45 Things to Do for Free in San Francisco
Whether you're pinching pennies to fund your new start-up or just like the sweet victory of a deal, our in-the-know guide has the best places to drink, eat, sip and sleep in the city by the bay.
This article was updated in May 2017 to reflect the most up-to-date options in San Francisco
Listen to Free Tunes
The ghosts of the Haight-Ashbury music scene remain, but SF has plenty of other places to rock out this summer. Starting every April, Union Square Live takes over Union Square Park, with everything from live bands to dance lessons to circus shows — all for nothing. Another very cool free music series is People in Plazas, which is held in public squares around Market Street from July to October. If you'd rather listen to tunes with redwood trees as your backdrop, check out the Stern Grove Festival, which features live shows—from Kool & The Gang to the San Francisco Symphony— in a natural amphitheater June through August. Or snag a fireside cabana on the Main Parade Ground any Thursday evening May through October for Presidio Twilight; the food trucks and cocktails will cost you, but the ambience and live music are free of charge.
Peep some Art
Culture hounds, don't book anything on Tuesdays as admission to the Museum of Craft & Design is gratis every first Tuesday of every month. Thursdays are equally popular for art lovers, thanks to Art Walk, when roughly 20 galleries in the Lower Polk and Tenderloin neighborhoods open their doors from 6 to 10 p.m., and Yerba Buena Third Thursdays, a music- and art-filled event in downtown's Yuerba Buena district. Another can’t miss: North Beach's First Fridays, when more than 15 galleries and other local merchants showcase their works. A favorite: Art Attack SF, a contemporary space that features up-and-coming local talent. Another plus for the art crowd—the SFMOMA is still wowing after a 2016 remodel that left it with not only a fresh look and more space, but free access to 45,000-square-feet of ground-floor galleries.
Don't have a fortune to spend on Burning Man? SF has plenty of cultural events to keep you entertained (most of which have indoor plumbing). In August head to the Presidio's Main Post Lawn or McLaren Park for Shakespeare in the Park's production of Hamlet. To keep the literary theme coming, The Booksmith on Haight Street offers a variety of killer readings, book signings and Q&As, all at zero cost. To find more, don't miss the daily calendar of other literary events around the Bay Area on Litseen (there's even a free app).
Catch a Flick
For the full Hollywood movie treatment, head to the Top of the Mark at the InterContintental Mark Hopkins every Tuesday night (June through August) for 360-degree skyline views, complimentary wine and popcorn, and on-screen romance. Film Night in the Park shows crowd favorites like Footloose and La La Land and jumps from Dolores Park to Washington Square Park to Union Square (June through September). If you're up for a trip outside the city proper, pack your camp chair and trek to the south bay on Thursday nights for Movies on the Square, where films (think: Hidden Figures, Sully, and Dirty Dancing) play on the steps of the courthouse. Or if you're in the east bay on Thursdays, don't miss Waterfront Flicks in Oakland's Jack London Square. There's also Movies on the Green in Larkspur, where families gather for kid-friendly flicks like Ratatouille and Toy Story 3 on Wednesday nights from June through August.
Grab a Bite to Eat
We know San Franciscans take their food seriously, and the city has a little free something for every kind of foodie. At the Owl Tree early birds can feast on all the cheese, crackers and salami they can eat until 6 p.m. every day. If you're a fan of oysters, they're free at El Rio starting at 5:30 p.m on Fridays. Warning: They go quickly, so get there early. A new monthly event at Very Vegan Sundays at the SoMa StrEat Food Park has every veggie-centric dish your heart could desire. And of course we can't forget dessert. Let the aroma of freshly baked fortune cookies guide you to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in SF's Chinatown where you can sample the treats straight from the machine.
Get Your Drink On
Give a little to get a little at the Stinky Cheese Club at Bender's. Every third Tuesday of the month you can bring cheese, crackers or fruit to share in exchange for a comped alcoholic beverage of your choosing (frosty PBRs or well drinks). Fat Grape Winery and Bravium both offer gratis wine tastings for the intrepid souls who make the journey to Treasure Island. A martini comes with every manicure at the Beauty Bar (Thursday to Saturday nights), and if you prefer bubbles with your polish, Cocoon Urban Day Spa serves sparkling wine with any nail treatment. And boozy primping is not just for the ladies. Gents can get a buzz too — beer, whiskey or coffee — with the purchase of a haircut or shave at Peoples Barber.
These freebies won't add to your student loan debt. SF Free School is a gold mine for zero-cost learning, offering classes all over the city in every subject imaginable, from martial arts and social media to philosophy and resume revamping. You may even get some free dating advice. Channel your inner artist with free workshops and events at the Flax art supplies flagship store on Market Street (materials not included). The REI Outdoor School has a handful of free classes, including emergency survival tips and instruction in how to make the perfect cup of coffee while camping. And if you've ever dreamed of becoming an urban ninja, this is your chance: A free beginners class with SF Parkour transforms the city streets into your own personal playground. Sign us up.
Go for a Stroll
One of the best things about SF is the access to nature. Golden Gate Park has more than 1,000 acres of gardens, lakes, meadows and waterfalls, most of which are free to roam. At the park's 19th-century Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest of its kind in the U.S., you can skirt the entrance fee if you arrive before 10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday or Friday. The San Francisco Botanical Garden is always free for SF residents, but it also offers free entrance to visitors every day from 7:30 to 9 a.m., as well as every second Tuesday of the month, and major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. (The same deal applies to the Conservatory of Flowers every first Tuesday.) If you can manage to get up before the sun does, catch a guided tour of Muir Woods, offered free once a month. You'll learn all about the old-growth redwood forest and its inhabitants.
Work Up a Sweat
You don't have to splurge on an expensive trainer to get in shape this summer. Check out the free yoga classes at Sports Basement in the Marina on Sundays (bring your own mat), and Lululemon's Cow Hollow on Wednesdays. And any yoga enthusiast will tell you that the place to be on Tuesday nights is Yoga on the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral; classes are offered for a donation, and there's live music to accompany your slow-flow hatha postures. Leave your pride and your wallet at home and learn some new moves at the Pick School of Ballroom Dancing; the first class, from tango to foxtrot, is always free. Or, if you're a nightowl bicyclist, join the five-mile San Francisco Midnight Mystery Ride every third Saturday; it departs from a new location each month.
Hit a Hot Event
Things may not be as free as they were in the Summer of Love, but you can still experience the sweet sounds of '60s soul at the Make Out Room every Tuesday night. Vinyl fanatics congregate at the Knockout every Sunday to boogie down at the Sweater Funk Super Fly Soul Dance Party (say that five times fast).
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