While not a cheap city, San Francisco can be enjoyed cheaply. Stick with us, and we’ll fill you in on making the most of San Francisco’s museums, attractions and free sights.
San Francisco Budget Tips
Tourist Office Information
We always recommend stopping by the tourist office as soon as possible. San Francisco’s visitor information center has loads of information on transportation, attractions and discounts.
The Visitor Information Center is located downtown, on the lower level of Hallidie Plaza at 900 Market Street, next to the cable car turntable at Powell and Market. It’s open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Note that the office is closed on Sundays from November through April. You can also access the tourism office online.
There is also a California Welcome Center located on the second level of Pier 39. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and offers a wealth of information about San Francisco and beyond.
Museum Prices and Passes
Below are admission prices for the city’s top attractions, and pay attention: Many have free or reduced-price days.
de Young Museum: It’s hard to decide what’s better here: the snazzy copper facade or the impressive collection of African, American and Oceanic art.
Prices: $10 (adults); $7 (seniors); $6 (youths aged 13-17); free (children under 12); free to all the first Tuesday of every month
Alcatraz: Scarface, the “Birdman” and “Machine Gun” Kelly... It’s “the Rock.” Need we say more?
Prices: $26 (adults day tour)/$33 (adults night tour); $24.50 (reduced day)/$30.50 (reduced night); $16 (under 12 day)/$19.50 (under 12 night); free (children under 5)
Note: Admission is for the ferry to Alcatraz (the site itself is free). All tours include audio; night tours run Thursday through Monday only; book well in advance, especially during the summer months; purchase tickets here.
California Academy of Sciences: Under this lush “living roof” you’ll find a rainforest, an albino gorilla, a Planetarium and much more.
Prices: $29.95 (adults); $24.95 (reduced); free (children under 3); Note: Avoid a $5 surcharge for tickets purchased at the door during peak hours by buying online.
Exploratorium: Scientist or not, you’ll geek out at this interactive museum.
Prices: $15 (adults); $12 (reduced); $10 (children aged 4-12); free (children under 4); free to all on the first Wednesday of every month
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Like all things San Francisco, this Modern Art Museum celebrates the eccentric.
Prices: $18 (adults); $12 (reduced); free (under 13); half-price on Thursdays from 6 p.m. until 8:45 p.m.; free to all on the first Tuesday of each month
Japanese Tea Garden: Get your dose of Zen at this fragrant, colorful little taste of Japan.
Prices: $7 (adults); $5 (reduced); $2 (under 12) free (under 15)
If you plan to hit a lot of museums, or are staying in the city for several days, the San Francisco CityPASS is a good way to save. For $69 ($39 for children), you get access to the California Academy of Sciences, the Aquarium of the Bay and either the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum, plus a RocketBoat ride on the Bay and a seven-day Muni passport. For more information, visit the CityPASS site.
Free (or nearly free!) Sights
Some of San Francisco’s museums may charge hefty entrance fees, but the city more than makes up for these with myriad free sights—and many others that may as well be.
Bridge: One of the city’s most famous attractions, that “little thing” known as the Golden Gate Bridge, may charge a hefty toll for drivers, but it’s free to cross on two wheels (or two feet). The iconic Art Deco structure spans 1.7 miles, connecting San Francisco to Marin County and affording incredible views along the way. The east sidewalk (facing the city) is open to pedestrians from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily. The western side is reserved for cyclists.
Museums: Many museums offer free admission on certain days, especially during the first week of every month. Many other museums, like the very fun Cable Car Museum, are always free. The city also has several themed historical societies, all with very small (or no) admission fees. Try California Historical Society ($3), the GLBT Historical Society ($5, or free the first Wednesday of the month) or the San Francisco Fire Department Historical Society (free).
It’s also free to visit the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter & McBean Galleries, which exhibit the work of notable artists. Don’t miss Diego Rivera’s “The Making of a Fresco” mural in the student gallery, and stay for an inexpensive lunch among the caf&ecute;’s panoramic views.
For more murals make the trek up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The elevator ride to the top of this monument to firefighters costs $4.50, but you can enjoy the Rivera-esque, Depression-era murals at the tower’s base for free—and the views outside it are just as likely to make your jaw drop as the ones from the top.
Parks: San Francisco’s parks are expansive, abundant and each home to its own set of treasures. Dolores Park offers a great lineup of free community events set against expansive views of the city’s skyline, with the Mission District’s Spanish flair in the foreground. And the gingerbread-house-esque Painted Ladies giggle from their perch on Alamo Square.
Quirks: From its residents to its topography, San Francisco is nothing if not eccentric. On a simple stroll you might stumble upon the world’s crookedest street (the block of Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth), or could seek out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, tucked away on the city’s oldest alley.
Members of the AARP can obtain discounts on hotels, museums, airfares and car rentals. They can be reached in the United States at 1-888-687-2277 or visited online. Be sure to ask about a discount if you do not see one listed, as some discounts are not advertised.
The International Student Identity Card, ISIC, the most widely accepted form of student ID, provides discounts on sights, accommodations, food and transportation. Some places offer admission discounts of 20%-50% to ISIC members. All cardholders have access to a 24-hour emergency helpline. In the US call 1-800-223-7986 or visit the ISIC online. Applicants must be degree seekers of a secondary or post-secondary school and must be at least 12 years of age. The card costs US$22 and is valid until the end of the year issued.
For non-students 25 years or younger, the International Youth Card, IYTC, also offers many of the same benefits as the ISIC. The card costs US$22 and is valid for one year from the date issue.
Travelers with student cards, such as ISIC and IYTC qualify for big discounts from travel agencies. Most flights from budget agencies are on major airlines, though peak season deals might be on less reliable chartered aircraft.
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