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I love a city that offers a bunch of free attractions. You get to understand the city while saving a dollar or two. San Francisco was no different.
There are so many free things to see and do in San Francisco that I feel like I barely scratched the surface of them all. It’s time to plan my next trip to see more of the city! Here are a handful of free things to do in San Francisco.
1 // Explore Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
There are so many free and interesting things to do in the Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 area. Beyond just exploring the various shops, be sure to stop by Musée Mécanique to check out antique arcade games from another time. Spend some time checking out the sea lions at the end of Pier 39 and visit the Sea Lion interpretive center. They also give talks by the sea lions every so often so you can learn more about these animals.
Getting there: Take the F streetcar from downtown San Francisco
2 // Wander the Ferry Building and Farmer’s Market
A food lover’s dream, the Ferry Building and Farmer’s Market is great to wander. It’ll be hard trying to buy everything! The building is filled with lots of eateries and food shops, but on the weekend, the outside surrounding area is also filled with local produce and pop up food stalls for the Farmer’s Market. With stalls handing out samples galore, it makes it easy to try the food trends currently popular in the San Francisco food scene.
If you do decide to pick up some food, I’d recommend the sandwich at Roli Roti, coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee Company, ice cream from Humphrey Slocombe, the meat cone Boccalone and delicious oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company. Just be aware that lines get long!
Ferry Building Marketplace
One Ferry Building
Farmer’s market: Tuesday: 10am–2pm; Thursday: 10 am – 2pm; Saturday: 8am-2pm
3 // Take a tour with the San Francisco City Guides
With so many different historical and architectural tours available on their website, the San Francisco City Guides will have something to interest you. Tours last between 1.5 – 2 hours on a range of topics. Explore neighbourhoods or delve deeply into a particular theme. Unlike other free tours in other cities, the City Guides while they ask for donations, those funds go directly into funding the operation, not the tour guides. The guides do it on a volunteer basis and happen every week of the year rain or shine.
I opted to go on the Missions Mural tour to explore and get an understanding of the murals and street art in one of San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhoods. It was really fascinating to hear about the history of the art and get into the heads of the artists when they were making it.
4 // Check out the street art in the Mission District
Speaking of murals, be sure to check them all out in the Mission District. San Francisco has over 1000 murals in the city. However, the majority of them are in the Mission District. The best way to appreciate these murals is on foot. Stop by the Precita Eyes Mural Arts to grab a map of all the murals in the area.
There are two main collection of murals: the Balmy Alley Murals and the Clarion Alley Murals. Each alley has their own take on murals with variety themes. However, a lot of murals found in both alley’s are a reflection of the artist’s thoughts on current events at the time of painting offering an intimate glimpse into the social and cultural changes of the neighbourhood in the past and present.
Balmy Alley Murals
1-100 Balmy St off of 24th Street, parallel to Treat Ave and Harrison Street between 24th & 25th streets
Getting There: MUNI bus #14 or BART to 24th/Mission. Walk east (towards Capp Street or Carlos’ Bar) for 5 1/2 blocks.
Clarion Alley Murals
Between Valencia and Mission St and 17th and 18th St
Getting There: MUNI bus #14 or BART to 16th/Mission. Walk south. Murals will be on your right.
5 // Climb up the Filbert Steps & admire the murals at Coit Tower
If I had known the Filbert Steps were one of the Western Hemisphere’s steepest navigable streets prior to going then I probably wouldn’t have tried to climb it. There were a lot of steps that took you through the neighbourhoods beautiful gardens. Hidden along the way are beautiful overlooks and when you turn back to see how far you’ve gone, you’re rewarded with some great views of the Bay.
Once at the top of Telegraph Hill, wander around Coit Tower. The tower is named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric and patron of the city’s firefighters. It’s said that the tower resembles a fire hose nozzle, but it was not designed to be that way. You can go up the tower for a small fee if desired. At the tower’s base are a series of painted murals. These murals, painted in 1934, depict what life was like in San Francisco during the Depression.
If interested, there is also a San Francisco City Guides free tour at the mural which allows you access to some of the paid murals not open to the public.
Filbert St & Sansome St
Getting There: Take the F street car and get off at The Embarcadero & Greenwich St stop (Pier 23)
1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard
10am-6pm May through October
10am-5pm November through April
Getting There: If not walking, bus #39. There is limited parking as well.
6 // See the famous “crookedest” street in the city
Supposedly the “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street is in the North Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco. However, it’s technically not the crookedest street in San Francisco. That honour belongs to Vernon Street between 20th and 22nd street in the Portrero Hill neighborhood. Lombard has become a tourist attraction because of just how pretty the street is and when you’re walking up and down the street, it can be easily seen.
Between Hyde St. & Leavenworth St
Getting there: Take the Powell – Hyde cable car to the top of the street
7 // Stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge
And of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. You can’t go to San Francisco without paying a visit to this city icon. Built in the art deco style, the bridge was opened in 1937 and was, until 1964, the longest suspension bridge main span in the world, at 4,200 feet (1,300 m). The bridge is painted a bright colour known as “international orange” which makes the bridge stand out.
The best way to take in the bridge is to walk across it which takes about 45 minutes to an hour. Even if you don’t have enough time to walk the whole bridge, walk a little of it or head to the nearby Golden Gate Pavilion for great photo ops and check out the visitor’s center.
Where To Stay
Accommodation in the Bay Area can get quite expensive and budget options get booked up quickly. Book early to avoid disappointment or consider booking across the water in Oakland or further away in San Jose.
Please consider booking your San Francisco accommodations through the included links. There are no additional costs for you and it helps support this website.
Here are my top picks for where to stay:
- USA Hostels San Francisco (711 Post Street, San Francisco) – What hostel has its own movie theatre and yoga studio?! This one does! The hostel is centrally located a couple blocks from Union Square and walking distance to a number of tourist attractions. They regularly have activities where you can meet other travelers and organize daily excursions. They also provide breakfast! Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
- Green Tortoise Hostel (494 Broadway, San Francisco) – Self-proclaimed the #1 party hostel in San Francisco, this would be a great place to meet others. They’re located walking distance to Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf in historic North Beach. If you’re on a budget, they offer free breakfast every day and free dinner three times a week. However, just be aware that there are clubs in the area so it can get noisy. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
- Minna Hotel (509 Minna Street, San Francisco) – Located just a few blocks from downtown San Francisco, the Minna Hotel offers budget and clean accommodation in the heart of San Francisco. Included in the price is a continental breakfast. However, note that the washrooms are shared with other patrons. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
- Greenwich Inn (3201 Steiner Street, San Francisco) – This newly renovated inn is a great option for those seeking more of a hotel experience at a budget price. Located in the Marina District, it’s an easy walk to Fisherman’s Wharf or if you’re more ambitious, to the Golden Gate Bridge. Free breakfast is also included. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor and book your stay at Booking.com.
There are so many other things to do for free in the city. What are some of your favourites that I may have missed?
P.S. Eating San Francisco in a Weekend & Highlights from 3 Days in San Francisco