Yes, the cost of housing in San Francisco is higher than in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean you can’t visit on a budget.
The Golden City actually offers an abundance of free places to see, things to do, and ways to explore its history back into the 1800s. And that doesn’t even account for the completely complimentary charm of just walking around S.F.’s enigmatic neighborhoods. Hello, Mission District and Chinatown!, to namecheck a couple of top targets. Even for a quick visit, you’ll want o spend at least 4 days in San Francisco. (Bonus: The city’s storied hills will work wonders on your glutes. 🍑)
Traveling to San Francisco doesn’t need to burn a hole in your pocket, either — which is why you should consider booking your trip on Wanderu. By plugging in your point of origin and destination, you can find the very cheapest deals on bus, train and plane travel, all in the same search.
To help you navigate the top free attractions in the Bay Area, we’ve put together the following list of 15 must-hit destinations — all of which are entirely on the house. We’ve even broken them down by category, so jump ahead to your favorite subject, scroll through them all below, or check out things to do in San Fran with kids.
And, for the love of Northern California, remember to pack a sweater.
1. City Lights Bookstore
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Founded in 1953, this bookstore is a thing of Golden Gate lore, particularly for its presence in the beatnik era. Even in a San Francisco so vastly different from its mid-century self, City Lights has maintained — and expanded — its independent streak. You’ll have plenty to do perusing the three floors of titles, many small press and/or hard-to-find, but do not miss the schedule of author readings and events, all free and open to the public.
2. San Francisco Scale Model
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Before there was Street View in Google Maps, there was the Works Progress Administration, which commissioned artists to build an exact wooden replica — one inch for every 100 feet — of 1938 San Francisco.
But after its debut at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition and a stint as an educational tool in City Hall, the model spent decades in storage. At least until 2018, when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the San Francisco Public Library and UC Berkeley joined with artist team Bik Van der Pol to give the gal a new life.
After a tour about town with neighborhood sections on view in their corresponding public libraries in early 2019, the model — now in the holdings of SFMOMA — is being joined together and prepared for its imminent return to the public eye in 2020.
3. The Wave Organ
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Because a “wave-activated sound sculpture” is a thing. A thing you simply must see.
On a harbor jetty in the Marina District (which was built from the stones of a demolished cemetery), the Wave Organ was constructed by artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez in 1986. Twenty-five PVC organ pipes at various elevations emit sound when waves crash into them, creating a sort of natural symphony. Tip: Go at high tide for the best sound.
4. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA 94108
9:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (Mon – Fri)
9:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (Sat & Sun)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: You’ve cracked open these cookies. You’ve added “in bed” to their pithy wisdom. Now see — and smell — where they’re made. The hot press and the super-fast shape-and-fold happen right in front of you, where they’ve been made and sent world-round since 1962. Take note: You will be charged 50 cents for every picture you take. But you’ve always been given the cookies gratis, so bring your coin purse this time.
5. de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
San Francisco, CA 94118
9:30 a.m. – 5:15 p.m. (Tues – Sun)
Free Every Tuesday
Closed on Monday
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The de Young has resided in Golden Gate Park since 1895, but in 2005 it reopened in a thoroughly modern manner. The architecture itself demands a visit, with striking lines and windows that somehow integrate seamlessly with the natural landscape around it. What’s hanging on the walls is far from shabby, either, with a focus on art from 17th- to 19th-century America, as well as Africa, Oceania and beyond.
6. Antique Vibrator Museum
1620 Polk St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
12:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (Fri – Wed)
12:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. (Thurs)
Free docent tours every third Sunday at 3:00 p.m. (call ahead)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: When something is touted as “a historical sexual treasure,” you pretty much have to go there first thing. Sex shop Good Vibrations has a collection dating back to the late 1800s — when vibrators were only available to doctors — all the way through to the 1970s. The museum is full of interesting trivia, such as the fact that vibrators were initially marketed as home appliances, and displays a crazy range of devices from throughout the years. So here’s to, you know, everyone coming together.
7. Sake Museum
708 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94710
12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. (Wed – Mon)
12:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Tues)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: You love sake, we love sake, San Francisco bars love charging you a paycheck for sake. So hit up Takara’s Sake Museum instead, where there are multiple sake tastings and tours every day — all free. (Just make a free reservation online before you go; if you just show up to the tasting room, there’s a charge for the tasting flights.)
You’ll also be treated to a one-of-a-kind collection about the history and making of sake since the 17th century, as well as some beautiful architectural installations.
8. Mission Dolores Park
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Among the best spots for people-watching in the city, Mission Dolores Park also grants sweeping views of San Francisco. There are palm trees and tennis courts, dog parks and basketball courts. But there are also constant programmed and spontaneous performances, picnics and sunny-day loungers. If you want to feel like a local then aim for the latter, perhaps partake in California’s legal cannabis (if you so wish), and just … chill.
9. Japanese Tea Gardens
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
San Francisco, CA 94118
9:00 a.m. – 5:45 p.m. (March – Oct)
9:00 a.m. – 4:45 p.m. (Nov – Feb)
Free if you enter before 10 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Located within Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Gardens were built as an acre-sized showcase for an international exposition held there in 1894. But they lasted, with thanks to Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara, who lived there with his family until they were forced into internment camps in 1942 — and not allowed to return to the garden.
But the beauty he created persists all the same. Today, the gardens house five acres filled with Japanese architectural elements like pagodas and stone lanterns, koi ponds, native Japanese plants and more.
10. Ocean Beach
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Ocean Beach is a San Francisco essential, and a National Park. Blustery and beautiful, this section of the city’s western coast (a.k.a. the Sunset District) borders Golden Gate Park. It’s not a soaking up rays kind of beach; it’s a play fetch with your dog, let the wind knock some life back into you, walk along the graffitied sea wall and through the wild grasses, have a bonfire in a designated fire ring type of place. And it’s magnificent.
11. Sutro Baths
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: You are not here to swim, you are here to pine for what once was: A gorgeous, Greek–style glass enclosure with seven salt-water pools of different temperatures, built by a millionaire in 1894 for public recreation (and complete with slides and a trapeze).
Let’s paint an even more vivid picture: In its heyday, this incredible structure could hold 10,000 people at once. The Great Depression, developers and a devastating fire brought an end to the baths. But their ruins, as well as the perched Cliff House restaurant, remain.
If you’re into even more old rocks: Check out the Druid Circles in Golden Gate Park — the stones traveled there from Spain.
12. Bison Paddock
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Perhaps the gem-iest of all the Golden Gate Park gems is the home where the buffalo roam. Many an unsuspecting visitor has stumbled across these beasts grazing and rolling around in their paddock, but we don’t want to risk you missing them. The buffalo are furry. They’re huge. They mostly just stand there. And they will absolutely make your day.
13. Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, CA 94129
Enter from either side of bridge; pedestrian access on East Sidewalk
5:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PST)
5:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. (DST)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Walk or bike (don’t drive) for the full experience as you cross this iconic triumph of civil engineering. The bridge is synonymous with San Francisco, and unlike plenty of overhyped sites in which reality doesn’t quite match up with photos, this one continues to take our breath away.
14. Self-Guided Neon Tour
Better at night … obviously.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Sometimes you’ve got to do it yourself. (No, we’re not still talking about the vibrator museum.) San Francisco has some seriously cool neon signs and graphics throughout the city, and you can take official walking tours to see them all (offered seasonally). You’ll get a knowledgeable guide … but you’ll also pay $30.
You know what’s free? Looking up the neon online and taking your own little tour through the lights of the Tenderloin, Nob Hill, Chinatown, downtown, Alameda, Mission, Market and more. This article from San Francisco Eater highlights some of the best, so star them on your Google Map.
15. Lombard Street and The Presidio
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Left, right, left, right, left is more than a military marching cadence: It’s what curvy Lombard Street does, and about at the same pace. Walk the famously steep, hairpin-turned road … and be glad you’re not driving it. Lombard dead-ends into The Presidio, where there are hiking trails, overlooks, beaches, bluffs and even a spire.
While it’s true that the only type of person who can afford living in S.F. is basically Mr. Monopoly in a Zuckerberg hoodie, you don’t need FaceMash money for a Golden City getaway.
The 15 attractions listed above are just a taste of the oodles of free activities the Bay Area has to offer. And when it comes to getting there, save some dough by booking through Wanderu. On Wanderu.com and the free Wanderu app, you can compare prices on buses, trains and flights all in the same search.
San Francisco is also a terrific jumping-off point to other West Coast cities: In fact, here are all the destinations you can get to from S.F. for under $20.