San Francisco is notoriously pricey. Whether you’re buying a cosmo at Zuni Cafe ($9) or a BART ticket to cross San Francisco Bay (roundtrip $5-$7), be prepared to open your wallet frequently. Still, there are lots of things to do here that won’t cost you a cent, and some of them are so high on charm you’ll wonder why they’re free.
1. Lovely Victorian houses aside, San Francisco isn’t known for great architecture. Yes, there is the Transamerica Pyramid, but let’s face it, it’s not the Seagram Building. Which is precisely why the Palace of Fine Arts cuts such a fine figure on the skyline. The open-air structure, complete with a peristyle of Corinthian columns, was designed in 1915 by Bernard Maybeck for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Like something out of a storybook, the structure looms over an atmospheric lagoon, perimetered by trees and a walkway. It’s the perfect place for peaceful meditation or a romantic rendezvous. Baker and Beach Streets, in the Marina.
2. This is a city of hills, and the summit of each one rewards the patient climber with astonishing views. One of the best feasts for the eyes is the view from atop Telegraph Hill, which rises up 300 feet from the base of Lombard Street. The steep ascent is hellish, but the lovely flower-lined steps flanking parts of the hill are a visual balm. The hill is home to 210-foot-tall Coit Tower. For $3.75 you can ride an elevator to the top, but the views aren’t significantly better than the free ones from the parking lot. Bordered by Lombard, Filbert, Kearny, and Sansome Streets, in North Beach.
3. Love film noir? If so, head to 1360 Montgomery Street, in North Beach, to see the art deco jewel used in the 1947 Bogie-Bacall flick Dark Passage. The house is particularly atmospheric on a foggy afternoon, when locals turning up coat collars against the mist might be fugitives on the lam. Jog west to 900 Jones Street and you’ll see the house where Jimmy Stewart’s “Scottie” falls in love with Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. (Truly obsessive fans of the movie should also visit Fort Point, where Madeleine takes the plunge into the Bay, and Mission Dolores, where Scottie follows Madeleine into the cemetery.)
4. Golden Gate Park is the West Coast’s answer to New York’s Central Park, though SF’s oasis of calm doesn’t seem nearly as well-manicured. Maybe that was the point. Indeed, it’s easy to get happily lost here amid the overgrowth, especially when the fog rolls in and obscures the very path in front of you. One could spend days here, but if time is limited, a quick-hits tour should include a walk along John F. Kennedy Drive, where you can stroll past the eye-catching Conservatory of Flowers, the recently renovated de Young Museum, and Stow Lake, the most idyllic spot in all of San Francisco.
5. After Stow Lake, the next-best pastoral setting in the city is Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, also in Golden Gate Park. The 55-acre arboretum is a living example of unity in diversity — more than 7,500 plant and tree species from around the world co-exist here in a dazzling arrangement of gardens. In addition to cloud forests and a plot of plants and trees from Australia and New Zealand, the arboretum also has a fragrance garden, succulent garden, and a lovely collection of magnolias and perennials.
6. Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge might sound like a cliché¬ but unless you’ve actually done it you have no idea how invigorating it can be. The air is clear, the wind is exhilarating, and the views are magnificent. Do bring a jacket, though. Even on a warm day the winds are formidable, and once the fog rolls in the temperature drops quickly.
7. San Francisco’s Haight Street has been a magnet for “free spirits” ever since the Summer of Love, four decades ago, when flower-bedizened innocents moved here in search of enlightenment, or whatever. The Haight has never quite lost its alternative-culture patina, though the emergence in recent years of pricey boutiques and fussy coffeehouses would suggest otherwise. Still, if you want to savor a bit of rose-colored history, you can see the onetime lair of the Jefferson Airplane (2400 Fulton Street) and The Grateful Dead (710 Ashbury Street). You can also see where homicidal maniac Charles Manson started his murderous Manson clan (636 Cole Street).
8. San Francisco has no end of great hilltop parks. Two of the best branch off from tourist-friendly Fillmore Street, in swanky Pacific Heights. Alta Plaza Park, a block west of Fillmore, off Clay Street, has unobstructed views of the city looking south to Potrero Hill and beyond. East of Fillmore Street, on Sacramento, is Lafayette Park, a two-square-block green ideal for sunbathers. A walking trail that zig-zags around the northern perimeter of the park shows off some of Pacific Height’s grander domiciles, including the wedding cake-like Spreckels Mansion (2080 Washington Street).
9. Everyone in the Western world knows that the “crookedest” street in the world is San Francisco’s Lombard Street. Russian Hill’s corkscrew-like byway has been showcased in countless TV car commercials, and every tourist comes home with one or two pics of it. But if you really want to impress your friends, show them pics of the second “crookedest” street in the world — Vermont Street, at 20th Street, in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, behind San Francisco General Hospital. It only has six switchbacks (Lombard has eight), but they’re significantly steeper. Do ride the brake!
10. Time your SF journey to coincide with the free days at San Francisco’s top museums. The Legion of Honor museum is free on Tuesday, and the SF Museum of Modern Art and the de Young Museum are free the first Tuesday of the month. The Walter McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute are free all the time, as are the Cartoon Art Museum and the Cable Car Museum.