Your Guide to Exploring San Francisco Without Spending a Dime
Think San Fransisco is off limits for a budget traveler? Think again.
San Francisco is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in, but it can be one of the cheapest to explore.
I went there for a week last summer and by a happy coincidence after another, found a series of incredible free activities and experiences that made for an amazing trip.
Here’s how you can enjoy an entire week in San Francisco without opening your wallet!
Find Picturesque Landmarks
San Francisco is brimming with fun art and neat finds. Walking through the city, you will come across one photo worthy scene after another.
The mosaic staircase, the painted ladies, and Lombard Street (knows as the crookedest street) are all places you’ve probably seen on Instagram before, and they are worth seeing for yourself.
The mosaic staircase is infinitely more grand than any photo can capture, there are more painted ladies than you think, and watching cars drive the crooked corners of Lombardo street is just plain entertaining.
Enjoy exceptional views
San Francisco has a lot of hills, and this means a lot of incredible lookouts. Climb to mosaic staircase all the way up to reach Grand View park, and visit Crissy Field’s or Land’s End for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
For a full panoramic experience of the city, ocean, and green spaces, visit DeYoung Art Museum, located in Golden Gate Park. While there is an admissions fee for entry to the exhibits, going up to the top of Hamon Observation Tower is always free.
Go on Free Walking Tours
The San Francisco library offers a wide variety of free, volunteer led walking tour. I went on four tours while I was there. Each was about 2 hours.
The list includes the Japanese Tea Garden, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, the Ferry Building, and Gold Rush City, just to name a few. There are different tours running every day, at different times, all over the city.
As with most city walking tours, the guides accept donations at the end. All proceeds go towards the San Francisco Public Library.
Sample the Food
Eating out in San Francisco will drive up your bill quickly, but you can still experience the culturally diverse local favorites. Many restaurants and small shops in different parts of the city offer tasting or free samples.
Try colorful candy in Little Italy, taste different teas in China Town, and make your way through the Ferry Building trying different breads, oils, fish, and my personal favorite, chocolate almond brittle. I did open my wallet that time, so that I could take some home!
Visit the Cable Car Museum
I nearly missed this gem because it was described to me as a “free, one room museum. Probably just some pictures or something.” I went past the past museum on my way to the waterfront, deciding it was free so I might as well check it out. This was the best decision that I made on my trip.
The cable car museum is the ultimate how-it-works experience. I’m not usually a mechanically inclined person, but I was hooked. The museum is one, massive warehouse style room. The floors are cut away so that you can look down on the gears and cables that run under the city and move the cable cars along. Large text panels explain exactly how a cable car is able to navigate that steep San Francisco hills.
San Francisco was one of the most affordable trips I’ve taken.
When I booked my flight, many people warned me that I was visiting one of the most expensive cities in the world. This is untrue for travelers.
It is possible to pay only for your accommodations and food, and experience the fusion of modern art and classic scenery that San Francisco offers without spending another dime.
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