No matter where I go in the world, whenever anyone asks me where I’m from and I tell them “Santa Cruz, California,” I’m usually met with a blank stare. But, when I say “a small city kinda near San Francisco,” people’s eyes light up. However, I did go to school in San Francisco for 5.5 years, and I know a lot about the nightlife and how to have fun in San Francisco on a shoestring.
Even if they haven’t been to San Francisco, everyone’s seen the cable cars in movies, looked at pictures of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge on Instagram, or heard tales of barefoot hippies with long hair frolicking in the park. Everyone wants to visit the fabled City by the Bay.
It’s no surprise, then, that San Francisco is one of the top 5 most expensive American cities to live in. It’s been competing with the Manhattan district of New York City for the title of most expensive U.S. city for the past couple of years. Presently, San Francisco is situated at #4, after Honolulu, Hawaii, according to Kiplinger.
Needless to say, this means that San Francisco is expensive to visit. The cheapest hotel room is usually around £78 a night, a standard meal downtown costs between £10 and £13, and those cable cars? Yeah, those cost £4.72 pounds per person – each way. This might not seem that expensive in comparison to, say, London, but compared to some other cities in America it’s insane.
Without further ado, here is my list of 7 fun things to do in San Francisco on a budget.
1. Have a picnic at Golden Gate Park
Price: Entrance is free, but if you are picnic-ing, obviously you have to buy your picnic snacks elsewhere.
I hate to say it, but the days of the aforementioned barefoot hippies frolicking in the park are long over. Except for when I’m at the park.
Jokes aside, Golden Gate Park is still a chill place to relax and have a picnic, a cheap San Francisco classic. It’s also really big, so if you don’t want to picnic, or if you want to wander around post-picnic, there’s lots of stuff to see within the park.
There’s Stow Lake, which is located on, shock, Stow Lake Drive, and is full of ducks and turtles. The park also happens to be surrounded by picnic benches, so if you are not really a picnic-in-the-grass person, you can have a picnic here.
There is also the Japanese Tea Garden, which features many assets similar to the traditional tea gardens in Japan. According to their website, the garden is FREE if you’re inside the gates before 10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. (It opens at 9 a.m.)
Otherwise, you can still hang out in the large pagoda in front of the garden even if you don’t go inside.
Hidden point #1.5: Lucca Food Store is on Irving Street, which is close to one of the many park entrances and has some really good sandwiches, beer and bags of crisps for not-expensive. I myself tend to stock up on snacks at the grocery store Trader Joe’s prior to picnic time, but you have options.
2. Go look at the Golden Gate Bridge
I don’t recommend walking along the bridge, as some people attempt to do, as it’s very windy and cold up there, but it can be cool to look at. And, you know, take selfies with.
3. Go to Dolores Park
Dolores is a beautiful park filled with people drinking, reading, dancing, relaxing, sunbathing, playing music, and picnic-ing, and it gets quite crowded, especially on a sunny Saturday or Sunday. There’s also a sweet playground.
Everyone brings snacks and beer/liquor, but glass isn’t allowed, mostly because everyone also usually makes a massive mess. If you do come here, please, please remember to throw away your garbage. Trash bins line the park, and that’s what they’re there for.
4. Visit the parrots at Telegraph Hill
If you spend a day walking around San Francisco, you’re likely to see a lot of peculiar sights, including, but not limited to, wild parrots.
Nobody’s entirely sure how they got there, but there are flocks of wild parrots that fly around the city, and their home base is at Telegraph Hill.
If you’re coming from downtown San Francisco, or Pier 39 (not listed here because it sucks), take the 39 MUNI bus towards Coit Tower ($2.25 or £1.74 for an hour and a half bus ride), and get off at the last stop (conveniently called “Coit Tower.”) Then you’ll see a bunch of stairs. Walk up them, enjoy the gardens that line the staircase, and keep an eye out for parrots!
That slightly phallic-shaped building you will see when you are there is called Coit Tower, and while there is a view of the city from the top, it’s £4.64 just to enter, so I usually skip that and just walk up the walkway to see if I can spot any parrots. The whole Telegraph Hill/Coit Tower area is high up enough that there’s a decent view anyway without having to go up into the tower.
5. Check out the Moraga Steps – and a killer view
Located at the intersection of Moraga Street and 16th Avenue in the Sunset district, these stairs are decorated with mosaic tile pieces that make up super intricate patterns. I know that’s probably pretty hard to picture, so take a peek at the photo(s).
You can totally just go and admire them for a minute or ten, but if you want to climb all the way up (it’s pretty steep), you’ll get a good view of the city, although it’s admittedly not as good as the view from, say, Grand View Park. Which brings us to…
6. Watch a sunset at Grand View Park
You could do #s 5 and 6 on this list in the same hour, as they’re basically at the same location. (They’re a six minute walk or a two minute drive apart.)
Grand View Park provides, as the name subtly suggests, a rather grand view of the city at any time of day or night, but it’s especially conducive for stunning sunsets. Check Google.com to see when the sun sets, and then try to arrive 15-20 minutes ahead of time to chill, take the Instagram pictures I know you want, and watch the sun make its descent.
7. Check out the view of the city from Twin Peaks
You sick of good views yet? Come to Twin Peaks at any time of day to see yet another view. Grand View Park shows you the whole city – Golden Gate Park, the ocean, and all the buildings – whereas what you mostly see from Twin Peaks is the skyscrapers. Wear two jackets as it gets very windy here.
– San Francisco’s transit system is called the MUNI. As previously stated, tickets are valid for an hour and a half and cost $2.25, which is the equivalent of £1.74. The website www.nextbus.com can tell you when the next one is coming.
– No American cell phone plan? No problem. Use the offline app maps.me to make sure you don’t get lost. When you have WiFi, just download “San Francisco, California” (or wherever you happen to be; it works all over the world!), and then when you’re out of the WiFi zone, it will still show you where you are and how to get to where you’re going, even without an Internet connection.
– Dolores Park is located near the Mission District, which is famous for its extensive amount of Mexican restaurants. You can get a burrito with beans and rice for $3.80 (£2.94) at Taqueria El Buen Sabor. And there’s a salsa bar.
*All prices correct at time of publication.