The following blog post was written by Stitcher and consumer editor, David Schwoegler. David has been covering travel, food-and-beverage, and automotive beats since Noah was a midshipman. Retired from the University of California, he’s currently a staff writer and food-and-beverage columnist for The East Bay Monthly Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].
Whether entertaining out-of-towners, going on Stitch a date, or counseling tourist, this list can prove helpful—and save you some money in the process.
Originally developed while writing the weekly “Travel Tips” for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Thursday Travel Section, the contents have been updated periodically, and should reflect conditions at the time of publication.
However, the city’s food and entertainment activities change constantly. Playland at the Beach is long gone, and the tasty It’s–It ice creams that it spawned now hail from Burlingame. As a more recent example, Capp’s Corner closed in North Beach, and was removed from this list as an adjunct to Beach Blanket Babylon. So as you explore the list, should you find that changes or updates are in order, please let me know.
TOP 10 BARGAIN THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO
A hallmark that designates San Francisco, as a great visitors’ city is the abundance of good food and outstanding attractions “on the cheap.” Here are some suggested itineraries that are bound to please, without stressing your purse strings.
For out-of-towners, start with a Muni Passport, or a City Pass that can be combined with a free Clipper Card by locals. By doing so you will be relieved of car rental costs, gasoline purchases, parking fees, in-and-out charges, parking meters, the dreaded “Tow-Away Zones,” and some of the highest cab fares in the nation. A one-day Passport with unlimited rides on all city busses, streetcars, light rail, and cable cars costs just slightly more than a single round-trip cable car ride. Find more information here.
- Take the Alcatraz Tour; it’s simply the best. Suitable for all ages, it’s a boat ride, a history lesson, a brisk walk, and striking vistas. Special tours are available after dark too. The park is free. Pay only for the ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf. But be sure to reserve here.
- See “Beach Blanket Babylon” at Club Fuggazi in North Beach. Children admitted to Sunday matinees only. Unlike NYC’s Broadway shows, good seat can be had under $40. Discounted seats are frequently available here and here. Nearby North Beach restaurants serve family-style Italian fare at reasonable prices.
Walk historic Fort Point and the San Francisco anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge, site of many movies and television shoots. Both venues are free, including parking. Presidio Shuttle busses provide free rides from downtown during non-commute hours, departing from the Transbay Terminal and the Hyatt Regency, and also two shuttle loops within the Presidio.
- Stroll Sutro Heights around the Cliff House, then watch sea lions frolic from its bar—all for the cost of a libation. Take a 38 Geary bus to the end of the line, then hoof it from there. On the way back, stop at 34th Avenue and visit Pacific Café, for the city’s freshest seafood at affordable prices, with free wine while you wait for a table.
- Servicemen shipping out from San Francisco during World War II began a tradition of gathering before departure with their families at the Hotel Mark Hopkins “Top of The Mark.” It remains the ideal place to overlook the city, all for the cost of a drink. Free movies and popcorn are offered on Tuesday evenings. 999 California St., atop Nob Hill, where the California Street cable car peaks the crest.
- Then check out the other Nob Hill grand hotels. Roam the interior of Grace Cathedral, and the renovated Julia Morgan-designed Fairmont grounds and lobby—both free. Feast downstairs at the Fairmont’s funky “Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar,” a post-World-War II do-over of the hotel pool, where their “best bet” Happy Hour serves a complete Polynesian buffet for only a service charge, plus a beverage purchase.
- A one-way fare aboard a San Francisco cable car can be steeper than the city’s hills. But the mother of all cable-car attractions await near Nob Hill, inside the city’s
free Cable Car Museum. See mammoth 510 Volt DC motors pull monster cables beneath the streets of San Francisco. More than a century of artifacts and rolling stock are on display at 1201 Mason, near Washington.
- Chinatown’s Grant Avenue only mires you hip-deep in T-shirt shops. Let your taste buds do the walking one block west on Stockton Street, San Francisco’s Asian gourmet ghetto. Visit bakeries, walk-up dim sum shops, produce stands, teashops, herbalists, and markets selling live fish, fowl, mollusks and turtles.
- Graze North Beach delis, gelato shops, bakeries and markets along Columbus Avenue, then feast on a focaccia sandwich or pizza at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store across from Washington Square. Although this landmark eatery remains, the bohemians are long gone, and there’s no Mario—and no cigars.
- Hyde Street’s the place to visit the free Maritime Museum exhibits, then refresh at the birthplace of Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café, next to the cable car turntable. Sit at one of the round tables, grab a snack or light meal, and strike up a conversation with other patrons.
BONUS: San Francisco City Guides offers daily, authenticated, free walking tours of the City by the Bay. For details, visit their page.