Travel to San Francisco on a Budget
Top 5 Ways to Save Money in SF
We all know San Francisco has a reputation for being pricey, so it might not be your top choice for a budget vacation. But it would be a shame to miss out on this fantastic city just because of financial concerns, and it turns out you don’t have to.
San Francisco is often referred to as one of the most expensive cities in the country. So how could you possibly travel there on a budget? Well, as it turns out, many of the top attractions in San Francisco are free, and a little bit of strategic planning can get you plenty of bang for your buck.
Here are the Top 5 ways to save money while having a fun and memorable vacation in the City by the Bay.
Hotels in San Francisco can definitely be on the higher end of the scale, especially in the touristy districts. And your lodging costs are typically among the highest expenses on any trip, so you want to save money here. But if your room is just a place to sleep, and you don’t mind forgoing some luxuries, it’s possible to find some pretty good deals.
Go for fewer stars
San Francisco offers some decent 3-star and 4-star hotels for less than $150 a night. And if you don’t mind stepping down a little bit, you can find 1-star and 2-star hotels for less than $100. Some of these are inn-style hotels, while others are smaller boutique properties. They might be pretty basic, but they are generally clean and convenient. Uniquely in this city, you can often save a good chunk of money by opting for a shared bathroom instead of a private one. And you still usually get free Wi-Fi and other amenities—including parking, if you decide to drive there or rent a car instead of using the other transportation options in the next section.
Stay at a home rental
While most of the hotels are in the downtown core, home rentals from sites like Airbnb and Vrbo are more spread out. So depending on what you want to see and do, these might be more convenient, and definitely can provide a sense of adventure. You can generally find a private room, suite, or even a small apartment for less than $100. Just make sure you’re not booking too far from the action if it’s going to increase your transportation time and costs substantially. Being near a public transit stop is ideal.
Use a rewards card
No matter where you stay, you can save money by using a credit card that gives you points or cash back on travel and lodging. For example, Credit One Bank’s new Wander® Card offers 10X rewards points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked using their travel partner, directly through your online account. You can also get 5X rewards points on other eligible travel, dining, and gas buys, and 1X rewards points on all other purchases.
Gas is expensive in San Francisco. Parking is limited. And the traffic is crazy with all those narrow, hilly streets. Plus, it’s a small area that’s only seven miles across, and most of the attractions you’ll want to see are in a tiny chunk of that. In fact, it’s one of the most walkable cities in the US.
So renting a car is not the best solution for getting around in this city. Of course, you can always book a rideshare service, like Uber and Lyft. But to save even more money, these are your best options.
San Francisco has city buses, trains, and of course streetcars and cable cars, everywhere you look. This is one of the best public transit systems in the country, and it’s made up of different types of transportation that interconnect.
- Muni is short for The San Francisco Municipal Railway, but it includes more than just trains. It’s the main transportation network within the city limits, operating buses, electric trolley coaches, cable cars, and historic streetcars, which together cover nearly every corner of San Francisco. Its Muni Metro system adds light rail lines, standard-gauge rail lines, and subways for a combination of surface routes and underground tunnels.
- BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit, and it’s a heavy rail system that connects San Francisco to other Bay Area cities and the airport. BART fares are based on the distance traveled, but a trip to the airport generally costs about $10 or less.
Established in 1912, Muni was the first major publicly owned transit agency in the country, and it’s been known as the People’s Railway ever since. It’s one of the greenest transit fleets in the world, and one of the largest transit systems in the US.
You can buy single rides for $3 cash, but you get better savings with the 1-Day, 3-Day or 7-Day Visitor Passports. These provide unlimited rides on Muni, Muni Metro, historic streetcars, and the iconic cable cars for as little as $6 a day if you use the MuniMobile® app. This is a tremendous deal since just one ride on a cable car costs almost $10. Paying a little more on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Clipper® app also lets you ride the BART and ferry boats.
San Francisco is a beautiful city with lots of things to see, and you can experience many of them for free. In fact, almost every major landmark in the city is free to look at, and some are even free to explore or go inside.
Parks and landmarks
- The Golden Gate Bridge is undeniably one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks, and it’s practically synonymous with San Francisco. So you absolutely need to see it (or even cross it) while you’re in town. And it’s totally free to do that. You can also learn more about the bridge in the onsite Welcome Center and accompanying exhibits, or take a free walking tour.
- Golden Gate Park is located near the bridge, and it’s the country’s second most visited park next to New York’s Central Park. At 1,000 acres, it boasts a ton of attractions, gardens and museums. Some of them have admission fees, but there’s plenty of artwork, gardens, lakes and trees that you can enjoy for free, along with picnic areas and sports fields. Don’t miss the colorful Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers and the Bison Paddock. Birds and other wildlife love to hang out here too.
- The Presidio of San Francisco is closer to the Golden Gate Bridge than Golden Gate Park. In fact, it’s right beside the bridge. This is one of the country’s most popular national parks, and it’s 100% free. The Presidio features scenic overlooks, hiking and biking trails, picnic sites and beaches. Originally home to native peoples, it became a US Army post in 1846 and a national park in 1994.
- Fort Point is a National Historic Site at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the military protected the bay from the Gold Rush days through World War II. It was built in a traditional Army “Third System” style in the 1850s, which used large structures with plenty of guns and cannons to guard harbors. You can explore the three tiers of artillery casemates, and enjoy the living history demonstrations from Civil War reenactment groups, at no cost.
- Fort Baker is another former Army post located across the bay on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Built in 1905, this site consists of a parade ground surrounded by over 25 historic army buildings, military fortifications, and a sheltered harbor. It connects to trails that lead you through the forested areas surrounding San Francisco Bay for some fantastic views of the city. You’ll likely even come across the endangered Mission blue butterfly, which is protected here.
- The Palace of Fine Arts is a historic Greco-Roman venue originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition. This was the first great world’s fair of the 20th century, and it meant a lot for the city to host it, proving how well they had survived the destructive 1906 earthquake and fire. Located just outside the Presidio, the spacious and gorgeous Palace is mostly used for corporate events and weddings, so there’s not a lot to see inside on an average day. But the exterior showcases the architecture, and it’s surrounded by manicured landscaping and a lagoon that you can stroll through and admire at no cost.
- Coit Tower is a famous 180-foot lookout on Telegraph Hill, built in 1933 as a memorial to wealthy donor Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She was also a big supporter of the Fire Department, so the sculpture of firefighters in Washington Square honors her as well.
- Union Square is a former Union Army rally spot from the Civil War, now turned into a 2 ½-acre public plaza in the cultural district of downtown San Francisco. It was built in 1850 and the center of the square is home to the 85-foot-tall Dewey Monument, erected in 1903 to commemorate Admiral George Dewey’s victory in the Spanish–American War. On top you’ll see a bronze figure of Nike, the winged Greek Goddess of Victory, holding a trident and a laurel wreath—both also symbols of victory. There’s no cost to hang out in Union Square, or even go window shopping in the surrounding upscale department stores and designer boutiques.
- Fisherman’s Wharf has some paid attractions, like museums, cruises, and Alcatraz tours. But you can also wander around the docks and take in the seaside air for free. In fact, you can get a good view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge from here, and maybe luck into some whale watching.
- PIER 39 is part of Fisherman’s Wharf, and it’s not the only pier you can explore—but it is the place to see the famous sea lions, who have been coming here to hang out since 1990, shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the city. Each winter, you can see (and hear) up to 900 sea lions lounging on the rafts, with most of them being huge 800-pound males. And overlooking the dock is the free Sea Lion Center where you can access educational programming about their natural history and environmental threats.
- Twin Peaks is a 64-acre park encompassing two hills, with probably the best views around because of their high elevation. Hiking the trails gives you panoramic views of the whole city, while the north peak parking lot provides a sweeping vantage point of The Bay—just don’t go up when it’s foggy or you won’t be able to see very far.
If you decide to walk across, keep in mind that the bridge is 1.7 miles long—the longest bridge in the world when it opened in 1937. The trademark reddish-orange color was originally only meant as a primer with the intention of adding a grey or black topcoat like most bridges had. But the architect thought the bright color was a nice contrast to the surrounding bay’s blues and greens, so the “international orange” shade remained.
The newest attraction in the park is the Presidio Tunnel Tops, which opened in 2022. Built on top of the Presidio Parkway tunnels, where the freeway goes underground, this 14-acre national park space was created to be inclusive for all. It hosts special events and has public artwork on display, as well as large seating areas carved to look like driftwood.
The tower’s observation deck provides 360-degree views of the city and San Francisco Bay. You can admire the tower from many places in town, or look at the ground floor collection of Depression-era fresco murals for free. If you want to get a guided tour of the murals or take the elevator, it costs a little bit … but you’re looking at 10 bucks or less.
Twin Peaks is covered by the area’s original grasslands and coastal scrub, giving us a glimpse into the past. It’s also another habitat for the Mission blue butterfly, which has been an endangered species since 1976.
Cruises and tours
Lots of boats leave the harbor on tours every day, whether to go to Alcatraz, find whales to watch, or just give a close-up view of the Golden Gate Bridge. And most of them cost a pretty penny, to say the least.
However, sometimes you can find private sailboat owners offering tours for less than $20. That’s the only type of tour you should pay for with cash on the docks, because cheap tickets for larger tours from scalpers are often fake.
You can also take a local ferry ride. The Blue and Gold Ferry and Golden Gate Ferry head across the bay to Sausalito for less than $15, or you can take a San Francisco Bay Short Hop route for under $2.
If you’d rather take a commercial cruise or guided tour, as well as go into some other paid attractions, you’ll save money with a discount card like Go City San Francisco, San Francisco CityPass, or the San Francisco iVenture Card. These combo passes let you choose the attractions you want to see, or go all-access, and save money in the process.
Entertainment in a world-class city like San Francisco can add up pretty quickly. But there’s also plenty to do for free, or with very little expense.
San Francisco has some interesting and influential history, much of which is on display in museums. Some of the museums in San Francisco are free, and others offer free days or times.
- The Asian Art Museum normally costs up to $20, but it’s free on the first Sunday of each month and half price on Thursdays after 5:00 pm. The museum’s collection galleries feature more than 2,000 works of art from all major Asian cultures, and artworks are regularly rotated to keep displays fresh. There are contemporary and modern art as well as ancient masterpieces dating back thousands of years.
- The Randall Museum has free admission all the time and showcases science, nature and the arts as part of the Recreation and Parks Department. You’ll also find free family-friendly seasonal events and activities. On the first Friday of each month you can join in a Birding the Hill sightseeing hike sponsored by the Golden Gate Audubon Society (it’s free, but advanced registration is required).
- The Cable Car Museum offers free entry and includes viewing the powerhouse that runs the underground cables, with its huge engines and 8-foot winding wheels, then going below to watch the cable line itself. There’s also access to the Cable Car Barn, where active cable cars stay overnight, and a collection of historic cable cars to look at, including Clay Street Hill Car #8—the oldest in the world and the only one left from the original 1873 fleet—and two other antique cable cars from the 1870s.
- The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at Fisherman’s Wharf is a floating National Park. Stop by the free Maritime Museum in the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building, which is designed to look like an Art Deco ocean liner. Inside you’ll see underwater-themed murals from the 1930s, exhibits about sailors, and more nautical artifacts. There’s a Research Center and a Visitor Center, and you can also stroll the piers looking at the world’s largest collection of historic ships for free, although boarding them has a low park admission fee.
- The Marine Mammal Center is in the town of Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It’s a conservation and rehabilitation center, more than an aquarium—but unlike the commercial aquariums in the city, it’s free to visit (just reserve online in advance). And it has lots to discover, including more species of seals, sea lions, and sea otters than you ever knew existed, all being nursed to health for release back into the wild. February to May is “pupping season,” so you can expect to see some adorable babies during this time frame.
You don’t really need to pay for live entertainment in San Francisco. Depending on the time of year, or the day of the week, there are lots of places you can see concerts, plays, comedy shows, and other performances for free.
- The Golden Gate Bandshell is an impressive 120-year-old arched Italian Renaissance structure in the heart of Golden Gate Park that makes you feel like you were transported back to ancient Rome for a show. You can often find free all-ages concerts here, covering genres from rock to jazz to R&B to reggae.
- Market Street in downtown also has free concerts in the summer and beyond. The People in Plazas free music festival puts on over 130 of them, in 15 different outdoor venues. These concerts feature professional local musicians from diverse backgrounds and musical styles, including blues, jazz, classical, salsa, soul, swing, country and more.
- The Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park was built in 1970 and hosts free concerts and events throughout the year. Summer concerts include Jerry Day in August, rock and roll tribute shows, and the annual Due South concert series to celebrate the communities, arts and culture of the overlooked southeast side. There are also Shakespeare in the Park and Sundown Cinema movies.
- The Stern Grove Festival is a free concert series that’s been providing free music since 1931. You can expect 10 full-scale concerts each year, including headliners like Ani DiFranco and Leann Rimes. It takes place in the natural amphitheater of a hilly, forested city park in the Sunset district. You do need to reserve your tickets, but admission is always free.
- Salesforce Park is an innovative “floating” rooftop park that looks like a city park transferred into the sky. It also happens to have an impressive array of free entertainment, concerts, bird walks, drum circles, garden tours, and fitness classes. In fact, you can find something free going on here pretty much every day.
- Comedy Clubs in San Francisco often have free comedy shows—and not just for open mic nights. On any given night, you can find at least a few different options to make you laugh. Take note of the latest listings on FunCheap SF.
From book launches and readings to walking tours, festivals, dance parties and yoga in the park, you can attend free community events while visiting San Francisco. These are often targeted at residents, but that doesn’t make them any less fun for visitors.
Find the latest options at the City of San Francisco events page, San Francisco Recreation & Parks, or FunCheap SF. Also take a look at the free events put on by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, which include around 100 dance performances, music concerts, opera, theatre, puppet shows, and a lot more.
San Francisco has amazing seafood restaurants and other culinary delights, which is expected in a world-class city like this. So is the high price tag that often accompanies a gourmet dinner. But it is possible to have some fantastic meals in SF while keeping your cash in your pocket.
Keep it casual
You don’t have to restrict your dining options to fast food choices like pizza, burgers and fries. But choosing a lower-end eatery, like a café or sandwich shop instead of a 5-star restaurant, will help you stick to your budget.
San Francisco also has one of the country’s oldest and most established Chinatowns—the largest outside of Asia. Many locals praise the dim sum, dumplings, pot stickers and spring rolls you can find here. There are also plenty of highly rated Japanese, Greek, Middle Eastern and Indian restaurants to choose from that won’t break the bank.
If you absolutely must take in a classic Fisherman’s Wharf seafood dinner, save up and splurge on it just once. Or satisfy your craving with a steaming hot Dungeness crab served up fresh from an outdoor stand or cart instead of a sit-down restaurant. Also, browse the offerings at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in the Wharf’s Ferry Building.
Take a lunch break
In most cities, eating out at a restaurant for lunch saves you money over the dinner menu, because typically the meals are smaller. This isn’t always true in San Francisco, because many of the high-end seafood restaurants serve from the same menu all day. However, you can find some good lunch specials, from sushi to soup, for less than $20. There are also some great Happy Hour specials later in the day, covering appetizers and small meals as well as drinks.
Grab a meal on wheels
San Francisco has always been on the cutting edge of culinary trends, and some say the food truck was invented here. While some trucks are going to have spendy gourmet fare, others will give you delicious but cost-effective meal options. Choices range from Creole to clam chowder and Peruvian to Asian cuisine. The Roaming Hunger site or app will let you know what’s nearby.
Stock up on groceries
You don’t need to eat out every time you’re hungry. Stock up your motel fridge with premade snacks and meals from the supermarket, or go grocery shopping like at home to cook in your rental.
So yes, you really can enjoy a vacation to a great city like San Francisco while still sticking to a budget. For added savings, be sure to take along a credit card that gives you points on your travel purchases, like the new Wander Card from Credit One Bank.