5 Free (Yes, Free!) Things to Do in San Francisco
Updated: April 19, 2023
AAA Travel Editor Frank Swanson
de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
Enjoy a perfect combination of freebies on the first Tuesday of every month: Golden Gate Park, (a top-tier San Francisco attraction, which is always free) and free admission to one of the city’s premier art institutions, the de Young Museum. It’s easy to spend hours admiring all the paintings and sculptures from around the world in the de Young’s galleries, and an added bonus is the observation deck atop the Harmon Tower (which is free to enter every day). The views of the city from nine stories up are incredible.
Golden Gate Bridge
Spans Golden Gate Strait
Not only is the Golden Gate Bridge a big deal in the city, it’s also one of its best deals. The iconic orange landmark is a must-have backdrop for your San Francisco vacation selfies, and the experience of walking across its 1.7-mile length is truly unforgettable. Those visitors afraid of heights might even find it a little scary once they see that the sidewalk they’re on hangs 220 feet above the water. To get the most out of this free attraction, start your visit at the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center on the bridge’s southeastern end.
Hidden Garden Steps
16th Avenue and Kirkham Street
You might associate San Francisco with awe-inspiring Pacific Coast scenery and impressive Golden Gate Bridge-size attractions, but it’s also a city of small-scale delights like lush pocket parks and alleyways lined with colorful murals. Stairways are a fact of life thanks to San Francisco’s hilly landscape, and many have been beautified despite being tucked away where they aren’t likely to be seen by casual passersby. A particularly striking example is the Hidden Garden Steps at 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street, which have been turned into a soaring work of art by way of vibrant tiles installed on its 148 risers.
Mount Davidson Park
11 Dalewood Way
This public park is far from the tourist throngs of Fisherman’s Wharf, but it’s one of the best places to go for fantastic 360-degree views of San Francisco. Paths lead through a misty eucalyptus forest to the highest point in the city, 938-foot-tall Mount Davidson. A concrete cross erected in 1934 towers 103 feet above the summit. It’s a peaceful retreat from the urban racket associated with a big, bustling big city and an excellent place for photos.
Musee Mechanique/David Gallagher
Pier 45 at Fisherman's Wharf
If Memory Lane were a real street, then Musée Mécanique would be the big kid on the block. Part history museum, part carnival midway, Musée Mécanique is basically a warehouse filled with coin-operated arcade games, self-playing musical instruments and strange-looking mechanical whatchamacallits that have been lovingly restored to full operation. You can test your strength by arm wrestling a masked robot, listen to an antique player piano and compete for the high score on a vintage video arcade game. It’s fascinating to watch the moving cogwheels and springs in a century-old dancing puppet or animated diorama, and entry is free. You will have to shell out a couple quarters to activate the fortune teller machine or play a classic game of pinball, though.
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AAA Travel Editor Frank Swanson
Frank Swanson is a AAA Travel Expert.