San Francisco is widely known as the most expensive city in America. A city jam-packed with incredible things to do, eat, and see, just a few days in San Francisco can wreak havoc on even the most generous of travel budgets.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. The entire purpose of our budget travel guides is to help you enjoy any city without breaking the bank. So while we may not have included San Francisco on our list of the cheap places to visit around the world, we’re here to show you that you can still live it up in The Golden City without going broke.
Whether you’re looking to hit the incredible bars and taquerias of the Mission District or want to channel your inner hippie in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, here are our picks for visiting San Francisco on a budget.
Free and cheap things to do in San Francisco
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
Get up close and personal with San Francisco’s most famous landmark by taking a walk (or riding a bike) across the Golden Gate Bridge. On the east side, pedestrians can enter the designated walkway to cross the entire 1.7-mile bridge.
Many visitors choose to stop at the halfway point before heading back, but if you decide to walk the whole way, you can catch a bus back across the bridge. While cyclists have access to the bridge’s sidewalks 24 hours/day, pedestrians do not so be sure to check the east walkway hours first.
Get lost in the sprawling Golden Gate Park
You can easily spend a day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and still not see everything it has to offer. The park is 20% bigger than New York City’s Central Park and absolutely packed with free and affordable things to do. Inside Golden Gate Park, visitors can walk the trails, have a picnic, stroll along the beach, or see a grazing herd of Bison at the Bison Paddock all in one day.
For a small fee, visitors can also check out the popular Japanese Tea Garden and San Francisco Botanical Garden within the park. Whatever you decide to check out, just remember to bring a sweatshirt. The park’s beachfront location means that it’s often a bit cooler here than other parts of the city.
Complete your record collection at Amoeba Music
Amoeba Music is truly an Indie music lover’s paradise. Converted from an old bowling alley on Haight Street, this historic record store carries a legendary collection of CDs, vinyl records, and even cassette tapes!
Check the shop’s schedule and catch one of the many live music events at the shop or grab your singles and rummage through the bargain bins in search of hidden gems.
Catch a professional baseball game for free
Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, is one of the most beautiful parks in the MLB. But you don’t need to buy a ticket to enjoy a game here.
In the spirit of the ‘knothole gangs’ of old-time baseball parks – neighborhood kids that would watch games for free through popped-out knots in the wooden fences – Oracle Park actually provides fans with a free vantage point on gameday.
At the Portwalk along the right-field wall, the park has designated special viewing portals where fans can watch games for free. Fans are permitted to stay for up to 3 innings, though they may be able to stay longer depending on the crowd size.
Snap photos of the famous sea lions of Pier 39
You’ll need to avoid some of the budget-busting tourist traps of the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood to see them, but the sea lions at Pier 39 are absolutely worth a visit.
Located at Pier 39, these loud, loveable creatures made themselves at home in 1990 and have been a mainstay here ever since. Take a break from enjoying the shopping, dining, and sweeping bay views of the area to admire these barking beauties as they sunbathe in massive groups without a care in the world.
Admire the Painted Ladies from Alamo Square
Fans of the classic television show Full House will immediately recognize these iconic, colorful homes. The Painted Ladies are a stretch of beautiful Victorian rowhomes that have been featured in so many films and television shows that they’ve become emblematic of San Francisco.
To get a great view of the Painted Ladies and an even better view of the San Francisco skyline behind them, grab a blanket and some snacks and head to Alamo Square for a picnic. This beautiful green space, popular with locals and tourists alike, is one of the city’s best places to unwind with a view.
See fortune cookies being made at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
If you find yourself in San Francisco’s world-famous Chinatown neighborhood, follow that intoxicatingly sweet smell in the air until you hit Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
Located in narrow Ross Alley, this local institution has been open since 1962 and is one of the last places in the country that still uses the traditional hand-folding technique for their fortune cookies.
In addition to the free factory tour, visitors are encouraged to try hot and fresh fortune cookies fresh off the assembly line. Crowd favorites are strawberry, green tea, and chocolate fortune cookies, as well as the flats – fortune cookies that aren’t folded, making them easier to crumble and sprinkle on top of your favorite treats and desserts.
Explore San Francisco’s rich gay and lesbian culture in the Castro
If you’re looking for the beating heart of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community, look no further than the storied Castro neighborhood. The Castro is one of the country’s most famous gay neighborhoods, filled with great restaurants, vibrant nightclubs, and beautiful Victorian homes.
The neighborhood was also the home of Harvey Milk. Milk was California’s first openly gay elected official and an important figure in the gay rights movement until he was assassinated in 1978. Visitors to the neighborhood still visit the camera shop he owned, Castro Camera, which was later used as his campaign headquarters. The store now serves as a human rights campaign store with a plaque outside dedicated to Harvey Milk.
After visiting, head right around the corner to the GLBT Historical Society Museum, the first stand-alone museum of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history and culture in the United States. The museum charges a $10 admission fee.
Slide down the concrete Seward Street Slides
If you’re not too cool to embrace your inner sense of play, swing by the Seward Street Slides. Inside this tiny park, 2 large concrete slides provide fun for both adults and children alike.
The slides are a testament to the effectiveness of neighborhood activism. In the ’60s, the local residents came together to stop the land from being developed into a massive apartment building. After the many protests and sit-ins proved successful, the park was designed by a local 14-year-old girl after she won a design competition.
Locals say that you need to ride down on a piece of cardboard to really satiate your need for speed. There are usually a few pieces of cardboard at the top of the slide left by previous riders but you may want to bring your own just to be safe.
The slides are closed on Mondays. They are open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm.
Walk up the World’s Most Crooked Sreet
Recognized as the World’s Most Crooked Road by Guinness World Records, Lombard Street is one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks.
San Francisco’s steep roads used to pose serious problems for residents back in the day. Horse-drawn wagons, early Ford Model T’s, and even pedestrians had a hard time handling them. Finally, in the 1920s, the famous switchbacks of Lombard Street were suggested by a property owner as a way to make the road safer for pedestrians. Now, the iconic block between Leavenworth and Hyde streets contains eight sharp turns and is surrounded by colorful flower beds.
Of course, a walk-up Lombard Street is completely free and the trip is over pretty quickly. Fortunately, it’s located within walking distance of other popular San Francisco neighborhoods including Chinatown, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Where to stay on a budget in San Francisco
HI San Francisco hostels - Downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf
As any experienced backpacker will tell you, Hosteling International is always a safe bet when it comes to high-quality, budget friendly accommodation. The international chain has two outposts in San Francisco – HI San Francisco Downtown and HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf. Both locations offer free and cheap activities such as pub crawls, walking tours, and museum visits. While both locations are excellent for sightseeing, those traveling by car may want to opt for the Fisherman’s Wharf location, as it offers free parking on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Green Tortoise Hostel
According to The Green Tortoise Hostel, it’s all free and fun here. And to be honest, it’s difficult to argue with them.
Not only does San Francisco’s most social hostel offer free breakfast daily, but they also host free dinners for guests 3 times per week. Weekly events include murder mystery pub crawls, comedy shows, or a cheap night of $5 dinner along with $3 beer and wine at a local restaurant.
The Green Tortoise offers guests both private and dorm-style rooms, as well as a free sauna, a commercial kitchen for guest use.
Kimpton Buchanon Hotel
Located in San Francisco’s Japantown neighborhood, The Kimpton Buchanon Hotel describes its ambiance as zen-meets-boutique chic. The rooms at this hip hotel are comfortable, spacious, and decorated in a way that blends both Japanese and local aesthetics. Plus, in true San Francisco style, each room also comes complete with a yoga mat.
The Kimpton Buchanon is widely considered to be one of the best stays for the price in all of San Francisco. In addition to reasonable room rates, the hotel provides free Peetz coffee and Rishi tea every morning, as well as a free wine and sake happy hour from 5 to 6 pm.
How to find cheap flights to San Francisco
Budget tip for finding cheap flights to San Francisco: Oakland International Airport (OAK) is almost the exact same distance from downtown San Francisco as San Francisco International Airport (SFO). To get the best flight deals, search for flights to both Oakland and San Francisco.
In the last few months, Dollar Flight Club members have saved between 70-90% on cheap flights to San Francisco. On average, our members spent $151 on their tickets to San Francisco and saved $223 per ticket.
Here are a few samples of cheap flight deals to San Francisco that Dollar Flight Club members have received recently.
- Atlanta (ATL) to San Francisco (SFO)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $62.85
- Average Price: $361.23
- Chicago (ORD) to San Francisco (SFO)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $170.32
- Average Price: $364.59
- New York City (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $196.94
- Average Price: $390.94
- Washington, D.C. (IAD) to San Francisco (SFO)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $216
- Average Price: $452
- Phoenix (PHX) to Oakland (OAK)
- Price with Dollar Flight Club: $58.48
- Average Price: $249.75
Best cheap eats in San Francisco
Ferry Building Marketplace
To be fair, this San Francisco landmark isn’t just one place to eat, but an indoor market place filled with excellent shopping and delicious eats.
Be warned, you can’t exactly release your inhibitions and go wild at the Ferry Building Marketplace. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up spending $18 on a ‘lunch special’ before you even know what hit you.
However, if you keep your eyes peeled, there are some delicious budget gems to be found. For example, you can score delicious homemade Argentinian empanadas from El Porteño for under $5. Or you can treat yourself to Sidekick Cafe & Milk Bar's famous grilled cheese for $8.75.
People from all over the city head to the Mission when they’re craving a truly killer burrito and the majority of them end up at Taqueria Cancun. Within the vibrant yellow and red walls of this long-standing institution, patrons fill up on delicious tacos and massive burritos for under $10.
Expect a line at Taqueria Cancun but don’t let that deter you. Ask any satisfied patrons on their way out of the restaurant, and they’ll assure you that it’s more than worth the wait.
WesBurger n’ More
WesBurger is a no-frills, diner-style spot in the Mission that’s known for classics like the Southern fried or Nashville hot chicken. The wood panel walls and yellow stools provide an old-school Americana feeling, assuring you that if you’re looking for delicious, straightforward eats, you’ve come to the right place.
The can’t miss budget pick here is the smash burger topped with mustard, pickle, ketchup, onion, and American cheese and served on a fluffy Martin’s potato roll. Smash burgers are $6.50 for a single patty, $9.50 for a double patty.
If you’ve still got room in the budget and your belly, treat yourself to a $5 order of tots while you’re at it.
Golden Boy Pizza
Golden Boy Pizza has been a famous North Beach go-to since 1978. This small but mighty pizza shop is popular with the late-night crowd thanks to their signature thick, Sicilian-style square slices served through their takeout window. A delicious cheese slice at Golden Boy costs just $3.50. At that price, you’ll still have room in the food budget to treat yourself to their famous clam & garlic slice for only $4.50.
Be aware that the shop is cash only but does have an ATM inside.
Yup, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Sushirrito is a small restaurant chain within San Francisco that sells those creative, extremely Instagrammable concoctions known as sushi burritos.
Sushirrito offers a wide variety of options that range from classic Asian-inspired flavors like the ‘Sumo Crunch’ with shrimp tempura to more fusion-style creations like the ‘Latin Ninja’ with plantain chips and mango yuzu citrus sauce.
Sushi burritos start at $10.50. Or you can try one of the shop’s other unique offerings like the ‘lava nachos’ with tuna picante, ginger guacamole, and sriracha aioli for just $8.
Get ready to see more of San Francisco while spending less
Contrary to popular belief, booking an exciting and memorable trip to San Francisco doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Even if you’re coming to The Golden City to finally visit Alcatraz Island or take a side trip to the Napa Valley wine region, you can still save plenty of money if you know where to look. Be sure to save this budget guide, sign up to receive free instant cheap flight alerts, and start planning your San Francisco vacation.
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BY: ZACH ANDERSON, CONTENT MARKETING & FLIGHT EXPERT
Zach is a digital marketer, copywriter, and flight deal expert at Dollar Flight Club where he helps 1 million people travel more. As a digital nomad, he is deeply passionate about location independence, Thai food, and helping others see the world affordably.