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San Francisco is a famously expensive city, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find anything cheap, or even free to do. In fact, the Golden Gate City overs such a wide range of options, many of them will set you back just $10 or less. From fascinating to museums to legendary walks and some of the tastiest dishes around, if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly experience, be sure to put at least some of these things to do in San Francisco on your list.
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The Musee Mecanique is located at Fisherman’s Wharf. One of the world’s largest privately owned collections of coin-operated mechanical machines, it showcases more than 300 of them, and admission is free. All of the coin-operated games can be played, and with prices that range from only a penny to a dollar, you can have a whole lot of fun for less than 10 bucks. It includes coin-operated fortune tellers, player pianos, love testers and quite a few rare, historic pieces, like the large diorama of a traveling carnival with a Ferris wheel and other rides, and, the highlight, legendary Laffing Sal. Frequently described as “famously creepy,” if you’re over the age of 50 and grew up in the San Francisco area, you may have been one of the many kids that endured nightmares after seeing her standing high above the crowds at The Funhouse in Playland, which closed in 1972.
Take a Stroll Across the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s most iconic landmark, and one of the seven wonders of the modern world opened in 1937. A must-visit, it doesn’t cost a thing to walk or bike the 1.7- mile span stretching from San Francisco to the Marine headlands. Along the way, you’ll get an incredible view of the city skyline, the 746-foot towers and the glistening expanse of the Pacific. The bridge is an unforgettable sight, whether the sun is out, or it’s surrounded in a foggy mist.
Enjoy Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl at Fisherman's Wharf
While it’s hard to get more touristy than Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s still worth a visit, with lots of free or cheap things to do, including checking out the busker entertainment, watching the sea lions that lie on the docks, and indulging in a sourdough bread bowl, filled with the city’s famously delicious clam chowder, of course. There are multiple options but Boudin Baker Cafe at Pier 39 arguably offers the best.
Ride a Cable Car
The cost of a cable car ride is only a few dollars, and you’ll have the opportunity to get around on this officially designated historic landmark from the days before automobiles and the world’s last manually operated cable car system. They were built to scale the precipitous hills that were far too steep for horses to climb. But don’t just hop on any trolley, avoid the famously packed Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason lines, and catch the California line instead which includes those impressive hills and views without the wait. If you’re lucky, you’ll even enjoy a bell-ringing serenade from your conductor.
Cable Car Museum
Once you’ve ridden a cable car, you may want to learn more about them and you can do just that at the relatively unknown Cable Car Museum. Located in the Washington-Mason powerhouse and carbarn on Nob Hill, it overlooks the massive engines and winding wheels that pull the city’s cables, while providing an interesting look at the history of the cable car in San Francisco – and, admission is free. View the three antique cable cars that date back to the 1870s, learn about the challenges the cars have faced over the years, see mechanical displays and purchase items in the gift shop.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is the world’s largest man-made park, a half-mile wide and more than three-mile-long park that was inspired by New York City’s Central Park. It offers a wealth of attractions, including some of the city’s top museums, along with gardens, lakes, and playgrounds. Fly fishing, archery, golf, soccer, archery, lawn bowling and model boat sailing are just a few of the activities here. It’s worth visiting just to enjoy a scenic walk and some great people watching, which doesn’t cost a thing.
Explore the Sutro Bath Ruins
The Sutro Baths have a fascinating history, constructed in 1894, as the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. During high tide, the ocean would fill the pools with 1.7 million gallons of water, and it only took an hour to do so. There were some 500 private dressing rooms, multiple restaurants and arcades that were all enclosed by 100,000 square feet of glass. Due to the high costs of running the facility, it was shut down during the Great Depression, but its impressive ruins can be found in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the north end of Ocean Beach near the famous Cliff House restaurant.
Check Out the City's Popular Movie and TV Filming Sites
Countless films and television shows have been shot in San Francisco, and you can check some of them out for only the cost of fuel to get you there, including the Robin Williams’ favorite, “Mrs. Doubtfire.” The family’s home was located at 2640 Steiner Street, and while it’s occupied, visitors frequently gather her to capture photos. Dirty Harry is another iconic film character associated with the city and you can stand in Harry Callahan’s shoes at 555 California Street, which is the Bank of America building used in the opening scene.
Picnic at the Presidio
The Presidio is a former military post turned national park site that offers a variety of activities, as well as a number of historic treasures. Visitors can take a walking tour or hike the scenic trails, enjoying jaw-dropping views of the Golden Gate along the way. If you’re here between April and October on a Sunday, be sure to check out “Off the Grid, Picnic at the Presidio” event, a fun food truck gathering where you’ll find plenty of cheap eats among the countless food vendors to enjoy with the live music and free lawn games.
Capture an Iconic Bridge Photo From Baker Beach
And finally, one of the locals’ best kept secrets: Baker Beach. To capture a postcard worthy photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the Marine Headlands, this is where you want to go.