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San Francisco is home to dazzling places, iconic landmarks, and cultural attractions. But did you know that many of them are free? That’s right—as surprising as it may sound, the well-known cultural and commercial center of Northern California offers an exciting slew of free activities to enjoy year-round. You have museums, art galleries, parks, and other vibrant destinations at your disposal, so it’s easy to spend a day in the city without breaking the bank.
There are numerous unique things to do in San Francisco for free, so the choices can be overwhelming, but our list of top S.F. activities can help. Whether you’re a tourist or a local, you’ll likely discover new and enticing things in the city by checking these items off your bucket list.
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The Wave Organ is located on a jetty that forms the Boat Harbor of S.F.'s Marina district. This amazing acoustic sculpture of carved marble and granite uses the movement of water to produce musical sounds through its series of 25 organ pipes. The sounds are created when the waves hit the pipes and flow in and out of them. If you’re lucky enough to be there at high tide, you’ll experience the best of its naturally occurring music.
Stop by the Maritime Museum to see the magnificent, colorful murals by Sargent Johnson and Hilaire Hiler adorning the interior walls of the museum. You’ll also find an array of items that display the local maritime history. On the second floor, you can view even more San Francisco waterfront artifacts such as photomurals, lithographic stones, and scrimshaw. When you head back outside, admire the neighboring Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building, which was designed in the Streamline Moderne style by architects William Mooser, Jr. and William Mooser III.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco and is home to the famous Pier 39, where you can see adorable sea lions enjoying the sun on the K-Dock. It has been 30 years since these intelligent, playful, and noisy pinnipeds marked their territory here, arriving in droves and never leaving. Now, they are happy to welcome tourists and locals to the pier. Be ready to hear them bark and growl—California sea lions are known for being one of the most vocal mammals—as you snap pictures. (If you can’t wait to see them in person, check out the 24/7 sea lion webcam).
Since you’re already in Fisherman’s Wharf, kill two birds with one stone by enjoying one of the best things to do in San Francisco: Bike or walk across the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge, located less than four miles from the wharf. The bridge offers a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the rocky seascape of San Francisco Bay on the other. From afar, you can also see the beautiful city of Sausalito and Alcatraz Island. Relish the coastal breeze and admire the S.F. skyline mingling with the orange arches. These Art Deco, 746-foot-tall bridge towers in the signature color have established the Golden Gate as one of the most iconic landmarks in the world.
Experience all the fun of an antique coin-operated arcade at Musée Mécanique. The museum features Edward Galland Zelinsky’s collection of more than 300 orchestrations, classic coin-operated pianos, slots, and more. This is the place every kid will be delighted to visit and every adult will be reminded of their childhood. It’s free to enter, but you’ll need to grab some pennies if you want to play a game.
If you’re interested in how computer engineering and design shape the world, the Autodesk Gallery is definitely among the cool things to do in San Francisco for free. At the gallery, you’ll see how everyday items and products are designed with various technologies. The jaw-dropping exhibits include the first Mercedes-Benz biome car and an 8.5-foot LEGO dinosaur. The car is made of biological materials grown from seeds, while the LEGO dinosaur exhibition shows how digital prototyping helped bring the 62,500-piece display to fruition.
(Tip: If you want to enhance your cultural experience in San Francisco, visit The Cable Car Museum and The Wells Fargo History Museum, which both offer free admission.)
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most photographed structures in the city—not to mention a popular venue for weddings, celebrations, and festivals—and is an ideal spot for a picnic. The historic landmark is known for its stunning Greco-Roman rotunda, lush gardens, and peaceful lagoon (keep an eye out for swans), which all culminate in an ambience that will bring you inner peace and relieve stress. So grab your favorite snacks, artisanal cheeses, San Francisco sourdough, California chocolate, and closest friends to have a perfect picnic in one of the best places to visit in San Francisco.
If you’re looking for a more active pastime, you can walk through the beautiful expanse of Golden Gate Park. Some of the activities and museums within the park require an entrance fee, but there are plenty of free things to do here, too. You can roam around Stow Lake, tucked away in the middle of the park, and see the Chinese Pavilion and the mesmerizing Huntington Falls—the park’s first artificial lake. Enhance your visit by checking out the alluring Rose Garden, where there are over 60 rose beds.
Another magical nook hidden behind the foliage-laden fence of Golden Gate Park is the Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers. In this vivid garden, you’ll find flowers that the renowned author immortalized in his plays. You can also see bronze plaques engraved with The Bard’s famous lines. A bust of William Shakespeare resides here as well, but it’s usually locked up; sometimes, it’s displayed to the public after special events, so if you’re lucky, you might manage to spot it.
Tip: On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays before 10 a.m., you can visit the Japanese Tea Garden and admire the colorful pavilions for free. If you happen to be in the park on the first Tuesday of the month, you can visit the Conservatory of Flowers’ breathtaking exotic gardens without paying admission.
Did you know that San Francisco has the largest and oldest Chinatown in North America? Stretching across 24 city blocks, the city’s Chinatown is rich in history, architecture, and fun. Spend some time browsing the shops, dining at Chinese restaurants, and taking photos of the intricate Dragon Gate. Another highlight here is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can watch how fortune cookies are made (for free, of course, though taking a picture will cost you 50 cents). Buy a fresh bag of fortune cookies—which were invented in California—from the factory so you have a treat for later.
When the sun goes down, the mesmerizing light show begins on the Bay Bridge. Initially a temporary installation, The Bay Lights is now a permanent sculpture that was designed by artist Leo Villareal, who attached 25,000 LED lights to 1.8-mile-long cables on the northern side of the bridge. The dynamic patterns are controlled by computer software, and you won’t see the same ones twice. This beloved light sculpture is among the top sites to see in San Francisco, so head down to the Embarcadero to view it.
What are the free things you've already experienced in San Francisco? Share in the comments below!
My parents are buried at Presido so a stop to the cemetery and a drive around the old base are a must.
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