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Value in San Francisco

With the ascendance of Nancy Pelosi to the post of speaker of the house and all the coverage of “San Francisco values” in the political arena, it only seems fair that equal time be given to the other kind of values in San Francisco.


With the ascendance of Nancy Pelosi to the post of speaker of the house and all the coverage of “San Francisco values” in the political arena, it only seems fair that equal time be given to the other kind of values in San Francisco.

One can easily spend a carfree, carefree vacation here and still have cash to take home. Here are a few tips:

Visitors should make the Visitor Information Center of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (SFCVB) their first stop when visiting the city.

Free visitor guides and maps are a staple of the center, located on the lower level of Hallidie Plaza where San Francisco’s famed cable cars turnabout at the foot of Market and Powell streets. The multi-lingual staff, many of whom are volunteers, are pros at suggesting reasonably-priced hotels and budget-friendly restaurants.

Take time to browse the information racks at the center as well. More than 500 members of the SFCVB have information on display, some offering discounts such as $2 off adult admission at the San Francisco Zoo, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum and the USS Hornet; two-for-one tastings at wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties; discounts at local retailers and restaurants as well as special hotel packages.

Muni passports are also sold here which offer significant savings and unlimited access to cable car, bus and streetcar transit. Muni takespassengers to every corner of the city; for $2 passengers can take a historic streetcar to the Castro or a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge — the walk across the Golden Gate Bridge is free and one of the most spectacular in the world. Ask the staff for public transit tips to major points of interest. The center also sells CityPass San Francisco and the Go San Francisco™ Card which offer savings ranging from 35 to almost 50 percent depending on the card purchased and options used. The center is open daily from May through October and closed on Sunday from November to April.


Locals know the best way to discover the heart of San Francisco is to take a stroll through her unique neighborhoods. While self-guided walking tours are easy (information is available from the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau), ambling with the experts can be even more fun. San Francisco's historical and architectural highlights, tall tales, and gold rush lore unfold at your feet thanks to narrated San Francisco City Guides walking tours. Most walks take one to two hours and reservations are not needed, except for groups of eight or more.

Stroll through the haunts of the original 49ers — the 1849ers — on the "Gold Rush City" tour. Learn the story of the Golden Gate Bridge or meander among the murals of the Mission to experience vivid artwork-covered walls. Kids will enjoy the Fire Department Museum Tour, where they can take a look at San Francisco's first fire truck and other relics as well as listen to stories of fires gone by. Tours are also offered through the Ferry Building, North Beach, Chinatown, Market Street, the Palace of Fine Arts, Japantown and more. Call City Guides, 415-557-4266, to discuss which tours are most appropriate for toddlers, school-age kids or teens.

Tours of San Francisco’s majestic City Hall are also offered Monday-Friday at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Designed by architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and John Bakewell, Jr., it is regarded by many as one of the finest examples of municipal Beaux Arts architecture in the world. Sign up for tours at the information desk on the first floor.


One full day is barely enough to explore Golden Gate Park’s 1,017 acres encompassing free-to-the-public meadows, lakes, rose gardens, an arboretum, a rhododendron dell, music concourse, a children's playground, a buffalo paddock and the tallest artificial waterfall in the West. Nominal admission fees are charged at the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers and the beautifully restored carousel in the recently restored Children’s Playground.

The California Academy of Sciences with its crowd-pleasing aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, reopened in September 2008 in Golden Gate Park. Admission is free on the third Wednesday of the month.

The first Tuesday of each month admission charges are banished at the de Young Museum (see “Museums”). The new design offers twice the exhibition space of the old building and gives the public access to a third of the museum free of charge day in and day out.

On Sundays and holidays (and Saturdays during the summer), portions of the the park are free of cars, when bicyclists and in-line skaters bring their own “vehicles” or rent from a nearby shop or stand.


San Francisco's family-oriented museums are free at least one day each month and in many cases, free always for children 12 and under. The Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park offers special family programming on Saturday mornings. Docent tours of current exhibitions are followed by studio workshops. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month.

The Asian Art Museum has created special Target First Free Sundays family programming. These free admission days every first Sunday of the month, made possible by Target Stores, feature storytelling and performances cued to current exhibitions.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in Yerba Buena Gardens also has an appealing array of kid-friendly activities. Free the first Tuesday of every month, SFMOMA’s second floor houses the Koret Visitor Information Center which is staffed by friendly educators eager to answerquestions and help young artists browse through art books, view a community art gallery and play with Art Cards, a gallery exploration activity.

While there’s some usually pretty serious business going on down below, the rooftop above Moscone Center South on Howard Street is the perfect setting for a lighthearted escape. There’s a playground, carousel, ice-skating rink and bowling alley. The western corner is anchored by Zeum, a multimedia arts and technology museum where kids and families can explore creativity through hands-on programs such as clay animation, video production and more. It’s free for tots two and under.

Family ArtPacks, family gallery adventures and drop-in art making are all free with admission (which is free for 18 and under) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St. Target Family Days offer admission-free access on a quarterly basis.

The face of a child, composed of more than 2,000 photographs submitted from individuals around the world, beckons at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) located at Third and Mission streets. MoAD is a collector of stories and through the coupling of art, culture and technology it is telling the story of the African Diaspora. History comes alive with “first person” narratives, storytelling and poetry events, and living history presentations. MoAD is free for children 12 and under.

Located on the same block of Mission Street, the Cartoon Art Museum, the only one of its kind on the West Coast, displays rotating exhibitions of art from comic books, animated movies, magazines, advertisements and newspapers as well as sculpture and video, with works dating from the 1730s to the present. The museum exhibits range from a children’s gallery and caricatures to editorial cartoons, the avant-garde and underground comics. The first Tuesday of every month is “pay what you wish day.”

Housed within the walls of San Francisco’s landmark Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District, the Exploratorium is a playground for ideas. In the vanguard of the movement of the “museum as an educational center,” the Exploratorium offers hundreds of interactive exhibits in the areas of science, art and human perception. Admission is free the first Wednesday of every month.

The Wells Fargo History Museum in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District takes visitors back to the Gold Rush era with its displays of gold nuggets, rare artifacts, interactive exhibits and a stagecoach that visitors can hop aboard. Always free.

The one-of-a-kind San Francisco Cable Car Museum deserves special attention. In the historic Cable Car Barn & Powerhouse, the site where the cable system has operated since 1907, visitors can view the actual cable winding machinery as it reels 11 miles of steel at a steady pace of nine-and-a-half miles per hour. Antique cable cars are also on display, including the first one dating from 1873. Always free. It only takes $5 to ride a cable car, one of the few moving national historic landmarks in America, to the museum via the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason lines.

Just as the cable car is the United States’ is a mobile national landmark, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in Fisherman’s Wharf is its only floating National Park. Home to the world’s largest collection of historic ships, it includes the 1886 square rigger Balclutha, an 1890 ferryboat Eureka and the steam tug Hercules. Admission to board the ships is $5, under age 17 free (free admission the first Sunday of the month); strolling the pier is free. Scheduled events and activities include sea chantey sing-a-longs, birding, tours of the Eureka engine room and crabbin’ “how tos” off Municipal Pier. An enormous Fresnel lens, once used in the Farallon Island lighthouse, marks the entrance of the nearby Visitor Center at the corner of Hyde and Jefferson streets in the 1907 Haslett Warehouse building. Uniformed rangers staff the information desk or one can just simply sail through the fun and interactive panels and displays to learn more about San Francisco’s colorful and diverse maritime heritage.

Snuggled up against Potrero Hill, the San Francisco Center for the Book offers free Family Bookmaking Days in addition to exhibits celebrating the book arts. Kids learn the intricacies of pop-ups, accordion folds and discover even a CD case has literary inclinations.


The Presidio of San Francisco was once the most important military post on the West Coast. Over the span of 200 years, three flags flew over the base — Spanish, Mexican and American.

The Presidio’s 1,491 acres of prime real estate next to the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay have some of the best views in town. And there’s so much more to experience, including miles of hiking trails; signed bike routes; hidden picnic sites with lavish backdrops of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean; eucalyptus and cypress groves; cannons dating from the late 1700s; a pet cemetery; abandoned barracks where Indian fighters once slept; and guided walking tours through historic military ruins, artillery batteries and the National Cemetery. A 20-page guide to the two-mile Ecology Trail highlights the Presidio’s oldest redwood trees and Inspiration Point and includes pages for children to journal their own experiences. A companion guide is also available for a half-mile (one way) exploration of Mountain Lake along the Anza Trail.

Rangers with the National Park Service also lead free tours at Fort Point, a four-tiered brick and granite fortress built between 1853 and 1861, tucked under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The reclaimed wetlands and grassy knolls of Crissy Field, located along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay not far from the Exploratorium, offer picnic tables, walking paths, viewing areas and an energetic schedule of family-friendly activities in the Crissy Field Center. Using the ocean as a classroom is the province of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary visitor center which guides groups through more than 1,200 miles of open ocean surrounding the Farallon Islands off the Golden Gate.


Across the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, a series of fortifications, some dating to the Civil War era, can be found atFort Baker and the Marin Headlands. Dating back to the 1870s, the brick-built Battery Cavallo is a protected refuge for the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. Other gun batteries built to replace the old brick-made fortifications, includeBattery Spencer, constructed in the 1890s with concrete. Both can be explored without restrictions.The top of Battery construction Number 129, located on Conzelman Road, is the best place for unobstructed 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, the City and the Golden Gate Bridge. Its tunnels and walls, designed to house cannons measuring 16 inches in diameter, are just the right size for children to crawl through. On Hawk Hill, volunteer docents present halk talks and banding demonstrations every Saturday and Sunday in September and October. In the autumn some 20,000 to 40,000 hawks, falcons, eagles and other birds migrate south.

A flashlight and serious play clothes are strongly recommended for exploring the tunnels and walkways of these fortifications.


Visitors expecting bikinis and suntan oil will rarely find them at Northern California beaches. The weather and water here are much cooler than in Southern California. They are, nevertheless, blessed with San Francisco's views and the Pacific's rolling waves. Due to dangerous undertow, swimming and wading at these beaches are strongly discouraged.

Ocean Beach along the western edge of the city features four miles of sandy shoreline waiting to be explored. At the north end of the beach, the historic Cliff House sits high above the shore and is a spectacular viewpoint for observing the powerful Pacific. Nearby is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Visitor Center, stocked with informational pamphlets and maps. Check here for the latest policy on small bonfires, no more than three feet in diameter, which are currently permitted between Lincoln Avenue and Fulton Street; regulations are also posted on

The historic Beach Chalet also houses a visitor center for Golden Gate Park on the first level. Windmills bracket this span of the Great Highway. A four-mile walk down the Ocean Beach Esplanade or a short drive south on the scenic Great Highway leads to Fort Funston. From the wooden observation deck built into the hillside, daring hang-gliders can be seen soaring over the cliffs and sea. Tucked away behind the million-dollar homes of the Seacliff district is China Beach. The beach is accessible from Seacliff and 28th Avenue, near El Camino del Mar. A game of Frisbee, volleyball or smash-ball is a great way to warm up on this sandy playground. Baker Beach stretches along the western shore of the Presidio below Lincoln Boulevard. Hikers and sunbathers here are treated to beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands from the ocean side of the peninsula. A word of advice to parents — nude sunbathing is popular at the northern end of the beach as one gets closer to the bridge. SAN FRANCISCO ZOO

The San Francisco Zoo is Northern California’s largest zoological park with more than 225 species of animals in naturalistic settings. Highlights include the Hearst Grizzly Gulch, African Savanna, Lemur Forest, Meerkats and Prairie Dogs, the Feline Conservation Center, Otter River, Eagle Island, Gorilla World, Penguin Island, Sumatran tigers, African wart hog exhibit and Koala Crossing. The Children's Zoo gives young folks the thrill of feeding and petting their favorite barnyard animals, and if little legs are starting to weary, the Little Puffer Zoo Train ($4) makes regular circuits of the grounds. The zoo is free on the first Wednesday of every month.


Even on vacation, kids sometimes just want to play. So why not take a play break in one of San Francisco's playgrounds?

While Golden Gate Park's cherished Children's Playground, the first children’s playground in a public park in America, has just reopened after extensive renovations there are several other playgrounds within the park: Fulton Playground, J.F. Kennedy Dr. at Ninth Ave.; Panhandle Playground, between Oak and Fell streets; and Mother’s Meadow, Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. near 19th Ave.

Other neighborhood playgrounds include the Chinese Recreation Center located at Washington and Mason streets,Portsmouth Square at Kearny and Clay streets, North Beach Playground at Lombard and Mason streets, Mountain Lake at Lake and Ninth Ave., the Rooftop at Moscone Center at Fourth and Howard streets, and Nob Hill's Huntington Park at California and Taylor streets.The San Francisco Giants have created some fan-friendly spots at their new ballpark, AT&T Park. Located beyond the outfield wall, the Portwalk offers sweeping views of San Francisco Bay and a peek at the game. Fans are encouraged to take in an inning or two and then give way to others. McCovey Point andChina Basin Park, directly across from AT&T Park, yields dramatic vistas, picnic areas and even a small baseball diamond. A 570-foot-long seat wall features historic markers representing every Giants team from 1958 through 1999. Statues of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda are popular for photos.


Summer is the season for free events and outdoor concerts. There are more 300 free concerts and film screenings ahead. From mid-June to mid-August Sigmund Stern Grove is the place to go for free concerts on Sunday afternoons. Performers are always top notch and include major performing artists. Fillmore Fridays bring top jazz bands to theFillmore Jazz Preservation District.

Outdoor film series are scheduled in a number of neighborhood parks as well as the Presidio of San Francisco. TheGolden Gate Park Band performs every Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Music Concourse.

Jewels in the Square and Artists on the Diamonds present entertainment on the main stage and occasionally features performers atop the diamond platforms on the corners of Union Square. The perfect pick-me-up at lunchtime,People in Plazas presents 100 free concerts July through September.

San Francisco Mime Troupe, that’s mime as in “the exaggeration of everyday life in story and song” has a lot to say and they’ve been doing so since 1959. Their mission? To “debunk the official story.”

SFJAZZ Summerfest – SFJAZZ’s annual series of free outdoor concerts runs from August to early October.

Shakespeare in the Park, one of the major free Shakespeare programs in the U.S., began in 1983, comes to the Presidio every fall. Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, a splendid array of 100 events unfolds from May through October in The Esplanade of Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth and Mission streets. Hardly a day passes without something scheduled. This hothouse of culture also includes the San Francisco Theater Festival in July. TECHNICAL TOURS

Many local companies and institutions offer free tours of their production plants and historic exhibits. Learn more about San Francisco’s inimitable Anchor Steam Beer or the “story of money” at the Federal Reserve Bank, one of 12 district reserve banks in the U.S. Other offerings include chocolate and sourdough French bread.

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