I recently visited the gorgeous and unique city of San Francisco, California with my mother, both of us for our first time. San Francisco is different than most American cities. It is filled with unique and independent restaurants and shops and I hardly saw any chains. There are steep hills, historic cable cars, beautiful murals, sidewalk produce markets, and such diversity in every neighbourhood. The city is filled with colour and charm. We had an amazing time there and quickly realized that San Francisco has so much to offer! We were busy from early morning to evening, seeing and doing all that we could fit in, in our short six days in San Francisco. After returning from my trip, I have started another list of things to do next time I visit the city, and it’s starting to get very long. San Francisco is a beautiful, hilly, chilly, liberal-minded city in California, full of creative people (computer programmers, techies, web designers, entrepreneurs, etc.), hippies, and young people.
Contrary to what you might expect from a very touristy city, I loved that there are so many cheap and free things to see and do in San Francisco, for the budget-conscious and frugal travelers. I really enjoyed exploring the many diverse and unique local neighbourhoods.
I enjoy traveling how a local would and getting off the beaten path and think that these are great ways to get to know the “real” side of a destination, so I recommend visiting these attractions using local transportation. I have also included some off the beaten path attractions that I visited, as well as some that I am planning on checking out next time I am in San Francisco.
Here is a list of free or cheap sights and experiences that I would recommend for first-time visitors and the frugal or budget-conscious traveler (in no particular order):
1. Golden Gate Bridge
Cost – Free (you only to pay for transportation to get there. The bus fare on the Golden Gate Transit is $5.25 one-way).
The Golden Gate Bridge is such an iconic landmark representing San Francisco. The bridge is beautiful in person, and when you start to walk across it, you realize how big it really is. Walk through the paths from the Information Centre and parking lot towards the water, and down to Crissy Field. Along the path, there is a picnic table area where you can get great photos of the bridge. The path itself also very interesting as it takes you through a tunnel inside and under a small hill. Once you’re at the ground level and water’s edge of the bay (Crissy Field), walk along the bay towards Fort Point, where you will have stunning views of both the bay and the Bridge. You can also go inside Fort Point, which would have been interesting to do if I had more time. There is no admission fee to view the bridge. I was coming from the Mission District and took the BART train to Powell Street. Once downtown, there is a bus stop at the corner of Seventh Street and Market where you can catch one of the Golden Gate Transit lines (#101, 70, 10, etc.). Check the schedules online before you leave. The one-way fare is $5.25. The internet told me that the fare was $4.75 before I left, so I was surprised at the price and ended up having to scramble to find some spare change.
The bridge from the Crissy Field paths
The bridge on a foggy morning
The bridge from the road along the bay towards Fort Point
2. Golden Gate Park
Cost – The park is completely free to enter, walk around and explore. There are attractions within the park that have an admission fee. The Botanical Gardens charge $8/adult (but admission is free daily from 7:30-9 am, the second Tuesday of every month and some holidays); The California Academy of Sciences is $35/adult; The Japanese Tea Gardens cost $8/adult (but free admission if entered before 10 am); The Conservatory of Flowers is $8/adult (free on the first Tuesday of every month); and the de Young Museum is $10/adult (free admission on the first Tuesday of every month).
Golden Gate Park is a massive park in the middle of the city, stretching from the ocean and far into the city. There is so much to see and do within the park, that you could spend days exploring here! A lot of the attractions charge an admission fee, like The Botanical Gardens, Japanese Tea Gardens, and the various museums but most of them also offer certain times or days free (see above). There is also a bison paddock, that I did not have time to see. The area around Stow Lake is gorgeous, and I discovered a small waterfall on the paths inside the ring of the lake the on the hill, called Huntington Falls. You can rent paddle boats on Stow Lake (although I did not) as well, and there are hiking trails that wind up the hill (known as Strawberry Hill) all the way to the top.
I really enjoyed walking through this park and was in awe of the nature and huge trees. Some parts of the park were heavily forested and it definitely didn’t feel like you were in the city at all. The park is very accessible by MUNI bus from wherever you are located in the city (it is easy to check the schedules online or by using Google Maps by typing in your current location and destination, and then clicking on the icon of a bus – it will find the best routes for you).
3. Alcatraz Prison and Island
Cost – Visiting Alcatraz is not free, but I think the price is very reasonable for what is included. You can pay $30/adult for the day or $37/adult for the night tour. Included in your ticket cost is the cruise to and from the island, free audio tour of the prison cellblocks, and you can spend as much time as you want to on the island, returning on any ferry throughout the day (they depart every 30 minutes or so).
Alcatraz is a must-see when you visit San Francisco. Make sure you purchase your tickets well in advance of your trip, as they sell out FAST! I bought my tickets immediately after booking my flight, which was a month and a half before my trip. Even then, the time slot that I was hoping to get tickets for, was already sold out (9 AM) and I had to settle for the 11:30 AM tour (which was still great, but the island and ferries are a lot more crowded than it probably would be earlier in the morning). I recommend getting your tickets at least two months before you trip.
You can buy tickets online through the official Alcatraz Cruises website and they will email you the tickets which have to be presented at Pier 33, where the ferries depart from. You should arrive at least half an hour before you ferry departs, to get a good spot in line and first pick at where you want to sit on the ferry. They also ask that you bring photo ID, although they never checked mine.
I was staying in the Mission District, so I took the BART train to the Embarcadero and then walked to Pier 33. From downtown or the Embarcadero, it is easy to catch a MUNI bus or historic streetcar and get dropped off at the Pier. Make sure to bring a jacket or a really warm and thick sweater and a scarf. You may not think you need to dress warmly when you’re on the mainland (like I made the mistake of doing), but trust me when I say, it is very windy and chilly on the island and you will be sorry if you don’t dress appropriately!
It was fascinating to learn about the history of the prison, the escapes, riots and lives of the prison guards and inmates, as told by them on the hour long audio tour through the cell-blocks and prison. The audio tour is included in the price of your ticket. You can then explore the cell blocks and prison on your own, as well as the rest of the island. When you’re touring the cell-blocks, step inside the cells (especially the solitary confinement ones) to really get a feel for how small they are. I work at a prison and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities of the prison design. In the dining hall, there is a black board which displays the last breakfast menu that was served at Alcatraz on the day they closed in 1963. It was really cool! After touring the inside of the prison, walk over to the laundry building. When I visited, they had a really interesting traveling exhibit called Prisoners of Age, which featured large photographs on canvas hanging from the ceiling of aging inmates in American prisons today, along with a description of the crime they committed and some insight into their motives and their lives. It was one of the most fascinating parts of my visit, and I spend over an hour reading all of the interesting stories! I am not sure how often they change the exhibits or how long the Prisoners of Age one will be there for, but if you have a chance to see it, I am sure you will love it. Walk around to the other side of the island, where the gardens are to get a different view of the prison. There was hardly anybody walking there when I went and it was very peaceful (minus the hundreds if not thousands of birds nesting there who looked like they could attack you at any moment!). There were really great views of the mainland, downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge from this side of the island as well.
You can stay as long as you want and catch the ferry whenever you are finished. The ferry goes back to the mainland every half an hour or so. As someone who currently works in a prison, the experience of visiting Alcatraz was fascinating for me.
Three levels of cells on each cellblock
The inside of a typical Alcatraz prison cell
View of Alcatraz from the gardens on the other side of the island
4. Buena Vista Park
Cost – Free.
Buena Vista Park is located on the edge of the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood (at the corner of Haight and Central Streets). I stumbled upon this park while wandering around the residential streets in Haight-Ashbury, and then discovered this beautiful looking treed park on a hill. I decided to hike up the steep incline, through winding trails in among tall California trees. My mother and I were the only ones there and it was quite tranquil and peaceful. When we got to the top, I was exhausted, but the climb was gorgeous along the way and the panoramic view from the top was so rewarding and worth it! There is a park bench at the top that overlooks the amazing views and it was nice to spend some time relaxing here and admiring the natural beauty surrounding us. It was absolutely gorgeous. You can see pretty much the whole city and then some. This is definitely a lesser visited park for tourists, so if you enjoy going off the beaten path, come to this park.
View of the city from the top of the park
5. Lombard Street
Cost – Completely free to visit.
Lombard Street is one of the most crooked streets in the world. It was designed this way due to the steep incline of the hill it is located on, in order to be able to drive and park safely. If you are riding on the Powell-Mason or Powell-Hyde cable cars, get off at Lombard Street. Stand at the bottom and you can get a really good view looking up, of the crookedness of the street. Climb to the top and you will find amazing views of the city and bay. I recommend checking out this street in the morning, before everybody else gets there. It’s a much more relaxing environment when you’re alone and you can get great photos of the views without people obstructions.
View of Lombard Street from the bottom of the hill
Standing on one of the curves in the street, looking up
View of the city from the top of Lombard Street
6. Haight-Ashbury Neighbourhood
Cost – Free.
Haight-Ashbury is a neighbourhood that is eclectic, hippie-ish and full of character. Haight Street is filled with independent and unique shops and restaurants, tattoo parlours, thrift stores, bookstores, cafes, DVD shops, smoke/pipe shops, street-side produce markets and more. Check out the Haight Street Market (1530 Haight Street) for some great selection of fruits and vegetables.
In addition to the shops and restaurants, the residential side streets stemming off of Haight have beautiful and colourful Victorian homes. Held Over is a really cool thrift store with vintage clothing from the 60s and 70s (1543 Haight Street). Also check out the very colourful houses at the corner of Haight and Central Streets (they were featured in the San Francisco Lonely Planet guidebook). The iconic intersection of Haight and Ashbury is where the hippie movement of the 60s congregated. Here, you will find a clock above the street names that is always set to the time 4:20 (which is commonly referred to when smoking marijuana). The smell of marijuana is everywhere, and you will see people smoking and selling it openly on the sidewalks, but everyone is pretty mellow and it didn’t bother me at all. There are a few specific street corners where the homeless and those doing drugs would congregate… Avoid those corners. You’ll know where they are, because there was always a police presence there. There are a lot of homeless people in this neighbourhood, generally just sleeping on the sidewalks, but they are not aggressive and will likely not bother you. Just be aware that they are there.
The people-watching in this neighbourhood is amazing! There are a lot of interesting people and fashion statements around. For example, I saw two adult men walking down Haight Street, completely naked. The cashier at a smoke shop where I purchased some San Francisco magnets was also high as a kite, and he could barely operate the debit machine. You never know or what who you might see! When you’re in the area, be sure to also visit Buena Vista Park, near Haight and Central Streets. Getting to this neighbourhood is easy from anywhere via the MUNI public transit.
Iconic intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets
Colourful shops line Haight Street
I loved the colours of this place!
You never know what you might find on Haight Street…
Gorgeous and very colourful Victorian houses at Haight and Central Streets
7. Explore the Mission District
Cost – Free.
The Mission District was where I rented an apartment on Airbnb during my six day stay in San Francisco. I loved the neighbourhood! It was gritty and grungy, with a lot of character, authenticity and Latin American influence. The population is largely Hispanic, and you can find Mexican taquerias on almost every street corner, as well as El Salvadorean and Colombian cuisine specialties. It almost feels like you are in Mexico, because so many people around you are speaking Spanish, and a lot of the business signs are in Spanish-only. I felt safe walking around the Mission during the daytime, but I would advise to stay off the streets after 6:30 PM, if you are a solo female. It felt very sketchy at this time, and when I got back to my Airbnb apartment around that time after exploring all day, the constant sound of sirens started and continued well into the night. You will see the homeless congregating near the BART train stations, sleeping on the sidewalks, on MUNI bus benches, and in the parks, combing through dumpsters on the streets, and hanging out in the alleys. They pretty much keep to themselves and will likely not bother you at all. There are a lot of homeless people and drug addicts living in the Mission, but don’t let this deter you from coming here! The Mission District has so much character, history, culture and diversity and it felt authentic and real. I really enjoyed it! Just use common sense and be aware of your surroundings and your belongings when you are walking around. I loved walking down Valencia and Mission Streets (the two main thoroughfares through the neighbourhood)!
You will find independent and unique shops and restaurants, lively bars, boutique shops, thrift stores, book stores, the best Mexican taquerias, and more. This neighbourhood should not be missed from your itinerary and is well worth exploring!
Street corner in the Mission
Sidewalk produce market in the Mission
Where to Eat Cheaply in the Mission?
Eat at El Toro Taqueria (corner of 17th Street and Valencia Street) and Pancho Villa Taqueria (16th Street between Valencia and Mission); they have amazing vegetarian tacos loaded with yummy toppings! The restaurant Gracias Madre on Mission Street and 18th Street is a great place to go for brunch. They serve delicious Mexican food and the restaurant has a really nice atmosphere. The Little Chihuahua is another small Mexican eatery on 581 Valencia Street (between 16th and 17th Streets) that serves really tasty tacos with great vegetarian options.
Check out Bi-Rite Market and Bi-Rite Creamery (see further down this post for more information) and some of the various sidewalk produce markets and corner stores.
The Mission District is home to the most beautiful and oldest murals in the city. They can be found on Clarion Alley, Balmy Alley and various other small alleys located off of 24th Street. I also recommend wandering down some of the quiet residential side streets in the Mission.
Clarion Alley Murals
At the corner of 24th Street and San Jose is my favourite house in San Francisco, a very colourful and detailed Victorian.
Colourful Victorian house at 24th Street and San Jose
Liberty Street and the streets stemming off of Church Street, as well as those east of Mission and Folsom Streets, are great for exploring and checking out the houses.
8. Mission Murals
Cost – Free.
The Mission District is home to the most beautiful, unique and colourful murals in San Francisco. They can be found in many different places throughout this neighbourhood. If you walk along 24th Street heading east of Valencia Street, you will find murals down every small alleyway that you pass. The most famous alley containing the earliest murals is Balmy Alley, which is located off of 24th Street. The murals in this alley are the most detailed, artistic and they all tell a different story. Most of them are paintings of people and places, as opposed to the graffiti-like writing and designs found in many of the other murals (which are still beautiful as well). Clarion Alley is located off of Valencia Street between 17th and 18th Streets and is the second most popular muraled alleyway in the Mission. Some of my favourite murals were found here. They are colourful and some of them thought-provoking, as they portray political opinions and expressions. The Women’s Building on 18th Street is completely covered in colourful and detailed murals all over the exterior. I highly recommend checking it out! There are homeless people living in these alleys. If this bothers you, I just want to make sure you are aware and know what to expect. However, they are not aggressive homeless people and are usually sleeping underneath tarps and blankets during the day, along the side of the buildings. They will likely not bother you. I didn’t feel unsafe at all walking in the alleys during the day. There is also a lot of garbage and empty alcohol bottles in the alleys, and it smells very strongly of urine, but it adds to the “realness” of the experience and helps you to imagine what life is like for some of the people living in these alleys.
Detailed Balmy Alley murals telling a story
The Women’s Building
Clarion Alley Murals
9. Cable Cars
Cost – $7/adult for a single ride fare on the cable cars or $17/adult for a one day visitor passport (allowing you unlimited rides on all of the cable car lines for one full day).
The cable cars are like the Golden Gate Bridge, just one of those things that you have to do when you are in San Francisco. There are three lines of cable cars: Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California. Those are all street names on which the cars operate. The Powell-Mason line starts at you corner of Powell and Mason Street. This is the most popular line and if you are planning to hop on the cable car anytime after 11 AM, you could be waiting for hours in the line-up at this downtown intersection. I woke up early, took a BART train from the Mission District to Powell Street and hopped on one of the first cable cars of the day, bright and early at 6 AM. Let me make this clear: If you want to have an enjoyable, relaxing and fun experience riding the cable cars, you have to go early (like 6 AM kind of early) before all the other tourists wake up. Riding early gives you the benefit of choosing to sit or stand anywhere you prefer (and not being squished by anyone), having a great view of everything around you, and having the ability to be able to stand up and hang off the side of the cable car if you choose to take photos.
After wandering around at Fisherman’s Wharf, I took the Powell-Hyde cable car (originating from Hyde and Beach Streets) and waited in a very short and fast moving line. Finally, I rode the California line, which is the least popular, because it just runs along horizontally along California Street and does not have the amazing views of the bay that you find on the other two lines. If you are riding the cars in the afternoon, I suggest starting with the California, as there are usually way shorter lines. I also suggest waiting for the more popular cars at the brown cable car stop signs along their route, instead of waiting at their starting and ending points (the lines will be shorter along the route and you will have a better chance of getting on). You can board at any cable car turnaround (the beginning or end of the route) or anywhere a brown and white stop sign is posted. If you plan on hopping on and off the cars along the route, or you want to ride more than one cable car, your best deal is to buy the one-day pass which costs $17 USD and allows you to hop on and off and ride any cable car line all day, however often you like. If you don’t choose this option, you will be paying $7 USD one-way every time you get on and off (try to bring exact change, or close to. The conductors can make change for up to $20). I had a lot of fun riding the cars as we rolled up and down the hills, and hanging off the side to get some good photos! You can view the cable car schedule times and routes online. Here is a good guide for how to ride the cable cars.
You can also visit the free Cable Car Museum along the route, if you are interested in learning more about their history.
- Powell-Mason: begins at Market and Powell Streets. End at Taylor and Bay Streets.
- Powell-Hyde: begins at Market and Powell Streets. Ends at Hyde and Beach Streets.
- California: runs east to west from Van Ness Avenue to Davis Street in the Financial District.
10. Castro Neighbourhood
Cost – Free.
The Castro Neighbourhood has a reputation for being the well-known LGBT-friendly neighbourhood. There is a huge rainbow flag flying in front of the Castro Theatre, rainbow flags hanging in storefront windows and the crosswalks at the intersection of 18th and Castro Streets are painted in the rainbow colours. There are lots of independent shops and restaurants on Castro Street (the main thoroughfare) and it is a very unique and eclectic neighbourhood. I also enjoyed wandering around on the residential streets and admiring the colourful and detailed Victorian houses. There is a set of stairs at the corner of 19th and Sanchez Streets where you can find a great view of the neighbourhood from above. The Castro can be easily reached via MUNI bus and train.
Rainbow flag painted on the side of a building
Rainbow coloured crosswalk at 18th Street and Castro Street
View from the top of 19th Street and Sanchez Street
11. Pacific Heights Neighbourhood
Cost – Free to explore.
The Pacific Heights neighbourhood is home to huge mansions and is located on top of a large hill. I took the MUNI bus from the Mission District (where I was staying) and was dropped off at the intersection of Broadway and Fillmore. The view from here of the Wharf and bay is stunning. If you walk to the corner of Broadway and Steiner, you will find the house that was featured in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire (I have always loved that movie). It still looked the same (minus the two trees now growing in front of the house)! I had a lot of fun exploring the rest of the neighbourhood as well. The streets are steep and the houses are all so different and beautiful to look at.
House from Mrs. Doubtfire at Broadway and Steiner
The incredible view from Broadway and Fillmore Streets
Very steep street!
12. Climb the Mosaic Steps/16th Street Tiled Stairs
Cost – Free.
The Mosaic Steps are located at the corner of 16th Street and Moraga Street, just south of Golden Gate Park. You can easily get here via MUNI city bus. The multi-coloured tiled stairs are a community project that are located in a quiet neighbourhood. You can see the entire tiled design when you stand at the bottom looking up. The climb was steep and tiring, but the view from the top was unbelievable! You could see all the way to the ocean. These stairs are a lesser known attraction in San Francisco and there was nobody there when I went, which was lovely.
There are many interesting and hidden stairways throughout the neighbourhoods of San Francisco. The Hidden Garden Steps are located at the corner of 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street. I did not have the time to visit these stairs but I look forward to seeing them next time I am in SF! Here is a list of more of the stairways in San Francisco and here and here.
View from the top of the Mosaic Steps
13. Greenwich and Filbert Street Steps
Cost – Free.
Both the Greenwich and Filbert Steps can be accessed through small paths stemming from the west side of the Embarcadero Street (opposite side to the bay and piers). When I visited Telegraph Hill (see below description), I climbed to the top using the Greenwich Steps and then took the Filbert Steps on the way down. You can do it however you want to. I preferred the Filbert Steps, as the scenery surrounding the steps consisted of more lush treed areas and beautiful gardens. There are gorgeous houses alongside each set of stairs, hidden in amongst the trees. It was beautiful! The climb up the hill is tough… I counted over 400 stairs on my way up. It was so exhausting that I had to take multiple breathing breaks while climbing! But it was still well worth the climb and hard work.
14. Telegraph Hill
Cost – Free.
I walked up the Greenwich Stairs from the Embarcadero to Coit Tower. When I saw how long the line-up was to get into the tower and on the small elevator to the top, I decided to opt out. There is an admission fee of $8 USD to ride the elevator to the top of the Coit Tower. I am sure the panoramic views would have been amazing, but there are many great areas in San Francisco to get a comparable view without having to wait and pay in the process.
Telegraph Hill is the name of the hill that Coit Tower is perched on. After deciding not to wait it out at the tower, I walked along the road leading up to the parking lot beside the tower at the top of the hill, and around the first curve, there were amazing views of the city below as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. You could also see the Bridge from the parking lot at Coit Tower, if you peeked between the trees and bushes along the edge. This would have been a nice area to explore further and it looked like it was a nice residential area.
View from the road on Telegraph Hill leading to Coit Tower
15. Sea Lions at Pier 39
Cost – Free.
The whole area of Fisherman’s Wharf is not super high on my list of recommendations. The entire area is highly commercialized with expensive souvenir shops and restaurants catering to tourists. I’m not a fan of over-commercialization and prefer the lesser known and lesser trafficked attractions. However, I did enjoy a rather pleasant walk along Fisherman’s Wharf in the early morning (around 7 AM) while riding the cable cars in the area. The stores and restaurants were still all closed and there were no crowds of tourists. Pier 39 itself is basically a large outdoor mall on the pier, consisting of over-priced restaurants and souvenir shops on two separate levels. While I was in the area after riding the cable cars, I did enjoy watching the sea lions on Pier 39 though. I was there in the morning and there was nobody around, which made it peaceful and relaxing. The sea lions were sprawled out on floating wooden panels in the bay and it was fun to watch their behaviour! I recommend going early to beat the crowds.
The sea lions at Pier 39
Docked boats at Pier 39
16. Alamo Square
Cost – Free.
Alamo Square is a park located on top of a hill. Along Steiner Street (across from the park) is where the famous Painted Ladies are situated. The Painted Ladies are a row of colourful Victorians that were featured in the opening credits of the TV show Full House. If you stand on top of the hill at Alamo Square, you can get a really good view of the houses with the tall downtown buildings and San Francisco skyline in the background. If you walk to the other side of the park (opposite to Steiner Street), you will find, in my opinion, Victorian houses that are even more beautiful than The Painted Ladies. The park itself is great for relaxing and enjoying the lovely views. It is easily accessible via MUNI bus.
Victorian houses on the opposite side of Alamo Square to the Painted Ladies
The Painted Ladies across from Alamo Square
17. Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Ferry Building
Cost – Free to attend. You can choose to buy produce, food, and other goods at the market.
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is located on the Embarcadero at Market Street, at Pier 1 (beside and behind the Ferry Building itself). The market is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 AM to 2 PM and Saturdays from 8 AM to 2 PM. Saturday morning is the busiest time to go. The market has such an amazing selection of organic produce! I sampled various types of peaches and bought fresh organic strawberries to enjoy eating on the pier. They also sell fresh breads, homemade cheeses, jams, salsas, sauerkraut, and more. I loved seeing the colours of all the fruits and veggies! If you love food, this is THE place to come. When you’re done checking out the market, take a peek inside the Ferry Building, where you will find a variety of unique shops and restaurants.
A colourful stand of peppers!
Beautiful heirloom tomatoes
Cost – Free.
Chinatown is centered on Stockton and Grant Streets, and the area surrounding these streets. It is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in North America. Although I have never been to China, the atmosphere in SF’s Chinatown definitely made me feel like I was there! Walking down Grant Avenue, you will see red lanterns hanging from wires above the street, countless street-side product markets, Chinese restaurants, massage services, acupuncture and other businesses where their signs are written in only Chinese symbols, crowded streets and sidewalks, and Chinese-inspired architecture on many of the buildings. It is a very unique and interesting area with lots of little shops and restaurants.
19. Bi-Rite Creamery and Market
Cost – Free to look around. But you have to experience the ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery (approx. $6 for a cup) and the food at Bi-Rite Market is amazing!
Bi-Rite Creamery and Bi-Rite Market (two separate places, across the street from each other) are located on 18th Street between Dolores and Guerrero in the Mission District. The Creamery is hugely popular in San Francisco and they sell some of the best (if not THE BEST) homemade ice cream in the city. The line-up will often go around the corner of the street and you will be waiting at least 20 minutes. But it is so worth it! They have delicious original flavours like their most famous, salted caramel, as well as roasted banana, honey lavender, malted vanilla (my personal favourite), creme brulee and more. The ice cream is super creamy and delicious. If you only want soft ice cream or an ice cream sandwich, there is a separate window and there is usually no line-up for that one. The market is across the street from the creamery, and they are a community-owned initiative that sells a huge selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, kombucha, organic and raw dairy products, cheeses, homemade salsas and guacamole and much more. I frequented this market every day to buy ingredients for my breakfasts while staying at an Airbnb in the Mission District.
PRO TIP – If you buy two kiddie cups of ice cream, it costs the same as one larger cup, but with the added benefit of being able to try two different flavours at once!
My kiddie cups of ice cream at Bi-Rite
The sidewalk stand at Bi-Rite Creamery
20. Mission Dolores Park
Cost – Free!
Mission Dolores Park is located at the corner of 19th Street and Dolores Street in the Mission District. The park is packed with people hanging out, reading, napping, playing sports or games, smoking marijuana and/or drinking alcohol openly. It’s such a cool park frequented by a diverse population and I loved the atmosphere! There are groups of homeless people that sleep underneath tarps and blankets at the base of the park, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this lovely park. The people-watching opportunities are fantastic and it is a great place to relax. I could have spent an entire afternoon just hanging out here. The views from the top of the park of downtown San Francisco are amazing!
Steep street on Church Avenue behind Mission Dolores Park
View from the top of the park on a lovely afternoon
There are many more cheap and free things to do in San Francisco, that I plan on checking out next time I visit.
These include: Twin Peaks and Bernal Heights Views, Corona Heights Park, Seward Street Slides, Wave Organ, Sutro Baths, Muir Woods, Mount Sutro Forest, SF City Tours, Wild SF Walking Tours, Free Tours by Foot, Land’s End, Biking Across the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point, Presidio Pet Cemetery, Billionaire’s Row, Day of the Dead in SF, City Hall, Grace Cathedral, catch a movie at the independent Castro Theatre, visit Baker Beach. explore Noe Valley and Cole Valley, and Hayes Valley.
Check out this amazing and very comprehensive list of even more things to do in San Francisco; off the beaten path places; and more off the beaten path; more and more.
I hope this list inspires you when you are planning your travels to San Francisco, and I hope that I have showed you how many things there are to do on a budget.
There is so much more to see and do in this city (and it’s amazing that so many of the attractions are free or cheap) and I can’t wait to return to the city to experience more of what it has to offer!