$20 in San Francisco: The Best Ways to Spend It


San Francisco is an expensive city to inhabit, with rents topping Manhattan. It also has the highest minimum wage of any large city ($10.74) and an employee health care law that leads some restaurants to add surcharges to bills.

But despite the high cost of sleeping and eating, San Francisco is really not a terrible city for the frugal traveler, because so many of its draws are completely free. You can walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, climb on the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or lounge in lovely Golden Gate Park without paying a dime.

And when you do have to get out your wallet, there are a number of classic San Francisco amusements that you can enjoy for around $20. Find even more inexpensive ideas at the Web site FuncheapSF. Let's look at some of my favorites! (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

1. Take a Short Walk Down a Long Pier

Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 routinely separate tourists from hundreds of dollars, but you can get some of the best of it for just $20.

First, head to the line of outdoor food stands, and purchase a crab sandwich on a sourdough roll for $6-$8. A beer in a paper bag (not technically legal but routinely ignored here) adds another $4-6. After you eat, stroll over to the Musee Mechanique, where you can while away an hour plunking quarters into old fashioned amusement machines. Finally, walk down to Pier 39 — stopping on the way to visit the sea lions lounging on their own floating docks — and spend your last few dollars on a paper sack of warm mini doughnuts. You won't be sorry! (See also: Free Things to Do in Any City You Visit)

2. Ride the Cable Car

Cable car rides are now a whopping $6 each, so if you want to spend some time exploring the city on this fun form of transport, you might as well spring for a $15 day pass. You can take the Powell-Hyde or the Powell-Mason line right to the Cable Car Museum, which is free. Afterwards, stroll over to Chinatown and spend your last $5 on pork buns and other dim sum from a Chinese bakery; one Yelp reviewer noted that $5 at the Good Mong Kok Bakery is enough to put you in "Food Coma Heaven."

3. Take in a Ballgame

You don't have to be a fan of the Panda to enjoy an afternoon in San Francisco's comely AT&T Park, where some seats have views of the San Francisco Bay. If you buy one of the lowest-priced tickets at $8-$12 at the box office, you'll still have enough for a basket of the park's famous Gilroy Garlic Fries.

Or, you can watch a few minutes of the game from the free viewing area, under the right field promenade, and save your $20 for souvenirs.

4. Get out on the Bay

You can pay a lot for fancy dinner or sightseeing cruises on the San Francisco Bay, or you can cruise the same Bay — and see some of the same sights — by paying just a few bucks to ride a commuter ferry. First, head to the gourmet food stands at the Ferry Building and pick out a treat to bring aboard. A hot chocolate at the Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick Cafe and Milk Bar is $3.75, and three chocolate chip cookies are $3.50. Then head out to the ferry boarding docks. A roundtrip to Oakland's Jack London Square is $12.50, and you get to ride right under the Bay Bridge. You can buy the ticket on board.

5. Go out for Coffee

San Francisco boasts some of the best local roasters in the nation right now, and the baristas take their pour-over talents very seriously. Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee made a Zagat list of the most expensive cups in America, and many lists of the best as well. A pot of vacuum-brewed coffee (enough for two people unless you want to see the rest of the city really, really quickly), costs about $12, but fans swear it's worth it. You can also get granola or a waffle in the morning at the Ferry Building location.

6. Take a Paddle

Paddle Boats on Golden Gate Park's Stow Lake cost $25 an hour, but they can seat up to four, bringing the cost down to $6.25 per person. Yelpers call this "a must" and a "hidden gem," raving about the animals you see in the lake and the view of the waterfall on nearby Strawberry Hill.

7. Commune With the Beats

Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach would be one of the best bars in San Francisco even if it hadn't been a hangout of Jack Kerouac's. Sit upstairs and drop $5 on a beer special, then head across Jack Kerouac Alley to City Lights Books, founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who also started a publishing house of the same name and released Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems. If you limit yourself to a paperback, you might have enough left for a gelato at another beat hangout, Caffe Trieste — and maybe even spot Ferlinghetti, who, now in his 90s, is said to be a regular.

8. Buy Vinyl in the Haight

The Summer of Love has been replaced by the perpetual summer of shopping on Haight Street, although the district retains a gritty feel, courtesy of numerous beggars camped on the sidewalks. There are many, many tempting places to drop $20 here, from head shops to vintage clothing boutiques to the always-brimming Goodwill store. But the favorite has got to be Amoeba Music, where you can honor the neighborhood's past by buying an LP, or embrace the future with a movie on Blu-ray.

9. Get the Luck of the Irish

Some deride the Buena Vista as a tourist trap, while others say the Irish coffees served here are the best they've ever had. A $20 bill will get you two of them. If the weather is chilly, as it often is near Fisherman's Wharf even in summer, this is a nice place to warm up and take in the views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, and the cable cars.

10. Graze the Food Trucks

Check OfftheGridSF.com to find out where to find this traveling food market; you can catch it in North Beach, UN Plaza, Civic Center, or near the San Francisco Chronicle's 5th and Mission headquarters, depending on the day of the week. At Adam's Grub Truck, $20 gets you a crab sandwich called The Kraken, a side, and a drink. Other cuisines include Indian, Mexican, and Japanese.

What's your favorite way to spend $20 in San Francisco? Please share in comments — it's free!

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