10 things to do for free in San Francisco

You don't need to drop the dollars to enjoy yourself in The Golden Gate City, says Katherine Price

5 mins

1. Follow the yellow brick road

Why pay for a tour guide when you can show yourself around? Stop when and where you want, go where your own feet take you: it's the best way to experience San Francisco. And thankfully, for those new to the city, there's the Barbary Coast Trail.

The trail links some of San Francisco's most important historical sites, starting at the Old US Mint, where over 50 million dollars in coins were produced, and leading to the city's Aquatic Park. Golden plaques on the floor lead the way, can be picked up at anywhere along the route and point you in the direction of the next marker, leaving you free to explore the areas at your own pace.

The trail includes breathtaking viewpoints over the city, historic sites, museums (such as the Pacific Heritage museum), pubs, cafes, and key areas like Chinatown.

2. Get down in Chinatown

Chinatown is one of the most intriguing spots in San Francisco, and is supposedly the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Step inside the looming green gates, walk for five minutes, and suddenly it genuinely feels like you're not in California anymore. It's that big – and can be rather overwhelming. Get lost in the narrow streets and discover things you never even knew existed. Plus it's the perfect place if you're looking for Far-Eastern delicacies.

You don't need to buy anything to appreciate Chinatown as it has a charm all its own. Don't be shy. Try the samples. Join in with the meditation or t'ai chi in Portsmouth Square and watch the locals betting and playing intricate board games – just don't take photos. They won't like you for that!


3. Indulge your inner beat poet

Keep an eye out for City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue on a stroll around the city. Famous for publishing Allen Ginsberg's controversial poem Howl, the obscenity trial that ensued, and the beat generation writers that haunted the shop in the 1950s, who continue to do so to this day.

The Beat generation was a bohemian wave that hit America in the 1950s, inspired by writers that controversially explored drugs, sexuality, religion and rejected materialism. San Francisco was the epicentre of this wave, where the original Beat writers, such as
Kerouac and Ginsberg, met and inspired each other. 

Nowadays, City Lights is just as much a shrine to the beat generation as a book store. Photographs of Kerouac and Ginsberg, anecdotes and information line the walls. It's fascinating to merely walk around the upper rooms and linger on the staircases to take in the history of the store (to the annoyance of the shop assistants) and take in the bohemian atmosphere. A must-visit for literature lovers.

4. Peer at street performers

San Francisco is almost guaranteed to have some sort of street performers who will entertain you for nothing (buckets are handed around afterwards, but donations are optional), especially around Fisherman's Wharf and the general Bay Area.

There's juggling, magic, gymnasts, musicians, clowns... the standard fare. Except that the performers who come all the way to San Francisco to perform are in fact usually some of the best in the world. Children love it, and it's a great way to see some of the local (and not so local) talent, be entertained, and enjoy The Sardine Family Circus, the GroWiserBand, Sunshine the Clown or blues singer Dave Earl.

5. See the sea (lions)

There's something so hypnotising about watching sea lions lumbering across Pier 39. Take a stroll down to the Bay Area where you can watch sea lions attempt to manoeuvre themselves over the floating wooden barrage.

Spellbinding performances see them leap on and off the pier, occasionally fighting, and leaves spectators with a great way to see sea lions in a much more natural habitat that isn't an oversized bathtub in a zoo. Coo at their sleeping forms cuddling up to each other, and watch them fight it out over the best spots while the audience on the board walk 'ooh' and 'ah' as they watch eagerly. Although only a small group of animals stick around during the summer months, numbers can reach up to 900 during the winter.


6. Walk or drive down Lombard Street

Lombard Street is one of the most recognisable (and most photographed) streets in America. It serves as a fantastic challenge for walkers, photographers and drivers. The street itself is super curvy due to its steepness, which becomes apparent very quickly if you're walking up the street or driving down it. However, the views over the city at the top are thoroughly worth the slog, bringing you close to Coit Tower, if you fancy climbing even higher to see the city from above.

It's also worth it to watch the cars trying to traverse the eight steep consecutive hairpin turns that make Lombard Street, allegedly, one of the most crooked streets in America. Or, for the daring, to traverse it yourself.

7. Smell the roses

Thankfully, quite a few of the gardens in Golden Gate Park are free, excluding attractions such as the deYoung museum and the Japanese Tea Garden. But don't let that put you off. The park is a gorgeous location for nature lovers and is a lovely place to simply relax and lose yourself in.

The Shakespeare Garden is a little slice of Britishness; a portion of paradise you  wouldn't expect to find in a busy city. But it's there and, although small, it's usually one of the quieter gardens in the park. The garden grows every flower and plant mentioned in Shakespeare's works. Quotes are inscribed on stone slabs at the back of the garden. The garden itself is beautiful, whether for examining the plant life or sitting and relaxing with a good book (the ideal location to pore over some Shakespeare if ever there was one).


8. Learn about something different

If you're looking for museums devoted to something a bit more out of the ordinary, specialised, or even the downright odd, then San Francisco is the place to go. There's the Wells Fargo museum, with a real stagecoach and gold ore, the Cable Car museum, the Pacific Heritage museum and the Musee Mecanique.

The latter devotes itself to old school arcade games from the 20th century. From the old classics, to the slightly odd, occasionally naughty, and the downright creepy, it's worth a gander. The eerie fortune-telling grandmother is simply terrifying. All of these museums are free, while others generally have one day a month with free admission. Find out which museums are free and when here.

9. Sample the local ale

The Anchor Ale Brewery offers two free tours every weekday (book early to avoid disappointment). The tours are by reservation only and reservations can be made up to six months in advance. The walking tour will fill you in on the history of the brewery, and is followed by a tasting session (which, naturally, is what we all go for really). Just don't overdo it.

Built in 1937, the building was originally made for a food company, and was bought by Anchor 40 years later. The company itself has a rich and fascinating history tracing all the way back to the California gold rush, and Anchor still boasts its status as one of the most traditional breweries in America.

10. Experience the bridge

As cliched as it is, you can't leave San Francisco without properly experiencing the Golden Gate Bridge. Whether it's just finding a good vantage point to see the 75-year old steel structure in all its glory from afar, or taking a walk over the bridge itself – it's truly awe-inspiring.

The bridge's eastern walkway is generally open to pedestrians during the daylight hours, though is reserved for pedestrians only on weekends and for the remaining daylight hours after 3.30pm on weekdays. Cyclists can take advantage of having the bridge to themselves during weekend evenings, and the western walkway when the eastern is closed to them.

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