Exploring San Francisco: 7 Free or Cheap Things to See & Do
In true cheapskate fashion, we rocked up in San Francisco fresh off an 8 hour Megabus ride from LA. If you don’t mind experiencing the inescapable case of stiff-butt, this will only set you back about $12 (as of March 2017, the pricing varies and does constantly change though so best to book in advance to score the best deal).
Famous for its unconventional mix of architecture, steep hills, skateboarding, faded remnants of hippie counterculture movements and, in recent decades, its rapid growth as a centre of technology and finance, San Francisco now tops the list of the most expensive cities to live in the US.
There are however inexpensive ways of exploring the city that will cost you next to nothing so here is the lowdown of just some of them:
Neighbourhood with Latino roots and a culturally eclectic & artsy vibe, where old school taquerias and new polished bars stand side by side. This is also the home of the famous Mission Burrito. While there are plenty of shops to choose from, probably the best and most well known burrito place is La Taqueria. La Taqueria partly owes its popularity to its owner Miguel Jara, who still runs the shop today, greeting everyone who walks through the door. He even handed us a rose alongside our burritos with a friendly ‘Welcome to San Francisco, baby’.
Check out Balmy Alley murals. Ever since the first mural was painted in 1972, they kept popping up, eventually growing into a project with a purpose of celebrating indigenous and Central American cultures and protesting US intervention in their affairs. It’s a great display of activist art, the most recent additions taking on some more political themes such as gentrification and police harassment.
Possibly the most vibrant and colourful part of the city, Castro is San Francisco’s LGBTQ district, forged through activism in the 1960’s and 70’s and grown into a strong community.
Based in the Eureka valley and centred around the neighbourhood’s namesake Castro street, there are plenty of bars and quirky shops with rainbow hue overload. It was here where possibly Castro's most famous resident, Harvey Milk, opened his camera shop, eventually also used as his campaigning headquarters.
Other than rainbow flags, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the massive neon sign for the Twin Peaks tavern, which is debatably the oldest gay bar in the country and certainly the first one that boasted huge glass windows at a time when LGBT establishments used to be hidden in basements and windowless alleys. Castro also has its own Walk of Fame, where you find LGBT icons represented. Everything in Castro is catered for the gay community, making it a safe and welcoming place for people who relate to the culture or simply don’t mind a bit of extra colour in their lives.
In the early 1960s this was an area in decline with cheap rooms, making it a fertile ground for freethinkers who turned it into the birthplace of counterculture and hippie movement. Haight-Ashbury is another colourful neighbourhood with lots of cultural history, once a haven for a number of musicians such as Janis Joplin and psychedelic rock bands including Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.
These days hippies are very much replaced by hip yuppies but there’s a lot to see, from bits of nostalgia evoking the Summer of Love in 1967 (watch out for the house where Jimi Hendrix allegedly lived, which now has a mural painted in his honour) to a lot of unique and quirky bars, shops, record stores (including the San Fran branch of Amoeba Music), street art and a good offer of vegan food.
The largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Much like most Chinatowns you can find in cities around the world, just bigger. And so much fun for wandering around.
We randomly ended up in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory tucked away on Ross Alley. It is surprisingly tiny with only a few ladies on the assembly line hand folding the cookies. You can see them work and buy a bag of freshly made cookies.
An area overwhelmingly catering for tourists, which locals understandably tend to scoff at, there are still unique gems to be found here for any first time visitor.
Entertainment options are diverse but our favourite, in terms of not cost, was watching the goofy sea lions barking, playing or mostly lying in the sun. They started coming here and parking themselves on wooden boat docks after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989, completely taking over Pier 39 and stayed ever since. The number of sea lions who have found a home here does rise and fall depending on seasons and the best time to see them is from late July to mid-May as in June & July most of them head to the breeding ground on The Channel Islands.
If you cannot make it to San Francisco just yet but really fancy that pier vibe, you can always watch the sea lions on live webcam here.
Another local oddity you can find on Pier 45 is Museé Mechanique. There are 100+ vintage mechanical coin operated games, from the turn of the century up to 1980s, and you can have a go at them for a quarter.
If you want to tick another classic San Fran attraction off your list, take the famous cable car all the way down to the edge of the Fisherman’s Wharf.
The beginning of 2 of the 3 cable car lines is at Powell and Market streets. By taking the Powell-Mason line you will go over Nob Hill and end up at Fisherman’s Wharf or you can take Powell-Hyde line which also takes you near the Wharf but alights at Aquatic Park next to Ghiradelli Square from where the Wharf is a short stroll away. Take the second option if you want to take in the view and fancy some top notch chocolate.
The cable car ride costs $7 for an adult per ride, and do prepare for some queuing up. It is a uniquely San Francisco experience and the only one of its kind in the world. Find more information on the routes and cable car history here.
Golden Gate Bridge
We’ll keep it short on this one. It’s one of the most famous bridges and postcard views in the World, so why would you not give it a go and cross it?
In addition, it’s a nice hike to get there, crossing the scenic Crissy Field, a former US army airfield, which has now been restored as an urban national park.
Pick up a bit of American history at Fort Point, located just underneath the bridge on the southern approach. Built just before Civil War, its mission was to protect the city from incoming Confederate warships that never came.
The museum gives an insight into the lives of Civil War-era soldiers and admission is free. It’s a great example of military architecture at the time, even Joseph Strauss, the engineer of Golden Gate bridge, tweaked the design so it would arch over Fort Point, thus saving the fortress from the planned demolition.
Please see the below pictures of or on the bridge from different viewpoints. That is one attractive bridge.
*Extra tips *
San Francisco definitely has its rough parts. We were struck and saddened by the amount of homelessness we saw in San Francisco. Tenderloin and Union Square can be intimidating after dark. Saying that, we unknowingly did book our stay in the area. Don't let that spoil your experience, just remember to use your street smarts and don't go out of your way to stay out late looking like a tourist.
Don't forget to stock up on hostel noodles because it's not cheap to eat out in San Francisco if you're vegan. And enjoy this picture of goats we randomly met somewhere on the way to Fisherman's Wharf.