Free things to do in San Francisco
Every Friday, the Internet Archive gives a free tour of its incredible building. The nonprofit organization digitizes and archives billions of web pages; millions of books, films, TV programs, photos, and videos; and thousands of video games and software programs. It’s all housed in a former Christian Science church in originally built in 1923.
Sure, you could splurge on a City Arts and Lectures ticket to see your favorite writers, or you can check the jam-packed events calendar at Green Apple Books, where heavy-hitters and Pulitzer Prize winners like Jennifer Egan, Lauren Groff, Sloane Crosley, and Dave Eggers make regular visits for free discussions, panels, and book signings.
Scrap the usual old dinner and a movie for a free flick under the stars—just don’t forget to layer up. Classic films play on Saturday nights from June to September in Dolores Park, Washington Square Park, and Union Square (check filmnightsf.org for the schedule). Proxy’s Fall Film Series starts in September, screening indie flicks like The Big Sick and Landline in the heart of Hayes Valley (proxysf.net).
The volunteer history buffs at San Francisco City Guides offer nearly 100 free walking tours throughout the city. Topics and locations include “Undercover Folsom” a PG-13 tour of the storied bathhouses, bars, and leather shops of Miracle Mile and “Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco,” a meander through the settings for Vertigo. More of a solo wanderer? Download the Detour app to take dozens of GPS-enabled audio walks around the city.
The Ferry Building’s Saturday morning farmers market is a sampler’s paradise—with an unparalleled view of the Bay Bridge. The stalls lining the dock out back are generous with tasters, meaning you can gorge on the Bay Area’s freshest fruit, cheese, bread, ice cream, hummus, nuts, and more without spending a dime.
Every summer since 1938, the city has thrown a free performing arts fest in the tree-lined Stern Grove with a different artist performing every Sunday. Lawn seating is free—most regulars bring a spread of food and wine—and picnic tables can be reserved in advance. To the north, the annual Hardly Strictly music festival fills Golden Gate Park with three days of bluegrass and indie bands every October.
Spend a day wandering the botanical garden, a lush, uncrowded green where San Francisco residents get in free. The fields and groves feature rare foliage native to South America, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand. (Don’t miss the sweet-smelling Garden of Fragrance or the redwood forest.)
Admission to the De Young Museum costs $15 and $28 for special exhibits. But admission to the Hamon observation tower is always free. Bypass the lines and take the elevator up to the 9th floor. There, the stunning, glass-encased space overlooks all of Golden Gate Park, downtown San Francisco, the Bay, and the Marin headlands. One wall is swathed in an enormous topographical map of the city, so you can pinpoint locations from multiple bird’s-eye perspectives.
Every third Wednesday of the month, the hopheads of the San Francisco Brewers Guild give beer lovers a lift between five different local bars. The route and breweries change every month—check drinksfbeer.com for the line-up—and the hop-on/hop-off shuttles stop every 10 minutes at each of the venues. The ride is free, the beer is on you.
A trip to the always-free Randall Museum would be worth it just for the panoramic city views from the top of Corona Heights Park. But now there’s much more to see. The science and nature museum just completed a $9 million renovation in 2018. The new and improved space features a high-tech STEM lab, science and ceramics studios, and fully redesigned exhibit spaces.