Touring any major American city is going to take a toll on your wallet, and San Francisco is no exception. Already one of the most expensive places in the world to live, tourists in the City by the Bay usually have to pay to play. But, you’ll quickly find that even locals are on the hunt for free ways to pass their free time here.
Luckily, spending a day for free in San Francisco involves nothing more than getting a little creative. You may leave your heart here, but please, get back home with a little money left over.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all activities listed are free.
Contrary to popular belief, San Francisco’s weather is not L.A.’s. It’s rarely warm enough to go to the beach, but on the other hand it’s almost never too cold for a walk. We’ll take a not-so-wild guess and say it’s going to be foggy when you wake up, so head down to the docks.
Stroll the Embarcadero, the street and pedestrian walkway that extends from AT&T Park all the way up to Fisherman’s Wharf. Start down by the ballpark and on the way you’ll pass several San Francisco institutions, from the posh Ferry Building (where you’ll have to resist the urge to buy lovely local cheeses, wines, and knick-knacks) to working man’s Red’s Java House (where the irresistibly priced breakfast comes with a view of the bay).
Once you’ve made it up to Fisherman’s Wharf, don’t miss the cantankerous sea lion colony that’s settled in on the wooden piers. The USS Pampanito submarine is also docked here (free to look at; only $2.00 for a self-guided tour). The whimsical Musee Mechanique is also here, and free to visit (bring quarters to play the antique carnival games).
Once you’re done at the wharf, keep on trekking to twisty Lombard Street. The city doesn’t charge for goofy photo ops or long gawking sessions here, and from the top you can see Coit Tower.
From there, you’re a stone’s throw away from another of San Francisco’s great thoroughfares, Columbus Ave. This kooky, diagonal street bisects several of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods, so take your pick: the homey shops, graceful cathedrals, and authentic smells of North Beach (San Francisco’s Little Italy); the windy concrete canyons of the Financial District; or, the crowded hustle and bustle of North America’s oldest Chinatown.
It’s easy to get engrossed for a few hours in the shelves of City Lights Bookstore, a popular Beat Generation hangout. If the sun’s already set, skip over the deserted Financial District and head further up Market Street toward Yerba Buena Gardens.
Free museum admissions abound at the beginning of the month here, and many of the museums are within walking distance of each other. The SFMOMA is free to enter the first Tuesday of every month; the Asian Art Museum is free the first Sunday; and the Jewish Contemporary Museum hosts several free days a year. The MOMA also offers half-price admission every Thursday after 6pm.