These 5 free hidden gems in San Francisco allow you to experience the sights and quirkiness of this great city by visiting a range of districts. We came in the spring of 2018 and spent four days exploring the “big hitter” attractions but some of the best times we had were stumbling upon some real hidden gems.
When I’m researching a holiday adventure I scour blogs like these looking for ideas which will suit my family. I therefore wanted to give something back with my own collection of things to do on a visit. As it happens, all of these places can be visited without spending a penny! OK, you may need a few quarters for one of them but these are ideal for a frugal holiday as they won’t break the bank.
So let’s begin! The first of my 5 Free Hidden Gems In San Francisco is Kirby Grove Campsite.
Kirby Grove Campsite and Beach
The Golden Gate bridge is a must-see for everyone coming to San Francisco and there are a few viewing points from which you experience an amazing view of the bridge and bay. One of the lesser known of these is a short, scenic hike from the road but is well worth the effort. I should say that the main reason I insisted on a family trek is that there used to be a swing on the beach which made a brilliant photo opportunity, but the National Parks people have taken it down (boo!) so there is now ‘just’ the beach.
You need to park at the Golden Gate View Point on Conzelman Road which is a relatively small parking spot in a layby. We went on a Sunday morning and arrived at about 9.30am when there were lots of cars coming and going, so it was relatively easy to park. I’m sure you could walk up or down from another viewing point on that road though.
The entrance to the Kirby Grove campsite has a gate to stop cars driving down, so the road which winds down through the mountain is very quiet. During our whole hike (which probably took an hour in total to go down and then back up) we only saw one carload of happy campers heading home.
There are various points on the trail to the campsite where you can stop for a bridge view. There are also beautiful views of the mountains through which you are walking. My boys, although grumbling slightly at the effort of walking, enjoyed throwing pine cones down into the bushes of the valley, as boys do. You feel very close to nature and it is extremely peaceful.
At the bottom is a campsite which would be an AMAZING place to stay. There are hardstanding areas and plenty of room for tents. There are picnic benches and restrooms and a small beach which looks straight out onto the Golden Gate bridge. It is definitely a hidden gem and well worth the effort – you can visit their official site with lots more information here.
The mid-morning bright sunlight was lovely for our hike but wasn’t ideal for my photos – I would love to return at sunset one day.
There are rest rooms at the layby as well as down at the beach, which is useful.
The second of my 5 Free Hidden Gems In San Francisco is the Musee Mecanique which can be found at Pier 45 and was a godsend when we were faced with torrential rain on the first day of our visit. All of the activities I’d planned were outside, so we needed to take shelter somewhere. This turned out to be one of our favourite attractions and I’d highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of the weather!
Musee Mecanique is a collection of antique arcade games which are all in working order. They are housed in a giant pier building and range from slightly odd looking fortune-telling machines to relatively modern 1980s pinball machines.
For our children, raised on Xbox games, the retro machines were really popular and as many were just 25 cents it didn’t break the bank. Although it’s free to enter the Musee, you pay to use the games which are all restored and in perfect order. But 25 cents is much cheaper than most arcades and as the games are all in excellent condition, I have to say they are much more playable than the counterparts that we played elsewhere on our trip. The Addams Family pinball machine became a firm favourite throughout our California road trip and we played it in various towns and cities, but this one was the best!
Another 80s favourite of mine is Centipede, so I made a beeline to that when I spotted it. I also enjoyed Galaxian and watched my husband take on Phoenix. It was so nostalgic, and took me back to watching lads playing it in the arcades of my home town, Bognor Regis, as a young teenager.
The boys played a few physical games (as boys do!) including a bowling game and a ball-throwing challenge where they had to knock down wooden clowns.
There were some great 1960s pinball machines as well as arm wrestling games and slightly creepy fortune tellers.
16th Avenue Steps
The third of my 5 Free Hidden Gems in San Francisco are the 16th Avenue steps. The steps are covered in various colourful mosaic designs and wind up the hill to what seems like the top of the city. There are 163 in total and if you climb to the top there are fantastic views in all directions.
The steps are a neighbourhood project which aims to ‘beautify the Golden Gate Heights’ district and were designed by artists Aileen Barr and Collette Crutcher. Local neighbours sponsored handmade named tiles in the shape of various animals, fish and flowers. The mosaics were created in a series of workshops so that everyone in the community could contribute and the stairs were unveiled on August 27th 2005. The gardens on either side of the steps were cultivated using resident donations for the south side and a city grant for the north.
When we visited, in late morning on a Sunday, it was easy to park very close to the steps and I’ve read elsewhere that you should remove any valuables from your car even though it is a ‘nice’ neighbourhood. They are on 16th Avenue where it meets Moraga Street and there are no public restrooms nearby.
The steps have a series of colourful, elaborate designs, from flowers to fish and animals.
Once at the top you can see over to the downtown area on one side, and the Golden Gate Bridge on the other.
From the top, as you descend, there are some lovely spots to take in the different views, and the trees frame some great scenery.
I read somewhere that the views from Grand View park are amazing but although we didn’t go that bit further up I thought it worth mentioning if you want to explore further.
Read more about the steps on their website here : http://www.16thavenuetiledsteps.com/
If, like me, you’re a fan of street art then San Francisco is a great destination to see some spectacular examples.
I think most people know about Clarion Alley, but one of my 5 Free San Franciso Hidden Gems is its lesser known neighbour, Balmy Alley, just a short walk away. Balmy Alley is in the MissionDistrict and can be found off 24th Street, running parallel with Treat Avenue and Harrison Street. I walked there using Google Maps on my phone and was directed there perfectly! It probably took around 20 minutes from Clarion Alley if you want to see both on the same day.
As well as being a canvas for some great murals, Balmy Alley also has some residential areas and this building has some lovely heart-shaped wisteria on the outside.
Here are some examples of what I found there during the spring break in 2018.
Haight-Ashbury District Houses
The final of my 5 Free San Francisco Hidden Gems is in the birthplace of the hippy movement, the Haight-Ashbury District. Everyone goes to Alamo Square to take photos of the pretty ‘painted ladies’, which is the row of typical San Francisco-style houses used in movies and which have the city skyline gleaming behind them. However, there are so many other houses which typify the local architecture and you’ll see some amazing examples if you wander around the Haight-Ashbury District. There aren’t queues of people waiting to take photos here either!
I love the details, including the pretty wood carving and painted embellishments.
As well as travel, my other great love is scooters and there were some photo opportunities in this area for them too. If you’re also a lover of vintage Italian Vespas and Lambrettas then check out some of my other posts, including Vintage Scooters and Mod Scooters.
The route we took was heading north from Haight Street along Masonic Avenue and then into Waller Street. There are some spectacular, colourful properties all around this area.
There are various walking tours around the Haight-Ashbury District including this one. I would have loved to have learned more about the area from a local expert like these guides.
This area is definitely one of the best free hidden gems in San Francisco and, like so much of the city, is a fabulous area to just wander and see where you end up. In our case we happened upon this gorgeous laundrette!
Where To Stay
We stayed in a fantastic AirBnB apartment near Twin Peaks, and really loved it. I have to say that it’s a great option, especially for a family, as it can be much more relaxing than booking a single or multiple hotel rooms. Having your own kitchen, lounge and washing facilities is really handy. If you’re a new customer then you can get a $35 travel credit if you sign up using this link. Here’s a link to the accommodation.
Alternatively we usually use Booking.com. Click here to look for places to stay in San Francisco.
More free hidden gems in San Francisco?
I do love a ‘hidden gem’, and if there’s somewhere you’d like to add to this list please do leave a comment below as it will really help others who are planning a similar trip.
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