From music shows, art galleries and concerts to beer tours, baseball and bridge walks, here are some ideas on how to live it up without spending it up in this Californian city.
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 include Ratio 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
Coit 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 walk across.
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 accepted.
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 City 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 Apple.
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 the World 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 chef.
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.