Despite being one of the most expensive cities in America, San Francisco can be visited on a shoestring.
In this new monthly series, we’ll teach you how to maximize your vacation budget and visit your favorite cities for less than a typical weekend at home. We’ll furnish a two-day itinerary of free and insanely cheap things to do and places to eat, but how you get there and where you stay is up to you. With variable pricing based on travel dates, to find discount accommodation, consider all options from hostels and hotels to b&bs. To score the best flight deals, always compare multiple booking sites, try different airline combinations, and be as flexible as you can with your plans.
Oh, San Francisco. Believed by many to be the best city in the world for its job opportunities, mild climate, food cornucopia, and international attractions, San Francisco draws top talent–and visitors–in droves. Just the name conjures up images of mysterious bridges cloaked in fog, tech giants, and award-winning cuisine. While you may think the City of Golden Gate requires a gilded wallet to visit, savvy travelers know there’s always a way to ball on a budget. Here’s how to make the most of 48 hours in The City by the Bay without breaking the bank (or renting a tent in someone’s backyard).
Breakfast: Eddie’s Café
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Cost: $5.65 for a breakfast plate with smoked sausage, eggs, hash browns, and toast
Eddie’s is classic American comfort food that’s somehow managed to survive the influx of trendy brunch spots and overpriced avocado toast. The greasy spoon has consistently maintained a line out the door since they opened in the ’70s, so much so that the cozy neighborhood diner received legacy status from SF’s Small Business Commission.
Morning Activity: Ride the Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf
The last manually-operated cable car system in the world, the San Francisco Cable Car is a national historic landmark and one of the city’s proudest traditions. The two main lines, Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason, start at the busy intersection of Powell and Market and head toward the waterfront. While not the most efficient means of transportation by any means, it’s an iconic California experience and a rite of passage.
Walk a few blocks to the Wharf with the ocean breeze blowing in your hair and indulge in some people watching. Stretching from Ghirardelli Square to Pier 35, the area is full of unexpected attractions from wax figurines to shark feedings and amusement rides. Take your time and see what catches your eye.
Lunch: Boudin Bakery
Cost: $7.99 for a famous clam chowder bread bowl
A San Francisco treat, Boudin Bakery is the city’s oldest continuously operating business. Established by European immigrants in the mid-1800s, they brought French baking techniques to the local area miners, warming their hearts and spirits with homey soups and flaky bread. After you sample the signature sourdough, you can tour the museum and see the bakers handcrafting the bread every single day at their production facility.
Afternoon Activity: Explore Pier 39
Just down the waterfront, Pier 39 is another popular tourist attraction and entertainment district to get wonderfully lost. With views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridges, and Alcatraz, take in the street performers, roaming musicians, sea lions, and maritime history. Stay long enough and you may even catch The Bay Lights at night. Continue meandering along the oceanfront and you’ll eventually reach the vintage penny arcade, Musée Mécanique, at Pier 45.
Dinner: Explore Chinatown at Dim Sum Bistro
Cost: $6.75 for three plates
With the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, San Francisco is renowned for its international cuisine. Step through the ornate dragon gate and you’ll be greeted by a bustling maze of streets and alleys brimming with flair and chaos. Regularly voted one of the best restaurants for small-plate Chinese food, Dim Sum Bistro’s dishes are just $0.60-$2.25 apiece, making it a great place to come hungry.
Breakfast: Try a Famous Mission Burrito at El Castillito
Mission burritos are more than just a cult food of California—they’re an essential part of the area’s evolution. The incarnation of the blue-collar immigrant culture of old rebelling against everything shiny and new, Mission burritos are the physical manifestation of heritage wrapped in a delightful shell. Large, hearty, and wholesome, they’re proof that despite the rise in rent and celebrity chefs, there’s still a place for affordable, edible traditions.
El Castillito has remained largely under the radar in comparison to other burrito spots that have been Instagrammed to death, despite claims they’re the best in America. Many notable food writers attest they’ve perfected the basic three ingredients: the meat, tortilla, and cheese—you simply have to taste it for yourself.
Morning Activity: Tour the Mission Murals
Before street art took off around the world, local expressionists were using the streets and alleyways of the Mission District as their canvas. A politically-driven city with an intriguing mix of hippie counterculture, colorful walls were an outlet for protest and rebellion. Start your self-guided tour near the Precita Eyes building, which is the community gathering place for street artists. Wander the neighborhood to find your favorite piece. Like an outdoor gallery, the murals are always changing.
Lunch: Saigon Sandwich
Keep diversifying your palate or eating your way around the world with some no-frills Vietnamese. The banh mi is one of the signature sandwiches of Asia and a local must-try. Choose a protein of tofu, chicken, pork, or pate to be served on a buttery baguette topped with pickled vegetables.
Afternoon Activity: Go Sightseeing
San Francisco has so many iconic hotspots, it’s hard to see them all in a weekend, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Need a green reprieve? Hike the Presidio. Keen on watching the waves? Hang at Baker Beach. Love pop culture? Visit the Painted Ladies, while the Full House theme plays on a loop in your head. Like architecture porn and feats of engineering? Check out the Sutro Baths or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. The world is your oyster so make it a choose-your-wn adventure afternoon.
Dinner: Sam Wo’s
If you’re not sick of Asian food yet, Sam Wo’s is the oldest restaurant in Chinatown. A favorite late-night spot for their barbecue pork rice noodle rolls and jook (congee porridge), they’ve served happy and hungry customers since the early 1900s. Most of their signature dishes and soups are reasonably priced (under $10)
INSIDER TIPTommy’s Joynt is an alternate option if you’d prefer American cuisine for your last meal.
Grand Total: $43.77
INSIDER TIPSize-wise, San Francisco is rather compact making rental cars more of a hassle than they’re worth. MuniMobile offers a $5-day pass for unlimited rides on the bus, train, and streetcar, which is by far the cheapest way to get around.