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:

Hike the Marin Headlands

Marin headlands
One of the best free things to do in San Francisco – hiking the Marin Headlands and getting this view!
If you are looking for a fun and free thing to do just outside of San Francisco then a day trip to the Marin Headlands should be on your list. Located just across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands are easily accessible from San Francisco. With several hikes varying in levels of difficulty and view points that will give you some of the most stunning views of San Francisco, you will not be disappointed.
The Marin Headlands is a part of the Golden Gate National Parks which gives you miles and miles of hiking trails.  However, if you are not one for hiking you can simply  drive up to Hawk Hill, park, make your way through the tunnel and you will be rewarded with amazing views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco family attractions don’t get any better than hiking the Marin Headlands.
Looking for a San Francisco itinerary? Check out this guide to San Francisco in one day!

Hit the coast at Baker Beach

baker beach

Is there any better free thing to do in San Francisco than hitting the beach?
As a fellow West Coaster, I’ve been to San Francisco a few times. And one place I always go back to is Baker Beach. I love this spot because it’s quiet and has some of the best views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Best of all, it’s totally free! Even on a nice summer day, this beach never gets too crowded. There’s lots of room to spread out.
Once you’re done playing in the surf, enjoying the sun (which you have to make the most of when you’re in SF before the fog rolls in) and watching dogs run on the beach, you can also walk up some of the trails towards Battery Chamberlin. This is a super cool area to discover and provides a new viewpoint for the Golden Gate Bridge. If you’re looking for a fun afternoon in SF, that’s easy on the wallet and the eyes, I’d definitely recommend heading to Baker Beach!
From Riana Ang-Canning of Teaspoon of Adventure 

Spot Sea Lions at Pier 39

pier 39

Visiting the California sea lions of Pier 39 is a fun and free way to spend some time around the San Francisco Bay Area. Sea lions started arriving on the Pier 39 K-Dock after an earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989, and by the following year they started coming in droves. The Pier 39 K-Dock proved to be a perfect home for the sea lions given the plentiful supply of food from the bay and environment protected from predators.
After some debate on what to do with the new residents, The Marine Mammal Centre recommended that they stay in in their new home. Now they are an official icon of the San Francisco Bay area, beloved by tourists and locals alike. In 2015 the city celebrated the sea lions 25th anniversary!
You can see the sea playful lions from late summer to late spring when there are typically hundreds of sea lions basking in the sun at K-Dock, ranging from 150 to 600+. No list of free things to do in San Francisco or San Francisco family activities would be complete without Pier 39!

From Lora of Explore with Lora

Postcard Row

postcard row

One of the best things to do in San Francisco is to visit Postcard Row, also known as Alamo Square. Here you will find the most photographed houses in the city often referred to as the ‘Painted Ladies’.
Behind the houses, the San Francisco skyline provides a picture-perfect backdrop which is why tourists flock here by the dozens to take photos. The houses were built between 1892 and 1896, and these days are probably the most recognisable homes in San Francisco.
This has a lot to do with the fact that images of the exterior of these houses have appeared in a number of movies and TV shows, such as Full House and Mrs Doubtfire to name but a few. The houses themselves are located at 710-720 Steiner Street and sit right across from Alamo Park. Due to the incredible views this is definitely one of the must-see sights in San Francisco, and the best thing is, it is absolutely free.
Check Wanderlust & Life for more West Coast travel tips

Ride the cable car

sf trolley
Ride the iconic cable car – one of the best free things to do in San Francisco
You will appreciate the hills of San Francisco more by traveling to the top! One of the best modes of transport San Francisco offers is the iconic trolley.
The first cable car began operating in the 1870s. It’s been taking residents and tourists up and down San Francisco’s many hills ever since.
Today, you can still hop onto one of three popular routes. It is recommended to purchase a day pass for San Francisco’s convenient public transportation system, but you can also purchase a single ride on the trolley for 7 dollars.
And while you can obviously sit and relax in the cable car’s chairs, the best and most iconic experience is to stand on the outside ledges.
Hold on tight to the rail if you do though! The ride can be quite rattly!

From Halef and Michael of the Round the World Guys

Visit the Fortune Cookie Factory

fortune cookie factory
Free things to do in San Francisco – hit up the fortune cookie factory!
Fortune cookies originated in Asia right? Wrong! They were actually created in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Here you can visit the original Fortune Cookie Factory for free and you can see how the cookies go from batter to perfectly curved packets of joy in just a few minutes. This is also one of the best indoor activities in San Francisco.
The factory is very small inside and there are a couple of workers sat in a line who work quickly to produce cookie after cookie. It’s amazing how quickly they process these and seeing how they take a flat circular biscuit and turn it into that distinctive fortune cookie shape is definitely worth a quick pit stop whilst you’re in San Francisco.

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!

From Laura of What’s Hot Blog

Visit the Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of Fine Arts

Mix one iconic building, dating back to 1915 with a few modern touches and you get some real magic here. The location of this landmark is worth your time to begin with, surrounded by open lawns and shimmering water. On hot days, the locals all sunbathe outside, and who could blame them?
Inside, you’ll want to explore it’s grecian colonnades and long walkways, but there’s also a lot more going on. There is a theatre and corporate exhibition space which are both interesting but not particularly budget friendly. Instead, turn up in the summer between Tuesday and Sunday and you’ll be treated to family friendly free events.
From tasty treats in the cafe to giant board games and art sessions, it’s the perfect way to have fun and pinch the pennies. It’s well connected by bus and a great place to snap some holiday photos too.
From Danni of Live in 10 Countries

Explore the Japanese Tea Gardens

japanese tea gardens

 Our family really enjoyed the San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Gardens, which are located inside Golden Gate State Park.  Our boys were two and four at the time of our visit and loved exploring the manicured paths and ponds.  The Gardens were an ideal size for them to explore stroller-free and were their first experience in a Japanese-style garden.

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.

Pro tip:  Admission to the Japanese Tea Gardens is free on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for all who enter by 10:00 am. and always free for kids age four and under.  Admission for non-resident adults is $9. So this isn’t exactly one of the free things to do in San Francisco, but it is a cheap thing to do in San Francisco!

From Catherine D’Cruz from We Go With Kids, read more on her post San Francisco with kids

Head to Coit Tower

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

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

Heart in SF
Borrowed from Untapped Cities

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

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

sf 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

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

lombard 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

SF Staircases
Workout and see one of the best free things to do in SF at the same time? Heck yes!
  • 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?
From Jyoti of Story at Every Corner
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There you have it – travel bloggers’ favorite cheap and free things to do in San Francisco. Did we miss any of your favorite free things to do in San Francisco? Let us know in the comments below!

15 Comments

  1. Coming from a local these are really great places to go. I would add golden gate park. There is so much to do there! Also ocean beach because you can have bon fires right on the beach and its legal. Also the Japanese gardens are free if you get there before 9am and they are amazing in the spring!

  2. I visited San Fran almost ten years ago now and had no idea there was a fortune cookie factory! I mean, I didn’t know half these things, but the fortune cookie factory seems amazing! I wish I had gone.

  3. I would absolutely love to spot those sea lions! There’s a little hidden hike in Malibu that I did to see sea lions, but the ones in your picture look so much closer!

  4. Love love love this article! The sea lions <3 and also, the Postcard Row houses. I always knew Golden Gate Bridge is a MUST VISIT place but you've just added so many more places on my list to San Francisco

  5. Absolutely love love love this article! The sea lions <3 and also, the Postcard Row houses. I always knew Golden Gate Bridge is a MUST VISIT place but you've just added so many more places on my list to San Francisco. And best thing is that they are free. Give me no reason to say no to visiting SF.

  6. I miss San Francisco and you listed most of the the places we visited in San Francisco. But we missed that fortune cookies store, oh I would definitely try that next time.

  7. The BIG F – I like it when things are Fun and Free 😉 Thanks for sharing such a long list of things to do – especially for including the Street Art – I love Street Art no matter which part of the world I might be in!

  8. Postcard Row is a magical spot in San Francisco as the Japanese gardens.. I generally love to explore places strolling around so to get a sense of the place and enjoy it at the best and this post contains so many great address to visit.

  9. I really really enjoy hiking so hiking the Marin Headlands would be my sort of thing! That view that you got of the golden gate bridge is amazing! And best of all it was free! So glad you posted this article as it is really helpful 😀

  10. Amazing article with so many different options from great bloggers. San Francisco is definitely amazing city which is pretty expensive. I would recommend to use CouchSurfing to get the best experience in the city. Hosts will show you around and give you tips on what to do cheaply or for free. In my opinion it will show you the best part of the city. Hiking and walking around is also fun and you can play geocaching on your phone or GPS also for free!

  11. Awesome shot of Lombard street! I’m glad there are free things to do in such an expensive city.

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