If you like nature, stunning architecture, shopping, museums, divey/hipster bars, and exceptional food in a city with a laid back vibe, San Francisco is a must. There’s so much to see and do within 49 square miles. The best part? You don’t need to go broke exploring the vibrant city of San Francisco. Read on to reveal our top 55+ things to do in San Francisco for budget travelers.
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ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR SAN FRANCISCO, CA
- If you’re driving into the city from elsewhere, be prepared for the horrendous Bay Area traffic, especially on weekdays during the morning and afternoon rush hours. The same goes for driving out of the city! Hopping onto the bridge to leave San Francisco could take almost an hour during rush hour. Plan your drives accordingly to avoid traffic.
- Do not rent a car if you’re primarily going to stay in SF. Traffic sucks and parking is an expensive nightmare. What’s worse is that if you do rent a car, many hotels charge $35+ for overnight parking. If you’re considering street parking as an alternative, good luck because most hotels are located in metered street parking areas. San Francisco is relatively small, so most tourist attractions are close to each other and public transportation options are plentiful.
- 511.org is a great resource that will provide you with detailed SF and Bay Area transportation information. Available both as an app and on the web, it should be your go-to resource for Bay Area traffic, transit, carpool, vanpool, and bicycling information. Since it’s catered towards commuters, it’s more comprehensive than Google Maps.
- Dress in layers. Even in the summer, mornings and evenings in San Francisco can be cool and chilly due to the coastal climate. Packing layers when you head out to explore will help you stay prepared for any kind of weather. Of my 20+ years of living in the Bay Area, I have never gone to SF without bringing a jacket with me.
- Wear extremely comfortable walking shoes. Even though public transportation is plentiful, San Francisco is a very walkable city and you’re going to be doing some hill climbing while you’re at it.
- Expect fog and wind while in San Francisco, and bring layers so that when it rolls in, you’re prepared! Sure there are clear, sunny days, but that’s more common in the summer and early fall.
FREE THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO
FREE SAN FRANCISCO WALKING TOUR
The easiest way to see a good amount of landmarks within a few hours is to join one of the many free walking tours offered throughout SF. Many of these tours are run by local volunteers, so not only will they provide you with rich history and facts about the city, but they will also provide you with local tips and recommendations for things to do and places to eat.
Walking tours are donation-based or pay-what-you-wish (suggested donations range from $10-15 per person).
A few free walking tour companies worth checking out:
- Wild SF: Free tour will take you through Chinatown, Downtown, Union Square and the Financial District, and give plenty of ideas of other spots to visit while you’re in San Francisco. They also have a paid Haunted SF Ghost Tour!
- SF City Guides: Free tours that focus on neighborhoods such as North Beach, Golden Gate Park, The Castro, Japantown, and many more.
- Free Tours by Foot: Free tours covering various topics and areas of SF, including Secrets, Scandals, and Scoundrels of San Francisco (their most popular tour), The Original SF Tour, The Lombard Street/Little Italy/Fisherman’s Wharf Tour, The Chinatown Tour, and many more.
DO THE CROSSTOWN TRAIL
Got time to dedicate an entire day to explore the city on foot? The San Francisco Crosstown Trail crosses San Francisco diagonally from southeast to northwest. Set out for a day-long trek on the entire 17-mile trail or choose to walk 1-2 of the five sections for a shorter stroll.
EXPLORE NORTH BEACH
North Beach is one of the culturally richest, most-loved neighborhoods in San Francisco! A buzzing neighborhood steeped in Italian heritage, you can find many restaurants and shops, as well as bars, hole-in-the-wall establishments, and independently owned coffee shops. This neighborhood boasts some of the most entertaining urban walks in the city. Along Columbus Avenue, you will find the highest density of Italian cafes in San Francisco.
If you can get a seat at the casual seafood restaurant Sotto Mare, I’d highly recommend a meal there. Two other notable food joints to check out: Golden Boy Pizza and Betty Lou’s!
Broadway, the nearby “red light district”, has some really cool old-fashioned neon signs that light the neighborhood up at night. Stop by Sam’s Pizza & Burgers for one of the city’s best late-night classic burgers.
EXPLORE FISHERMAN’S WHARF / PIER 39
Welcome to one of the largest tourist attractions in SF. Despite how touristy it is, you gotta check it out at least once! Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 is home to dozens of restaurants, shops, activities for families and kids, and kitschy attractions (merry-go-round, a wax museum, 3D rides, etc). Here you will also find the Aquarium of the Bay and the famous SF sea lions. For the true wharf experience, head to Boudin for clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl or grab a shrimp/crab roll from one of the many seafood stands and watch the smelly sea lions bark away.
Pier 39 has a merry-go-round, candy shop, mini-donut shot, and lots of other restaurants to check out.
Located within Fisherman’s Wharf, Musée Mécanique is one of my favorite free museums in San Francisco. Here you’ll find more than 300 vintage and fully functional entertainment machines, ranging from orchestrions, coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines, crane games and more from the past century. This museum is open until 8pm every night of the week, and it’s a great way to spend an hour. Although it won’t be free to play all of the games, prices for each machine range from 1¢ – $1, with the average price being either 25¢ to 50¢ per play. Don’t miss the old-fashioned photo booth on your way out!
Ghirardelli Square is a fun little square to walk around if you’re already in the area. From the Fisherman’s Wharf area, hop on over and spend the 20-30 minutes walking around. The main attraction here is The Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop–if you’re in the mood for sweets, don’t miss the sundaes or the hot chocolate. The hot chocolate is definitely a winner.
GET AN IRISH COFFEE AT ITS BIRTHPLACE
Steps away from Ghirardelli Square sits the Buena Vista Cafe. Little known fact, the Irish Coffee was actually born here back in 1952. On a regular day, the Buena Vista serves around 2,000 Irish coffees—up to 2,500 on a busy weekend day. These Irish Coffees are made the legit way, with Tullamore Dew. Come try one for yourself!
EXPLORE AND EAT AT CHINATOWN
A short walk from North Beach will bring you right into the lively neighborhood of Chinatown. Not only is this the largest Chinatown outside of Asia but it’s also the oldest Chinatown in North America. Starting at the iconic Dragon’s Gate on Grant Avenue and Bush Street, you can browse trinket shops and tea shops, visit the famous fortune cookie factory, explore the district with a culinary walking tour, or pop into various restaurants/delis to try all the dim sum your heart desires. My #1 recommendation for this area: Golden Gate Bakery— serves up one of the best egg tarts you’ll ever have in your life (even better than the ones in Hong Kong).
GOLDEN GATE FORTUNE COOKIE FACTORY
Did you know that fortune cookies were first made in California in the 1890s or early 1900s? If you want a deep dive into how they’re made, stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown for a free tour to learn more about the process and grab a few samples on your way out. A variety of different fortune cookies are also available for purchase in their store.
FERRY BUILDING AT THE EMBARCADERO
At the Embarcadero you will find the famous ferry building, which is a real treat to explore. Gourmet shops and restaurants line the interior of the building, including those selling locally made cheeses, olive oil, fresh oysters, artisanal ice cream, craft beer, and much more. Pick up some Blue Bottle Coffee, stop by Humphry Slocombe for their delicious and creamy ice cream flavors, grab some freshly baked bread at Acme Bread, and explore a few of the boutique stalls (they give free samples of olive oils, tapenade, lotions, and more).
FERRY PLAZA FARMERS MARKET
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is a tri-weekly California Certified Farmers Market located at the San Francisco Ferry Building. The market is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, with over 100+ vendors featured on Saturday. It’s the perfect place to pick up some local produce, dried fruits, fresh-baked pastries, and even grab a bite to eat for lunch. My ultimate favorite food stall is Primavera (based in Sonoma, CA)—trust me, get the mole tamales. Out of this world.
MURAL HUNTING IN THE MISSION DISTRICT
The Mission District is a virtual outdoor art gallery full of vibrant murals. On side streets and alleyways, vibrant murals can be found from left and right and all around you! These grand works of art feature themes ranging from cultural heritage to social-political statements. Take a stroll over to these streets to enjoy the district’s mural art:
- Balmy Alley: Between 24th and 25th streets, and Treat and Harrison streets
- Clarion Alley: Between 17th and 18th streets, and Mission and Valencia streets
- Cypress Street and Lilac Street
EXPLORE THE MISSION DISTRICT
The Mission is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the entire city with some of the best things to do to keep you busy in San Francisco. It’s packed with super trendy restaurants as well as some of the most fun and down-to-earth bars in the city. What you’ll notice here is that there are two distinct areas—a historical/cultural area as well as a more gentrified area.
Valencia Street is lined with many artisanal coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and independent boutiques, while Mission Street is home to some of the best tacos and burritos in the United States. (You heard that right, La Taqueria won “Best Burrito in the US”). If you still have room in your stomach after stuffing yourself with Mexican food, grab a pastry or an epic slice of pizza at Arizmendi Bakery.
Dolores Park is one of the main landmarks in the Mission and one of the top reasons why I love the Mission so much. It’s absolutely the perfect place to grab some food, have a picnic, and sunbathe on a sunny day (not to mention the great opportunities for people watching). The best part of all, the people who come here are actually locals. If you grab a spot higher up on the hill, you will be treated to some outstanding views of the urban skyline. Bring a picnic, a blanket, a football, a pair of sunglasses, and some speakers and you’re sure to have a great time. There are lots of food establishments nearby— grab a burrito, a cup of ice cream from Bi-rite Creamery, or pastries/sandwiches from Tartine Bakery and bring it along for your picnic.
The Haight-Ashbury district has become a very popular tourist destination, famed for its unique history, liveliness, and counter-culture charm. It’s got all things vintage and retro–thrift stores, record stores, and bookstores, such as the world-famous Amoeba Records and bookworms’ favorite, Booksmith. Haight Ashbury is bursting with color as well, due to its many murals, galleries, and art spaces. If you’re looking for something kitschy, The famous Haight Ashbury legs are above the shop called the Piedmont Boutique (1452 Haight St).
GOLDEN GATE PARK
Golden Gate Park is such a dreamy place to spend a few hours. This park was modeled after Central Park in New York City and is actually 20% larger than Central Park. Golden Gate Park spans over 1,000 acres and houses a ton of museums, gardens, and attractions. A few notable attractions here include the Conservatory of Flowers, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the de Young Museum, home to many fine arts, and a sculpture garden, as well as the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum with a planetarium, aquarium, and indoor rainforest. These museums have free museum days about once a month–keep reading for more information.
The Japanese Tea Garden is also free before 10am if you go on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays. You can also check out the Golden Gate Park Rose Garden, completely free at all times, featuring over 60 rose beds. The peak time to see roses is during the summer, but there’s always something on display no matter the season. There’s even a ferris wheel to ride within Golden Gate Park now!
Aside from the many gardens and museums here, you can also climb Strawberry Hill, which is the highest point in the park. The park also features paddle boating in Stow Lake, the Shakespeare Garden, Lawn Bowling + Archery on Sundays, and Lindy in the Park (free swing lessons). There’s really something for everyone here.
Local Tip: If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, take some time looking for the secret Faery Door, where you can leave tiny gifts and messages for the magical faeries that live behind the tiny door within the tree (they like bells, shells, rocks, acorns, tiny treats, and tiny rolled up messages). Leave your message/gift and read the faery responses here! There are more secret doors throughout SF and across the rest of the Bay Area if your interested in continuing the hunt!
SAN FRANCISCO BOTANICAL GARDEN
This botanical garden, located within Golden Gate Park, is a great place to visit if you love exotic plants, flowers, and trees. Admission is free on the second Tuesday of every month, along with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. For SF residents, the gardens are always free.
JAPANESE TEA GARDEN
The Japanese Tea Garden is a smaller garden located within the Golden Gate Park featuring Japanese architecture and gardens. They have a free hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from 9-10am. The garden should take you no longer than 30 minutes to an hour to see.
SEE THE PAINTED LADIES
The Painted Ladies are an iconic sight in San Francisco. Unfortunately, you won’t find actual ladies here. Instead, you’ll find some of the most beautiful houses in all of San Francisco, and they are free to enjoy from the outside. Visitors are not able to go inside these buildings since they are privately owned, but still worth admiring and having a picnic across the street. If you’re familiar with the hit television show Full House, you will want to catch a glimpse of the Painted Ladies for yourself.
Lombard Street is one of the most unique roads in all of San Francisco. It’s a one-way street filled with 8 full twists and turns that you can actually drive on. Since this is such a popular attraction, be prepared for lines of cars waiting for their turn to drive down.
A better alternative is just to walk up and down the street. This way, not only can you go at your own pace and enjoy the beautiful bushes, trees, and gardens lining the street, but you can also avoid the headache of having to be stuck in that car traffic. There’s a great view of the city from the top, so don’t forget your camera!
You can get here by taking either the cable car or other public transport available in the city. Most SF hop-on-hop-off bus passes also have a stop close by, allowing you to get here with just a short walk.
SUTRO BATHS/LAND’S END
At the Northwest end of San Francisco, you will find a small stretch of coastal forest known as Land’s End. The Lands End Trail is an easy hike or stroll that takes you to a few other attractions including Sutro Baths, the Labyrinth, and Eagle Point. Make sure to wear sneakers as the trail can be dusty. If you’re looking for a scenic jog to start your day, there’s no other place more perfect than this.
When you get towards the ruins of Sutro Baths, walk into them and explore! The Sutro Baths were developed in 1894 by the millionaire, Adolph Sutro. With his interest in natural history and marine studies, he constructed an ocean pool aquarium among the rocks north of the Cliff House as well as a massive public bathhouse that covered three acres. After you’re done exploring the baths, head to Cliff House to grab drinks or food, and enjoy the views from indoors.
Crissy Field was transformed in 2001 from a former military airfield into a beloved park, perfect for walking, biking, picnicking, BBQing, kiting, and windsurfing with iconic views of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. If you’re looking for a great family activity or a way to spend a sunny day in the city, this is an excellent option. At the west end of Crissy Field, the Warming Hut offers snacks, sandwiches, and drinks, as well as a wide selection of park gear and eco-friendly merchandise.
Be sure to check out the Wave Organ while you’re here. This art installation was developed to create sounds using the waves of the ocean.
EXPLORE THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS
Photography lovers, don’t forget your camera when visiting the iconic Palace of Fine Arts. This is one of the most photographed sites in the city, having been featured in various movies and TV shows. Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition, this urban temple has become a San Francisco gem, enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike. Spend the afternoon admiring the Greco-Roman style architecture and exploring the grounds and the peaceful lagoon. You might even see a photoshoot or wedding happening!
Originally a Spanish fort built in 1776, the Presidio eventually became a U.S. Army post where generations of soldiers lived and worked. In the 1990s the area became a national park. Aside from enjoying Crissy Field and the Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio offers a range of other things to do. This is a great place to learn about the history of San Francisco, as the Presidio is teeming with local and national history.
Head to Fort Point, where visitors can enter the fort for free, check out the massive bunker from the inside, and learn about its national importance. On certain weekends, you can even witness Civil War re-enactments here. Other activities include the Presidio Golf Club, The Presidio Bowling Center, as well as the Walt Disney Family Museum. On Sundays (mid-March to October), be sure to check out the Off-the-Grid Presidio Picnic, located at the Main Parade Ground from 11 am to 4 pm. You’ll be treated to a wide array of food truck options, lawn games, yoga, and activities for the kids.
One of the best free things to do here is to take a quick hike! We like the short Lover’s Lane Trail (0.6 miles long). It’s the oldest footpath in the Presidio and only takes about 30 minutes to complete. On this route, you’ll get to experience Andy Goldworthy’s Wood Line installation, a zigzagging sculpture made of fallen tree trunks located in the eucalyptus forest just east of the trail. Other notable hikes include Batteries to Bluffs Trail and the California Coastal Trail, both beautiful and scenic. Finish your Presidio exploration with drinks and bites at Presidio Social Club or Arguello.
There’s so much natural beauty in the Marin Headlands area, so if you have the time, cross the Golden Gate Bridge (on bike, on foot, or by car) and get your outdoor exploration on. Check out the amazing 360-degree views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF skyline from Hawk Hill, one of the highest points in the Marin Headlands. Stop at Black Sands Beach early in the day (parking is difficult), then make your way to Point Bonita Lighthouse for more great views featuring this iconic lighthouse. In the afternoon, pack a picnic and relax at Rodeo Beach, an activity you can’t go wrong with. Consider staying for sunset as this is one of the best places to catch it. While you can also reach the beach by car, the best way to arrive is via the coastal trail that picks up on either side of the beach.
VISIT A LOCAL BREWERY
Though not as huge as Portland’s beer scene, SF has pretty great locally brewed beer. There are over 30 breweries in SF proper that belong to the San Francisco Brewers Guild. Some of our favorites include 21st Amendment, Anchor Brewing, and Fort Point Beer Co. If you’d rather take a beer tour, there’s a great bike and beer tour that’s paired with history and information on some of SF’s most interesting neighborhoods.
SHOPPING AT UNION SQUARE
Union Square is centrally located, close to most forms of public transit, and the hotels in this area will be your best bet for high-rise city views. It’s a good place to spend an afternoon shopping, take a ride on one of SF’s iconic cable cars, or grab a sandwich and people watch at the Union Square Plaza (wedged between a huge Saks Fifth and an even larger Macy’s). The square itself isn’t exceptionally beautiful or anything, except during Christmas when a giant sparkling Christmas tree is set up and it turns into a bustling ice skating rink, but the surrounding streets are filled with some of the best shopping in the city.
SEWARD STREET SLIDE
Looking for a makeshift outdoor adventure? Grab a cardboard box and bring it to the Seward Street Slide, a concrete slide located within a neighborhood park. The slides are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm (closed on Mondays). When it’s closed, the slides have locks on them.
San Francisco’s Japantown is a fun place to explore but is often overshadowed by Chinatown. There are only four Japantowns left in the U.S., with San Francisco’s being the largest and oldest surviving. The other three are located in Los Angeles (Little Tokyo and Sawtelle’s Little Osaka) and San Jose, CA.
SF’s Japantown is a 6-block area of shops and restaurants along Post Street in the Western Addition neighborhood. Here you’ll find three indoor malls lined with a variety of authentic Japanese shops and restaurants. Go to Peace Plaza for your photo opp with the grand pagoda, eat some ramen, take sticker pictures at Pika Pika, play Japanese arcade games, browse gift shops selling ceramics, origami paper, stationery, and Japanese toys, and end the night singing in a private karaoke room.
CABLE CAR MUSEUM OR STREETCAR MUSEUM
Both the Cable Car Museum and the Streetcar Museum are free. If you’re interested in the history of San Francisco streetcars, this is the place for you. The Cable Car Museum has three antique cable cars from the 1870s on display. The Streetcar Museum showcases historic artifacts, rare photographs, and audio-visuals.
GOOD VIBRATIONS ANTIQUE VIBRATOR MUSEUM
The Good Vibrations Museum is a popular yet off-the-beaten-path museum with a collection of antique vibrators dating from the late 1800s up through the 1970s. You’ll find dozens of styles of electric vibrators, as well as vintage mail-order catalogs and advertisements for personal massagers throughout the years. The museum is free to enter and is located at Good Vibrations’ San Francisco Polk Street store.
16TH AVE TILED STEPS
The 16th Ave Tiled Steps are probably the oldest and most visited tiled steps in SF. These steps were tiled as a neighborhood beautification project, and boy are they beautiful! Not only are they gorgeous as a whole, but each step contains such fine, intricate detail all throughout, all the way up to the top. The mosaics here create a seascape-themed piece of art.
Can’t get enough of these beauties? Well, you can actually find three sets of tiled stairs in San Francisco. My personal favorite set of tiled stairs is the Hidden Garden Steps (showcasing snails, flowers, and mushrooms), located a few streets away from the 16th Ave Steps. The Lincoln Park Steps on 32nd Ave also showcase a beautiful mosaic. These are all off the beaten path, and you’ll take many steps during your visit, but your hard work will pay off once you get to the top! Just pop the name of the steps into Google Maps and the GPS will take you right there.
If you’re looking for more great views of the city and the Bay Area, check out the Vallejo Street Steps, The Filbert Street Steps, and the Lyon Street Steps.
PICNIC AT BAKER BEACH
For up close and personal views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head to Baker Beach. This is a great place to enjoy a picnic and sunset. There’s a mile of coast to explore and plenty of spots to stop for a picnic. On sunny weekends, be prepared for crowds and parking congestion. There is a picnic area with tables, grills, and restroom facilities tucked in the cypress grove at the east end of the parking lot.
TAKE AN URBAN HIKE TO SPECTACULAR CITY VIEWS
Twin Peaks is a must-do hike for first-time visitors to San Francisco. It’s only 2 miles round trip, so it’s easy enough to add to your SF itinerary. On a clear day, you can see 180-degree views of the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond. The best time to visit Twin Peaks is either early in the morning right before sunrise or at sunset.
If you’d rather visit in the day, head there on a foggy day for optimal photography lighting. The fog will diffuse the harsh light caused by the sun, resulting in better photos. Wear sturdy shoes and dress for windy conditions.
TAKE A FREE YOGA CLASS
There are a few establishments in San Francisco that offer free yoga classes. A few options include:
- Yoga To The People: Located on 16th and Mission in San Francisco. There is a suggested $10 donation; expect a full class.
- Laughing Lotus Yoga Center: Community donation classes occur on weekdays at 2:30 pm. Suggested donations range from $7-$16.
- Yoga on the Labyrinth: Free classes occur on Tuesdays, suggested donations range from $15-$20 with donations supporting the Grace Cathedral, its instructors, and occasional live musicians.
- Lululemon: Also offers free classes. Check their website for more details on locations and times.
FREE MUSEUM DAYS
Many other San Francisco museums offer free admission to their facilities at least once a month. Most of the monthly free admission days are on the first Sunday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of the month. While some museums offer a free day every month, a few of them offer free days just a handful of times per year (such as the Cal Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium).
If you’re thinking about visiting a few museums, check out their websites beforehand to see if they offer any free days. This is also a great resource for a comprehensive list of free SF museum days.
YERBA BUENA GARDENS FESTIVAL
If you’re visiting SF in the summertime, you’re in luck! The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival includes over 75 free events throughout the summer in Yerba Buena Park. Admission is free and entertainment includes music, theater, dance, cultural events, educational, and children’s programs. Some of the events you’ll find here include poetry readings, circus acts, open-air salsa dance parties, jazz ensembles, and lunchtime concerts. Why not pack a picnic and enjoy the afternoon with some free entertainment?
STERN GROVE FESTIVAL CONCERTS
The outdoor concerts at Stern Grove are one of the best things about summers in San Francisco. Every year since 1938, the Stern Grove Festival concert series takes place, spanning 10 consecutive weeks in Sigmund Stern Grove. The line-up varies and features different music genres and there are guaranteed appearances by the SF Symphony and SF Ballet. While the concerts are free, they do ask for a small cash donation to keep the show going year after year.
CONSIDER GETTING A SIGHTSEEING PASS
A San Francisco sightseeing passes might not be free, but they can certainly help you save a lot of money if you’re considering visiting a lot of museums and other paid attractions. The Go San Francisco® All Inclusive Pass is one of the best choices for maximum savings and flexibility. You can save up to 60% off retail prices on admission to 28 top attractions and tours including the Hop-on Hop-off Big Bus San Francisco Tour.
Looking for more tour ideas in San Francisco? Check out all the immersive tours in SF offered by Get Your Guide.
AFFORDABLE THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO
TREASURE ISLAND / TREASUREFEST
Since 2011, the Treasure Island Flea market (or TreasureFest) has been one of two major flea markets in the Bay Area. The 400+ local vendors at this monthly event offer a mix of vintage finds, antiques, and a large selection of handmade artisanal items. The TreasureFest event takes place on the last weekend of every month and features food trucks, live music, scavenger hunts, and children’s activities.
Treasure Island itself, the location for the 1939 World Fair, is situated perfectly in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Its location makes it a photographer’s dream! Head to Treasure Island for some great day time shots of the city, the waterfront, and the Bay Bridge, or head there after sunset to capture the lit-up skyline.
CHURCH OF 8 WHEELS
Church of 8 Wheels isn’t your ordinary church. It isn’t really even a church—it’s a popular and quirky venue for roller skating! On Fridays and Saturdays, you can rent or bring your own wheels and skate underneath disco balls and LED lights, all while a live DJ plays disco, funk, and pop music from within a neon-lit altar. It sure is a lot of fun!
DO AN ESCAPE ROOM
Looking to challenge yourself with an escape room in San Francisco? Well, I’m happy to tell you there are a plethora of escape room options in SF. These interactive live adventure games will require players to team up to solve puzzles in order to escape the room within a set time limit. This is a great way to spend a few hours putting your heads together and wracking your brains for hidden answers. Head to one of our favorite escape rooms in San Francisco including Palace Games, Reason, EscapeSF, and PanIQ Escape Room.
BRUNCH AT THE CASTRO
The relaxed Castro’s neighborhood is jam-packed with eateries and good vibes, perfect for lazy brunching. Head to local favorites such as Wooden Spoon, Kitchen Story, or Starbelly for your first meal of the day on the weekends.
MARRAKECH MAGIC THEATER
The Marrakech Magic Theater is an intimate performance space that has been welcoming Bay Area residents and visitors for more than 30 years. It features Jay Alexander, a master magician, mentalist, and comic. The main magic show runs around 75 minutes and involves sleight-of-hand magic tricks, unbelievable feats of mentalism, as well as some old fashioned comedy. There are showtimes on Thursdays to Sundays. Tickets are $55-65 and can be booked online. A wonderful assortment of Moroccan-inspired cocktail drinks and appetizers are available for purchase before the show.
The Exploratorium is often regarded as one of the world’s most interactive science museums. I grew up visiting as a kid and have unforgettable memories burned into my brain about how awesome this museum was. With more than 650 immersive exhibits that serve to educate visitors on real-world topics, this place is perfect for children and adults alike. Every Thursday, The Exploratorium welcomes adults-only after 5pm for their After Dark events. After Dark visitors can enjoy the usual exhibits as well as an array of special themed programs with a drink in hand.
WALT DISNEY FAMILY MUSEUM
Situated in the picturesque San Francisco Presidio, the Walt Disney Family Museum features the life and creations of Walt Disney. The museum showcases Walt Disney’s influence on pop culture through many interactive galleries, video screens, listening stations, a learning center, and even a Fantasia-themed theater. It’s a great museum for Disney lovers especially if you’re interested in getting some behind the scenes knowledge. You’ll need at least 3 hours here if you’re looking to soak in everything.
CARTOON ART MUSEUM
If you love cartoons, there’s a museum in San Francisco here for you. The Cartoon Art Museum features comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, political cartoons, and even manga and anime. Not only can visitors explore original cartoon art exhibitions and screenings, but they can also produce their own comics and take part in animation classes and workshops. Come learn about the history of cartooning and get inspired by visual storytelling!
CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
The California Academy of Sciences is one of my all-time favorite museums and one of San Francisco’s must-see destinations. With features like an aquarium, planetarium, living rainforest exhibit, natural history museum, and world-class research and educational programs, there’s simply so much to do and learn from one place.
In addition to general admission tickets, the museum offers a variety of opportunities to participate in special events, including Behind-the-Scenes Tours, NightLife events for adults only, Yoga NightLife, and Penguins and Pajamas sleepovers. No matter what you do, do not miss a show at the planetarium!
SAN FRANCISCO ZOO
With over 100 acres of land dedicated to more than 2,000 animals, the SF Zoo is one of the largest zoos in California. This is a great place to walk around and spend a few hours with the children! Admission to the zoo is included for free with some San Francisco attraction passes. For visitors who don’t have a tourist pass, the San Francisco Zoo is free on the first Wednesday of most months.
DAY TRIPS FROM SAN FRANCISCO
Sausalito is a picturesque coastal town in Marin County, just across the way from San Francisco. The town is known for its wonderful views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge as well as for its historic houseboat community. It’s a fun little side trip from San Francisco, where you can grab coffee and lunch, take in epic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, stroll along the Sausalito boardwalk, visit the Marine Mammal Center, and visit the Bay Area Discovery Museum.
If you’re looking to squeeze in some nature on your trip to San Francisco, starting at Muir Woods National Monument is an easy option. Here you’ll find those ancient redwoods that Northern California is famous for. The trees range from 400 to 800 years old, with heights up to 250 feet tall. Families can enjoy flat, easy trails that loop through the groves. Due to its ever-growing popularity, you will need either a shuttle pass or a parking reservation. If you’re driving a car, continue the drive further north and visit the charming towns of Mill Valley and Stinson Beach.
Looking to visit both Sausalito and Muir Woods in one go? Check out this combo tour, combining both iconic areas into one exciting day trip.
MOUNT TAMALPAIS STATE PARK / STINSON BEACH
Some of the Bay Area’s best hiking can be found a short drive away from San Francisco. Mt. Tam, as we locals call it, beckons hiker and mountain bikers to enjoy the redwood and oak groves, waterfalls, and sweeping views of the Pacific Coast. This is the highest point in Marin County, so it’s no wonder you’ll get epic panoramic views of The Bay from here.
Stinson Beach is one of northern California’s most popular beaches, conveniently located just off CA Hwy 1 about 20 miles north of San Francisco. The wide, pristine stretch of sand runs for almost 3 miles and is known to be great for surfing, kayaking, and even swimming (it’s been noted to be slightly warmer than other Northern California beaches, which are always cold).
The town of Stinson Beach is a really cool place to visit before or after hiking around the area. Muir Woods, Mount Tamalpais, and Alamere Falls are all iconic hiking spots just a short drive away. One of my all-time favorite hikes: the 6.8-mile Dipsea, Steep Ravine, and Matt Davis Loop. And my favorite way to start any hike in this area? With a decadent, freshly baked pastry from the bakery stand outside of Parkside Cafe.
After a satisfying hike in Marin County, head to Sol Food in San Rafael or Mill Valley for an even more satisfying Puerto Rican meal.
DAY TRIP TO POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
Famous for the National Seashore, Point Reyes is a semi-hidden gem in Marin County. Hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and clamming are just some of the activities that attract local day-trippers, as well as checking out restaurants and browsing bookstores in the sleepy town center.
Start your day trip to Point Reyes National Seashore at Point Reyes Lighthouse, perched on the western headlands. If you want to get up close and personal, climb down a few hundred steps to check it out, then climb right back up. Next, catch a glimpse of the California elephant seals over the sea cliffs anywhere along the seashore. Want to see herds of elk in their natural habitat? Take a hike to the Tule Elk Reserve beginning at the Tomales Point Trailhead.
Point Reyes Station, in the actual town of Point Reyes, has become a popular spot in recent years. There’s a huge focus on sustainable agriculture, locally produced artisanal foods, and outdoor activities– so ‘organic’. In the summer to early fall, you can catch the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market, running on Saturdays from 9 am to 1 pm at Toby’s Feed Barn. It’s not the largest farmer’s market, but it sure is a great opportunity to check out the local artisans, dairy farm products (cheeses and butters), and bakeries.
DAY TRIP TO OAKLAND
Right across the water, you’ll find another major metropolitan city known as Oakland, California. From visiting Jack London Square and Downtown Oakland to kayaking in the bay, hiking at Redwood Regional Park to exploring the many diverse neighborhoods Oakland has–there’s so much to do on this side of the bay. Not to mention, one of my favorite fried chicken sandwich spots is located here! Check out World Famous Hotboys, serving up the best fried chicken sandwich in Northern California.
DAY TRIP TO BERKELEY
Located right next to Oakland, the city of Berkeley is a lot of things that make it the most wonderful place on earth. It’s a university town, a liberal hotbed, and a hippie land with a strong farm-to-table and sustainability culture. Berkeley is brimming with things to do (and eat) as well. Head to the UC Berkeley campus for a scenic stroll, watch a play at one of the many theaters in the Downtown Arts District, enjoy the many French bakeries dotted throughout the city (my favorite is La Farine), grab brunch at La Note, go boutique shopping on Fourth Street, or go vintage shopping on Telegraph Avenue. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface.
ANNUAL EVENTS IN SAN FRANCISCO
- Golden Gate Park Band (April to October)
- Bay to Breakers (3rd Sunday of May)
- Stern Grove Festival Concerts (June to August)
- Yerba Buena Gardens Free Concerts (May to October)
- North Beach Festival (June)
- SF Pride Week (June)
- Shakespeare in the Park (June to September)
- Salsa Festival on the Fillmore (June)
- Fillmore Jazz Festival (July)
- Folsom Street Festival (September)
- Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (October)
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST: THE SF BAY AREA
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk!
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | If hiking, make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers in the Bay Area, which tends to get pretty cool nights. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. Even when I’m not hiking! It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Sunhat | Sun protection is key for any California destination.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike or bike ride but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
And that about concludes this San Francisco travel guide. And it just only scratches the surface! What are some of your favorite free or affordable things to do in San Francisco?