Everyone in San Francisco knows the feeling when the weekend is swiftly approaching, and you have no idea how to spend it. With October's Indian summer ushering in our most gorgeous weather all year, the pressure's even higher to make the most of your fall free time.
Of course, it's great to live in a city that offers a bounty of options, but amid yo-yoing gas prices , costly rent and worsening inflation, it can be tough to stick to a budget. That's where this guide comes in.
Whether you're a longtime local, new to the city or an outdoorsy type, we rounded up 40 free things for you to do this fall, from familiar traditions to potential new favorites.
See something we're missing? This is by no means a comprehensive list, so tell us about your favorite wallet-friendly outing, and we'll be sure to include it. You can also check out our Bay Area-wide list of things everyone should experience at least once.
1. Catch the in-person return of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
The long-running, three-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival went viral for the past two years but returns in person this fall on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1-2. Celebrating American music's folk, blues and country roots, the festival's 2022 lineup includes Emmylou Harris, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, The Brothers Comatose, Marcus Mumford, Lucius and Jay Som, among numerous other artists. Entry is free and no registration is required but read up on new changes to entry protocol introduced this year. Hellman Hollow, Lindley and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park. Sept. 30, 1-7 p.m.; Oct. 1, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Oct. 2, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
2. Learn to sail the open sea
Bring out your adventurous side and join the Cal Sailing Club for its monthly open house and introductory sailing course, where you can voyage across the water, enjoy dazzling views of the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco city skyline and come away with some boat safety education. Rides are given on a first-come, first-served basis, so be sure to arrive at the clubhouse early to make your reservation. 124 University Ave. on the Berkeley Marina. Sundays, 1-3 p.m. Upcoming open houses: Sept. 11, Oct. 2 and Nov. 13.
3. Show your stuff at Folsom Street Fair
If you've never been to Folsom Street Fair before, maybe this is your year. 2022 marks the 39th year of Folsom flying the flag for fetishists of all stripes and orientations. The adults-only festival is outdoors along Folsom Street in SoMa, spanning 13 shame-free blocks of leather, latex and sex-positivity. Voyeurs are welcome and people-watching is expected, but boundaries are respected, and your level of participation is entirely up to you. So gear up – or don't – and see for yourself what all the hype is about . Entry is free, though donations are accepted and provide crucial operating support for a host of local nonprofits. Folsom Street, between Eighth and 13th Streets. Sept. 25 from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
4. Wander through a muraled alley
A colorful passageway connecting Valencia and Mission Streets has featured more than 900 murals from the Clarion Alley Mural Project since the organization was established in 1992. Explore a visual history of some of San Francisco's political movements and community artists' bold responses to topics of gentrification, police violence, social justice and more. 90 Clarion Alley. Open daily.
5. Peep fall foliage at the San Francisco Botanical Garden
The California coast isn't known for fall color, but that doesn't mean it isn't here. You've just got to know where to look. The San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, with its collection of trees from across the globe, makes for prime leaf-peeping . Garden staff say the tranquil Moon Viewing Garden, with its lakeside pavilion and stone toro lanterns, is top of the list. Visit in late November through early December for the best chance to catch fall color at its peak. Admission is free from 7:30-9 a.m. every day; on the second Tuesday of every month; on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day; and anytime for SF residents. 8116 Lincoln Way. Open daily from 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
6. Visit baby bison
A small herd of these gentle giants can be seen grazing in a sprawling field on the western end of Golden Gate Park. It's never a bad idea to spend a peaceful afternoon with Bailey, Bambi, Bellatrix, Betsy and Buttercup – plus the five new bison calves who debuted in 2020. 1237 John F. Kennedy Drive. Open daily.
7. Catch an opera on the Jumbotron
San Francisco Opera takes the field Nov. 11 at Oracle Park for its annual tradition Opera at the Ballpark. This year, "La Traviata" will stream live from the War Memorial Opera House, and you can watch the whirlwind romance of Violetta and Alfredo play out across the 150-foot 4K scoreboard . The simulcast is free – though you'll want to spring for the Giants' famous Gilroy Garlic Fries – and you can watch the 1853 Verdi masterpiece from the stands or a blanket in the outfield. If you prefer your culture with a hot dog and a side of fries, here's your chance . 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
8. Get your game on at Musée Mécanique
Of course, you'll need a pocketful of change to play the games at this legendary vintage arcade tucked away on, but just taking in the atmosphere is worth the trip alone. Say hi to Laffing Sal , reminisce on the good ol’ Playland days and keep an eye out for proprietor Dan Zelinsky as he zips around from machine to machine on his roller skates. Pier 45. Open year-round from 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
9. Trek or cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge
Not just for tourists, but a must for any city-dweller. The 1.7-mile span is open for pedestrians during daylight hours, with parking at either end, and the entire 3-mile round trip can be walked in an hour. Grab a cup of coffee and head out for an early morning adventure, and touch Hopper’s Hands while you're in the neighborhood. Golden Gate Bridge. Open daily.
10. See a live band play at Amoeba Music
The bowling alley-turned-record store on Haight Street is a paradise for crate diggers, and it also hosts free live shows just about every month. Check Amoeba's website for a full event schedule . 1855 Haight St. Open daily from 11 a.m.- 7 p.m.
11. Boogie down at Skatin' Place
There's nothing like a Friday night at Skatin' Place in Golden Gate Park, where LED lights glimmer and the rhythmic bass of R&B thumps from the outdoor rink. But the best part just might be seeing the charismatic host of the long-running event in action: David Miles Jr., otherwise known as the Godfather of Skate. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned skater, you can check out the rink's colorful new mural, hang out in the grass and listen to some disco music or lace up some skates yourself and get to groovin'. Golden Gate Park at Sixth Avenue and Fulton Street. Open daily.
12. Sing your heart out at a karaoke bar
Nothing brings people together like making fools out of themselves during a goofy sing-along. We're partial to The Mint and Bow Bow , where regulars have been returning for decades. Liquid courage is optional — just please don't sing "Hey Jude." Various locations and dates.
13. Scout out San Francisco movie locations
The city is home to several iconic films, from "What's Up, Doc?" to "Vertigo" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to "Harold and Maude." A number of unmistakable movie residences still stand, including the turreted Victorian in "Mrs. Doubtfire" on Steiner Street in Pacific Heights and Mia Thermopolis' fire house in "The Princess Diaries" on Brazil Avenue in the Excelsior. You can go see them for yourself — just remember to be respectful of the people living there. Various locations. Open daily.
14. Relive your arcade nostalgia
There's never been an easier way to beat your Pac-Man high score or challenge a friend to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Free game token nights are offered every Monday at Emporium and the first Tuesday of each month at The Detour . Check each bar's website for full details. 616 Divisadero St. (Emporium) and 2200A Market St. (the Detour).
15. Watch movies under the stars
Grab a blanket and some popcorn. Sundown Cinema continues in city parks into the fall with "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" (waitlist only) at Alamo Square on Sept. 9, "Shang Chi" in Dogpatch's Crane Cove Park on Sept. 30 and "Addams Family Values" at McLaren Park's Jerry Garcia Amphitheater on Oct. 21. PROXY Walk-in Theater in Hayes Valley kicks off its free fall indie film series Sept. 23. Every Friday through Oct. 21, films begin at dusk at PROXY's open-air venue near Patricia's Green. You can catch "Memoria" on Sept. 23, "Lead Me Home" Sept. 30, "Neptune Frost" Oct. 7, "Happening" Oct. 14 and "Promising Young Woman" Oct. 21. Various locations and dates.
16. Check out a drag show by the ocean
The true spirit of San Francisco lives on at Golden Hour Drag, where lip-sync performers turn it out on the sands of Baker Beach at sunset. With the crashing waves and the Golden Gate Bridge providing a backdrop to every song, trust us, it doesn't get better than this. Hosted by VERA!, Heaven on Earth, Die Anna, Mary Vice, Syzygy, Obsidienne Obsurd, Major Hammy and Nicki Jizz, shows are typically held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but check Instagram for the most up-to-date details . Admission is pay-what-you-can, but $15 is recommended — and please don't forget to tip your performers! Baker Beach at the Sand Ladder on Fridays and Lobos Creek on Saturdays and Sundays. Upcoming shows: Sept. 9-11 and 16-18 at 6:30 p.m.
17. Hike up Mount Davidson to see the cross
This historic hike on one of the famed Seven Hills of San Francisco — those named at the time of the founding of the city — ends beneath a 100-foot-tall concrete cross. Once you're there, look out at the sweeping downtown views from the highest natural point in the city. 298 Juanita Way. Open daily.
18. Pick up some swing dancing moves
If you've seen the free swing dancing lessons in Golden Gate Park and felt intimidated but secretly wanted to join in on the fun, you're not alone. But if you're willing to put yourself out there, it's fun and freeing — even if you have two left feet — and a great way to meet new people. As cofounder Ken Watanabe puts it: "It's like being a kid again." Enter Golden Gate Park at Eighth Avenue and Fulton Street. Free half-hour lessons occur every Sunday at noon; dancing runs from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
19. Pay your respects at the Presidio Pet Cemetery
Morbid as it may seem, it's hard not to crack a smile at the quirky headstones here, "Our Knuckle Head, Parakeet to Paradise" and "Tippy, Daddy's Little Baby Boy" chief among them. The final resting place for hundreds of military pets was established in the early 1950s and maintained by the Presidio Boy Scout Troop. Now, a team of dedicated volunteers keep it alive . 667 McDowell Ave. Open daily.
20. Uncover some SF trivia on a free guided walking tour
No matter how long you've been in the city, there's bound to be a tour led by one of San Francisco City Guides ' 300 trained volunteers that will teach you something new. SFGATE's travel editor Silas Valentino calls it "a fun fact bonanza," and you can educate yourself on just about anything from scandalous murals to downtown architecture and the filming locations of Alfred Hitchcock. Various locations and dates .
21. Go to your neighborhood farmers market or flea market
Farmers markets, flea markets and pop-up events aren't just an opportunity to stock up on your groceries for the week or hunt for a bargain. They're also great for getting some fresh air, unearthing new or nostalgic treasure and, let's be real, people-watching. Whether Fort Mason is more your style, or you're looking to browse the Outer Sunset Farmers Market & Mercantile in the Sunset, there's sure to be a market near you. SFGATE's newsletter editor Cole Chapman recommends the Clement Street Farmers Market in the Inner Richmond: "It's always a good time to hear the band outside Plough and the Stars on Sunday mornings." Various locations and dates year-round.
22. Go on a docent-led tour of the Antique Vibrator Museum
Did you know the vibrator was the fifth household device to be electrified, after the sewing machine, the fan, the tea kettle and the toaster? You'll learn these offbeat facts and more as you look at vibrators dating back to as early as the 1800s during a docent-led tour inside the Good Vibrations shop on Polk Street. Reservations need to be made 72 hours in advance by calling 415-345-0400 . 1620 Polk St. Every third Sunday at 3 p.m .
23. Discover a new hobby amid SF’s skyscrapers
Atop the bustling transit hub adjacent to Salesforce Tower lies Salesforce Park , five acres of rooftop respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown. It's worth it to go, even if only for a peaceful walk during your lunch hour, but free activities are also held on a daily basis, from yoga and HIIT classes to birdwatching and garden tours. Visit the park's website for a full list of events . 425 Mission St. Open daily from 6 a.m.-8 p.m.
24. Hang out with sea lions at Pier 39
Is there anything better than seeing a blubbery pile of sea lions barking, snuggling and sunning themselves while you look on from the viewing dock with an uncontrollable grin on your face? No, there isn't. As SFGATE reporter Madeline Wells described in her 10/10 rating of the Fisherman’s Wharf mascots : "I laughed, I nearly cried. I love them." Pier 39. Open daily.
25. Visit a museum for free
With a San Francisco Public Library card, residents can visit several museums for free. Simply log into Discover & Go , choose a date and an available attraction and you're on your way. Bank of America sponsors free visits for cardholders to the Legion of Honor, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the de Young Museum on the first weekend of every month. And residents of the nine Bay Area counties can go to the Legion of Honor and the de Young every Saturday at no cost, with de Young offering free sketching and art materials on select dates from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. The Conservatory of Flowers also extends free general admission to residents every day, and to all visitors on the first Tuesday of every month. Various locations and dates.
26. See a circus in the park
Aerialists, acrobats, jugglers and clowns from all over the world will converge at Bay Area parks this fall in "Flip Flop Fly," the latest show from Circus Bella. More than 108,000 people in the Bay Area have gone to see these hour-long pop-up performances, according to its website, and following its successful run this summer, "Flip Flop Fly" has added six fall shows – on Oct. 15 at SF Mint Plaza and Oct. 22 and 23 at Alameda's Alameda Point. View the full schedule on Circus Bella’s website . Various dates and locations.
27. Picnic and chill at Dolores Park
Whether you're reading a book, playing spike ball or just taking in the views, it's easy to kill an afternoon here. Bonus points if you spot a dancing robot or get serenaded by a musician who sings you an original song on the spot. Dolores and 19th Streets. Open daily .
28. Voyage to the Doggie Diner head
The face of the retro fast food chain Doggie Diner was once ubiquitous across the city. Now, there's only one left, and though the deranged dachshund was once toppled in a windstorm and people fought over whether to deem it a landmark, it now watches over us all. I ntersection of Sloat Boulevard and 45th Avenue. Open daily.
29. Pre-game in Mission Bay
Spark Social SF is a free community gathering space in Mission Bay with a beer garden and rotating food truck options. There's plenty of outdoor seating offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and it's just a 7-minute walk away from Chase Center . Pets and children are welcome. 6 01 Mission Bay Blvd. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
30. Peek at three innings of a Giants game
It's a San Francisco tradition. Make your way to the viewing area at McCovey Cove just south of Oracle Park and watch three innings (or more, depending on the size of the crowd) free of charge. It's also fun to look out for people in boats and kayaks as they try to catch a fly ball. 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Dates vary.
31. Picnic at Sutro Baths
Once home to the largest indoor swimming complex in the world — not to mention an ice-skating rink and a museum with stuffed polar bears and a mummy — the ruins of the 126-year-old Sutro Baths are one of the city's most interesting landmarks. Wander into the spooky adjacent tunnel where Anton LaVey once hung out (or did he?), and for a full coastal history day, SFGATE managing editor Katie Dowd recommends checking out the shipwreck off Lands End . 1004 Point Lobos Ave. Open daily.
32. Look for fairy doors
Crafted by Tony Powell and his son in 2008, the tiny fairy door tucked away behind the Japanese Tea Garden has become a little-known legend of Golden Gate Park and receives hundreds of handwritten notes from children every year. In recent years, Alec Hawley has performed upkeep on other doors throughout the park in addition to making some new ones , and a miniature Victorian recently popped up, too. Can you find them all? Golden Gate Park. Open daily.
33. Chill with live jazz in a bookstore
Bird & Beckett Books and Records in Glen Park transforms into a live jazz venue every week — they haven't missed a Friday night since they started hosting shows there in 2002. Though some events require a cover charge, free jam sessions are held on the last Sunday of every month, and you can listen to some tunes while you pick up your next summer read. If you can, tip your musicians! The store also hosts poetry readings on the first Thursday of each month. 653 Chenery St. Last Thursday of each month from 7-9 p.m. (poetry) and the last Sunday of each month from 7-9 p.m. (music).
34. Say "aww" to cute dogs
The city's largest dog park, the Golden Gate Park Dog Training Area , underwent a $2.4 million renovation last year and is a canine destination. With separate fenced areas for small and big dogs and eucalyptus logs and boulders for climbing, you're sure to get a much-needed serotonin boost watching happy pups playing and pouncing. 6335 Fulton St. Open daily.
35. Take in the views at the Potrero Hill Community Garden
Once home to Estelle West, otherwise known as the fabled Goat Lady of Potrero Hill , this hidden gem of a garden just off San Bruno Avenue requires a bit of an uphill trek, but offers one of the best views in the city. Bring a burrito from the nearby Mission and watch the sunset among the plots of organic fruits, vegetables, sunflowers and dahlias — you might even see a few chickens. 780 San Bruno Ave. Open daily from 6 a.m.-8 p.m .
36. Watch for wild parrots
No one is quite certain how they got here , but wild flocks of cherry-headed conures are a staple of San Francisco , made even more recognizable by Mark Bittner's heartwarming book "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" and Judy Irving's subsequent documentary of the same name. Grab your binoculars and spend an afternoon trying to find the noisy daredevils along the Embarcadero, on Billy Goat Hill, in Corona Heights or perched along telephone lines in Pacific Heights. Various locations; open daily.
37. Contemplate in a labyrinth
On the second Friday of each month, Grace Cathedral invites guests to spend a couple of hours relaxing and meditating during one of its candlelit labyrinth walks. Take in the stunning stained-glass windows and serene views of the historic building as you quiet your mind. 1100 California St. The second Friday of each month. Upcoming walks: Sept. 9, Oct. 14 and Nov. 11.
38. Hear an author speak at a historic bookstore
Free author readings and Q&A panels are frequently held at City Lights Books in North Beach, Green Apple Books in the Inner Richmond, Booksmith in the Haight and Omnivore Books in Noe Valley. Find your next page-turner or some recipe inspiration. Various locations and dates .
39. Go to San Francisco's oldest nursery
Housed in a dairy farm building dating back to 1904, Clement Nursery is a haven for plant fanatics and is the oldest institution of its kind in the city. A former hay barn accommodates what is now the nursery storefront, with shelves of self-watering pots, houseplants, jewelry and other gifts on display. Out back, hundreds of native California plants bask in the sunlight next to what used to be the dairy's cookhouse. The nursery also allegedly served as Armistead Maupin's inspiration for Plant Parenthood, the shop run by Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Brian Hawkins in "Tales of the City." 1921 Clement St. Open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
40. Put your ear up to the Wave Organ
One of the oldest art installations in the city, the Wave Organ creates ambient soundscapes from the Bay itself. Built in 1986 by Exploratorium artists in residence Peter Richards and George Gonzalez, it's now an international destination. "It's chaotic at first," writes SFGATE editor Dan Gentile. "But hold your ear for a little longer or take a seat in the alcove with several pipes surrounding you in stereo. The sounds develop a soothing rhythm, and if you're there at high tide, calming resonance builds into timpani-like swells." 83 Marina Green Dr. Open daily.
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