Tour on the Cheap: The Best Free Walking Tours in San Francisco

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Know about San Francisco's colorful history and culture with short and sweet "technically free" walking tours by some of the city's most passionate and knowledgeable individuals.

Let’s face it: those few days or weeks you have booked in the city are not enough and if you want to understand San Francisco’s complex history and culture real quick, you’ll probably need to book yourself a walking tour of the city so you’ll learn about the city’s quirks and antics as you walk along its historically important streets.

The thing is, SF walking tours can easily cost between $30 to $100 or more – something a lot of tourists-on-a-budget cannot easily cough up.

Thankfully there are kind organizations and individuals who are offering free tours of the city, just because they love the city. Call me cheap but there’s nothing better than free tours by passionate individuals who love the city this much they’d do tours and spend time with cheap tourists all for free, just for the love of the city.

Below is a roundup of all the best free walking tours you can book in San Francisco. But first, some notes:

  • These tours (mostly by volunteers) are technically free. These walking tours encourage you to “pay what you wish” or leave a small donation at the end of the tour if you are happy with the service, but you are under no obligation to pay and you’re free to leave the tour without paying a dime – it’s all up to you (and your conscience, perhaps?).
  • Since they’re walking tours, prepare to walk. A lot. San Francisco is a hilly city and depending on the tour of your choosing, some tours passing through very steep neighborhoods can be quite a hike.
  • Be sure to check their websites for more information the day before your tour to get the latest updates on changes, booking requirements and cancellations.

 

The Best Free Walking Tours in San Francisco

People Tourists Picture Taking Lombard Street
Photo: Cheapnik

Wild SF Walking Tours (Free or Pay What You Wish)

Wild SF Walking Tours is known for their paranormal/haunted San Francisco tours and SF food crawls which are not free, BUT it’s a good thing they still offer free daily walking tours for those who are traveling on a shoestring budget.

Wild SF Walking Tours has been acclaimed as “Best Tour of the Bay” for 4 years – it’s no surprise because their team composed of a bunch of passionate, funky artists and creatives are the icing on top of their tours, making each tour not only informative, but also entertaining, creative, and sometimes even hilarious.

Their Free SF Tour is regarded as the “best intro to SF,” covering the Great Earthquake, Gold Rush and classic SF history while walking through Chinatown, Union Square and the Financial District.

This free tour happens every day at 10am (prior booking on their website is required). The group will meet at the cable car turnstile at Powell and Market Streets and will end at the iconic Transamerica Pyramid with the guarantee that you’ll end up having fallen in love with the city even more and with new friends from all over the world.

This tour is technically free and you can walk away without paying if you didn’t like the tour at all, but if want to give, the tour is “pay-what-you-wish.”

Free Tours by Foot (Free or Name Your Price)

Free Tours by Foot has presence in many major tourism cities across America and Europe and they’re really making it in the realm of free tours.

Their tours are conducted by fun, knowledgeable and entertaining locals guides that know the city in and out. Choose from one of their signature tours below:

 

You need to book online to secure a spot. Their tours are technically free but you can name-your-own-price if you are happy with the tour.

SF City Guides (Free or Suggested donation: $10)

SF City Guides is a free tour program by the San Francisco Public Library that has been run by volunteers since 1978 – these are volunteers who have gone through months of training to become a City Guide, with some even experts in their field.

Since it officially started the program now has over 300 volunteer guides, and over 80 different tours – yes they have this much number of tours, all you have to do is to pick depending on your liking, travel style, or interests.

SF City Guides’ range of tours vary from architectural/art tours, historic tours and landmark tours to family friendly and natural/social history tours. They also give tours around a specific neighborhood in case you are fascinated by one.

Tours are given every day of the year and range from 1.5 to 2 hours. No reservation is required for most of their tours and no need to sign up in advance. Just show up at the given meeting place (looking for the guide with the badge and the distinctive red jacket) at least a few minutes before to guarantee your slot.

Free San Francisco Tour (Free or Suggested donation: $10)

Okay, okay, its name couldn’t be more generic, but don’t judge the book by its name, because their walking tours are not only free as the name implies, they’re outstanding too. With its walking tours having been voted in the top 2 free tours in the United States and North America for 3 years in a row, their walking tours are raved by those who have attended and is surely a great deal for those who are tightening up on their tour budgets.

Free San Francisco Tour’s founder and main man Filip is not actually from San Francisco (he’s from Europe), but he’s someone who absolutely loves the city so much he knows more about the quirks and the history of the city than the average local – that includes parts of the city that’s not usually covered in any other tour, like San Francisco’s Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPOS) – atriums, terraces, and plazas that you can get free access to for those rare panoramic views of the city down below. Together with his team of passionate and friendly guides they’re able to offer a free no-nonsense guide to the City by the Bay.

They conduct free walking tours in English and Spanish every single day, rain or shine. Meeting place is right next to Union Square‘s famous Red Heart at the corner of Post and Powell streets – just look for the orange flag with the logo of Free San Francisco Tour to pinpoint the group:

  • Free SF Tour in English – Every day, one at 10am and another at 2pm
  • Free SF Tour en Español – Every day at 10:30am

 

These tours run for a good 2 and a half hours and it covers most of downtown San Francisco, starting from Union Square to Chinatown and Financial District, and finally at Embarcadero (opposite Ferry Building) where the tour ends and you’re free to go on to Pier 39 on your own.

If you’re amazed by San Francisco’s (aka Silicon Valley) tech boom and the presence (as well as humble beginnings) of iconic tech companies like Google, Twitter, Uber, AirBnb, Salesforce, and many others in the city, they also offer “the only tech and startup free walking tour in San Francisco.” This free tour for the techies happen every Tuesdays and Fridays at 6pm. Tour starts at 2 Harrison St, (corner of Folsom and Harrison), next to Mozilla Foundation SF and ends at 8 pm at Union Square, corner of Geary and Stockton.

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