The Cheapskate Guide To: San Francisco

Is cheap travel really possible in San Francisco? It is - if you're willing to dig a little bit. Read on for cheap San Francisco travel tips - where to stay, what to do, and where to eat! #budgettravel #sanfrancisco #cheaptravel #travelonashoestring #traveltips

Is it possible to travel cheap in San Francisco? Welp, it’s almost impossible to live cheap in San Francisco (one bedroom apartments rent for $3,000+) so that’s a very good question. I don’t have the answer, so I brought in a local! Read on for Jaime’s tips on cheap travel in San Francisco – where to stay, what to do, and what to eat!

Hello!  I’m Jaime, and I write about local adventures and international travel over at In Love With the World.  I’m a huge fan of The Golden Gate Bridge, Welsh Castles, and giant cups of coffee.  I’ve lived in the bay area for 25 years and I still can’t get enough of this cool gray city of love: San Francisco.

Is cheap travel really possible in San Francisco? It is - if you're willing to dig a little bit. Click through for cheap San Francisco travel tips - where to stay, what to do, and where to eat!

Cheap Lodging in San Francisco

HI Northern California Hostels– $32-35

This mini chain has three hostels in the city, but the one in the city center is the best.  It’s off the beaten tourist path, but still in the heart of the city.  And it has midnight movie screenings – a perfect option for night owls who are travelling solo and want something safe and social to do at night.

Marin Headlands Hostel– $31

If you’re feeling a little adventurous and fancy a five-minute journey out of the city, book your stay at the Marin Headlands Hostel.  Stay in this old military building and you will have easy access to gorgeous beaches, panoramic views of San Francisco, and amazing hikes in the Marin Headlands

Kirby Cove Campground– $35

Feel like waking up with a stunning view of The Golden Gate Bridge every morning?  No problem.  You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel room, just bring $35 and a tent and camp at Kirby Cove Campground.  Bring warm clothes and earplugs, because where there is fog, there are also fog horns.

P.S. If you’re thinking of going the Airbnb route, here’s a $40 credit on your first booking!

Is cheap travel really possible in San Francisco? It is - if you're willing to dig a little bit. Click through for cheap San Francisco travel tips - where to stay, what to do, and where to eat! Cheap Food in San Francisco

Iron & Gold -$3 Beer

$3 for a Happy Hour pint of beer in San Francisco?  That’s unusual.  A Happy Hour that lasts until 9 pm?  That’s unheard of.  Grab a seat on the couch and hunker down for a game of Apples to Apples with your friends (yep, they stock board games).

Yamo-  House Noodles, $6

This place is a genuine “Hole in the Wall” restaurant.  The staff is cranky, but in a fun, Soup Nazi kind of way.  Get your noodles to go, take a 10 minute walk to Dolores Park and eat ‘em there.  Cash only.

Nick’s Crispy Tacos – $6 for 2 Tacos

Tuesday nights are best spent at Nick’s Crispy Tacos.  Choose two tacos for $6, a cheese quesadilla for $2.25, and chips with salsa and guac for another $2.25.  Come in with $8, walk away with a happy, full belly.  You can also eat dinner here for under $8 on Monday and Friday nights- check out their menu and let your taste buds do your scheduling.

Hot Cookie– .95-$7 for a cookie

This cute little cookie shop in the Castro always smells incredible.  Get a “normal” shaped cookie for $3, a day old cookie for $0.95, or an elaborate penis shaped cookie for $7.  Because, The Castro.  Open until 11 PM.

Golden Boy Pizza– $3.75 for a Slice of Pizza

The Garlic and Clam slice is a crowd favorite.  Eat your slice around the corner in Washington Square Park.

Is cheap travel really possible in San Francisco? It is - if you're willing to dig a little bit. Click through for cheap San Francisco travel tips - where to stay, what to do, and where to eat!

Cheap Things To Day In The Bay Area

SF City Guides Tours– Tips

Pick the area of San Francisco that appeals to you the most.  Then, head over to the SF City Guides Tours website and search their schedule.  I guarantee you will find a tour that appeals to you!  These library volunteers are knowledgeable, interesting, and a great resource for learning about the pockets of SF that intrigue you most.

Japanese Tea Gardens– Free

Normally the Japanese Tea Garden cost $8 a pop for entry.  However, if you arrive between 9 and 10 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you can go in for free!  Make sure you look for the hidden Buddha, and treat yourself to a cup of tea while you gaze at the koi pond.  

Golden Gate Park- Free

After you stroll around the Japanese Tea Garden, enjoy the rest of Golden Gate Park.  Have your picnic lunch in front of the gorgeous Conservatory of Flowers.  Walk around Stowe Lake, hike up Strawberry Hill, and make the trek to the west end of the park to say hi to the Bison.  That’s right, there is an actual Bison roaming around Golden Gate Park.  Okay, okay, he’s in a pen.  But still!

Land’s End & Sutro Baths– Free

If you’re craving some time away from the urban, go on a hike out at Land’s End.  You will see some stunning views of The Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll walk by a rock labyrinth, and then you will end up at the Sutro Bath ruins.  Go to the visitor’s center to see what the Sutro Baths looked like in their functional days.

The Golden Gate Bridge- Free

Top three best ways to experience the Golden Gate Bridge:

  • Drive over the bridge, and up the Marin Headlands.  Park at either the first look out, or the last one way at the tippy top.  Pose for some selfies in front of the most beautiful bridge in the world (biased, no?)
  • Walk or bike across the bridge.
  • Stay on the city side of the bridge and walk all the way to the base of the bridge and tap in at Hopper’s Hands.  

Wave Organ– Free

Ever wonder what the ocean would sound like if it played a musical instrument?  No?  Just me?  Well, the Wave Organ is just that.  This unique art installation from the Exploratorium is on a jetty in the bay.  It is a set of organ pipes set in the ocean, and poking out at various heights.  Go at high tide and enjoy the music floating out of the pipes.

Balmy Alley & Clarion Alley- Free

The Mission is known for it’s amazing murals- Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley are two of the best places to find them.  Check back each time you visit- street art changes everyday.

Is cheap travel really possible in San Francisco? It is - if you're willing to dig a little bit. Click through for cheap San Francisco travel tips - where to stay, what to do, and where to eat!

Telegraph Hill- Free

You’re going to need some walking shoes and a water bottle for this one.  These steps are mighty steep, but completely worth it.  Walk up the Filbert Street Steps.  You’ll walk through neighborhoods that seem like they should only exist in a fantasy novel, you’ll see lovely views of the bay, and smell lush vegetation overflowing from the gardens along the path.  

Keep your eyes and ears perked- If you’re lucky you might even see San Francisco’s famous wild parrots flying overhead.  When you get to the top, enjoy the Coit Tower and a panoramic view of the city.  Then, walk down the Greenwich steps.  You’ll see some beautiful mosaic art and the ruins of Julius Castle.    

California Academy of Sciences Night Life– $12

$12 may not exactly count as cheapskate, but when you consider that an adult ticket is normally $35, $12 seems very budget indeed!  Night Life events occur on Thursday nights from 6-10 and each one is themed.  You’ll have access to the indoor rainforest, the planetarium, all the exhibits, the night theme exhibits, and most importantly, the themed cocktails.  Buy your tickets ahead of time so you don’t have to waste your precious 4 hours of science time in line.

Summer Movie in the Park- Donation

If you are in the city in the summer, grab a blanket, an adult beverage, a folding chair, and spend your evening watching a movie in one of SF’s beautiful parks.

Visit the Painted Ladies- Free

Enjoy a Full House moment in front of the iconic painted ladies in Alamo park.  Bring a picnic, or just have a nice sit in the sun.

Yoga at Grace Cathedral– Donation

Want to downward dog with Jesus?  The beautiful Grace Cathedral has got you covered with it’s free yoga class.  Tuesdays at 6:15: get there early to grab a good spot.

Seward Street Slides- Free

This tidy hidden park in The Castro has the city’s most epic slide.   Grab a piece of cardboard, head to the top, and get ready to catch some serious air as you zoom down this cement slide.  It’s sure to bring out the inner child in you.  But actually, you better bring a real life child too- you’ll need one in order to enjoy the slide.  Open 9-5 Tuesday-Sunday.

That was sooooo insanely helpful, Jaime! Other San Franciscans, what would you add? 

P.S. How to live out of a suitcase – glamorously

photos by Michael Hirsch, Axel Antas-Bergkvist,, thrillistontheporch2DieselDemon // cc

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  1. Carrie this fit chick

    I live in SF and there are still a few new places on this list!! There is SO much to do here and lot’s fun places to see!

  2. K

    I lived in SF for 4 years, so I’d like to add a few:

    I highly recommend dedicating a day to ferry over to Angel Island and hike around there–you will have the best views of the Bay and SF EVER! Stunning, really. Bring your camera!

    Also, I’m hoping Pagan is still on 33rd & Clement? Most delicious Burmese food and so much less expensive than Burma Superstar (also delicious, but you might have to wait 2+hours).

    Sunsets at Ocean Beach = Free. Grab a drink in the Cliff House if it’s too chilly.

    First Thursdays art crawls in the Mission

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Love it! Thanks, K!

    • Beth C.

      Pagan is still there! Right next to the Tee Off which is another great spot.

      • K

        Yay! That makes me so happy 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Beth!

  3. a

    You can visit the Ferry building and its farmers market for free then stroll along the embarcadero all the way to ghirardelli square.
    at night see the bay bridge moving lights art project for free from the waterfront. assuming it is still operating.
    Parking is VERY expensive in SF. I paid $30 to park at the academy of sciences when I went to nightlife that you mentioned.
    Also golden gate bridge tolls are $7 southbound.

  4. Ariel

    The best views of the city: Bernal Heights (also full of cute little shops, but isn’t insanely packed like Castro or the Mission), Alta Vista Park, and the 16th Avenue tiled steps. Amazing dog watching if you’re into pups.

    Rent an electric scooter for a day ($20-30 bucks for the whole day, and zip around the city – it’s truly the best way to get around because it’s fast and parking a scooter is so easy. Also, only a regular drivers license is needed.

    To eat: counter service dim sum – get a filling meal for two for under $10. My favorite is Wing Lee Bakery on Clement. If you want to splurge on fancy dim sum – Hong Kong Lounge (2 locations) is yummy. For dinner, SKIP Burma Superstar – it’s too expensive and overrated! Go instead around the corner to Burmese Kitchen – quieter, more delicious, cheaper. The family who owns the restaurant is so kind.

  5. A

    musee mechanique is a unique collection of very old coin operated games and dioramas that move, including the famous laughing sal fortuneteller. very hard to explain but worth a visit. it is free to visit and most games cost a quarter or less to play. Google it for exact location in fishermans wharf area.
    De Young museum in Golden Gate park (near california academy of sciences and tea garden) has a free observation tower with GREAT city views. And you ride the elevator so not a workout to get to it 🙂

  6. Alice

    More Free Things to Do: afternoon outdoor concerts at Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (various dates, easy seating, local & international performers); evening arts crawl Mission Arts Performance Project (aka MAPP, various dates & locations); Lindy in the Park (swing dance in Golden Gate Park with beginner lesson every Sunday afternoon); see street art of Clarion Alley; see odd wares at Paxton Gate taxidermy and 826 Valencia Pirate Supply; exhibits at the main public library’s top floor and bottom floors (a documentary is being made about this library’s culture); seek out the city’s staircases (clearly for the physically fit); SF also seems to like any excuse to celebrate with drinks and costumes

    More Cheap Eats: La Oaxaquena ($4.50 chicken mole tamale, $6 grasshopper tacos); Saigon Sandwich (~$4 sandwiches, lunchtime & take-out only); Arizmendi (~$3 slice veg pizza or pastries); splurge $7 for the Rebel Within savory meal-in-a-muffin at hip Craftsman and Wolves

  7. Ronbo

    On Lombard around Bucanan or so (give or take a couple of blocks) there is a shop that rents bicycles. Rent a bike, ride it over the Golden Gate Bridge. Pack a lunch from any of the many great corner stores/delis just of Lombard.

    Ride to Sausalito, or if you’re ambitious, all the way up to Tiburon. Then bring the bike on to the ferry and take it back to the City – last time I went, they had a full bar on the ferry.

    The Ferry building is not all that far from the bike rental shop. You can skip Russian Hill by going through the Broadway tunnel, but use the pedestrian sidewalk – don’t be on a bike in the traffic in the tunnel, that’s not safe.

    One final tip – don’t do this with your buddy and his girlfriend who happens to be a former Goodwill Games track and field medalist, because she will literally ride circles around you while making jokes about how slow you are on that bicycle 🙂

  8. Alli

    Dolores Park for a picnic and Bi-Rite Creamery for dessert!

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