Who likes free? ME! ME! The beauty of California is that you could spend years vacationing here and still feel like you are having a completely different experience each time. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and have taken many a visitor to some of the sights you’ll read about today. In the future, I plan to blog about free adventures in other cities and this one will arguably be the easiest for me. Aside from that fact, San Francisco seemed like a great starting point for this series because it is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Let’s try to take that statistic and punch it in the face, shall we? If I can do it here, you can do it anywhere.
To start the day, I planned ahead, researching what free opportunities there might be in the city the week I would be there. Much to my excitement, The Exploritorium, a popular hands-on science museum, was having a free day. It recently moved locations to the Embarcadero on Pier 15 and I hadn’t been to the new venue yet. I was keeping it on my to-do list for a future visit, but at $25 a ticket, it wasn’t really a priority. You will find most major cities have museums that do a free day once a month, but The Exploritorium is an exception–they only do five all year. Because it was Pi Day, they not only let people in for free, but served free pie! That morning, my sister and I got in line thirty minutes before the opening and waited for our free tickets. After exploring to our heart’s content, we left only to find the line had tripled in size since we had gone in. This is a good time to point out that not only do you want to take advantage of paying nothing, but your time is money too. We easily could have lost two hours waiting outside if we hadn’t arrived before it opened. Think ahead! COST: FREE
Next, we walked over to Pier 1 to visit the Ferry Building— a converted old transportation hub made into shops and restaurants with a killer view of the bay bridge. This is a fun place to grab a coffee or lunch if you’re on the go–but you can also just walk around and spend absolutely nothing! Worth a wander for the layout and bustle. COST: FREE
My favorite neighborhood in San Francisco is North Beach. Here you will find busy streets jam-packed with restaurants and history, as this region was once the pulse of the beatnik generation. It is also Little Italy, but there are all types of restaurants to choose from. My family tends to drop in here semi-regularly to scope out the bookshelves of City Lights, an independent bookstore co-founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the days where Amazon and Barnes and Noble reign, browsing an old, small bookstore is becoming a rare opportunity. Take it while you can! COST: FREE
Coit Tower is walking distance from here, so you could also check that out while you’re in the neighborhood. It’s free to climb the Filbert Steps, but $7 if you want to ride the elevator to the top for a 360 degree view. Not bad for a historical landmark.
Our next stop was the Golden Gate Bridge. Ah, heights. Gotta love them? Not so much. We parked in a lot that is the last exit before the bridge, so as to avoid the toll, and got the vantage point you see in the introductory photo. It was beautiful and could have been enough. But I had committed to the idea of walking the bridge, as I’d never done that before. I can confidently say I will never do it again. If heights don’t bother you, then this is a great opportunity to see yet another gorgeous view of the bay area and say you stood on the most famous bridge in the world. COST: FREE
A childhood favorite of mine was visiting Ghirardelli Square, where they produce the famous chocolates and ice cream you see all over the U.S. It is also great to walk around and watch the factory at work, an equally sweet treat. Being so close to the water, you can take two minutes to walk down the hill and watch the sail boats go by or head South to Fisherman’s Wharf. COST: FREE
Another incredibly popular attraction is Lombard Street on Russian Hill. You know, the most crooked street in the world? Or something like that. We weaved our way down and parked at the bottom to snap some photos like the twenty-five other people around us were doing. It’s a fun ride and never gets old, no matter how many times you’ve done it. COST: FREE
So there you have it, an activity-rich free day in San Francisco. There are costs involved in parking or public transportation and a bridge toll depending on where you’re coming from. You also have to pay for food, unless free pie is enough to satisfy you (in which case, I’m inspired by your dedication to frugality!). I chose to leave those things out of the equation because I think everyone’s circumstances would be different.
The experiences I’ve mentioned today are some of the more famous things one can do in SF. But there are many more free options I could write about. For instance, did you know Anchor Brewing Company is one of the oldest breweries in America and does tours and tastings for free? There are also countless locations you can drive past where they shot scenes from films like Vertigo or Mrs. Doubtfire. On this trip, we made a point to drive through the Presidio to see the infamous corner where the Zodiac killer struck (mainly because we love the David Fincher movie). There’s also the massive Golden Gate Park to explore, which I didn’t even touch on.
What I hope you take away from my day is that it doesn’t matter how expensive a city is, there are always free options and they can often be the main attractions you’d want to see anyway. It takes some sacrifice in that you may have to limit the depth of the experience, but it can still be a fulfilling visit. I would make the argument that it is more fulfilling because you did it on a budget. The key to a quality frugal lifestyle is finding success in the venture of your choice and saving money at the same time. Try planning your next vacation with this goal in mind and see where it takes you!