Visiting San Francisco is high on your traveler's to-do list, but you've been holding off because you think the city is just so darn pricey? Then think again. While there are indeed many things in the city that'll empty your wallet before you can say "opera tickets," San Francisco also offer hundreds of things to do that don't cost a single dime. Here are our 10 favorites:
1. Take an expert-led tour.City Guides is a nonprofit with volunteers who lead free tours of San Francisco's highlights. Choose from some 30 different walks, including "Pacific Heights Mansions," "Bawdy & Naughty," and "Mission Murals." Tours last 1½ to 2 hours and are offered every week, rain or shine. Information at www.sfcityguides.org.
2. Visit a museum. Many of San Francisco's museums offer free admission on certain days. On the first Tuesday of each month, hit SFMOMA, the Legion of Honor, and the de Young. The first Wednesday of each month, get in free at the California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium. On first Thursdays, it's San Francisco Museum of Craft & Design. On third Mondays, head to the brand-new Contemporary Jewish Museum.
3. Attend a festival.Almost every weekend, there's at least one annual festival. Whether it's the Stern Grove Festival's outdoor concerts, the Shakespeare Festival, the Chinese New Year, Carnaval, the LGBT Pride Celebration, the North Beach Festival, or one of the many street fairs -- Union, Folsom, Castro, Fillmore, Haight-Ashbury -- you'll be able to partake without spending a penny. A comprehensive listing is available at www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com/calendar.
4. Experience the Farmer's Market.Oh sure, you've been to a farmer's market before. But not like this one. The food vendors that set up every Tuesday and Saturday at the Ferry Building are remarkably committed to growing and selling artisan products. Try free samples while keeping an eye out for local celebrity chefs (Michael Mina, Gary Danko...), since this is where many of them get their goods. Information at www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.
5. See the buffalo (and the pretty plants). Don't want to pay the zoo admission? Then go to Golden Gate Park to see a herd of buffalo, the ancestors of whom have been in the park since 1892. They're in an enclosed paddock, so you'll have to use your imagination to see them roaming the plains -- but that would be the case at the zoo, too. Also check out the park's Japanese Tea Garden and Strybing Arboretum. Information at www.golden-gate-park.com.
6. Go to the arcade to end all arcades.The carnival music wafts out of Musée Mécanique on Pier 45, drawing in curious passersby. Once they're in, they're delighted at the unique collection of antique mechanical devices whose sole purpose is to entertain; the only catch is that you should bring a handful of quarters to bring them to life. The nostalgia-inducing collection of turn-of-the-century arcade machines, orchestrions, coin-operated musical instruments, and mechanical dioramas will be worth your while. Information at www.museemechanique.org.
7. Watch the street performers. Fisherman's Wharf is the best place to catch the local characters who draw crowds each time they perform. Take in the talents of break dancers, steel-drum players, a spray-paint artist, a silver-painted robot-man, a "bush man" who jumps out at tourists from behind his shrub, and even some unwitting animal entertainers at the end of Pier 39 -- the raucous and always amusing sea lions.
8. Hear a famous author read. San Francisco's literary scene is legendary, so it's easier here than anywhere else to see big names like David Sedaris, Isabel Allende, and Salman Rushdie in person at independent bookstores like City Lights and Book Passage -- for free. For an excellent calendar of local literary events, go to www.kemblescott.com.
9. Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving involves a toll, and if you're seeking a bike, you'll likely have to rent it. But to traverse this 1.7-mile international landmark by foot costs absolutely nothing, save for the expenditure of some extra calories. And the effort will be worth it: The ocean-air-enhanced experience of being that high above the bay is exhilarating. Information at www.goldengate.org.
10. Listen as the ocean makes music.OK, so it's not quite the music we're used to, but the Wave Organ, an acoustic sculpture activated by the bay's aquatic movements, makes its own form of noise, which emanates out of an interesting construction of pipes and concrete. Information at www.exploratorium.edu.
And a bonus money-saving tip: Kimpton's nine San Francisco hotels, which include the Argonaut and Hotel Monaco, are offering the "We Got Your Bag" deal to address the fact that major airlines are now charging for checking more than one piece of luggage. With proof of that airline fee, hotel guests get up to $25 back as compensation.
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