A visit to San Francisco can be exciting, exhausting and full of some really neat things to see and do. It can also be expensive depending where you are visiting from. Did you know that many of the greatest parts of San Francisco can be seen for free? San Francisco is home to a little bit of everything – and you might as well see as much as you can when you get there!
Sea Lions on Fisherman’s Wharf
The sea of sea lions camped out on PIER 39 are boisterous and loud but definitely a sight to see! The sea lions haven’t always been there. The began taking over the dock in January 1990 shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. At first they numbered less than 50, but due to a plentiful herring supply, available space and the pier’s protected environment, the population grew to more than 300 within a few months. In the winter, the population can increase to 900 (mostly males). During the summer months, the sea lions migrate south to the Channel Islands for breeding, but in recent years a small group stays year-round.
The nearby Sea Lion Center (also free) is a hub for all things sea lion, including interactive displays, educational videos and many fascinating presentations led by Aquarium of the Bay Naturalists. Touch a sea lion pelt, size yourself up next to a real sea lion skeleton and more.
Cable Car Museum
The Cable Car Museum was established in 1974. It is operated by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum as a nonprofit educational facility. The museum is free and is located in the Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco,
Located in the historic Washington/Mason cable car barn and powerhouse, the museum deck overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the cables. Downstairs is a viewing area of the large sheaves and cable line entering the building through the channel under the street. On display are various mechanical devices such as grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools, detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs.
The museum houses three antique cable cars from the 1870s. The Sutter Street Railway No. 46 grip car & No. 54 trailer and the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car. The museum store offers a variety of cable car memorabilia, books, clothing, cards and even genuine cable car bells!
San Francisco Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. It is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco and covers 24 city blocks. It’s easy to spend a day (or more) here, exploring the streets and alleys, browsing the shops and enjoying the authentic Chinese food. More people visit Chinatown annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Chinatown is where the village of Yerba Buena, later to be San Francisco, started. Portsmouth Square had the first houses in the city and Grant Avenue was San Francisco’s first street. When gold was discovered in the mid-1800’s, the rush to dig for gold brought thousands to the area, including many Chinese, who settle there.
What is now Chinatown became a crowded and crime-ridden district for many years, due to a number of factors (too much gold, too few women, corrupt government officials, housing and immigration restrictions on the Chinese, etc.). The entire area was destroyed in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake.
The two main holidays celebrated in San Francisco’s Chinatown are Chinese New Year, in February, and the Autumn Moon Festival in mid-September.
Chinese New Year is an extremely festive time of year in San Francisco’s Chinatown, accompanied by a massive parade attracting a million viewers, along with a number of other events, including a street fair, and mountains of fireworks.
Are you a hippie at heart? The birthplace of the 1960’s counterculture movement, Haight-Ashbury draws a lively, diverse crowd looking to soak up the historic hippie vibe. Upper Haight Street is a hodgepodge of vintage clothing boutiques, record shops, bookstores, dive bars and casual, eclectic restaurants. Bordering Golden Gate Park, the neighborhood features many colorful, well-preserved Victorian homes, including the storied Grateful Dead House and the house that Janis Joplin lived in.
Known as the “Crookedest Street in the World,” Lombard Street is one of San Francisco’s most popular landmarks. Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors walk or drive down its eight sharp hairpin turns. Surrounded by Russian Hill mansions and perfectly manicured landscaping and flowers, it is also one of the city’s most scenic streets. Take a spectacular photo at the bottom of the curvy portion looking up or enjoy the breathtaking view from the top looking out onto the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge. Although it’s a steep walk up Lombard Street, visiting doesn’t take a lot of time.
Mission Mural Walk
Spending the day in the Mission District offers you a chance to see the oldest building in San Francisco as well as dozens of colorful outdoor murals. A self-guided walking tour allows you to see most of the colorful district in one day.
Seeing the area does involve a lot of walking. However, the neighborhood is flat so the walking is easy. There are also cafes and restaurants along the way where you can stop, rest and snack.
The San Francisco Mission houses more than 50% of the city’s colorful street murals. You can find more than a dozen of them in Clarion Alley alone. The murals here range from political events to pieces about the changes happening in this neighborhood.
You will find another large concentration of Mission murals on Balmy Street. Many people refer to these as the “Balmy Alley Murals” since Balmy Street is more of an alley than an actual street. Included here are political murals as well as religious and fun San Francisco based murals. This area also has a few funky 3-D murals too!