artists, funded by the Public Works of Art Project, painted these in 1934. The scenes depict life in California during the Depression by showing different aspects of industry and commerce.
The artists all worked at the same time until the murals were finished. The lively colors of these fresco paintings are vibrant after a recent restoration.
From Sharon of Exploring Our World
Check out the San Francisco Cable Car Museum
It’s hard to imagine the City by the Bay without its iconic red cable cars, but did you know that the sound of the cables whirring under the streets of San Francisco and the clanging bells would be silenced if it weren’t for Freidel Klussmann?
After riding the only moving landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, swing by the Cable Car Museum in the city’s Nob Hill neighborhood where you can learn about the woman who saved the cable cars and see the massive cables that pull the red trolleys up and down the hills of San Francisco.
Located at 1201 Mason Street, the Cable Car Museum can be found in the center of the remaining three cable car lines. There is no admission fee, and the museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, so swing by and explore the world’s last manually operated cable car system when you visit San Francisco! The Cable Car Museum is another one of the best indoor activities in San Francisco.
From Sage of Everyday Wanderer
Find the Hearts of San Francisco
Searching from the “Hearts for San Francisco” is one of the best free activities to do in San Francisco. The “Hearts in San Francisco” art project is based upon the famous song sung by Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” 131 unique heart sculptures with beautifully designed art by local Bay Area artists are placed throughout the city.
Some of the most popular spots to find the hearts are at Union Square, at the flagship Macy’s off of Union Square, Pier 39, San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and by AT&T Park. It’s a fun and artsy way to explore more of San Francisco.
From Constance of Adventures of the Panda Bear
Visit iconic Fisherman’s Wharf
Spend your day in one of San Francisco’s most famous hot spots – Fisherman’s Wharf. Located on the Northern waterfront of San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf is huge tourist attraction. It has everything from amazing boutiques, delicious restaurants and breathtaking views of the ocean, including a fantastic sight of the famous prison Alcatraz.
One of its most incredible attractions is Pier 39 (mentioned above), where you will be able to find an abundant amount of adorable sea lions hanging out by the bay. There is truly nothing better than spending your day at Fisherman’s Wharf while you soak in the California sun and enjoy the beautiful sights Fisherman’s Wharf offers.
From Caresa of This Spontaneous Life
Soak up the Street Art
I recently visited with my teen daughter, and our favorite free thing to do in San Francisco was to take in the street art. Seeing street art is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. Sometimes it was accidentally stumbling upon a piece and being happily surprised, but there a few areas famous for street art worth seeking out. The Mission District is known for the murals that decorate alleyway after alleyway. The Clarion Alley Mural Project began in 1993 is the most socially conscious collection.
Clarion Alley connects Valencia & Mission streets, parallel and between 17th & 18th streets. The other area known for Mission district murals is in the vicinity of Lilac street, including Osage & Cypress streets. As a bonus, check out Taqueria, on Mission between Lilac and Osage for a very reasonable and delicious taco fix. (But be warned the line starts to form 30 minutes before opening!).
For more non-touristy tips from Megan, check out WanderToes
See the world famous Golden Gate Bridge
It is rightly said ‘the best things in life are free’. San Francisco’s iconic landmark is the Golden Gate Bridge. And it is completely free to view, walk across the bridge or drive through it. No list of the best cheap and free things to do in San Francisco could ever be complete without mentioning this beauty.
Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge connecting the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Ocean. The bridge is 1.6 km long and is considered as an engineering marvel – one of the modern wonders of the world. There are many hiking trails in and around the Golden Gate Bridge – allowing you to get a perfect shot at the modern marvel, which is a must visit in San Francisco.
From Mayuri of To Someplace New
Visit the world’s crookedest street
A trip to San Francisco is not complete without visiting Lombard Street. This street is famous for being the “crookedest” street in San Francisco (or the world, depending on who you talk to). In one block of a very steep hill, there are eight hairpin bends. You can drive down the street if you have a car, or take the Powell/ Hyde line cable car to the top of the block on Hyde Street and walk down.
It is a residential street, and there is a sidewalk beside pretty gardens. If you go early in the morning, you will have it to yourself. Later in the day, it gets clogged with traffic all wanting to experience the bends, which is OK if you’re on foot, because seeing the cars helps make the crazy turns more obvious. If you’re lucky, you may also see the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill fly overhead.
From James of Travel Collecting
Climb San Francisco’s beautiful staircases
- San Francisco is a very hilly city. We have many steep hills that visitors find fascinating to drive or walk on. The crooked street is so popular that it has a nearly continuous stream of visitors all day, everyday. As expected, many of our streets are so steep that they are walkable only by steps.
- Some residents decided that these long public staircases are a great canvas for tile mosaic – a great form of urban art accessible to all. In the last few years 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, Hidden Garden Steps, and Lincoln Park Steps have brought much to talk about in our beautiful city.
- The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps are the longest of all the mosaic steps in the city. Each section of the stairs is a painting and all sections are connected naturally so it feels like one long contentious painting. The stairs appear to lead directly into the sky. They are also the best known and the busiest. Why not get a work out and experience one of the best free things to do in San Francisco at the same time?
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.