For such a good-time city, San Francisco quietly delivers a lot for a little. Many of its hotels offer comfort and location for a third of the price of a comparable New York or London hotel; public transport is part of the fun (cheaper Market Street vintage street cars are even more enjoyable than the famous cable cars), and for food you cannot beat a $4 burrito in the Mission. Even better, so many attractions in San Francisco are free. Here is a list of 25 options:
1. Amoeba Music’s free shows
When I lived in San Francisco, I spent at least a couple of hours a week at Amoeba
Music, a huge record/CD store in a former bowling alley on Haight Street.
Either troll the $1 bins for the glory of vinyl, or time a visit for the
frequent free shows that set up in the corner.
2. Anchor Brewing Company tours
San Francisco's home-grown beer – call
it simply “Anchor” not “Anchor Steam” to sound like a local – offers
free-45-minute tours of its historic facilities and shiny-copper brewhouse, including tastings of six half-pints.
The catch: at least a month ahead to get a spot.
3. Art galleries
San Francisco overflows with wild, unexpected art shows at dozens of galleries
that are free to visit. They are quieter during the week, but simply more fun
at openings or weekends.
An excellent starting place
is the gallery-packed four-floor 49 Geary downtown. Other favourites
3 in the Mission, whose artists regularly get Artforum
coverage; the Diego Rivera Gallery; and the Tenderloin’s
plucky Luggage Store Gallery.
4. Baseball for free (sort of)
Everyone loves the Giants
AT&T Park for its bay-front views during baseball season (April to
October). If you cannot get a ticket, you can watch for free from the archway
along the waterfront promenade on the east side of the park.
5. Cable Car Museum
Putting the cable in “cable car”, this
museum occupies a still-functioning cable-car barn, and shows off three
1870s cable cars, as well as those famed cables that pull the cute open
carriages stuffed with tourists up and over the hills.
6. Café Royale’s events
Always free, this Parisian-styled café
hosts a variety of events — karaoke, jazz, open-mic poetry slams and film screenings — several days a week.
7. City Hall
Inside the mighty beaux-arts dome, the splendid rotunda of San
Francisco City Hall has ringing acoustics – a worthwhile spot to sit and
consider the triumph and tragedy that has occurred here, including Harvey
Milk's 1978 assassination. There are public art exhibitions in the basement and
free tours from the tour kiosk.
8. Clarion Alley street art
The Mission's hot spot for trial by fire is on wee
Clarion Alley, where street artworks are painted over unless they deliver
enough to last a little while. Nothing stays (art) gold here. Even Anrew
Schoultz's mural of gentrifying elephants displacing scraggly birds – a local
favourite – faded over time. Go and see what is new.
9. Coit Tower murals and the Filbert Street Steps
Tower is a beloved part of the San Francisco skyline, and is not free to go
up. But the Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals that line the
lobby are free to see. Glorifying the worker, the murals were created by 25
artists, many of whom were denounced as communists.
The famed Filbert Street Steps that lead up to Coit Tower are quite steep, but they tap
into a hidden North Beach world of cottages along a wooden boardwalk called
Napier Lane, with sculpture tucked in among gardens year-round and sweeping
views of Bay Bridge. If you are heading back down, try the neighbouring
Greenwich Street Stairs for an alternative route.
10. Fort Point
Built in 1861 to protect the city from Confederate attacks that never came, Fort
Point is now more famous as the spot where Kim Novak leapt into the frigid
waters of the bay in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
It is an ideal vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge if you are not up to the
11. Golden Gate Bridge
You can bike across, but if you are dressed right, it is just as fun to walk
across the world’s most beautiful bridge.
At 1.7 miles across, some visitors just walk half-way across, take in the
scene, and return (it is also possible to catch a bus back). The walkway is on
the eastern side, facing the bay and Alcatraz, so it is hard to get Pacific
views through the traffic. Check the website
for pedestrian hours.
12. Golden Gate Park
When the weather cooperates, the
1,017-acre park of redwood, green meadows and museums is an incredible setting
to laze away half a San Francisco day. Plus a lot is free, such as weekly
concerts, or events like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Shakespeare in the Park.
But better yet, there are free
lawn bowling lessons on Wednesday and Friday.
13. Musée Mécanique
Sinister, freckle-faced Laughing Sal has frightened children for more than one
hundred years at this wonderful vintage
arcade that is as fun to look at (for free) as it is to play in. If you
splurge a few quarters, you can start-your-own bar brawls in coin-operated Wild
West saloons, peep at belly dancers or feed your inner Ms Pac Man.
14. Public Library City Guides walking tours
Local volunteer historians lead five, daily, one- to two-hour walking tours by neighbourhood and theme
– ranging from Chinatown alleys to Alfred Hitchcock film sites to Coit Tower
murals. It is volunteer-based, and completely free though donations are
15. Randall Junior Museum
A 520ft summit near the Castro with superb views over the city, the Randall
Junior Museum is a free, family-ready place with live-animal exhibitions
and hands-on workshops.
16. Readings at City Lights and Green Apple
The San Franciscan literary scene is legendary, perhaps nowhere more so than at
Lights, founded by city poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti, next to Jack
Kerouac Alley. Look for readings here, or at other beloved bookstores including
the Richmond District's Green
17. Rincon Annex Post Office murals
Anton Refregier won the WPA’s largest commission to depict the history of
Northern California just as WWII erupted. He resumed in 1945 and – as usual –
the results were deemed “communist” by McCarthyists in 1953. The
murals are now a National Landmark.
18. San Francisco Center for the Book
Remember books? The
San Francisco Center for the Book not only displays the elaborate Coptic
binding and wooden typesetting machines that were used to make the things, but also
offers a wide display of changing exhibitions and workshops. All free.
19. Sea Lions at Pier 39
Do not pretend you are too cool to gawk at these guys, who canoodle, belch and
scratch on the docks of Pier 39. As many as
1,300 come, as they have since 1990, providing great photo opportunities January
to July. It is also free to watch unsuspecting tourists getting frightened by
Famous Bushman often lurking behind his faux-shrubbery nearby.
20. Seward Street slides
Lost in the Castro - near the corner of Douglas Street and Seward Street, about
five or six blocks southwest of Market Street and Castro - this tiny park has a
couple of curving concrete slides that are fun to slide down. There are usually
cardboard boxes to sit on, but BYOB (bring your own box) to be sure.
21. Stern Grove Festival's concerts
If you are visiting in summer (late June through late August), definitely look
up a city classic: the Stern Grove Festival's
calendar of free Sunday concerts has been a local icon for 75 years. Past
artists include Neko Case, the English Beat and the San Francisco Opera.
22. Transamerica Pyramid’s fake observatory
A keystone of the San Francisco skyline since 1972, the Transamerica
Pyramid’s observation deck has been closed since 11 September, but there is
a virtual observation deck to see, plus a half-acre edwood Park at its base.
23. Twin Peaks or Bernal Heights views
Perfectly situated in the geographical centre of San Francisco, the twin 922ft peaks
offer towering views of the city and bay, and are generally one of the must-sees for
visitors with cars. It is a steep climb up from Market Street, so visitors
without cars may want to consider a quieter alternate, Bernal Heights,
with lovely views from south of the Mission and no tour buses.
24. Wave Organ
The Marina's Exploratorium is a fun
science museum - but it costs you $14 (although it is free on the first
Wednesday of every month). An always free, worthy side project is the Wave
Organ, a sound system of PVC tubes and concrete pipes capped with found
marble from an old cemetery built right into the tip of the Marina Boat Harbor
jetty. Tones shift depending on waves, winds and tide, sounding alternately
like spooky breathing on a phone and the nervous humming of a dinnertime line
25. Westin St Francis' glass elevators
It is cheating – and we are not literally suggesting you do this – but let us just
say we have “heard” that you can go into the
hotel, walk past the front desk as if you are a guest and take the
glass-walled, tower elevators up 32 stories for drop-dead vistas over Union
Square and San Francisco.
The article 'Twenty-five free attractions in San Francisco' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.