Visiting San Francisco on a Budget

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Bay Lights

If you have read many of our posts on this site, you can pretty easily tell that our San Francisco walking tour guides think that San Francisco is the greatest city in the world. However, we also recognize that it is not a cheap city to visit! (Heck, you don’t have to tell us, we have to pay rent here!) That’s why we have put together this guide on visiting San Francisco on a budget. In this guide, we will show you all of the best things to do for people visiting San Francisco on a budget. Our San Francisco walking tour guides have visited each of these places and eaten at all the restaurants here, so we can vouch for everything on here.

Note: If you are coming to San Francisco on a budget, you should check out our page on the SF City Pass and GoSF cards. These cards offer great discounts on experiences, museums, and other adventures. We also put together a Three day itinerary for people who want to use the GoSF card.

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget

Day 1: The Waterfront

One of the best reasons to visit San Francisco is to see the amazing waterfront here. This city has some of the best views in the world, from the Pacific Ocean, to the Golden Gate Bridge, to Alcatraz, to Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge crossing it. So why not start your trip by checking out these awesome sites?

Stop 1: A Name-Your-Own-Price Fisherman’s Wharf Walking Tour

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Fisherman's Wharf

How could we start with anything other than this awesome tour? Starting at 10:00 AM, this is a great behind-the-scenes look into to the history of Fisherman’s Wharf and the SF waterfront. You’ll avoid the crush of tourists and discover how Fisherman’s Wharf really operates! You’ll learn why it took over 200 years to find San Francisco Bay, why the best chocolate in the world was discovered by accident, where to buy the best crabs on the west coast, and how one of the greatest baseball players in American history almost became a fisherman!

So if you like taking a peek behind the curtain of really popular activities, you’ll love your walk through Fisherman’s Wharf!

Stop 2: Lunch at The Codmother

After touring Fisherman’s Wharf and smelling all that delicious fish, crab, lobster, and freshly baked sourdough, you’re probably feeling pretty hungry. We suggest avoiding all the tourist trap restaurants and walking a few blocks to the Codmother. This place is legendary for their amazing fish &amp chips. Now, this isn’t some frozen fish that they toss into the deep fryer. This fish comes right off the boats of Fisherman’s Wharf and onto your plate. Seafood fans will love this! (Also, a quick suggestion: get the junior size–the regular size is huge!)

Stop 3: Musée Mécanique

Have you ever been to an arcade when you were a kid? Maybe you played the latest video games, or before that, perhaps pinball or other mechanical games? If you ever enjoyed games like these, you will love Musée Mécanique. This place has an incredible collection of arcade games dating back to the turn of the 20th Century. We hesitate to call it a “museum,” because generally in museums you aren’t allowed to touch the exhibits. But at Musée Mécanique, you are encouraged to play all the games, no matter how old they are! It’s free admission, and if you bring a handful of quarters, you can have fun for hours here.

Stop 4: Sea Lions at Pier 39

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Pier 39 Sea Lions

Generally, we tell people to avoid the huge tourist locations. And for Pier 39, we would recommend walking right past all the tourist shops trying to get you to buy food or knickknacks. Walk right to the back of the Pier, and follow the signs for the Sea Lion Viewing Area. There, you can see the famous San Francisco sea lions. You can hang out here for 5, 10, 15 minutes just watching the older sea lions lay back in the sun while the tiny little pups chase after each other in the water and play on the docks. It’s hard to find something more adorable than those things!

Stop 5: San Francisco Ferry Building

If the weather is nice, we would recommend that you take a stroll along the Embarcadero, the walkway that follows the waterfront. When you leave Pier 39, take a left down the Embarcadero and just enjoy the view (the numbers on the piers should be getting lower). You will eventually get to the ferry building. This building contains an incredible marketplace of restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and other shops. And if you get there on the right day, you will see a fresh food market outside of the ferry building as well. Take a walk through here and stop in for a snack or a glass of wine–you won’t be sorry.

Stop 6: Red’s Java House

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Red's Java House

Once you get out of the ferry building, you can continue walking down the Embarcadero. Alternatively, you could take a Muni Metro train down the waterfront to Pier 30. There, you can stop it for some food at one of the most historic food joints in the city. Red’s Java House is just a shack on the water, but it has been around since the 1930s and if you go inside, you’ll see that it hasn’t changed much since it opened up. And throughout its history, people have sworn by this place. So check out Red’s, grab a hamburger and a beer, and know that you’re eating in the same place that San Franciscans have loved for over 80 years.

Stop 7: The Bay Lights

At this point, it’s probably getting late, the sun might be going down, and no doubt your feet are pretty sore! So head out to a place on the waterfront where you can get a good view of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Because when it gets dark, this bridge hosts a spectacular light show every night. Recently reopened after a long renovation, the Bay Lights now decorate and animate an already amazing view. So at the end of the night, it’s hard to beat sitting next to the water, bundling up against the cold, and watching this incredible show before you head back to your hotel.

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Day 2: Downtown

Stop 1: Chinatown

Welcome to the oldest, largest, and most vibrant Chinatown in the Americas. This area hosts some of the most fascinating history in San Francisco, and we would highly recommend you taking a tour of the area to learn more about it. We have a name-your-own-price walking tour of Chinatown, or for those who want to wander around on their own, we also have a self-guided Chinatown tour.

Stop 2: Golden Gate Bakery

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Golden Gate Bakery Egg Tart

This legendary San Francisco food spot needs a disclaimer (actually, two disclaimers). First, the owners of this store are frequently on vacation, so although the store hours say that it should be open, the doors may be closed with the lights off. In fact, they are so unpredictable that there is a Facebook page called “Is the Golden Gate Bakery Open Today?

If the store is open, we would highly recommend you make a visit, because they have incredible egg tarts there that you will remember long after you leave. And at only $1.75, it’s hard to beat that when you’re visiting San Francisco on a budget! But that brings us to our second disclaimer. This place has become so well known as delivering amazing food that there are often long lines stretching out the door to get in here. If you see a line like this, don’t despair! The line usually moves quite quickly and you should be able to get inside within 15-20 minutes. So grab your egg tart and enjoy!

Stop 3: Chinese Food

Although after eating an egg tart, you may want to go back for another (and another, and another…) But if you do that, you’ll be missing out on all the other great Chinese food in the area! Our favorite budget restaurant is called Delicious Dim Sum. Yes, we know it’s a funny name and it sounds like a typical tourist trap, but we promise that you’ll enjoy the food here! You can walk in, grab a few dumplings and other snacks, and walk out with handfuls of food at low prices.

Stop 4: North Beach/Little Italy

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget North Beach

North Beach is the traditionally Italian area of San Francisco. If you walked around Fisherman’s Wharf during your trip, you will have seen where many of the Italian immigrants worked in the late-1800s and early 1900s. But at the end of the day, after all the fishermen sold their catch, they would go home to North Beach. This wonderful region is where you will find the best Italian restaurants, cafes, delis, and bars.

If you appreciate literature, you’ll love checking out the local hangouts of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. And if you appreciate art, you can see some of the best street art in the city. (Ever seen an original Banksy? You will here!)

SF by Foot offers a a self-guided tour of North Beach if you want to walk at your own pace, which is a great way to learn more about this wonderful part of the city.

Stop 5: Take in the Views!

The guides at SF by Foot take a lot of pleasure in finding hidden treasures in the city that even the locals don’t know about. And you’re about to get one (but you have to work for it!)

While you’re in North Beach, navigate to 766 Vallejo Street (it’s a couple of blocks away from Columbus Avenue, the main street of North Beach). You will see a police station with a parking garage next to it. Between the police station and the main entrance to the garage, there will be a staircase leading upwards. Start walking up the stairs, and don’t stop until you reach the top.

Now that you’re out of breath, exit into the open air, and take in the incredible views. You get an amazing 360 degree view of downtown San Francisco, the waterfront, Alcatraz, and the Bay Area. It’s hard to beat views like this!

Stop 6: Dinner in North Beach

At this point, you have earned yourself a break. Well done! Now that you’re in North Beach, you’re around some of the best food in the entire city. As we pointed out in our post on the best international foods in San Francisco, some of our favorites exist in North Beach. We suggest going to Mona Lisa for their famous pasta and risotto, Tony’s for pizza, or Molinari Deli for great Italian sandwiches. And be sure not to forget going to Gelatteria Naia for the best after dinner gelato in San Francisco!

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Day 3: Out West

Stop 1: Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is the largest park in San Francisco, with a variety of activities that are available for free, so this is a great stop for those visiting San Francisco on a budget. For this stop, it would help to have a car accessible, but that is not necessary. You can either take public transportation to get to the park, or you can use Uber or Lyft to get there for about $10 (depending on where your trip is starting).

Golden Gate Park: Japanese Tea Garden

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden

We mention that your first stop in Golden Gate Park should be the Japanese Tea Garden for two reasons. First, because it is a beautiful, serene, impeccably-manicured garden that should not be missed. Second, (and possibly more important for those visiting San Francisco on a budget), the garden has free admission every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings before 10:00! Outside of those times, the admission price is $8 for adults and $2 for children under 12.

The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the most tranquil places in this bustling city, and you can enjoy some peace and quiet in these lovely gardens. See the authentic, traditional gateway to the garden (“torii” in Japanese language), a 1.5 ton Buddha statue, a moon bridge, and a wonderful tea house. And if you don’t know what any of those things mean, that’s all the more reason to visit!

Golden Gate Park: The de Young Museum’s Hamon Observation Tower

As we talked about in our post on the best photography locations in San Francisco, the de Young museum has an amazing observation tower. When you show up at the museum, you can get free admission to the observation deck and enjoy incredible 360 degree views of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park. This is a must-do for people visiting the park!

Golden Gate Park: Visit the Local Wildlife

Did you know that San Francisco has a herd of bison in the park? Seriously! You can visit these bison that are allowed to roam around their paddock right next to the street. This makes for some great pictures, and a fun story to tell people that you saw some 2,000 pound animals right in the middle of San Francisco!

Golden Gate Park: Conservancy of Flowers

One of the most beautiful sights in Golden Gate Park, the Conservancy of Flowers is a collection of flowers grown in a turn-of-the-century greenhouse built as a gift to San Francisco by wealthy industrialists. Visit this incredible assortment of plants and flowers that have been host to millions of visitors from around the world. Ticket prices are kept low, at $8 for adults and $6 for kids.

Stop 5: Lunch!

Although the main restaurant center of San Francisco resides to the east of Van Ness Avenue, you can still get great foods at bargain prices in the western portion of the city. If you’re feeling like some interesting ethnic food, check out Pho Huynh Hiep 2, also known as Kevin’s Noodle House. The Vietnamese food here is delicious, and you’ll get out of there for under $10. If you want something a little more traditional, you can visit the Wooly Pig Cafe, just a few blocks away. With sandwiches of all varieties, combined with tasty drinks, this is a great place to if you’re on a budget.

Stop 6: Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge

You can’t get much more San Francisco than this! We enjoy this trip so much that we put together an entire guide to visiting the Golden Gate Bridge. Getting there can be a bit tricky, which is why we included all the transportation options to get there (having a car is the best way, but you can also take a bus to get to the visitor center). Once you arrive, however, this is an incredible sight to behold. Crossing the bridge, you will be over 200 feet above the water, with some of the best views of San Francisco, Alcatraz, and the East Bay. And best of all for those visiting on a budget, it’s all free!

Stop 7: The Presidio

When San Francisco was first explored, Spanish settlers set up a military outpost at the far northwest tip of San Francisco. We call this area the Presidio. Decommissioned for many years, this is now a beautiful, historic area for people to live, work, or just walk around!

The Presidio: Visit the old Weaponry

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Presidio

In the mid-1700s, the Spanish army set out to fortify the entrance to San Francisco Bay to protect the area from possible enemy ships that may want to invade the area. Although they had very few men, very few weapons, and very little powder (they had to borrow some from a visiting ship one time!), this was the main military encampment on the west coast at the time.

In 1912, the United States set up a battery of artillery to again protect the west coast from possible enemy ships. Fort Winfield Scott (now known as Fort Point), the name of the decommissioned military area, is still available for visitors to tour its fortifications and artillery pieces. This is a great place to walk around and see what the weapons of the early 1900s looked like.

The Presidio: Get a Great View of the City

The Julius Kahn Playground (perfect for those with kids, but a nice relaxing place without kids as well) is situated on a hillside of the Presidio overlooking the city. There are scenic overlooks and hikes all around this area for anybody interested in the outdoors. And with no admission charge, it’s also great for folks visiting San Francisco on a budget!

The Presidio: Celebrate Your Inner Jedi

Visiting San Francisco on a Budget Golden Gate Park Yoda

George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars saga, recently set up his company headquarters in the Presidio. Although the building itself is closed off to visitors, you can still visit the outside and check out the life-sized statue of Yoda, one of the favorites of the Star Wars movies. So bring your lightsaber and take a selfie with the Jedi Master!

Stop 11: A Well Deserved Dinner

Well, this has probably been an exhausting three day vacation. We generally think the best vacations are the ones where you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation when you get back! It means you saw everything you could see and did everything you could do. So, congratulations! If you have made it this far, you have seen many of the best places that San Francisco has to offer. And now, you can enjoy some relaxation with some of the best budget-conscious food that San Francisco has.

We have a few suggestions for you, depending on your palate. Perhaps you want to enjoy some great Mexican food? We’d suggest Street Taco. You can get inexpensive tacos and try each flavor they offer!

Alternatively, you might want to get some interesting food and go the Asian fusion route, with HRD, a great new spot in San Francisco.

Finally, you could go to the #1 food experience of the SF by Foot guides. Go get a burrito at La Taqueria in the Mission District of San Francisco. This burrito was rated as the best burrito in America in a recent study (yes, a burrito study!) And if you’re in the city, why not give the best burrito in the country a try? Especially in this guide on visiting San Francisco on a budget, you might as well give it a shot since it’s under $8 for a meal!

Whew! Hopefully you have enjoyed this tour. You’re probably feeling some kind of exhaustion, foot soreness, and being absolutely stuffed from all the food we suggested for you. But you know what? That’s how you do San Francisco, especially when you’re taking a trip on a budget! So we hope you had a great trip, and we’ll see you back in the City by the Bay soon!

About the author

Manager | San Francisco

Britt is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has spent 25 years in this magical city. He has traveled to over 30 countries, and has never found a place he loves as much as this one! If you come to San Francisco, you might join one of Britt's tours of the city.

A graduate of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, he has been leading tours for Free Tours by Foot since 2015.