San Francisco on a budget: 8 travel hacks to save on your trip
San Francisco is a jewel of the West Coast and one of the best cities to visit in the United States, if not the entire world. This historic town is blessed with dramatic scenery, great beaches, and almost limitless things to do. Plus, as a historic nexus of immigration from across the United States and around the world, it has a culture and culinary scene that very few cities can compare with. When you visit San Francisco, you'll quickly find there's more than enough to do here to fill a lifetime. Top San Francisco attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman's Wharf, and Union Square make it more or less impossible to run out of things to do on a San Francisco trip.
However, all this lively urban activity doesn't come cheap. With its beautiful setting and temperate weather, San Francisco would be an expensive city anyway. But thanks to nearby Silicon Valley and high wages in the tech industry, San Francisco has become downright unaffordable for most people.
But that doesn't mean you can't visit San Francisco on a budget. A little advanced planning can help you save money on the big ticket items in the city, and despite the generally high prices, it's not too hard to find free things to do and cheap eats even in downtown San Francisco.
The first step to making your trip to San Francisco easier is dropping off your bags at a local luggage storage. Not having to carry heavy bags with you will make it much easier to enjoy free events and cheap things to do in the Bay Area, no matter how you like to spend your time.
Cheap places to stay in San Francisco
The average cost for a night in a hotel in San Francisco is a staggering $211. That's the average for the year, so you can expect to pay a lot more for a hotel room in the busy summer season. That might make it sound like San Francisco is a no-go area for budget travel, but luckily, that's not really the case. San Francisco's popularity with tourists means there is fierce competition for hotels, so it isn't hard to find a reasonably priced room in a good area.
One of the keys to affordable accommodation in San Francisco is to not get hung up on staying downtown. Yes, it's nice to be able to walk to everything, but the attractions of San Francisco are spread out enough that you'll probably be taking public transport to at least some of them anyway. Therefore, it's worth considering staying somewhere outside of downtown and taking advantage of Bay Area Rapid Transit and other public transportation methods to see what you want to see. Check out our guide to the best neighborhoods in San Francisco for some guidance on alternative places to stay.
It can also be a good idea to consider renting an apartment as a short-term holiday rental. These rentals often provide kitchen facilities so you can buy cheap food and make your own meals to save some money.
However, if you'd rather go with the classic hotel experience, here are some recommendations for affordable places to stay in San Francisco that won't break the bank:
The Utah Inn
Located in a building dating back to 1908, cheap places to stay in San Francisco don't come much cheaper than this. A room in this hotel will cost you around $90 a night, even in August, the most expensive time of the year. And while it may be cheap, this hotel is still centrally located, within easy walking distance of AT&T Park and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among other attractions. The 4th and Brannan streetcar stop is almost right outside the hotel, giving you easy access to the T Third Street line, which serves Union Square and Chinatown, making it easy to get to some of the best locations in San Francisco.
As you'd expect from the price, the rooms here aren't fancy. You'll be sharing a bathroom, but each room does offer free Wi-Fi access and a flat-screen TV. The Inn is also home to the historic Utah Saloon on the ground floor, which is well worth checking out while you're in the area.
Located right by Union Square and all the top attractions of downtown San Francisco, this is a great place to stay when visiting San Francisco on a budget. You can take advantage of a free walking tour of the city from right outside your hotel and easily access some of the city's top attractions either on foot or by making use of public transport. And despite the excellent location, this hotel is a remarkably cheap place to stay in the city.
If you book ahead of time, you can find a room in this hotel for around $180 a night during the August tourist season. That gives you a room with a queen-size bed, its own bathroom, air-conditioning, a 42" smart TV, and access to the hotel's fitness center. Given the prices of other hotels in this area, this represents an incredible value right in the heart of San Francisco.
HI San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf
If you want to be near the San Francisco waterfront at an affordable price, your options are limited. However, this hostel run by top brand Hosteling International is a great option. Set in a surprisingly charming building in Fort Mason, this popular place to stay offers rooms starting at $35 a night during August. Admittedly, that's for a bed in a shared dorm, but if price is a major factor for you, this is a great place to stay. Surrounded by parkland, you'll have incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay from the hostel property, which is something you won't get even in far more expensive hotels. The hostel also features a movie room and a pool table and puts on a variety of activities for guests. If you're willing to spend a little more, you can also book a private room with a shared bathroom and still get one of the best accommodation deals available in San Francisco.
Cheap things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco may not be a particularly cheap place to visit. However, one area where it's easy to save money is on things to do. Some of the city's top attractions are either free or very cheap to visit. And trying out some free or cheap attractions not only helps you save money but can also help you enjoy the city more like a local.
Here are some ideas of cheap things to do in this unforgettable city:
Golden Gate Park
This park, beloved by locals and visitors alike, is one of the must-do attractions of San Francisco and yet is completely free to visit. Here, you'll find a wealth of hiking trails that will give you incredible views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, and you'll also learn more about the rich history of San Francisco, from the indigenous cultures that first called the area home through the Spanish colonial era and the gold rush up to the present day. There's also a carousel, an aquarium, and even a Japanese tea garden to explore, though many of these cost money to visit. A great place to have a picnic on a sunny day, the park also provides access to the Golden Gate Bridge, which you can walk for free and enjoy incredible views over the ocean.
Cable Car Museum
One of the best free things to do in the city, this fascinating museum is something of a hidden gem. As well as being a museum, this is still a working part of the San Francisco cable car network, so you'll be able to see the mechanism that pulls the cables and make the cars run and learn about why this unique mode of transport was first developed and the part it played in helping the city grow. It's completely free to visit the museum, and even if you then decide to take a ride on a cable car to complete the experience, you won't have to spend more than a few dollars to experience San Francisco's history.
The celebrated street is one of the most famous in San Francisco and is regarded as the most crooked street in the world. It's free to visit the street whether you want to walk along it or drive the many hairpin curves. It's a great photo opportunity, and a visit here won't take long, but it also won't cost you anything at all.
Cheap places to eat in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the world's great food cities. Local food combines influences from across the United States and around the world, so you'll find new things to eat here along with old favorites. The best street food in San Francisco is a reliable way to sample not only some of the cheapest but some of the best food the city has to offer. You'll also find great deals on the best local food in the many restaurants of this amazing food city.
Located in the South Park neighborhood, this restaurant celebrates San Francisco's rich culinary heritage with fusion food that combines influences from around the world. Kimchi burritos and bulgogi tacos give you an idea of what you'll find on the creative menu here. And it's good to know that nothing on the menu costs more than about $13, so you can have some great food for relatively cheap.
It's kind of a challenge choosing where to have Asian food in San Francisco just because there are so many options. But this affordable and creative restaurant is a strong contender. Offering tacos, poke bowls, and Korean food with a Californian flair, this is a great place to come to wake up your taste buds, and most dishes cost $10 or less.
The Pizza Shop
This New York City-style pizza joint sells huge slices of pizza for only four dollars for a cheese pizza and five dollars for other flavors, including White Spinach, Deluxe, and The Meat.
Cheap bars in San Francisco
The influx of money from Silicon Valley has seen many of San Francisco's traditional dive bars transformed into high-end cocktail lounges for the wealthy. However, the city still preserves its maritime past in a few cheap and cheerful places that are well worth seeking out.
Located on Brannan Street, this bar isn't trying to be fancy. You'll find comfortable chairs, a decent jukebox, and drinks that start at seven dollars for a cocktail. Happy hour runs from 4 PM to 9 PM every weekday, and you can load up on five-dollar martinis, which is a great deal in this city.
Located in the always lively Mission district, this kitschy bar offers plenty of charm, with board games, shuffleboard, and a jukebox full of popular songs. Beer on tap costs around 5 to 6 dollars, and the cocktails are equally cheap — and strong.
The chic cocktail lounge looks a lot more expensive than it actually is. Beers on tap rarely rise above eight dollars, and the creative cocktail menu features expertly crafted drinks for only nine dollars, making this a great place to drink while saving money in the city.
Bonus budget tips for San Francisco
Take public transportation: San Francisco has a great public transportation system, including buses, cable cars, and the famous BART train. It's affordable and efficient and can take you to all of the city's major attractions.
Eat at local restaurants: San Francisco is known for its amazing food but it can also be expensive. Look for local restaurants that offer affordable meals, like taquerias in the Mission District or dim sum spots in Chinatown.
Walk or bike: San Francisco is a very walkable city, and biking is also a popular way to get around. You can rent a bike for the day or use one of the city's bike-share programs.
Visit free attractions: There are plenty of free attractions in San Francisco, such as Golden Gate Park, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Cable Car Museum.
San Francisco may be a notoriously expensive city, but that doesn't mean you can't visit on a budget. Iconic attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge are completely free, and some of the best things to do in the city are available at no cost. Plus, with cheap places to stay and excellent food available at low prices, you can make your dollars stretch further than you might think in the City by the Bay.