San Francisco is an expensive place to live, and it’s not cheap to visit either. But like most big cities, there’s always a lot to do, and if you know how to look for deals, there’s free fun to be found.
With more than 50 hills within the city limits (not even kidding!!), San Francisco probably won’t ever make my list of most accessible cities. That doesn’t stop me from visiting, though. It just means that I try to go with people who don’t mind pushing me up a few of those hills!
That being said, accessible public transportation is fantastic in San Francisco. Trains, buses, ferries and most street cars are all accessible and MUNI fares are discounted for people in wheelchairs. And as long as you’re not trying to go up Lombard Street, there are plenty of areas that are easy to explore, no assistance needed.
Everything listed below is FREE to enter, but be prepared to spend money once you get there, especially in Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf.
One of the most iconic areas in San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf includes historic Pier 39 and the famed Ghiradelli Square. Known for great seafood (duh!), shopping and a chorus of noisy sea lions, Pier 39 also offers unobstructed views of Alcatraz. Aquarium of the Bay is located here, but you don’t need to spend money for admission when you can view wild sea creatures for free. Just follow the crowds and the sound of barking to the center of the pier where you’ll find dozens of sea lions basking in the sun (and the curious adoration from throngs of tourists).
If museums are more your speed, Musée Méchanique (a private collection of antique arcade games) and the San Francisco Maritime Museum are both free to enter. Several old ships are docked on the pier by the maritime museum, but you do have to pay $7 to go aboard them.
Built on an actual wooden wharf, Pier 39 is flat and easy to get around. However, Ghiradelli Square is on a hill. This quaint “square” has about 20 shops and restaurants, and while there are elevators scattered around, they don’t give you access to every level. Some of the smaller lifts require a person with a key, a person who you may or may not be able to contact. (They have a phone by the lift, but when we tried to call, no one answered.) So if you want some of that famous chocolate, be prepared to do a little hill climbing. Just look at it as a way to burn off some calories from the free samples they hand out inside the marketplace 🙂
Even if you aren’t a history buff, San Francisco’s Presidio is a cool place to visit. Full of gardens, forests, scenic overlooks and wide accessible pathways, the Presidio is also home to restaurants, hotels, museums and even a golf course. Founded in 1776 as a military fort used by Spain, then Mexico, and later, by the United States, in 1994 it became a National Park. Part of the Presidio was incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, so now this historic site contains about 1,500 acres of prime real estate.
This park has plenty of great vantage points for the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco’s bay. And with 15 miles of bike paths and a 24-mile trail network, there are plenty of ways to explore. Whether you’re looking for a big grassy area for a picnic, or a nice beach to walk your dog, you’ll find it at the Presidio. The historic barracks are home to a lot of tech startups and other businesses. We visited the Walt Disney Family Museum while we were here, which features galleries, films and a model of Walt’s original vision for Disneyland. The lower level also has an open studio where you can experiment with animation tools and create your own art. Consider it a more cerebral way to enjoy the magic of Disney 🙂
We also wandered through the two free galleries at Tides Converge, also inside the barracks. Their organic Café RX offers vegetarian and gluten-free menu items.
Golden Gate Bridge and Recreation Area
A visit to San Francisco isn’t complete without a photo of this iconic bridge. Spanning 1.7 miles to connect San Francisco and Marin County, more than 100,000 vehicles cross the Golden Gate every day. Even with six lanes, it’s hard to find a time when there isn’t any traffic, so make sure you have a good playlist and lots of patience if you want to drive across. The viewpoint from the Marin side, looking back on the city, is pretty awesome so I definitely think it’s worth the drive. And even though it’s free to head north across the bridge, you do have to pay a toll ($8 for a car or motorcycle) to go back into San Francisco. Check goldengatebridge.org for current rates, or be prepared for a LONG drive back into the city.
Fun Fact: I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Even though this quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, there’s no proof that he actually ever said or wrote it. Whoever did coin the phrase, wasn’t far off the mark. The wind coming off the bay, especially on the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, is pretty damn cold! Be sure to bring a jacket that you can tie around your waist or stuff in a backpack when you don’t need it.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has plenty of scenic spots to fill your Instagram feed, so be sure to visit their website for the lowdown on all the park has to offer. For instance, if you need a beach wheelchair to get down on the sand, they’ve got you covered.
A cool museum inside the recreation area is the California Academy of Sciences. It’s an aquarium, a planetarium and a natural history museum. Admission is not cheap, but they do have ways to get free or discounted tickets. Visit them online to see if you qualify for any of their deals. You’ll also get $3 off if you buy through their website.
Also inside Golden Gate Park is the deYoung Museum. Everyone gets free admission on the first Tuesday of the month, but vistors with disabilities can also get free admission every day and discounted special exhibition tickets with valid ID. Children under 17 and California library cardholders are free as well. Visit their website to see other ways you might qualify for free or reduced price admission.
The oldest Chinatown in the United States is also the largest outside of Asia. It’s THE place to go for the best Chinese food (obviously!), boba tea, and herbal ingredients. It’s also very hilly, but worth the extra effort to visit.
The famous Dragon Gate is at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Bush Street. You’ll find most of the tourist shops on Grant Avenue, including the Vital Tea Leaf. They offer free tea tasting which I highly recommend. The aroma in that shop is intoxicating. And trust me, if you’ve only had tea from a bag that’s been sitting on the grocery store shelf for the past six months, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much better tea tastes when it’s made from fresh tea leaves. (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that!!)
If you want to experience a more authentic view of Chinatown, head over to Stockton Street. You’ll find fresh produce, lower prices and open stalls filled with fish, meat and fruit you’ve probably never seen before. This is the real Chinatown, where locals shop.
Don’t miss out on the Chinese Historical Society of America’s museum, housed in the landmark Chinatown YWCA building. Admission is free for active military members and their family, California library card holders, CHSA members, and children 12 and under.
Pro tip: Parking anywhere in San Francisco is kind of a pain. It’s best to find a cheap all day lot and walk or use public transportation or Uber/Lyft. If you have a disabled license plate or hanging placard (even if it’s from another state), you can park in metered parking zones without paying a dime. Sweet!!
More free fun in San Francisco:
Oracle Park Portwalk – Get awesome views of the bay from this waterfront promenade and watch up to three innings of a Giants game for free. Use the elevators at Willie Mays Plaza or Second and King Street Plaza to access the Portwalk.
The Randall Museum – Natural history, science and art are all featured at the Randall, which is open Tuesday through Saturday and always free.
Japanese Tea Gardens – Free on Monday, Wednesday and Friday if you enter before 10am.
Learn How to Sail – Ten times a year, the Cal Sailing Club offers free introductory lessons. Visit their website to find upcoming dates.
The Fillmore Jazz Festival – For the last 36 years, this free jazz festival has taken place over the July 4th weekend. With 12 blocks of arts and crafts and music on multiple stages, more than 100,000 people attend this annual event.
Exploratorium – One of my favorite science and curiosity museums EVER. California public school teachers get free admission if they are one of the first 20,000 to apply each year. There are also free community days and a limited number of passes available for library cardholders. Visitors with disabilities receive discounted admission. Visit the Exploratorium website to see if you qualify for other discounts or free admission.
If you’re planning to visit, here are a few more useful links: San Francisco Visitor Information | 110 Free Things to do in San Francisco | Wheelchair Travel in San Francisco | Parking in San Francisco with a Disabled Placard | San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
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