Free Things To Do in San Francisco
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The Golden Gate Bridge's vaulting, orange arches amidst the rocky seascape of the San Francisco Bay have made it one of the West Coast's most enduring symbols and the city's most popular tourist attraction. The bridge's name, "Golden Gate," actually refers to the body of water it spans (the Golden Gate Strait that connects the Pacific Ocean with the San Francisco Bay), and was built to make travel between San Francisco and Marin County an easier feat.
There are plenty of great spots to capture a snap of the majestic bridge. But if you want a truly postcard-worthy shot, head to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point, situated high on a hill overlooking San Francisco. If you have extra time, make sure to explore the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The actual span of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area encompasses multiple places in San Mateo (south of San Francisco), San Francisco and Marin Counties (Alcatraz and Muir Woods included), but notable parts of this recreation area can be found just a stroll away from the Golden Gate. From the bridge, travelers will find some scenic, bayside trails, some of which lead to secluded beaches, including Kirby Cove and Black Sands Beach. If you really want a trek, journey to the Point Bonita Lighthouse for sweeping views of the bay, found at the very tip of the Golden Gate Strait.
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If California had a Central Park equivalent, Golden Gate Park would undoubtedly be it. Though Golden Gate Park sees a small fraction of the visitor's its New York counterpart does (Central Park gets upwards of 25 million, while Golden Gate gets more than 13 million yearly), it's about 174 acres bigger (Central Park is 843 acres). The park offers so much to see and do, it could take an entire day to experience all that it has to offer. Trails, picturesque picnic spaces, playgrounds, sports courts, gardens, museums and more can be found within its evergreen borders. With so many options available, it's best to map out ahead of time what you want to do, though some attractions warrant a visit, regardless of traveler taste.
The Japanese Tea Garden is one of those standout sites. This attraction is one of a kind, serving as the oldest Japanese Garden in the USA. It features five acres of manicured gardens outfitted with cherry trees, bamboo-lined pathways, koi ponds, a five-story pagoda, Zen Garden and actual tea house, among other features. There's also the Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest existing public conservatory in the Western Hemisphere. The conservatory offers visitors a look at a plethora of vibrantly colored blooms and a chance to learn more about the nearly 2,000 species of plants that call the conservatory home.
- #4View all Photos#4 in San FranciscoParks and Gardens, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDParks and Gardens, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDRead More
After a day of hasty sightseeing, the Yerba Buena Gardens provide travelers with an opportunity to wind down and enjoy San Francisco's weather and unique culture. The gardens proper include 5 acres of landscaped lawns complete with flowers, trees, water and art. The Cho-En Butterfly Garden attracts native San Francisco butterflies with plants (also native) that encourage butterfly growth from eggs to adults. Meanwhile, the Reflection Garden serves as a tribute to the Ohlone Indians as well as a performance area for various oral traditions. The Upper Terrace Garden and the Sister City Gardens, which include plants from San Francisco's 18 Sister Cities from around the world, are where visitors will find the area's cafes and most of its seating. Additionally, the East Garden houses a variety of sculptures and water features. Lastly, three of the Yerba Buena Gardens' lawns boast designs meant to appeal specifically to children.
What's more, attractions like the Children's Creativity Museum and the Yerba Buena Ice Skating + Bowling Center flank the Yerba Buena Gardens, so travelers could feasibly spend an entire day exploring this area of San Francisco. Due to the number of restaurants that also surround the gardens, many past travelers recommend stopping by the Yerba Buena Gardens after grabbing lunch nearby. Recent visitors recommend checking out the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial as well.
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If you want the best views of San Francisco, take a hike to Twin Peaks. These famous grassy pounds rise 922 feet from the ground, making them the second highest point in the city (after Mount Davidson). From the top, travelers can view multiple San Francisco landmarks, including the Bay Bridge and the downtown skyscrapers. Whether you decide to go during the day or night (some say you should do both), numerous visitors agree that the views are stunning and worth the trek. But make sure to bring a jacket: many recent visitors said it can get windier (and subsequently chillier) up top than at sea level.
The Twin Peaks are open 5 a.m. to midnight and there is free (albeit limited) parking at the top of Twin Peaks Boulevard. The Castro Street station is the nearest Muni Metro stop and the Crestline Drive stop on the No. 37 is the best bus route (picks up from Market Street). Be sure to stay on marked trails, as poison ivy can be found in the area. For more information, visit the San Francisco Recreation and Parks website.
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If you want to explore San Francisco's rich gay and lesbian culture, the Castro neighborhood is its beating heart. Not only is the Castro the center of the city's LGBTQ community, but it's considered by many to be the gay capital of the world. And once you learn the Castro's history, it's easy to see why. In the 1970s, the Castro was home to Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay public official and one of the first in the USA. His steadfast efforts in the gay rights movement not only earned him the title the "Mayor of Castro Street," but his political efforts helped put San Francisco at the forefront of the gay rights movement. His former camera shop, Castro Camera, that also served as his campaign headquarters, still stands on Castro Street and now serves as a Human Rights Campaign retail shop.
Visitors found the Castro laid-back, fun and above all colorful, citing its friendly residents, plentiful amenities and striking aesthetics as its best assets.The neighborhood is lined with picturesque Victorian homes, previously built by immigrants who moved to the Castro in the 19th century seeking cheap land (the area was once a dairy farm). Travelers say a stop at Harvey Milk's old camera shop is a must, even if there is only a plaque commemorating his presence there now. Those wanting to delve further into the neighborhood's history should head on over to the GLBT Museum on 18th street. The unmissable Castro Theatre, situated along the neighborhood's main drag, is another neighborhood gem and a registered city landmark.
- #9View all PhotosfreeBaker Beach#9 in San FranciscoBeaches, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDBeaches, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
While San Francisco isn't known for being a beach town, the city's Baker Beach is often considered one of the best in California. Located in the northwestern area of San Francisco in the Presidio, Baker Beach is primarily known for its sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the neighboring Marin Headlands. The mile-long beach offers travelers plenty of room to spread their legs and features picnic areas and access to nearby Presidio trails. Travelers flock here to snap photos of the bridge, however, if you're looking to catch some rays or get your feet wet, you should go elsewhere: Swimming at Baker Beach is dangerous thanks to large waves, undertow and rip currents, and the city's fickle weather means it's not always warm enough for sunbathing.
Travelers strongly recommend bringing an extra layer, no matter what time of year you visit. Reviewers also stress that those traveling with families should stick to the south side of the beach: North Baker Beach is clothing optional, and it's definitely practiced.
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Attention all foodies: this delectable attraction needs to be at the top of your San Francisco to-do list. The Ferry Building Marketplace is a public food market that features a variety of food stalls that act as small restaurants, snack stops and grocery stores. Here you can find everything from staples, such as seafood, burgers, Mexican food and plenty of coffee, to a Japanese delicatessen, empanada stand, nut shop and a cheese and dairy bar.
Many travelers who stopped by the Ferry Building Marketplace visited multiple times during their San Francisco trip. Visitors were impressed with the amount, variety and overall quality of eats available on-site. Though there are formal restaurants available, some visitors say the best strategy is to pick up a to-go meal and enjoy it along the scenic waterfront. And if you're not one for lines, don't come on the weekends.
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Situated a couple blocks north of Market Street and southwest of the city's Financial District, Union Square sits at the heart of downtown San Francisco's hustle and bustle. This area is loved by travelers and locals alike for its awesome location and incredible energy. Union Square Park is flanked by tall buildings (some of which are adorned with Time Square-size ads) and busy streets, offering people the unique opportunity to sit in the middle of a busy city and enjoy the atmosphere without the risk of getting run over. The square also acts as a park, outfitted with small grassy spaces and palm trees. There are also multiple seating areas and works of art dotted across the square. The most recognized are the tall Dewey monument, situated in the center of the square, and the regularly photographed Hearts of San Francisco sculpture found at the base of the square
Travelers appreciated the abundance of amenities that surround Union Square. There are plenty of hotels as well as dining options left and right. Union Square is pretty well-known, however, for its shopping. Just blocks away shoppers will find everything from Neiman Marcus to a multi-level Forever 21. Recent visitors agreed this is a great place to shop but warn against driving through the area. While there is parking underneath the square, some drivers find the roads around Union Square to be so congested that braving the traffic is not worth the convenient parking. Getting to Union Square via public transportation is much easier. The attraction sits just blocks from Market Street, a hub for all types of public transportation including the bus, Muni Metro and BART. Union Square is only two blocks southeast from the Market St. & 3rd St. Muni Station and about four blocks south of the Powel Street BART Station. Union Square can be visited all hours of the day and night for free. For more information on Union Square, visit the attraction's website.
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While New York City's Chinatown tends to take center stage in the USA, San Francisco's Chinatown is just as much of a star. San Francisco's Chinatown hosts one of the largest Asian communities outside of Asia, and is considered one the oldest in North America. Chinese immigrants first started coming to California in search of fortune during the Gold Rush. After being driven out of the gold mines (due to discrimination and restrictive legislation against Chinese immigrants), the Chinese moved to build businesses of their own in the area that is now Chinatown – one of the city's most visited neighborhoods.
The best way to experience Chinatown is to simply wander around the neighborhood. Chinatown isn't very big (about 24 blocks), so even a short stroll will likely get you to top spots in the neighborhood.
- #14View all PhotosfreeLands End#14 in San FranciscoBeaches, Hiking, Historic Homes/Mansions, Monuments and Memorials, Museums, Sightseeing, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Hiking, Historic Homes/Mansions, Monuments and Memorials, Museums, Sightseeing, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
One of the top places in San Francisco to catch the sunset, Lands End offers whimsical, winding trails through rocky cliffs. Located in the northwestern corner of San Francisco, the park sits inside of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The park encompasses multiple historic sites, monuments, a golf course, multiple trails and a shoreline labyrinth with excellent views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Past visitors appreciated the historic ruins of the Sutro Baths, which San Franciscans used as a recreational swimming facility from 1898 to 1964. The baths were demolished in 1964, then further destroyed by a fire in 1996, leaving the structure that travelers can visit today. Similarly, the park's iconic Cliff House was destroyed twice by fire, but it was rebuilt each time. Now, the Cliff House offers a space for travelers to enjoy a meal or drink.
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The Mission District has attracted San Francisco's young bohemian crowd in the past decade, but it's still retained its authentic, local Mexican ambiance. This is the place that introduced the burrito to the wider world, so be sure to check out a local hole in the wall for some great eats. The Mission is also a great neighborhood for getting away from the heavily visited tourist attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf. Recent travelers said the funky neighborhood has a cool vibe and is filled with interesting murals. For an excellent view of the city, walk to the nearby Bernal Heights hill and relax for a bit. Also try the nearby Dolores Park, the most popular spot for sunbathers on a fogless day.
While the Mission District is one of San Francisco's more popular neighborhoods, it can be unsafe at night, so take precautions and never walk the neighborhood alone in the evening.
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Fisherman's Wharf is so tourist-laden that some travelers might prefer the quieter, more authentic attractions nearby (like the Castro or Golden Gate Park). But if you're looking to explore all of San Francisco – from its alternative underbelly to its mainstream attractions – Fisherman's Wharf really is a must-see. This waterfront neighborhood features a laundry list of things to do, as well as a few popular San Francisco sites. One of these is Pier 39. The Pier features plenty of shopping and restaurant options for tourists and is also famous for offering sweeping views of the bay, as well as the can't-miss attractions that call it home, including Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Though while you're there, don't miss an opportunity to snap a photo of the sea lions who have a habit of sunbathing on buoys near the docks.
The Wharf also houses plenty of family-friendly attractions and activities, including a Madame Tussauds wax museum, Ripley's Believe It or Not!, the San Francisco Dungeon and the Aquarium of the Bay, the last three of which can be found on Pier 39. Those with an interest in history will want to explore the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and its Maritime Museum. When you start to feel peckish, head over to Ghirardelli Square, which is home to the original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate shop. There's also Boudin's, another San Francisco institution. Boudin's is the original creator of sourdough French bread as well as the oldest bakery in the city of San Francisco.
- #19View all PhotosfreeOcean Beach#19 in San FranciscoBeaches, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Located in the northwestern corner of San Francisco, Ocean Beach separates attractions like the San Francisco Zoo and Golden Gate Park from the Pacific Ocean. This 3 ½-mile stretch of sand is a welcome respite from the city's bustling downtown. Visitors and locals can walk the beach, while experienced surfers brave the frigid water in search of the perfect wave. While swimming is not encouraged here due to strong currents, travelers can build a bonfire and hang out and soak up the scenery by one of the 16 fire rings that pepper the beach. Average temperatures at the beach typically hover around 50 degrees. Also, keep in mind that fog shrouds the shore during the late spring and summer, while the sunniest months are September and October.
Past visitors praise the views from the beach, as well as its soft sand. They also echo the National Park Service's sentiment that the water is best left to expert surfers, as riptides make casual swimming exceptionally dangerous. While parking at the beach is free (located along the Great Highway side), some travelers warned that it can be a challenge to get a spot on days when the weather is particularly nice.
- #24View all PhotosfreeLombard Street#24 in San FranciscoHistoric Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, Sightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDRead More
Fans of zigging and zagging and charming thoroughfares will appreciate Lombard Street, an exceptionally crooked street in northern San Francisco. Victorian mansions line the street, while beautiful flowers and landscaped shrubbery fill the space between its eight switchbacks. While the road runs from east to west for the length of the city, the portion between Hyde and Leavenworth streets is the section worth exploring.
Travelers can walk along each direction of Lombard Street, or opt to drive down it instead. The top of this iconic road boasts stellar views, though recent travelers still express mixed opinions on whether the heavily trafficked street warrants a visit. One tip travelers recommend: Taking the cable car to the attraction, which stops at the top of the hill (at the intersection of Hyde and Lombard streets). From the elevated view, you can gaze at the winding street as automobiles queue up for the quick drive down. You'll find Lombard Street just south of Fisherman's Wharf; it's free to visit.
- View all PhotosHiking, Natural Wonders, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Natural Wonders, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
If you want to experience the Bay Area's pristine natural spaces but may not have enough time to explore neighboring Marin County, the Presidio is the perfect alternative. This park is famous for its placement at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, affording incredible views throughout. In addition to stunning vantage points, the Presidio features 12 scenic hiking trails that vary from easy to challenging, taking hikers through beautiful Bay Area scenery (think: coastal forest and the Marin Headlands).
The most popular trail is both its shortest and most challenging – the Batteries to Bluffs Trail. This trail features elevation changes along the shoreline of the Presidio's undeveloped western shoreline. From here, hikers can get an eyeful of not only the bridge and the bay but the Marin Headlands as well. There's also the longer 2 ½-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail, which also ends at the Golden Gate but unlike the Batteries to Bluffs Trail, features more coastal woodland scenery in between. For more Pacific Ocean views, stick to the nearly 3-mile-long California Coastal Trail, which starts at Baker Beach.
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