We all know that visiting cities can be very hard on the pocketbook, whether you're in town for a week, a weekend, or even a day. Hotel bills can range between one and four or five hundred dollars per night. Restaurant meals might run you upwards of $100 per person for dinner.
Then there are the tickets you must purchase to see the quintessential sights of the city. Even with the ever-popular city passes and adventure cards, getting in to see the top tourist attractions can set you back by a pretty penny.
But if you know where to look, there's often plenty of fun free stuff to do as well. San Francisco is one of the most popular but expensive cities in the United States, but this famous City by the Bay has more top attractions that are free to visit than anywhere else. In that regard, a visit to San Francisco is like living the budget travel dream.
One of the most iconic of San Francisco attractions is the Golden Gate Bridge. It ranks right up there with New York's Statue of Liberty and Paris' Eiffel Tower. But, while it will cost you to visit Lady Liberty or the French tower, you can walk, jog, or ride your bicycle over the Golden Gate Bridge. Also visit the outdoor exhibits to learn about the bridge's construction; and explore the picturesque trails and vista points of the Golden Gate National Parks at either end of the bridge - absolutely without cost.
Fisherman's Wharf is one of San Francisco's most popular attractions, always full of bustle and jive. Explore the main wharf area - full of vendors, street performers, and steaming, malodorous crab pots. Stroll the waterfront, check out the fishing fleet that still operates from the wharf, visit the resident sea lions, and delve into one of the world's largest privately owned collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines - the Musée Mécanique - all for free.
The oldest Chinatown in North America is San Francisco's Chinatown, strung out along Grant Avenue and adjacent streets. Walk underneath the pagoda-style Dragon Gate at Grant and Bush to enter another world. Enjoy the exotic ambiance of narrow, crowded streets and alleyways jammed with kitschy shops; markets filled with alien produce and hanging Peking Ducks; Asian imports; ancient pharmaceuticals; Chinese restaurants; and bakeries wafting sweet-and-savory aromas. Explore to your heart's content and never take your wallet out of your pocket unless you want to.
With money bequeathed to the city of San Francisco by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, Coit Tower - which sits atop Telegraph Hill - was built in 1934 to beautify the city with its Art Deco design. The interior walls are decorated with Depression-era murals inspired by Diego Rivera and executed by local artists in one of the first Public Works of Art Project commissions. The best way to see all the murals is via a free City Guides tour (see more below) as some of the murals are in an area that's closed to the general public. After your visit to the tower, enjoy a leisurely stroll through the exquisite gardens and little cottages of the Telegraph Hill neighborhood, keeping a lookout for the flocks of feral parrots, descendants of Red-masked Parakeets from Peru and Ecuador that most likely escaped their cages.
For some of the best browsing and window-shopping in San Francisco, visit Union Square, a park that dates back to the Civil War Era. Today the park often serves as a staging center for festivals, street fairs, and art exhibits, but it's best known for its role as the centerpiece of San Francisco's major shopping area. As you browse through Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Gucci's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Gumps Department Store, keep in mind that it doesn't cost a dime to look. And it certainly doesn't cost anything to hang out in the park for a little people watching.
Another San Francisco free treat is a drive - or better yet, an amble - down the Russian Hill portion of Lombard Street, the proclaimed "Crookedest Street in the World." While it's not really the crookedest street - even in San Francisco, let alone in the world - it does consist of eight tight switchback turns down a 27% grade hill. The street is a challenge to both drivers and pedestrians, but it's great fun and the gardens along the street are charming. Whether you walk or drive, there's no charge.
But the best bargain in San Francisco is the free City Guide Walking Tours. Local volunteers who love The City will enchant you with the history, lore, and legend of iconic San Francisco neighborhoods like The Castro, Haight-Ashbury, or The Mission; and themed walks that celebrate San Francisco architecture, Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco, or Historic Market Street: Path of Gold. These tours - conducted with passion and enthusiasm - are free for the taking, but donations are gladly accepted.
There are virtually thousands more things to do during a money free visit to San Francisco. For more ideas, visit Discover San Francisco .