• Megan Kate

The Ultimate Budget Guide To San Francisco | Budget City Guide

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Hello everyone, it's time to talk about one of my most favourite cities in the world: San Francisco baby!

If you've read this post (which you should definitely read if you haven't) you'll know that in 2018 I set off on a month long trip around America visiting seven states, multiple cities and national parks, and having the best time of my life. I loved every place that we visited for lots of different reasons but I only really truly fell in love with the city of San Francisco; I would move there in a heart beat.

Today I'm bringing you an in depth guide about all things San Fran, from things to do and places to eat, to tips and advice about the area in general, allowing you to plan your perfect trip no matter what your budget may be.

Japanese Tea Garden/ Golden Gate Bridge

Firstly let's talk a little about the city in general:

In general, San Francisco is known to be pretty expensive, however there are SO MANY things you can do throughout the city for free. We barely spent a penny on activities, but this was then balanced out by the high cost of accommodation and food there. However if, like us, you stay in one of SF's many hostels (we stayed at Orange Village if you're interested) and cook a lot of your own food, you can definitely do a trip here on a budget of around $70- $90 per day.

If you want to live in a little luxury you're looking at anywhere between $100-£350 per night on average for a two person hotel room, or around $150 for an entire place on AirBnB (this does give you the cooking option though so could save you money in the long run). A private room for two on AirBnB is looking to be around $55 per night.

A couple of things that are good to know before you go:

  1. San Francisco may be in California but it gets very bloody cold, make sure you have a jacket or two in your bag

  2. It's is built on top of forty eight named hills (hence the cold/ wind) so be prepared to hike up a few steep inclines while you're there or make sure to look into other options if you're mobility is restricted

  3. Sometimes flights are much cheaper into to Oakland Airport (OAK) rather than San Francisco International (SFO) and both are pretty much the same distance from the city centre, make sure to check both before booking

  4. If quite a few of the activities available around the city tickle your fancy, then make sure you check out the various 'City Savings Passes' that you can use to get discounts. The main three are: CityPASS (from $76 for three attractions of your choice), Go San Francisco (From $78 for a full day pass) and the San Francisco Sightseeing Pass (From $74 for a full day pass). All three have different things included, and different length options/ number of activities available, so make sure you have a look at all three if you're interested.

Shop front in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood

And lastly, before we get into actual things to do, lets talk about areas of interest:

  1. China Town: The largest China Town in North America and the perfect place to get a dose of culture and some great food at the same time.

  2. Haight-Ashbury: The neighbourhood that birthed the 1960's hippie culture that's now a vibrant area of town to shop and explore everything vintage and cool.

  3. Mission District: The Latino Cultural District full of the cities best bars and restaurants, as well as dozens of incredible Latino ran stores. The streets are also known for being lined with the most amazing murals you'll ever see.

  4. The Castro: The cities LGBT neighbourhood which is still the most prominent symbol of LGBTQ+ activism in the world. On top of this, The Castro is also said to house a huge collection of the cities best bars & eateries, theatres and adult stores.

  5. The Presidio: A former military fort and the base of the original Spanish settlers in San Francisco. Now converted into a national park and outdoor recreation hub.

  6. North Beach: The more touristy area of town, boasting a huge harbour, busy promenades and lots to see and do, all soaked in it's Italian heritage.

  7. Golden Gate Park: A huge national park filled with trails, gardens and visitor centres.

Most cheap accommodation is around the border of the Financial District (home to the famous Union Square) and an area called Tenderloin. We'd heard a few warnings about the Tenderloin part of town, so we were quite wary and avoided having to walk there at night, but we didn't come into any difficulty. If you're worried about that or any other area of the city, make sure you do your research before you book. Now let's get into the good stuff:

The sea-lions at Pier 39

Free Things To Do

- See The Sea-Lions At Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf: Probably the most famous section of the waterfront, Fisherman's Wharf is the area you'll want to head to as soon as you land. The wharf is host to a huge selection of the cities most loved landmarks including Pier 39: a promenade full of shops, bars and attractions, as well as the huge fleet of sea-lions that now call this place home.

- The Painted Ladies At Alamo Square: Made famous for appearing in the hit sitcom Full House, The Painted Ladies have become known as 'Postcard Row' due to being one of the most photographed areas of San Francisco, especially with the golden glow that's cast on the cityscape behind them during sunset. Either head there to get a snap yourself, or sit in the park across from them and watch other people have their partners take 1000 photos instead.

- The Presidio: Presidio National Park has SO MANY things you can do. You can visit Mountain Lake Park, see Lover's Lane and a selection of other Andy Goldsworthy's art installations, spend time at Baker Beach, go to the visitor centre, or head over to get one of the best views possible of Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field, as well as so much more. Visit the website here for a full list of things you can do.

- The Wave Organ: A sculpture made of pipes at the edge of the ocean, which creates different sounds and melodies as waves lap up against it. A great place to go for some peace and quiet, or to watch the sunset.

- Palace Of Fine Arts: A gorgeous structure surrounded by water and a popular wedding photo spot. Go here for photo ops, quiet walks or to sit and people watch; if you're lucky you'll see a few people having photos of the big day- we did and it was beautiful!

- Explore The Mission District's Murals: This area of San Francisco is so vibrant and colourful with incredible murals and graffiti on every corner. There's lots of resources online if you want to plan a full walking tour of the best or most hidden gems there, but from personal recommendation I can suggest: the artwork on the walls of The Women's Building, Clarion Alley, La Llorona's Sacred Waters mural (on the side of Taqueria San Francisco, on the corner of York & 24th Street) and the huge painting at the corner of 24th and South Van Ness Street.

Amoeba San Francisco/ Bia with her Dim-Sum in China Town (great budget food option if you fancy it)

-16th Avenue Tiled Steps/ Lincoln Park Steps: There are beautiful, hidden stairways across the whole of the city but these are the top two (in my opinion). Have a cheeky google to see what I mean. Head to either of these in the morning to beat the hoards of other tourists trying to get that perfect Instagram photo.

-Walk Through Golden Gate Park: This gorgeous park has so much to offer but one of the best things we did here was just simply... walk. The area is full of beautiful flower gardens, little but lovely waterfalls, cafe's, lakes with boat rides and a gorgeous Chinese Pavilion. You can explore the full list of what to do here on their website.

-Japanese Tea Gardens: Also located in Golden Gate Park and one of the best things we did while in San Fran. Okay so it's not totally 'free' all the time but it IS free at certain times of the day, which if you're trying to save some $$$, is a great thing to know. The gardens are free if you enter between 9-10am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and you can stay for as long as you want! If you need a lie in first, you'll have to pay $10-12 for entry, depending on when you're visiting. Find out more on their website here.

-Musée Mécanique: An antique, family owned, coin-operated arcade by the sea, filled with tonnes of retro games (and I mean seriously retro like pinball and 'down the clown'). This is such a unique place that you cannot miss, have a look at the website here for more info.

-Lombard Street: One of the cities most famous spots, this section of road contains eight, steep hairpin turns in succession, and is lined with beautiful buildings and flower gardens. Grab a photo from the bottom and then do the climb to the top for another angle with a great city view.

-Ghiradelli Square: A small square filled with stores and cafe's, the perfect place to sit outside with a drink for an afternoon break. The Ghiradelli sign itself is one of San Francisco's most famous landmarks, and the square is still home to the beloved Original Ghiradelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, make sure you try it out!

-Explore China Town: Grab some great food, do some shopping and most of all, explore the incredible street art on every corner.

One of the many structures and some of the luscious greenery inside the Japanese Tea Garden

-Discover Your Hippie Side At Haight-Ashbury: This was possibly my most favourite place in San Fran, or maybe even the world? Maybe? Everything is so retro and vibrant, with the most amazing 'hippie' stores everywhere. If you're veggie/vegan, this is also the best place to find great food and desserts too (there's a vegan Ben & Jerry's store guys!). After you've done all your shopping, check out the famous Amoeba Record Store, visit Buena Vista Park and head down to Haight-Ashbury's very own Painted Ladies.

-Free Walking Tours: If there's so much you want to see that you don't even know where to begin, then let me suggest you start with a walking tour. Not only do they show you all of the city highlights compacted into just a few hours, but they're also a great way to get your bearings for the city itself or meet new people if you're travelling solo. There's so many free or 'pay what you wish' tours available within San Francisco, but I can personally recommend this one if you need.

-Mission Dolores Park: A big open park that's popular with locals. People flock here on a sunny day so the vibe is always pretty special, and there's a great few of downtown San Francisco from the fields, too. The park is leave-no-trace so make sure you clean up after yourselves, guys!

-Hike At Twin Peaks: The city's famous pair of 922ft hills have stunning 360 views of the bay, the perfect place to watch the sunset after a long hike.

-Try A Free Museum: There are SO many museums around San Francisco, a few of which are free all the time like the Cable Car Museum. If that's not up your street then do some research into when other museums are free for specific dates or time, most of them have free periods such as the de Young Museum that's free on the first Tuesday of every month, or the previously mentioned Japanese Tea Garden that has a few sets of free entry hours throughout the week.

-The Land's End Coastal Trail: A gorgeous hike with stunning views of The Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. The trail is also home to Sea Rocks Beach and the Land's End Labyrinth.

-Seward Street Slides: Hidden in a small neighbourhood park is some playground fun for adults. Grab a cardboard box and slide down these concrete slopes, but be aware that the area is closed on Mondays!

-Explore Nearby Areas: The close-by cities of Oakland and Berkeley are to San Francisco what Brooklyn is to Manhattan, with a much more relaxed vibe but still so much to offer. If nature is what you're after then cross the Golden Gate Bridge over to Muir Woods, for the perfect walk or hike amongst over 240 acres of Redwoods.

Street art in China Town

Cheap Things To Do ($20 Or Under)

-Conservatory Of Flowers (From $9): A greenhouse and botanical garden in Golden Gate Park that houses all kinds of beautiful and exotic flowers. A gorgeous and relaxing way to spend a couple of hours, have a look on their website for more info. Weekend tickets are an extra $2 per person.

-Coit Tower ($9): Another of San Francisco's most famous landmarks, and you can actually go up to the top (in a lift too, yay for no stairs!) for a 360 degree view of the city.

-Watch A Baseball Match (From $8): The San Francisco Giants play games most days of the week over at Oracle Park, and honestly there's nothing better to do while in a US City than go to some sort of sports game- they just do it differently over there! I had a little look into prices for you and they literally start from $8!!! How crazy is that? You can browse games and buy tickets from their website here.

-Ride A Cable Car ($8): The trams of San Francisco are iconic, and are the last manually operated cable car system in the world. You can easily get around the city by walking (the hills make it feel more like hiking though) or via cab services like Uber, but the trams are a both cheap and fun way to get around. Use them to get to your next activity or just ride on one for the experience. A single ride will set you back around $8, but they also do day tickets: $13 for one day, $31 for three days or $41 for seven.

-Take The Ferry To Angel Island ($19.50 return): Angel Island is a luscious landscape of hiking trails and little beach coves, with a ferry leaving from Pier 41 a few times a day (see full schedule here). If you want to keep it cheap, bring a picnic and set off to hike The North Ridge Trail, or rent a bike to see as much of the island as possible ($15 per hour or $60 for the day). If an official tour of all landmarks is more your style, they offer daily, hour-long tours via either Tram ($16.50) or Segway ($80). They also have a café and cantina on the island too. Explore everything you could do via their website here.

Sunset over Gold Gate Bridge from Alcatraz Island

Spendy Options (Above $20)

-Tour Alcatraz Island & Prison (From $39.90): This was one of the best tours I've ever done throughout all of my travels, if you can afford to be a bit spendy one day, definitely be spendy on this! The boats depart regularly every day from Pier 33 (make sure you arrive an hour before your chosen time to be checked in and ready). The sunset tour is a little more expensive at $47.30 compared to the daytime tours at $39.90 but again, definitely worth the extra money. Read more about what's included, browse departure times or book tickets via their website here.

-San Francisco Zoo ($22): Down by Lake Merced Park, the zoo is home to hundreds of animals from Eagles to Koalas to Lions and so much more. If Zoo's are your thing then definitely spend an afternoon here. Take a look at their full list of animals on their website here.

-Walt Disney Family Museum ($25): Nestled in the heart of The Presidio, this gorgeous museum explores the very beginnings of Walt Disney's career and everything surrounding the move to feature films, into Disneyland, and beyond. This unique museum is perfect for lovers of art and Disney fans alike. Browse their full list of exhibitions and galleries here.

-Aquarium By The Bay ($29.25): An incredible aquarium showcasing the diverse and beautiful wildlife of the North Californian coast. Spend an afternoon here before heading out into the bay area for food and drinks. A ticket here will set you back just under $30 a head, but you can also book behind-the-scenes or shark feeding tours for an extra $17/27 respectively. Browse what else they have to offer or book your tickets here.

-San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art ($25): From paintings, to photography, to sculpture, this gorgeous museum has work by local artists, international award winners and much much more. For a quiet, culture filled afternoon, definitely come down here! Buy tickets at the museum itself or online here. Psssst-also, under 24's get a discount so it will only cost you $19!

-Whale Watching Tours ($45): The Pacific Ocean is right at San Francisco's doorstep, and it's bursting with wildlife. Take a tour out to see Humpback Whales, Orcas, White Sharks, Dolphins, Seals, Sea-Lions and more, including the largest seabird rookery in the USA. These tours will set you back quite a lump sum for around two and a half hours of fun but they are definitely worth every penny. The best tour operator I have found so far is Ocean Society, who seem to showcase the wildlife in a safe and humane way, while also working on ocean conservation projects.

-Day Trips (From $70): San Francisco is within driving distance of so many great areas, so why not try a day trip for a change of scenery? Visit 'Wine Country' areas like Napa or Sonoma Valley, take a break in nature at Yosemite National Park or explore the seaside city of Monterey. I tend to book most of my day trips through Get Your Guide, so have a browse on there to see all of the things you can do during your time in SF!

Clearly having the time of my life around the city

Cheap Eats

Like I said at the start of this post, San Francisco definitely ain't the cheapest when it comes to living costs, and so food is a little on the pricier side. However, that isn't to say you can't make it affordable by cooking most of your meals or doing research for some budget dining spots. One of the best things to do while travelling is try local bars and restaurants, so definitely don't deprive yourself completely (plus who wants to cook every night on holiday anyway?). I've done a little research for you to get you started, so here I present my top picks for 'cheap eats' around the city:

-La Taqueria, 2889 Mission St: Everyone knows that California's Mexican food is some of the best outside of Mexico itself, and La Taqueria is a great example of this. We headed straight there on our first day, going off it's reputation alone, and we were not disappointed. Tacos here start from $3.50 and you can get a whole burrito for $5.25, how can you ask for better than that?! Check out their TripAdvisor page here.

-Cafe De Casa, 2701 Leavenworth St: A gorgeous breakfast & brunch spot with a South American twist. Here you can get their 'Brazilian Bites' for as little as $3.50, and they also do incredible pancakes and granola bowls. They are the #1 rated Quick Bites stop in San Francisco on TripAdvisor, and their customer photos and reviews couldn't be better. Have a look for yourself here.

-Mo's Grill, 1322 Grant Avenue: When in America, do as Americans do! This diner is known for having great food in huge portions, and for a really good price too. A main course of Burger & Fries will set you back between $10-15 and keep you feeling full all day. Check out the TripAdvisor page for Mo's Grill here.

-Golden Boy Pizza, 542 Green St: This place is so good that you may have to get in line for 10 minutes or so before getting served, and it's no surprise why people are willing to wait. Their pizza slices are great for an on-the-go lunch while exploring the city, but they do have a little seating area too- perfect for if you want a minute to relax. A large slice of pizza will cost you around $3. View their TripAdvisor page here.

-The Codmother Fish & Chips, 496 Beach St: Perks of San Fran being by the ocean? The freshest seafood you can imagine, pair it with some homemade chips and you can't go wrong! Main meals here start at around $7.99, but if you're in a pair I highly recommend getting the 'large fish and chips' meal and sharing it- you get two large fish and a huge portion of chips for $12.49 making it even cheaper between the two of you! View their TripAdvisor page here.

If you want to have a walk around the city and just see which restaurants take your fancy, I would say steer towards the Japantown or Chinatown areas for incredible Asian cuisine, or for some amazing Latin American dishes definitely head to the Mission District.

Haight Street shipping/ China Town lanterns

Cheap Dives & Happy Hours

In general, the Mission District is probably the best area to find really chilled, cheap bars for the evening, followed closely by The Castro, but here are a few specific places you can try for a budget night out:

-El Techo, 2516 Mission St: Where better to spend happy hour than on a rooftop bar? El Techo is a very well known, usually quite pricey place, but Monday- Friday between 4-6pm you can get all kinds of cheap drinks like $4 beers and $7 margaritas. This place does get quite busy though (the atmosphere is still very chilled when busy), so make sure you're there for 4pm if you want a good table, especially in Summer! Check out their website here for more info.

-Palm House, 2032 Union St: This Caribbean style restaurant is a great place to hang out in the heart of the city for a decent drink and some cheap bar food. Their happy hour runs Tuesday- Friday from 4-6:30pm, and you can get all sorts of deals such as $6 rum slushies and $4 bar food, Check out their website here.

-Doc's Clock, 2417 Mission St: A true dive-bar style joint, Doc's Clock offers daily deals, happy hour, arcade games and a jukebox- sounds to me like the perfect night out. Try it out on a Monday for $2 Bud Light, or head there during one of their happy hours (weekdays 5-9pm, Fri/Sat 4-9pm, all day Sunday) for $4 beers. Check out the full list of daily deals and learn a little more from their website here.

-Gold Cane Cocktail Lounge, 1569 Haight St: This casual bar is possibly the cheapest of the lot. With 'every hour is happy hour' as their motto, it's no surprise why they've been supplying the locals with booze since the 1920's! They've got it all: pool, pinball, lounge areas, and all paired with an unbeatable atmosphere. You're looking at around $4 for a beer or $5 for a cocktail, how amazing is that?! Have a look through their website here for more details.

Mural at the corner of 24th and South Van Ness/ Women's Building, both in The Mission District

And that's all the info I can possibly give you! Hopefully you can find something you fancy within this huge list of things to do too! Like I've already said, San Francisco is one of my most favourite places in the world and I am so desperate to go back- I'd love to show it to David.

We spent 5 days here but I really wish we'd stayed longer. You could definitely do at least a week if not two, taking things at a pretty decent pace, and still not have chance to do everything. The vibe of the whole place is so relaxed and the huge open spaces really help balance out the hustle and bustle of city life here; it's the perfect mix of local and touristy goodness. Check out the San Francisco story highlight on my Instagram for a more in depth look into our trip.

My top picks for a unique, San Francisco experience would definitely be:

-See the Sea-Lions

-Musée Mécanique

-Haight-Ashbury and Mission District areas

-Japanese Tea Gardens/ Golden Gate Park in general

-Tour Alcatraz

Anyway this post is long enough already. What do you think, is San Francisco on your bucket list? And if you've been, let me know what were the highlights for you. Oh and as always, send photos! Meg x

Painted Ladies/ Lombard Street/ San Francisco Cable Car