From the Gold Rush through to the Silicon Valley boom, San Francisco has always seemed to attract the kind of people who chase the big bucks. But you don’t have to spend like a Google Exec to get the most out of a visit here. In fact, the City by the Bay is an excellent stop for anyone on a budget – even if that budget’s hovering close to zero. So save your money for your iPhone 6 and check out our top 10 suggestions for what’s free – and awesome – in San Francisco.
Serious “golfers” and newbies alike can spend hours tossing discs into a series of 18 “holes” – chain-link baskets atop metal poles – scattered throughout a tightly wooded course in Golden Gate Park. Bring along a few buddies and make it a friendly competition!
From HI San Francisco Downtown, hop a cable car up Powell Street or just walk the 9 blocks up Mason St. to the Cable Car Museum. The museum’s the best place in the city to learn all about one of San Francisco’s most iconic symbols, and it’s always free to visit.
Privately Owned Public Open Spaces, or “POPOS,” are lush plazas, hidden gardens, rooftop terraces, and even miniature forests scattered all over downtown San Francisco. Though they’re funded and maintained by downtown property owners, they’re free for everyone to enjoy. See how many of the urban oases you can uncover with a free guide to every POPOS in town from SPUR.
With dramatic bluffs boasting cypress trees, wildflowers, and unbelievable ocean views, Lands’ End is a nature-lover’s paradise within the boundaries of a major metropolis.
Extend your hike with a visit to nearby Sutro Heights Park or the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or stroll all the way down to Ocean Beach for a relaxing day on the coast.
The National Parks Service in San Francisco has a constant need for casual, drop-in, short-term volunteers in all of its local parks. Even as a visitor, it’s easy to get outdoors, get your hands dirty, and leave your destination a little better than the way you found it – all without a lot of paperwork, training, or even time.
Golden Gate Park, believe it or not, is a home where the buffalo roam. An enduring symbol of the Wild West, buffalos (also known as American bison) first made their way to San Francisco in the 1890s. Long before the city had a zoo, it kept an odd collection of animals, from bears, to elk, to buffalo, in Golden Gate Park near what’s now the California Academy of Sciences. In 1899, the bison were relocated to today’s “bison paddock” near the park’s Spreckles Lake.
Get to know a little more about San Francisco’s maritime history and marvel at one of the largest naval collections on the West Coast at this museum which also boasts awesome views of the Bay. Located right on the shoreline in Fisherman’s Wharf in the ship-shaped Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building, the Maritime Museum features fascinating displays, like photomurals and educational illustrations, as well as model ships and engraved and carved whalebone (called scrimshaw).
Coastal city though it is, most people don’t think of San Francisco as a beach destination. But on a sunny spring or autumn day, there’s nothing better than having your toes in the sand on Ocean Beach, Baker Beach, or the Crissy Field Beach. Think frolicking dogs, soaring kites, salty air, and epic sunsets.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, a number of famous (and soon-to-be-famous) artists came to San Francisco to paint murals all over the city. Today, you can visit many of the most impressive, by artists from Diego Rivera to Hilaire Hiler, for free. And be sure to check out the 7-foot masterpiece of famed graffiti artist BiP, which you can find on the backside of HI San Francisco City Center.
Free shows at Amoeba SF
Former home to a bowling alley, Amoeba Music is worthy of a visit even when there isn’t anything going on. But if you’re looking for a free show in a fairly intimate venue, this is the joint. The record store, which is billed as one of the largest independent music stores, hosts acoustic sessions and DJ sets by local artists and popular acts like Phantogram and 90s legends Third Eye Blind. Visit the site for the lineup of upcoming shows.
Looking for even more free activities in San Francisco? Check out free tastings, tours, movie nights, and more at HI USA’s three San Francisco hostels. They’re a great way to get to know your fellow hostellers while experiencing the city like a local!
Find more free things to across the country in the HI USA Free For All.