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The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

15 free places to visit in San Francisco

If you’re staying in the city over spring break, consider visiting these spots
Neal Wong
The view from Bernal Heights Park on March 23, 2024. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress)

If you’re a college student on a budget and staying in San Francisco over spring break, you may want places to visit that are not just the same recommendations from your friends. These 15 spots include museums, parks, businesses and more, are all free to visit and accessible by transit.

16th Avenue Tiled Steps and Grandview Park

Houses seen from Grandview Park in San Francisco on June 21, 2023. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

Head to Moraga Street and 16th Avenue and you’ll be at the bottom of the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, an art piece completed by the community of the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood in 2005. The mosaic of handmade tiles on the 163 steps changes beneath your feet as you climb, depicting the sea, different environments, space, and the sun. Also, appreciate the flowers and foliage on both sides of the steps — they’re maintained by volunteers. Don’t forget to pause and take in the views as they improve with each step.

At the top of the steps, turn right and head up zig-zagging wooden steps to take you up even farther, to Grandview Park.

The park has panoramic views of San Francisco and the surrounding area. If you look north, you’ll see the entirety of Golden Gate Park. Past it, the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay are visible. You can also look east to see Mount Sutro and the skyline downtown, and south and west to see residential neighborhoods.

This park has no restrooms, water fountains, or food and drink businesses within a block.

Hillpoint Park

The Hunters Point crane and dry docks seen from Hillpoint Park on April 30, 2024. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This park is in the Hunters Point neighborhood, at the bend of Innes Court.

The first thing you’ll notice is the Hunters Point crane in the distance. The World War II-era gantry crane is a lesser-known San Francisco landmark that was used to repair warships and test missiles.

The park itself has a lush grassy field and plenty of benches, which are perfect for picnics. You can also sit on Matthew Geller’s “Nautical Swing,” an art piece with a swaying circular bench. Alternatively, you can walk through Mildred Howard’s “Frame,” a giant bronze art piece that arches over the path and frames Walter Hood’s “Refrain” farther ahead.

This park has no restrooms, water fountains, or food and drink businesses within a block.

Hamon Tower Observation Deck

The Hamon Tower observation deck in San Francisco on Aug. 13, 2023. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

Admission to the de Young Museum at Golden Gate Park isn’t free, but the observation deck on the ninth floor of the Hamon Tower is, and you don’t need to enter the paid area to access it. Just walk inside the building, past Maya Angelou’s sculptures on the tower’s ground floor, and take the elevator up for sweeping 360-degree views of San Francisco and the bay.

If you look across the Music Concourse, you’ll see the roof of the California Academy of Sciences along with Sutro Tower on a clear, sunny day. Buildings downtown, the Golden Gate Bridge, the University of San Francisco, the University of California, San Francisco’s Parnassus Campus, and more are also visible from the observation deck.

It’s open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., except on Mondays. The de Young Café is on the opposite side of the museum. There are many food businesses in the Richmond District north of Golden Gate Park. Restrooms and water fountains are accessible before the paid area of the de Young Museum.

Presidio Tunnel Tops

People sit and enjoy the view from the Presidio Tunnel Tops in San Francisco on Sept. 22, 2023. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

The Presidio Tunnel Tops, located between Crissy Field and the Main Parade Lawn, opened in 2022, which makes it one of the newest recreational areas in the city. 

It’s equipped with manicured lawns, benches and tables, which are perfect for picnics. It overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Palace of Fine Arts, Alcatraz Island, and downtown buildings are also visible. The Field Station onsite is a free natural education center for all ages.

Restrooms and water fountains are steps away, in the Presidio Transit Center and the Field Station. Il Parco, a bar with an enclosed seating area, is next to the transit center building. The Presidio Visitor Center is also next to the area.

Treasure Island Museum

Inside the Treasure Island Administration Building on Aug. 18, 2023. The Treasure Island Museum occupies a small corner of the building. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This museum, located in the Treasure Island Administration Building, gives visitors a peek into the human-made island’s history and glimpses of its future.

The museum is unstaffed and holds artifacts, maps and a model of a plane. Large informational displays detail the artificial island’s history as an international exposition location, as a naval base and as the originally planned site of San Francisco’s airport. There’s also information about the island’s future, as the city’s government plans to build high-density low-income housing on it to address the affordable housing shortage.

It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and from noon to 8 p.m. on weekends. Restrooms and water fountains are available inside the building. A handful of food businesses are on the island.

International Art Museum of America

Inside the International Art Museum of America’s garden installation on Oct. 27, 2022. The museum was decorated for Halloween. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This two-story museum is near Market and Sixth Streets and upon entry, you’ll be met with a permanent garden installation with buildings surrounded by indoor ponds. Continue up the steps to see art mostly by Asian, European and American artists, including sculptures, paintings, calligraphy and mixed media.

The museum’s galleries are separated by structures evoking historic Chinese architecture. There’s also a gift shop on the ground floor if you’d like to purchase something before exiting.

Its hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Sundays and Mondays when it’s closed. Restrooms are available onsite. There are many food businesses nearby.

WWII Pacific War Memorial Hall

The WWII Memorial Hall in San Francisco on July 30, 2022. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This museum is in Chinatown near Sacramento and Grant Streets.

It details WWII in the Pacific Ocean and along the Pacific Rim, with artifacts, photos, and descriptions across three floors in two languages: English and Chinese. Among the items on display are uniforms, models of planes, posters and more.

It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. The memorial hall has a restroom. Food and drink businesses surround it.

Cable Car Museum

The interior of the Cable Car Museum on April 15, 2023. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

The Cable Car Museum is at the corner of Washington and Mason Streets.

Inside this historic brick building, you’ll find information about how cable cars work and actual parts from the historic vehicles. Since the building also functions as a powerhouse to pull the cables moving the cars, there’s a viewing area to see the cables in action up close. There’s also a gift shop with San Francisco-themed and transit-related souvenirs.

It opens at 10 a.m. It closes at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and remains closed on Mondays.

Green Apple Books (Clement)

Inside Green Apple Books on Clement Street on May 25, 2023. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This local business is on Clement Street near Sixth Avenue.

The bookstore, which has been open since 1967, spans two floors and also sells toys, games and collectibles. When you enter, it becomes clear that it used to be a house. There are areas of the store dedicated to different subjects and a medley of seating near the shelves. All kinds of books are available for readers of all ages, including photo books, novels, mysteries and nonfiction.

This bookstore is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Europa Plus

An aisle of Europa Plus on March 23, 2024. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This business is in the Richmond District neighborhood, at the corner of Geary Boulevard and 18th Avenue.

It’s owned by Alex Miretsky and has been open since Jan. 1, 2003. The store sells “East European groceries, and children’s books in [the] Russian language and postcards,” Miretsky said.

The first floor has mostly food.

“It would probably be the only place in this city to get authentic Eastern European groceries from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Bulgaria — you name it,” Miretsky said. “All Eastern Europe, all in one place, actually the same items you would find in their stores today.”

The second floor is wildly different — when you climb up the steps, you’re immediately surrounded by shelves of Russian children’s books. Miretsky said there used to be a music store, but since the internet took over, converting it into a bookstore seemed the most logical use of space.

Europa Plus is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Southeast Community Center

The Southeast Community Center in San Francisco on Sept. 25, 2023. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This architectural gem sits at the corner of Third and Evans Streets. It’s free to visit and offers free WiFi, public art, places to sit and a cafe onsite. There are also rooms available to be reserved for events. The center opened in 2022 and runs on clean energy from rooftop solar panels and hydroelectricity. Outside the building, there are two acres of play structures and open space.

The center is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. Restrooms and water fountains are available.

Salesforce Transit Center

The Grand Hall of Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco on March 23, 2024. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This transit center stretches along Natoma and Minna Streets, between Beale and Second Streets.

Here, 10,052 square feet of murals are visible along walls on the ground floor. From there, you can take the gondola up to the 5.4-acre rooftop park and see plants from all over the world, including Wollemi pine trees that were thought to be extinct.

John Kay is a security officer who keeps track of how many people use the gondola. He said the gondola is the most fun way to get to the park.

“The best place [in the center] — there is no best place — it’s all good,” he said.

The transit center is open 24 hours daily, but the park is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Restrooms, water fountains, and food businesses are in the center.

Embarcadero Center and the Gateway

The Ferry Building and Hyatt Regency are seen from Three Embarcadero Center on March 23, 2024. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This is a large area between the Embarcadero and Chinatown.

The Embarcadero Center includes a four-block shopping center and the John Portman-designed Hyatt Regency hotel. The Gateway, originally the Golden Gateway, is a housing community with high-rises and townhomes. The center and the housing community are connected with pedestrian walkways.

The Embarcadero Center is open 24 hours daily, but the businesses and offices inside have varying hours of operation. The walkway-level parts of the Gateway are open to the public between sunrise and sunset. There are public restrooms, water fountains, and food businesses in the center.

Former Rincon Annex Post Office

A hallway lined with frescoes and artifacts is seen through a model of a ship in One Rincon Center on Oct. 28, 2022. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This is on Mission Street between Spear and Steuart Streets. It’s a preserved part of the Rincon Center, a two-building, mixed-use complex with a plaza. 

It’s part of the One Rincon Center building and contains frescoes by Anton Refregier. The 27 murals were created under the Works Progress Administration. Signage and decor from the post office remain, with historic artifacts and plaques added. The remaining section of the former post office leads into a tall atrium filled with chairs, couches and tables with outlets nearby.

The former post office is open 24 hours daily and has an all-gender restroom and water fountains. Many restaurants are nearby.

“Sky Garden” by James Turell

The view from James Turell’s “Sky Garden” on May 11, 2022. The art installation is in the San Francisco Federal Building. (Neal Wong / Golden Gate Xpress) (Neal Wong)

This is an LED art installation and three-floor opening in the San Francisco Federal Building, which is at Mission and Seventh Streets.

Near the building’s entrance, visitors must undergo screening. Once inside, take an elevator or express elevator to the 11th, 12th or 13th floor. There’s a nice view and plenty of chairs on the 11th floor. Walkways bridge the gap on the 12th and 13th floors and have benches facing the opening. The installation was created in 2004 and its rim lights up at night.

It’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. The federal building has restrooms and water fountains. There’s a cafe on the ground floor, between the entrance and the elevators.

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About the Contributor
Neal Wong
Neal Wong, Co-Copy Editor
Neal Wong (he/him) is a third-year journalism student and minoring in education. He was born and raised in San Francisco and attended Washington High School. He has photographed and written for Golden Gate Xpress first as a contributor, then as a photographer, and now as a copy editor. His photos have also been published by the San Francisco Bay ViewSan Francisco Public Press, Mission Local, and Xpress Magazine. Neal has also created and taught four SFSU Experimental College courses. His hobbies include traveling, cooking, and reading the news.

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