San Francisco consistently ranks among the top five most expensive cities in the United States -- but exploring the Bay Area doesn't have to destroy your budget. The city offers a variety of free and cheap things to do, ranging from historic landmarks to museums and beyond.
20 Free and Cheap Things to Do in San Francisco
Considered one of the best examples of Beaux Arts architecture in the world, San Francisco's City Hall building has a central dome that's even taller than the U.S. Capitol building. Movie buffs will want to stop by the grand rotunda, where a scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was filmed. Converted to today's currency, construction of City Hall would have topped $400 million, but entry and guided tours are both free.
In 1896, wealthy local businessman Adolph Sutro constructed a public bathhouse with saltwater and freshwater pools with slides and trapezes, an amphitheater, and, after 1937, an ice skating rink. Closed in 1966, the baths eventually became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation area. Today, the concrete ruins of the Sutro Baths are still visible and open for visitors to explore.
Visitors to a residential neighborhood in Hilltop Park will find a (literally) big surprise -- an enormous sundial. Dedicated in 1913, the dial was a real estate gimmick meant to lure buyers to the area. Originally touted as the largest in the world, it's not even the largest in San Francisco, where a sundial at Hunters Point hits a whopping 78 feet.
Visitors can check out Jack Kerouac Alley, where the writer's poetry is inscribed on the road, or soak up less literary history in Chinatown. Spofford Alley was once the site of bootlegger shootouts, while Ross Alley was the former home of the city's main brothels. Murals by local artists line the walls of Balmy Alley in the Mission District, while fans of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" can walk down Macondray Lane, the real-life inspiration for the fictional Barbary Lane in the book.
The Bay Area is home to two Major League Baseball teams, the Giants and the Oakland A's. Tickets, while sometimes hard to come by, aren't always expensive. On Wednesdays during the regular season, BART (the high-speed public transit system) ticket holders can get into Oakland A's games for just $2. At the Giants' Park, up to 75 fans can stand in a fenced-in outfield area to watch three innings of the game for free.
Street fairs and festivals, many of which allow free entry, are a great way to soak up the city's legendary ambiance. Festivals include family-friendly events such as the Fiesta on the Hill street fair in Bernal Heights on Oct. 25 and the Chinese New Year celebration Feb. 20. Pride festivities last the month of June and wrap up with the massive Pride Parade, which draws over a million attendees each year. A donation of $5 to $10 is requested.
Arion Press produces limited editions of two to three hand-crafted books each year, and the public is welcome to watch the process. The press, located near the Presidio national park, remains one of the last in the world to use a manual typecasting and binding process. Visitors can enter the gallery for free weekdays; public demonstration tours cost $10 per person.
Though only half complete, the California Coastal Trail has an open segment running from Cliff House to the Golden Gate Bridge. Bike or hike the nine-mile trek along the water, and catch a glimpse of Baker and Marshall Beaches, the swanky Sea Cliff neighborhood, and the Batteries to Bluffs Trail.
Older kids will enjoy Alameda's High Scores Arcade (1 hour of play for a $5 donation), the Ardenwood Historic Farm ($3 to $6 admission, depending on season), and the hands-on exhibits at Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito (free admission). Kids of all ages can run around at the always-free (and temporarily relocated) Randall Museum or the Berkeley Adventure Playground. There's also a hidden double slide at the intersection of Seward and Douglass.
Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge costs at least $4 -- and sometimes more. Biking or walking affords free passage across the famous, 1.7-mile-long suspension bridge and a chance to stop to snap photos. On Thursdays and Sundays, the Parks Conservancy leads free walking tours.
Free readings and open mic nights happen all over the city nearly every night. The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival gives free performances in city parks from June to September. In 2016, the company is scheduled to perform "The Winter's Tale." For a celebration of contemporary local authors, check out Litquake, a literary festival held every October.
For curios and oddities, San Francisco can't be beat. Loved to Death on Haight Street specializes in taxidermy and antique treasures, while 826 Valencia is dedicated to pirate gear (and funds a tutoring center). Offbeat art aficionados should check out Electric Works and Park Life in the Mission District, and then grab coffee and a Guinness cupcake at tchotchke and coffee shop Hollow on Irving Street.
The Grace Cathedral once hosted an historic sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and today houses an Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel that is open to the public. Guests can walk the cathedral's two single-path labyrinths and see artworks including replicas of the Gates of Paradise by Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti and enormous stained glass windows.
Treasure Island Flea Market is a top choice for antiques and homemade crafts, while hippies-at-heart can barter for goods at the Really Really Free Market on the last Saturday of every month. Other popular markets include the quirky Alameda Point Antiques Faire, the Far East Flea Market, and the student-oriented Berkeley Flea Market.
Don't miss the famous sea lions at Pier 39, but also be on the lookout for other sightings. Ripley the Sphynx cat lives at Borderlands Books, while former Army airfield Crissy Field is now a coastal sanctuary for shorebirds. Feral parrots also flock around the north waterfront area of the city.
Many of the city's museums, including the Cable Car Museum and the Museum of American Heritage, offer free admission. While the Musée Mécanique is also free, you may want to bring change to play its working penny arcade game collection. Others, like the Cartoon Art Museum, the de Young museum, the Asian Art Museum, and the California Academy of the Sciences have free, promotional days every month.
The San Francisco Bay Area boasts more farmers markets and restaurants per capita than any other place in North America. Every Saturday at Alemany shoppers will find cheap, freshly harvested produce and flowers as well as vendors selling Indian, Chinese, and Latin foods. Other must-see farmers markets include Ferry Plaza, Upper Haight, Fort Mason Center, and Mission Community Market.
Known for its indie music scene, San Francisco often has free concerts happening throughout the city year-round. Check out the Stern Grove Festival at the Golden Gate Park amphitheater, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and Amoeba Music record store in the Haight.
Enjoy expansive city views from the iconic Coit Tower on top of Telegraph Hill. Admission is free, but expect to pay $7 for adults and $2 for kids under 12 to ride the elevator to the top. Taking a cable car up Russian Hill to reach George Sterling Park also costs $7 but may be worth it for the novelty and views of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a rocky climb up to windy Corona Heights Park, but those brave enough to make it are rewarded with views of the city and San Francisco Bay.
At the Institute of Illegal Images, creator and founder Mark McCloud has amassed 33,000 pieces of artwork printed on blotter sheets. Nicknamed the LSD Museum, it takes visitors on a (sober) trip through 1960s psychedelia. Tours from the collector himself cost nothing but require an appointment.