San Francisco is an extremely expensive city to live and to visit, with rent rivaling Manhattan and gas and food prices going thorough the roof. A vacation in the city can quickly become expensive, with hotel and food prices making a deep hole in your pocket. Thankfully, there are a lot of free or cheap things to do in San Francisco to turn your vacation into a fun filled affair without breaking the bank. As a local, here are some of my recommendations which you can share with folks visiting fog city for a memorable vacation on a tight budget. Before you get on to the list, here is another totally cool and free thing to do in San Francisco, which is stargazing! Read this guide to find the best stargazing spots in and around the city.
The bucket list of fun, free and cheap things to do in SF are as follows, in no particular order:
BUDGET TIP # 1: GOLDEN GATE PARK
Larger in area than NYC’s famed central park, this place is a serene patch of green packed with many attractions. For example, the beautiful Hagiwara tea garden is FREE to the public on Mon, Wed, Fri if for entrances before 10 AM. The California Academy of Sciences, another cool museum with scientific exhibits for all ages, is free for at least four Sundays every year. The de Young museum, one of the most beautiful art museums in the country with an equally alluring culture garden and cafe, is free to the public every first Tuesday (so is it’s sister museum Legion of Honor) of the month and so is the Conservatory of Flowers. The San Francisco Botanical Garden, also located here, is free everyday for early birds from 7:30-9 AM, on Second Tuesday of every month, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New year’s Day. Strawberry hill, with its beautiful waterfall and pagoda is a beautiful stop by Stowe lake in the park and is absolutely free of charge for visiting and hiking. Plus, it is dog friendly!
BUDGET TIP # 2: MUSEUMS
Although a mere 49 square miles, San Francisco packs in a punch via it’s many museums, big and small. The Asian art museum with fantastic galleries on asian artifacts and statues, is free for all on the first Sunday of every month. The contemporary Jewish museum, downtown is free on the first Tuesday of every month while the Exploratorium at Pier 15 filled with fun and interactive scientific and natural exhibits (a great place for kids and adults), is free to the public for five days a year. The Yerba Buena center for arts is also free on first Tuesdays of every month and is an excellent multidisciplinary art center to catch exhibits or live performances. Holders of Bank of America credit cards and debit cards get free admission to several SF museums for one weekend each month, these being Contemporary Jewish Museum, Legion of Honor and de Young Museum.
BUDGET TIP # 3 LOOKOUT POINTS
Why pay for drinks to get to the top of a restaurant for a bird’s eye view of our fantastic city when you have so many places offering panoramic views of the city, the golden gate bridge and Alcatraz? Some of my favorite spots, which require a bit of a hike, should be on your list, especially Tank Hill Park and Kite Hill Open Space Reserve. Our other favorites are Mt. Davidson Park (with gorgeous views of the city), Corona Heights and Bernal Heights Park/Bernal Hill (if you can climb all the way up the hill). Another gem in this crown is Grand view park with its famous mosaic steps. If you are not a big fan of hiking and just want a quick bird’s eye view of the city, I suggest going to Ina Coolbrith park, a charming little spot in Russian Hill, one of SF’s most beautiful neighborhoods. All parks mentioned here are dog friendly. You can read all about them in my Top 7 SF viewing spots here.
BUDGET TIP # 4: OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Be it Ocean beach at the further most west point, or Baker beach and Marshall’s beach, the two beautiful beaches in Presidio, all the beaches are free to the public for their enjoyment. The other beach, which is bit of a local’s secret, is Mile rock beach from where you can catch an excellent sunset. Marshall’s beach and Baker beach provide breathtaking views of the GG bridge, far away from the pestering tourists. The lush green Presidio, once an army outpost, is filled with beautiful hiking trails such as Batteries to Bluffs trail and lovers’ lane, vista points such as “Inspiration point” and is great fun to explore, leading all the way to the Golden Gate bridge. Finally, spend some time at the ruins of the Sutro Bath house near Land’s end which is another amazing, 100% free of cost attraction and showcases a slice of San Francisco’s history, along with providing magnificent views of the Pacific ocean.
BUDGET TIP # 5: CITY ATTRACTIONS
Coit Tower in North beach is another attraction that is free to enter, which is a must since it hosts some extremely beautiful and detailed murals, inspired by Diego Rivera’s (famous Mexican muralist) style. You do have to pay to get all the way up to the tower though. The famous Clarion Alley in the Mission district is home to some of San Francisco’s most famous murals which as you guessed it, are free for the world to see! If you are a mural/art enthusiast, you will find dozens of out of the world beautiful murals all along 24th Street in Mission. All this beautiful art and absolutely free to feast on with your eyes! The Palace of Fine Arts, build as a venue for the Panama-Pacific exposition and the famous row of colorful Victorian houses, aka the Painted Ladies, are also free attractions.
BUDGET TIP # 6: STREET FAIRS
From Sunday streets (where parts of select streets in select neighborhoods are closed off to traffic for pedestrians to enjoy) to street fairs occurring throughout summer in different neighborhoods, there are lots of free activities for you to enjoy. My favorite are the Fillmore Jazz festival, Japan town Cherry blossom festival, Carnaval (Memorial day weekend fixture) , Nihonmachi street fair and the North beach festival. La Cochina, SF’s incubator program for women from low income families trying to get into the food business, hosts one of SF’s most popular fairs, which is the street food festival. Due to high crowds and dearth of space, the festival was taken off in 2016 but fingers crossed for its revival in 2017! Fort Mason on the Marina is another venue for several arts and crafts fairs and events, many of which are free to enter!
BUDGET TIP # 7: SF NEIGHBORHOODS
Our 49 square miles is bumper to bumper filled with dozens of neighborhoods which are as different from each other as chalk and cheese! Visit Haight (the last flower power bastion in USA) for its hippy-dippy feel, quirky boutiques and to get on a higher plane (pot is legal here) or the Mission for its murals or Japan town for the World War II peace plaza and beautiful fall filled with stores from Japanese merchants or the Marina for beautiful views of the Bridge and sailing yachts or the Castro for the vintage Castro theatre and Harvey Milk museum (also known as GLBT museum that is free to the public on first Wednesdays) or the Palatial buildings and steps of Lyon street in the Posh Pacific heights neighborhood. Window shopping on the chic Fillmore and Union streets running through Pac heights and Cow Hollow/Marina is 100% free. Wander through the secret zen gardens in the alleys of Russian Hill or ascend the steep streets of Nob Hill or stroll beneath the cute red lanterns of our bustling Chinatown (largest in the country). No matter which neighborhood you venture in, San Francisco will always greet you with a friendly smile and a memory to take home to.
BUDGET TIP #8: FOOD AND DRINKS
San Francisco has food for every budget and dietary restriction and you can easily find something that you like. You can sample the diverse fare of the city from food trucks at their different gatherings via the Off the Grid coalition (biggest one is every Friday night at Fort Mason from April-Nov or Sundays at the Presidio). There is a permanent food truck park/street food park in the neighborhood of SOMA where the food theme keeps on rotating. Besides, there are plenty of budget dining options in the city such as our taquerias whipping up amazing burritos (burritos are to SF as pizza is to NYC) and the many mom and pop Mexican eateries operating along 24th street which has thankfully not yet been gentrified. La Taqueria’s Mission style burrito was voted the #1 burrito in USA recently and is a must visit along with El Farolito and Taqueria Cancun. Some of our favorites are Gallardos (for Mexican breakfast) , Tortas Los Picudos for their freshly made juices and enchiladas, and Balompie’s for their pupusas (Salvadorian masa flat breads filled with veggie or meat fillings). The San Francisco Ferry building and its mega farmers’ market on Saturdays (largest outdoor farmers market in USA) is a great place for cheap eats (do not forget to try some Argentinian empanadas from El Porteno or lox bagels from one of the stalls in the market outside. To sample San Francisco’s varied ethnic cuisine offerings which welcome foodies on a budget as well as other options, read my previous post on cheap eats in San Francisco . No trip to SF is complete without some dim sum and your cheapest and best bet is at Hong Kong Lounge in the inner Richmond neighborhood. Here you can also find an amazing Russian bakery named Moscow and Tbilisi bakery selling yummy piroshkis (Russian fried “samosas” with veggie or meat fillings) at less than $5.
I hope you found plenty of fodder for your next trip to SF, no matter how tight your purse strings may be! For more fun, free and cheap activities, I recommend checking the funcheapSF website and SF tourism tips! Thanks so much for reading this post.