Eclectic, lively, alternative, San Francisco is arguably one of the greatest cities in the world.
Add in the engineering masterpiece of the Golden Gate Bridge and the spine-tingling stories that surround Alcatraz and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for an exhilarating city break.
Admittedly, San Francisco is not the cheapest place to escape to, but it’s still possible to have a wonderful time in this creative city without breaking the bank. These are our picks of the best things to do in San Francisco on a budget.
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When we left San Francisco after our first visit completely won over by the city by the bay, many people asked what our favourite part had been. A question which we struggled to find an answer to.
It wasn’t the first unexpected glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge or the great many attractions we saw during our time in the city.
It turns out our favourite thing about San Francisco was the city itself. The colourful diversity of the neighbourhoods, the beauty of the bay and its bridges, the iconic and historic cable cars which clink past you, the infamous hilly terrain and those quintessential San Francisco streets.
It was all of this rolled into one, and the best way to experience the best of the city is by taking to the streets and exploring on foot.
From artists painting individual street works in the Mission, to pastel Victorian mansions draped in vines and flowers, to the old man who rolling along in a mobility scooter openly smoking a joint, this city is the perfect mix of eccentrically weird and eclectically wonderful.
San Francisco is home to many famous attractions, but in our opinion, it’s not these attractions which make the city great.
Sample gelato in Little Italy and saunter through the winding alleys of Chinatown. Admire the ever-changing streets of the Mission and revisit the hippie glory days of the 70’s in the colourful and rather smokey Haight-Ashbury. Follow the footsteps of Harvey Milk in the Castro and marvel at the amazing views that reward you when you clammer higher up the city’s famous hills.
Biking the Golden Gate Bridge will be a highlight of any visit to San Francisco.
From zooming along the waterfront and getting lost in the archways of the Palace of Fine Arts, to viewing the bridge from every angle and finally rolling down into sunny Sausalito. Cycling the route is the perfect way to see the bay and get up close with the world’s most famous bridge.
Looking up at the huge cables that hold you in the air as you meander through the crowds gives you a real sense of the scale of the bridge that you just don’t get viewing it from afar or from behind the window of a car.
Added side trips to Sausalito, a cute Italian-style village by the water with a quirky houseboat community, and the Marin Headlands from where you’ll find the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, make for an even more exhilarating day of exploring.
READ NEXT: BIKING THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE TO SAUSALITO!
Now, you might be thinking, ‘not another bloody walking tour, with the awkward jokes and forced laughs and endless facts that make it easy to zone out, but the Wild SF Walking Tours do things a little differently.
Focussed on portraying stories of hardship, redemption and community that highlight the dark and colourful histories of the various San Franciscan districts, the guides, all working performers, bring an individual flair to the material that makes these tours both insightful and engaging.
As people who knew very little about San Francisco’s past, this was an excellent way to understand the events that have shaped the city as we know it.
The guides are clearly passionate about the people and events that defined these neighbourhoods and their stories left us wanting to hear even more. Perhaps there were a few awkward laughs, but when you’re standing in downtown San Francisco with someone dressed in Victorian getup, sporting a bowtie and a ukulele, we think it’s safe to say that a giggle or two is warranted. There are many more genuine laughs that followed.
Groups are kept small so it really is an interactive affair and at the end of the tour you’ll receive a cheat sheet for some of the secret spots of the district.
To help with your budget, Wild SF flyers are distributed around certain hostels in the city and give you a $7 discount per person when booking online, so keep a look out for it when you arrive. Free tours are also available. Tips are recommended and well deserved.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of those places where you really have no idea what you’re going to find around the next corner, and you can find some seriously wacky stuff.
While some streets are lined with gimmicky souvenirs, venture a little further you’ll find streets lined with marketplaces that will make you feel right back in Asia bartering for your bok choy. Then, alongside your standard mix of dried apricots, goji berries and almonds, you’ll find jars of dried octopus, fish heads and seemingly endless varieties of mushroom.
There is Portsmouth Square where the seniors do tai chi in the shade of large umbrellas to instructions blaring from tiny radios or stand in groups under the trees playing cards.
This small warren of streets in the middle of the city is just a few blocks from Little Italy and Union Square but feels a million miles away. To really get the full benefit you need to explore a whole lot deeper than just Grant Street.
Take a few wrong turns and wander down an unmarked alleyway – this is where the real Chinatown begins.
At $7 a trip, this isn’t exactly the cheapest way to get around town, but a ride on this ancient piece of machinery is as exhilarating as it is practical.
The cable cars are rickety and old and as you clink along you can feel every kink in the line, but watching the conductors turn the cogs to disconnect and reconnect to the chains and ring the bells as you roll along makes you appreciate just how impressive it is that these vehicles are still able to navigate their way up the hills.
Hanging out the back of the carriage as the San Francisco streets rush by and golden light streams through the doorway isn’t a memory we’ll forget in a hurry.
It’s best to take the ride from start to finish, or close to it, to get the most bang for your buck. Standing out the back will also give the best views of the city as you climb the steep hills.
Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s key attractions, and with good reason.
From start to finish we had about five hours of the Alcatraz experience. The audio tour which is included with the ticket is very well executed and allows you to move through the site at your own pace.
The first-hand accounts of life at the prison, and in particular the escape attempts, narrated by ex-inmates and guards made for a very engaging experience.
The boat ride to and from the island also affords great views of the city by the bay, the bridges and of course, Alcatraz.
To get your ticket to Alcatraz, you’ll need to book well in advance or prepare to be disappointed, especially if you’re visiting in peak season. A small number of tickets are made available for same-day purchase but you’ll need to line up in the small hours to be sure of securing yourself a ticket. It’s also best to get on the first tour of the morning so you have time to explore the grounds with no one else around.
Overall, we were kind of disappointed with the food in California, but San Francisco was the wonderful exception.
We found tasty dishes from across the globe and generally at quite affordable prices. You could wake up with crepes, lunch on tacos, wind down with sushi and bring in the day with an evening snack of gelato.
The Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building is a great choice for brunch. Take a seat by the water and watch the world go by beneath the Bay Bridge.
You might be wondering where a few of the major attractions are – the ‘crooked’ Lombard Street, the painted ladies at Alamo Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and all the rest of them. While we did spend time traipsing around San Francisco ticking these off, we didn’t necessarily feel they added to the San Francisco experience.
While they are very famous sights and icons of the city, and some might even say any visit is not complete without them, aimlessly rushing around trying to see it all is simply a waste of your time.
Not only will you be fighting for a spot in the line of 50 other tourists trying to get a photo or see the view, once you’ve got your shot, that is kind of it. You can wander on satisfied at having ticked it off your list. If you have enough time, by all means, stop by these sights on your stroll through the city. But if you are short on time, don’t be too disappointed if you happen to skip a few of them.
As one of the most visited cities in the world, it should come as no surprise that there is a huge range of accommodation sprinkled across the city.
For the full range of hostels in San Francisco, search here.