If you’re visiting SF on a budget, then there are plenty of free things to do in San Francisco that will keep you busy for days. Situated on a peninsula and almost completely surrounded by water, San Francisco is a unique and bustling city that almost feels like it is on an island.
There’s a huge list of fun free things to do in San Francisco, from driving or walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, to experiencing the entertaining and lively Pier 39, to exploring the historic streets of Chinatown.
Looking for the best nightlife activities? browse our fun guide of things to do in San Francisco at night. If you’re visiting with kids, check out our guide to the best things to do in San Francisco with kids, or if you just want an exhaustive list of the top activities in SF, then check out our 30 Best Things to do in San Francisco.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most iconic bridges in the United States, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco stands out above the rest with its unique orange/red color and its mile-wide span connecting the San Francisco peninsula to Marin County to the north. This bridge is said to be the most photographed bridge in the entire world!
The Golden Gate Bridge is a busy commuter passage for workers who live in Marin County and drive into SF to work, and the bridge has walkways so you can walk or bike across, which is a great way to experience just how tall and long this bridge really is. If you are visiting and looking for the top free thing to do in San Francisco, you absolutely need to experience this legendary bridge.
2. Pier 39
A Classic tourist destination along the San Francisco waterfront, Pier 39 is a hotbed of activity, from shopping, dining, and historical landmarks, to fun street performers entertaining the crowds. There are also hundreds of sea lions that are resting on the docks along the edge of the pier making this one of our top free things to do in San Francisco.
This a fun and family-friendly destination and we’d recommend if you are visiting with kids.
3. Ferry Building
The Ferry Building in San Francisco is an iconic building on the waterfront in SF that is the main hub for all the ferries that shuttle commuters between Downtown and the cities across the bay.
The Ferry Building is also home to some great restaurants and shopping and is a fun destination if you are exploring the SF Emarcadero and waterfront districts.
For a taste of an exotic place far away, we’d recommend visiting the colorful China Town district in downtown San Francisco. The second most popular tourist attraction in SF, Chinatown is spread across 24 blocks and is filled with ethnic Chinese restaurants, retail stores, and open market vendors.
Visiting Chinatown in SF is a one-of-a-kind experience that really makes you forget where you. We’d highly recommend strolling through the streets of Chinatown and being immersed in this rich foreign culture.
5. Lombard Street
Lombard Street is a famous street in SF that’s known for its steep hill section of cobblestone that has 8 hairpin turns and can be a real challenge to drive down if your car isn’t compact. A popular destination for tourists and visitors, this street is called the “Crookedest in the world” and is definitely worth checking out – especially if you like a good driving challenge!
6. Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is a truly massive urban park in the heart of San Francisco that is spread of 1,000 acres and is the third most visited city park in America. With many lakes, event venues, museums, and an extensive botanical garden, you can spend multiple days experiencing all the great features of this park.
A true breath of fresh air for residents and visitors of SF, we’d highly recommend spending some time exploring the many attractions if you are searching for a relaxing & free thing to do in San Francisco.
7. Union Square
At the heart of Downtown San Francisco, Union Square is the bustling center of town. With upscale stores, art galleries, and restaurants surrounding the square, the square is a great place to see the city and do some shopping.
Union Square is home to many public art installations and often hosts various interesting art events. If you are visiting the downtown SF area, then Union Square should be on your list of things to do.
8. Point Bonita Lighthouse
Located at the very tip of the Marin Headland’s peninsula, the Point Bonita Lighthouse is a picturesque is the only lighthouse in the United States reachable only by a suspension bridge. This lighthouse was during the San Francisco Gold Rush years after hundreds of ships were wrecked on the rocks trying to enter the harbor on foggy days.
This lighthouse is very unique and definitely worth visit, especially if you plan on visiting the Marin Headlands area north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It can be seen by the public during limited visiting hours on Sundays and Mondays.
9. Baker Beach
Likely the most photographed beach in San Francisco, Baker Beach is located near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Baker Beach is considered part of the historical military Presidio area of the San Francisco. If you want to visit the beach with the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge, then we’d recommend a visit to this beautiful beach.
10. Twin Peaks
Rising 925 feet above San Francisco, the two Twin Peaks look down over the busy city. The top of the Twin Peaks area is 31 acres of undeveloped wilderness and there are many short trails that take you out to scenic overlooks of various parts of the city. We’d definitely recommend the short drive up to Twin Peaks for a great view and a unique vantage point of the city.
11. Koret Playground
Visiting San Francisco with Children and want to know what park is the best? Well, Koret park just might be the most fun park in the city, with extensive play equipment, large grassy area, picnic tables, and the main attraction – a long slide that’s built into the surrounding hillside. This park is the top-rated park in San Francisco for kids, so we’d highly recommend a visit.
12. Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden is an incredibly detailed and themed garden located in Golden Gate Park that was originally built as part of the Worlds Fair expo of 1894. As the oldest park of its kind, this 3-acre Japanese-style garden contains many traditional Japanese structures, interesting sculptures, and many calming water features.
For a serene experience in the heart of Golden Gate Park, we’d recommend visiting this incredible park within a park.
13. Ocean Beach
This large beach on the west coast of the San Francisco peninsula is often shrouded in coastal fog and gives it a dark and mystical feel. Popular with local surfers, the waves and currents here are extremely strong and should only be enjoyed with the utmost caution.
The best beach weather here happens in the fall and early spring months when the ocean breezes and fog temporarily subsides and gives way to sunny and warm beach days.
14. Marin Headlands
Just over the San Francisco Bay across the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll find the sprawling and hilly Marin Headlands. This area is full of interesting hiking trails, ruins of ancient military structures, and at the tip, the picturesque Bonita Point Lighthouse.
For a change of pace and great views of the city, we’d recommend exploring the scenic trails of the Marin Headlands.
15. Land’s End Trail
Land’s End trail is a mainly short walking trail meanders along the beautiful cliffs and ends up at a scenic overlook with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Along this trail, you can see a mysterious rock labyrinth, and the ruins of the curious Sutro Baths.
To experience a bit of San Francisco nature without too much effort, the Land’s End trail is a great option.
16. Mission District
The mission district is an area close to Downtown that is known for its artsy vibe, interesting food, and is a hotbed of modern San Francisco culture and fashion. Named after the San Francisco mission which still stands in this neighborhood and is the oldest known building in the city. Dolores Park is a popular park in the Mission District and has a great view of the downtown skyline.
We’d recommend visiting the Mission District to find a great restaurant, see some interesting street art, and to generally experience the current cultural climate of SF.
17. Coit Tower
For the best 360-degree view of San Francisco and the surrounding cities across the bay, you need to visit Coit Tower. Located close to Downtown San Francisco in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood, this 210-foot concrete tower was completed in 1033 and is now on the Nation Register of Historic Places.
We’d recommend a visit to this impressive tower if you want to get above it all and see the town from a neat perspective.
18. The Painted Ladies
This row of colorfully painted Victorian houses is located in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. These particular 7 houses are a popular destination for tourists and have been named the “Postcard Row” because of there frequent appearances in postcards, ads, and pop-culture references to San Francisco.
These homes are definitely worth a visit if you are a fan of the historical architecture of San Francisco, or if you just want to see what all the fuss is about.
19. Ghirardelli Square
If you love chocolate, then you’ll need to visit Ghirardelli Square. As the site of the original headquarters of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, this area on the San Francisco waterfront has turned into a lively area that has many great shops, restaurants and a 5-star hotel.
We’d recommend a visit to the Ghirardelli flagship store inside the square to browse the largest selection of chocolate around.
20. Presidio of San Francisco
The Presidio of San Francisco is a large historical area on the northern part of the San Francisco peninsula and was used as a US military outpost. Opened to the public in 1994, this area is now part of the larger Golden Gate Recreational Area and has many historical buildings, military fortifications, and offers amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco bay, and the Marin Headlands
If you are looking to explore part of San Francisco’s past, this is a great area to visit.
21. Sutro Baths
The Sutro Baths are quite an unusual part of the history of San Francisco. A wealthy San Francisco entrepreneur named Adolf Sutro built an impressive indoor pool facility in his private cove on the western side of San Francisco in 1896. The pool was opened to the public and visitors were brought in by a private railway.
Later, the pool house burned down in a fire and the ruins remain today as a fun place to explore. The Sutro bath ruins are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and can be accessed easily by a short walk. If you are looking for a more unusual thing to do in San Francisco then you’ll want to visit these curious pools.