Although many believe the gold rush madness that created San Francisco in the 1850's has ended, the fact is this city is still expanding and contracting in boom and bust cycles. But instead of wild-eyed miners with pick-axes running up and down Market Street screaming about "gold in them thar hills," San Francisco is now driven by 20-something Silicon Valley techies in dark-rimmed glasses exclaiming, "There's money in this thar venture capital idea!"
Point being, from it's very beginning, the lifeblood of San Francisco has not been the fresh fog off the Pacific but the risky dreams of generations of entrepreneurs. And that has made this a pricey city.
Fear not. If your bank account is still smarting from that plane ticket to the city by the bay, we've compiled many fun-filled activities that don't cost a cent - much less a gold nugget. Most do involve walking, though, such as crossing the epic span of the Golden Gate Bridge or soaking up the Pacific breeze at Ocean Beach. A few options are seasonal, such as the Stern Grove Festival (Summer) and Simply Hardly Bluegrass Festival (Fall).
Mostly, though, we want to take you through San Francisco's neighborhoods, the blocks of culture that sew together this exquisitely unique city. If you're willing to do a little extra planning (and walking), you can leave your heart in San Francisco - and not your entire retirement portfolio.
During the summer months, locals flock to the area beaches, and Ocean Beach is one their top choices. This expansive shoreline extends from the Cliff House to Fort Funston along the glistening Pacific Ocean, making it a great spot to stroll, jog or surf. Anglers often fish the surf, and occasionally it's warm enough for sunbathing - but that's very rare. The water is cold, though, and the rapid currents make it dangerous for swimming or even wading. But don't let the blustery Pacific wind or choppy surf scare you from its beaches. If you want a a real NorCal experience, your trip has to include a walk on Ocean Beach.
Mission Dolores Park is the heart of the Mission district and offers wonderful views of downtown. This is a true city park: often crowded, usually loud, and a great spot for people-watching. Street performers and food trucks often visit the park for a real "local" feel. Over 14 acres in size, it's second to only Golden Gate Park in terms of space and activities. With a brand new playground, it's now a fantastic option for families, as well, with the always popular Bi-Rite Market just around the corner for those necessary summer ice-cream cones. And since this area is often protected by hills from the chilly summer fog, you can actually enjoy that summer cone.
The Exploratorium believes the fundamental childhood traits of being playful and curious should be fostered for a lifetime. Founder Frank Oppenheimer believed in intertwining art and science to make learning attractive and memorable through exhibits such as the Tactile Dome and Traits of Life. If you believe that families that learn together stay together, head to the Exploratorium for a lifetime of togetherness in one day. And even if your budget can't handle the price of admission, the Exploratorium offers fantastic exhibits outside for free, such as the "Fog Bridge" that blows misty gusts every half-hour. And the city hasn't found a way to charge for the views of the sparkling San Francisco Bay that the Exploratorium offers - at least not yet.
Although there are many free festivals and events year-round in San Francisco, including Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Fleet Week with the Blue Angels, Stern Grove has been around longer than any of them. For over seventy years, Stern Grove has celebrated the arts with wonderful dance and music events. Classical, Latin, jazz, and rock are all in abundant supply, and unbelievably, the entire season is free. A lazy Sunday afternoon, an eminently pleasing outdoor setting, and some of the area's top performers – it's a recipe for weekend bliss. Granted, the summer fog can come rolling through the towering eucalyptus trees at any moment, but that never dampens the spirits of true Stern Grove revelers.
Stretching more than three miles inland from the ocean, Golden Gate Park features more than 1,000 acres of gardens, meadows and woodlands. There are miles of walking trails, as well as playgrounds and plenty of picnic groves. You can even rent a boat and paddle around the park's biggest lake, Stow Lake. Other highlights include the Buffalo Paddock next to Spreckles Lake, the DeYoung Museum, and The California Academy of Sciences, and the Beach and Park Chalets. But even if you don't have the time (or money) for any of these, a walk through the park all the way to the Pacific Ocean won't cost you a dime.
The Sea Lion Center, a free attraction in San Francisco, offers the fascinating history of the sea lions of Pier 39. These photogenic creatures have been barking it up at Pier 39 since 1989. Since that time, tourists were mainly left to wonder about the habits, diet, and lifespan of these amazing sea animals. The Sea Lion Center, with its cheery and informed volunteer staff, takes the experience to a whole other level with interactive exhibits and informative videos. Although the Sea Lion Center is free, they definitely accept donations to keep their helpful and fascinating programs running. And you can't beat the view of the Bay from right outside their doors.
Often considered a tribute to San Francisco's volunteer firefighters, this 210-foot-tall tower has been a prominent feature in the city's skyline since its dedication in 1933. Endowed by the will of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the tower was chosen as the manifestation of Coit's wish for a project to beautify the city. The Art Deco tower affords breathtaking views of the city and the Bay, and while the vista from the top is ideal, the one from the parking lot is almost as grand. The tower's interior features fantastic murals commissioned by a public-arts predecessor to the WPA. Since parking in the area is scarce, it's best to walk up Telegraph Hill on your own.
Opened in spring of 2012, the Lands End Visitor's Center includes a cafe, museum exhibits, and an impressive selection of gift items to take back home. The museum focuses on the nearby history of the Sutro Baths, as well as environmental concerns such as erosion on Ocean Beach. Once you've filled your mind with some history of the area, stretch those legs along the Lands End trails, which includes some of the best views of Ocean Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge that the city can offer. You can also clamber down to the Sutro Bath ruins or up to Sutro Gardens. Top the whole experience off with smartly made martini at the Cliff House, and you've had yourself a San Francisco day.
One of the world's most famous bridges, the Golden Gate spans 6450 feet and links San Francisco to Marin County. Completed in 1937 at a cost of $35 million, the "Bridge That Could Not Be Built" is now a landmark visible from many points around the Bay. Automobile access is available from US-101 or Lincoln Boulevard; pedestrian access, from the east sidewalk (5am to 9pm daily). A visitor center and gift shop are located on the San Francisco side, while scenic overlooks and parking can be found at either end. In the past, city officials have considered charging visitors to walk across the bridge, so get your walk in before politicians ruin the experience.
Newly restored Point Bonita Lighthouse hangs right over the Pacific. Offering thrilling views and a fascinating history, this lighthouse is a quick but steep drive from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The steepness doesn't end once you leave the car, though; visitors should be ready for a steep, rugged half-mile walk through a tunnel and over a walking bridge to reach the lighthouse itself. For those brave enough to venture out to the edge of the continent, the reward will be a spectacular, unbroken view of the entire expanse of the Pacific Ocean and miles and miles of California coast.