Back in the ’60s, the Diggers—the group that essentially founded the hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury—pioneered an entire economy built on barter. One of their most inspired innovations was the Free Store in which all items were there for the taking. Times have changed, but even in the home of $4 toast and $7 coffee you can still have a great time without reaching for your wallet. Simply strolling the streets is one of the best things to do in San Francisco—and it's free. Even the most jaded locals find themselves gasping on hilltops—and not just because of the climb. In the Mission, exterior walls provide a gritty outdoor canvas for intricate murals by world-renowned artists. Urban street art gives way to urbane galleries in Potrero Hill, where a cluster of galleries makes it a convenient area for a contemporary-art crawl. Or take a hike: Within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) more than 115 miles of trails skirt its dramatic coastlines. Below are our top choices for the best free attractions, events and museums in the city.
Free things to do in San Francisco
The world's most photographed bridge, the Golden Gate is one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the World, and its 746-foot red-orange towers never fail to thrill—even when they're peeking out through a shroud of white fog. From the east side walkway, you can take in the soaring 4,200-foot spanner, the city skyline, Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon. East sidewalk hours are 5am–6:30pm (5am–9pm during Daylight Saving Time). Those on two wheels can access the bridge 24 hours a day through a security gate from both the west and east sidewalks. Hours vary for east/west sides; check goldengatebridge.org/bikesbridge/bikes.php for schedule. Whichever route you choose, be sure to wear layers: Even if it's sunny in your neck of the woods, the bridge can be sub-arctic.
Formerly an army airstrip, Crissy Field is now a restored salt marsh and recreation area, with a 4.3 mile waterfront promenade that wanders through grassy fields, past sheltered beaches, windsurfers and picnic areas. Start at the informative Crissy Field Center for some background history, then follow the bayfront path past the Farallones Marine Sanctuary center to Torpedo Wharf for an Instagram-worthy photo of the bridge. The trail ends at Fort Point—a fortification built during the Civil War to defend against a battle that never happened and the location of a pivotal scene In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
San Francisco’s collective backyard, Golden Gate Park stretches for three miles between Haight-Ashbury and the Pacific Ocean and encompasses 1,017 acres of gardens, walking paths, lakes, recreation fields, museums, a Japanese tea garden and even a pasture home to a herd of bison. At the western edge of the park where it meets the Pacific, the restored windmill, a gift of the Dutch regent in 1902, stands among the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Gardens. From April through October, you can catch a free afternoon concert of the Golden Gate Park Band, which has held seasonal performances in the band shell between the de Young Fine Arts Museum and the California Academy of Sciences since 1882. On Sundays, John F. Kennedy Drive, the main road, is closed to cars, and strollers, bicyclists and rollerskaters take over the streets.
Discover the past in Chinatown
While eating and shopping are undoubtedly part of the experience, consumption isn’t the only reason to visit Chinatown. Crowded, chaotic and compact, it contains some easily missed historic sites. Walk up the narrow stairs to the Tien Hau Temple (125 Waverly Pl) above Grant Avenue, on the alley known as the Street of Painted Balconies. Purportedly the oldest Taoist temple in the U.S. (circa 1852), it’s festooned with gold paper lanterns, calligraphy, incense, hundreds of candles, and miniature shrines featuring photos of loved ones. Portsmouth Square, on the corner of Clay and Kearny Streets a half-block east of Grant Avenue, can lay claim to being the true birthplace of San Francisco, if not California. It was here that Captain John B. Montgomery (for whom nearby Montgomery Street is named) first hoisted the U.S. flag. Montgomery captured the city—then known as Yerba Buena—from Mexico on July 9th, 1846 and the plaza is now named in honor of his ship, the USS Portsmouth. Just two years later, newspaper boss Sam Brannan stood on this spot and announced that gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill, sparking the Gold Rush. Among the monuments in the square is one dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, shaped like the galleon Hispaniola from his novel Treasure Island. Stevenson used to relax in the square when he lived nearby at 608 Bush Street in 1879. The pagoda-like structure nearby at 743 Washington Street was built in 1909 for the Chinese American Telephone Exchange, where multiligual phone operators routed calls to the neighborhood’s residents for four decades.
Thanks to generous bequests from arts aficionados, there are several free seasonal festivals, including fall’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park and Sunset’s Stern Grove Festival, which stages everything from ballet to hip-hop to opera on Sundays from mid-June through mid-August in the bucolic setting of a eucalyptus grove. For a great lunchtime culture break downtown, check the schedule of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, where you can catch classical, world and jazz concerts and other performances from spring through fall, or Union Square, where free music, dance, fashion and art exhibitions take place year round. Litquake presents readings, performances, panel discussions, get-togethers, happy hours and author meet-and-greets throughout the year in addition to one of the nation’s largest literary festivals in October.
Skip museum admission fees
While the majority of San Francisco museums charge admission, many including standouts like the de Young, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Asian Art Museum, offer free access on certain days—usually the first Sunday or Tuesday of the month. But there are a few institutions that are always free, including the Cable Car Museum, a collection of memorabilia and technical ephemera related to the San Francisco icon, and the inimitable Musée Méchanique which houses more than 200 coin-operated and antique arcade machines that have been part of a family-owned collection since 1933.