California’s top cities aren’t known for being budget friendly, but if you look hard enough, it’s amazing how many free activities and attractions are available. With a little planning, you can learn to swing dance in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, discover Lake Tahoe history, and sample an array of international cuisines in San Diego's Balboa Park—all without spending a dime. Here's a sampling of free things to do in San Diego, San Francisco, Napa, Lake Tahoe, and Monterey.
Whether it's spotting snowy egrets in the marshlands of Crissy Field or snapping selfies with LucasFilm's beloved outdoor Yoda Fountain, there's plenty to do on a budget in the Presidio. Along with hiking trails, scenic overlooks, and one of the city's most popular beaches, San Francisco's former military base turned national park is also home to Fort Point National Historic Site. The massive mid-19th-century seaside fortification just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge offers free entry and 15-minute guided tours at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Friday through Sunday. Near the Main Post, the Presidio Officers' Club is a museum and cultural center combo that celebrates Presidio history with free exhibits, live music, and ongoing archaeology digs. A free Presidio Go shuttle runs throughout the park, seven days a week.
Become well versed in downtown art deco masterpieces, the Haight-Ashbury's hippie culture, and even Hitchcock filming locations with San Francisco City Guides’ free excursions. The library-sponsored non-profit now hosts approximately 30 different tours each month. Tours run 1.5–2 hours, and reservations are recommended; show up at the specified time and place and be prepared to walk.
Ride a bike, learn to swing dance, or partake in the 6th Avenue roller disco during Sundays in Golden Gate Park. The park's John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to vehicles from Kezar Drive to Park Presidio Boulevard, transforming this 1.4-mile stretch into a sea of outdoor enthusiasts. If you're lucky, a hodgepodge of jazz musicians will be performing in a tunnel near the Conservatory of Flowers, taking advantage of its supreme acoustics to put on an unforgettable show.