Free things to do in San Francisco

By Brittany Shoot, San Fran-based travel writer.

Photography by Stickney Design

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Thanks to its natural beauty, colourful neighbourhoods and thriving cultural scene, San Francisco has an abundance of things to do if you’re on a budget. Local writer Brittany Shoot shares her tips on how to do the city for free.

Best for: urban explorers

Walk this way

San Francisco City Guides offers free two-hour historic walking tours led by knowledgeable volunteer guides, which – although donations are welcome – are completely free of charge.

Dance on air

Golden Gate Park is bigger than New York’s Central Park, and equally beautiful. It’s free to visit, and its exquisite traditional Japanese Tea Garden is free to visit on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays if you slip in before 10am. Among the groves and gardens of the wider park, you’ll find plenty of free activities. Learn how to Lindy Hop from the guys at Lindy in the Park, who offer free lessons every Sunday at 11am – no partner required.

In sprawling Golden Gate Park, you can discover plentiful groves, gardens and activities all for free. One notable local favourite is learning how to Lindy Hop every Sunday at noon – no partner required.

Secret gardens

POPOS – Privately Owned Public Open Spaces – are outdoor gardens, courtyards, and seating areas tucked into alleys and on top of office buildings around the city. Free and open to the public, though hours for each vary, use the handy POPOS map from San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) to find one nearby.

Run for the hills

Explore San Francisco’s Mount Sutro Forest. The public park offers miles of hiking trails that wind through redwood and fern groves, perfect for a brisk morning walk or jog. On a foggy day, the towering misty trees have earned it the nickname the “cloud forest”. Alternatively, sign up for a Park Run. Crissy Field Park Run is a free 5km run every Saturday at 9am in the park. Keep your head up as you’re jogging along: the views you’ll get of Golden Gate Bridge are priceless.

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Sea lions on Pier 39

In 1989 a colony of sea lions started making the marina docks at Pier 39 their home, and there are now hundreds of them. They haul out on the floating pontoons to fight, play and sleep – and they can make a real racket. The best way to see them is from the end of the Pier, at all times of year except June-July, when many leave to breed. And you can check their numbers before you go with by tuning into the charming live webcam. When you go, hold your nose – most first-time visitors are unprepared for the smell!

  • Get clued up on conceptual art at San Fran’s Museum of Modern Art © Henrik Kam.

    Modern mapping

    Download the SF MOMA app to listen to guided narratives as you wander from exhibit to exhibit – the app’s tracking map will adjust the audio depending on where in the museum you are.£555 pp

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  • Indulge the bookworm within, at the San Francisco Public Library.

    The cultural calendar

    From martial art workshops to photography exhibits, check out San Francisco Public Library’s website for all scheduled talks and events.

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  • Discover neighbourhood art at 16th Avenue’s creative mosaic steps © Alamy.

    Stairway to heaven

    A hotspot for posing tourists, climb to the top of the famous steps at 16th Avenue to uncover incredible views of the Golden Gate Park.

    Book a Golden Gate Bay Cruise

Best for: fitness fiends

Walk over the Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge is right there, beckoning you to cross. The bridge spans 1.7 miles and it has dedicated pedestrian walkways on either side. On the way you can really take in the little art deco details of the bridge design, and enjoy the views of Angel Island and Alcatraz, with San Francisco unfolding behind you. Cycling makes things quicker and you can cross the bridge in just over 20 minutes. Your hotel may have free bikes to borrow, or you can rent bikes for the day from fairly inexpensive cycling companies - try Blazing Saddles.

Step on it

Take the stairs! Whether you pick the steps up Filbert Street, Lyon Street, or 16th Avenue, walkers and runners alike can enjoy a free workout with views of San Francisco’s hills and the bay beyond.

All is calm

Want to unwind and experience an iconic SF ritual all at once? Yoga on the Labyrinth is held every Tuesday in the darkened calm of Grace Cathedral, and is certain to have you feeling zen.

  • Sample artisan goodies in the iconic Ferry Building marketplace © nat & cody.

    Home grown

    Open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, head to the Ferry Building for their farmers market, where famous chefs and farmers come to buy local produce.

    San Francisco shopping guide

Best for: culture lovers

Travel back in time

The free San Francisco Cable Car Museum is open daily to visitors wanting to learn the history of the city’s iconic streetcars. Watch the giant cable lines in action, pulling the cars up and down the city’s steepest hills. Out and about in town, head to the cable car turntable at the Market & Powell stop by Union Square – to watch the cars being turned about at the end of their journey.

Museum view

Most museums offer free days for families, including the Asian Art Museum and Exploratorium, meaning you can save pennies while you ponder. The SFMOMA offers free admission, every day, for youth under 18 and also has free days for all ages throughout the year.

Habit of art

The San Francisco Public Library Main Branch hosts rotating art exhibits throughout the year, all free of charge. Explore the library beautiful stacks too – ideal for a rainy day.

Budget bites

Snag samples from local produce sellers and cheese mongers every Sunday at the Ferry Building Farmers Market, you’ll get to try true tastes of the San Francisco and California country.