They say “only in San Francisco” for a reason. Known for culture, music, diversity, and picturesque views throughout the city, San Francisco is an eclectic city to visit. This city is “out there.” There are a lot of alternative lifestyles here, lots of hippies, and tons of college students. Throw in a very liberal bend, and you are going to get one of the funkiest and coolest cities in America. It’s also one of the most expensive cities to live in the US, so use the tips here to see the sights without depleting your budget!
Hostel prices – There are a handful of hostels in SF and dorm prices range between $25-35 per night. You’ll find private rooms that sleep two for $70-85 per night. Most hostels include free linens, free WiFi, and many offer free breakfast. The Green Tortoise is the best hostel in the city.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels cost between $60-100 per night for a room. The lower price end could mean shared bathrooms, but most hotels come with free WiFi and usually have a TV in the room. You do get the very bare basics with budget hotels in San Francisco, so a good alternative is Airbnb (which started in this city!). On Airbnb, you can find shared rooms for around $25 per night and entire homes starting around $70 per night.
Average cost of food – Although eating out here can be expensive (there are lots of fancy restaurants and rich techies driving the cost of food and rents up), you can keep your spending in check by going to the local supermarkets, markets, food trucks, and mom-and-pop restaurants. Bars and cafés are the cheapest option, cost about $8-12 for lunch and a drink. Restaurants with table service are around $15 for lunch and $30 for dinner (starter, main, and drink) to start. Eating Chinese food is a must in San Francisco because it’s good and is less expensive than other choices (a meal can cost $8-12). If you cook your own food, expect to pay $80 per week for basics like pasta, sandwich ingredients, sauce, rice, eggs, and fruits and vegetables. For self-catering with the occasional meal out, expect to spend around $20 per day.
Public transportation cost – Public transportation includes buses, metros, and historic streetcars. You can buy an adult ticket for $2.25 (a cable car ride is $7). Or you can buy a 1-day pass for $21, a 3-day pass for $32, or a 7-day pass for $42. For the BART, you get a reusable paper ticket that you can put money on through automatic ticket machines and each trip deducts from it. For traveling to other cities in the Bay Area, it’s the most economical choice (and efficient – you can skip the notoriously bad traffic) unless you’re splitting the fare for an Uber or you have a car. As for Uber, it actually started in San Francisco, so it’s a great alternative to public transportation. Lyft, a similar service, is also available here.
Suggested daily budget – $70-100 (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. SF is an expensive city so watch out!)
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Money Saving Tips
- Seek out the free events – Union Square is a prime hot spot where you will find exhibits or various other forms of free entertainment. This is also a prime area to see the works of local artists.
- Use public transportation – It is incredibly expensive to park in San Francisco, and with some of the best public transportation in the country, it’s better to skip getting a car.
- Carry cash – In some of the smaller restaurants and shops, only cash is accepted. It’s good to keep some cash on you for just in case.
- Eat during happy hour – Save money at restaurants by going to happy hour. Typically offered from around 4-7pm, you can get drinks, appetizers, and entrees at great restaurants for a fraction of the cost.
- Bring a sweater – Don’t get stuck paying for an overpriced one while at Fisherman’s Wharf or on the Golden Gate Bridge. Although San Francisco is in “sunny” California, there’s a reason for the famous saying: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
- Take a free walking tour – Free Walking Tours of San Francisco has a number of interesting walking tours that can teach you about the history of the eclectic neighborhoods or show you all the scrumptious food the city has to offer, offered daily throughout the day.
- Couchsurf – Couchsurfing started in the United States and is now based in San Francisco. There are a ton of hosts in this city eager to show people a good time! Since accommodation is so expensive, try to use this and get a free place to stay, a local guide, and maybe even a new friend!
- Consider the San Francisco City Pass – This pass allows you to save nearly 50% off admission at a number of attractions (and includes a 7-day cable car and Muni bus pass). A pass is $94 per person and gets you entrance into the California Academy of Sciences, the aquarium, and the exploratorium and also offers a bay cruise.
- Get free water or free refills – If you order a drink, most restaurants allow free refills while you eat your meal or refills at a low cost. If you ask, water is usually provided for free.
Top Things to See and Do in San Francisco
- Walk the Golden Gate Bridge – The Golden Gate Bridge is be one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks as well as a piece of engineering art. You can walk across the bridge if you would like (recommended), visit the visitor’s center to be briefed on the history of the park, or just stare at it from every angle and take a stupid amount of pictures like I did. Don’t forget to make your way to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which offers a waterfront promenade, views of the bridge, and many hiking trails. The Walt Disney Family Museum is in the park, too (entrance to the museum starts at $20).
- Visit Crissy Field – Also near the bridge as you walk along the harbor towards the center of the town, is this park that features a beautiful beach, restaurants, piers for fishing, and parks for Frisbee. You’ll find a lot of locals running, walking their dogs, or laying out on the beach. It offers sweeping views of the entire harbor.
- Visit the Palace of Fine Arts – The Palace of Fine Arts is a Roman-style remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The outdoor rotunda (and its lagoon) is one of the city’s most photographed sights. Take a leisurely stroll around the lagoon, relax under the rotunda, or enjoy a picnic on the grass.
- Tour Alcatraz – This is a former federal prison on Alcatraz Island, home to some of the worst criminals in the US while it was in operation. It was shut down in the 1970s and has since become a national landmark people can explore. There is no charge to visit the island, but you will have to pay for the boat there. I’d suggest taking a tour during your visit so the rangers can provide you with some historical context of the island. Be sure to book the ferry to the island early if you are going in the summer as it gets very full! A day-tour ticket is $36, a night-tour ticket is $43, and a behind-the-scenes tour is $88.
- Visit Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square – This area covers numerous blocks along the waterfront and is one of the most popular (touristy) things to do in the city. There are street performers, souvenir shops, and tons of overpriced restaurants. This is a good place to wander and explore for people watching but don’t eat here. The food is overpriced and, to be honest, not that good. If you want to try some of the mouthwatering seafood that San Francisco is famous for, I really liked Waterbar and the Anchor Oyster Bar.
- Hang out in the Mission – The mission district is a fabulous place to spend your night. After your busy day, go relax in Dolores Park for great views of the city (including the famous “Full House” house), amazing Mexican food, bars, clubs, and a food scene. Watch out for hipsters!
- Ride the cable cars – Riding the cable cars is an excellent way to tour the city and experience various neighborhoods in San Francisco. Catch the cable cars from Market Street. They are fun to ride and will save you lots of time instead of walking up and down those hills. A one-way fare on a cable car is $7 or a 1-day pass is $20.
- Visit Lombard Street – While riding the cable cars, make sure to get off at Lombard Street and see what’s claimed as the world’s “crooked-est” street. Watch the cars and bikers navigate the sharp turns as the tourists gawk at them.
- Head up Coit Tower – Another major city landmark is Coit Tower, perched atop Telegraph Hill. It was built in 1933 to help beautify the city. It features 27 fresco murals by different artists. From the top, you’ll get panoramic views of the city (it’s $8 to go to the top). Otherwise, you can explore the monument and murals at the ground level.
- Head to Chinatown – Next to NYC, this is the most famous Chinatown in the United States (it’s also the biggest). Immigrants from China first came to the west coast and set up shop in San Francisco. Due to racial segregation, this neighborhood became predominantly Chinese and though the segregation is over, the area has remained Chinese. Chinatown here has some of the best places to eat (dim sum) Chinese food in the country, teahouses, bars, souvenir stalls, and fortune cookie makers. Eat your heart out here. I do.
- Go on a harbor tour – Take an afternoon cruise of the bay to see the city from the water. You’ll get some good photos, learn about the bay, see some wildlife, and enjoy life on the water. There are many tour companies, but a cheap budget way to see the harbor is to take the public ferries for $7. Same views, cheaper price. You can find prices and routes on the ferry’s website.
- Hang out in the Castro – The Castro is known as the LGBTQ district of San Francisco and it’s an awesome place to go out at night. The area has a number of ethnic and modern restaurants here and a bunch that serve the locally-sourced organic food the Bay Area is known for. Moreover, there’s a plethora of wild and fun clubs that cater to the LGBTQ community as well as straight people. It’s an awesome place to go out at night.
- Explore Haight-Ashbury – The birthplace of America’s counter-culture, the Haight was ground zero during the summer of 1967, a.k.a. The Summer of Love. Hippies used to live here, but yuppies have since moved in, buying up all the colorful Victorian homes throughout Haight-Ashbury and replacing head shops with high-end boutiques, chic restaurants and hip cafés. It’s still a fun place to visit and Flower Power Walking Tours run in-depth and informative tours throughout the neighborhood.
- Take a walking tour – Free Walking Tours of San Francisco has a number of interesting walking tours that can teach you about the history of the eclectic neighborhoods or show you all the scrumptious food the city has to offer, offered daily throughout the day.
- Eat at the ferry building – My top place to eat in San Francisco, this place is a foodie dream. Outside the building on the weekdays are a lot of food stands and on the weekends, you can also find a big farmers market. Inside, you’ll find restaurants and food vendors selling specialty food items as well as butchers, cheese mongers, a wine bar, and more.
- Visit Golden Gate Park – This gigantic park features a Japanese garden (skip it), a museum, an arboretum, and tons of hiking and walking trails. At three miles long and stretching about 30 blocks to the sea, it’s 20 percent bigger than New York’s Central Park. Walking from end to end will take half a day. If that’s too much for you, spend at least a few hours here exploring the park, especially if it’s an unusually warm and beautiful day in the city.
- Relax with a drink – After all that traveling, you should probably explore some of the city’s amazing brewhouses. The Mission and Castro are two of the best spots for nightlife but you’ll find amazing bars and clubs throughout the city. Here’s a quick video that features five:
- Explore Japantown – Come here for amazing sushi, Japanese food, Korean food, and kitchen ingredients. Shabu Sen has amazing ramen.
- Catch a game – San Francisco locals love their sports teams, especially the Giants (their really good baseball team). If you’re in town during a game, be sure to head to the stadium and cheer on the local team. Even if you don’t like the sport (whatever the sport), the locals will happily take you in, explain the game, and drink a beer with you. Also, consider heading to nearby Oakland to see other top-notch pro sports teams.
- Visit Wine Country – Near the city are the world famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions. If you love wine and have time to leave the city, you obviously need to come here. Some companies run day trips to Napa valley since it is closer but you’re a bit rushed. It’s far better to spend at least a night.
- Visit Muir Woods – Muir Woods is the closest place to San Francisco where you can see giant redwood trees. You don’t get to encounter the huge, huge iconic redwoods (which are sequoias and further away at Sequoia National Park) but if you’re looking to see something close to the city, this is as good as it gets.
- Explore Oakland – Just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco (a five-minute drive away), Oakland is considered the Brooklyn to San Francisco’s Manhattan. With its own history and community (rife with arts, music, festivals, food, and popular sports teams), Oakland has become popular with hipsters and their bars and specialty restaurants. There’s a lot you can do in Oakland – consider spending a day or more here.
- Visit Berkeley – Across the bay and close to Oakland is the interesting city of Berkeley, home to music, hippies, students, and the very left-leaning University of California – Berkeley. Here you’ll find even more vegan and vegetarian restaurants, street performers, and eclectic shops (including makeshift booths of jewelry and other goods on the streets).