The City by the Bay may be known for steep hills and even steeper prices, but for those on a budget, there are tons of free and cheap things to do in San Francisco. Full of quirky neighborhoods and hidden gems, this guide will show you how to make the most out of your time here without breaking the bank.
If you’re visiting San Francisco while counting your pennies, and are looking at places to visit without a passport, you might want to skip the spendy, popular tourist destinations like Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Alcatraz, the Exploratorium, and the many high-end restaurants. There are so many free and cheap things to do in San Francisco that you won’t miss them. From enjoying nature to discovering the many unique neighborhoods, there’s something for everyone.
Visit Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is one of the largest urban parks in the world and one of San Francisco’s most iconic attractions. And the best thing is that it’s absolutely free to visit. Spanning over 1,000 acres, the park offers recreational activities, public art installations, and natural wonders. These are some of my favorite free things to do in Golden Gate Park.
The Japanese Tea Garden
The beautiful Japanese Tea Garden is a serene oasis in the heart of the city. Visitors can stroll through the garden’s winding paths, admire the koi ponds, and take in the lush greenery and traditional Japanese architecture. You’ll find several historic structures, including a traditional tea house, pagoda, and a Zen garden plus beautiful sculptures like a large bronze Buddha. It’s free to enter on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 to 10 am. At other times, the admission for non-residents ranges from $3 to $13 (free for SF residents). Stop into the Tea House and for a few dollars you can enjoy a matcha tea and sweet or savory Japanese snack.
This popular spot located just inside the park from the end of Haight Street was known as a hub for the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ground zero for the Summer of Love. That spirit persists and on any given day, you’ll find a diverse group of folks here people watching, picnicking, playing frisbee, participating in drum circles, watching impromptu performances, or just relaxing and enjoying the beautiful views. You may want to visit during the annual 4/20 event, when thousands of people gather to celebrate cannabis culture.
Sunday Roller Disco Party
With its miles of paved paths, car-free roads, a free outdoor roller rink (called “Skatin’ Place” at 6th Avenue and Kennedy Drive), Golden Gate Park is a destination for skaters. On Sunday afternoons, weather permitting, you can rent a pair of skates and join the Sunday Roller Disco Party when the rink turns into a disco inferno with a live DJ spinning all the groovy hits from the 70s.
Don’t worry if you’re a skating newbie—all skill levels are welcome and most Sundays, there will even be people there teaching a few choreographed roller disco dance moves. It’s a great way to get outside and shake your booty!
The Conservatory of Flowers
The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers is a botanical wonderland housed in a Victorian greenhouse. Inside you’ll find some of the rarest and most exotic plants in a range of habitats including a tropical rainforest and a high-altitude mountain habitat. The carnivorous plant room is sure to make your jaw drop. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of every month. The rest of the time, admission ranges from $3 to $13 (admission is always free for veterans and San Francisco residents).
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
San Francisco is a relatively small city known for its distinctive neighborhoods. Even with its hilliness, it’s a great city to explore on foot. Hop on a Muni train, bus, street car, or cable car (buy a Clipper Card when you arrive—they work on all forms of public transit) to get from one neighborhood to another in a jiffy. Here are a few of my favorite San Francisco walking adventures.
The Mission District is known for its colorful street art and vibrant Latino culture. Mosey down Valencia Street and explore the many murals and street art that adorn the buildings, stop into one of the many art galleries or boutiques. Traveling with kids? Let them get some energy out running around the feature-packed playground at Delores Park while you sip on a latte and enjoy stunning views of the San Francisco skyline.
If you’re hungry, grab a famous Mission burrito at one of the many taquerias in the neighborhood (my favorites are Taqueria Cancun on Mission Street and Pancho Villa on 16th near Valencia). Be sure to bring a big appetite!
San Francisco Japantown is a great destination for those looking to experience a piece of Japanese American culture. Several temples and shrines, like the Nichiren Buddhist Church, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Church, and the Peace Pagoda, are free and open to visitors. You can shop for authentic Japanese ceramics, fabrics, and other items along Post Street or in the Japantown Mall. Kinokuniya Books is a great spot to check out Japanese literature, comics, and other items. If you get hungry, grab some takoyaki, mochi donuts, or a steaming bowl of ramen.
San Francisco Chinatown has some real gems hidden behind the red lanterns and dragon statues. Take a self-guided walking tour. You’ll discover the colorful architecture, historic landmarks, and bustling streets. And if you’re lucky, you might even stumble upon a secret speakeasy or two.
Pass through the ornate Grant Street Gate and stroll up Grant Avenue. There you can buy everything from traditional Chinese medicinal herbs to knock-off designer handbags. Stop into Ten Ren Tea Company for loose teas. Poke your head into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to see how they make this San Francisco original. Visit the Chinese Culture Center and the Chinese Historical Society for free exhibits and events. Feeling peckish? Chinatown has plenty of affordable restaurants, bakeries, and street vendors. You’ll find everything from savory plump BBQ pork bao to Peking duck and Chinese desserts.
No visit to San Francisco is complete without spending a bit of time in the iconic North Beach neighborhood—San Francisco’s version of Little Italy with a side of Beatnik history. Walk down historic Columbus Avenue and admire the beautiful Italianate architecture. Grab a slice at Golden Boy
For some free entertainment, check out some beatnik poetry at City Lights Books, another San Francisco institution. Writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac once hung out here. Next pop across the alley to Vesuvio Café (which is really just a bar with a throw-back vibe) to toss one back alongside these ghosts of the Beat Generation.
On Telegraph Hill, you’ll find stunning gardens tucked away in nooks and crannies. Look for the famous wild parrots that inhabit the neighborhood as you hike to the famous Coit Tower. Inside the tower, you’ll see unique murals painted in 1933 as part of the Public Works of Art Project. The murals are considered a National Treasure and offer a fascinating glimpse into the history and culture of San Francisco.
Climbing the stairs to the tower’s observation deck is free, but you’ll pay between $3 and $10 to ride the elevator. Next, head down the historic Filbert Street Steps to the waterfront, stopping along the way to snap some Instagram-worthy shots.
Commune With Nature
The Bay Area is home to some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore them in San Francisco.
The Land’s End Trail is a stunning coastal hike that offers breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Ocean, and the Marin Headlands. Explore the ruins of an 1884 public bathhouse, Sutro Baths. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some sea lions and seals sunbathing on the rocks.
The Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge
For a former military base, the Presidio is surprisingly picturesque. It’s now a national park that offers a variety of trails, including the famous Batteries to Bluffs Trail, which takes you through a forest and past old military batteries to fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Angel Island. Plan to grab lunch here because some of the city’s best food trucks are on location every day. And then work off those calories with the requisite walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. And remember to dress warmly because no matter the season, it’s chilly out there!
No one goes to San Francisco to sunbathe, but the city actually has some fantastic beaches. They’re great for flying a kite, having a bonfire, people-watching, running the dog, and even, if you don’t mind a little cold water, swimming. You’ll hit Ocean Beach, a 3 ½-mile swath at the West end of the city, if you go all the way to the end of Golden Gate Park. Baker Beach, on the city’s Northwest corner, has a whole different vibe, with cypress trees, sand dunes, and close-up views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Final Word
San Francisco is an expensive city, but with there are plenty of things to do and see that cost little or nothing. Whether you’re looking to explore the quaint neighborhoods, take in some culture, or revel in the great outdoors, you can do it in San Francisco and still stick to your budget.
Robin Donovan is a bestselling cookbook author, recipe developer, food photographer, and the creative force behind the food blog allwaysdelicious.com, where she shares easy recipes for the best dishes from around the world. Download her 5 Favorite Chinese Takeout Recipes ebook today to try at home.