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The Tailor-Made Top 21 Free Things to Do in San Francisco

**Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Regardless of this, please be advised that all opinions expressed in this blog post are genuine and authentically my own.**

Author: Barry Pickard

San Francisco is a dream destination for travellers, but it is an expensive city to visit with many of its main attractions costing $20 to $30 per person. However, with a little planning, you can experience the city without damaging your budget. San Francisco has a range of free highlights, including impressive churches, colourful street art, expansive parks, picturesque beaches and eye-catching architecture that are sure to thrill.

Don’t forget that Tailor-Made Itineraries delights in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these free attractions appeals to you, reach out to me by email. I would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating these attractions of San Francisco, or indeed, a general tour of the US.

It is difficult to create a list of the best free things to and is sure to be a little controversial with some, but here are our top twenty-one.

21 - 16. Rincon Center Murals; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Wave Organ; Musee Mecanique; Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory; and San Francisco Railway Museum

Located within the former Rincon Annex Post Office, the 27 murals, painted by Anton Refregier between 1946 and 1948, are in the style of ‘social realism’. Controversial during the Macarthy anti-communist era, they were almost immediately under threat of destruction. Thankfully they were preserved till the present day. Access is from Mission Street.

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) presents contemporary visual art, performances, and films that celebrate innovation and experimentation.

The Wave Organ is a sculpture constructed on the shore of San Francisco Bay in May 1986. Through a series of pipes, the Wave Organ produces various sounds depending on the level of the tide, including rumbles, gurgles, sloshes, hisses, and other more typical wave sounds. Try and time your trip to the Wave Organ for high tide to get the full acoustic experience.

The Musée Mécanique is an interactive museum consisting of 20th-century penny arcade games and artefacts. The collection consists of more than 300 items, ranging from orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines, and animations, down to small bird boxes, as well as fortune tellers, love testers, pinball machines and more. Entry to the museum is free, but most machines cost 25 or 50 cents to play.

The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory was opened in 1962. Visitors can observe workers using motorized circular griddles to create fortune cookies. The factory is free to enter, but a tip is requested if you wish to photograph the workers.

The San Francisco Railway Museum celebrates the city's rail transit history. The museum features a full-sized exact replica of the motorman's platform of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar. There are also unique historic artefacts, illustrative and informative displays, rarely seen archival photography, and audio-visual exhibits.

15. Lands End Coastal Trail

The windswept shoreline of Lands End seems a million miles away from San Francisco, but this rugged area is actually adjacent to Outer Richmond and close to the Presidio and the western section of Golden Gate Park. A series of hiking trails loosely follows the coast, leading to a number of interesting and scenic locations, such as the Lands End Labyrinth (please note that the stone labyrinth has now been replaced with a heart), Mile Rock Beach and the USS San Francisco Memorial.

The highlight of the coastal trail, however, is the Sutro Baths. The baths were developed in 1894 by Adolph Sutro, when he constructed an ocean pool aquarium among the rocks north of the Cliff House. A massive public bathhouse that covered three acres was then constructed, which could accommodate 10,000 people at one time. The Sutro Baths were not an economic success, however, and was due for demolition in the mid-1960s when a fire destroyed the baths in 1966. The site has never been redeveloped and today it is a fascinating and photogenic ruin.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: There is a large carpark in the cliffs above Sutro Baths, and there are facilities there too, although these are only open from Friday to Monday. There is also a carpark at the USS San Francisco Memorial.

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14. Lombard Street

One of the most famous thoroughfares in the world, Lombard Street is well known for its almost impossibly steep incline, with eight hairpin turns. Often referred to as "the most crooked street in the world," this beautifully maintained and manicured street is equally fun to walk or drive down. The street was named after Lombard Street in Philadelphia by San Francisco surveyor Jasper O'Farrell. The design, first suggested by property owner Carl Henry and built in 1922, was intended to reduce the hill's natural 27% grade, which was too steep for most vehicles.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: If you wish to drive down Lombard Street, be prepared to queue for the pleasure. During the day, it is a popular experience, with those driving taking an exaggerated time to descend. However, for a quieter chance to enjoy the street, go just after sunrise or, like we did, early evening before sunset.

13. Umbrella Alley

Instagram worthy art installations are all the rage these days, so not to be outdone, the area between Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf boasts of Umbrella Alley. This is an interactive mural & art installation, full of fun images to take selfies with. There is no charge to enter, but donations are gratefully received.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: For more Instagram fun, check out the nearby Museum of 3D Illusions. However, tickets are required for this attraction.

12. Cathedral of Saint Mary of The Assumption

It is obvious at the first site of this modern cathedral that its design is something special. The soaring roof has similarities to vast sails and the interiors are simply draw dropping, especially its ceiling which seems unreal and puzzling.

The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption is the principal church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. The cornerstone was laid on December 13, 1967, and the cathedral was completed three years later. Measuring 255 feet (77.7 m) square, the cathedral soars to 190 feet (57.9 m) high and is crowned with a 55 feet (16.7 m) golden cross.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Please do not bring balloons to this church. As the information signs at the entrance request, do not eat, keep quiet, and don’t take a balloon – they must be a nightmare to rescue from the ceiling!!!

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11. Victorian Architecture

San Francisco is quite rightly famous for The Painted Ladies, a row of Victorian and Edwardian houses, painted in vibrant colours. However, these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to beautiful century old homes. An estimated 48,000 houses were built in the Victorian and Edwardian styles in San Francisco between 1849 and 1915, and there are plenty that can still be seen and have been lovingly maintained.

The Painted Ladies
The Painted Ladies

We will dedicate a special blog post about these stunning houses in a future edition of our blog posts, where we will go into this San Francisco feature in more depth. But for the purposes of this article, I’d recommend exploring the areas around Alamo Square, Haight /Ashbury, Alta Plaza Park and Lafayette Park.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Some of these homes, such as the Haas-Lilienthal House and the McElroy Octagon House are open to the public for tours (times are limited).

Read on to find out which attractions are in our top ten.

10. San Francisco City Hall

Easily overlooked as an attraction in its own right, San Francisco City Hall is a Beaux-Arts marvel, both inside and out. The building is dominated by its dome, which is taller than that of the United States Capitol by 42 feet (13 m), but it is the impressive rotunda which really steals the show.

San Francisco City Hall
San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall is the seat of government for the City and County of San Francisco. The present building replaced an earlier City Hall that was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake. The principal architect was Arthur Brown, Jr. whose attention to the finishing details extended to the doorknobs and even to the typeface to be used in signage.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: The hall is an ideal attraction to combine with a visit to the Asian Art Museum.

9. Bernal Heights Park

Towering over the Mission District and Dolores Heights, Bernal Heights Park seems to rise from nowhere! Geologically, it is a folded hill, created by the "wrinkling up" effect of the Pacific Plate subducting under the North American Plate. But what has been left is perhaps the best lookout point over the whole of San Francisco.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Make sure to wear appropriate footwear, as some of the tracks in this park can be difficult to traverse.

8. California Coastal Trail

Stretching along the Presidio’s Pacific coast, from Baker Beach up to the Golden Gate Bridge, the California Coastal Trail is literally and figuratively breath taking! As well as offering some of the best views of the bridge, the trail also has a number of interesting, abandoned gun installations. Built in the late 1800’s and modernised prior to the Second World War, there is a chain of batteries that can be explored (with care), from Battery Chamberlin (which still has one of its guns in place) in the south, up to Battery Marcus Miller.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Just off the trail, you can also visit the World War II West Coast Memorial.

Read on to find out which attraction tops the list.

7. Baker Beach

San Francisco has a number of beautiful beaches stretching along its Pacific coast, but the one with the best view is arguably Baker Beach. Part of the Presidio, this beach not only has stunning wide views of the Pacific Ocean, but also awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: There are two large carparks just off Lincoln Boulevard but note that these quickly fill up on the weekend and during nice weather. Get there before 11am to avoid disappointment.

6. Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley

Like street art? Then the Mission District has not one, but two spectacular and colourful areas for you to discover. Balmy Alley is an everchanging explosion of murals and art, while Clarion Alley, has hosted over 700 murals since 1992.

Set to a background of outrage against abuses of global human rights, as well as more local controversial issues, both alleys have seen eye-catching expressions of protest depicted on their walls.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: When visiting Balmy Alley, explore some of the other neighbouring alleys such as Orange, Osage, Lilac, Cypress and Horace. The street art in these alleys tends to be a little less political and organised, with more tagging and whimsical depictions, but they are equally interesting to see.

5. Cross The Golden Gate Bridge

Perhaps the most iconic landmark of San Francisco is the imposing 746 feet tall Golden Gate Bridge. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1964 (it is only the ninth-longest now), but it still impresses, whether you are crossing it or whether it is viewed from afar.

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

The best way to experience the bridge is free - walk it! The bridge is 1.7 miles long, so double that for a return journey. If you are really motivated, you could even carry-on walking to Sausalito, which is a further 2.5 miles (and take the ferry back to Pier 41).

Any discussion of the bridge can’t be had unless you mention its statistics, so here are some interesting facts: the two suspension cables are each more than 7,000 feet in length and both contain 80,000 miles of wire; the bridge was more than 10 years in planning due to formidable opposition, but only four years in actual construction; it is estimated that 5,000 - 10,000 gallons of paint are used to repaint the Golden Gate Bridge each year; the colour of the bridge, International Orange, because it enhances visibility in the fog; more than 2 billion motor vehicles had passed over the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Due to time constraints (and having a 4 ½ year old in tow!), we didn’t actually walk the bridge. However, we found that the facilities around the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, right at the start of the walk (south side), were an excellent place to appreciate the bridge from. Note that the Equator Coffees café is an amazing place to enjoy a brew and a view.

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The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

4. Fort Point National Historic Site

Fort Point has been called "the pride of the Pacific," "the Gibraltar of the West Coast," and "one of the most perfect models of masonry in America." The fort was built between 1853 and 1861 by the U.S. Army Engineers as part of a defence system of forts planned for the protection of San Francisco Bay.

Fort Point National Historic Site, San Francisco
Fort Point National Historic Site

In the years after the Civil War, Fort Point became underutilized and by the late 1930s, plans for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge also involved plans for the demolition of Fort Point. Fortunately, Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss recognized the architectural value of the Fort and created a special arch which allowed the construction of the bridge to occur safely over Fort Point. During World War II, Fort Point was once again used for military purposes. Soldiers stationed at Fort Point dutifully guarded the entrance of the Golden Gate from submarine attack.

In recent years, the fort has been a prominent location for several films, including Hitchcock's thriller Vertigo, the X-Men Last Stand and the 2014 film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Fort Point is one of the best, if not unusual, places to view the Golden Gate Bridge from.

3. Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park’s 1,017 acres were developed during the 1870's and 1880's, and now contains gardens, playgrounds, lakes, picnic groves, trails, and monuments, plus an array of cultural venues, events, and activities. The park welcomes 13 million visitors each year. Configured as a rectangle, it is similar in shape but 20 percent larger than Central Park in New York, to which it is often compared. It is over three miles (4.8 km) long east to west, and about half a mile (0.8 km) north to south.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: The Koret Children’s Quarter is a great place for kids to play and let off a little steam. Interestingly, it is thought to be the nation’s first public playground, having opened in 1888. It has been renovated since then though! There is also a beautiful carousel at the park

Have you guessed yet which attraction tops the list?

2. 16th Avenue Tiled Steps

The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps project has been a neighbourhood collaboration to create a sea to stars themed mosaic flowing up a 163-step stairway located in San Francisco's Golden Gate Heights Neighbourhood. The neighbours chose artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher to collaborate in the creation of the design and then sponsored the handmade named tiles which were in the shapes of animals, fish, and shells.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: When you get to the top of the stairs, carry on up to the top of Grandview Park for a spectacular view of the city.