While San Francisco has definitely gained a reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in the States, there is indeed a host of fun, exciting and interesting things to do in the City by the Bay that are totally free and thoroughly enjoyable. Take a look at a few suggestions on how to explore the city without breaking the bank.
1. Walk or cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge
At the top of any first-time visitor’s wish list, this San Francisco icon is renowned for being one of the most impressive manmade structures on the planet. Though many tourists may opt to simply snap a photo of it from one of the city’s many excellent viewpoints, taking a walk or cycling across the world-famous bridge can be one of the most unforgettable travel experiences the city has to offer, while also providing a far more intimate Golden Gate experience.
2. Enjoy the city’s free museum days
San Francisco has long been known as being a hotbed for arts and culture. With such a vibrant arts scene, it’s no surprise that the city boasts a wealth of world-class museums and galleries. Though many of the top museums in the city do charge entry fees, more than a handful offer completely free entries on selected days.
So if you’re a museum-loving traveller, check out the city’s wide range of museums that offer free entry and prepare yourself for an insightful and truly fascinating San Fran experience.
3. Hike the coastal trail
For nature lovers and avid hikers looking for free things to do, walking the San Francisco Coastal Trail is an absolute must. Not only will the trail provide you with some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, it will also lead you directly to some of the city’s other top attractions, including Golden Gate Park and The Palace of the Legion of Honor. A recommended route would be to start the trail by the famous Presidio and then continue south towards Fort Funston.
4. Enjoy a free guided walking tour
San Francisco is a city bursting with attractions and points of interest, and one of the best ways to enjoy some of these would definitely be by joining a free guided walking tour. Sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library and led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable local volunteers, the free walking tours are a great way to acquaint yourself with the city, its history, culture and timeless charm.
5. Appreciate the city’s parks
Boasting a large number of public parks and open-to-the-public gardens, the city has no shortage of verdant spaces to delight both locals and visitors alike. Enjoy over 400 ha of immaculate greenery at Golden Gate Park, one of the most visited parks in the whole of the US. Complete with Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and a host of other iconic structures and attractions, the park is one spot you’ll want to ensure you have a good amount of time to explore and enjoy. For a real local favourite, head over to Dolores Park, close to the Mission District. Besides offering great views of the city, it also provides a lovely snapshot into the life of a typical San Franciscan resident.
6. Revel in the city’s murals
As a foremost global centre for arts and culture, the streets and buildings of San Francisco are covered in inspiring and striking mural artworks. If you’re a lover of art then make sure to add a trip to some of the city’s best murals to your itinerary. Some of our favourite spots would include the acclaimed Making of a Fresco by famed Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, which can be found at the San Francisco Art Institute; all of the murals that can be found throughout the Mission District; as well as those within the Rincon Center, the most notable of which is the extraordinary History of California mural, created by Russian artist Anton Refregier.
7. Brave the steep city steps
Known for its undulating topography and vertigo-inducing streets, San Francisco is also home to some hair-raisingly steep staircases. For those who enjoy an active adventure while travelling, take a trip to the Filbert Street steps. Though climbing the steps may be somewhat of an arduous task, by doing so, you’ll receive the very worthwhile reward of seeing stunning city views, impressive architecture and some beautifully kept gardens that flank the famous stairs.
8. Get up close and personal with the city’s famous sea lions
Pier 39 is one of San Fran’s most popular destinations, not least because of the endearing colony of sea lions that call the area home. Instantly recognised as some of the city’s most memorable residents, the sea lions at Pier 39 will easily provide you with an unmistakably San Fran encounter, one that everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives. Just don’t forget to bring your camera along; you’ll definitely want to snap a selfie or two with these adorable marine animals.
9. Celebrate Chinese New Year in Chinatown
Notable as the oldest Chinatown on the North American continent, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a must-visit attraction and one of the city’s most iconic and vibrant neighbourhoods. If you’re in town around Chinese New Year (22 February 2023), make sure to take in the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade, undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest and best celebrations of the season.
10. Get some beach time in
Though the Pacific waters that surround the city and bay area are generally a bit too cold for swimming, there’s still more than enough reason to make it a mission to get to one of San Francisco’s best beaches. For epic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, head to Baker Beach; for a family-friendly excursion, China Beach is a great option; and for a somewhat more secluded beach experience, try Lands End, which provides dramatic scenery and ideal Instagram opportunities.
11. Get inspired at Grace Cathedral
Whether you’re religious or not, you won’t regret visiting the awe-inspiring Grace Cathedral situated in the city’s Nob Hill district. Famed for its magnificent mosaics and stained glass windows, the cathedral also contains a well-known labyrinth that was based on the famous French medieval labyrinth at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. Taking some time to visit the cathedral and slowly tracing the labyrinth with your steps provides a soul-enriching meditative practice that can help encourage calmness and foster a genuine sense of wellbeing.
12. Visit the San Francisco City Hall
City Hall is an imposing structure that may not make most tourists’ San Fran bucket list. That being said, however, there is certainly sufficient reasons to warrant a visit to this remarkable piece of architecture.
Some of the things within the San Francisco City Hall that are bound to impress include the basement art gallery, a glorious marble staircase and an array of beautiful sculptures and statues. You can even enjoy free walking tours of what’s often referred to as San Francisco’s most beautiful building.
13. Marvel at the city views
A city that’s perched atop such hilly terrain will definitely boast some viewpoints that furnish travellers with incredible panoramic views of the city skyline and the famous bay that surrounds it. The top spots to take in a gorgeous San Fran view would include Twin Peaks, Bernal Heights Alamo Square and Coit Tower.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.
– TEXT BY SAUL LIPCHIK
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This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.