San Francisco rocks. Sometimes literally. Still, the City by the Bay makes for an incredible visit. Its landmarks are American icons: Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz.
San Fran is fun, diverse, beautiful and relaxing. When Tony Bennett croons his heart belongs to the city, I understand why. But San Francisco can also take a big, wet bite out of your pocketbook if you show up unprepared. Try one (or all) of these 11 free, don’t-miss attractions:
1. Take a Tour: San Francisco City Guides will take you to major city landmarks and provide something invaluable—the city’s history. Tours include City Hall, the Pacific Heights Mansions, the Ferry Building and more. Check out the current schedule at the City Guides website.
2. Seward Street Slides: I recently learned about these concrete slides located at the Seward Mini Park (Seward and Douglass streets) in the Noe Valley neighborhood. Check out the reviews on Yelp, put on some old pants, get some cardboard and go take a slide.
3. Sea Lions at Pier 39: These noisy sea creatures are some of San Francisco’s most famous residents. Hundreds live at the pier and draw quite a crowd. Be patient to get a chance to see them up close. If you can’t wait until your next trip, get a preview on a live webcam.
4. Lombard Street: The crookedest street in the world is famous for its twists and turns. Drive to the street and stop for a unique photo opportunity. The crooked portion of Lombard is a one-way street, so you’ll need to approach it heading east. One of the best ways to get there is to take Van Ness to Lombard heading east. Traffic can get crazy; be prepared to wait in line for quite a while especially during peak tourist seasons.
5. Children’s Art: The youngsters of 2012 might become the next Picasso or Renoir or Banksy. Check out their art at the Mocha: Museum of Children’s Art. Look for free, but expect a charge if you want to create art with your little one(s). More details here.
6. Cable Car Museum: No visit to San Francisco is complete without a ride on the classic, lovely cable cars. The fare isn’t, well, cheap. But a visit to the Cable Car Museum is free! See the engines and winding wheels pulling the massive cables, check out antique cable cars and more.
7. Musee Mecanique: This museum located on Pier 45 is home to hundreds of old-time arcade machines. Most pieces are in working order, and if you dig a few quarters out of your pockets you can try your favorites. If you really don’t want to spend a dime it is still fascinating checking out the many machines and walking down memory lane, but I recommend bringing a quarter or two.
8. Jelly Belly Factory Tour: Jelly Bellies are little, flavorful bursts of fun. See how they are made on a factory tour. The factory is in Fairfield, Calif. and a bit of a drive from San Francisco, but definitely worth it. Tours of the factory are free and include yummy samples on the tour and after. Great for groups of all sizes and children of all ages. The tours are first come, first served. More details are available on the Jelly Belly website. While you’re in Fairfield, beer lovers should consider a tour of the Budweiser factory.
9. Golden Gate Park: A beautiful outdoor oasis in the middle of a crowded city. Enjoy picturesque gardens, picnic areas, and more. Free parking is available, but it can take a bit of looking. Pack a picnic and enjoy an afternoon in this stunning escape.
10. 49 Mile Drive: If you want to get a real taste of the city, fill up your gas tank and head out on the city’s 49 mile drive. This scenic drive was created in 1938 and hits many area neighborhoods and attractions. Make sure to bring a camera to capture the stunning views. The drive can be a bit hard to follow at times, even though there are signs posted, so be patient. The trip is worth a few wrong turns (pick up a map of the route at a visitor’s center before you start) and can take several hours to complete. Plan on spending an afternoon.
11. McRoskey Mattress Co.: Do you ever wonder what is inside of your mattress? Find out and see how a mattress is made on a free tour of McRoskey Mattress Co. Tours must be scheduled in advance either by phone or email. Learn more on their website.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to have fun. These free attractions will keep you busy and help keep your wallet full and keep your heart in San Francisco.
Free tourist sites are available in almost every city across the country. Here are some tips for finding free tourist attractions:
Travel/Tourist Websites: The official tourism site for the city or state you are visiting is a great resource for fun and free things to do. Call or send an email. These cities want you to come visit and will happily provide you with all the information you need.
Local Visitor’s Bureau: Make the local visitor’s bureau your first stop. Tell them you are interested in free local activities, and see what they come up with.
Ask Locals: Who knows better than residents the best of free things to do. Every town has a few hidden gems, and if you don’t ask, you might not find them.
Call Before You Go: Before you head out to a tourist site, pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Many places offer reduced prices or free tickets on certain days and times or have free exhibits available. Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts and specials.
This has been a guest post by Jackie from Ridgecrest, CA
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Nickel Tours is a new series of KCL’s travel section. Look for periodic posts highlighting free and very inexpensive things to do in destination cities around the United States. Leave a comment and let us know what you think!