For an all-timer city, San Francisco quietly delivers a lot for the money. Many of its hotels offer comfort and location for a third of the cost of a comparable New York or London hotel; public transit is part of the fun (cheaper Market Street vintage street cars are more fun than the famous cable cars), and for food you can’t beat a $4 burrito in the Mission. And so much of the fun in San Francisco is free. Here’s a list of 25 options:
When I lived in San Francisco, I spent at least a couple hours a week at Amoeba Music, a huge record/CD store made out of a former bowling alley on Haight Street. Either troll the $1 bins for the glory of vinyl, or time it for the frequent free show set up in the corner. 1855 Haight St; www.amoeba.com
San Francisco’s home-grown beer – and 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. The catch: book way ahead, at least a month, to get a spot. It includes tastings of six half-pints. 1705 Mariposa St; www.anchorbrewing.com
3. Art galleries
San Francisco overflows with wild, unexpected art shows at dozens of galleries that are free to visit. They’re quieter during the week, but simply more fun at openings or weekends.
An excellent starting place is the gallery-packed four-floor 49 Geary (49 Geary St; www.sfada.com) downtown. Other favorites include Ratio 3(1447 Stevenson St; www.ratio3.org) in the Mission, whose artists regularly get Artforum coverage; the Diego Rivera Gallery (800 Chestnut St; www.sfai.edu) featuring the artist’s trompe l’oeil 1931 mural The Making of a Fresco Showing a Building of a City; and the Tenderloin’s plucky Luggage Store Gallery(1007 Market St; www.luggagestoregallery.org).
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 can’t get a ticket, you can watch for free from the archway along the waterfront promenade on the east side of the park. McCovey Cove; www.sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com
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 those cute open carriages stuffed with tourists up and over the hills. 1201 Mason St; www.cablecarmuseum.org
Inside the mighty beaux-arts dome, the splendid rotunda of San Francisco City Hall has ringing acoustics – a worthwhile spot to sit and consider of triumph and tragedy that’s occurred here, including Harvey Milk’s 1978 assassination. There are public art exhibits in the basement, and free tours from the tour kiosk. 400 Van Ness Ave; www.ci.sf.ca.us/cityhall
The Mission’s hot spot for trial by fire is on wee Clarion Alley, where street artworks are peed on or painted over in a jiff 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 favorite – faded over time. Go see what’s new. Off Valencia Street between 17th & 18th Streets.
Coit Tower (1934) is a beloved part of the San Francisco skyline, and not free to go up. But the 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 communist. It’s a steep walk up from any side, so you may be tempted to lay down a few dollars to reach the top. It’s worth it. Telegraph Hill Blvd.
Speaking of which… the famed Filbert Street Steps up to Coit Tower is quite steep but it taps 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. Plus wild parrots. If you’re heading back down, try the neighboring Greenwich St Stairs for an alternative route and more chances for parrot-spotting. Starting from Levi’s Plaza at Sansome St and Filbert St.
Built in 1861 to protect the city from – get this – Confederate attacks that never came, Fort Point is now more famous as the spot where Kim Novak lept into the frigid waters of the bay in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s an ideal vantage point for views of the Golden Gate Bridge if you aren’t up to the walk across. Marine Dr, open 10am to 5pm Fri-Sun only.
You can bike across, but it’s just as fun – if you are dressed right – to walk across the world’s most beautiful bridge. It’s 1.7 miles across (it’s possible to catch a bus back – though some visitors just walk half-way across, take in the scene, and return). The walkway is on the eastern side – facing the bay and Alcatraz – so it’s hard to get much of a Pacific view through the traffic. It’s not open to pedestrians 24 hours; check the website for opening hours. www.goldengate.org
When weather cooperates, the 1017-acre park of redwood, green meadows, and museums is an unreal setting to laze half a San Francisco day. Plus a lot is free, including weekly concerts, plus events like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Shakespeare in the Park. But better yet: free lawn bowling lessons on Wednesday and Friday. Yes, some dreams come true.
Sinister, freckle-faced Laughing Sal has creeped out kiddies for over a hundred years at this wonderful vintage arcade that’s as fun to look at (for free) as play. If you splurge a few quarters you can play everything from start-your-own bar brawls in coin-operated Wild West saloons, peep at belly dancers or feed your inner Ms Pac Man.Pier 45 Shed A at the end of Taylor Street; www.museemecanique.org
14. Public Library City Guides walking tours
Local volunteer-historians lead roughly five daily one- to two-hour walking tours by neighborhood and theme – ranging from Chinatown alleys and Alfred Hitchcock film sites to Coit Tower murals. It’s volunteer-based, with dozens of options, and completely free, though donations are accepted. www.sfcityguides.org
Near Corona Heights Park, a 520-foot summit near the Castro with superb views over the city, the Randall Junior Museum is a free, family-ready place with live-animal exhibits and hands-on workshops. 199 Museum Way; www.randallmuseum.org
The lit scene is legendary, perhaps nowhere more so than City Lights (261 Columbus Ave; citylights.com), 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 Apple (506 Clement St; www.greenapplebooks.com).
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. They’re now a National Landmark. 101 Spear St.
Remember books? The San Francisco Center for the Book not only displays elaborate Coptic binding and wooden typesetting machines used to make the things, but offers a wide display of changing exhibits and workshops. All free. 300 De Haro St; www.sfcb.org
Don’t pretend you’re too cool to gawk at these guys, who canoodle, belch and scratch their backsides on the docks of Pier 39. As many as 1300 come, as they have since 1990, providing many photo ops from January to July. Also free – watching unsuspecting tourists getting frightened by the World Famous Bushman often lurking behind his faux-shrubbery nearby. www.pier39.com
20. Seward Street slides
Lost in the Castro – near the corner of Douglas St and Seward St, about five or six blocks southwest of Market St and Castro – this tiny park has a couple of curving concrete slides that are fun to slide down. There are usually cardboard boxes handy to sit on and go, but BYOB (bring your own box) to be sure. Seriously, does any city have more fun?
21. Stern Grove Festival’s concerts
If you’re visiting in summer (late June through late August), definitely look up a city classic: the Stern Grove Festival’s calendar of free concerts on Sundays that’s become a local icon for three quarters of a century. Past artists include Neko Case, the English Beat and the San Francisco Opera. 19th Ave at Sloat Blvd; www.sterngrove.org
A keystone of the San Francisco skyline since 1972 – though its blast-off pyramid shape is sometimes dismissed as ‘Pereira’s Pr*ck’ (after architect William Pereira) – the Transamerica Pyramid’s observation deck has been closed since 9/11, but there’s a virtual observation deck to see, plus a half-acre Redwood Park at its base. 600 Montgomery St.
23. Twin Peaks or Bernal Heights views
Perfectly situated in the geographical center of San Francisco, the twin 922-feet peaks offer towering views of the city and bay – generally one of the must-sees of visitors with cars. Those without, and reluctant to take the steep climb up from Market Street, consider a quieter alternate, Bernal Heights, with lovely looks from south of the Mission, and no tour buses.
The Marina’s Exploratorium is a fun science museum – but it costs you $14 (although it’s 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 to nervous humming of a dinnertime line chef. Yacht Rd. across from the Marina Green; www.exploratorium.edu
25. Westin St Francis’ glass elevators
It’s cheating – and we’re not literally suggesting you do this – but let’s just say we’ve ‘heard’ that you can go into the hotel, walk past the front desk like you’re a guest, and take the glass-walled tower elevators up 32 stories for drop-dead vistas over Union Square and San Francisco. Its. Just. What. We. Heard. 335 Powell St; www.westin.com
Free First Tuesdays
And if you’re in San Francisco on the first Tuesday of the month, get thee to a museum. The following waive their admission costs on the first Tuesday: