Growing up, San Francisco meant something very different to me. It was a place to go have fun, get wild, go on crazy adventures. I’m now finally seeing it in a new light. I’m trying to discover what it is that people love so much! By researching 10 FREE things to do in the city, I’ve discovered there’s so much more. One thing for sure, it’s not ideally a walking city. Parking can be hard to find and those parking lot fees charge an insane amount. When on the hunt for the free I stayed away from buses or Muni due to the fact I don’t know how to use them/I’m too scared too. Weird since I’m always more than willing to hop on a bus when I’m in a foreign city.
In collaboration with Ressa from Ressamazing, we decided to list down 10 free things to do in our local cities. She’s been so incredibly supportive and one of my favorite travel + style bloggers I’ve met all year. Check out her guide on 10 Free Things To Do In Houston and follow her on Instagram @ressamazing.
1. Ferry Building & Piers
Embarcadero at foot of Market St.
San Francisco, California, 94111
Once exiting Embarcadero BART station, just walk towards the Piers. You’ll pass some stalls selling artwork and clothing or…when I walked by there was a table selling steam punk gas masks – so cool. On select days there is a bustling Farmer’s Market (check website for times). Then, without a doubt you’ll come face to face with the clock tower of the ferry building. Inside is a marketplace filled with goodies. You can learn about the building inside and walk right through to see a view of the less talked about Bay Bridge. It’s unbelievable how many days and nights I’ve walked right past this building. I was so surprised by the stores and food stalls I found inside. It’s way bigger inside than I imagined. Why had I never thought to drop by before? Anyway, walking around and reading its history are about as free as it gets here. The stores sell their goods at a premium price.
Also free, while walking down along the piers you’ll come across the Exploratorium (Pier 15). A fun museum for kids. And while that isn’t free, you can find interactive, educational activities surrounding it. Walking right next to the building down the pier is a view of the Bay Bridge. Also a chance to freely walk across a pedestrian bridge blowing fog into your face.
2. Pier 39
Beach St. at Embarcadero
San Francisco, California, 94133
About the only FREE thing about Pier 39 is the watching the sea lions. And taking in the various views of the city. You can get to know more about these animals at the Sea Lion Center (free as well) on the 2nd level from the viewing area. If at all possible – I would avoid visiting Pier 39 on the weekends. It’s easier to enjoy the atmosphere without being elbow to elbow with other tourists. My favorite and earliest memories are walking around Pier 39 as the sun was already setting and the lights turning on. The carousel looked so magical at that age.
3. Musée Mécanique
San Francisco, CA 94133
From Pier 39 is an easy walk to Fisherman’s Wharf which gets pretty popular any day of the week. Coming from Pier 39, turn right at the Fisherman’s Wharf sign and follow down that road. You’ll arrive at Pier 45 where you can enter Musée Mécanique. Admission is free, playing the antique games are not. I have never been and was surprised to find the warehouse was bigger than I thought. There are over 200 creepy games here. Think gypsy fortune telling machines but in every sketchy character- oh and clowns too. On a Tuesday there were lots of visitors so I can imagine what it’s like on a Saturday.
4. Cable Car Museum
1201 Mason St
San Francisco, CA 94108
You can take a ride on the cable car for $7.00, something I have never done. Or you can visit the free, quaint, warm museum and learn about its history. Or just watch the cables at work (which some were doing). There’s a nice little gift shop and a not-so-nice bathroom.
5. Golden Gate Bridge
You have the option to walk the bridge for free or drive across. And unless you have a Bay Area FastTrak, it’s going to cost to drive. Planning to pay the small fee and drive anyway? Read here for more info. For the view, which you can see at so many different points the higher you drive, exit on Alexander Ave. and keep left (this is after driving across the bridge). Some spots are more crowded than others. No worries, keep driving and you’ll find something. There’s also a somewhat hidden swing by the bridge which takes some walking to get to. You can get directions by searching up Kirby Cove. Just take a look at these pictures! I captured the area when I sailed by but have not been able to go and get my cool picture taken there yet :(.
6. Grace Cathedral
1100 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108
The church is beautiful! And you’ll want to go inside and walk the labyrinth. I’ve been inside before and walked it with my mom when I was younger.
7. Sutro Baths
680 Point Lobos Ave
San Francisco, CA 94121
The Sutro Baths were once an indoor swimming pool, the largest one ever at one point. That is before it got destroyed. Now you can walk around, learn about its history, even enter a dark cave with a great view at the other end. Besides exploring around the remains of the “baths”, you can take a hike to Land’s End and walk an outdoor labyrinth with a view – something I plan to do on a sunnier day!
8. Coit Tower
San Francisco, California, 94133
There is a hidden staircase between houses on a certain street I’m unsure of since I randomly stumbled upon it years ago. The views were incredible but the workout on those steep steps weren’t. Forget the workout though (unless you’re into those things), even without the steep hike up you can take public transportation/drive and get the views all the same. It’s free to step inside and take a look at the murals. But it will cost to ride on up to the top. Don’t bother with it and enjoy the free views from around the building anyway.
9. Mission Murals
A walk or drive down the Mission and you’ll quickly be taken away with all the colorful murals left and right. You’ll find these down sketchy alleyways, or the entire wall of a building. (Pictures coming soon)
10. Palace of the Fine Arts
3301 Lyon St
San Francisco, CA 94123
This is that one place I’ve always seen photographed. I drive past it anytime I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. But I never stop by. It was so beautiful! My favorite free thing I found in the city. It fulfilled my “Swan Princess” dreams (remember that movie?) and the lake even had its own swan to fit the picture. The architecture is seriously undeniably beautiful. Roaming around and taking pictures of the architecture is free, but you can always buy a ticket to one of the theater shows.
From my search for free things to do in San Francisco came a whole bunch of suggestions, (def. exceeding the 10 above) and coming from one of my sisters who lived in the city for years. So I’m thinking, Part 2 of free SF things? This really encouraged me to get out there and stop taking advantage of this beautiful city which is only a Bart ride away. After living here for 16 years I can’t believe my lack of interest in these landmarks. I admit I take advantage of what so many travel miles to see. Yes, I say I’m from San Francisco which is the general Northern Cali area. Most of us from the Bay do. What we really mean is…30 minutes from San Francisco. At least in my case. The times I have traveled to the city are rarely for touristy explorations.
Another free activity that didn’t make the list but, you, as a traveler, should take advantage of, is the free walking tours around San Francisco. These free tours are led by local volunteers. Read more info here.
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What other free things can you find in San Francisco? I would love any recommendations to add to a second guide coming soon! Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! Or simply “Like” the post .