San Francisco is a fascinating city in many ways, with a rich history, appealing ambience and a unique setting that draws millions of visitors each year. Take your camera to shoot pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, browse the shops in Chinatown, and be sure to ride the trolley and other public transportation to get around, when possible. And even though it’s an expensive city to visit in many ways, it also has its share of free or cheap things to do. Here are our top 10 favorites:
- Golden Gate Park. The city’s premier architectural symbol also lends its name to a lovely 1,017-acre park that includes meadows, lakes, rose gardens, an arboretum, a rhododendron dell, music concourse, a children’s playground, a buffalo paddock and the tallest artificial waterfall in the West. All free. Nominal admission fees are charged at the Japanese Tea Garden (free from 9 and 10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), the Conservatory of Flowers and the restored carousel at the Children’s Playground. The first Tuesday of each month also is free at the de Young Museum. The museum features art from all over the world and its new design offers twice the exhibition space of the old building and gives the public access to a third of the museum free every day.
- Art. San Francisco’s family-friendly museums are free at least one day each month and in many cases, free always for children 12 and younger. The Asian Art Museum offers Target Sundays family programming. The free admission on the first Sunday of each month features storytelling and yoga sessions. On these free Sundays during special exhibitions, the museum often presents films and performances related to the cultural background of art works on view. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in Yerba Buena Gardens also has kid-friendly activities. Free the first Tuesday of every month, SFMOMA’s second floor houses the Koret Visitor Information Center staffed by educators who can answer questions and help young artists browse through art books, view a community art gallery and play with Art Cards, a gallery exploration activity. The Cartoon Art Museum, on Mission Street, is the only one of its kind on the West Coast, with rotating exhibitions of art from comic books, animated movies, magazines, advertisements and newspapers as well as sculpture and video, with works dating from the 1730s to the present. The museum exhibits range from a children’s gallery and caricatures to editorial cartoons, the avant-garde and underground comics. The first Tuesday of every month is “pay what you wish day.”
- Science. Located in Golden Gate Park and newly remodeled, the California Academy of Sciences’ “inside-out” design provides a behind-the-scenes look at aquatic life support systems for the Steinhart Aquarium. Visitors can meet biologists who care for more than 5,000 animals, and perhaps even help feed the fish. Admission is free the third Wednesday of the month. At its new location along the waterfront at Pier 15, the Exploratorium is a playground for ideas. In the vanguard of the movement of the “museum as an educational center,” the Exploratorium offers hundreds of interactive exhibits in the areas of science, art and human perception. Admission is free on 5 select days each year.
- History. The Wells Fargo History Museum in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District takes visitors back to the Gold Rush era with its displays of gold nuggets, rare artifacts, interactive exhibits and a stagecoach that visitors can hop aboard. Always free. The unique San Francisco Cable Car Museum in the historic Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse, (where the cable system has operated since 1907), visitors can view the actual cable-winding machinery as it reels 11 miles of steel at a steady pace of nine-and-a-half miles per hour. Antique cable cars are also on display, including the first one dating from 1873. Always free. It only takes $5 to ride a cable car, the only moving national historic landmark in America, to the museum via the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason lines. A project of the San Francisco Fire Department Historical Society, the San Francisco Fire Department Museum displays a collection of vintage equipment including hose tenders and steamers; photographs and memorabilia, especially from the dozens of volunteer fire companies. It’s always free.
- Oceanography. The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at Fisherman’s Wharf is the nation’s only floating national park. Home to the world’s largest collection of historic ships, it includes the 1886 square rigger Balclutha, an 1890 ferryboat Eureka and the steam tug Hercules. Strolling the pier and observing is free, but admission to board the ships is $5, under age 17 free. Scheduled events and activities include sea chantey sing-a-longs and tours of the Eureka engine. An enormous Fresnel lens, once used in the Farallon Island lighthouse, marks the entrance of the nearby Visitor Center at the corner of Hyde and Jefferson streets in the 1907 Haslett Warehouse building. Park rangers staff the information desk.
- The Presidio of San Francisco was once the most important military post on the West Coast. Over the span of 200 years, three flags flew over the base — Spanish, Mexican and American. The post’s 1,491 acres next to the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay have some of the best views in town. And there’s more, including: miles of hiking trails; signed bike routes; hidden picnic sites with lavish backdrops of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean; eucalyptus and cypress groves; cannons dating from the late 1700s; a pet cemetery; abandoned barracks where Indian fighters once slept; and guided walking tours through historic military ruins, artillery batteries and the National Cemetery. A 20-page guide to the two-mile Ecology Trail highlights the Presidio’s oldest redwood trees and Inspiration Point and includes pages for children to journal their own experiences. Guides are also available for the Mountain Lake Park area. Rangers also lead free tours at Fort Point, a four-tiered brick and granite fortress built between 1853 and 1861, tucked under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The reclaimed wetlands and grassy knolls of Crissy Field, located along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay not far from the Exploratorium, offer picnic tables, walking paths, viewing areas and a host of family activities in the Crissy Field Center. Using the ocean as a classroom is the province of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary visitor center, which guides groups through more than 1,200 miles of open ocean surrounding the Farallon Islands off the Golden Gate.
- Beaches. Because the Northern California weather and waters are often cool, visitors won’t see swimmers — or even sunbathers all that often. Strong undertows can be dangerous even for wading. But the beach views of the ocean and unbroken stretches of sand are perfect for strolling and photography. Ocean Beach along the western edge of the city features four miles of sandy shoreline and, at the north end of the beach, the historic Cliff House sits high above the shore and is a spectacular viewpoint for observing the vast Pacific. Nearby is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Visitor Center, stocked with informational pamphlets and maps. Beach use regulations are posted on www.nps.gov/goga/. The historic Beach Chalet also houses a visitor center for Golden Gate Park on the first level. Windmills bracket this span of the Great Highway. A four-mile walk down the Ocean Beach Esplanade or a short drive south on the scenic Great Highway leads to Fort Funston. From the wooden observation deck built into the hillside, hang-gliders can be seen soaring over the cliffs and sea. Behind the million-dollar homes of the Seacliff district is China Beach. The beach is accessible from Seacliff and 28th Avenue, near El Camino del Mar. A game of Frisbee, volleyball or smash-ball is a great way to warm up on this sandy playground. Baker Beach stretches along the western shore of the Presidio below Lincoln Boulevard. Hikers and sunbathers here are treated to beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands from the ocean side of the peninsula. Note that nude sunbathing is popular at the northern end of the beach, closer to the bridge. Weather permitting.
- Tours. Possibly the best way to discover the mystique of San Francisco is to take a stroll through its unique neighborhoods. While self-guided walking tours are easy (information is available from San Francisco Travel), ambling with the experts can be even more fun. San Francisco’s historical and architectural highlights, tall tales and gold rush lore come to life with narrated San Francisco City Guides walking tours with library-sponsored volunteers. Most walks take one to two hours and reservations are not needed, except for groups of eight or more. Stroll through the haunts of the original ‘49ers on the “Gold Rush City” tour. Learn the story of the Golden Gate Bridge or meander among the murals of the Mission to experience vivid artwork-covered walls. Kids will enjoy the Fire Department Museum Tour, where they can take a look at San Francisco’s first fire truck and other relics as well as listen to stories. Tours are also offered through the Ferry Building, North Beach, Chinatown, Market Street, the Palace of Fine Arts, Japantown and more. Contact City Guides to discuss which tours are best for you. Tours of San Francisco’s majestic City Hall are also offered Mondays-Fridays at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Many consider it one of the finest examples of municipal Beaux Arts architecture in the world. Sign up for tours at the information desk on the first floor.
- Scenic Drive. If you have access to a car, consider taking the famous 49-Mile Scenic Drive. It takes you to 49 interesting places, including Civic Center, Chinatown, Twin Peaks, Lake Merced, Mission Dolores, Fisherman’s Wharf and Fort Mason Center. Plan to stop a while with a picnic lunch at Marina Green to watch the weekend yacht races, windsurfing and sail boating. Master kite flyers practice their craft here, too.
- Music and more. In summer, head to the Sigmund Stern Grove for free concerts. Performers include the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet. Maps are available at the SFCVB Visitor Information Center, 900 Market St. (lower level, Hallidie Plaza at Market and Powell streets, where the Powell Street cable cars turn around).
There are many more opportunities for free or inexpensive fun in the city by the bay – from excellent playgrounds open any time to special free days at local attractions. For more information, visit San Francisco Travel.
Photos provided by San Francisco Travel Association by Scott Chernis and Jack Hollingsworth.