San Francisco: a sight for sore eyes, yet a real pain in the wallet.
It’s one of the most expensive cities in the US, so travelers can blink and blow their budgets if they don’t come prepared. Thankfully, a little research goes a long way and as the city is such a cultural melting pot (seasoned with starving artistry), there are plenty of options for traveling San Francisco on a shoestring.
Sightsee for Free
CityPASS for Attraction Discounts
If you like getting to know a city through attraction-hopping, then look no further than San Francisco’s CityPASS. For $79 dollars, adult travellers can save up to 45% on the city’s top attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Zoo, and cruise adventures around the bay.
However, this option is only worthwhile if you plan to see a lot. So if your definition of travel involves slowing down, walking and people-watching, and poking around lesser-explored corners, then there are a plethora of activities you can do for free. Don’t forget to check out sites like Do The Bay with its calendar of free events going on in town.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate bridge is the city’s most iconic landmark, used every day by San Franciscans to get around. It’s naturally free of charge to walk and cycle across it, challenge the Instagrammers to photograph it better, and park beside it for sunrise to watch the fog peel away from the hinterland.
Lands End to Golden Gate Bridge Walk
Alternatively, you can hike the California Coastal Trail from Golden Gate Bridge to Lands End Lookout. This is a moderately difficult, 7.1km (4.4 miles) trail lined with wild flowers, winding up close to Ocean Beach. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, you can hike and have a dip without spending a dime.
This eerie ruin is located right near Lands End Lookout. Once the world’s largest indoor swimming establishment, Sutro Baths is named after a wealthy former mayor of the city, designed as an affordable place for San Francisco’s working class to come and swim. The baths closed and burned down in 1966, but their remains reside in a truly picturesque pocket of the city.
Fisherman’s Wharf is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in town, so to eat or partake in any attractions here would be to say a hurried goodbye to your savings. However, you can always pound the pavement and people-watch; or, check out the Musee Mécanique, a free penny arcade filled with antique games.
No travel within the US would be complete without catching (pun intended) a baseball game. Duck into Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, during your big walk along the pier. Tickets start as low as $6 (less than the cost of a beer inside); or if your feet aren’t too tired, catch some free innings from the standing room.
Stockton Street, Chinatown
The more authentic side of the USA’s largest Chinatown is also its cheapest. Make for Stockton Street with your elbows out; crowds of locals haggling over buckets of live reptiles, old men playing mahjong, and odd smells emanating from traditional medicine shops will compete for your attention. Remember to look up at the pretty painted balconies that used to be the headquarters of feuding gangs.
Golden Gate Park
There are 1,017 acres’ worth of activities to preoccupy you in Golden Gate Park, but many are pricey. Thankfully, there are workarounds. Strawberry Hill, the park’s highest point featuring a serene waterfall and pagoda, is completely free to visit and hike. Trails lead one past towering trees and wildflowers, and are often devoid of tourists.
Free Walking Tours
If you’re down with all the walking but in need of clearer direction, head to the intersection of Powell and Market Streets any day of the week at 10am. Wild SF Walking Tours offer free guided tours of the city’s most popular spots, informing visitors of their eclectic history plus topical social issues like homelessness. Reserve a spot online and tip guides as you wish.
San Fran for Frugal Foodies
Eating in The Haight can prove expensive because of its tourist appeal. Kate’s Kitchen is the tonic you need; a greasy spoon bursting with envy-inducing dishes, like cornmeal buttermilk pancakes and orange-spiced french toast. Portions are large and most dishes come in under $10.
Chew Through Chinatown
For all manner of plates cheap, steaming and stuffed, Chinatown has you covered. Follow the crowds and get your fill of dim sum, bao, noodles, and sweets for just a couple of bucks a serve. If you’re overwhelmed with choice, start with Good Mong Kok Bakery and its giant steamer baskets full of every kind of bun you can think of.
La Taqueria Best Burrito
San Fran is burrito-obsessed, yet La Taqueria has the winning formula. What’s come to be known as the Mission-Style Burrito has been voted the best in the USA, and attracted loyal crowds to the store since 1973. Its creator, Miguel Jara, is known for his amicable rapport with customers and unique recipe of meat, slow-cooked beans (he estimates they go through 200 pounds of beans per day), no rice, his late mother’s hot sauce, and custom tortillas.
Food Parks and Markets
You can’t go past San Fran’s artisan markets and food trucks without finding diverse cheap eats. The San Francisco Ferry Market is the largest outdoor farmer’s market in America, featuring fresh produce, regional breads and cheeses, local restaurants, and stalls selling tacos and pizza and sandwiches. SOMA Street Food Park features a rotating lineup of culinary curiosities, beer, wine, and carnival games.
Off The Grid Coalition curates food events across the Bay Area. One of its biggest gatherings is a street food picnic that happens every Sunday at Presidio National Park (from April to November). Foodies can sample dishes from around the world; anything from gooey grilled cheese sandwiches to bao and Korean bibimbap.
San Francisco has several options for getting around on the cheap. Whichever way you ride, stop first and stow your bags with a San Francisco luggage storage service. For a few bucks you can keep your stuff secure and make it easier to get around for the day.
For starters, there’s ample public transport. The BART (or subway) system connects you to many spots in the city for a couple of bucks a ride. The 33 bus line is a great alternative city tour; people-watch and take in the views as it zigzags around Mission District, Golden Gate Park, and climbs towards Twin Peaks.
The MUNI bus system is even more extensive; download the MuniMobile ticket app or use a Clipper card to get a cheaper ride. Alternatively, purchase 1-day, 3-day, or 7-day Visitor Passports through the MuniMobile app to save on unlimited use of buses, cable cars, and streetcars.
Combine transit with exercise by signing up with Lyft’s Bay Wheels. Hire bicycles for as little as $2 per trip. Or, if you’re all tuckered out, Lyft and Uber have pool-sharing options for splitting your ride with strangers.
One last pro tip for hardcore penny-savers: if you can access a tent and bike, camp for free near the Marin county end of GG Bridge. From there, cycle across the bridge and catch a bike rack-equipped Muni bus. Combine this with the aforementioned Visitor Passport, and you’re laughing all the way from the bank.
Sleep on a Shoestring
San Francisco hotels – and even AirBnBs – can gouge a chunk clean out of a traveler’s budget, though better prices can be found with enough planning ahead. Check Priceline.com for deals on hotels, car rental, holiday packages and more.
For an out-of-the-ordinary (though appealingly affordable and authentic) stay, try Couchsurfing. This household name in the travel world works by locals offering up space in their homes for visitors, often sharing food or showing them around in their spare time…all for the cost of a mutual cultural exchange.
There’s also Workaway, where locals post jobs they need help with in exchange for free room and board. Potential Workawayers can browse listings for free, though membership costs around $44 per year. It’s a steal, considering how many hundreds of dollars you save on accommodation — not to mention the opportunity for unique experiences with locals you might otherwise never have met.