San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in the USA, known for its iconic Golden Gate Bridge and giant tech companies. Along with these, it is known as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live. So a lot of people are getting put off seeing this city because of budget concerns. However, you can still enjoy San Francisco on a budget. So here are the best free things to do in San Francisco that are recommended by travel bloggers. A proof that San Francisco can be done on a cheap.
Free Things To Do In San Francisco, California
Visit the sea lions at Pier 39
Going to see the famous sea lions of San Francisco is a must do while you’re in the city. They live at Pier 39 on the docks, sunbathing and honking away loudly. I’m always wary with animal attractions so was a bit worried they weren’t there out of their own free will but apparently, there’s plenty of natural food in the bay and they decided to descend on it themselves. The sea lions can leave whenever they like, migrating or going off to their breeding grounds as and when they need to. They seem not to mind at all being the subjects of so many tourist photos!
Sea lions might not be the cutest or cuddliest creatures but they have a lot of character and are really fun to watch. There aren’t many cities that can boast such unique permanent residents. Also, the noise they collectively make is incredible… not to mention their ‘interesting’ smell!
Source: Caroline of Pack The Suitcases
2. San Francisco Cable Car Museum
When you think of San Francisco, one of the first things you probably think of is cable cars. So where better to go for free and learn about their history than the Cable Car Museum?
Situated on the corner of Mason and Washington Streets, the museum is easy to find and get to. If you’re riding the cable car anyway, chances are you’ll be passing, as both Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason cable car lines stop right near the entrance.
The museum isn’t huge – an hour is enough – but it’s a must see, and worth visiting just to view exactly how the cable cars work. Once inside, you’ll get to see the massive cables use to pull the cars in action, winding around their giant wheels. You can feel and smell the history and machinery in the air. There are several displays based on the history of the cars, with much memorabilia to view, and the museum even houses a few full-sized antique cable cars from yesteryear – a perfect picture opportunity. Don’t forget to pick up a souvenir from the gift shop too!
Source: Kerrie of Adventures in Family Land
3. See The Street Art in the Mission District
The Mission District of San Francisco holds a hidden gem for fans of street art visiting the area. Not only does this part of the city have a lot of character and soul, but you’ll also find alley after alley of visual delight. The murals and art of Clarion and Balmy Alley are the most fascinating to stroll through and stare at in admiration. The art stimulates thought as some make political, social, and cultural statements.
You really can’t miss this part of town because it gives you a clear idea of the people who make up, not only this part of the city, but the state of California are truly like. The stories told of issues that the people have faced or are passionate about giving an insider’s view that visitors can take away with them and ponder upon. Provoking emotion and mental stimulation while providing beautiful imagery that is unique is what sets this place apart and makes it a must see while in San Francisco!
When you visit, make sure to wander off into different alleys as there are lots of surprises around every corner.
Source: Taiss Nowrouzi of Together To Wherever
4. Walk down the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps is a fun free thing to do in San Francisco, who doesn’t love an intricately decorated and colorful inanimate object that makes for a great pic? That’s what I thought!
Flying birds and swimming fish, swirls of blues and greens, vibrant flower patterns and other motifs are splashed on these steps making this walk one of a kind. The steps are truly a work of art with thousands of tiles perfectly placed on the sides creating a stunning mosaic scene.
The “sea to stars” themed steps were community efforts and you’ll notice little markings on the tiles from the neighbors who all helped make these steps pop!
If you’re just walking around San Fran for the day and don’t have a car, you’ll probably want to start at 15th street and walk DOWN the steps, this way you’re not walking uphill and reserving that energy for other things to do in the area. With that said, you’ll need to look back up the steps to get the full view as you can only see the tiles while looking up towards them.
Source: Nina Ragusa of Where in the World is Nina?
5. Ferry Building Market Place
One of the best places to spend an hour (or two) in San Francisco is the Ferry Building Market Place – and it’s completely free (if you can resist the urge to shop of course!). The building in Embarcadero was completed in 1898 and its architecture is influenced by the Beaux Arts Style – topped up with a bell tower created after a 12th-century tower in Sevilla, Spain.
In 2002, the former baggage handling area on the ground floor got transformed into a food and handcraft market, a place you shouldn’t miss when visiting San Francisco! The place offers everything a foodie could wish for when looking for local cuisine and wineries – from fresh oysters and seafood to charcuterie and pastries, you get it there! Don’t worry if fancy cuisine isn’t exactly fitting into your budget – many food stalls are offering free samples of their treats!
Apart from that, an outdoor farmers market takes place several times a week outside the Ferry Building and: besides all the food and deliciousness, it’s still the main ferry terminal for commuter ferry services!
Source: Lena of Salut from Paris
6. Land’s End Lookout Park
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Land’s End Lookout Park is set on the perimeter of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It offers natural beauty and man-made history in the same place.
The area has easy hiking trails that treat you to gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The early morning fog gives that unique haunting atmosphere with glimpses of the orange ironwork peeking out of the mist.
Visit the beautiful sandy beach with its typical Northern California rocky coastline at sunset for perfect for Instagram shots. Despite lots of people arriving to witness the end of the day, it has a peaceful, relaxed vibe to it.
To access this part of the beach from Land’s End, you will need to climb down the cliff face or the numerous stone steps and then navigate the Sutro Baths Ruins. It’s doable for someone with normal fitness levels. Alternatively, walk from the main tourist beach at low tide.
The Sutro Baths were indoor Victorian saltwater swimming pools that burnt down in the 1960s leaving behind only the shell. The tide levels will depend on how much water remains in the pools but you can walk along the outer walls. A unique exploration from the ground and quite a sight from the cliff tops.
If you arrive in daytime hours you can visit the museum at the Lookout which gives plenty of historical information and artifacts from the area. There are car park and lots of on-street parking close by although it does get busy at times.
Source: Jo Jackson of Tea & Cake for the Soul
7. Lombard Street
San Francisco is built on several steep hills. This has helped create Lombard Street – popularly known as the crookedest street in the world! Over one short, steep block of Russian Hill, there are eight hairpin turns. On both sides of the narrow, one-way street are gorgeous Victorian mansions and manicured gardens that bloom colorfully in spring and summer, which help make this block even more incredible.
If you have a car, driving down the hill through the switchbacks between Hyde and Jones Streets is a popular thing to do in San Francisco. If you aren’t driving, you can take the Hyde Street cable car to the top of the block and walk down; there is a narrow sidewalk beside the road. This is probably one of the most photographed places in San Francisco – photos are best taken from the bottom looking up, as you can see the curves better, especially when there are cars on each of the switchbacks. The best part? It is totally free to do.
Source: James Ian of Travel Collecting
8. Crissy Field
Crissy Field is a popular sightseeing spot in San Francisco. Once the site of an army airfield, it’s since been incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Field is made up of marshland beside a beach. A Crissy Fields today, you’ll find beaches, dunes, picnic areas, trails, and the Warming Hut Café. From Crissy Fields, you can also connect to the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point trails.
We parked at the parking lot in front of the Crissy Field East Beach. Then, we walked from East Beach to the Warming Hut. This takes about 25 min. Along the way, we enjoyed beautiful views of the Golden Gate bridge. The Warming Hut is a great place to stop, have a cup of coffee, and pick up a few souvenirs. From here, you can continue on to the Golden Gate Overlook. This will be another 20 minutes walking from the Warming Hut. At the Golden Gate Overlook, you’ll get a completely different view of the bridge. You’ll be facing it straight on!
Source: Valentina Djordjevic of Valentina’s Destinations
9. Biking the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the US with its orange towers and roadway spanning the Bay. Biking (or walking) across it is a popular activity for visitors and gives you a chance to appreciate its size and the views of the city and surrounding area. There are plenty of bike rental companies operating in the Fisherman’s Wharf area to borrow one if you want. The bridge is 1.7 miles long, so if you plan to walk or bike the whole thing, make sure you give yourself enough time. Pedestrians are only allowed on the east side of the bridge.
On weekdays until 3:30, bikes share the east sidewalk. In the evenings and on weekends, bikes are only allowed on the west sidewalk. Pedestrian hours vary by season, so check the schedule for the day you’ll be visiting. Late afternoon will give you the best lighting for photography looking out toward San Francisco and Alcatraz. Be sure to wear layers because it can get quite windy up on the bridge.
Source: Kris from Nomad by Trade
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