Aerial view of the Coit Tower in San Francisco, California

San Francisco on a Budget (How to Play, Stay & Eat Cheaply)

San Francisco is notoriously one of the most expensive places to live and visit in the United States. Lucky for you, I’ve visited the city multiple times and have the inside scoop on how to do San Francisco on a budget.

This Northern California city is a bucket list travel destination because there are so many things to do in San Francisco. Enjoy the seaside excursions, historic free museums and attractions, and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in the Bay Area. 

I’m going to share some serious cash-saving tips so you can visit San Francisco without putting too big a dent in your wallet.

Here’s what we’ll cover (skip to jump around):

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7 Tips to Do San Francisco on a Budget

Use Public Transportation

View of the BART transportation in San Francisco
The BART is the best cheap way to get around the city (photo: Suzette Leg Anthony / Shutterstock)

Renting a car in this iconic Californian city will undoubtedly be one of your biggest costs. Fortunately, San Francisco has reliable public transportation like the BART.

This Bay Area Rapid Transit line covers almost the whole city for a small fee. Purchase a Clipper Card, load it up with some money, and get around San Francisco with ease. 

Taxis and rideshares are also widely available in the big city, and most things are within walking or biking distance. Save some serious money by biking around the big city.

Compare Hotels and Hostels Beforehand

It’s always a good rule of thumb to arrange your accommodation ahead of time to avoid higher fees and potentially fully-booked hotels. In most cases, you can even save some serious money by booking multiple nights in a row at the same hotel.

Consult various accommodation websites before you arrive in San Francisco to ensure you are getting the best price possible. Hostels are exponentially cheaper than hotels, so you may want to consider switching them up to save some money.

Our Pick
HostelWorld
4.7
For finding quality and safe hostels, I recommend using Hostel World. It’s a great place to see reviews from real travelers and choose the best place to stay.

Book a Hotel With a Kitchen Area

Although San Francisco is well-known for its gastronomy, eating out for every meal can add up quickly. Budget for a few restaurant meals but be sure to book a hotel with a kitchen area to save as much as possible on your upcoming trip.

You can ask for a refrigerator at most hotels to preserve your sandwich meats, but try to book a hotel room with a full kitchen so you can cook at your hotel and save your money for sightseeing excursions. 

Visit During the Off-Season

When you choose to visit California will make a big difference in your budget. Most hotels and tour prices double during the summer high season. The best time to visit San Francisco on a budget is in the off-shoulder months to find the most economic prices around town.

There is a good reason why summer is the peak tourist season in San Francisco. Non-summer months in Northern California are typically cold and rainy. Although you will be getting great deals at this time, make sure to bring an umbrella and a rain jacket to avoid an unpleasant vacation.

Find Free Excursions

View of sea lions at the Pier 39 in San Francisco
Sleepy sea lions at San Francisco’s Pier 39

You can plan your entire San Francisco itinerary around free excursions. Explore the hiking trails around the big city or take a free walking tour to epitomize your time in San Francisco while simultaneously saving money.

Other free excursions include driving or walking down the crooked Lombard Street, relaxing at Mission Dolores Park, and taking photos of the elegant Painted Ladies at Alamo Square.

Check for Discounts on Admission Fees

It never hurts to ask for discounts on admission fees for excursions around town. Check to see if your boat tour, museum, or cable car ride offers military, student, AAA, or senior discounts.

You can also check third-party websites like Groupon for discounts. The official website of your excursion may offer special discounts on specific days as well. Check your tour website for the most up-to-date discounts available.

Hit the Hiking Trails Instead of Nightclubs 

The Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Battery Spencer hike
The Battery Spencer hike near the Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco has some of the best nightlife in California. Unfortunately, cocktails add up quickly. Save by skipping the bars and clubs of the Castro District and hitting the hiking trails instead.

Unless you have to take a ferry for a small fee (like to Angel Island), most of the hiking trails in San Francisco are free and offer a different perspective of the city. 

7 Cheap & Free Things to Do in San Francisco

Fisherman’s Wharf

The Fisherman’s Wharf sign in San Francisco

📍 Google Maps | Website | Hours: 24 hours | Entrance: Free

Fisherman’s Wharf is perhaps the most popular thing to do in this famous California city, and a great way to save money in the city. Walk around the old seaport and revel in the entertainment.

You can find street performers and pop-up merchandisers all lining the Fisherman’s Wharf area on the weekends. Watch the vocal sea lions battle it out for a spot on their resting plank or try some cheap seafood or a delicious sourdough bread bowl by the ocean.

Lombard Street

Aerial view of the Lombard Street in San Francisco

📍 Google Maps | Website | Hours: 24 hours | Entrance: Free

Drive down the “most crooked street in the United States.” Lombard Street is exhilarating and completely free. Carless civilians can also walk down Lombard or simply make the journey to the top of Russian Hill to take in the perfect view of the city.

You will want to drive down Lombard Street early in the morning to avoid a long wait time in line.

Free Walking Tour

A family looking at the Golden Gate Bridge from afar

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (415) 503-7199 | Website | Hours: 10 am, 6 pm 

You can find various walking tour companies from Fisherman’s Wharf or online. Free SF Tour is one of the most popular companies that take visitors to all the best sights in town.

See Downtown San Francisco, Union Square, Chinatown, South of Market, and the Financial District on your walking tour. You will walk up an appetite, so be prepared to delight in some delicious local food. You don’t have to look far for cheap food vendors in the big city. 

Baker Beach

The Golden Gate Bridge from the Baker Beach
The Golden Gate Bridge looms over Baker Beach

📍 Google Maps | Website | Hours: 24 hours | Entrance: Free

Relax on a public beach with unbeatable views of the Golden Gate Bridge at no cost to you. Baker Beach offers perhaps the best way to view the golden bridge for free and is a great way to spend your free time in San Francisco.

The beach has public restrooms, picnic tables, and plenty of opportunities for fishing right from the sandy shore. 

Beat Museum

The Beat Museum from the outside at night
(photo: Tiago Seither Afonso / Shutterstock)

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (800) 537-6822 | Website | Hours: 10 am-7 pm daily, closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays | Entrance: $8, adults, $5 students, military, teachers, seniors

The San Francisco Beat Museum is the best way to learn about the old beatnik pioneers of the early 20th century. The works of Beat Generation activists and poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg are preserved at this small San Francisco museum. 

The most expensive admission ticket is $8, making this one of the most affordable museums in the whole city. Get inspired by the spirit of revolutionaries at this cheap activity in San Francisco.

Alamo Square

View of the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square
The resident Painted Ladies of Alamo Square

📍 Google Maps | Website | Hours: 5 am-12 am daily | Entrance: Free

Alamo Square Park is right by the famous Painted Ladies houses, and is high on the SF itinerary list.

Visitors can also enjoy a full tennis court, picnic tables, off-leash dog areas, and walking trails at this park.

Cable Car Museum

People riding a cable car and the Alcatraz Island from afar

📍 Google Maps | Phone: (415) 474-1887 | Website | Hours: 10 am-4 pm Tuesday-Thursday, Sundays, 10 am-5 pm Friday & Saturday, closed Mondays | Entrance: Free

The San Francisco cable cars are one of the best things to do for cheap in the city. After your ride, check out the free Cable Car Museum to learn the history of this traditional transportation.

The Cable Car Museum also has a full gift shop, a one-stop shop for all your San Francisco souvenir needs.

Where to Stay in San Francisco on a Budget

A trip to San Francisco doesn’t have to break the bank. While it’s no secret that accommodation options can surpass thousands of dollars, you can also find economic places to stay in San Francisco.

Compare prices online from a few different sources before you get to your destination to find the best deal. Compare prices from websites like Booking.com, Hostelworld, and Hotels.com to save on your accommodation. 

Castro District

A blurred photo of people walking in the Castro District

👉 Best Area For Nightlife | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: Twin Peaks Hotel

The Castro District is the perfect place to stay if going out and nightlife are your top priorities. Historically known as an LGBTQ area, this district is an inclusive area with fun bars and nightclubs.

The Castro District is within walking distance of top San Francisco attractions like Mission Dolores Park, Haight-Ashbury, and the Painted Ladies. Walk around the rainbow crosswalks of the Castro, catch a movie at the historic theater, or shop at one of many vintage stores to occupy your day.

Stay in this San Francisco area for plentiful cheap accommodation options, close access to bars and clubs, and have an unforgettable San Francisco experience.

Chinatown

Overlooking view of a street in Chinatown on San Francisco

👉 Best Area For a Central Location | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: Hotel North Beach

Chinatown is one of the oldest areas of San Francisco. This well-established neighborhood offers an array of Chinese architecture, dim sum eateries, herbalists, bars, and lounges.

Visitors of any age enjoy staying in Chinatown for the rich culture and history of the area. Decorated with Chinese temples, this area sees the most visitors out of any other district in San Francisco.

Enjoy free events in Chinatown like cultural dancers, film screenings, and Chinese New Year celebrations. Chinatown also has some of the best local food in all of San Francisco that dates back to the early 20th century.

Staying in the biggest Chinatown outside of Asia is the perfect way to experience the heart and culture of San Francisco while still maintaining a strict travel budget.

South of Market

Aerial view of the South of Market in San Francisco
The SoMa skyline

👉 Best Area For Entertainment | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: European Hostel

This huge, warehouse-filled district offers visitors some of the most competitive accommodation prices. Located near the waterfront, South of Market (SoMa for short) encompasses Mission Bay, South Beach, and Oracle Stadium.

SoMa has various entertaining tourist attractions for individuals staying in the area like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, upscale dining options, and high-energy bars and nightclubs.

The Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf are within walking or biking distance, so you can also save on gas money when you stay in SoMa. You will find many hotel and hostel options in the area, all within budget, making SoMa the perfect fit for budgeting during a San Francisco trip.

Embarcadero

A pier in Embarcadero under the clear blue sky

👉 Best Area For Waterfront Attractions | ✨ Best Budget Hotel: Green Tortoise Hostel

Enjoy the several waterfront attractions of the Embarcadero neighborhood. The Embarcadero runs along the SF waterfront and is an ideal neighborhood for budget travel with affordable places to stay. 

The Embarcadero connects to the Fisherman’s Wharf and the Bay Bridge. You can also buy tickets for an Alcatraz tour and find tourist souvenirs and other merchandise along the Embarcadero boardwalk. 

Foodies love visiting the Embarcadero for the mouthwatering seafood options alone. Inside the Ferry Building, you will find gastronomical heaven. From fresh-caught seafood to delicious wines and desserts, the Ferry Building is one of the main attractions of the Embarcadero area.

Cheap Eats in San Francisco

Save on your San Francisco trip by skipping the fine-dining restaurants. Some of the best food in the city can be found at smaller, more economical restaurants around town.

Eating from food street vendors is also a great way to save without skimping out on delicious meals. Here are some of my favorite spots for budget, local food.

Tommy’s Joynt

American

A toasted sandwich with a lemon on the side in Tommy’s Joynt

📍 Google Maps | Website | Price Range: ($-$$)

Established in 1947, Tommy’s Joynt is a San Francisco favorite and is known as a late-night eatery. The hot menu items include cocktails and sandwiches.

With the large portions at Tommy’s Joynt, you are sure to satisfy your late-night cravings. Tommy’s is open daily and closes at midnight on the weekends.

Pancho Villa Taqueria

Mexican

Taquitos covered with cheese in Pancho Villa Taqueria

📍 Google Maps | Website | Price Range: ($-$$)

Experience the best-tasting taquitos north of the border at Pancho Villa Taqueria. This counter-serve restaurant is the best budget Mexican food in San Francisco and has an exquisite menu to suit all taste buds.

Try the famous taquitos, burritos, tortas, or agua frescas at Pancho Villa Taqueria. There are also vegetarian options available upon request.

Golden Boy Pizza

Pizza Joint

A whole pizza being served in Golden Boy Pizza

📍 Google Maps | Website | Price Range: ($-$$)

You can’t go wrong with a slice of pizza. The Golden Boy Pizza joint in San Francisco specializes in focaccia pizzas with a variety of toppings.

The funky establishment welcomes hundreds of visitors a day due to its affordable prices. With pizzas under $10, you are sure to save big-time during your trip to San Francisco. 

Super Duper Burgers

American- Burgers

A burger and a fries on the side on a tray

📍 Google Maps | Website | Price Range: ($-$$)

With multiple locations throughout the Bay Area, Super Duper Burgers first opened shop in the Castro District. From a variety of milkshakes to a ¼-pound hamburger, Super Duper consumers always leave satisfied.

Non-red meat eaters can also choose from chicken burger options and vegetarians have their pick of vegetarian burgers and veg-friendly sides as well.

Sam Wo Restaurant

Chinese

Chicken noodles on a bowl in Sam Wo Restaurant

📍 Google Maps | Website | Price Range: ($-$$)

Sam Wo Restaurant has been serving hungry customers since 1907. It’s safe to say that Sam Wo’s is a San Francisco staple.

This old-century restaurant serves iconic fish jook, barbeque pork rice rolls, and other traditional Chinese recipes like duck dry mixed noodles and Mongolian beef.

FAQs About Doing San Francisco on the Cheap

What is the cheapest month to visit San Francisco?

The high season to visit San Francisco is the summertime. Visiting in the off-shoulder winter months will not only guarantee the cheapest prices in San Francisco, but there will also be significantly fewer crowds at this time.

Is it expensive to visit San Francisco?

While San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities to live in in the United States, it can be visited on a budget. Find economic accommodation options, save on food, and find free excursions around town for an inexpensive Bay Area trip.

How many days is enough to visit San Francisco?

San Francisco can be visited in as little as one or two days. More time, however, allows more room for activities and full exploration of all the top sightseeing spots the city has to offer.

Is San Francisco Worth Visiting?

San Francisco is one of the top places in California. With thousands of fun things to do in San Francisco, you do not want to miss this iconic city while on your California vacation.

What should I see in San Francisco?

San Francisco has a multitude of top attractions. These include the North Beach neighborhood, Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden, and Coit Tower. 

***

San Francisco is full of budget-friendly options, making it one of the most economic cities to visit in California. Be sure to check out my itinerary for the perfect California road trip and start packing!

I hope I’ve helped you figure out how to do San Francisco on a budget.

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