San Francisco may have a reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in the US, but it’s absolutely worth the trip! From iconic California sights to ocean views and tons of amazing food, San Francisco is a bucket-list destination for sure. Even better, you can definitely explore SF on a budget. You just have to know where to go! Thankfully, we’ve got a few ideas for you.
Keep reading for 11 of our favorite free things to do in San Francisco.
1. Visit the Golden Gate Bridge.
Did you even go to San Francisco if you haven’t seen the Golden Gate? Drive, walk or bike across the bridge for a quintessential San Fran experience. You can also just hang out in one of the many viewing areas and snap some instaworthy pics. There are protected sidewalks for pedestrians if you decide to walk or bike across (or if you just want to venture out for better snaps). The bridge is about 1.5 miles across, so be prepared!
2. Walk down Fisherman’s Wharf (and see the sea lions!)
This historic waterfront district is home to iconic cable cars, postcard-perfect views of the bay, fresh clam chowder and sourdough bread, the famous Ghirardelli Square and more. While buying food and souvenirs isn’t free, walking along the Wharf and taking in all the sights and sounds is. Don’t forget to stop and look out over the piers to see huge groups of sea lions sunbathing!
3. Hike Coit Tower.
Ready for some incredible views of the city? Hike up to the Coit Tower (start at the Filbert Steps) and you’ll be rewarded with some stunning views—on a clear day, at least. Head’s up: there’s over 400+ stairs on your way up to the tower. (Those San Fran hills are no joke!) Once you’re there, you can go up to the top of the tower for 360-degree panoramic views of the city, but it’ll cost you about $9.
4. Drive down Lombard Street.
This ultra-curvy street is an iconic spot in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the traffic leading up the street—typically created by other tourists wanting to drive down the famous street—can create quite the wait. However, if you have time to spare, this is an iconic SF activity that you should definitely try to do at least once.
5. Hit the beach.
Easy free thing to do in San Francisco? The beach! While beaches in NorCal may be a bit chillier (and windier) than you might expect, they’re definitely worth visiting. What they may lack in terms of ideal tanning locale, they’ll easily make up for in stunning views! Ocean Beach and Marshall’s Beach are two of our favorites. Pack a picnic and head there in the evening for the best sunset-watching spots.
6. Explore Golden Gate Park.
This 1,000+ acre park in the middle of the SF is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s filled with museums, parks, gardens, waterfalls, trails and more. Head there for the afternoon for a beautiful way to explore nature without even leaving SF. Strawberry Hill and the parks across from the Botanical Gardens and Conservatory of Flowers are popular spots for walking and picnicking. Many of the museums and gardens within Golden Gate Park have free days and student discounts. Be sure to plan ahead for those if you’re interested!
7. See some of San Fran’s public art.
It’s no surprise that San Francisco is an artsy and quirky city packed with public art displays. If you want to see some great ones (and maybe snap a few pics for the ‘gram), check out the mosaic tiled staircases at Lincoln Park Steps, 16th Avenue or the Hidden Garden Steps. The Language of the Birds, Cupid’s Span, Clarion Alley and the colorful hearts around the city (like this famous one in Union Square) are also fun ones. But you could also just wander through the city (or hop on a cable car) and discover some on your own!
8. Visit the Fortune Cookie factory.
Ever wondered how they get the fortunes inside the cookies? This tiny factory, located on Ross Alley in Chinatown, will give you an inside look at how fortune cookies are made. Some estimates say that the landmark bakery produces over 10,000 fortune cookies per day! It’s free to step inside and watch the cookie making process. Sometimes there’s free samples to be had as well. Of course, you can also purchase fresh fortune cookies here—and after smelling the cookies inside, you’ll definitely want to.
9. Visit the Japanese Tea Garden.
One of the most popular things to do in Golden Gate Park, this serene tea garden is the perfect place to walk around and snap some pics. The tea house inside the gardens is worth a visit too, if you don’t mind spending a bit on tea and fortune cookies. Just keep in mind that admission to the gardens is only free if you enter by 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays. Otherwise, it’s $9.
10. Get great views from Twin Peaks.
On a clear day, there’s plenty of places to get great views of the city, but this is one of the best. Plus, its one of our favorite free things to do in San Francisco. You can drive or hike to the top. (It’s a pretty easy hike, about 30 minutes – 1 hour.) Keep in mind that the parking lot at the top tends to fill up quickly. Luckily, the park doesn’t close at dusk, so it’s a great place to head up to if you want to see the city all lit up at night too.
11. Hike Land End’s Trail
Be prepared for stairs and stunning views on this 3.4 mile loop hike overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s easy enough to walk the trail in about an hour. It’s a must-do for visitors. You can find the start of the trail from the parking lot of the Sutro Baths. Wanna skip straight to the best views? Head to the Land’s End Labryinth or Land’s End Trail Eagle Point. If you’re looking for more hiking, head straight across the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands or the Muir Woods.
Ready for your epic trip to San Francisco? There’s tons of free things to do, but we can get you a cheap flight too! Check out our cheap flights to San Francisco. Then get ready for an epic trip!