golden gate bridge

10 Free and cheap things to do in San Francisco

by Guest on February 21, 2014

Visitors to the City by the Bay, and even locals like me, are always looking for free and cheap things to do in San Francisco. From hilly streets to chocolate treats, here are 10 of my favorites:

1. Explore the secret parks (called “POPOS”) that downtown building owners don’t want you to find.

Due to a quirky zoning code, many downtown San Francisco buildings operate secret public parks, rooftop terraces, and gardens that are on private property but are open to anyone. These privately-owned public open spaces (“POPOS”) are sometimes difficult to find, but locating them makes a fun scavenger hunt for the chance to enjoy a picnic in the park, likely all by yourself. Click here to check out a Google Map of these parks or download a smartphone app.

POPOS San Francisco

2. Skip the expensive cable car, ride the historic trolleys instead. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation agency (Muni) operates a number of beautifully restored vintage streetcars built from 1912 through the 1940s. They run on a scenic route (the F-Line) from Fisherman’s Wharf around the coast and up Market Street through Downtown. At only $2.00 per ride, this journey through history is a fraction of the cost of the cable car.

San Francisco Streetcars

3. Wander the Mission District. Check out the colorful street art and explore this fast-changing but still diverse Mexican and Central American community. Get a burrito or tacos from one of the Mission’s famous taquerias. El Farolito and El Tonayense are my favorites.

Mission Street Art, San Francisco

4. Taste delicious SF-made chocolates and get a tour of the Dandelion Chocolate Factory. While you are in the Mission, stop into the cafe owned by bean-to-bar chocolate maker, Dandelion Chocolate (740 Valencia Street). Sample a few of their chocolate bars for free in the front of the cafe and then take a free, thirty minute tour of the factory.

Dandelion Chocolate, San Francisco

5. Peep through the fence to watch a San Francisco Giants Game. Walk along the waters of McCovey Cove (adjacent to AT&T Park) and watch the game through a fenced opening in the wall for free. You can catch a few innings before the security guards shoo you away. Keep an eye out for fans in boats and kayaks in the water, wielding fishing nets in the hope of collecting a home run ball.

SF Giants, AT&T Park, San Francisco

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6. Explore the Ferry Building’s gourmet food stalls and go on a free city walking tour. San Franciscans live for food, and this shopping center devoted to all that is delicious is the easiest way to experience the city’s foodie culture. For the full experience, go on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday mornings, when one of the city’s largest farmers markets is set up outside. During the Saturday and Tuesday markets, volunteers from San Francisco City Guides offer free walking tours of the Ferry Building. If you’re an adventurous eater, stop in to the wild mushroom store, Far West Fungi, and buy an ice cream bar, naturally flavored with candy cap mushrooms — it sounds scary, but it is delicious and will remind you of maple syrup!

San Francisco Ferry Building

7. Sample one of San Francisco’s favorite sweet treats, an It’s-It. This curiously-named ice cream sandwich is a San Francisco tradition. The company was founded in 1928 by a vendor at the San Francisco Beach boardwalk. He baked two large oatmeal cookies, pressed them together with vanilla ice cream, and covered them in a hard chocolate shell. When the boardwalk was demolished in 1970, the stand closed down, but San Franciscans didn’t forget about It’s-Its. In 1974, the company reopened, and began selling the frozen treats to local mom and pop stores across the city. You can find these nostalgic (and cheap) eats at almost every corner market and grocery store in San Francisco.

It's-Its San Francisco

8. Get a free, panoramic view of  the city from the top of the de Young Museum. While you do need to pay a standard entrance fee to visit  this fine art museum, the elevator ride to the Hamon Tower Observation Deck is free. This 360 degree, glass-paned view deck offers a great look over the city’s rooftops, the Pacific Ocean, and the green expanses of Golden Gate Park.

de Young Museum Tower, San Francisco

9. Take it outside to hike the stairs and catch more great views from the city’s many hills. Telegraph Hill, prominently topped by Coit Tower, is one of the more famous hikes where it’s possible to ascend a series of sometimes rickety, wooden steps. Look for one of the hundreds of feral green parrots that live in the trees on this hill. The nonprofit organization Greenbelt Alliance regularly offers free group hikes. A few years ago on New Years Eve we did a night hike going up and down Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill and Russian Hill, ending near the waterfront to watch the fireworks.

Coit Tower, San Francisco

10. Get out of San Francisco (but not that far) for the best view of the city and the bridge. Cross over the Golden Gate Bridge into the Marin Headlands. The most radient view is in late afternoon (what filmmakers call the Golden Hour) as the setting sun lights up the face of the bridge. Even on foggy days (and there are a lot of them!) you can often catch an iconic shot of the bridge peeking out from beyond the thick fog.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

What offbeat places do you recommend in San Francisco?

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cassie kiferCassie Kifer writes about travel, food, and photography at Ever in Transit. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she spends her time plotting her next journey and eating adventurously. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, or Google+.

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Steph | A Nerd at Large February 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm

What a terrific post. So many things I want to try on my next trip to San Francisco, especially the bean-to-bar chocolate and ice cream! Lots of great finds I would never have known about.

Josie February 22, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Hey Cassie,
Great post! — and a perfect time for me to tell you that I will be in San Francisco in May, (14 – 16). I will definitely save this post as a reminder for great things to do. And if you happen to have some spare time, I’d love to meet!
Josie

Garrick Ramirez February 22, 2014 at 4:17 pm

This is a really good list. Not many people know about the POPOS. There’s a couple rooftop ones downtown with great views of the city’s historic architecture. And I totally concur about the Coit Tower + Filbert & Greenwich St Steps idea. The Grace Marchant Gardens that you’ll pass through on the Filbert side are amazing. In fact, you tie a few of these together into a pretty great itinerary: walk from Coit Tower down the wooden Filbert steps to the Embarcadero (passing through cool — and free — Levi’s Plaza which has great fountain and museum/gallery), hop on the F Trolley, and take it to the Ferry Building and/or AT&T Park. Along the way, you’d also pass the new Exploratorium which has a number of exhibits on its exterior (ie: free) plaza and waterfront. Next door is another chocolate manufacturer (TCHO) which I believe also offers tastings. Nice job, Cassie.

Garrick

R Panos February 23, 2014 at 6:40 pm

One of your best!!

Jenna February 23, 2014 at 8:29 pm

Lots of good suggestions here! I especially like the de Young Museum tip. Another one is the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, which have lots of beautiful outdoor space, and it’s all free.

Elaine February 24, 2014 at 3:37 am

Looks like I’ll have to leave my heart in San Francisco soon … thanks for the cool list!

Sandy March 18, 2014 at 9:57 am

San Francisco is one of my favourite US cities! The Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden State Park is free admission on Mon, Wed & Fri if you enter by 10:00 am. Very beautiful and peaceful there.
Also, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory is an interesting quick stop to watch the cookies getting made. It’s a bit hard to find but you can smell the cookies being made so just follow your nose.
I liked the Cable Car museum too. Free Admission and you get to see some of the antique cars and learn the history!

Michael March 18, 2014 at 10:05 am

Thanks for the tips. Will definitely follow my nose to the fortune cookie factory.

Mach March 23, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Great info! One of my favorites is to go to San Francisco City Hall and see the joy of all of the couples getting married and also take in the architecture. One other is to go to Fort Point on the San Francisco city side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s where parts of the movie Vertigo were filmed; also a great view and free!

Cassie April 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Hi Josie, I’m just now spotting all these great comments. Yes, let’s get together when you are in town! I’ll email you.

Cassie April 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Steph, Glad you got to experience some of them when you were in town! 🙂

Cassie April 22, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Thanks so much, Garrick! We should meet at TCHO sometime. I’ve never been!

Cassie April 22, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Thanks, Ryan 🙂

Cassie April 22, 2014 at 6:50 pm

Great suggestions, Jenna! There’s one place in Golden Gate Park that I really want to visit — the bison paddock! Have you heard of it? That would be a great stop for you and your boys!

Cassie April 22, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Great suggestions! SF City Hall is a gorgeous place for a wedding! And I love they way they light it up with different colors for the holidays — and Orange for big Giants wins 🙂 I’ve always wanted to check out the Vertigo filming trail but I haven’t done that yet. Thanks for the great tips!

Angie@NewtonsTravels April 23, 2014 at 7:43 pm

This is an awesome post. We are heading to San Fran/Carmel/Monterey for a long weekend in June and I’m just now planning so this is very helpful.

The Mission District sounds nice as do the POPOS. Cool!

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