So you’re thinkin’ of heading to San Francisco? Or maybe you’re already living in the hilly city and on the lookout for cheap activities.
The good news? There’s plenty to see and do in San Francisco.
Bad news? It’s well known as one of the most expensive cities in the country – even beating New York!
With the rent costs pushing residents to their financial limits and the cost of living nearly impossible to keep up with – it’s a tough city to stick to a budget in. But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of seriously rockin’ (and cheap or free) options to take advantage of!
For those of you who wish to keep your bank account healthy and intact while exploring “San Fran” (you can say it… but be warned, those can be fighting words), here are some ideas:
You’d think that a suggestion to “picnic” would suffice but we’ll actually need two steps to really get the most out of this suggestion. Picnic-ing is a serious affair in SF:
Step one…Curate your picnic: Compile the delightful components of your meal. With SO (oh so) many farmers markets, you’ll most definitely have your top choice of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Go the classic route (cheese, baguette) or get a little crazy with any other of the creative offerings that are sure to be at each market. People love the Ferry Building farmers market for good reason – it feels like a Michael Pollan book brought to life.
Step 2… Eat your picnic: Now that you’ve done the prep, time to reap the rewards! A nice day in San Francisco is the perfect time to set up a little checkered blanket and eat in the sunshine. There are parks scattered throughout the city so regardless of your location you’ll likely be able to find grass to set up. Just mind the wind and wear your sunscreen.
Foodie wonderland day
Pick a food, any food, and you’ll probably find a spinoff of options sprinkled throughout the bay. Cupcakes? Got tons. Fried pickles? Plenty. Cheese? Don’t even get me started. You can hash out a pretty great scavenger hunt just based on a single food “theme.” There are also (paid) guided food tours available, but you’re likely to create a pretty fantastic walk of your own with a little bit of planning.
Give your ears a workout San Francisco is definitely alive with the sound of music. Luckily, you don’t (usually) have to hike an enormous mountain to hear it. Popular venues include The Independent, The Fillmore, Great American Music Hall but smaller spots also host some great bands. Amnesia and Hemlock Tavern are two of my faves, but look further and you shall find! You can also check for discounted shows by searching Tix where you’ll find half price tickets for Bay Area concerts and theater productions. Ticketmaster offers similar deals so it’s absolutely worth the chance if you have a flexible schedule. Scorebig and Goldstar are two other sites that also showcase some of the better deals in the area.
Bike through Golden Gate Park
There’s tons of stuff to see as you jaunt through the most awesome park in existence. Well, at least one of the most awesome parks this side of the Bay. You can check out botanical gardens, bison, lakes, casting pools, The Academy of Sciences (tip, you can go to the viewing deck without having to pay admission!) and much more. Plus, there are festivals on pretty much an every weekend basis, so research ahead to see what’s happenin’!
Kayak the bay
This is an awesome way to see the Bay and a fun form of physical activity. You can buy a curated kayak adventure with a guide or rent equipment and go at it on your own. Of course, as with any physical activity in nature, safety is of the utmost importance. Before you go on any excursion make sure that you’re under professional supervision or have a firm grasp on (and follow) the precautions necessary.
Bathing at the Sutro Baths isn’t exactly forbidden but it’s not exactly encouraged anymore. These pools are one of those cool sites that feel kind of special and mysterious even though there’s not much to see. The destination is actually the “skeleton” of a grand bath hall that burned down in 1966. It’s fun to imagine how the deep pits used to host a bevy of bathers. In addition, there are some beautiful strolls surrounding the area.
Tip: If you’re in the mood for some art or culture, the Legion of Honor stands close-by.
Take some tips from the experts
The people of our city are pretty lucky to have some awesome resources at their disposal. Two of the awesome-est will help you to see just what’s abreast in the area and how you can have fun without spending tons of cash in the meantime. The Bold Italic is for anyone who wants a pulse of SF while SF Fun Cheap will illuminate all the deals you always wished you knew about earlier.
Ferry over to Oakland (or Sausalito)
I’m from Oakland, so I can say with full confidence that it’s a rad, creative, and interesting place with plenty to offer. The ride on the ferry is quite pleasant and gives you a great view of the Bay Bridge as well as a seagull or two. The ferry docks at Jack London Square which has plenty to offer, especially if there’s an event or festival filling the open space. With plenty of restaurants and the nearby Lake Merritt, you can explore another layer of the Bay.
For those who want a quaint afternoon, consider checking out Sausalito which is a little water town with lots of cute shops and restaurants.
Walk up a big ass hill
San Francisco wouldn’t quite be the same without its many hills. To really get into the lay of the land, walk up a hill to see what all the fuss is about. My suggestion? Take the steep walk up to Coit Tower. Not only do you get a sweet view, you feel like you’re scaling a prettier version of Mt. Doom. The Eye of Sauron would totally live there if anywhere in the city.
And speaking of walking… one cool (and free) opportunity to take advantage of are the gratis tours offered by SF City Guides. An entirely volunteer based system, the tours are free of charge (though tipping is highly encouraged) and center on a variety of themes and areas in the city. Vampire tour of San Francisco, anyone?
We have many! And not to brag or anything but – they’re kinda pretty. While you don’t necessarily need to walk across both (or either) of the biggies (Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge) they’re destinations for the tourist who cares for some serious appreciation of construction.
Fun fact: the famous Golden Gate Bridge is painted the very specific “international orange” which gives it that famous color… how worldly!
Make friends with Karl
In case you weren’t aware, our San Francisco fog is so famous it has its own name… and twitter handle: Karl the Fog. Being a sight in itself, take the opportunity to watch (or feel) the fog roll in for a peaceful and mesmerizing experience. Experience the fog to the fullest by setting your watch to observe it roll in at night or roll out in the morning!
Visit the kind of island you wouldn’t want to vacation on
San Francisco is known for the (now defunct) island prison known as Alcatraz. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s part of the SF tourist canon. Yes, a tourist attraction made this list! If only for the unique opportunity to ride the bay water to a prison island. I mean, really, how often does that come up? There’s a fee to catch a boat over there there but it’s a place that’s worth the tourist tag!
Let’s Go Giants!
Regardless of your team loyalty sporting events are usually good times to be had for all. AT&T Park is right on the water and quite a festive sea of orange when baseball season is on. Tickets aren’t exactly cheap but you can find deals or discounts if you keep an eye out. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can always take a kayak out on the bay and wait for a foul ball that’s been hit out that way!
Eat an It’s It on some city steps
Preferably when it’s warm and sunny (though there’s no weather guarantee in SF for weather). Oatmeal cookies sandwiching ice cream… covered in chocolate. Yum. You can even go crazy with a cappuccino or mint flavor. And though rice-o-roni is the traditional San Francisco treat, it’s not such a delightfully portable snack.
Hey, I know San Francisco is known for it’s startup culture but it’s also known for being a wee bit unique. Embrace it! Be a part of the quirk and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Whether that means being a part of a flashmob, a giant pillow fight, or just rollerblading down the Embarcadero – there’s tons of options! For a few ideas, here’s a great list of venues for the stranger activities available: Wonderful and Weird Things to Do In San Francisco
Coastal Trail SF
For a decent hike along the waterfront, schedule the coastal trail into your itinerary. It’s a 9 miler so it’s not for the casual stroller but you get to really know the edge of the bay (with plenty of people watching along the way). Warning: watch out for the wind… the sand tunnel it creates can be a little less appealing.
Castro Theater Sing-along
For an interactive and fun experience, check out the Castro Theater for a little sing along. Even if you don’t feel like dressing up you can enjoy the festivities and belt out a bit of a tune as you do. Tickets are cheap and it’s in a good spot to explore some food and drink before or after. For a schedule of the shows, check out their website!
Though some of the above suggestions have a fee, don’t forget to factor in the experience value of an activity. If it’s something you’re not likely to find somewhere else, or something that you feel would be worth the cost – don’t deny just for the sake of saving! Just be sure to set out your realistic budget and stay within reasonable means. My favorite strategy is to choose my top three and see how I can make it work. The effort put in is absolutely worth it!