Leave your heart in San Francisco, not your wallet

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Top 10 things you can do for free in San Francisco

One of America’s most stunning cities, San Francisco has beckoned travelers for centuries

San Francisco is a looker. The bay, mountains, architecture, and bohemian eclectic vibes are a tremendous draw. But all those looks don’t come cheap. San Francisco is also one of the nation’s most expensive cities. So how can you see this lovely city without leaving your heart as collateral? Well, here are ten things you can do for free in the city by the bay

10) Musee Mecanic

So are you hot stuff or are you blah? Find out at the Musee Mecanique

Located at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Musee mecanique has one the largest privately owned collection of arcade games in the world. The usual suspects are all here: video games and pinball but also a large assortment of novelty arcade machines from the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Coin-operated music machines, fortune-telling machines, and feats of strength are here. While the machines do require coins to operate, they are free to watch.

9) Palace of Fine Arts

Found in almost every movie ever set in San Francisco, The palace is selfie Shangri-La

Looking like a playground for a Roman emperor, the palace of fine arts is a photographic gem that holds its own in a city with so much competition. Originally built as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific exposition and refurbished in 1965, the building is a local favorite for weddings and strolling romantic couples. It probably doesn’t hurt that Ghiradelli Square and its sumptuous assortment of chocolates is just a short walk away either.

8) Free tour of Golden Gate cookie factory

Did you know the fortune cookie is primarily an American invention? Just one of the many things you’ll learn on your tour

Fortune cookies come at the end of every meal in Chinese restaurants in most western countries but not often in China.  While there is some debate as to the exact origin, most who study such subjects agree they originated in San Francisco. The tour is very informative and you get to find out your fortune. And don’t forget to try a yummy chocolate fortune cookie, which is totally a thing now.

7) Tour some beautiful houses of worship

Don’t let the banal outer appearance fool you the Tin How Temple is stunning. But inside photography is prohibited.
The Grace Cathedral is famous for its mosaics and two labyrinths
Labyrinth glows under the stained glass. Grace Cathedral
The Peter and Paul Catholic Church looks like a Heaven made a wedding cake

All of these churches are free to enter. Just dress modestly, be respectful, and don’t go during a worship service unless you plan on attending. (But you knew all that)

6) Chinatown

Just like visiting China without the jarring Trans-Pacific flight

A total immersion experience, Chinatown really is almost like a micro-nation. Amazing restaurants, shops, and even theaters that feature films in the Chinese languages. Chinatown’s denizens are proudly American all while honoring their past. A paragon of diversity in action

5) The Castro District

In many ways the artistic heart of the city. The district includes the Mission de San Francisco de Assis (St Francis of Assisi) the mission in which the city took its name.

Aside from being a hub of San Francisco’s LGBT community, the city also has several free museums the mission that started the city, and frequent street fairs. While not free the district’s LGBT museum is thought-provoking and quite moving, you won’t even notice the five dollar admission.

4) Haight-Ashbury

The district features some lovely Victorian and Cape Cod houses

Once the epicenter of the counter culture movement of the late 1960’s most of the hippies are gone, but not all. The clothes may have changed but the ideas still resonate with many here.  The district still has its share of bohemian and avant-garde shops, restaurants, and music stores. Many of the homes here have been gentrified and rebuilt but the district’s charm lives on.

3) The sea lions of Pier 39

The sea lion colony is a vibrant and vocal addition to the pier 39 community

Given their adamant mien, you would think that the sea lions had always called pier 39 home. This is not so. The sea lions actually only arrived after the 1989 earthquake. The merchants of the pier were none too happy about the new tenants and asked the California Department of wildlife to disperse them. Studies were conducted and it was determined that it would be too disruptive to move them. Few had the prescience to realize just how much a draw the colony would become. Whenever I am in San Francisco one of my favorite pastimes is to sit at the dock, drinking coffee, and having some fresh sourdough toast while watching the sea lions cavort. Based on the crowds I see there, I’m thinking I am not alone in my enjoyment

2) Hiking the Presidio and crossing Golden Gate Bridge

At 1.7 miles one way, the bridge gives you a nice workout. but you’ll probably stop a lot to admire the amazing views.

With over 25 miles of paths, the Presidio area has something for everyone and every level of fitness. Many of the paths lead to overlooks and some even to abandoned gun batteries.  A nice capper to the hiking would be a walk across the Golden gate bridge. You can walk, run, or even rent a bike. There are only two things you can’t do. You can’t take your pet, and you can’t avoid staring in awe of the beautiful vistas. Unless of course, the fog is out

The Globetrotting Grandpa enjoying my exhilarating and exhausting hike in San Francisco
  1. Golden gate park and the Japanese tea garden
    Waterfalls, Windmills, Pagodas, Buffalo Herds, Celtic Crosses, and interior rain-forest botanical gardens. This park doesn’t miss anything.


    The Buddha blesses all who enter the tea garden

    While there is normally a small fee to enter, if you arrive before 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, it is free.

    The garden just exudes serenity

    There is a tea house in the garden where you can enjoy green tea and a light snack for a fee.

    The lushly textured shrubbery is a nice respite from the city.

    So next time you are in San Francisco check these locations out and let me know how it worked out for you. As always, questions or comments are humbly appreciated.

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