Tuck your wallet back into your pocket, because these San Francisco experiences are either completely free, or are nearly so. If you’ve already seen the city’s tourist icons on your San Francisco vacation, check out these six offbeat budget attractions for a different take on the city:
The Wave Organ
This wave-activated acoustic sculpture was created in 1986 by Exploratorium artists in residence, Peter Richards and George Gonzalez. People forget that it's here, so you can often find it entirely free of crowds. The 25 organ pipes made of PVC and concrete make sounds as the tide rises and falls — but the best time to be there is during high tide. The Wave Organ, on a jetty in the Marina’s boat harbor is free for anyone who walks there.
Step into the past at Pier 45’s Musée Méchanique, and get a glimpse at a collection of more than 300 antique arcade machines and mechanical musical instruments, from automatons, to slot machines, to coin-operated pianos. Among the amusements is red-haired Laffing Sal from the Fun House at San Francisco’s amusement park, Playland-at-the-Beach, which closed in 1972. Admission is free, but bring quarters to play your favorite games.
Ahoy mateys! This is your one-stop pirate shop. The building houses a writing workshop for children ages 6 to 18, which offers tutoring, field trips, and student publishing. While that’s impressive in itself, the storefront is a "pirate supply store," where you can fill your cart with glass eyes, eye patches, message bottles, flags for your ship, and lard. While it’s free to look around, you may just find something to buy for stocking your ship at home.
Lindy in the Park
Get a free swing-dance lesson for beginners every Sunday in Golden Gate Park, right near the deYoung Museum. DJs provide the music, so all you need to do is suspend your worry about looking goofy and enjoy the outdoor dance experience. It’s perfectly fine to watch as well, but try to keep your feet from joining in the fun.
Spec’s Twelve Adler Museum Café
What sets this place apart from run-of-the-mill dive bars is two things: its location in a small pedestrian alley (William Saroyan Place) in San Francisco’s North Beach and its collection of memorabilia. Order your drink and peruse the ragtag collection, which includes maritime artifacts, scrimshaw, a stuffed armadillo, a shark jaw, labor union mementos, and a mummy case. The only cost is your bar bill.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is located in Chinatown’s Ross Alley, the oldest alley in San Francisco. Watch fortunes being placed on top of thin, flat cookies before they get folded into their familiar shape. The best part of the visit is tasting freshly made fortune cookies. A bag costs less than $4.