Free Things to Do in San Francisco

How to explore this city's arts and culture on a budget 


Photo by Robert L. Segal

The City by the Bay may be home to multi-million-dollar mansions and $4 drip coffee, but free art has always been a San Francisco highlight. At these admission-free spots, you can enrich your cultural soul, without ever having to open your wallet.


Art aficionados have compared rapper Drake’s hit video “Hotline Bling” to artist James Turrell’s light-bending work. To see for yourself, head to the sculpture garden of the de Young museum and sit inside Turrell’s dome, called Three Gems. Other admission-free exhibits at the de Young include a massive Gerhard Richter Strontium mural in the lobby and Ruth Asawa’s ethereal wire sculptures in the tower. 

Mission Murals

San Francisco’s Latino culture is highlighted by vivid murals throughout the Mission District, and in two public alleyways that are more like open-air galleries. Near the Mexican bakeries of 24th Street, Balmy Alley welcomes visitors with colourful panoramas framed by bougainvilleas and potted plants. A mile away, Clarion Alley radiates with politically and socially charged stories painted on every available surface. 

Outdoor Acts

On Sundays throughout the summer, the Stern Grove Festival brings the San Francisco Symphony and other world-class musicians to a stage nestled within the woodsy park. Downtown, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (running until the end of October) showcases several midday performances per week, including internationally known jazz combos and dancers.

Historic Paint

Inside Telegraph Hill’s Coit Tower, engaging 1933 murals detail California life during the Great Depression—the creators studied under famed muralist Diego Rivera, husband of Frida Kahlo. An energetic walk away, the San Francisco Art Institute features a wall-sized piece by Rivera himself, plus rotating works by current students. Bonus: both spots offer sweeping bay views.

New Modern 

After closing for three years and raising US$610 million, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopened this May. The expanded SFMOMA boasts 45,000 square feet of free exhibition space where you can lose yourself within the massive steel walls of Richard Serra’s Sequence or ponder an undulating 26-foot-wide Alexander Calder mobile.