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The Best of San Francisco Tourism on the Cheap

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It’s summertime, which means friends and family have time off work and are coming to visit you! Your crew is looking for a good time and an authentic San Francisco experience. You are looking not to be bored to death and drowned alive in a sea of tourists. The following diversions are designed to keep you sane, them amused and your wallet as fat as a Fisherman’s wharf sea lion.

Screw Alcatraz, check out Fort Mason
fort mason

Why so many people want to go to prison on vacation I will never know, but it’s certainly a thing. Visiting Alcatraz is an expensive, depressing, logistical nightmare. Freedom loving people in the know go to Fort Mason instead. This retired army base is dripping with interesting World War II history (most of the World War II GI’s shipped out and came back here) and has also been transformed into an arts and culture mecca. I bet you didn’t even know there was a Mexican Museum in San Francisco, but there is and it’s waiting for you at Fort Mason. Time your visit so you can check out a performance while you’re there. They also have good coffee, booze, books and art supplies, which you are not gonna find on the Rock.

Screw the Sea Lions, check out the Golden Gate Park bison

The sea lions are great, but they are surrounded by the horror that is Fisherman’s wharf in the high season. Are you willing to hurdle, dodge and duck 53,000 tourists in order to listen to some fat merpuppys bark at you? Choose the bison instead. They are majestic, nestled into lovely Golden Gate Park (far from the maddening crowds) and were all over the beard trend way before the hipsters.

Screw Mission burritos, check out a Mission taco

Unless you’re a starving and broke 23 year old bike messenger you have no business eating an entire mission style burrito. Don’t lie to yourself again about only eating half, that play is so tired. Get a taco instead and you will stay light on your feet all the live long day and avoid burrito coma/regret.

Screw the cable cars, check out the F-Line

The cable cars in summer are a slowly traveling tourist trap. They are expensive ($6 per ride) and usually feature a long ass line. Take your folks on the eccentric F-line instead where you get to ride a different car every time and can transverse the entire city for only $2.25!

Screw Buena Vista, check out Gold Dust Lounge

Avoid ambivalent service and $12 Irish coffees at the Buena Vista by cruising down the street to the Gold Dust Lounge which has them for $5! They taste the same and have the magical effect of making you feel tipsy and clever (cause you’re saving so much dough).  

Screw bread bowls and check out regular bowls
Unless you are a suburban duck there is no reason in the world to be eating soup soggy bread. Do yourself a favor and order your chowder in a bowl and get your bread on a plate. It’s just the civilized thing to do.

Screw MoMa check out murals in the Mission

California: San Francisco. Missiion district murals, Hispanic themes. Photo copyright Lee Foster. Photo # 26-casanf78625.

Did you know you’re not allowed to lick any of the art at Moma? You can experience murals with all your senses plus they are free and unpretentious (it’s hard to be pretentious when you’re getting pissed on by homeless people). Also it’s a real shame but you’re very unlikely to find dive bars and weird locals hanging out between the fancy pieces at Moma. Take a tour with Precita Arts so you can impress future dates with your mural facts bombs.  

Screw most things in Fisherman’s Wharf, check out The Musée Mécanique

As a tour guide I spent a lot of time in the wharf and when I wasn’t slurping down Irish coffees at the Gold Dust you could find me playing strange, antique games at the Museo. This old fashioned arcade is cheocked full of weird and wonderful diversions from fortune tellers to whack-a-mole, to love-o-meters to tiny, mock executions. Prepare to be surprised every time and often for a quarter.

Screw riding a rental bike across Golden Gate Bridge, check out walking across early in the morning

I know mornings can be rough on vacation, but unless you want your bridge visit to be about loud cars and tourists trying to brain you with selfie sticks it’s worth the effort. Early weekend mornings are quiet, mostly car free and allow for the best views. Come see the world’s largest art deco monument first thing, before it covered in tourists, like ants on a candy bar.  

Screw the Beat Museum, Check out buying Howl at City Lights and reading it out loud at Vesuvio

I think the beats would laugh about a museum about themselves. They’d  probably tell you to quit your job, drink a bunch of wine and write the first thing that came into your head. To get you in the mood head to Vesuvio, order a drink, read Howl and write some confusing poetry on a wet napkin.This is the unofficial beat museum that serves booze and opens at 6 am.

Screw the Tonga Room, Check out Trader Sam’s


If you’ve had enough of $32 Scorpion bowls and drinks with 14 ingredients, that take 29 minutes to make then check out this old school Tiki delight in the Richmond district. The drinks are strong and the locals are friendly. No, they’re won’t be any fake thunderstorms, but if you drink enough you can start the hula dancing. Try the Banana Cow, made from the milk of rum drunk cows hand fed bananas.

Screw Yoda, Check out Phillip Burton

Don’t send the dark side after me please. Yoda I like as much as the next girl. It’s just the Phillip Burton is a mostly forgotten hero of San Francisco that deserves a hell of a lot more homage then he gets. Burton was the colorful character who helped preserve all of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and countless other open spaces across the country. He was much more likely to be found in a dark bar enjoying a martini and a steak than hiking in the woods, which makes the feat that much more impressive. You can find Phillips memorial statue in the Fort Mason Great Meadow. Give him a high 5 for me.

Screw ACT, Check out PianoFight

I love all theatre, but I love the homegrown, affordable variety just a little bit more. That’s what you’ll get at PianoFight, where they go out of their way to recruit and nurture local seeds. You’ll also get free music while you wait, fairly priced pub grub, dapper bartenders and a feeling that you’re pretty damn cool. Don’t miss the bomb uni-bear mosaic on the back bar wall.

Now put on your layers, memorize some jokes about the fog and get to it!

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Heather Robinson - Artisanal Trouble Maker

Heather Robinson - Artisanal Trouble Maker

Heather Robinson has been doing stupid stuff in San Francisco for almost 10 years. She loves dive bars, typewriters, and creative people. Buy her a beer and she'll solve all your problems.

  • The F-Market is a terrible service, the vehicles on the weekends run packed like sardines. If people are willing to pay the high price for a Cable Car, take the California line, more of a locals line than tourist.