While many locals avoid the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area, the waterfront complex at Pier 39 has street performers, shops, restaurants, attractions, a marina and the best views of San Francisco’s famous sea lions.
2.Visit Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a large manmade park full of forests, lakes, gardens, and museums. The weekend is prime time to visit because it’s car-free on Saturdays and Sundays. On weekends and holidays, catch a ride on a free shuttle bus running the length of Golden Gate Park with stops at the Conservatory of Flowers, de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, McLaren Lodge, the National AIDS Memorial Grove, Stow Lake, the bison paddock, the paths to Ocean Beach, and to the two windmills at the park.
- Join or watch the jitterbugs for ‘Lindy in the Park’, a free swing-dancing party on Sundays from 11 am-2 pm. Give it a try with the free half-hour lessons for beginners offered at noon.
- The Japanese Tea Garden is free if you arrive between 9-10 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
- The Skatin’ Place is a favorite attraction where inline skaters and roller skaters boogie to funky beats. It is open every day but attracts the most wheeled dancers on Sundays between 1-5 pm.
- Catch a free concert from the Golden Gate Park Band on Sundays at 1 pm, April through October. One of America’s oldest professional concert bands plays everything from classical music to marches to Broadway show tunes. The Golden Gate Park band has been playing free public concerts in the park for more than 130 years.
- Friday nights at the de Young Museum offers free museum admission 5:30-8:45 pm, April 15-November 25. The event has a new theme every week, but typically includes an eclectic mix of live music, dance performances, film screenings, panel discussions, lectures, artist demos, hands-on art activities, and more. Plus, the observation tower is open until 8 pm for great dusk views of the city.
Take a walk down the famous Lombard Street (between Hyde & Leavenworth streets). With eight switchbacks in one long block, you will fully appreciate how it got the reputation of being the most crooked street in the world.
4.Take a Free City Tour
San Francisco City Guides is comprised of more than 200 trained local residents who are passionate about their city. The free history and architectural tours are a particularly good way to experience the lesser-known parts of the city. A favorite tour is the Alfred Hitchcock tour, which takes you to some of the hotels, clubs, retail stores and other locations featured in Hitchcock classics
5.Walk through the Ferry building
Take a walk through the beautiful building or visit the farmers’ market, considered one of the best in the nation, which takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Many of the cooking demos and other market happenings are also free.
6.Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
The iconic 1.7 miles Golden Gate Bridge is without a doubt the most well-known emblem of San Francisco. Walking or biking across the bridge is a great experience, with incredible views from both sides.
7.Go to the Waterfront
Crissy Field stretches from Fort Point to Fort Mason, with miles of flat, open space for walking, biking and kite flying. It is also a favorite windsurfing spot. Check out the Wave Organ, a wave-activated acoustic sculpture on a jetty in the bay at the boat harbor. Best heard at high tide, it was constructed from granite and marble from a demolished cemetery.
8.Experience 360 degree views from Coit Tower
Coit Tower is another recognizable landmark. The slender white concrete tower was built in 1933 and resembles a fire hose to honor the city’s firefighters. While an elevator ride to the observation deck will cost you ($8 for adults), it’s free to visit the tower base and see the murals painted in 1934 by a group of artists inspired by Diego Rivera’s portrayals of Californian life during the Depression. The observation deck offers 360 degree views of the city and bay, including the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.
9.Visit a museum
Some museums in San Francisco, including the Cable Car Museum, San Francisco Railway Museum, and the Wells Fargo History Museum, never charge admission, but for others you will need to plan carefully to take advantage of their free days.
10.Brave the slides at Seward Mini Park
Two very long, steep concrete slides are the main attraction at this hidden gem. They are not for tiny tots, nor for the faint of heart! If you decide to slide, please remember that the park closes at sunset and adults must be accompanied by children. Bring a piece of cardboard (or wax paper if you dare!) and wear sturdy pants and take a thrilling ride.
11.People Watch at Ghirardelli Square
Ghirardelli Square is a large, former chocolate factory that has been reduced to little more than a chocolate store and eatery but provides the perfect place to people watch the large volume of crowds who flock to the chocolate store and ice cream shop, desperately clawing to buy all the chocolate they can get, as if it were being discontinued the next day, although widely available in retailers and grocery stores across America. Shoppers can see the company’s original chocolate-making equipment on display and yes, also receive a free square of chocolate but unless you enjoy standing in long lines to purchase the same product you can elsewhere without the wait, I would suggest to just take in the frenzy from a distance. From Ghirardelli Square you can also enjoy one of the best views of the city, including the pristine beauty of the San Francisco Bay, along with Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.
12.Ride a Cable Car
Cable cars have been transporting people around San Francisco since the late 19th century. The cars run on tracks and are moved by an underground cable on three routes. Their familiar bells can be heard ringing from blocks away. Tickets ($7) may be purchased at the cable car turnarounds at the ends of each route. Each one-way ride will provide spectacular views of the city’s celebrated hills as well as exhilarating transportation.
13.Walk Through the Oldest Chinatown
This 24 block city within a city, known for exotic shops, renowned restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums is best explored on foot. Visitors can buy ancient potions from herb shops or witness the making of fortune cookies.