San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States, and sometimes we need a refresher on how to have some good ol’ free fun! If you’re looking for a way to leave the house without pulling out your wallet, read on for some inspiration.
Recurring free events
1. Weekly activities and events at Salesforce Park
Did you know that Salesforce Park hosts a ton of free activities every week? Free events include yoga classes, bootcamps, live music, bird walks, garden tours, drum circles, and much more. If you have yet to visit this fascinating rooftop escape, consider participating in their events for a one-of-a-kind experience in a beautiful environment.
2. Community events at Grace Cathedral
San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral is one of the city’s most iconic churches, famous for its gorgeous stained glass windows, mosaics, floor labyrinths, and overall French Gothic design. Each month they host both free and paid events open to all, including art installations and concerts. Keep a close eye on their event calendar for some great events, or just stop by for a peek inside the gorgeous building.
3. Art and performances at Fort Mason Center
When’s the last time you paid a visit to San Francisco’s amazing Fort Mason Center? The popular art center hosts numerous exhibitions, displays, musical performances, improv shows, and more throughout the year. Some of them are paid, but many are free.
4. Seasonal activities with SF Rec & Parks
San Francisco is full of amazing activities and resources for just about any hobby you can think of – and SF Rec & Parks knows it! If you’re looking to try a new sport or learn a new skill, they have excellent programming every season. Most of the activities require a course fee, but there are always some free ones sprinkled in for group dance classes, drop-in workouts, and more for all ages.@granolastuff
5. Weekly farmers’ markets
If you live in the Bay Area, you know that we have access to some of the best produce in the country. That’s why farmer’s markets are a must for countless SF residents who enjoy getting their food from local sources. Be sure to stop by these 10 fantastic farmer’s markets, located all around the city and bringing new, fresh produce to you every weekend.
6. Events at East Cut Crossing
Meet The Crossing at East Cut, a giant new community space located in SF’s Transbay neighborhood. It kicked off last year with a beer garden, food truck park, soccer fields, and a giant ground mural on the block between Howard, Main, Folsom, and Beale Streets. Check it out for fun recurring events, some of which are free.
7. Free concerts throughout the year
- Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (April-October): This free festival presents exciting and diverse performances from a variety of artists multiple times a week.
- Golden Gate Bandshell concerts (nearly year-round): Weekly free and family-friendly performances with the impressive Golden Gate Bandshell as the backdrop.
- Due South at McLaren Park (August-October): A free public concert series hosted by SF Parks Alliance and Noise Pop.
- Stern Grove Festival (June-August): FREE outdoor concert series featuring a wide variety of genres bringing an epic lineup every summer
8. Check out a kite surfing race at Crissy Field
The Presidio’s Crissy Field Beach is a lovely place to visit under normal circumstances, but did you know that they host epic kite surfing competitions in the summer and fall months? That’s right, the St. Francis Yacht Club organizes these fun races on the waves, which can bring out dozens of competitors for an exciting spectacle.
9. Pop-up acrobatics and more from Circus Bella
Circus Bella is a local circus troupe that puts on free, open-air performances for kids each summer and fall. You can expect to see exciting acts including a clown, juggling and unicycle, contortion, aerial rope, balance board, hula hoops, bottle walking, Chinese pole, and more.
10. Play with coin-operated arcade games at Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique is one of the world’s largest private collections of coin-operated mechanical instruments, and one of the most unique museums in San Francisco! The collection was started by SF native Edward Galland Zelinskey, who bought his first coin-operated game when he was just 11 years old in 1933. Since then, it’s grown to include over 300 antique arcade artifacts, coin-operated pianos, slot machines, animations, and more. Zelinskey passed away in 2004, but his magnificent collection is still free for the public to enjoy at Pier 45 in San Francisco. Admission is completely free, but machines cost usually a quarter or fifty cents to use.
11. Explore the SF Cable Car Museum
San Francisco’s iconic cable cars are national landmarks, so it’s only fitting that there’s a museum dedicated to them! See 19th-century cable cars, mechanical displays, photographs and more at this nonprofit museum that works to preserve SF’s long and storied cable car history.
If you’re looking for more background on the cable cars, consider visiting Woods Division Carpentry Shop in the Dogpatch, where you can see master carpenters restoring the cable cars before your eyes!
12. Check out the McElroy Octagon House
Have you seen this bizarre blue home in Russian Hill? The McElroy Octagon House is a famous reminder of the octagon craze of the 19th century, and it continues to turn heads even 160 years after it was built.
Not much was known about it until the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in California saved it from destruction in 1952. More details came to light in 1963, when an electrician discovered a time capsule left by the house’s original owners, William Carroll McElroy and his wife Harriet Shober McElroy. They left behind newspaper clippings, photos, and a letter written by Mr. McElroy on July 14, 1861, who explained that the home had been constructed as their “privet Residence.”
The house is now a free museum available for the public to visit on certain days of the year.
13. Take a trip back in time at the Society of California Pioneers Museum
The Society of California Pioneers was established back in 1850, when California was recognized as the 31st state. Since then, the society has worked to collect and preserve the memory of California history. Today, the society continues to be under the leadership of descendants of those early pioneers. They display rotating exhibits at the Pioneer Hall museum, and maintain the Alice Phelan Sullivan Library, both of which are open and free to the public.
14. See Coit Tower‘s Depression-era murals
Coit Tower has embellished San Francisco’s iconic skyline since its construction in 1933. In addition to the gorgeous views, it contains 26 beautiful murals, which are painted inside the base. Local artists painted the frescoes, which depict the Great Depression, in 1934. Visitors may view the artworks for free and join guided tours limited to 6 people. If you want to go to the top of the tower, it costs $7.
15. Mark your calendar for free admission days at SF museums and gardens
This list shows museums and gardens currently offering free admission days, plus other free admission tricks using your SF Public Library card and more. It’s a good idea to take a look at upcoming days at the beginning of each month. Here’s a summary:
- SFMOMA: Free admission to Bay Area residents on the first Thursday of every month from 1-8pm. Diego Rivera mural on first floor is free for public viewing any time.
- de Young Museum and Legion of Honor: Free admission for the general public on the first Tuesday of every month. Free admission for Bay Area residents every Saturday.
- Asian Art Museum: Free admission for the general public on the first Sunday of every month.
- GLBT Historical Museum: Free admission for the general public on the first Wednesday of every month.
- Museum of Craft and Design: “Pay what you can Wednesdays” every Wednesday.
- Contemporary Jewish Museum: Free general admission on the first Friday of every month.
- Museum of the African Diaspora: Free general admission on the second Saturday of every month.
- SF Botanical Garden: Free admission for all SF City & County residents with proof of residency. Free admission for the general public every day from 7:30-9am. Free admission for the general public on the second Tuesday of every month.
- Conservatory of Flowers: Free admission for all SF City & County residents with proof of residency. Free admission for the general public on the first Tuesday of every month.
- Japanese Tea Garden: Free admission for all SF City & County residents with proof of residency. Free admission for the general public on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays if entered before 10:00am.
16. San Francisco’s new Institute of Contemporary Art
The highly-anticipated Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (ICA SF) will open on October 1 in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. It’s an innovative new gallery space that will be completely free to all, working to uplift artists and individuals while promoting equity and representation.
17. Marine Mammal Hospital in Sausalito
The world’s largest marine mammal hospital is in nearby Sausalito. The free, 2,700-square-foot visitor center has been completely remodeled and now features interactive touch screens, a new art exhibit, and more.
18. Free telescope viewings at Chabot Space & Science Center
Make sure to put Oakland’s Chabot Space & Science Center on your radar, as they’ve just brought back their free telescope viewings! Every weekend, visitors may explore the stars through Chabot’s historic telescopes, free of charge. Weather permitting, the viewings happen from 7:30-10:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays. See more free local observatories here.
19. Seek out some lesser-known public art
San Francisco is a cornucopia of iconic public art pieces, from glowing light art installations to the beautiful murals of Balmy Alley. But have you seen these lesser-known works around the city? Take a look at our list of hidden gems including sculptures, statues, paintings, murals, staircases, and more.
- Yoda Fountain
- Wave Organ
- Chamber of Secrets door
- Painted staircases
- And more!
20. Self guided light art tour
San Francisco is absolutely stunning day and night, but some truly incredible art lights up as soon as the sun goes down. SF Travel put together a great map marking 11 of the best light art installations in the city, reaching from the Bay Bridge to the Castro. It will take a few hours to get through the whole thing on foot, but it’s not a bad bike or car ride if you want to hit all 11 stops in one night.
21. Wave organ in the Marina
In the Marina district of SF, you’ll find a unique outdoor installation that’s more than just a cool-looking art installation. The Wave Organ, created by artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez in 1986, is an acoustic sculpture activated by the waves of the San Francisco Bay. Its haunting music comes from 25 different organ pipes placed at different levels around the sculpture, changing with the rise and fall of the tides.
22. Three Gems at the de Young Museum
Three Gems by artist James Turrell is a free artwork, hidden in a corner of the de Young Museum’s Sculpture Garden. It’s arguably one of the most photogenic and best-hidden locations in SF. Three Gems feels like a blend of secret garden, labyrinth, and futuristic meditation chamber. It’s a surreal journey to the center of the installation, where you’ll find a room that invites you to simply gaze at the sky above.
23. Little Free Libraries around San Francisco
Have you seen these adorable tiny libraries around the city? Global nonprofit Little Free Library (LFL) is a worldwide phenomenon, and we’re lucky enough to have 50 of the tiny libraries here in San Francisco. The libraries stock everything from children’s books to adult nonfiction, and many are operated by local schools, businesses, or private homes. They generally hold between 20-100 books and operate on a “take a book, share a book” system.
Outdoor activities and exploring
24. Enjoy a charming picnic at these spots recommended by locals
San Francisco is home to some of the best parks and gardens in the world, so there’s no shortage of awesome picnic spots for you to enjoy a socially distanced meal with friends. Whether you want to support a local cafe and get some amazing food to go, or you prefer to pack your own delicious recipe to enjoy out in the sunshine, you’ll love all of these great options. Some are SF staples, and some are a little less well-known.
- Old Speedway Meadow
- Pine Lake Park
- Shakespeare Garden
- And more!
25. Explore a fascinating local tide pool
If you’re a California native lucky enough to live on the coast, then you know that tide pooling is an awesome way to enjoy the beach! We’ve put together a list of great tide pools to visit around the Bay Area, so put on your best waterproof shoes and get ready to explore. Tidepooling is a fun activity for kids and adults alike, but remember: you’re a guest in these critters’ habitat, so try not to disturb whatever you find and always watch your step! Be sure to visit at low tide, and watch out for sneaker waves.
- Duxbury Reef Reserve
- Bean Hollow State Beach
- Natural Bridges
- And more!
26. Take your bike for a spin on these gorgeous cycling routes
When thinking about bikeable cities, San Francisco isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind… but it turns out that there are some very beautiful spots to take your bike for a spin, and the City has some stellar infrastructure for cyclists! Especially if you’re a first-time cyclist in the City, consider planning your next outing on these beautiful routes.
- The Wiggle
- Angel Island
- Fort Funston
- And more!
27. Catch a Bay Area sunset at these essential places
There’s truly no shortage of excellent places to see a sunset in the Bay, but we wanted to get to the bottom of where locals love to watch the sky light up. We asked our Instagram followers, and they didn’t disappoint!
- Mori Point
- Lands End
- Baker Beach
- And more!
28. Spot some local wildlife
Northern elephant seals inhabit the waters from Baja California, Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. They generally breed from December to March at Point Reyes, Año Nuevo, the Channel Islands and Piedras Blancas.
California’s coastline is the perfect spot to catch several whale migration seasons – gray whales from January through April, orcas between February and May, and humpbacks between April and December. Even from land, you’re likely to see them spouting, slapping their tails (known as “lobtailing”) or even breaching. If you want to see them up close, a whale watching tour will do the trick.
30 years ago, you never would’ve seen so many harbor porpoises in the Bay. But now, you can spot up to 30 an hour from the Golden Gate Bridge.
29. Learn about these famous historical spots in the city
If you’re a history lover living in the Bay Area, you’ll know that it’s full of amazing stories that have fallen through the cracks over time. Although many historic sites have been built over or otherwise erased from the city’s landscape, some of these gems are still around, and you can visit them today! All of these spots are outdoors and free to visit.
- Lotta’s Fountain
- Portals of the Past
- Battery Chamberlain
- And more!
30. Natural wonders in the Bay Area and beyond
California is home to some of the most incredible nature spots in the world, from towering mountain ranges, to pristine beaches, to ancient redwood trees. Northern California in particular is beloved for its dramatic rocky beaches and mountainous terrain, making for some magnificent natural spectacles! Some nearby natural wonders include the Point Reyes cypress tree tunnel and the Black Sands Beach in Sausalito.
31. Oakland’s charming bonsai garden on Lake Merritt
Oakland’s Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt is an absolute must. Not only is it the only major all-volunteer-run bonsai garden in the country, but it’s also completely free to visit. The garden’s collection comprises nearly 200 meticulously-maintained bonsai, of which about half are on display to the public at any given time. The oldest bonsai in the garden is a California juniper from the Mojave Desert, estimated to be up to 1,600 years old.
32. Explore these unique buildings in and around San Francisco
Take a drive around the Bay Area and you’ll surely pass by some breathtaking buildings, whether they’re mainstays of the San Francisco skyline or hidden gems that you can’t quite find your way back to. We’ve rounded up some of the most iconic and interesting buildings in San Francisco and beyond, including both well-known skyscrapers and discreet homes that are off the beaten path.
33. Visit some famous Colma graves
Bay Area history is replete with famous figures whose contributions have echoed throughout the decades. A great deal of those individuals came to rest in local cemeteries, including William Randolph Hearst, Emperor Norton, Joe DiMaggio, and more. You can still go pay your respects to this day.
34. Take a ride down these neighborhood slides
- Seward Street Slides: For decades, thrill-seeking adults and children alike have enjoyed these legendary slides hidden near the Castro. The Seward Street Slides were designed by a 14-year old girl named Kim Clark, who grew up nearby.
- Esmeralda Slide Park: In the late 1970s, Esmeralda Slide Park was officially unveiled in Bernal Heights with two 40-foot metal slides. It’s a hidden neighborhood gem, complete with a sweet garden and great views, created by neighborhood volunteers.
35. Discover a new SF Public Library branch
If you’re not an SF Public Library cardholder, you’re missing out on a world of free activities including film screenings, job resources, book readings, and much more. In this list, we’ve rounded up our favorite local branches.
Featured image: Chabot Space and Science Center Tales of the Maya Skies gala – Oakland, CA, USA. Courtesy of Chabot Space & Science Center