San Francisco is known as one of the most expensive cities in the states, regardless if you’re visiting or living there. But the expensive price tag doesn’t have to keep you from enjoying the city on a budget. In fact, SF is one of the best cities to explore with a tiny bank account.
While I was there exploring for a month, I was on the tightest budget possible. And by tight, I mean nonexistent. But I got crafty and my legs got a killer workout, so I can’t really complain. Beside the tours, coffees and beer, I’d say I did a pretty good job at finding some fantastic and FREE places to chill. Here are some of my favorite places I found myself at, whether it was for photos ops or just a place to people watch.
Golden Gate (Not Golden Gate Bridge!)
This park is unbelievably massive. It’s home to a few museums, the Conservatory of Flowers, a man-made lake, bike and running paths, and plenty of places to picnic and rest under the Eucalyptus trees. This is one of my favs of the city, mainly because you never know what you’re going to see here. Located on the end of Haight Street, it has a colorful population, all just there to ‘have a good time, man.’ The museums offer free days once a month, usually on the 1st Sunday or Tuesday. It’s worth it!
This local park is in the Mission District and is the ultimate hangout spot. Groups range from social entrepreneurship meet-ups to band practice to frisbee throwing to having a few beers with your closest mates. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or who you’re with, it matters that you’re seen. If you want something local without spending too much money, head here. It boasts a great view of downtown and an even better view of the beat-boxing homies in front of you.
Famed for the ‘Painted Ladies,’ Alamo Square was made uber famous when the TV show Full House decided to use the park in the opening credits of the show. The house is still there, although it’s painted a different color and the tenants are not pleased to see you try to invade their privacy. Hang out on the grassy knoll and take in the view. It’s pretty impressive.
Golden Gate Bridge
This should be a no-brainer. It’s probably half the reason why you came to the city anyways. I fall in love with this bridge more and more every time I see it. It’s beautiful to me. And it’s impressive. Especially up close. Many try to walk across it without getting ran over by cyclists and incoherent tourists, and many succeed. It has one of the best views of the city, Alcatraz, and the bay. It’s visitor center is free and provides great info about the history and building of the bridge. We biked over it and back and that was fantastic. It’s a tourist attraction that has to be done. No excuses!
Mrs. Doubtfire House
Down the street from the Full House house is where Robin William’s infamously played Mrs. Doubtfire in the same name movie. Usually this is just a ‘snap-a-photo-and-be-done-with-it’ type of situation, but since his passing, many visitors flock to the house to pay respect to the late actor. You will see many rocks painted with lovely messages for him, including the nearby trees and sidewalk.
I don’t really want to put this on the list, but walking around Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 is free and really entertaining. It’s filled with tourists of all kinds, meandering their way through the tacky souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. But it’s still worth seeing as it’s an integral part of the city that has become a staple attraction. Locals hate it, some visitors enjoy it. It’s up to you. I go down there to people watch, check out the resident sea lions and perfect views of the bay.
Museum Free Days
Like I said above, museums have designated days of the month where they are free to visit. I definitely recommend you plan your trip around at least one of them. The museums in SF are top-notch and offer a range of interesting events, exhibits, and art. Many of the free days fall at the beginning of the month, and if you plan just so right, you could do a couple in the same day and really take advantage of it.
Presidio/Palace of Fine Arts
My brother used to work here, so I’d always find myself going to the Presidio and Palace of Fine Arts. It’s just a beautiful area of the city, a great photo-op, and a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown. The Presidio has beautiful walking trails and is home to the Walt Disney Family Museum, which is always free. If you’re a Star Wars fan, this is where LucasFilms is located and you can get your fix by taking a photo with the Yoda fountain outside. Unfortunately, you can’t get in unless you know someone. The Palace of Fine Arts is across the street and is an incredible structure. It’s used for many events, but is most popular for wedding and engagement photos. It’s also right across the street from the marina and beach, making it an easy side-trip.
This hike kicked my butt! We decided to walk from where I was staying in the Mission up the side of Twin Peaks on a dusty, dirt trail. Half of it was walking up streets that I had no idea could go straight up, and the other half was scrambling up the dirt trail. My ass thanked me tremendously, but my lungs did not. It’s a great trail for exercise and when you get to the top, the view is completely worth it. 360 degree views show the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, the bay, downtown and more. It’s a beautiful sight. Tourist buses are abundant, but that just means there’s more people there to take your picture for you! But word of warning: it can be insanely windy so dress accordingly!
Another great local hike, Bernal Heights is located to the south of the Mission. You can drive all the way up to the summit, or you can walk from Bernal Heights neighborhood. We parked halfway up and made a little hike around. They even have a swing at the top, which is perfect for a photo-op! There are unobstructed views of downtown and the neighborhoods and the bay. It gets crowded, and you’ll see plenty of locals running up this hill, making you feel extremely out of shape.
I can tell you one thing about San Francisco, and that its population of young entrepreneurs is strong. I wanted to get involved somehow, being there for an entire month, and so I checked out a few meet-up groups. Seriously, there are a million different groups that you can choose from. I signed up for the Young Women Social Entrepreneurship group, and I met them at Dolores Park one evening for snacks and a chat. I met several amazing women who all seemed like they had their shit together. It was motivating and inspiring. I even ended up meeting up with a few of them later on. It made my time there that much more enjoyable. I also went to a networking event in a beautiful co-working space. Being involved with new groups allows you get to go to cool events at cool spaces that usually have free food + drink. Yes and yes.
About the author:
Jen Heuett is the creator of Travel + Trust & Wanderlust, an online community to educate, empower and inspire women to travel solo. Her words can also be found on Huffington Post, Mind Body Green, and Travel Hooligan, her first travel company that inspires young adults to utilize the Working Holiday Visa in Australia and New Zealand. When she’s not traveling the world, she’s enjoying the Pacific Northwest and her mom’s tacos.