San Francisco is a city full of great food, coffee, bars, and sights. It’s also incredibly expensive, especially when you’re dealing with a terrible exchange rate (often the case for us Canadians). That said, there are some great free or cheap attractions to be found, all of which are easy to get to on foot or via public transport from most of the common areas of San Francisco. Without further ado, here’s my list of San Francisco budget attractions!
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf
We’ll get this one at the way. First, yes, it’s a tourist trap. Second, yes, it’s still worth checking out. Kitschy tourist shops aren’t my thing, but sea lions absolutely are. Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf are basically side by side, so it’s easy to get your fill on views of the bay and Alcatraz. As I said, most of the shops are unexciting, but be sure to check out the Musee Mecanique. Both museum and arcade, it’s free admission and cheap to play; most games are 25-50 cents. Even if you’re not a gamer, it’s interesting to see all the vintage games, fortune-teller machines, and player pianos.
Just put ‘Lombard St, San Francisco’ into Google Maps and you’ll see why it’s worth checking out. Possibly the crooked street in the world, Lombard St has 8 hairpin turns in the span of one very steep city block in the Russian Hill district. The neighbourhood is a nice one to wander through, and between it and nearby Telegraph Hill, your legs will get a workout from the climbing.
Land’s End Park is a great place in San Francisco to spend a couple of hours for free. You can spend as much time as you want hiking the trails, keeping an eye out for shipwrecks at low tide, finding the best spot on Mile Rock Beach to take photos of the Golden Gate bridge, or finding the not-so-hidden labyrinth. Start on the western side of the park near Cliff House and follow the Coastal Trail, ending in the ritzy neighbourhood of Sea Cliff. Warning: there are no bathrooms along the trail, so plan accordingly!
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts isn’t near much, although the Presidio area is lovely. Even so, it’s worth checking out and free to wander through. Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to exhibit art, it was designed to look like Roman ruins. Walking from Union Square, not really knowing what I was looking for, it caught be off guard with how grandiose it was.
Golden Gate Park & Ocean Beach
Now, my husband and I did this on a very ambitious walk from Union Square, taking all day to wander Alamo Square, Haight-Ashbury, weaving our way through the park until we hit the ocean, then back again through. We enjoyed it immensely, but others may prefer to split it up into a couple of adventures.
There’s lots to do in the park if you are looking for paid activities, such as the Botanical Gardens, the Japanese Gardens (free before 10am!), the De Young art museum, and the Science museum, but if you’re trying to keep it cheap, there are plenty of few sites that make it worth a wander. As you walk, try to find National AIDS Memorial Grove, Shakespeare’s Garden, the bison paddock, the Dutch windmill, a surprising variety of bird life on the various ponds. On the weekends, there’s a free shuttle that stops at all the major park sites. For those with children, be sure to check out the Children’s Quarter; during the summer, the carousel there, built in 1914, is open everyday and costs only $1 to ride. NB: most of the paid attractions have ‘free days’; check their respective websites to check to see if there’s a convenient free day.
Once you make it through the 1,017 acres of park, you’re rewarded with the long sandy stretches of Ocean Beach. Depending on the time of day and season, you may find bonfire parties, surfing, or heavy fog.
Some might ask what’s so special about San Francisco’s Chinatown, since most major cities have a Chinatown neighbourhood. Well, in the first place, it’s the oldest Chinatown in North America. Just wander. Follow your nose to Waverly Place. Stop at every interesting market along Stockton. Make sure to also slip off the main streets into the smaller lanes. Cheap food, cheap souvenirs, a budget traveller’s paradise.
Coit Tower/ Filbert Steps
Coit Tower is one of the most iconic structures in San Francisco. The tower was built to memorialize Lillian Hitchcock Coit (a sassy, cigar-smoking, gambling, honorary fire fighter) after her 1929 death. If you’re feeling like a bit of exercise, take the Filbert Steps to get you up the 284 foot climb between Filbert Street and the tower. When you get to the top, you’re rewarded with pretty awesome views of the city. I imagine the best views come from the top of the tower, but I’ll cautiously say you can save the $8 elevator ride and line-ups, and just enjoy the tower base.
There is a series of murals, painted in the 1930s, that provide a fascinating glimpse into some of the Marxist idealism that was common in the art world at the time, not to mention the frustration evoked by the Depression.
Alamo Square & Haight-Ashbury
In a city with such diverse architecture as San Francisco, some might think it’s tough to justify actively seeking out a few blocks of Victorian houses. Convince yourself that it’s worthwhile, if only en route to the infamous Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. For my fellow Full House fans, you likely know that Alamo Square is home to the Painted Ladies, including the Full House house.
Haight-Ashbury is known as the birthplace of hippie counter-culture, including residents such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin. Nearly 50 years after the Summer of Love, the neighbourhood retains a few relics of its history such as the Grateful Dead house. It has definitely kept its distinct identity from the rest of the city and is worth visiting for the graffiti alone. Expect a certain amount of grunginess.
And of course, I have to mention…
The Golden Gate Bridge! It goes without saying that it’s worth stopping by. You can cross it on foot or on bike, or just detour over to the start of the bridge when you’re in the Presidio area visiting the Palace of Fine Arts.
A quick note on food
Yes, San Francisco has its share of pricey restaurants. But it’s also a foodie city, which means that there are also some great cheap eats. Keep an eye out throughout the city for taquerias, or visit Chinatown for some cheap dim sum.
This is not a comprehensive list. The bottom line is that while San Francisco is an expensive city, it has some fantastic free attractions that shouldn’t be overlooked!