San Francisco is a beautiful and bustling city that deserves a place on every bucket list. Although it’s geographically small, it’s full of so many restaurants, museums, sights and activities that you could easily keep busy there for years. However, if you only have a few days, you can still see the best of the iconic City by the Bay. While San Francisco is known for being one of the most expensive cities in the US to live in, that doesn’t mean you can’t explore it on a budget. Here’s how to stack your itinerary with the best things to do in San Francisco for $100 or less.
Sightseeing in San Francisco
One of the best ways to get a feel for a new city is to go on a free walking tour. Free walking tours of San Francisco are usually guided by locals, so you’ll get a chance to visit a lot of areas you might not find on the standard tourist maps. These tours are free (though we recommend you tip your guide, $5-$10 is recommended) and they’re usually 2-2.5 hours long. Find free walking tours of San Francisco from SF Free Tours or SF City Guides.
Wanting a faster way to see the city? Rent a bike at one of the many bike rental shops around San Francisco—ride away for an hour or the whole day for one of the cheapest (and easiest) ways to get around the city. Bike rentals typically cost about $8/hour or $25 for the whole day.
Pack a picnic
California’s beautiful weather means San Francisco is the perfect place to enjoy the outdoors. Thankfully, there’s plenty of places for a picnic! Grab your picnic essentials at a local grocery store (or pick up takeout from one of SF’s many restaurants) and then head to one of these popular—and free!—parks or gardens for an afternoon in the sun.
- Golden Gate Park. The iconic park doesn’t overlook the Golden Gate Bridge, but you will have plenty to explore in this 1,000-acre oasis.
- San Francisco Botanical Gardens. These stunning gardens are the perfect place to take a walk, have a picnic or just explore some of the many plants from around the world. It’s free every day from 7:30am – 9am, or the second Tuesday of every month. Otherwise, it’s $10.
- The Presidio. This seaside park offers wooded walking paths and trails, views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, plenty of picnicking spots and more.
- Land’s End Lookout. With views of the Golden Gate Bridge, fields of wildflowers, ocean views and walking trails, what better place to spend an afternoon soaking in the views?
Take in views of the City
Once you’ve had your fill of nature, maybe you want to take in some views of the city? If so, there’s some stellar spots in SF that aren’t to be missed.
- Twin Peaks. Whether you hike or drive to the top of these mid-city peaks, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the city skyline, the Bay and the Golden Gate. Go for sunset or sunrise for the best views.
- Bernal Heights Park. For more views of the city from above, minus some of the crowds from Twin Peaks, make your way to Bernal Heights Park. Bonus: there’s a swing here that overlooks the city and makes for A+ Instagram shots.
- Alamo Square Park. Looking for a postcard-perfect shot of the Painted Ladies (aka the famous row of Victorian Houses from Full House and other TV shows)? Look no further than Alamo Square Park.
- Golden Gate Bridge. Of course you want to see the iconic bridge, right? Head right up to the bridge itself—it’s free to walk or bike across on the pedestrian walkways. Of course, for a more panoramic view, you can head to Marshall Beach, Crissy Field or Kirby Cove.
Explore some of SF’s diverse neighborhoods
San Francisco has lots to explore and discover, whether on foot, by bike or by trolley ride. Get a taste of San Francisco’s diversity by exploring some of these popular neighborhoods.
- Chinatown. San Francisco has one of the oldest Chinatown neighborhoods in the US, and it’s one of the best places to visit in San Francisco. From the iconic Dragon’s Gate to dim sum restaurants, authentic Chinese supermarkets and even a hidden fortune cookie factory, there’s a lot to explore.
- Japantown. Sure, maybe you’ve visited a Chinatown neighborhood before, but have you ever visited a Japantown? Home to loads of delicious ramen restaurants and Japanese shops and spas, you can easily spend an afternoon here. Make sure to visit the famous Peace Pagoda too!
- Embarcadero. The Embarcadero is one of SF’s most popular neighborhoods to visit. With waterfront shops and dining, museums and more, it’s a perfect place to explore on a sunny day. The famous Ferry Building Marketplace is also worth a visit—home to a bustling food marketplace where you can sample tons of tasty foods without having to pay full restaurant prices.
- Fisherman’s Wharf. You can hardly get more iconic in San Francisco than Fisherman’s Wharf. From pier-side dining to shops and more, there’s lots to explore. Don’t miss the sunbathing seals in this area, too! While it’s free to walk around and take in the sights and sounds, we definitely recommend grabbing a fresh bowl of clam chowder here as well.
See some street art
San Francisco is well-known for its eccentric and upbeat arts scene. While you can experience this through some of San Francisco’s many museums, you can also immerse yourself in it for free through San Fran’s street art and architecture. Some of our favorites to visit:
- Lincoln Steps
- Clarion Alley Street Art
- 16th Avenue Tiled Steps (or the lesser-known Hidden Garden Steps)
- all throughout Mission District!
- Take an Art Deco tour of Downtown SF (for free!) with a local tour guide.
Soak up some sun
Although San Francisco might be known more for it’s gray, foggy weather, it offers plenty of sunshine too (especially in the fall)! Soak up the sunnier days with a trip to one of SF’s beaches. We love Ocean Beach and Baker Beach. Watch the surfers, or rent a surfboard at one of the nearby shops and hit the waves for yourself. (Pro tip: you might want to grab a wetsuit too, the water can be chilly year-round!)
Check out a museum
Rainy day in San Fran? It happens, but it doesn’t need to spoil your plans! There’s plenty of indoor activities in SF, starting with their many museums. Most museums are between $10 – $20 for admission, but there’s also free days every month, too.
- Asian Art Museum: Tickets are $10 with a student ID, or free the first Sunday of every month.
- de Young Museum: Tickets for the large fine arts museum are $6 with a student ID, or free the first Tuesday of every month.
- Japanese Tea Garden: Tickets are $12 for non-residents, or free if you enter between 9-10am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Need more sightseeing ideas? Check out our list of our favorite free things to do in San Francisco.
The cheapest way to get around San Francisco
San Francisco is easy to explore by foot or by bike, which are by far the cheapest options. However, if you don’t want to rent a car (or just want to save some money), there’s plenty of public transport options available too. The iconic trolleys are fun for an experience, but they have limited routes and are more expensive than taking the local buses. The Muni buses will get you anywhere you need to go around SF. Better yet, a ticket good for up to 120 minutes of riding costs only $2.50. Get the app or a Clipper card for the easiest way to pay. (Pro tip for younger travelers: anyone under 19 years old rides free on Muni buses and trains!)
How to eat on a budget in San Francisco
Luckily, there’s amazing restaurants in San Francisco for any budget! Of course, there’s plenty of fancy options, but here’s a few of our favorite budget eats in San Francisco:
- The Ferry Marketplace. The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero is home to a huge marketplace full of vendors offering small plates and samples of delicious food all around the city. It’s a great place to grab a cheap breakfast or lunch, or even just a midday snack.
- Farmers markets. There’s no shortage of farmers markets in San Francisco and other small markets—all great places to stock up on picnic essentials. The San Francisco Ferry Building farmers market is one of the best! If you have a small kitchen where you’re staying, you can grab some groceries too. Buying your own food is much cheaper than eating out most times!
- Shop small. Big sit-down restaurants are much more expensive than smaller, hidden-gem restaurants tucked away in San Francisco’s neighborhoods. Grab street tacos from Mission District or some ramen from Japantown.
- Try a food truck. Food trucks are a great way to find cheap, delicious food in SF. Check the Presidio, Spark Social or Off the Grid for tons of regular food trucks.
Where to stay in San Francisco on a budget
The toughest part of seeing San Francisco for $100 is definitely finding a cheap place to stay. Don’t worry, though: it’s definitely possible!
- Hotels: If you’re looking for the best San Francisco hotels, it may be tough to find ones under $100, but you can get student discounts on your hotel when you book with StudentUniverse. Just check out our student discounts on hotels in San Francisco and see how much you can save.
- Hostels: Hostels in San Francisco? Yes, they exist, and there’s some that are really good quality, too! A bed in a hostel in San Francisco starts from around $20 a night, so it’s one of the best places to stay in San Francisco if you want to see the city on a budget. You can search for hostels through StudentUniverse or HostelWorld.
- Couchsurfing. If you really want to save money, the Couchsurfing app connects you with locals who are willing to let you crash on their couch—for free! And it’s a great way to meet locals in the city (who will probably have more great recommendations about where to eat and what to see). Both travelers and locals are verified by the app first for safety, and you can see and leave reviews for travelers and hosts.
Is San Francisco on your bucket list? Don’t let a small budget keep you from seeing this iconic city! From our cheap student flights to all of the budget eats and activities in San Fran, you’ll have a blast in this city even on a small budget.