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How to see San Francisco for free

San Francisco may be one of the most expensive cities in the United States, but if you’re looking to get a bigger bang for your sightseeing buck, this place is actually a brilliant choice.

Occupying a tight, 47-square mile fingerprint on the tip of a narrow peninsula, San Francisco is blessed with beautiful, attraction-filled parks, a constant parade of free, off-the-wall events and performances, absorbing neighbourhoods, miles of windswept city beaches and one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks. With the added bonus of cheap-ish public transport, you might find yourself spending considerably less than planned...


Walk the Golden Gate Bridge

Put your windbreakers on, we’re going for a walk. Not just any old walk either, but a bracing stroll over the Golden Gate Bridge – possibly the most photographed bridge on the planet and arguably the most beautiful. There’s no better way to appreciate the scale of the orange vermilion-painted towers and the graceful arc of the two main cables (each containing 40,000 miles of wire) than to stand underneath them and stare upwards in amazement.

When you start to feel a mild swaying motion whipped up by the ocean winds, close your eyes and notice the gentle-but-juddery vibrations move through your body from feet to forehead. Yes, it gets really windy up here so dress accordingly. Pedestrians can enter the bridge’s east sidewalk between 5am and 9pm in summer and 5am and 6.30pm in winter.

Admire the views from the de Young Museum

San Francisco is all about the views. As a city built on 43 hills (most of them thigh-tremblingly steep), it’s likely you’ll stumble across a new favourite outlook several times a day. Most of the city’s best views are open air and well known — Twin Peaks, Coit Tower, the twisting paths of Buena Vista Park — but one of the best is from the observation floor of the fine art de Young museum‘s Hamon Tower in Golden Gate Park. On cloudless days, you can see out over the Presidio towards the Marin Headlands, but even when the fog rolls in, the immediate scene over Inner Richmond’s grid-like streets is equally appealing.

The architecturally bold, copper-clad de Young museum is the oldest in San Francisco, re-located to its present location in 2005. Though its main galleries require an entrance fee, you can browse the impressive lobby and museum store, stroll through the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, and whizz up to the observation tower free of charge.

de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, at John F. Kennedy Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Experience Lindy in the Park

Extrovert or introvert? Still in Golden Gate Park, Lindy in the Park is a free swing dance party held every Sunday from 11am – 2pm (weather permitting) and you can either get stuck right in or just people-watch from the sidelines. Novices can take advantage of a free half-hour beginner lesson at midday, and no partner is necessary. A variety of music is played, from the classic swing of the big band era to blues, jive and jazz.

Lindy in the Park, Golden Gate Park, South sidewalk of John F. Kennedy Drive, between the de Young Museum and the north entrance to the Music Concourse. 


Explore the Cable Car Museum

San Francisco’s beloved cable car system is the last in the world to be manually operated, and riding one will no doubt be a highlight of your trip. Three perfectly preserved 1870s cable cars live in the free, family-friendly Cable Car Museum, along with a collection of historic photos, replica models and memorabilia. But best of all, it’s all housed in the actual Washington/Mason powerhouse and storage facility of the entire, present-day cable car network. This means you can stand on the gallery level and look down over the enormous engines and whirring wheels that heave the cables under the streets of San Francisco. Down in the lower-level viewing room, check out how the huge gear and pulley system operates, and see the cable line entering the building through the channel under the street. Don’t miss the great little store where you can buy yourself an original cable car bell.

Cable Car Museum, 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco – free admission. 

For another kid-friendly, free-to-enter San Francisco museum, we recommend Musée Mécanique – an antique penny arcade at Fisherman’s Wharf.


Mingle with the literati at City Lights Books

Co-founded in 1953 by Peter D. Martin and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights is one of the best known and most influential independent bookstores in the United States, first gaining notoriety after Ferlinghetti published and sold Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s banned poetry collection Howl in 1956.

With a heavy slant towards the arts, global literature and the liberal culture and politics that are synonymous with San Francisco, the store is a real treasure trove for book-loving visitors. Expanded over the years, there are now three floors brimming with fiction, poetry, history, politics, music, art and philosophy tomes from both major and niche publishers, including City Lights’ own publishing house. Grab a table in the basement (highbrow non-fiction) and soak up the ambience.

For a real glimpse into the local literary scene, try and get to one of City Lights’ ongoing series of readings and events – there are normally one or two a week, many of which are turned into podcasts.

City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway, San Francisco

Image credits:

Golden Gate Bridge © 2010 Scott Chernis Photography : San Francisco Travel Association
City Lights bookstore in North Beach © 2010 Scott Chernis Photography : San Francisco Travel Association
All other imagery © iStock