Top 10 Cheap Thrills
in San Francisco

article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

1.  Lombard Street

Drive down Lombard Street–the crookedest street in the world.
Lombard St. betw. Hyde St. & Leavenworth St., Russian Hill.  Free. 
This famous curvy street is one way downhill.  Drivers must maneuver over a bumpy 500-foot-long, red-brick-paved road with eight tight turns while trying not to be distracted by the magnificent view.  Get here by driving up the steep incline on the west side of Lombard Street, or, for an easier time of it, drive up from the south side of Hyde Street. 

Lombard Street in San Francisco, California; image by Raul Flores
Lombard Street in San Francisco, California; image by Raul Flores

2.  Haas-Lilienthal House

Tour the authentic Queen Anne Victorian Haas-Lilienthal House.
2007 Franklin St./Jackson St., Pacific Heights.  Fee. 
In 1886 architect Peter R. Schmidt built this 24-room, 7½-bathroom Queen Anne Victorian home of oak and redwood for Bertha and William Haas, a mercantile grocer.  It has turrets and peaked roofs and a 3-story-tall brick chimney, and it cost $18,500 (average homes then cost about $2,000).   The house survived the infamous 1906 earthquake relatively unscathed, with a small bulge in the plaster the only visible damage.  It also escaped the fire that followed, though Mr. Haas’s downtown offices were destroyed.  Family members occupied the house until 1972.  Most of the furnishings are original to the house, including a lovely and extensive set of matching art nouveau pieces in the main bedroom.  Children often find the doll house in the second-floor nursery especially interesting. 

Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco, California; image courtesy of venue
Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco, California;
image courtesy of venue

3.  Mission San Francisco de Asis/Mission Dolores

Visit Mission San Francisco de Asis, known commonly as Mission Dolores and the sixth in California’s chain of 21 missions.
3321 16th St./Dolores St., Mission District.  Fee. 
Known commonly as Mission Dolores, this relatively small mission’s chapel was completed in 1791 and is the oldest intact building in San Francisco.  It is still used for services.  A cool adobe- and- redwood interior offers pleasant respite from the occasional hot San Francisco day.  Of special interest is the chapel ceiling painted in Ohlone Indian tribal patterns and colors originally produced by vegetable dyes.  Also, a picturesque enclosed cemetery garden is landscaped to period correctness.  It contains an Ohlone tule-reed house, and all the plants growing here were once used in some way by the resident Native Americans.  The mission’s cemetery is one of only two remaining in San Francisco (the other is at the Presido), and, although only 200 tombstones are visible, 5,000 people are actually buried on the mission site.  A tiny museum completes the complex.

4.  Japanese Tea Garden and Teahouse

Stroll the gardens and then take tea at the Japanese Tea Garden and Teahouse.
In Golden Gate Park, next to de Young museum.  Fee. 
A stroll through this 3.5-acre garden is pleasurable at any time of day, any time of year, and in almost any kind of weather.  Climb the steep arch of the “wishing bridge” (actually a drum bridge) and make a wish (visitors are asked to no longer drop a coin in the pond below because it is bad for the koi).  Then climb the steep steps leading to a miniature 5-story (it is 36-feet high with a 12-foot spire on top), vermillion-red pagoda with 12 chiming brass bells.  Look for an undulating dragon hedge nearby, and see if you can find what is the oldest dwarf black pine in the world.  Also look for the huge bronze Buddha that dates to 1790 was donated in 1949 by the owners of Gump’s.  Allow time to stroll the winding paths, which are plentiful because the Japanese believe that evil travels in a straight line.  A spectacular display occurs annually during the last week of March, when the cherry blossoms bloom. 

You’ll want to stop for refreshment at the inviting open-air stone tea house, where tea and Asian cookies are delivered by waitresses clad in traditional Japanese kimonos (order at the counter).  It is pleasant and relaxing to observe nature while leisurely sipping jasmine or green tea and munching on exotic cookies.  An interesting note:  Makoto Hagiwara, who designed the garden in 1893 for the California Midwinter International Exposition, is credited with inventing the fortune cookie in America in 1909 and introducing it here in 1914.  Another story has it that the now-defunct Benkyodo shop in Japantown once made traditional temple sweets for the park’s tea house, but during World War II Chinese Americans took over production. 

visitors atop Wishing Bridge at Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, California
visitors atop Wishing Bridge at Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, California

5.  City Lights Books

Take a slow browse of City Lights Books.  
261 Columbus Ave./Broadway, North Beach.  Free. 
Co-founded in 1953 by Peter Martin and beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who looked after the business until his death in 2021, this three-level independent bookstore was the first in the country to specialize in paperbacks.  It now includes hardcovers.  Many obscure titles are in its eclectic collection, providing great browsing.  Don’t miss stepping into the small-press poetry alcove or traipsing down the creaky wooden stairs into the large subterranean space.  Not content just to sell books, the proprietors published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and continue to publish unusual books.  In 1998 Ferlinghetti became the first poet laureate of San Francisco, and the bookstore was given landmark status in 2001. 

interior of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California
interior of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California

6.  Golden Gate Bridge

Drive across the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge.
The bridge does not have a physical address.  To stop at the plaza, turn right at the last S.F. exit off Hwy. 101 just before the toll plaza.  The sign reads “Golden Gate National Recreation Area view area.”  At the stop sign, turn left into the southeast parking lot.  Toll for southbound vehicles; free for northbound vehicles; free for pedestrians and bicyclists. 
Once called “the bridge that couldn’t be built,” this magnificent example of man’s ingenuity and perseverance is one of San Francisco’s most famous sights.  Though it is no longer the longest suspension bridge in the world, it measures 6,450 feet, or approximately 1.7 miles, and its 746-foot-high towers remain the tallest ever built.  Many visitors are disappointed to discover that the bridge is not a golden color.  Its dull red-orange protective coating is known officially as International Orange and was chosen by the bridge’s architect, Irving Morrow, to make it visible in dense fog.  In fact, the bridge takes its colorful name from the strait of San Francisco, which in 1846 John C. Fremont dubbed the Golden Gate because of its resemblance to the harbor of Constantinople, known as the Golden Horn.  Crossing it is a must–by car, foot, or bicycle.  The round-trip is about 2 miles, and views are breathtaking. 

Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point in San Francisco, California; image by Raul Flores
Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point in San Francisco, California;
image by Raul Flores

7.  Japan Center

Take a mini-tour of Japan at the Japan Center.
Bounded by Fillmore St., Bush St., Gough St., & Geary St., in Japantown.  Free entry.
Known as “Nihonmachi” by many locals, Japantown is off the beaten tourist track.  Yet it is an easy bus ride or fast cab ride from the tourist mecca that is Union Square and has plenty to keep you busy for at least half a day.  Originally spread over 40 blocks, it now encompasses only about 4.  Formed after the 1906 earthquake, it is the oldest Japantown in the U.S., with Los Angeles, San Jose, and Seattle close behind.  Shops and restaurants are spread through several indoor malls and the immediately surrounding area. 

The 5-acre Japan Center shopping mall houses shops, restaurants, art galleries, traditional Japanese baths, a Japanese-style market, a movie theater complex, and a hotel.  The mostly indoor mall allows shoppers to walk from one building to another without going outside to cross streets–making it a great destinations on a rainy day.  Outside, a landmark five-tiered, 100-foot-tall concrete stupa Peace Pagoda that was a gift from Japan is illuminated at night.  Free entry.  

Peace Pagoda in San Francisco's Japantown
Peace Pagoda in San Francisco’s Japantown

8.  Polly Ann Ice Cream 

Go deep in the San Francisco avenues to spin a carnival wheel determining your flavor choice at Polly Ann.  Fee.
3138 Noriega St./39th Ave., Outer Sunset District; (415) 664-2472.
Claiming to be the only ice cream store in the world where both dogs and babies get a free ice cream cone, this small shop is notable for yet other reasons.  Where else is there a constantly changing choice of more than 500 flavors of ice cream?  Where else does the owner make all of his own ice cream and smile happily as he declares, “Tonight I think I’ll make watermelon”?  At least 40 flavors are available every day.  Some are seasonal, and some are trendy–like Batman (black vanilla with lemon swirls) and Star Wars (blue vanilla with rainbow marshmallows).  Among the many unusual flavors are sunflower seed, vegetable, red bean, chocolate-peanut butter, and American beauty made with fresh rose petals.  Believe it or not, some traditional flavors are also available, and vanilla is always the number one best seller.  According to the owner, “Anything is possible.”  Indecisive?  You can opt to split one scoop into two flavors.  And if you just can’t decide, you can spin a big carnival wheel on the wall and let fate determine the flavor.  No seating is available. 

9.  Cable Car Museum

See and hear the powerful, noisy cable-car machinery at the Cable Car Museum.  
1201 Mason St./Washington St., in Chinatown.  Free.
Located inside the lovely brick cable car barn and powerhouse dating from the 1880s, the Cable Car Museum lets visitors see the huge, noisy cable-winding machinery powering the underground cable that moves the cable cars along at 9½ miles per hour.  Three retired cable cars–including one from the original 1873 fleet–and assorted artifacts are on display, and an informative film with vintage footage explains how the cable cars actually work.  To complete the experience, catch a cable car across the street and take a ride downtown or to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Cable Car Museum in San Francisco, California; image courtesy of venue
Cable Car Museum in San Francisco, California; image courtesy of venue

10.  Andrew Goldsworthy art installations

View an indoor-outdoor gallery of art fueled by Andrew Goldsworthy art installations.
At The Presidio.  Free.
English artist Andrew Goldsworthy currently has four permanent installations here, making The Presidio home to the largest collection of Andrew Goldsworthy sculptures on public view in North America.

"Wood Line" by Andrew Goldsworthy at Presidio in San Francisco, California
“Wood Line” by Andrew Goldsworthy at Presidio in San Francisco, California

(; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)