Ever since Levi Strauss opened for business here during the gold rush, San Francisco—with its cable cars, coffeehouses, and counterculture—has been on the cutting edge of cool. From bustling Chinatown to bohemian Haight-Ashbury, the City by the Bay has long been known for its openness and tolerance. It's also a city of freebies. Here's a list of free attractions to help you experience the city without breaking the bank.
San Francisco City Guides offers a number of free, guided walks year-round. These neighborhood tours have fun and informative themes such as Art Deco Marina and Castro: Tales of the Village. History buffs can learn about the city's rich past, including events like the gold rush and the 1906 earthquake. Donations are welcome.
Stroll across the iconic 1.7-mile Golden Gate Bridge, open to pedestrians during daylight hours and to cyclists 24 hours a day. A visitors center and gift shop known as the Roundhouse is located on the southeast end of the bridge.
Travel to the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood to visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Historic ships are docked at Hyde Street Pier, set against views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Free year-round, the visitors center has photos that tell the story of the city’s maritime heritage, as well as an exhibit on the waterfront. Also free at the wharf: views of San Francisco's famous sea lions at Pier 39.
A visit to Ghirardelli's former factory and flagship store is not without its rewards. Shoppers can see the company's original chocolate-making equipment on display—and yes, also receive a free square of chocolate. The surrounding Ghirardelli Square is on the National Register of Historic Places. Just a few blocks from Ghirardelli Square, take a drive down the famously crooked Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets. With eight turns in just one block, this free photo op is definitely worth a detour.
Admission is always free at the Cable Car Museum, where visitors can see antique cable cars, as well as a host of photographs, tools, and models. Also stop by the free San Francisco Railway Museum, dedicated to the city's transit history, where your donations support the vintage streetcars.
Pay a visit to the oldest known Chinese Buddha—a gilded bronze image dated 338—at the Asian Art Museum. Marvel at the impressive collection of Asian art, including ceramics, textiles, and paintings, that traces more than 6,000 years of history. Admission is free the first Sunday of every month, though there may be fees for special exhibitions. The museum stays open late on Thursdays, when it offers $5 admission after 5 p.m. Library patrons in the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz may reserve a free day pass for two adults through participating libraries. Children under the age of 12 always get in free.
Take in some music on a lazy Sunday. The Golden Gate Park Band has been playing free public concerts in the park for more than 130 years. The lively programs feature marches, Broadway tunes, swing, and ethnic music. Performances are on Sundays at 1 p.m. in the park's Spreckels Temple of Music from April through October.
The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park uses natural materials (copper, stone, wood, and glass) to blend into the surrounding greenery. The museum was founded in 1895 with art featured in the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition organized by M.N. de Young. Today, its collection of 27,000-plus pieces is known for its American art. You can also contemplate nature alongside Rodin's "Thinker" at another local museum, the Legion of Honor. Modeled after an 18th-century Parisian palace, the Legion houses ancient and European art. The permanent collections at both museums are free the first Tuesday of each month.
Each summer, from mid-June through mid-August, the Stern Grove Festival offers an array of free outdoor concerts on Sundays at 2 p.m. The roster in past years has included performances by Huey Lewis and the News, Los Amigos Invisibles, and the San Francisco Opera.
The Oakland Museum of California features a permanent gallery of California art and artifacts and a Natural Sciences Gallery that allows visitors to stroll through seven different habitats, including Oakland itself, Yosemite, and the arid Coachella Valley. Admission is free the first Sunday of each month. Each Friday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., admission is half off, and the museum features special programming and is served by food trucks.
Learn the history and art of making books by hand at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Here, book buffs and artists alike take classes to learn printing, binding, and related arts. Admission to the gallery is free Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and the center offers free gallery talks, open houses, and book release parties. Bookworms should also visit the free gallery at the Grabhorn Institute at the Presidio, where rare books, typefaces, and printing facilities are on display. Tours ($10) are available on Thursdays at 3:30 p.m.
Check out the Museo Italo Americano, dedicated to Italian-American culture. A small gallery of paintings, sculptures, and photographs complements rotating exhibits such as the works of San Francisco graphic designer Primo Angeli. Admission is free Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
Indulge in Romeo and Juliet courtesy of Free Shakespeare in the Park, an annual offering of professional-level theater. Performances take place in parks citywide on Saturdays and Sundays from late June to late September. Check online for play times.
Join San Francisco's hepcats and jitterbugs for Lindy in the Park, a free swing-dancing party every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Golden Gate Park. A free beginner swing dance lesson begins at noon. Don't worry if you've got two left feet—there's ample fun to be had listening to guest DJs and watching the dancers.
Located within walking distance of many of the Financial District's hotels, Palio d'Asti is famous for its happy hour. Buy two drinks between 4 and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and get a pizza for $1.
Housed in an old Navy brig on Treasure Island, Fat Grape Winery offers free tastings of its small-volume, sulfite-free red wines from Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Mocha Museum of Children's Arts offers access to its studio for artists age 18 months and older and their families for $7 per person (Friday and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.), but exhibitions are free. The museum also hosts free art workshops at eight Oakland Public Library branches. Check the website for details.
Take in a 180-degree view of the night sky at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, which offers free viewings through state-of-the-art telescopes on its observatory deck on Friday and Saturday evenings from 7:30 to 10:30. During the summer months, telescopes open at nightfall. Weather permitting.
Meet local creatures at the San Francisco Zoo, which offers a free day to San Francisco residents once a month (check the calendar for more details), and the California Academy of the Sciences' Steinhart Aquarium, where San Francisco residents get in free on two designated weekends a year. The aquarium also offers free admission to the general public one Sunday a quarter. Check the website for the schedule, and arrive early.
Explore the art, science, and environment of the Bay Area at the Randall Museum. Here, you'll find live animals (from honeybees to brown pelicans), a healthy oceans exhibit, a scale model of a caboose, a ceramics studio, and more. Admission is free Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Investigate a shipwreck at the Bay Area Discovery Museum's Lookout Cove. This children's museum features a number of hands-on exhibits for kids of all ages, including an art studio. Admission is free the first Wednesday of the month from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The nonprofit Cal Sailing Club hosts open houses once a month from 1 to 4 p.m., during which they offer free sailboat rides. Check the calendar for details.
Inundate your senses with the more than 8,000 plant varieties located within the 55 acres of greenery at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Admission is free to San Francisco residents, and to the general public every day from 7:30 to 9 a.m., and the second Tuesday of every month. Complimentary garden tours are offered daily at 1:30 p.m.
The San Francisco Lawn Bowling Club has been around since 1901, when it was founded by a Scottish fraternal organization. Free lessons are available every Wednesday at noon in Golden Gate Park, near Sharon Meadow.
Yerba Buena Gardens is free to the public from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. With a butterfly garden, waterfall, public art displays, and a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there's plenty to keep the whole family occupied. For those willing to shell out a few dollars, there's also an ice-skating rink and bowling lanes.