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15 Cheap Things to Do in San Francisco

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Vicky Philpott

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Written by: Vicky Philpott

Some people have accused San Franciscans of being mired in musical nostalgia, that they can’t get away from a fixation with 1950s Beat bohemia or Summer of Love flashbacks. I say that all adds to the atmosphere and vibe of a modern city filled with iconic hotspots alongside new and upcoming things to see. The weather is highly changeable here so pack for all sorts and layer up so you can strip when the sun comes out. The culture is outdoorsy. whether to you that means supping coffee outside a cafe or running in the mountains, there’s loads for you to do in San Francisco if you like your travel cheap and dirty.

San Francisco on a Budget

1. Drink copious amounts of coffee

San Francisco is well known for its love of coffee culture. You definitely won’t have time to make it through the wealth of coffee shops lining the streets of the city. You may as well give it a go though. Start at Farley’s Coffee Shop on Potrero Hill and enjoy the art covered walls and beautiful views of the Bay. Or, if you have the time, try the coffee at the Blue Bottle Coffee Company. They will do pretty much everything from scratch, bar growing the bean and the taste is worth waiting for.
Latte US$4 | Clean

2. Buy some vintagey clothes

You’ll find Molte Cose in the Polk Gulch area of the city, and you’ll be glad you did. Transform your pasty English look with some vintage jewellery, second hand sweaters and a pretty dress – mix them all together and what have you got? An awesome outfit, that’s what. If you fancy yourself as a bit of a magpie when it comes to shiny, pretty things check out the jewellery at Belljar too.
Difficult to price up, but at least $5 for a crazy hat | Rifling through old clothes? Bit dirty

3. High ten Hoppers Hands

Hoppers Hands in San Francisco
If you’re travelling to San Francisco on your lonesome and miss the feeling of double high fiving your friends back home, make your way to Crissy Field. It’s a popular route with runners taking in the scenery at Fort Point. Once at the point you’re at a dead end, so in days gone by people would slap the fence and turn around. Legend has it that an ironworker called Ken Hopper used to hang out there working to prevent suicide jumpers, he saw people slapping the fence and asked for two hands to be painted there. Nowadays there’s even  a lower one with two paws for any doggies running the strip.
Free | Slapping a spot where millions of runners have been before? Dirrrrty

4. Sightsee with an ice cream in hand

Lombard Street San Francisco
Depending on what time of year it is when you choose to visit San Francisco, you may need a cooling treat as you walk the streets. Swensen’s Ice Cream is perfectly positioned to pick up before you go and check out the crooked Lombard Street. Alternatively, if you want to sit in, check out Mr and Mrs Miscellaneous. The shop is cool, the owners Annabelle and Ian are awesome and the ice cream is, according to some, the best in the whole of San Francisco.
$5+ | Dirty if you’re like me and have it dribbling down your fist in the sun

5. Eat at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday the market sprawls along the old ferry terminal inviting locals and travellers to make the most of the offerings. If you do miss the market make your way down there anyway, the pier is a beautiful spot and the Ferry Building Marketplace has enough shops and restaurants to make your belly and bank balance groan under the pressure.
Free+ | Clean sea air 

6. Get your Instagram on

The History of Things from Diante Singley on Vimeo.
There may not be any space in your backpack for any architectural antiques, but you can certainly have fun at Big Daddy’s Antiques with your Instagram account. From mirrors to birdcages this place is a feast for your eyes, and your iPhone.
Free+ | Old antiques = dirty

7. Sightsee from a tram

Tram in San Francisco
The historic F-line streetcar trolleys runs along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building and out to Market Street, past Union Square and out to the Castro. If you travelled all 64 stops you’d see Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower and City Hall. They’re a great way to see the city once your legs are worn out. And if you’re as immature as me, don’t miss out on a little trip up Nob Hill.
One time fare $2 | Bit dirty – those trams are ancient

8. Go for a chilly swim

The San Francisco Aquatic Centre is tucked between Fisherman’s Wharf and Fort Mason and makes for a great spot if you want a refreshing swim. If not, it’s still worth a go to watch the sun set on the horizon against the Alcatraz Island backdrop. You can reach the spot on the F-Line train.
Free | Clean – you can have a right nice wash

9. Get high

Hamon Observation Deck in Golden Gate Park
The Hamon Education Tower Observation Deck at the DeYoung Art Museum in Golden Gate Park offers one of the best views of the city. Up on the 9th floor you can enjoy an incredible bird’s eye view over the city and surrounding bay area. The Museum is worth a look in too.
$6 for students with ID | Clean as a Dean

10. Chill the hell out in the parks

Whether your idea of chilling out is to run, walk, bike or just lay your blanket on the floor and stare at the sky, you can do it all in Fort Mason Park. Pick up a picnic beforehand and it makes the ideal spot to soak up the sun and enjoy a cheap dinner.
Crissy Field on the waterfront has awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge and has a sandy beach too. Check out local events calendars when you know your dates – there are often festivals and concerts held with the bridge for a backdrop. Take a walk and check out the free Palace of Fine Arts nearby too, and if you’re feeling flush have a look in The Presidio Social Club for your dinner. It’s worth it for the views.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also a top spot for sunny day picnics and of course, you can’t leave San Francisco without checking out Golden Gate Park for a few hours.
Free+ | As dirty as you want it to be

11. Rainy day fun

The Clay Theatre San Francisco
When it’s raining, or you’re just sick of the sunshine, whatever happens first, you’ll be pleased to know that The Clay Theatre and The Kabuki Theatre make for an awesome few hours indoors. The Clay Theatre is one of the oldest theatres in San Francisco and is surrounded by restaurants, shops and cafes. It plays a range of foreign and off beat films as well as the latest blockbusters.
The Kabuki Theatre is a great little cinema with spacious, plush seating complete with tables to hold all your food and drink. Another awesome perk is being able to bring your own drinks into the theatre with you too.
And, finally, if you’re under 30 you can get half price tickets from the Berkeley Rep to enjoy any of their performances.
US$10+ | Depends when you go and what you see

12. Beat Museum

As well as the copious amounts of bars, clubs and restaurants attempting to recreate the famous Beat era in San Francisco, the Beat Museum goes one further. Here you can enjoy regular events, buy gifts and posters and take a look at some rare and collectible items from the time.

The Beat Museum is dedicated to spreading the spirit of The Beat Generation, which we define as tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live your individual truth. We are dedicated to carrying on the Beat’s legacy by exposing their work to new audiences, encouraging journeys—both interior and exterior—and being a resource on how one person’s perspective can have meaning to many.”

US$8 | Not at all

13. Look around Union Square

It’s at the heart of the city and it has lots of shops. If you’ve got some cash you’ll love it, if not, probably best to avoid, but the window shopping is free. Every so often there’ll also be some sort of event here too so keep your eyes and ears out for information.
Free+ | Depends what you do

14. Chill at Amoeba Music

Amoeba Music San Francisco
Amoeba is the coolest record shop in the world and also one of the largest. They have a huge floor dedicated to new and used records, CDs and general related memorabilia for you to sort through. Just like in the old days before iTunes and the like. Keep an eye on their site for live listings – every so often they host performances, DJ sets and signings in the shop.
Free+ | Pure filth

15. Ride in a cable car

Since the 19th Century cable cars have been transporting people around the San Francisco area. They run on tracks and move around on an underground cable on three routes. Rides give an awesome view of San Francisco’s hills and wider area.
US$5 | Hmmm, not sure how often they get cleaned

And one not so cheap, but definitely dirty…

16.   Escape to Alcatraz

Alcatraz in San Francisco
Some of the world’s most notorious criminals were incarcerated in this prison, and none of them ever managed to escape. The stories about Alcatraz are fascinating, and to be honest, it’s a must for anyone visiting San Francisco. You’ll need to catch a ferry from Pier 43 to get out there.

More advice and inspiration for travelling the USA on a shoestring

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