Known for some of the most recognizable landmarks, San Francisco is a northern California city that has as much charm as it does activities. Between Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, there are tons of things to do on your stay — BUT! San Francisco isn’t cheap. However, on my recent visit, I discovered quite a few ways to enjoy this city and not break the bank!
Here are my 7 budget-friendly must do’s when visiting San Francisco.
I’ll say it again: San Francisco is not cheap. In fact, the cost of living has increased by almost 4% in the last year alone. So when you’re traveling and trying to stick to a budget, a city destination like San Francisco can make that challenging.
However, it’s definitely possible to find budget-friendly activities that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve missed out. Here are some of my favorite must-do’s that won’t break the bank.
1) BIKE RIDE ACROSS THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
If you are looking for a great way to see this famous landmark and spend a whole day out and about, this may just be your favorite activity. I went to rent a bike right by the Ferry Building Marketplace, as this is where the ferry will drop you off on your way back (but we’ll get to that in a minute).
I used the bike shop right in the building and for $35 I had a ride for the day. They were incredibly helpful and talked me through the map. Soon after, I was off on a lovely ride along the waterfront, with the Golden Gate Bridge coming into view more and more with every turn.
Riding across the bridge was a great way to see this magnificent structure and appreciate its size! Once you have made it across, rejoice, because the rest of the ride is downhill into the quaint little town of Sausalito.
Spend a few hours here wandering amongst the little shops and cafes, grab lunch, or treat yourself to a glass of champagne (because it is always time for champagne!).
When you’re ready, grab a ticket for the ferry back to the city. It’s right at the waterfront in the center of town, so you can’t miss it.
With departures roughly every hour, and tickets at $12.50, this is another convenient and cheap way to enjoy the best views of the bridge. You’ll even get to sail by Alcatraz!
The ferry will drop you off right back where you rented the bike and for roughly $50 you have spent a full day exploring, and can now cross a landmark off your bucket list.
2) THE SEA LIONS AT PIER 39
Since you are down at the waterfront now, why not walk over to Pier 39 where you can find the famous sea lions.
It is not quite certain why they started making this their home, but since the end of 1989 they have been hanging out here, barking, and sliding on and off the wooden planks.
This was probably one of my favourite spots in the city because seeing animals in their natural habitat, without cages or fences is always an incredible experience.
I went early in the morning once when there were fewer crowds, but the sea lions were definitely more playful in the afternoons. Oh, and the best part, it’s absolutely free to watch them play!
For more information, be sure to read our list of the top things to do at Pier 39!
3) EAT IN CHINATOWN
In an expensive city like San Francisco, finding dinner options that won’t break the bank can be a challenge. One area to which I kept finding myself going back was Chinatown.
Not only is it the oldest Chinatown in the United States, but it also offers countless delicious and budget-friendly food options.
If you are looking for a vegan or vegetarian place, The Lucky Creation comes highly recommended and was fantastic! It may not look like much, but trust me, the food is the reason to come here!
Another spot to try is Z&Y which prides itself on hosting Barack Obama. Chinatown is also home to several more casual bars if you are looking for a budget-friendly way to spend the evening.
4) THE PAINTED LADIES
If you grew up in the United States, you are probably familiar with the iconic San Francisco houses from the opening of Full House. Well, you can visit this landmark known as the “Painted Ladies” and spend some quality time here.
There is a lovely little park across from the Ladies called Alamo Square Park where you can admire the view or have a little relaxing sit down on the grassy hillsides. A tranquil little spot, this place provides a bit of respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
And, of course, this activity is free if you wander here on foot!
5) TWIN PEAKS
Another free spot is Twin Peaks, which is a vantage point over the city. I ended up taking an Uber here because of time constraints (cost approx. $6). But if you are up for a bit of a hike, you can do this at no cost.
I got lucky and there was no fog obstructing the view, but it was a bit windy and chilly. If you always get cold like me, be sure to bring a sweater!
You can enjoy some magnificent views of the city from up here or just people watch the many selfies being taken.
6) RIDE THE HISTORIC CABLE CARS
Not only are the cable cars a fun way to get around the city, but they are also the last manually operated cable cars in the world! There are only a handful of lines of these iconic cars but nothing beats standing on the back, holding on to the railing and feeling like you’re a heroine in a vintage film.
Just don’t get too carried away, because each ride is $7 and that means once you get off, you will have to pay again. If you’re exploring the city, these can definitely make for an interesting way to get from A to B, so simply flag one down at the designated stops (note: they will only stop if they have room for you) and you will pay the driver once you’re on board.
7) KITTEA CAT CAFÉ
I have always wanted to go to a real life cat cafe and was delighted to find one in San Francisco. If you are an animal lover, this is a great spot for some afternoon tea.
You will have to make a reservation, and note that during the week prices are only $20 compared to the $25 on the weekend.
There are even specific happy hour weekday deals for $15, which is what I snagged on a Thursday afternoon. This includes one hour of all the tea you can drink and all the cat cuddles you can handle.
It also serves a good purpose with several of the cats being rescued and up for adoption.
Hopefully, a few of these will help you enjoy a city without breaking the bank. Although San Francisco is known for being expensive and certainly not a backpackers destination, it’s still possible to enjoy the city on a budget.
I am all about getting the most out of my trips and seeing as much of a place for as little as possible, so this was my itinerary over three days in the city. I really felt like I got to know the city well, and I didn’t have to sell a kidney to do so.
Have you ever been to San Francisco? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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We Are Travel Girls Contributor Linda Roser of LifeByLinda.com
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I live in San Francisco, these are great suggestions
Hi Francesca, that’s so great, I’m glad a local can verify :) It’s a beautiful city with so much to do!