How To: See San Francisco For Free

By: Maxine Sheppard

October 27, 2011

Areal view on San Francisco at dawn, with beautiful skylight on apartment buildings and skycrapers in city center

The general consensus is that San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States, but if you’re looking to get a bigger bang for your sightseeing buck, this place is actually a brilliant choice.

Occupying a tight, 47-square mile fingerprint on the tip of a narrow peninsula, San Francisco is blessed with beautiful, attraction-filled parks, a neverending parade of free, off-the-wall events and performances, absorbing and walkable neighbourhoods, miles of windswept city beaches and one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks. With the added bonus of cheap-ish public transport, you might find yourself spending considerably less than planned..


Walk the Golden Gate Bridge

Put your windbreakers on, we’re going for a walk. Not just any old walk either, but a bracing and exhilarating stroll over the Golden Gate Bridge — probably the most photographed bridge on the planet and arguably the most beautiful. There is simply no better way to appreciate the scale and height, the towering orange vermilion-painted twin towers and the graceful arc of its two main cables (each containing 40,000 miles of wire) than to stand underneath them and gawp upwards in amazement.


When you start to notice the barely-tangible swaying motion whipped up by the blustery ocean winds, stand still, close your eyes and feel the gentle-but-juddery vibrations move through your body from feet to forehead. Yes, it gets really windy up here so dress accordingly. Pedestrians can enter the bridge’s east sidewalk between 5am and 9pm in summer and 5am and 6.30pm in winter.


Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge by Tose on

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge by Tose on


Admire the views from the de Young Museum

San Francisco is all about the views. As a city built on 43 hills (most of them thigh-tremblingly steep), it’s likely you’ll stumble across a new favourite outlook several times a day. Most of the city’s best views are open air and well known — Twin Peaks, Coit Tower, the twisting paths of Buena Vista Park — but one of the best is from the observation floor of the fine art de Young museum‘s Hamon Tower in Golden Gate Park. On cloudless days, you can see right out to Presidio Park and the Marin Headlands beyond, but even when the fog rolls in, the immediate scene over the grid-like streets of residential Inner Richmond is equally appealing.



View over San Francisco from the de Young tower by Mike Sun on Flickr

View over San Francisco from the de Young tower by Mike Sun on Flickr


The copper-clad, architecturally-bold de Young museum is the oldest in San Francisco, re-located to its present location in 2005. Though its main galleries require an entrance fee, you can wander around the impressive lobby, browse the museum store, stroll through the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, and whizz up to the observation tower for nothing.

de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, at John F. Kennedy Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Experience Lindy in the Park

Extrovert or introvert? Still in Golden Gate Park, Lindy in the Park is a free swing dance party held every Sunday from 11am – 2pm (weather permitting) and you can either get stuck right in or just people-watch from the sidelines. Novices can take advantage of a free beginners lesson from 12pm – 12.30pm, and no partner is necessary. A wide variety of music is played, from the classic swing of the big band era to lounge, small jazz combos, blues and jive.


Lindy in the Park from Richmond SF Blog on Vimeo.

Lindy in the Park, Golden Gate Park, South sidewalk of John F. Kennedy Drive, between the de Young Museum and the north entrance to the Music Concourse. 

Explore the Cable Car Museum

San Francisco’s beloved cable car system is the last in the world to be manually operated, and hopping on one will no doubt be a highlight of your stay. Three perfectly-preserved antique cable cars from the 1870s live in the family-friendly Cable Car Museum, along with an engaging collection of historic photos, replica models and memorabilia, but best of all, it is all housed in the actual Washington/Mason powerhouse and storage facility of the entire, present-day cable car network – this means you can stand on the gallery level and look down over the enormous engines and whirring wheels that heave the cables under the streets of San Francisco. Down in the lower-level viewing room, check out how the huge gear and pulley system operates, and see the cable line entering the building through the channel under the street. Don’t miss the great little store where you can buy yourself an original cable car bell.


Cable Car Museum, 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco – free admission.  For another kid-friendly, free-to-enter San Francisco museum, we highly recommend Musee Mecanique, which we previously wrote about in our post on the world’s most unusual museums.


Mingle with the literati at City Lights Books

Co-founded in 1953 by Peter D. Martin and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights is one of the best known and most influential independent bookstores in America, first gaining notoriety after Ferlinghetti published and sold Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s banned poetry collection Howlin 1956.


With a heavy slant towards the arts, global literature and the liberal culture and politics that are synonymous with San Francisco, the store is manna from heaven for book-loving visitors. Expanded over the years, there are now three floors brimming with fiction, poetry, history, politics, music, art and philosophy tomes with both major and niche publishers well represented, including City Lights’ own publishing house. It’s the sort of place where you can linger for hours and no-one will bat an eyelid, so grab a table in the basement (highbrow non-fiction) and soak up the ambience.


City Lights Books, San Francisco © Maxine Sheppard

City Lights Books, San Francisco © Maxine Sheppard


For a real glimpse into the local literary scene, try and get down to one of City Lights’ ongoing series of readings and events – there are normally one or two a week, many of which are turned into podcasts.

City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway, San Francisco

Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to San Francisco from London Heathrow. For a tailor-made holiday to San Francisco and elsewhere in California including Los Angeles, San Diego, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, visit Virgin Holidays.

Header shot © Rob Van Esch |


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

Categories: Our Places