Some people leave their hearts in San Francisco, and others leave the contents of their wallets. Yet the city boasts numerous free and inexpensive attractions.
The biggest highlight at the edge of the continent is the Pacific Ocean. You can walk along the shore or watch the waves from different vantage points, where the view and the fresh air are free.
Favorite spots by the sea that offer trails plus places to sit include:
Fort Funston: Scramble down to the beach or just relax on the wooden deck high above the water. (parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/fort-funston.html)
Land’s End: The ocean meets the strait known as the Golden Gate just off this rocky northwestern corner of the city. (parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/lands-end.html)
Crissy Field: Look for shorebirds in the marsh, watch for sea lions off the pier or walk to Fort Point, all in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. (parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/crissy-field.html)
Speaking of that world-renowned structure, slip on a fleece jacket and walk across it. No hills on this 1.7-mile path — just breathtaking views from 220 feet above the water. Watch for harbor porpoises below. (goldengatebridge.org/visitors/directions.php)
If heights alarm you, head for the Presidio, which offers short and long hikes, all on solid ground, many boasting beautiful views. (http://www.presidio.gov/explore/trails/Pages/default.aspx)
Looking for indoor fun? Meander through the Musée Mécanique, which features more than 200 mechanized displays and penny arcade games from the 20th century. Admission is free at this family-owned interactive museum, and the games cost between a penny and 50 cents. The museum is in Shed A on Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf, at the foot of Taylor Street. (museemecaniquesf.com)
Nearby is the San Francisco Maritime National Park, which spreads over several blocks. Start at the Park Service Visitor Center, at Jefferson and Hyde streets. Then check out the exhibits at the Maritime Museum, where admission is free. Next, make your way to Hyde Street Pier, where impressive “floating museums” are berthed.
The historic vessels include the cargo ship Balclutha, a steam ferryboat and a paddlewheel tug. Climb aboard on your own or take a walking tour. Don’t miss the boat-building shop. And if you visit on the first Saturday of the month, you can take part in a sea chantey sing-along. Some days, admission is free at Hyde Street Pier. (Call (415) 447-5000 for details.) Otherwise, admission is $10 for adults, and good for seven days. Children 15 and younger get in free. (www.nps.gov/safr/index.htm)
If the weather is fine and you’re in the mood to splurge on an educational cruise, ask about three-hour sailing trips on the 60-foot scow schooner Alma, docked at Hyde Street Pier. Tickets cost $40 for adults, $30 for seniors 62 and older, $20 for children 6 to 15, and free for kids under 6.
Close to Hyde Street Pier, you’ll see street vendors selling photographs, sea glass jewelry, original paintings, tie-dyed T-shirts, funky earrings and more. These vendors — and those at the Ferry Building and on downtown streets — are licensed, and if you see something you want, buy it. Vendors are assigned locations on a rotating basis, so it’s here today but elsewhere tomorrow.
Two blocks from Hyde Street Pier is a cable car turnaround. You can watch for free, or you can hop aboard. A ride costs $7 per person or you can buy a day pass for $17, good on all three lines: The Powell-Hyde line, the Powell-Mason line, and the California line. (See sfcablecar.com/routes.html)
Want to know more about this historic mode of transportation? Visit the Cable Car Museum at 1201 Mason St. Admission is free. (cablecarmuseum.org)
Curious about San Francisco’s colorful history? City Guides offers more than 90 walking tours, all free. (Donations are welcome.) Check out Chinatown, the Pacific Heights mansions, Haight-Ashbury, the Castro, Gold Rush sites, the Financial District, North Beach and more. (sfcityguides.org)
Downtown, Yerba Buena Gardens offers a green respite complete with several gardens, a carousel and places to sit quietly. The park is at 750 Howard St. (yerbabuenagardens.com) Of course, the biggest urban playground in San Francisco is Golden Gate Park, some 1,017 acres with plenty of green space, a handful of lakes, a bison paddock, artful gardens and several world-class museums. (http://sfrecpark.org/parks-open-spaces/golden-gate-park-guide/)
A favorite sanctuary there is the San Francisco Botanical Garden, home to more than 8,000 different plants. Walk through a stand of hundred-year-old redwoods, explore cloud forests, visit the Moon Viewing Garden and meet plants native to California. Entrances are off 9th Avenue in Golden Gate Park and admission is $8, with discounts for seniors, families and children (sfbotanicalgarden.org).
Whether you go to San Francisco for a day, stay a couple of nights or settle in for longer, there is much to enjoy that won’t bust the budget.