San Francisco Experience

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Cheap Things to Do in San Francisco

Despite—or perhaps because of—the astronomical cost of living here, San Francisco offers loads of free diversions. Here are our picks for the best free things to do in the city, in alphabetical order. (That is, in addition to the free theater that is life in San Francisco's neighborhoods, parks, beaches, churches, and other public spaces.) Also check out sf.funcheap.com for a calendar of random, offbeat, and often free one-offs.

Free Museums and Galleries

Chinese Culture Center

Creativity Explored

Fort Point National Historic Site

Museo Italo-Americano

Octagon House

Randall Museum

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

San Francisco Railway Museum

SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Walter & McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute

Wells Fargo History Museum

Free Museum Times

The first week of every month brings a bonanza of free museum times.

Asian Art Museum, first Sunday of every month

Cartoon Art Museum, first Tuesday of every month is pay-what-you-wish

Chinese Historical Society of America, first Thursday of every month

Contemporary Jewish Museum, first Tuesday of every month

de Young Museum, first Tuesday of every month

Exploratorium, first Wednesday of every month

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) History Museum, first Wednesday of every month

Legion of Honor, first Tuesday of every month

Museum of Craft and Folk Art, first Tuesday of every month

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, first Tuesday of every month

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (galleries), first Tuesday of every month

Free Concerts

The Golden Gate Park Band plays free public concerts on Sunday afternoon, April through October, on the Music Concourse in the namesake park. You might hear anything from Sousa marches to show tunes.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music offers frequent free recitals year-round at its Civic Center home.

Stern Grove Festival concerts, held on Sunday afternoon from June through August, are a long-standing city tradition. Performances range from opera to jazz to pop music. The amphitheater is in a beautiful eucalyptus grove, so come early and picnic before the show.

Yerba Buena Gardens Festival hosts many concerts and performances from May through October (sometimes almost daily), including Latin jazz, global music, dance, even puppet shows.

Free Tours

The San Francisco City Guides walking tours are easily one of the best deals going. Knowledgeable, enthusiastic guides lead walks that focus on a particular neighborhood, theme, or historical period, like Victorian architecture in Alamo Square or the bawdy days of the Barbary Coast. The tours are free, though a $5 donation is welcome.

City Hall offers free tours of its grandiose HQ on weekdays.

More Great Experiences for $6 or Less

See some baseball at AT&T Park, for free! Go to the stadium's Portwalk, beyond the outfield wall, and you'll have a standing-room view of the game through the open fence. The fans who watch here are known as the Knothole Gang. BYO peanuts.

Visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown. This is technically free, although you'll have to resist the temptation to take photos (a 50¢ fee) and buy cookies. There are several nearby spots where you can get a delicious snack for just a dollar or two, like the custard tarts at Golden Gate Bakery. Stop in one or two of Chinatown's incense-filled temples, too—it's best to give a small donation, but you'll feel a world away.

Do your own walking tour of the Mission District's fantastic outdoor murals, then grab a bite at a taqueria or taco truck.

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge—an obvious but breathtaking choice.

Choose a perfect treat at the Ferry Building's fabulous marketplace—maybe a scoop of Ciao Bella gelato or a croissant from Miette—and stroll the waterfront promenade toward the Bay Bridge to Cupid's Span, the giant bow-and-arrow sculpture impaling Rincon Park.

Visit the Diego Rivera mural at the San Francisco Art Institute, then sip a cuppa at the school's café and check out the million-dollar view from its North Beach perch.

Tour the grounds around the Palace of Fine Arts, circling its swan-filled lagoon. Next, walk through the Presidio to the Letterman Digital Arts Center campus. Visit the Yoda fountain, then peek inside the building beyond to see a life-size Darth Vader figure. To further explore the Presidio, you can hop the free PresidiGo shuttle. (The Presidio also has lots of free parking.)

Check out the offerings at lively El Rio bar in the Mission District. They often have free live music and very cheap drink specials.

Hike up to the top of Telegraph Hill for sweeping city and bay views. Since the surrounding trees aren't often trimmed back, the view isn't quite as terrific as the one from the hill's Coit Tower, but it's still a knockout.

Keep your eyes peeled in summer for free movie nights in the park. Saturday screenings happen at Dolores Park, Union Square, and Washington Square Park; see www.sfntf.org.

Ride a cable car. We hate to harp on this, but you gotta do it at least once.

Updated: 11-2012

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