Photo: Golden gate bridge couple water front

Stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge for unparalleled views of San Francisco.

Photograph by William Grant, My Shot

By Emily Haile

Ever since Levi Strauss invented denim jeans here during the Gold Rush, San Francisco, with its cable cars, coffeehouses, and counterculture has been on the cutting edge of cool. From bustling Chinatown to bohemian Haight-Ashbury, the City by the Bay has long been known for its openness and tolerance. It's also a city of freebies. Here is a list of free attractions to help you experience the city without breaking the bank.

Art/Music

The diverse offerings at the San Francisco Modern Art Museum—the first 20th century art museum on the West Coast—include paintings by Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, and Willem de Kooning, as well as exhibits on photography, architecture, and design. Free the first Tuesday of each month and half price on Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m.

Pay a visit to the oldest known Chinese Buddha at the Asian Art Museum. Marvel at the impressive collection of Asian art, including ceramics, textiles, and paintings, that traces more than 6,000 years of history. Free the first Tuesday of every month. The museum stays open late on Thursdays, when it offers $5 admission after 5 p.m.

Take in some music on a lazy Sunday—and join in a century-old tradition. The Golden Gate Park Band has been playing free public concerts in the park for more than 100 years. Their lively programs feature marches, Broadway tunes, swing, and ethnic music. Sundays at 1 p.m. in the park's Spreckels Temple of Music from April through October.

From Schubert to Stravinsky, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra offers free concerts at venues throughout the city. For those wanting to learn a bit more about the music, director Benjamin Simon leads talks from the stage 30 minutes before each show.

The recently redesigned de Young Museum with its large sculpture garden in Golden Gate Park uses natural materials (copper, stone, wood, and glass) to blend into the surrounding greenery. You can also contemplate nature alongside Rodin's "Thinker," at another local museum, the Legion of Honor. Modeled after an 18th-century Parisian palace, the Legion houses ancient and European art. Both public museums are free the first Tuesday of each month.

The Stern Grove Festival offers an array of free outdoor concerts each summer from mid June through mid August on Sundays at 2 p.m. This year's roster includes performances by Huey Lewis & the News, Los Amigos Invisibles, and the San Francisco Opera.

Sit in on a free, lunchtime chamber music concert held at 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays in St. Patrick's Church at Yerba Buena Gardens and Tuesdays in Old St. Mary's Cathedral. A $5 donation is requested.

The Oakland Museum of California features a permanent gallery of California art and artifacts and a Natural Sciences Gallery that allows visitors to stroll through nine different ecosystems including the Pacific Coast, the White Mountains, and the desert. Free the second Sunday of each month.

Attractions

San Francisco City Guides offer a number of free 1.5- to two-hour tours year-round. These neighborhood tours have fun and informative themes ranging from "downtown deco" to urban Victorians. History buffs can learn about the city's rich past, including the Gold Rush and the 1906 earthquake.

Stroll across the iconic 1.7-mile Golden Gate Bridge, open to pedestrians and cyclists during daylight hours. A visitors center and gift shop known as the Roundhouse is located on the southeast side behind the Strauss Statue. Also on the south side are several acres of gardens that offer unobstructed bridge views.

Travel to the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood to visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Historic ships are docked at Hyde Street Pier, set against views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Free year-round, the visitors center has exhibits on the history of maritime voyages in the bay (self-guided tours of the ships cost $5). Also free at the wharf: views of San Francisco's famous sea lions at Pier 39.

A visit to Ghirardelli's former factory and flagship store is not without its rewards. Shoppers can see the company's original chocolate-making equipment on display, and yes, they'll also receive free samples of chocolate. The surrounding Ghirardelli Square is on the National Register of Historic Places. Just a few blocks from Ghirardelli Square, take a drive down the famously crooked Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets. With nine turns in just one block, this free photo op is definitely worth a detour.

Admission is always free at the Cable Car Museum, where visitors can see antique cable cars as well a host of photographs, tools, and engines. Also stop by the free San Francisco Railway Museum, dedicated to the city's transit history, where your donations support the vintage F-Line streetcars. Open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Culture

Travel to another world at the Chinatown Night Market Fair held every Saturday evening between late July and late October from 6 to 11 p.m. You'll find dozens of vendors, lion dancing, martial arts, Chinese opera, karaoke, and traditional instruments.

Learn the history and art of making books by hand at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Here, book buffs and artists alike take classes to learn collage techniques, typesetting, bookbinding, and restoration. Admission to the gallery is free weekdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the center offers numerous free readings, signings, and lectures. Bookworms should also visit the free gallery at the Grabhorn Institute at the Presidio, where rare books, typefaces, and printing facilities are on display. Tours ($7) are available Thursdays at 3 p.m.

Check out the Museo ItaloAmericano, dedicated to Italian and Italian-American culture. A small gallery of paintings, sculptures, and photographs complements rotating exhibits such as paintings by an Italian artist inspired by Dante's Inferno. Free admission Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Enjoy free summer events such as the San Francisco Free Folk Festival and the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair.

Food/Drink

Located within walking distance of many of the Financial District's hotels, Palio D'Asti of a happening happy hour. Buy two drinks between 4 and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and get a free large pizza.

Liverpool Lil's near the Presidio is known for its free hors d'oeuvres during happy hour, Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. Pass the time watching a game over pints and potstickers with the locals at this casual, dimly lit English pub.

Sip some of California's most luscious wines on the waterfront in nearby Oakland at Lost Canyon Winery. Complimentary tastings take place Friday and Saturday afternoons from 1 to 6 p.m

In addition to their signature $5 margaritas and mojitos, Maya's offers free botanas (Mexican finger foods) every weekday from 5 to 7 p.m.

Check out the San Francisco section of Myopenbar.com for local listings of events and happy hour deals in the Bay area.

Kids

Keep tabs on the art world's youngest stars at the Mocha Museum of Children's Art, where all of the works are created by kids. Admission to the galleries is always free, and for a $5 fee, the museum offers access to their studio for young artists, ages 18 months and older.

The Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland offers free viewings through its state-of-the-art reflector telescope. Take in distant galaxies with a 180-degree view of the night sky. Friday and Saturday evenings, weather permitting. April through October from dusk to 10:30 p.m. and November through March from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

Meet local creatures at the San Francisco Zoo and the California Academy of the Sciences' Steinhart Aquarium, both free the first Wednesday of each month.

Explore the art, science, and environment of the Bay Area at the Randall Museum. Here, you'll find a live animal exhibit, woodshop, ceramics studio, and a greenhouse. Free Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Investigate a shipwreck at the Bay Area Discovery Museum's Lookout Cove. This children's museum features a number of hands-on exhibits for kids of all ages including tidal pools, art studios, a theater, and more. Admission is free for families the first Wednesday of the month from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Outdoors

See how the mainsail sets when you take a free ride with the Cal Sailing Club, and learn about this nonprofit club, which claims to offer the cheapest lessons in the Bay Area. Open houses usually take place the first Sunday of every month from 1 to 4 p.m. Check the calendar for details.

Inundate your senses with more than 16,000 plants located in the 55 acres (22 hectares) of greenery at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Admission is free, and complimentary garden tours are offered weekdays at 1:30 p.m. and 10:30 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. on weekends.

On a sunny day, try out a new sport courtesy of the San Francisco Lawn Bowling Club. This local organization has been around since 1901, when it was founded by a Scottish fraternal organization. It's said to possess the first municipal bowling green in the country. Free lessons are available every Wednesday at noon or by appointment in Golden Gate Park near Sharon Meadow.

Yerba Buena Gardens is open daily to the public from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for free. With a 2.5-acre meadow, waterfall, public art, and a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there's plenty to keep the whole family occupied. For those willing to shell out a few dollars, there's also a carousel, ice skating rink, and bowling lanes.

Theater/Dance

The San Francisco Free Civic Theatre is an all-volunteer company producing plays, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo, from September through May at various locations throughout the city.

Indulge in A Midsummer Night's Dream courtesy of Free Shakespeare in the Park, an annual offering of professional-level theater under the stars. Performances take place Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. in parks city-wide from late June to late September.

Join San Francisco's hepcats and jitterbuggers for Lindy in the Park, a free swing dancing party every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Golden Gate Park. Don't worry if you've got two left feet, there's ample fun to be had listening to the guest DJs and watching the dancers.

For More Information

Official San Francisco Visitors Site

Free downloadable San Fran Map Guides

SF Station: San Francisco's City Guide

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities




Travel Photos From Your Shot

  • Picture of canoes on a dock in Alberta, Canada

    Your Canada Photos

    View scenes of Canada's city life and countryside—all taken by our Nat Geo photo community.

See More Your Shot Galleries »