58 Free Things To Do In The San Francisco Bay Area, California

The San Francisco Bay Area is probably one of the most expensive places to live in all of the United States. Nope, there’s no denying that. But you know what? You don’t need to go broke to explore the vibrant San Francisco Bay Area.

If you look past the paid tourist attractions and hefty museum admission costs, and put in a bit of effort to find free activities across the Bay, you’ll pretty easily find that there’s a lot to do here without spending a single penny. And yes, the Bay Area is so much more than just the city of San Francisco!

In this post, I’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting for you. After some extensive research (and simply by living here for 20+ years), I’ve gathered together a detailed list of the 50+ best free things to do in the Bay Area. With this post, I hope you’re able to discover a few new free activities to do with your family and friends.

So without further ado, let’s help you discover all the wonderful, free things to do in the Bay Area, California!

This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more for anything, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out free and useful content. Thanks a lot!


58 FREE THINGS TO DO IN THE BAY AREA, CALIFORNIA

1. WALK OR BIKE THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE

Golden Gate Bridge - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

Anytime you spend an afternoon outdoors, the great thing is that it’s usually free. Well, not only is walking/biking across the Golden Gate Bridge free, but it’s also one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of the Bay Area!

The bridge is 1.7 miles across, so it’s about a 30-40 minute walk each way at a comfortable pace. If you’re going to be stopping a lot for photos, I’d carve out 2 hours to complete the whole thing round-trip. It does tend to get pretty windy on the bridge, so be sure to bring a puffy jacket or something to keep you warm from the potential wind, fog, and brisk elements out there!

There is a small paid parking lot at the Welcome Center and a larger lot just down the hill at Battery East. There is also a free parking lot at the Vista Point on the northern end of the bridge.

2. FREE SAN FRANCISCO WALKING TOUR

Broadway North Beach - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

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.

3. GOLDEN GATE PARK

Golden Gate Park - 55 Best Things To Do In San Francisco CA - Travels With Elle

Golden Gate Park is such a dreamy place to spend a few hours. This huge public park spans over 1,000 acres and houses a ton of museums, gardens, and attractions. Best of all, there are lots of free things to do here! On any given day, you can take a jog or a bike ride through the park. There is free parking at Golden Gate for 4 hours, which is pretty rare in the city!

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 all have free museum days about once a month, so be sure to check their websites 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.

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.

4. 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.

5. JAPANESE TEA GARDEN

Japanese Tea Garden - 55 Best Things To Do In San Francisco CA - Travels With Elle

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.

6. OTHER 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.

7. GLBT HISTORICAL SOCIETY MUSEUM

Founded in 1985, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Historical Society is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of LGBTQ public history. Since 2011, the GLBT Historical Society Museum is located in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

One of the first museums in the world dedicated to the subject of LGBTQ history and movement, this museum offers a look into the past century, showcasing local events and people that have shaped this neighborhood as well as the global community.

Admission is free for all visitors every Saturday, thanks to a grant from the Bob Ross Foundation. All visitors are encouraged to reserve these free tickets online in advance.

8. 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.

9. EXPLORE NORTH BEACH

North Beach - Free and Affordable Things To Do in SF - Travels With Elle

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 streets in the city! Along Columbus Avenue, you will find the highest density of Italian cafes in San Francisco. Simply walk around and enjoy the always-buzzing atmosphere!

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.

10. LOMBARD STREET

Lombard Street - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

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.

11. EXPLORE FISHERMAN’S WHARF / PIER 39

fishermans wharf san francisco

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 are 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 (Pier 39) 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.

12. MUSEE MECANIQUE

Musee Mecanique - The Perfect 3 Day San Francisco Itinerary - TravelsWithElle

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 to the public until 8pm every night of the week, and it’s a great way to spend an hour. Walking around the museum is completely free!

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!

13. GHIRARDELLI SQUARE

Ghirardelli Square San Francisco - Free and Affordable Things To Do in SF - Travels With Elle

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 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. Or, simply indulge in their free chocolate samples!

14. SUTRO BATHS / LANDS END

Sutro Baths - 55 Best Things To Do In San Francisco CA - Travels With Elle

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.

15. EXPLORE THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS

Palace of Fine Arts Free Things to Do in San Francisco

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!

16. GOLDEN GATE FORTUNE COOKIE FACTORY

SF Chinatown - 55 Best Things To Do In San Francisco CA - Travels With Elle

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 free samples on your way out.

A variety of different fortune cookies are also available for purchase in their store.

17. FERRY BUILDING AT THE EMBARCADERO

Ferry Building - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

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).

If you come on a Saturday, you’re in luck! 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 Saturdays). 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.

18. MURAL HUNTING IN THE MISSION DISTRICT

Murals In The Mission District San Francisco - Free Things To Do In SF

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

19. HAVE A PICNIC IN DOLORES PARK

dolores park san francisco

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.

20. MARIN HEADLANDS

Marin Headlands, CA - Travels With Elle

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.

21. EXPLORE JAPANTOWN

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 (one of my favorite things to do with people I take to Japantown), 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.

San Francisco’s Japantown is a really 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.

22. ASIAN ART MUSEUM

Located in the heart of San Francisco, the museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art, boasting more than 18,000 artworks and artifacts ranging from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary digital installations.

The Asian Art Museum is one of the most generous museums when it comes to free admission. Currently, the following groups of people will get free admission: ages 12 & under, SFUSD students, active-duty military, and essential workers.

General museum admission is free every first Sunday of the month, and there is a $10 charge to see the exhibit teamLab: Continuity on Free First Sundays.

23. CABLE CAR MUSEUM OR STREETCAR MUSEUM

Cable Car - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

Both the Cable Car Museum and the Streetcar Museum are free admission! 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.

24. DE YOUNG MUSEUM

Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum showcases both modern and contemporary American art from the 17th through 21st centuries.

Every Saturday, the de Young offers free general admission to all residents of the nine Bay Area counties (tickets still must be reserved online). On top of that, they are offering free general admission for essential workers — including emergency services, health care, grocery stores, city operations and maintenance, social services, public transit, and delivery services.

Discover & Go offers free general admission for California library cardholders. And if you fall under none of those categories, for everyone else, general admission is free the first Tuesday of every month!

25. HAVE A PICNIC AT BAKER BEACH

Baker Beach - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

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. Locals love bringing their families and dogs here, especially on warm, sunny days!

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.

26. TWIN PEAKS URBAN HIKE

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.

27. 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, usually from May through October. 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?

28. WINDOW SHOP AT UNION SQUARE

union square san francisco

Union Square boasts some of the best shopping in all of the Bay Area. In terms of free and cheap activities, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon window shopping (or actual 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! Nevertheless, you can enjoy the energy of the district as people enjoy some of the best shopping in the city.

29. SALESFORCE PARK

Sitting atop the new Salesforce Transit Center, Salesforce Park is a green urban oasis in the heart of the bustling SoMa neighborhood. This 5.4-acre free admission urban park has plenty of green spaces for visitors to enjoy and relax at. During your stroll through the park, you’ll encounter, various works of public art, from beautiful tiled floors to displayed modern art and even a sensor-activated fountain!

There is also a children’s playground and a jogging track up there.

30. THE WAVE ORGAN

This permanent artistic installation at the water’s edge in San Francisco’s Marina (near Chrissy Field) uses the shifting tides to create actual music. When the bay waters lap against the Wave Organ’s PVC piping, it produces a variety of different sounds that are guaranteed never to sound the same—and it’s free to enjoy!

31. HIKE TO MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT

muir woods national monument

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. However, I find that the best way to see Muir Woods for free is by hiking in! The Matt Davis Trail to Bootjack Trail Loop is a 6.9-mile hike that will get you there. While this hike will bring you into Muir Woods, the best part about this hike is everything you’ll see along the way!

If you’ve come in a car, continue the drive further north and visit the charming towns of Mill Valley and Stinson Beach in Marin County.

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.

32. TAKE A ROAD TRIP ON HIGHWAY 1

Big Sur Road Trip - 32 Best Things To Do Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

One of the best free things to do in the Bay Area is to simply hop in your car and embark on a road trip. One of the best road trips here is the Pacific Coast Highway 1!

While most people tend to start around Half Moon Bay or Monterey, you can start anywhere along the coast. From there, pick a direction. Regardless of if you choose north or south, you’re sure to have a wonderful time. Be sure to stop at the many beaches, lighthouses, and vista points of the Pacific Ocean being oh so magnificent.

Read More: Big Sur Road Trip: 2-Day Itinerary Of The 23 Best Things To Do In Big Sur, CA or San Francisco to Monterey Road Trip: 23 Best Stops On Highway 1

33. LAKE CHABOT

If you love being outdoors, there’s a place where you can literally spend an entire day doing recreational activities outside. This is none other than Lake Chabot (Anthony Chabot Regional Park), located just in San Leandro, CA. This scenic destination boasts over a dozen hiking and biking trails, trophy-sized fish, boat and canoe rentals, kayak tours, and a picturesque picnicking area.

Lake Chabot is very popular with local fishermen, families, hikers, long-distance runners, mommy stroller groups, and kayak enthusiasts!

The cost for parking is $5 per vehicle inside the park, but you can easily snag some street parking just outside of the park entrance for free.

34. FIRST FRIDAYS ART MURMUR

First Fridays is a free monthly event in Oakland, CA featuring art, food, street vendors, musicians, dancers, poets, and DJs. You can always find us there because it’s so much fun and the energy this event brings is unparalleled!

By definition, “First Fridays” refers to the Oakland Art Murmur gallery walk, held on the first Friday of every month. More than 30 galleries in West Oakland and Jack London Square participate in Art Murmur by opening its doors to the public from 6pm to 9pm.

It’s a great experience, and if you happen to be visiting on that first Friday of the month, you’re in for a real treat. In fact, you can turn it into a whole night excursion. You can easily grab dinner at a few of the many food trucks featured, then spend a few hours exploring the art galleries.

After the event, the most logical thing to do is go bar hopping in the area!

35. REDWOOD REGIONAL PARK

Big Basin Redwoods State Park - Travels With Elle

This pristine redwood forest is just a few miles outside of downtown Oakland, and it’s so worth taking the drive out there to hike or trail run among the redwood groves. Since my discovery of this regional park back in 2015, I’ve been back at least ten times. It’s my go-to East Bay hiking spot, so when I say you should visit, I mean it.

Since there is an East Ridge Trail and a West Ridge Trail, it’s super easy to forge your own path and not get lost. Simply take the East or West Ridge trail into the park, take one of the many connector trails to the other ridge, and head back to the parking lot. If you’re starting at the Skyline Gate Staging Area and looking for a hike recommendation, my favorite day hike loop is: East Ridge – Prince Trail – French Trail – West Trail.

If you’re visiting in the wintertime, don’t miss the incredible (though somewhat overwhelming of a view) ladybug migration that happens each winter!

36. HIT THE GRAND LAKE FARMERS MARKET

The Grand Lake Farmer’s Market located at Splash Pad Park is undoubtedly the largest farmer’s market in the entire Bay Area (yes, even larger than the one at the Ferry Building in SF). It’s certainly regarded as one of the best in these parts! Located right by the Grand Lake Theatre and by Lake Merritt, you absolutely can’t miss it.

No matter when in the year you go, it’s always bustling with energy and makes for a fun and vibrant way to spend your Saturday morning. There is an excellent selection of fresh produce, along with flowers, meats, fish, and prepared foods. The Grand Lake Farmer’s Market happens every Saturday from 9am-2pm, rain or shine.

There are lots of restaurants around the area, so if you’ve worked up an appetite on your walk, pop into one of the food joints for a bite to eat.

Pro Tip: If you’re traveling on a budget, head there around 12-12:30pm. At this point in the day, vendors usually want to get rid of surplus products and will begin selling their goods at discounted prices. But if you can swing it, pay full price to support our local farmers!

37. HAVE A PICNIC AT LAKE MERRITT

Lake Merritt - Coolest Things To Do In Oakland - Travels With Elle

Lake Merritt has that lazy sunbathing-by-the-lake vibe. The 3.1-mile loop around the lake can be walked, jogged, rowed upon, or gondola-ed. If you want to feel like a tourist that’s been somehow transported to Venice, opt for that Venetian gondola ride and soak in the city from the center of the lake.

One of the coolest things to do here is to check out the Bonsai Garden (curated by Kathy Shaner, the only Japanese-certified bonsai master in the United States). It’s a must-see for plant fanatics. At any given time, there are more than 50 bonsai plants and viewing stones (suiseki) on display. The collection rotates regularly, so visiting several times throughout the year is suggested if you want to see all that this garden holds.

38. MORCOM ROSE GARDEN

Morcom Rose Garden - Best Things To Do In Oakland California - Travels With Elle

Put on a comfy pair of shoes and meet a friend at this mighty fine place to take a stroll. Opened in the late 1920s, this eight-acre free public rose garden features more than 6,000 rose bushes of all varieties. It’s a lovely place for strolling, snapping a few pictures, and soaking in the sun.

Bloom season is from late April through October. Please be extra respectful when you visit, because it is located in a residential neighborhood.

This place really is a hidden little oasis in Oakland!

39. LANEY COLLEGE FLEA MARKET

This buzzing, weekend flea market takes place at Laney College in Oakland on Sunday mornings/afternoons on a weekly basis, from 7am-4pm. It’s one of our favorite Sunday morning activities–who doesn’t love a little treasure hunting to start their day off?

There is everything you can imagine here: antiques, clothing, toys, collectibles, tools, new kitchen appliances, you name it!

Even if you’re not in the market for anything in particular, it’s still a ton of fun to browse around. You never know what you’ll find! There are also food stalls serving tamales, burgers, shave ice, etc. While it isn’t free, there is a very affordable $1.50 entry fee.

40. EXPLORE A PRESTIGIOUS UNIVERSITY

UC Berkeley Campus - Best Things To Do In Berkeley CA - Travels With Elle

When in Berkeley, you can’t miss the opportunity to take a stroll on the beautiful UC Berkeley campus. UC Berkeley is the oldest university in the University of California system, known for its academically gifted students and renowned faculty.

In fact, Berkeley was ranked the #1 public national university by US News for 19 straight years. Come see some truly beautiful architecture and get a taste of the impactful history Berkeley’s made on society (Free Speech Movement, the Black Panther Party, the Occupy Movement, and more).

Start at Sproul Plaza and enjoy the main campus entrance, bustling with student activity on any given day. Continue walking to see the famous Campanile (Sather Tower), the third tallest bell and clock tower in the world and a favorite symbol of the university.

Make a stop at the Valley Life Sciences Building to check out dinosaur exhibits, including a freestanding mount of Tyrannosaurus rex at the center!

As you walk along, notice all the historical buildings and grassy pastures such as Observatory Hill and Memorial Glade. Nature is a big part of why I’m in love with the campus–you’ll find Strawberry Creek runs through the center of campus, leading to the Eucalyptus Grove in the eastern part of campus.

For football fans, take a walk to the famous Cal Memorial Stadium that hosts the Cal Bears’ games, located on the west side of campus on Piedmont Avenue.

41. GOLDEN GATE FIELDS

Golden Gate Fields - Best Things To Do In Berkeley CA - Travels With Elle

Calling all horse-racing lovers! You’re in luck, because Golden Gate Fields is located just in Berkeley off Eastshore Highway. Even if you’re not interested in betting on races, Golden Gate Fields is a lovely venue for people watching, horse watching, and most importantly, eating!

Take advantage of Dollar Days every Sunday at the race track, which offers dollar admission, dollar parking, dollar hot dogs, and dollar beer. If you’re looking for something more than a hot dog, The Turf Club offers American pub-style cuisine.

The race track is huge and it’s always fun to just walk the length of the track to check out all the food stands, TV screens, and people dressed in their fancy Kentucky Derby-esque garb. Golden Gate Fields is conveniently located right by Fourth Street Shops.

In the late-summer months, look out for Foodieland, an Asian-inspired night market food festival, held at the Golden Gate Fields Racetrack.

42. SANTANA ROW

San Jose’s Santa Row is Silicon Valley’s premier destination for shopping, dining, and feeling fancy. Featuring a vibrant mix of 50+ shops, 30+ restaurants, and even a movie theater, it’s a great way to spend a few hours in the South Bay. We certainly love stopping by on weekends to enjoy the bougie atmosphere under the warm South Bay sun!

Take a stroll through the promenade, enjoying the trees, fountains, and open spaces that surround the shops. In terms of shopping, you can expect to find the likes of H&M, Sephora, Tesla, Amazon Bookstore, Barry’s Bootcamp, Lululemon here. On top of that, there are so many great cocktail bars, wine bars, and restaurants here, so you can unwind properly after that retail therapy! Friday nights are especially bustling!

Santana Row is free to walk around and complimentary self-parking is available throughout Santana Row.

43. SAN JOSE MUNICIPAL ROSE GARDEN

San Jose Rose Garden - Best Things To Do In South Bay San Francisco

Looking to escape the technology, the museums, and the fast-paced city life for just a moment? Head to none other than the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden!

This quiet and beautiful garden dates back to 1937 and is located in one of San Jose’s oldest neighborhoods. With that, the rose garden is backdropped by some pretty grand homes dating back to the 1800s.

The best time to visit is from April to November. One of the more popular times to go is in early May when the roses are at their most bloomy and fragrant stage. Don’t forget to bring your camera for this one!

44. SAN JOSE MUSEUM OF ART

The South Bay and San Jose, CA have no shortage of museums. For art lovers, there’s the San Jose Museum of Art, specializing in art and artists of the West Coast. Visitors can expect to see a wide assortment of mediums including paintings, sculpture, photography, drawings, and much more.

The museum costs $10 for adults but is free for young adults, students, and teachers.

45. CANTOR ARTS CENTER

Cantor Arts Center - Best Things To Do In San Francisco South Bay

The Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, CA is a small but dense art museum featuring some very interesting exhibits. It is known to have one of the world’s most renowned collections of Rodin bronze sculptures (outside of Paris), both inside the museum and outside in the sculpture garden.

On top of that, they have a unique collection that highlights Stanford history, Asian arts, as well as works of art from some highly respected modern artists like Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, and Jackson Pollock. Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for arts and culture activities to do in the South Bay!

Admission is free but must be reserved in advance online.

46. MONTALVO ARTS CENTER

The Montalvo Arts Center is a 104-year-old landmark backdropped by the Santa Cruz Mountains. The best things to see and do here include the Villa Montalvo and the surrounding gardens, as well as enjoying the miles and miles of hiking trails near the grounds.

After you’re done exploring, lay out your blanket on the massive lawn and enjoy a wonderful afternoon picnic outdoors. The best thing about Montalvo Arts Center? It’s open to the public for free!

Montalvo also hosts a wide range of community festivals, arts classes, literary events and more. They even offer an afternoon tea party event called Mad Hatter’s Tea! Be sure to check out their events calendar before visiting.

47. GO SURFING IN SANTA CRUZ

Surfing in Santa Cruz CA- San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road

Due to its many expansive beaches and some of the world’s best off-shore breaks, Santa Cruz is really famous for its surf. Surfers from all over the globe visit for the waves year-round. Whether or not you choose to take the waters yourself, be sure to spend some time watching the surfers catch the waves.

Pleasure Point Beach and The Hook are two of the most popular surf spots in Santa Cruz, as is Four Mile Beach at Wilder Ranch State Park and Steamer Lane on West Cliff Drive. Go check these spots out on your free time!

48. WALK AROUND THE SANTA CRUZ BOARDWALK

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Swing - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, perhaps what the city is most famous for, is a mile-long beachfront amusement park that is jam-packed with fun activities to do such as riding amusement park rides and playing arcade games, bowling, laser tag, and mini-golf.

I’m a fully grown adult, and I still think the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is magical. Sure it’s kitschy, but it’s also so nostalgic and taps into the little kid inside you. And if you’re traveling with children? Oh, they’ll fit right in!

It’s free to walk the boardwalk (you can still walk around even when its closed for business), but the rides and snacks cost money.

49. VISIT DAVENPORT

Davenport Pier - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road

Davenport, CA is a tiny town and a fun, quick stop located along Highway 1 just 15-20 minutes from Santa Cruz. Davenport used to be a bustling whaling village, established in 1867 by a whaling captain named John Pope Davenport.

One of the main attractions of Davenport is the famous Shark Fin Cove, one of the coolest-looking beaches in all of California. The views are stunning and the rock formation really does look just like a shark fin!

Another totally Instagram-worthy spot is Davenport Pier, a frequently photographed landmark. At times, you’ll find a random swing anchored to one of the pier foundation arches which stretch out into the surf. The pier deck has been gone for years, but that makes this spot even more photogenic.

Davenport Pier is located at the beach below the bluff, but it is not easy to get to. You’ll need sturdy shoes and should only attempt if a rope to guide you down the bluff is present (or, bring your own ropes). Photos can also be taken from the bluff which is much safer.

All in all, this is a great spot for snapping a few photos, grabbing lunch (try American Abalone Farms for oysters, abalone, sea urchin, and crab!), or taking a quick coastal stroll.

50. BIGFOOT DISCOVERY MUSEUM

The Bigfoot Discovery Museum is located in the San Lorenzo Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Felton. This is a fun roadside stop along the twisty, redwood-shrouded Highway 9.

The museum’s mission is to “attract & edutain the public with the facts about mystery primates around the world.” Love that!

The collection includes exhibits of local history tied with Bigfoot sightings, popular culture as it relates to the public view of Bigfoot, and actual evidence in the form of plaster footprints and handprints. Admission to the museum is free.

51. VISIT A NATIONAL PARK ON FREE DAYS

Yosemite National Park Free Days - Free Things To Do In The Bay Area, CA

National park fees can be pretty steep. But did you know that many national parks offer fee-free days? The fee-free days provide a great opportunity for travelers and outdoor enthusiasts to visit a new park or rediscover an old favorite.

From the Bay, you can easily get to epic parks such as Yosemite National Park, Pinnacles National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Kings Canyon National Park.

Free admission often takes place on MLK Day (January 18), the first day of National Park Week (April), the NPS birthday (August 25), National Public Lands Day (August 25), and Veterans Day (November 11). The entrance fee waiver for fee-free days does not cover amenity or user fees for activities such as camping, boat launches, transportation, or special tours.

52. FREE WINE TASTING IN NAPA VALLEY AND SONOMA COUNTY

Things To Do Tuolumne County - Travels With Elle

While most people think wine tasting is an expensive activity, did you know there are many wineries in Napa and Sonoma County that offer either free wine tastings or waive the tasting fee with a wine purchase? While you won’t be spending zero dollars at the tasting rooms that waive the fee with purchase, at the end of the day, money saved on fees is money spent on wine bottles to take home!

In Napa Valley, you could invest in a Winter in the Wineries Passport. The passport costs $60 per person, but you’ll receive complimentary wine tastings at participating wineries, complimentary corkage at participating restaurants, and discounts at Calistoga lodging, spas, and shops.

You can find something similar in Sonoma County as well–just do a search for ‘Sonoma County Tasting Passport’!

53. BIKE THE NAPA VALLEY VINE TRAIL

Napa Valley Vine Trail - What You Need To Know - TravelsWithElle

The Napa Valley Vine Trail isn’t just any old bike path–this is a paved trail reserved solely for bikers, walkers, and runners. Yes, no cars–no fearing for your life if you’re a novice biker! You can really live out your European countryside biking dreams on the Vine Trail.

Currently a work in progress, it runs from Kennedy Park in South Napa up to Yountville. Once the trail is complete, it will stretch from Vallejo’s Ferry to Calistoga, following along the existing Wine Train tracks and Hwy 29 North.

But wait, I haven’t even told you the best part about the Vine Trail. There are a handful of wineries situated right off the Vine Trail, meaning you could literally go winery-hopping by bike! And if you’re not drinking, it’ll still be very nice to walk around each of the property’s grounds.

You will have to exit the bike path and ride some distance along local roads to access the wineries, but it’s easy, leisurely, and avoids the busier roadways. Best of all, if you can bring your own bike, this full-day excursion is completely free!

Don’t have a bike of your own? Rent a bike from Napa Valley Bike Tours (they have locations in Downtown Napa and Yountville) and enjoy the 25-mile round trip around the valley!

If you’d rather take a bike tour and pair it with some wine tastings, check out this Napa Valley Wine Tasting Bike Tour. The biking tour takes you to two wineries where you’ll taste and learn about each winery’s production methods, and finishes by the early afternoon, leaving you free to explore Napa on your own.

54. CHECK OUT SOME TIDEPOOLS

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, CA - TravelsWithElle

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, CA is one of my all-time favorite places to go tide pooling on a lazy weekend. The tidepools at this reserve are probably one of the most beautiful and easily accessible natural wonders of the Northern California coast.

And I’m not just talking about being able to see sea barnacles and snails. During low tide, the saltwater pools are filled with sea creatures such as sea anemones, mussels, hermit crabs, purple shore crabs, and even starfish!

After your tide pool exploration, take the trail that begins at the sandy cove on the southern end of the reserve for a scenic walk through a grove of Monterey cypress trees. During springtime, look out into the distance! It’s sometimes possible to spot California gray whales just offshore.

If you’re willing to venture out a bit further to Monterey, CA, a few popular places to go tide pooling include Point Lobos State Reserve, Point Pinos (in Pacific Grove), Asilomar State Beach (in Pacific Grove), and Lover’s Point Beach (in Pacific Grove).

Be sure to visit at low tide, and check the tide tables before you visit.

55. EXPLORE THE PRESIDIO IN SF

The Presidio - 60 Free Things To Do In San Francisco

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, both of which are free to enjoy, the Presidio offers a range of other things to do.

One of the best free things to do while in the Presidio area 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.

Lovers Lane - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

For some 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.

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.

Other activities include the Presidio Golf Club, The Presidio Bowling Center, as well as the Walt Disney Family Museum.

There are multiple entry points to the Presidio, and even a free shuttle to get you there.

56. SEE A FREE OUTDOOR CONCERT AT STERN GROVE

Stern Grove Concert - Free Things To Do In San Francisco, CA - TravelsWithElle

The free 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.

You’re free to bring your own picnic blankets, chairs, food, and alcohol to the concerts. While the concerts are free, they do ask for a small cash donation to keep the show going year after year.

57. 16TH AVE TILED STEPS

Secret Garden Steps - Things To Do in San Francisco

There’s no shortage of creative public art pieces in San Francisco, and staircases are yet another medium of showcasing the city’s unique artists. 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.

Secret Garden Steps - Things To Do in San Francisco

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 these others:

  • Vallejo Street Steps
  • Filbert Street Steps
  • Lyon Street Steps
  • Arelious Walker Stairway (Flights of Fancy)
  • Alta Plaza Park Stairs

58. DAY TRIP AND HIKE AT STINSON BEACH / MOUNT TAMALPAIS

Stinson Beach Mount Tamalpais - Travels With Elle

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. The lush, greenery views throughout the entire hike are some of the best in the Bay Area, plus you get to use a cool ladder during the hike!

My favorite way to start any hike in this area: with a decadent, freshly baked pastry from the bakery stand outside of Parkside Cafe. In the ‘downtown’ area, you will find a few shops, art galleries, cafes, and markets, as well as some cute bed & breakfast options.


OTHER FREE THINGS TO DO IN THE SF BAY AREA, CA

Aside from the activities listed in this post, there are a few other free things you can get into if you’re willing to do a bit of web searching upfront. These usually include:

  • Free weekend festivals in the Bay Area – there are lots of them!
  • Free comedy shows – often are free and donation-based
  • Free yoga class – Yoga to the People (SF and Berkeley), Yoga on the Labyrinth (SF), Lululemon (multiple locations), etc.
  • Go hiking – Marin County, South Bay, SF Peninsula are my favorite areas to hike
  • Visit other farmers’ markets
  • Have a beach day

CONSIDER GETTING THE GO SAN FRANCISCO PASS

If you plan on hitting up a few of the museums/attractions listed above and don’t want to wait for the free days to come around, you should consider getting a version of the Go City San Francisco Pass. It’s a really great way to see what you want to see while still saving a bunch of money.

The Go City All-Inclusive Pass is really great for travelers who want to see as much as possible while they’re in San Francisco. With the Go City San Francisco All-Inclusive Pass, you can choose between a 1, 2, 3, or 5-day pass that will give you free admission to 25+ museums and attractions. This includes the following:

  • California Academy of Sciences
  • Exploratorium
  • Escape from the Rock (Alcatraz cruise tour)
  • Aquarium of the Bay
  • SFMOMA
  • The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus 1-Day Classic Tour
  • All-day bike rentals
  • and a bunch more good stuff not listed here…

If you don’t plan on visiting a ton of different attractions, Go City also has an Explorer Pass which will still save you a lot of money. With the Explorer Pass, you’ll pay one flat fee for a 2,3,4, or 5-choice pass. You’ll then have 60 days to use it. There is also no need to pick attractions ahead of time, simply choose attractions as you go! Passes start at $55 for 2 choices.

No matter which pass type you pick, you’ll ultimately save far more with these passes compared to buying separate attraction tickets!


Want more Bay Area travel tips? Read More:

25 Best Things To Do In The San Francisco South Bay, California

38+ Best Things To Do In Berkeley, CA (From A Local’s Perspective)

3 Days In San Francisco, CA: The Perfect Weekend Itinerary

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