How to Visit San Francisco On a Budget
Here's how to make the most of your time in San Francisco without breaking your budget.
Major California cities are not exactly known for being affordable to visit, which is why you might be surprised at how many cheap or free attractions San Francisco has. Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t visit museums, enjoy breathtaking views, see local landmarks or get lodging in a great location in San Francisco. Here is a sampling of what you can do on a budget in the City by the Bay.
Affordable Lodging in San Francisco
San Francisco Hotel Deals
The key to budget travel is finding a cheap hotel. This is especially the case when you plan to stay several days and will be out exploring most of that time. You can find some hotels in San Francisco starting around $105 per night, with Union Square being a good area to check for such deals.
San Francisco Hostels
When you need a safe place to rest your head, consider one of the many San Francisco hostels, since prices start at about $60 per person per night. Find great value at popular San Francisco hostels like Music City Hotel and Hostel or Hostelling International San Francisco City Center.
San Francisco Attraction Passes
If you’re intent on seeing all that San Francisco has to offer without going over your budget the CityPASS or Go San Francisco card may be your best bet.
With CityPASS, you get access to the California Academy of Sciences and a one-hour cruise around the Bay. Your CityPASS also lets you choose two of the following additional attractions: the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens, the Exploratorium, the Aquarium of the Bay, and The Walt Disney Family Museum.
With Go San Francisco, you can get a variety of multi-day packages. Choose from more than 25 attractions and activities, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Flyer, and beyond destination tours to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum.
Affordable San Francisco Museums
Many of the museums in San Francisco are cheap or even free. Fisherman’s Wharf is home to Musée Mécanique, which has more than 200 antique musical instruments and mechanical arcade machines. Admission is free 365 days a year, and it costs less than $1 to play most games. Other low-cost museums include the San Francisco Maritime Museum (which is free) and the Cartoon Art Museum ($10 for adults, free for kids five and under). Other museums have free admission days. For example, a ticket to Museum of Craft and Design is normally $10 per person, but offer Pay What You Can on Wednesdays. The de Young Museum is also free on the first Tuesday of every month, though its Hamon Observation Tower is always free and offers a stunning view of the city.
Some of the main attractions at PIER 39 are the dozens of stores and eateries, but not everything has to cost a lot. One of the best activities here is free, and that’s watching the sea lions as they relax just a few feet away. Of course, there are also amazing views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. So if you want an affordable day out, grab some ice cream or coffee from one of the nearby shops and stroll around admiring the views from the pier.
Free Things to Do
Golden Gate Bridge
You can’t visit San Francisco without getting an up-close look at the Golden Gate Bridge. Luckily, this attraction fits into any budget, because it’s free. You can walk or ride a bike across the 1.7-mile bridge. You can even participate in a free walking tour on Thursdays and Sundays with San Francisco City Guides so you can hear the history of this landmark as you explore.
Free San Francisco Walking Tours
The Golden Gate Bridge is not the only place you can tour for free during your visit. You can also take part in one of the many free tours offered by the San Francisco City Guides. They offer tours all year, with some of the destinations including popular neighborhoods like Castro, Haight-Ashbury, Chinatown and Potrero Hill. Some of the tours also focus on local ghost stories, murals, past earthquakes, fires and the history of many landmarks.
Spanning nearly 1,500 acres in a spectacular setting at the Golden Gate, the Presidio of San Francisco offers history, spectacular views, natural habitats, beautiful opens spaces, and the new Tunnel Tops, which include 14 acres of scenic parkland and the Outpost, a two-acre children's playscape. As a national park within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio has many free and affordable ways for visitors to enjoy this public land. Arrive there on a free PresidiGo Shuttle from downtown, get your bearings at the Visitor Center, and then go for a hike, plan a picnic, or explore history at the park's museum. Take a moment to enjoy the stunning views while your kids play for hours at the Outpost play area.
Free San Francisco Festivals
Budget travel in San Francisco is easy for music lovers thanks to the many free festivals. For example, every fall, Golden Gate Park hosts the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which features seven stages and more than 100 musicians over three days. Another option is Stern Grove Festival, a free concert that takes place every Sunday over the summer. North Beach Festival also features live entertainment in the summer, along with more than 100 arts, crafts, and food booths. Union Street Festival in June is similar, though the wine and beer sampling tickets do cost money.
Mission District Murals
If you’re a fan of art, you’ll want to see the many murals of the Mission District. Most have been around for a few decades, and provide creative commentary on everything from politics and human rights issues to natural disasters and varying art styles.
Oracle Park Portwalk
Want an amazing view of the bay and chance to watch a San Francisco Giants baseball game? Then head to Oracle Park to check out the Portwalk. It’s a large walkway right between the ballpark’s outfield wall and the bay, allowing guests to enjoy the ocean breeze and even watch up to three innings of any game going on, all for free. Learn about Oracle Park history by viewing the 25 bronze plaques on display.