Nine Totally Free Things to do in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve
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Nine Totally Free Things to do in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve

San Francisco New Years Eve
San Francisco Travel Association/Can Balcioglu

Ringing in 2016 doesn’t need to mean breaking the bank if you're in northern California.

In recent years San Francisco has become notorious for welcoming visitors with deep pockets. With some of the most expensive real estate in the country, its restaurants, bars, and other activities have followed suit (like Saison, the priciest restaurant in the state). But not all of the city’s offerings are out to lure the upper echelons. If you’ll be spending New Year’s in San Francisco, you don’t have to start 2016 in debt. Here are nine ways to celebrate in this West Coast city—without parting with a dime.

Walk the Golden Gate Bridge

On most days throughout the year, the Golden Gate Bridge promenade is packed almost exclusively with fanny pack-clad tourists. But on New Year’s Eve, the iconic bridge is full with wayfarers and locals alike. Start on the San Francisco side and walk the 1.7-mile-long stretch across the gateway to Marin County. It opens at 5 a.m., so go early for the sunrise, marveling as the orange sky lights Alcatraz and the Marin headlands, and look for whales off the coast while you do.

Admire Art in SoMa

You need not pay a museum entrance fee to visit the lobby of Rincon Center, a historic Art Deco building that doubles as an oft-overlooked art museum, featuring a series of murals commissioned by the Works Progress Administration. Before heading into the new year, stew in a bit of San Francisco’s past by viewing the dozens of murals depicting Sir Francis Drake and other California explorers, as well as Native Americans.

Bonfire at Ocean Beach

New permanent fire pits have been installed at San Francisco’s biggest sandy swath, Ocean Beach. BYO wood to this sprawling seaside stretch, where surfers and Outer Sunset residents cozy up with blankets to bid the year’s final sunset farewell.

Stroll the Mission District

This lively neighborhood is always buzzing, but especially so on holidays. Start at the epicenter, the intersection of 16th and Valencia Streets. Cruise down Valencia to 24th Street, popping into cool shops, patisseries, and galleries along the way. Loop back to the beginning by heading down on Mission Street.

Picnic on the Bay

If it’s not raining, take advantage of California’s winter sunshine at the recently renovated East Beach picnic area, near Crissy Field. It offers grassy knolls steps from the bay with close-up views of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as communal tables and barbecues. Bonus: It’s a prime starting spot to set out and explore the long bayside promenade, Crissy Marsh, and the West Bluffs.

Pre-Party at Dolores Park

The scene at Dolores Park is never dull, and especially so on New Years Eve, when locals flood the park with champagne and beer starting at sunset, to toast the end of 2015 while watching the dusk settle over downtown.

A Buddhist-Style Celebration

Forsake the soused crowds and instead head to the Asian Art Museum, where you can take a swing at a 2,100-pound 16th-century Japanese temple bell. Buddhist lore says that striking the bell relieves you of regrets and bad memories of the past year. At midnight, the bell will ring 108 times to bring good luck to humankind. The ceremony is not at any additional cost to a museum visit.

Take the Westin St. Francis Glass Elevator

For the best view of festive Union Square before the midnight madness descends, veer from the main corridor and duck into the iconic Westin St. Francis. In the lobby you’ll find glass elevators that zip up and down the exterior of the building. You need a room key to access the elevator, so either make this your hotel of choice to ring in the New Year, or make a new friend in the lobby.

Fireworks on the Embarcadero

The dazzling crescendo of New Years Eve in San Francisco, and easily the evening’s best event, is completely free. Every year a firework display sparkles in the night air above the bay. While they can be seen from most vantage points along the Embarcadero, the best spots are to the north and south of the Ferry Building.

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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