This post was most recently updated on December 17th, 2021
San Francisco, one of America’s most visited cities, draws in tourists from all over the world! Even the locals and nearby residents like to join in on the fun this wonderful city has to offer. But, with so many people vying to catch a glimpse, it can often become an overwhelming (and chaotic) adventure. In my most recent trip to San Francisco, I decided to do my research beforehand to make the best of my time (and money) while exploring all the many options; here are a few of the things I learned:
1. Plan ahead or come early to snag great parking!
We arrived in the city at 9 in the morning and were pleasantly surprised to find there were still at least 20 FREE parking spots right near Ghirardelli square and Aquatic Park. We enjoyed 4 free hours of parking, which was plenty of time to do the things we wanted to do that day. For those who plan to spend the whole day exploring, there are parking lots that will charge you an arm and a leg to stay there (up to $10/hour) which can get expensive! Instead, do some research and find a lot that will charge a flat rate for the whole day; for instance, you can park at the Fort Mason Center for 4+ hours and it only costs you $14. Or, if you prefer not to worry about parking, you can visit this site and reserve a spot before you even arrive!
2. Learn some history with FREE walking tours
We wanted to learn a little history while in San Francisco, but didn’t have the money (or time) to spend a whole day on a tour bus. So, instead we found that the city offers free walking tours at a variety of locations and times. Although we had to duck out before the end of the Fisherman’s Wharf Tour, we enjoyed listening to some great stories about the city’s history.
For example, Ghirardelli’s early location–on the corner of Jackson and Mason streets–survived the 1906 earthquake and fire because it was on the same block as Hotaling’s Whiskey Warehouse; it was said that the US Navy decided to save the Warehouse (and the adjacent buildings, including Ghirardelli’s) because of the “valuable cargo”** inside the Whiskey Warehouse. Crazy, huh?! Or, did you know that a lot of San Francisco is actually built on landfill? You can see the original shoreline marked in blue dashed lines in the tour map above. Awesome stories like this and MORE can be found while on the walking tour. So, check out the tour schedule on their website, and enjoy walking around the city while learning about what makes this city so spectacular!
**Quoted from Annetta Black’s article on the history of the Hotaling Building, found here.
3. Try the delicious food
There are so many places to eat in San Francisco that it’s almost overwhelming! 🙂 Of course, you’ve got to try some seafood while here, but there are still so many choices: from sushi, to clam chowder, to crab cakes! This time around, we found a little sushi restaurant called Grandeho’s Kamekyo on Hyde Street and it was the perfect spot for lunch; the food was delicious, the service quick, and they even had accommodations for storing our bulky stroller, as well as providing a high chair for our infant son.
In the afternoon, we ventured to Ghirardelli Square where we also enjoyed a heavenly, chocolate fudge sundae. Even if you aren’t in the mood for a sundae, you should check out Ghirardelli’s simply because they give out chocolate samples for free. And, step inside their store to see their chocolate fountain; it makes you feel like you are in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory overlooking the chocolate river! 🙂
4. If you like art, stop into a FREE gallery
We happened upon a few galleries along our walk on Beach Street, but I assure you that there are many art collections all around San Francisco. The great things about these types of galleries is that they are FREE, as long as you can keep your pocket book closed. There will no doubt be sales associates that try to talk you into spending thousands of dollars on the art, but you can simply tell them that you aren’t interested. Or, if you have that kind of cash, buy one! The art IS spectacular!
The gallery we saw had some BEAUTIFUL originals, alongside some wonderful and whimsical reproductions by Dr. Seuss. See below for a few of my favorites (click to expand):
Photos courtesy of Dennis Rae Fine Art
5. Choose your transit
San Francisco is a HUGE city, so be prepared to get yourself around. There are lots of choices, but the cheapest option will always be to walk. That’s what my husband, son, and I did on our last venture in the city. Make sure you wear good walking shoes if that’s your plan!
There are also lots of companies that will rent out bikes or Segways for your use. If public transportation suits your fancy, feel free to hop aboard the city’s famous cable cars! Or, there are lots of other tours on wheels available: City Sightseeing’s Hop-on, Hop Off and Ride the Ducks tour buses being the most notable.
6. Be prepared for chilly weather
“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
It’s true. San Francisco is not the typical Sunny California! At least, not most of the time. In the morning, you can expect a thick layer of fog, and whether it will burn off by afternoon is uncertain. So, make sure to bring lots of layers so that you can be comfortable in both scenarios: cold or warm!
7. You don’t need to spend a ton to have a ton of fun!
Just because you have money doesn’t mean you need to spend lots of it! There’s something so wonderful about having a great time AND saving money, too. Here are a few ideas to jumpstart your visit:
One of my favorite places to visit has quickly become the Musée Mécanique, an antique arcade located on Pier 45. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but believe me, it’s a great place to take kids (and adults)! It’s got a unique variety of classic arcade games, as well as some modern ones, too! There are even self-playing pianos and other gizmos that will delight and entertain you. And….all for the low price of QUARTERS. Admission is completely free, and the only money you spend will be pocket change; I think my little family was in here nearly half an hour, and only spent $2.75!
On the shoreline of Aquatic Park is the Maritime Museum, a collection of historic ships and exhibits. To start, the Boathouse Building has a few artifacts and historical information, plus beautiful floor-to-ceiling murals on the walls. That museum is completely free to visit. Then, as you walk along the pier, you can see some amazing docked boats; if you have a few dollars to spend, you can also pay to step aboard the boats for a very unique experience.
Discover and Go – Get into Museums FREE
I recently discovered that locals of the San Francisco (and surrounding bay area) can qualify for free tickets to museums (such as the Exploratoreum, as well as MANY more) through their local library. Not all libraries participate in the program, but checking may save you hundreds of dollars! Typical Exploratoreum admission is $19 for children and $29 for adults. Getting them for FREE would really cut down your costs!
8. Plan ahead if you want to visit Alcatraz
While I have yet to visit Alcatraz island, I know it is one of the top attractions in San Francisco. Be sure to plan ahead and reserve tickets early. You will ensure that you have a ticket and you’ll get a better price than purchasing one last minute from a street-vendor. If you do take the tour, I have been told that the audio tour is a must. You can go through at your own pace and enjoy getting to learn more of the history while walking through. (Here’s a link to the author’s subsequent visit to Alcatraz)
9. View San Francisco from up high
The city is beautiful, particularly from a higher vantage point. Be sure to scale at least one of the steep hills because the view will definitely be worth it! One famous hill–Lombard Street–is known for it’s windy and steep downhill turns. It’s definitely a great street to go see. And once you’re at the top you will have a lovely view overlooking East San Francisco. So, put on those tennis shoes and scale one of those famous San Franciscan slopes; you’ll love the view from the top! 🙂
For more great guides and tips regarding San Francisco, visit: www.sanfrancisco.travel
And, if you have suggestions that I missed here in this post, please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear what tips you have, too!
Great News! I have partnered with GPSmyCity to convert this article into a GPS-embedded guide. You can download the article free to use as an offline guide, or for a small fee, you can upgrade the article to navigate you without data or internet. I’ll receive a few cents, which will help offset the costs of providing quality tips like this to you.
Written by guest blogger Heather Young (my lovely daughter!), who writes her own blog , Life With Almonds
If you’d like to explore around the San Francisco area, you might also enjoy:
Love San Fran! Next time we will have to check out a few of these gems! Thanks Heather!
The free walking tours are the best. There are also night ones that will give you a true feel of San Francisco at night.
Great tips.. regarding moving around, is it well connected in terms of public transport?? Or is renting a car essential?
It all depends on how long you are planning on being in San Francisco, and whether you will be staying in the city, or outside. If you are staying within the city, you can most likely plan to use public transportation to get you to the major touristy spots, and then walk around from there. You can purchase a single or multi day pass that allows access on bus, streetcar [trolley], cable car [not a trolley], and light rail within the city (see http://www.sfmta.com for prices and details).
The main benefit of using public transportation would be not having to worry about finding and paying for parking in San Francisco (because that can be a headache in and of itself AND will cost you a hefty bunch of money to have your car parked for multiple days). On the other hand, if you are planning on visiting other places besides San Francisco, you may want a rental car so you can easily take those side trips.
While I personally have not used public transportation during my trips to San Francisco, I feel like it probably is cheaper and just as efficient to use public transportation rather than renting a car. Hopefully this helps–let me know if you have any further questions.
(guest writer for “San Francisco: Tips & Tricks, featured on PostcardsandPassports.com)
Great tips- I especially loved the one about finding a hill to observe the city from. we found ours in Dolores Park in the Mission neighborhood.
Great write up! I was just there last week and completely agree. San Fran is a beautiful city to explore, but always bring layers!
Thanks for these great tips! Wouldn’t have thought to do the audio tour of Alcatraz.
Thanks for ther tips. Its good to know that San Francisco is walkable. Thats my favourite way of exploring a place. Really want to get on their famous street cars though just for one ride.
Great tips – it looks like a great city to explore!
Oh my, the food in San Fran is to die for! I would go back and visit just for that!
I’ve heard great things about San Francisco and thank you for tackling some amazing tips in here. One day when I visit, I’ll do them all!
Great tips!! Still missing USA and San Fra is one of the top of the list city to explore in America!! 🙂
All you visitors – don’t call us “San Fran” or “Frisco” – we are “San Francisco”. Thank you.
My impression of SF after visiting-beautiful but expensive 🙂
We managed to keep our costs down, but we weren’t staying in a hotel, either. You’re right, San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities to visit!
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This guide was very helpful! I wasn’t aware that San Francisco had a reputation as being cold despite being in California! Useful info to know about Alcatraz as well, really want to visit there!
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Those parking spots will definitely be a big life saver in San Fran. I have only visited on day trips a few times but loved the bay area. I’m a big fan of San Fran’s Chinatown and their farmer’s markets.
The Cable Car Museum is fun and interesting. We also love the fortune cookie factory in Chinatown. The kids enjoy having their own scripted message put into a cookie. We paid to do a walking tour of Northbeach and China town. There were many historical, cultural and public art we never. Prices in all our visits to SF.
Good tips about the Cable Car museum and the fortune cookie factory! Thanks for sharing with us!
I didn’t know that there are so many free things you can do in SF! Walking tours are always a good way to learn about the city’s history and culture. I didn’t know that the city is built on landfill!
Sometimes the free stuff is the best stuff to do!!
Looking for some guidance … want to head to San Fran and do some touristy things. Bike Golden Gate, Pier 39, Alcatraz, see a Giants game. I plan to stay in a hotel in the city center area, but if there is a better location please advise. Also, to see all of these places, do I need to rent a car, or would I be better using public transportation?
If you’re staying in the city center, you can easily get around without a rental car. Much of what you want to see is within walking distance. And of course, there’s always public transportation. Renting a bike might also be helpful — just be sure you’re in shape for biking those hills!
I lived there for almost 30 years (I’m now in Phoenix) and can tell you that you have some great tips and some great picks. San Francisco can be expensive but you can do a lot of things cheaply or for free!
Andi, thanks so much for your endorsement of the tips here!
We love this city and go back as often as we can! I would say Boudins for lunch is always a must for us! It’s decently priced and a staple near Fisherman’s Wharf. And the audio tour on Alcatraz is absolutely amazing! You get completely lost in the tour. We booked months in advance and glad we did as the lines are a mile long and continue all day long! That tour was worth the money! I think just walked Pier 39 is a fun and free activity as well. There are so many fun shops, there is often live music, and it’s beautiful to look out at the end of the pier! Thanks for your tips!
And thank you for yours, too!!
We are headed back to San Francisco for the second time this year. So it was timely to check out your tips and tricks. We have never done a walking tour so maybe this would be a great idea to get more history and insight about this great city. Hubby will make sure we make a return visit to Ghirardelli’s to satisfy his chocoholic needs. Some great tips to plan our return visit.