San Francisco Pier 7
Budget,  Travel

How to Visit San Francisco on a Budget

It’s no secret that San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. For residents of this hilled city by the bay, cost of living is 62% higher than other major US cities, according to the Business Insider.

But despite San Francisco’s high cost of living, residents and visitors can’t say enough good things about this foggy city. From the mild weather, fresh seafood, stunning architecture and its close proximity to wine country and the magical red woods all make San Francisco worth it.

If you are considering a trip to San Francisco, don’t let high costs scare you, because it doesn’t have to be that way. I will explain how to visit San Francisco for a weekend on a budget so you don’t have to break the bank.

Save on transportation costs from the airport

If you are flying into San Francisco, I recommend taking San Francisco’s public transportation system BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) instead of an Uber/Lyft/taxi.

For me, I flew into San Francisco from Portland, Oregon and I was staying in downtown San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood at Hotel G. The cost of an Uber/Lyft/Taxi ride from SFO to Hotel G is about $55 and on San Francisco’s BART public transit it’s just under $10 for a one way ticket.

You can save nearly $45 by taking BART over an Uber/Lyft/Taxi!

Save money by walking or biking in the city

Once you are situated in the city its most economical to simply walk or get a bike rental over driving a car or taking Uber/Lyft/Taxi.

One of the reasons is that San Francisco is a relatively small city land wise. At just seven miles wide and seven miles long, this densely populated city is a piece of cake to get around. The only challenge is its steep hills. But at the same time those hills are also what makes for some stunning picturesque views of the bay and city skyline.

Walking down Hyde Street with Alcatraz in the distance.

With that being said, when staying in a centralized location such as Hotel G in Union Square you can get to a ton of popular San Francisco destinations easily such as the historic Ferry Market Building (1.1 miles), Oracle Park baseball stadium (1.3 miles), Coit Tower (1.3 miles), shopping in Union Square (0.1 miles), Chinatown (0.3 miles) and catching a Cable Car from the start of Powell St. (0.3 miles).

Bike rental shops are a great option.

From Hotel G, where I was staying, there were three bicycle shops that were conveniently located nearby.

  1. Blazing Saddles – 433 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA
  2. Parkwide Bike Rental – 350 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA
  3. Ford Go Bike Station – 115-199 Cyril Magnin Street, San Francisco, CA

Rentals range from road bikes to electric options and allow you to rent by the hour, half day or entire day. Very flexible cost wise and also a fun way to get around the city.

Blazing Saddles Bike Rental Shop

I decided to rent from Blazing Saddles. I went with the full day bike rental option, which was $32, but if you reserve online you can save 20%.

My husband and I rented bikes starting at 10:00AM and rode them the entire day until returning them at 6:00PM. For a day of biking entertainment for $32 each this was a great deal!

Me after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on bike

We rode over the Golden Gate Bridge, a San Francisco must do, ate lunch in Suasalito, biked to Mill Park to see the famous California redwood trees.

Redwood trees in Mill Park.

Lastly we ended the ride in picturesque town of Tiburon before taking the ferry back to San Francisco.

Map of our biking journey.

Save money on food costs

One of the most fun things to do while traveling is to try new foods and go out to eat at cool new restaurants. But when your not used to paying for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as tipping those costs can sure add up fast.

Instead of eating out at every single meal, perhaps opt for stopping at a grocery store and picking up a few items that you replace a meal with. For example, there was a Trader Joe’s grocery store 0.4 miles from my hotel (Hotel G). If you just want to pick up some fresh fruit and granola bars for a breakfast, than this is your budget option.

Trader Joes

Have a picnic in the park

Full House lovers out there? Well, even if you never watched the 90’s sitcom based out of San Francisco, you can still enjoy having a budget friendly lunch picnic in Alamo Park and take in the famous view of the Victorian homes featured on the beginning credits to the Full House show.

Painted Ladies homes in San Francisco
Painted Ladies homes in San Francisco

Just stop by one of the cafes near Alamo Park and get a sandwich to-go and then set up a nice picnic. A few good options nearby include Bean Bag Cafe and Alamo Square Cafe.

Explore San Francisco’s Iconic Sites For Free

There are so many free sights to see in San Francisco, from walking across the famous Golden Gate Bridge, leisurely strolling through the historic Ferry Building Marketplace, or visiting the harbor seals that have made pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf their home that you can have a whole day of fun without spending a dime on a tour.

Here is a complete list of free San Francisco attractions:

  • Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Stroll the historic Ferry Building Marketplace
  • Visit the harbor seals at pier 39
  • Walk down Lombard Street, the famous winding street
  • Snap some photos of the Painted Ladies Victorian homes
  • Tour Chinatown on foot (you will really feel that you are in China)
  • Walk through Haight-Ashbury Street, the hippy neighborhood
  • Browse the high end shops in Union Square
  • Enjoy the architecture for free by strolling the grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts

Let your photos be your souvenirs

Instead of spending money on coffee mugs and t-shirts that adorn San Francisco landmarks let your photos be your free souvenir. This also makes sense when you are traveling light with a carry-on, which is what I like to do most of the time, as you won’t need to worry about finding room to cram in that bulky sweatshirt you just bought.

San Francisco is such an incredibly gorgeous city to photograph. I promise that you will most likely want to print and frame some of the pictures you take in this great city.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Hyde St.

Take advantage of discounted lodging offers

One of the best ways to save money when traveling is by getting a good rate on lodging. Before booking your stay, check for dates where rates are not at their peak, i.e. booking on shoulder seasons, instead peak summer months.

Utilize any discounts you have with various credit card points or even checking out deal sites like hotels.com or groupon.com.

I hope I have intrigued you to visit San Francisco in the near future whether its for a long weekend, day trip or an entire week. As you can see through some of my tips and tricks, traveling to this incredible city on a budget is absolutely possible. Happy traveling!

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