A Travel Guide for San Francisco on a Budget

As visitors know, San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the country. But locals know that there are many ways to explore and enjoy this amazing city without paying the full “tourist price.” To make your trip easier, we have put together a guide, written by San Francisco locals, that shares the secrets to make your travel fun and exciting, without spending a fortune!

You also might want to check out our “3 day budget itinerary” for people who want to go to the best museums and attractions in San Francisco without paying full price.

Also, our #1 tip for visitors coming into San Francisco on a budget is to take some great name-your-own-price walking tours to explore the city.

Remember to Check for Discounts Before you Arrive in San Francisco!

San Francisco has some wonderful activities that are also pretty expensive. So we would highly recommend that you look into buying a tourist pass. These passes offer free or discounted entry to a large number of sights around the city. If you already know what you want to visit, check out our page on which tourist pass is right for you.

Visit Museums for Free

The Asian Art Museum hosts great art exhibits from Asian artists, and it is based directly across from City Hall (another spot to visit for free!). This museum has free admission the first Sunday of every month, and $5 admission after 5:00 PM on every Thursdays.

The Autodesk Gallery has incredible examples of computer artwork and design that you can view. A great thing to do in the city that is the innovation hub of the world!

The California Academy of Sciences is one of our favorite museums in the world. This fantastic museum has exhibits about science and nature that people of all ages can love. This museum has free admission on four Sundays per year. Check the calendar on their website for the currently scheduled days.

Children’s Creativity Museum is a wonderful place to take the kids on your trip. It has many free days during the year. Check their website for this year’s scheduled dates.

The Exploratorium, along with the Academy of Sciences building, is our other favorite museum in San Francisco. It’s also a science museum, but it’s extremely hands-on. You can play with many of the exhibits to see and feel how science works. The museum is free on five Sundays each year. Check out the dates on their calendar for this year’s free times.

Chinese Historical Society of America has very interesting history about the Chinese immigrants who made this country (especially San Francisco) what it is today. It is always free to visit.

Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers has incredibly beautiful examples of flowers from around the world. In the heart of Golden Gate Park (which itself is full of free activities), the conservatory is free to visit on the first Tuesday of every month.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum has exhibits about modern Jewish history, and it is free on the first Tuesday of every month.

de Young Museum is another great stop in the middle of Golden Gate Park. The de Young has great art exhibits from around the world, and it is free on the first Tuesday of every month.

Musée Mécanique, located on Fisherman’s Wharf, has video game machines, pinball machines, and other mechanical games dating back over 100 years. Go here with a couple of dollars in quarters, and this is the cheapest that you can have an afternoon of fun in San Francisco!

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recently reopened after a major renovation, has beautiful artwork from modern times. The museum is always free for kids under the age of 18.

The Wells Fargo History Museum is located in the center of San Francisco’s financial district, and it has a fun museum all about the Wild West days of San Francisco. Learn about Gold Rush outlaws, see some gold nuggets and old money, and ride in a stagecoach! This museum is free all year long.

The Cable Car Museum shows you the history of one of the most iconic parts of San Francisco, the Cable Car! See how the cable cars work, check out the motors driving the cars throughout the city, and even ring one of the famous cable car bells that you hear all throughout San Francisco. This is free all year.

San Francisco Maritime Park located on Hyde Street Pier, right between Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, is a fun place to visit for anybody interested in old sailing ships. Half a dozen old ships are docked at the pier, allowing you to get an up-close view of how the San Francisco waterfront operated in the 1800s. Admission to the pier (and the adjacent museum) are free, but there is a $7 charge to board the ships.

SF Fire Department Historical Society – Did you know that the San Francisco Fire Department has long been considered one of the best departments in the world? The work of the men and women of the SFFD have saved the city from destruction multiple times. This museum, free all year long, shows some of the incredible events and people that forged the city that we have today.

The Streetcar Museum shows how municipal railways spread throughout San Francisco, and how we managed to obtain the old fashioned streetcars from around the world that run through San Francisco every day. This museum is always free.

GLBT Historical Society – San Francisco is known as one of the most gay friendly cities in the world. This city helped lead the fight for gay rights through the last 100 years, and the Castro District is a must-see during your visit to San Francisco. This museum is free to visit on the first Wednesday of every month.

The Japanese Tea Garden, also located in Golden Gate Park, is an incredibly well-kept garden with trimmed lawns, sculpted trees, plants and flowers shaped into a dragon, and more. Add a traditional Japanese tea ceremony here for just a few extra dollars, but admission into the garden is free from 9:00 – 10:00 AM every Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

Our Favorite Budget Restaurants in San Francisco

First off, we’d encourage you to check our our list of the best international food in San Francisco, because it has some great spots and excellent bargains. But, on to our list! (Note that many of these places have very little seating, so for some areas you have to be prepared to eat while sitting on a park bench, or wait around for a table)

The Codmother – although most of the restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf are pretty expensive, the Codmother manages to be an oasis of delicious food at bargain prices. Get the fish & chips here–you won’t regret it!

Delicious Dim Sum – Chinatown has dozens (or hundreds!) of restaurants, but this is our favorite bargain restaurant.

Red’s Java House – If you’re in San Francisco, you have to go to this San Francisco institution! For just a few bucks, you can get a great burger on a San Francisco sourdough bun, get a bench right on the water with great views of San Francisco bay, and watch the day go by.

Molinari’s Deli – Set in the heart of North Beach, this family owned deli has been in operation since the 1800s. Go here to pick up a great Italian deli sandwich. You buy the food, and the jokes are on the house! Even better, take your sandwich down the street to Vesuvio Cafe (they let you bring in outside food) and get a drink or two in the bar overlooking Columbus Avenue.

La Taqueria and El Farolito. If you’re going to be in San Francisco, you can’t leave without getting a Mission-style burrito, and if you’re going to be in the Mission district, you must go to one of these two places. Our favorite is La Taq, which was recently named the Best Burrito in America! This page includes this line: “I watched Nate take his first bite, and I swear he achieved nirvana before my eyes.” We can’t agree more.

Saigon Sandwich – This restaurant is located in Little Saigon, in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco. And it has the best banh mi sandwiches we’ve ever had!

Activities

Walking the Golden Gate Bridge. There are few more iconic sights than a view of San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day. Check out our guide to walking the bridge, because it’s completely free to do it! The only thing you’d pay for is transportation, and for $2 or so each way, how can you go wrong?

Visiting Golden Gate Park – our greatest park is also your greatest ally for a trip to San Francisco on a budget. In fact, we dedicated a day to it on our Itinerary of San Francisco on a Budget. Check out day 3 of that post, and have a blast!

The de Young Museum Observation Tower – Also located in Golden Gate Park, come here all day for free admission to one of the best views in all of San Francisco.

Check out the Presidio – also included on our Itinerary of San Francisco on a Budget, the Presidio has a wealth of spots to visit, including some of the oldest buildings in all of San Francisco.

Take in a San Francisco Giants game…for free! The baseball stadium in San Francisco was designed as a place for everybody to enjoy. And when there’s a baseball game going on, they open up the doors of the stadium to allow some people to get right up close to the outfield during a game. You can watch a few innings of baseball standing right in the outfield. Hard to beat that view!

Take a ride on the San Francisco Cable Car – The invention that changed transportation in America was created right here in San Francisco. Hop on the cable car at the corner of Hyde & Beach Streets, ride up the steep Russian Hill, get great views of the San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz, look down Lombard Street (supposedly the crookedest street in the world), cruise down through Chinatown and Union Square, and end up right on Market Street in the middle of the city. For $7, it’s hard to beat that for a real San Francisco experience.

Get a view of the Bay Lights on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Just recently turned on after a long renovation period, this is one of the most beautiful sights at nighttime in San Francisco. Head over to the SF Ferry Terminal and grab a bite to eat or a glass of wine, and gaze at the astounding view of the pulsing lights of the Bay Bridge.

Go to the beach! Although the water is cold and the air can be a bit chilly, bundle up and take a ride out to Ocean Beach or Baker Beach on the Pacific coast. You can bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the sea air on a sunny day. And while you’re there, enjoy one of the best views in San Francisco.

Take a Mission mural walk – San Francisco has some of the best murals in the world, covering the whole city. But the largest concentration of murals is down in the Mission District (also home of some of the best food in the city!) Check out some of our favorite mural areas here, here, and here.

Transportation Options in San Francisco

We know that travelling to a new city can be confusing, and there are many different options and transportation systems out there. So we’ve put together some helpful guides to make your journey into San Francisco easier.

Which SF Bus Tour is Best? – As much as we love our San Francisco walking tours, we know that sometimes people want to get off their feet and get driven around the city. So we looked at the various bus tours in San Francisco and put together a list of the best ones for you.

Which SF Boat Tour is Best? – One of the best parts of San Francisco is all the activities connected to the San Francisco Bay. So if you’re here, why not take a tour on a boat?

Which SF Bike Tour is Best? – If you want to cover a lot of ground in the city, or bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, check out this post to figure out which bike tour is the best one.

How to get from San Francisco Airport to Downtown – One of the most challenging aspects of traveling to a new city is figuring out how to just get the heck out of the airport! So we put together a guide to take you step by step into downtown San Francisco.

How to Ride BART – Every public transportation system in the world is unique, and our BART is no different! Check out our guide to learn how to take our commuter trains in this city.

Finding Discount Accommodations in San Francisco

This city is extremely expensive for hotels! The price of a standard room in San Francisco can easily get to be over $200. So it can be tricky to figure out where to get an affordable room in a decent neighborhood.

One suggestion for budget travelers is to check out Hostelz.com. They have a great list of hostels throughout San Francisco, with ratings on each one.

One of our favorite hostels is the Adelaide Hostel. Located right in the heart of the city near Union Square, this place has great rooms starting at only about $50.

Another great place to visit is AirBnb. If you’re not familiar with the concept, people all over San Francisco have spare rooms (or even spare couches) that they are willing to share to visitors to the city, and these rooms are typically much lower priced than hotel rooms in the area. Much like AirBnb is another site called VRBO. Both of these are great options.

For last minute travelers, we would recommend checking out the Hotel Tonight app. They sell last minute hotel rooms, normally for a steep discount.