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Top 10 FREE Things To Do in San Francisco
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Top 10 Free Things To Do in San Francisco
Most people come to San Francisco with the same ideas - ride a cable car, visit Chinatown, Alcatraz, Pier 39 and the Golden Gate Bridge. I like to help people get more out of their trip.
For example, everyone rides the cable car, but most don't even know about the Cable Car Barn, which is a museum, gift shop and a video of how the system works? How do cable cars go around corners? How to two lines cross each other? This little museum is fun, close to Chinatown, free, and you can see it all in less than an hour. And, you can get there on the way to or from Fisherman's Wharf as a short stop over. Then when friends ask, "Did you ride the cable car?" You can say, "Yes, but did you go to the museum? I did."
If you like exploring instead of standing in long lines, you'll love what's ahead. I have ideas that will keep you busy, but you'll have to find the little gems. I'm giving you the overview, the bigger picture and it's your job to discover more of the details on your own. That's what makes it fun and spontaneous. You won't miss anything though. I promise.
# 1 - Cable Car Museum
Cable Car Barn (Museum)
This little museum is also called the Cable Car Barn, and is one of my favorite free things to do in the city. It's so overlooked, and I'm not sure why. I like it because it's simple, interesting and doesn't involve standing in a queue to get inside or see things up close. It's self-guided; so you can do it at your own pace quickly or linger. Take the time to watch the short video that explains how it works. The museum is the hub of the entire cable car system, and best of all, it’s always FREE, but donate something. It’s well worth it.
This is where the big electric motors pull the cables through the streets of San Francisco - up and down the hills, around corners. Some even cross each other. The workings here are all fully exposed; so you can see the whole system operating, right in front of your eyes. It's pretty amazing when you think of how old it is. And, it's efficient too.
To get there, take the the California Street Cable Car from the foot of the hill downtown, near the Ferry Building, outside the Hyatt Regency on Drumm Street and Market. Check out the map for a closer look. This one usually has no line, but you'll need to change cars at the top of the hill at Powell. Or from Powell Street, where there's always a long line. You'll want to stop at Washington and Mason Streets. Ask the conductor if you're not sure.
# 2 - Fortune Cookie "Factory"
Finding it is half the fun.
Don't expect much, but DO go. It's fun and donate a $1 to take a photo. Most people don't respect their little sign and don't buy anything. I'm sure this isn't a high profit operation, but it's fun and worth the small amount of effort to find it. Check out the XXX fortune cookies too. Many don't make sense, but they're a hoot and a fun gift to take home. Pull them out after a dinner party to spark a fun conversation.
How to find it:
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Alley
Between: Jackson, Washington, Grant and Stockton (Chinatown)
Ross Alley runs between Jackson and Washington, the same direction as Grant and Stockton.
It’s a lot easier then it sounds. The first time I went there, I was with friends and a cousin from out of town and we were laughing hilariously trying to find it. Enjoy the process. AND the cookies.
# 3 - The REAL Chinatown
Close and different.
Grant Street is where the tourists go. Stockton Street is on block above Grant, and that's where you'll find the people who live nearby doing their shopping for fruits, vegetables, BBQ pork or duck and an endless supply of exotic ingredients that may be used for a family meal, or a special occasion. Locals who know this is the place to get the right ingredients for Asian cooking also come here. Don't be afraid to grab a half pound of BBQ pork to nibble on, while walking around. Have it chopped and ask for napkins. Dim Sum is also a fun snack there too. BBQ pork buns there are the best.
# 4 - Ferry Terminal Building
Lots to do, see ... and eat!
The Ferry Terminal is a great spot to drop by and hang out, have a coffee, a drink, a meal or a snack. The big windows in the public area by Peet's coffee is a superb spot to sit and watch the local ferries come and go.
It might seem mild to some people, but it's a great central spot for a lot of things. Renting a bike across the street gives you the opportunity to take a short ride along the Embarcadero, or go all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, safely across it, down into Sausalito and back to downtown SF by ferry. It's one of the most perfect ways to see a lot and have a fun "local" experience of San Francisco. Most people think this sounds to difficult, but I'm 65 and I do it often. It's mostly level and if you don't like hills, you can walk the bike up the only two on this ride. Honest, it's not that hard and you'll be glad you did it, I promise. Check # 10 The Golden Gate Bridge here for more details of how to get there by bike.
OH, and don't forget that Saturday is Farmer's Market Day. You won't find better produce anywhere - local, organic and fresh.
# 5 - Embardacero Walk - South
Art, bridge, boats and baseball.
This spot is reserved for art, and it's constantly changing; so check back for new work. The first piece was a giant spider, and a few years later, I saw another one by the same artist in Bilbao. Spain outside the Guggenheim. What a surprise!
Walking anywhere on the Embarcadero offers interesting things to see. From the Giants Stadium to a variety of crazy places to eat and drink, to a permanent circus (Teatro ZinZanni), and more. From normal to quirky, it's all here.
Enjoy a short walk south of the Ferry Building and out onto a small pier where you can sit and admire the beautiful Bay Bridge, passing cargo ships, ferries and sailboats.
Before walking under the bridge, you'll find two beautiful restaurants by Pat Kueleto, who has designed 150 restaurants. These two are fairly new and seem to be quite popular - Epic Roast House features meat, Waterbar serves mostly seafood.
Next, walk under the bridge and continue exploring and you'll end up at the San Francisco Marina and the Giants Stadium. You'll pass by Red's Java Hut, a quirky spot for breakfast or lunch and cocktails, if you like ... maybe sit outside, overlooking the bay?
From there, you can explore a newer part of the city with condos, shops and the Cal Train Station for commuter trains to San Jose and all the way to Gilroy. The fares are very low and it's an easy way to explore the South Bay. Check out the route map for details.
# 6 - Embardacero Walk - North
Views are sometimes hidden.
Walking north from the Ferry Terminal to Fisherman's Wharf sounds like a long way, but it's not and it's fun to walk on the sidewalk with hundreds of other people walking, biking, skate boarding, jogging, or skating.
Take time to go behind the buildings on the bay side, and you'll find ships, yachts, tug boats, restaurants and lots of photo opportunities.
If you get tired of walking, hop onto a streetcar in either direction.
If you have the energy, go all the way to Fisherman's Wharf, or even on to Ghirardelli Square, Hyde Street Pier and Aquatic Park. There's a huge grassy area that's perfect for a picnic of crab (maybe from the wharf?), french bread and wine. Just a thought!
When you're ready to return, you can take a cable car back to downtown, or go back to Fisherman's Wharf and take a streetcar back to the Ferry Building, or all the way down Market Street. It goes all the way to The Castro, the most gay part of SF and the home of the beautiful Castro Theater, where you'll always get a chance to see a classic or maybe a sing-along version of The Sound of Music ... or something equally quirky.
# 7 - Embarcadero Walk - North at Night
San Fran after dark is the best.
Most people don't think of going for a walk at night, but walking along the Embardacero at night is not only perfectly safe, but it's fascinating to wander around both sides of the street. There's a constant flow of traffic, busses, cabs, streetcars, and people; so if you change your mind, it's not a big deal.
One of my favorite things to do here in San Fran is this exact stairway walk - it's one of 27 in a book of stairway walks. Stay tuned (below), it's next on the list.
# 8 - Stairway Walks - Day or Night
Day or night, it's fun!
I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Adah Bakalinsky, author of Stariway Walks of San Francisco. She and a friend, Marian Gregoire, put together an amazing resource for people who love to explore while getting a bit of exercise without realizing it. The book has 27 jaunts and over 600 public stairways, but this is my favorite - day or night.
The photo makes it look devastating, but it's not as bad as it looks. AND, it's safe because it's actually a neighborhood. There are homes on this walk that have no alternative way to get in or out ... including things like groceries, pianos or whatever else people have and need.
The documentary Parrots of Telegraph Hill was filmed here and the parrots remain a part of this unique spot in the city.
If you have the energy, you can go all the way to the top, where Coit Tower awaits. There are also some great views along the way, and from the top.
As a reward, I like to go to Il Fornaio at the bottom of the hill for a drink or an affogato (ice cream with espresso poured over it and whipped cream on top).
Adah's book is available on Amazon, Stairway Walks in San Francisco.
Stairway Walks in San Francisco
If you only buy one book to visit San Francisco, this is it. It will give you a look at what San Francisco is all about. You can choose from 27 walks, or do several. Since the city is known for hills, why not explore different neighborhoods, including my favorite one to Coit Tower. It's the one where documentary film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was filmed. Tip: the parrots are still there. Also, get the movie and watch it before you visit; so you'll know why this huge flock of parrots are here and the inner-workings of the flock. It's fascinating.
# 9 - The Painted Ladies
Victorians and the city.
I think this view became popular because you can capture the old homes in the foreground, with the newer high-rise buildings downtown in the background.
While San Francisco has a lot of Victorian homes, these six are some of the most popular. They were made famous because of a book written by Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larson in 1978 - Painted Ladies - Dan Francisco's Resplendent Victorians.
I wouldn't bother with a cab or tour, just hop onto a #21 bus that takes you there from the same spot where the cable car turnaround is - Market and Powell - across from the San Francisco Shopping Center and right in front of the Gap.
Shoot for late afternoon for the best photos.
The book that made the Painted Ladies Famous
This is the book that coined the phrase Painted Ladies. I've had the pleasure of meeting the authors in their home here in San Francisco. What lovely people.
#10 - The Golden Gate Bidge
Splendid anytime of the year.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a never ending source of entertainment. Kim Novak even committed suicide there in Hitchcock's film, Vertigo.
No matter what the weather is doing, the bridge is beautiful in it's own light ... or fog. Whatever you do, be sure to take the time to at least walk out onto the bridge. It's an exhilarating experience. If you go across the bridge completely, you can take some great photos back toward the city.
Oddly, it's not lit-up as much as the Bay Bridge. Both are beautiful and reflect older times that made San Francisco what it is today - a city of opposites, liberal, open, friendly, unassuming, and a lot of fun. Because it was build on the foundation of striking it rich, that energy still prevails ... especially being part of the Silicon Valley.