A Perfect (and Practically Free) Day in San Francisco

The ideal day in this California city is surprisingly affordable.

Why You Should Go to San Francisco This Winter

San Francisco’s month-long Chinese New Year celebration culminates with a parade each winter.

Photo by Shutterstock

San Francisco is many things, but inexpensive isn’t one of them. Unless you take advantage of the city’s mild weather and plentiful green spaces, where you can enjoy a relaxing Sunday exploring its rich history and culture essentially for free. (Food and drinks extra.)

Start by exploring Golden Gate Park

They say the early bird gets the worm, but a much better deal is free entry to the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park between 7:30 and 9 a.m. Among the pluses of early arrival: free parking nearby and fewer people as you commune with nature. You can essentially take a trip around the world at the 55-acre arboretum. Check out the international offerings (such as lilly pilly trees from Australia), breathe deeply in the Fragrance Garden, and see what’s blooming in sections focusing on the Andean Cloud forest, South Africa, Asia, and more. You’re also likely to spot locals practicing their tai chi in the fresh air.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

Photo by Jeffrey Eisen/Unsplash

Nearby is the de Young museum, which opens at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. At the museum, enjoy the café without paying an entry fee to the galleries. The coffee is good and you can enjoy it on the shaded terrace and explore the adjacent sculpture garden, with works by Claes Oldenburg and James Turrell, among many others. Also free to visit: the nine-story tower with panoramic views of the city.

For years part of the park’s main road, John F. Kennedy Drive, has been closed to cars on Sunday. Now 1.5 miles of it are closed to cars daily. You could spend the whole day wandering the 1,000 green acres: row your boat on Stow Lake or see where the buffalo roam. If you go west, almost to the Pacific Ocean, the Beach Chalet offers good food and even better views, as well as a brew pub. Don’t miss the 1930s murals on the first floor. On weekends, a long stretch of the Great Highway, which runs alongside Ocean Beach, is now car free.

Head to the waterfront—with a pit stop for croissants

A far more scenic spot for viewing open water is a few miles north and east of the park, at the Marina Green. In this city of microclimates, the possibility of fog and wind are common year-round, especially near the bay, so bring a jacket along.

On your way to the northern waterfront, Clement Street offers a wide range of tempting places to fuel up. Near the east end is Ariscault Bakery, noted for its croissants; celebrate surviving the long line with a kouign-amann to accompany your coffee. (Calories don’t count on Sundays, right?) Continue north on Arguello for the scenic route through the Presidio to reach Marina Boulevard.

Tour the Maritime Museum

San Francisco_Maritime Museum_Pat Tompkins

The Beach Chalet has numerous murals painted during the 1930s.

Photo by Pat Tompkins

Parking in San Francisco is a competitive sport. But if you’re willing to hoof it, you may find a free spot in the parking lots near Fort Mason. Follow a long flight of stairs and a paved path over a hill east toward Aquatic Park. Among the choice offerings there is the Maritime Museum, an overlooked gem in a former streamline moderne public bathhouse, built in 1939. Go for the colorful murals. It’s one of numerous buildings in the city enhanced by WPA artists during the Great Depression. Free and open daily. Instead of continuing east to noisy Fisherman’s Wharf, rife with touristy shops, go back west to Fort Mason.

Explore Fort Mason

While the Maritime Museum is practically a secret, Fort Mason and the adjacent Marina Green are not, but they have ample space for roaming locals and visitors.

From Fort Mason’s piers, more than 1.5 million troops shipped out to the Pacific during World War II. Today, Fort Mason, now a National Historic Landmark, is an arts and culture hub. Options include the small but appealing Museo Italo Americano; it’s open 10 to 2 on Sundays and is free to visit, unlike the city’s larger museums. When I’m rambling around urban green spaces, I usually skip a sit-down meal, but the pioneering vegetarian Greens restaurant is an attractive place for lunch. The food is as good as the prime views of the bay from its wall of windows.

Walk from Marina Green to Fort Point

I’m more likely to continue west along the Marina Green for a hit-and-run at Dynamo Donut and Coffee Kiosk, a tiny outlet of the Mission District shop. (Spiced chocolate or chocolate rose? Only you can decide.) As a rainbow of kite surfers flies by, stretch your legs along a trail through Crissy Field to Fort Point, tucked under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. This area is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; a welcome pit stop on the way is the aptly named Warming Hut. (Nobody ever claimed San Francisco summers are broiling.) Refresh with tea, hot chocolate, or coffee and browse the shop loaded with national park–related goodies.

The red-brick Fort Point, a National Historic Site, dates from the Civil War, and the location offers a fresh viewpoint of the bridge overhead, complete with crashing waves. (Yes, the fort is free to visit and open year-round Friday through Sunday.) And Hitchcock fans may recognize the location from a scene in Vertigo filmed in the city. Sit down, put your feet up, and soak in the views. You are in the perfect place to catch the sunset.

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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