Last Updated on March 3, 2021
San Francisco was one of our favorite cities during the American leg of our travels. The city is filled with life; and it would take a lifetime to discover all of its secrets. It could also take a big budget if you’re not careful. However, with a bit of planning, exploring the streets of San Fran doesn’t need to eat through your budget. If you are visiting the Bay area on a small budget, here are the Globetrottergirls tips on getting the most out of San Francisco on a shoestring, and the best free things to do in San Francisco.
1. Take a free tour
San Francisco offers some great walking tours with enthusiastic guides who have some incredible knowledge of their hometown which they are more than happy to share with you. If you choose a tour in one of the less-known neighborhoods you are likely to find out much more about San Francisco than any guidebook can offer. The original free tour is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco because it covers most of the iconic landmarks and gives you a good overview of the city. Tours run daily, and are free, but reservations are required. Don’t forget to tip your guide!
*free – but leave a tip*
2. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge
Walking the Golden Gate Bridge reveals how colossal this grand piece of architecture really is. Looking 245 feet / 75 m down into the water or 500 feet / 152 m up to the top of the huge pillars will show you how tall the bridge actually is. And when you crossed the 1.7 miles long bridge you can enjoy the views of San Francisco from a big vista point before walking another 1.7 miles back. If you enjoy walking, this is a quintessential thing to do in San Francisco on a shoestring.
3. Take a street car instead of a cable car
The trademark San Francisco cable car is a fun ride. Once. But the cable cars don’t get you where you need to go, plus the tram offers excellent views for much better value for money. Rather than spending $6 on a ride in a cable car, for $2.25, a ride on the F Line gives you a tour from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro. The ticket is valid for 90 minutes in case you want to take a closer look at something you see on the way.
*$2.25 adults / $1 for kids*
4. Free museums in San Francisco
San Francisco has a number of museums that are free of charge, such as the Cable Car Museum, the San Francisco Fire Department Museum or the Museum ItaloAmericano.
Many other San Francisco museums have a free or half-price day every month, such as the De Jong Museum, San Francisco MOMA (half-price Thursday evenings 6:00 p.m. – 8:45 p.m, $9.00) and the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts (all 1st Tuesday of the month), the Exploratorium (1st Wednesday of the month), California Academy of the Sciences (3rd Wednesday of the month) and the Asian Art Museum (1st Sunday of the month or $5.00 after 5:00p.m. on Thursdays).
*free / 50% discount*
5. A stroll across Chinatown & Financial District
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the biggest in all of North America, and it is the oldest. Enter through the Dragon’s Gate on Grant Street and explore the countless Chinese stores where you can get anything from Chinese teapots and silk dresses to cheesy souvenirs.
The many restaurants have authentic Chinese cuisine and often offer special deals on their menus. Eater has a list of the best places to eat and drink in Chinatown. Stockton Street is less swamped with tourists, but gives you a glimpse of how the Chinese live, including markets. At Portsmouth Square you can watch older Chinese men play chess when the weather is warm.
Turning into any of the streets that lay right off Grant Street (Clay Street, Sacramento Street, Washington Street) will bring you right into the Financial District with its modern architecture and skyscrapers. Adjacent to the bay, the walk through the Financial District will bring you to the Embarcadero and the ferry station by the Bay Bridge.
6. Haight & Ashbury
The neighborhood which is famous for its hippie culture in the 60’s still has some nostalgia of its roots, such as Amoeba Music or the first Ben & Jerry’s, and is still a good place to shop in independent clothes and vintage stores for less money than in the usual chain stores around Union Square. The coffee shops and restaurants are cheaper than eating out in the city centre, plus much more condusive to hippie-watching (and nowadays punks, too). CultureTrip recommends these ten things to do in Haight & Ashbury. All of them fit in a San Francisco on a shoestring budget.
7. Explore the Castro
The Castro, mainly known for its large queer population, has become a place well worth visiting not only for gays and lesbians. Many individual shops and cafes line the streets and walking up the steep streets to the more bohemian Noe Valley will reward with superb views over San Francisco. LGBTQ visitors should check out these 21 historic queer sites to visit in San Francisco – of course, the Castro is one of them.
8. Explore the Mission District
The Mission District is the oldest part of San Francisco and home to its Latin American population. Here you’ll find endless authentic Latin American restaurants, taquerias and burrito joints where you are served excellent food for very little money. The Mission District is practically an outdoor art museum, with its famous murals and street art which covers buildings and alleys all over the area, so make sure to explore to the right and left of Mission Street. If you are really interested in murals, it might be a good idea to take a tour which will show you even the best hidden pieces.
*$15.00 for lunch for 2 people
9. Visit Golden Gate Park & Ocean Beach
Golden Gate Park stretches over more than 40 blocks in San Francisco’s West until the Pacific Ocean and is larger than Central Park in New York. It’s much more than just a park – apart from riding a bike (there are several bike rental stations in the park) or walking, you can row on Stow Lake, listen to live music jam sessions, or visit the botanical garden or one of the museums.
Ocean Beach borders Golden Gate Park on the West side and is San Francisco’s largest sand shore. It is a great spot to watch the surfers and enjoy the views of the Pacific Ocean’ huge waves.
10. Drive Down Lombard Street
Lombard Street is famously known as the ‘crookedest street’, although apparently it is not even San Francisco’s crookedest street, but watching the cars going around its steep curves (eight switchbacks on a 40-degree slope) is priceless entertainment for no money. The street is technically just like any other, which means driving down it yourself (if you have a car) won’t cost you a penny, either. TripSavvy has some great tips on how to visit Lombard Street the right way.