Pick up any San Francisco guidebook, and you'll find a whole host of things to do, see, eat, drink, and take pictures of. But just because you've gone through your entire guidebook doesn't mean you've seen all of this city!
Stuart Bousel, our San Francisco office manager and benefits coordinator, has seven mostly secret -- and mostly free -- spots to add to your itinerary.
When Stuart isn't in the office, he's a prominent San Francisco writer and theater maker, artistic patron, and socialite who "runs a discussion group and throws a lot of parties around town."
"I have a nice apartment," he adds, "so I play host to many out-of-town visitors -- ironically, I'm kind of poor, and thus have learned to entertain on a dollar."
Seward Street slides
These are two concrete slides built into the side of the hill, connecting Corwin Street (the top of the slides) and Seward Street (the bottom). They're kind of terrifying when you're on your way down, but totally worth the ride once you've planted in the sand at the bottom, plus the hike up the hill will get you within a block of one of the best views of San Francisco (Kite Hill). Don't stop by after dark as the neighbors get a bit touchy about noise, but if it's during the day and you're respectful of any little kids that may be hanging around, you'll be more than welcome to bring your own cardboard or wax-paper, which definitely makes for a better slide (while also protecting your pants).
The ruins of San Francisco's largest Victorian pleasure palace, the Sutro Baths are right at the end of Geary Street, but it looks like the remains of some medieval fortress in the farthest reaches of Cornwall. There's a nearby sea cave and several promontories offering views of the ocean too, as well as close proximity to the Cliff House if you feel like over-paying for dinner that night, or getting a drink in a fancy bar. Makes for a great spot to have "profound conversations."
The Randall Museum
The awesome little Randall Museum is dedicated to local nature and history, including a petting zoo of wild animals that have been injured, domesticated, or in some other way can no longer survive in the wild. The museum is open most days of the week and is absolutely free. You can kill a good three hours here and it makes a great second date: nothing says, "kiss me" like petting cute animals with broken wings or paws. Definitely popular with kids though, so be prepared to keep it wholesome.
San Francisco Theater Pub
Programming varies from month to month, ranging from fully produced shows to dramatic readings, but the Theater Pub is always open on the third Monday of every month, and frequently the following Mondays and Tuesdays for the rest of the month. It's absolutely free, and based at Cafe Royale, which is a cute wine/beer/art bar in the Tender Nob with reasonably priced drinks and food. The shows rarely run more than an hour and are a usually both smart and fun, which accurately describes the crowd: a generally young mix of intelligentsia, actors, writers, and bohemians.
Ocean Beach bonfires
No permit required so long as you stick to the designated hours (one hour before sunset, into the night), follow the rules (no booze), and build your fire in a designated fire pit (though if they're all taken, it's generally cool to make your own). All you need is some wood and some lighter fuel and whatever else makes a party for you (I prefer marshmallows). The beach is generally windy and cold, which makes the fire more fun. On clear nights there are tons of people out there, and the line of bonfires as far as the eye can see evokes medieval military campaigns or gypsy camps, depending on your personal aesthetic.
Forget the Union Square area or the Haight. The best market street in town is in the Richmond District, starting at Arguello Boulevard and running down to the shore. Clement Street has everything: San Francisco's best book store (Green Apple Books), Irish bars, my favorite restaurant in town (Q, a mid-scale comfort food/cajun fusion place), good pizza and dim sum, all kinds of Chinese markets and gadget stores, fish markets, a massive aquarium supply store so big it's almost a museum, and Toy Boat Cafe, which serves the city's best milkshake. Virtually nothing here is free but almost all of it is cheap, and the general atmosphere is everything I like about San Francisco: multicultural, friendly, festive, and laid back.
San Francisco has many, many churches. My personal favorite is Grace Cathedral. Beautiful, gothic, overlooking an idyllic square that's perfect for picnicking, reading, and quiet conversations, this is as close as we get to Old World here on the West Coast. There is a labyrinth you can wander, and the building is open all day if you need someplace cool to sit and contemplate the metaphysical or just enjoy some stained-glass shadows and beatific statuary. In classic Bay Area style, the congregation is very mixed and accepting, but if you're looking for something a bit more up-tempo on a Sunday morning, nothing beats the GLIDE choir (and at GLIDE you really will be mixing with every level of San Francisco society, from missionaries to hipsters to prostitutes). Not being religious myself, I have attended services at GLIDE for the people-watching factor alone, and I've never failed to meet someone interesting or find myself inspired one way or another.
This story is part of a series asking hostel staff to share their insider tips and recommendations with travelers. Last month, Janice recommended the best family activities near the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel. Before that, Nannette detailed how to take a $2 DIY hop-on hop-off tour of San Francisco.
Stay at one of our three hostels in San Francisco.