7 Budget-Friendly Things To Do In San Francisco

Earlier this month I took my first ever solo-trip to San Francisco. It was a post-election, post-graduation, and post-breakup gift to myself. I wanted to go someplace where I knew almost no one, was as far away from Washington, D.C. as I could get without leaving the country, and full of history.
 
To say I loved San Francisco is an understatement. I literally never wanted to leave and am counting down the days until I go back. I felt like five days wasn’t nearly enough time, while I also feel like I packed a lot into the trip. Here are my favorite things I saw while I was there (on a budget):
 
Note: All photos in this post were taken by me while I was in San Francisco. My full San Francisco photo gallery is available online, feel free to give it a look!
 
Blog Header: 7 Budget-Friendly Things To Do in San Francisco
 

1. Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island via Pier 33
 
Alcatraz Island
 
True crime was probably my first real love. One of the first things I did when I booked my trip to San Francisco was to book a tour of Alcatraz. I booked through the National Parks Service almost two months in advance and opted for the earliest tour possible (8:45 a.m).
 
The “tour” is actually self-guided and because our boat was first we had practically the entire island to ourselves. There were probably 50 of us on the island for hours. The island is huge, so I’d definitely recommend bringing something that you’re comfortable walking in and giving yourself plenty of time to take it all in. 
 
You can take all of the time you need (I spent around 3 hours on the island) and can leave on any ferry to get back to the pier. While you’re at Alcatraz I highly recommend the self-guided cell house audio tour, which will walk you through the prison’s history and some of the notable inmates. You’ll learn about prison riots, escape attempts, and you can step into old cells. 
 
Be warned the ferry ride there (about 10 minutes or so) and the island itself can be colder than mainland San Francisco, so bring a jacket or a sweatshirt. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever do anything cooler than this my entire life.
 
Cost: $38.35 per adult. Prices vary for seniors and children.
 

2. Japanese Tea Garden (in Golden Gate Park)

Golden Gate Park
 
Japanese temple structure at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park
 
I had a lot of time to kill on the Saturday morning that I was there and my hotel was situated pretty close to Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park is HUGE and there’s a lot to do and see there, but my favorite part was the Japanese Tea Garden.
 
You’re welcome to spend as much time as you want in the park during the business hours. It wasn’t super-busy when I got there earlier in the morning (on a Saturday), but as I was leaving there was a line forming. 
 
The Japanese Tea Garden cost $9 to get in and you can spend as much time there as you need. I took a million photos of the plants, the koi ponds, and the Japanese-inspired structures. Additionally, there’s a little cafe in the middle that serves Japanese tea that is to die for.
 
Cost: $9 for entry
 

3. Palace of Fine Arts

Marina District
 
Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco
 
This was one of my accidental finds when wandering around the city. The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is simply breathtaking. Located in the Marina District, visitors can walk around what’s left of the structure. This is a super-instagrammable location and it was also a quiet place to sit and read in the park area. You don’t need to spend a lot of time here and it’s close to the beach so you can just make your way over here quickly. You won’t regret it. 
 
Cost: Free
 

4. Visit the Sea Lions at Pier 39!

Fisherman’s Wharf
 
 
Fisherman’s Wharf is very tourist friendly. I’d avoid eating here if you can because things are a little overpriced (it’s a tourist trap, what can you expect?). However, if you take a trip over to Pier 39 and walk down the pier, you’ll be able to see the famous sea lions. These are on just about any postcard you see of the city, but watching them in real life was something else. They are naturally photogenic and a few were wrestling with each other while I was there. 
 
Cost: Free
 

5. Hiking Lands End

 
View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Lands End Hike
 
This was a bit of an accidental discovery, but I’m glad it happened. Simply put, this was the most beautiful workout I’ve ever had. The hike offers a view of the city, an even better view of the water and the Golden Gate bridge, and was a pretty easy four miles as far as four-mile hikes go.
 
When I went I did lose cell phone service (shoutout to T-Mobile) for a healthy chunk of the hike. I don’t think this was necessarily a bad thing, however, because I was able to take in the environment. I was able to take in more of San Francisco in a short amount of time here than I was at just about anything else I had done.
 
Cost: Free
 

6. Visit the Painted Ladies (aka the Full House house)

Alamo Square
 
Painted Ladies in Alamo Square
 
My hotel sat right next to Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies so I started most of my days in San Francisco here. It’s a beautiful sight to take in, there’s a dog park, it’s sort of quiet, and it’s an all-around relaxing experience.
 
Full House was one of my favorite shows growing up, so I definitely took joy in the Painted Ladies—the row of Victorian style houses that features the Full House house. There’s usually a decent amount of tourists taking photos here so you’ll know it when you see it, even if you don’t recognize it from TV.
 
Cost: Free
 

7. Explore Chinatown

 
Streets of Chinatown in San Francisco
 
San Francisco has the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. It’s a San Francisco staple and you can spend all day here if you’re not careful. There’s plenty of small shops where you can buy authentic Chinese candy and I don’t think I need to mention that the food is unreal.
 
One thing you absolutely cannot miss here is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. When you walk into the small factory someone will almost certainly hand you a sample of a fresh and warm fortune cookie that will melt in your mouth. There are two people making cookies in a very small factory and you can buy cookies from the store itself. Entry to the factory is free, but they ask that you tip fifty cents or buy cookies if you want to take photos.
 
When I went it wasn’t too busy as it was early in the morning, but this is a small space and I imagine that it’ll mess with you when it’s busy and you’re claustrophobic. 
 
Cost: Free
 
In Conclusion
I’ll say it again. I LOVED San Francisco. I could write a list of 30 more things I did that I loved or write an entire book on the food there. In the future, I’ll expand on more things I did in San Francisco that I loved, but this will do it for now. The West Coast offered a completely different vibe than I’m used to in Washington. California has a reputation for being expensive, but it doesn’t have to be while you’re visiting. I certainly spent some money on more expensive things, but I found a lot of value in the things that cost the least.
 
When traveling in San Francisco I coordinated my tasks around “anchor” tasks that kept me in one part of the city for most of the day. For example, when Alcatraz was my first thing in the morning I spent most of the day around the piers and explored there. There’s something to see everywhere you look and everywhere you go (another Full House pun) and a little bit of planning goes a long way.
 
What are some of your favorite things to do in San Francisco? Any recommendations for the next time I go?
 

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