Less Expensive Ways to Enjoy San Francisco

By Maggie Wells on 6 September 2008 12 comments

It’s almost that time again when I’ll be packing the kids and husband into the car and heading to my former home base of San Francisco.  While admittedly, it’s one of the most expensive places to visit in the USA, there are some ways to cut corners and enough free and low priced activities that can make it a little easier on the budget.

First things first. When to go? Go between November and February. The www.joyoflifeclub.com Joie de Vivre Hotel Chain has winter rates and great places to stay—just by going within this four month time frame can shave $100 off of a room a night.  If you don’t want or need to be classy,  go completely frugal there’s the hostel route and the best of the best is the one at Ft. Mason in the between the Marina neighborhood and Fisherman’s Wharf. http://www.sfhostels.com/fishermans-wharf/. In general though, like living in the city itself, San Francisco has either great accommodations or questionable with relatively few in between. The farther away you get from downtown though, the more likely it is that either parking will be thrown in free or much lower in cost. My family tends to stay in Japantown as the out of the wayness of Japantown makes it slightly cheaper, with more available parking, and a pedestrian only area the kids can run around in, etc. Japantown is also just a quick cab from anywhere and won’t costs too much to go in any direction (Golden Gate Park, North Beach, the Marina, etc).

So you are settled in to a room. Now what? If you go the first week of the month more than likely you can hit many of the museums for free if you plan to hit them all on a Tuesday! The Legion of Honor is a good bet as the area surrounding is beautiful and the parking is free as well. The de Young Museum ( which shares a parking lot with the Japanese Tea Garden which is only $ 4 bucks to get in for adults and free for kids) also has free first Tuesdays. The SFMOMA does as well (though parking in downtown can kill ya).

Want to see the real Chinatown and get great deals on random plastic objects, cool kitschy stuff, and housewares? Then do yourself a favor and don’t go to Chinatown. Go to the Inner Richmond neighborhood (Clement street between 2nd and 10th is the heart of it) in San Francisco instead. Honestly the same people own shops in both neighborhoods with the same merchandise in each. The tourist factor in Chinatown means a big mark up. Shop with actual Chinese people in the Inner Richmond instead. The two best deals in this neighborhood are across the street from each other: Green Apple Books----with the best selection of new and used and new remaindered books anywhere (6th Avenue and Clement) and Kamei Restaurant Supplies across the street. This store is wall to ceiling dishes, pots and pans, and all things for the Asian kitchen. A set of bowls I saw at my local co-op for $7 a piece I found at Kamei for $1.99 a piece. You too (like me) can outfit your kitchen to look nearly identical to any of your favorite sushi restaurants for cheap (you can even buy fake sushi to stick in your window).

It almost goes without saying that there’s Golden Gate Park and hours you can spend roaming around the place. My personal favorite part thing is to go stare at the Buffalo herd, take the kids paddle boating at Stowe Lake, and the aforementioned tea garden. Minimal cost for maximum enjoyment. The closer you get to the beach by the way, the more available the parking  and the cheaper the parking (and sometimes the rent for that matter). We like to let the kids run around Sutro Baths area and Land’s End and the area around the Cliff House on Ocean Beach. All free parking! There’s a great little throw back building out back that houses the Camera Obscura—worth the few bucks to stand in the dark and watch the surrounding area on a big ceramic disk in the center of the room. I’ve suckered friend into going here plenty of times. Cheap and it never gets old.

Back in the day, below the Cliff House restaurant was the Musee Mechanique http://www.museemecaniquesf.com/
 –housing coin operated mechanical musical instruments, vintage arcade games (1910—1990s), fortune telling machines and other remnants from the defunct Playland on the Beach.  It is now housed in Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 45 instead. The new location is a little too pristine for my tastes (I preferred the old moldy, dripping with god knows what location instead). But it’s FREE admission. Save up some quarters though –everything is in working order and there’s no way to leave there without playing something (I usually wind up on Centipede…).

We try to schedule our trips around what’s playing at the Castro Theatre http://www.thecastrotheatre.com For $9.50 for an adult ticket and $7 for a child, you can see any number of great revival flicks. Our personal favorite is for the Sound of Music sing-a-long the day after Thanksgiving (which does cost a tad more). Regardless of what movie you see you’ll see the gorgeous movie house and be treated to a brief live organ concert beforehand. The movie curtain will open and close the way it is supposed to and the theatre will get dark the way it should. Everything is done right! You can show your kids what life was like before tiny, bland suburban movie screens took over. Afterwards we head across the street to the Thai Restaurant in the lavender Victorian above Daddy’s Bar (I think the restaurant is just called Thai Restaurant but we’ve been calling it Pump Daddy Thai for years on account of the uhm…pumping music one hears on his or her way up the stairs). Anyhow they are super friendly and inexpensive and you have a great view of the Castro Theater Marquee and the neighborhood if you sit in one of the bay window table areas.

And this sounds weird coming from me but now that I have kids my SF night life is pretty much shot. More than likely if I can squeeze a few babysitting hours out of my sister in the evening I head to Kabuki Springs for the communal baths www.kabukisprings.com. For $25 you can spend hours soaking in water, steam, or sauna; drinking good teas and nibbling on salted apples. If you stayed in Japantown you just walk down the street to the Geary/Fillmore side of the Japantown Mall. If finding nirvana isn’t your thing. You certainly wouldn’t need my help to find a nice cheap dive bar. Throw a rock and you’ll hit one (though I end up at Tosca's in North Beach and The Plough and the Stars in the inner Richmond more often than not).

It’s all about the daytime now with the kids. And for that we do spend more time than I ever have in my life in the Marina. I brave this yuppie enclave for two things: Wandering around the Palace of Fine Arts and taking the kids to the enclosed playground outside the Marina branch library and softball fields on Chestnut Avenue. Order your Peet’s coffee to go up the street and brush up on your Spanish and Russian with all the nannies at the park. This is absolutely my 5 and 3 year olds favorite place in the city and it of course costs nothing! The sand and bouncy rubber beneath the jungle gym installations makes this ideal for little ones that like to jump. The Exploratorium Museum next to the Palace of Fine Arts is the quintessential kid’s science museum and is FREE on the first Wednesday of every month.

These are our places to hit next time we are back in the homeland. And if you happen to love alcohol and all things Japanese and are traveling on the I-80 on the way to San Francisco, get off on University Avenue in Berkeley and hang a quick right and go down the street to Sho Chiku Bai Takara Sake Brewery. FREE TASTINGS! That helps take the edge off the five-hour drive and gets us prepared mentally for manual transmission driving up steep hills. There’s a mini (FREE) Sake Museum, and great prices on sake from the company. http://www.takarasake.com

I would add in more suggestions for eating out cheaply but frankly, we now live in a tiny rural town of 300 people these days without a single restaurant. When we go home to the city the ONE thing we don't skimp on ? The food.

Enjoy my former homeland.  Where do you go for cheap in The City?

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Guest's picture

Another cheap outing is a sunset picnic at Fort Funston. Beautiful sunsets, hang gliders, seashore. You have to eat anyway, so make frugal picnic, have a glass of wine and enjoy. Can't beat it.

Guest's picture

Just got back from SF and had a fabulous visit! The weather was perfect! We took a stadium tour of Giants Stadium. For only $10 bucks it was an awesome experience to go behind the scenes in the dugout, clubhouse and more!

Beautiful and fun stadium!

Guest's picture

This is absolutely the best time of year to visit San Francisco. Two weeks ago, the city foggy, cold, and filled with tourists. Today, Sept. 6th, San Francisco is sunny, warm, beautiful, and most of the tourists are gone.

May, September, October, are the best months to visit San Francisco, for the weather, less tourists, and cheaper deals.

Your kids would have loved the 50 cent cable car ride up Powell - only a $1.50 for adults.

Aquatic Park, right next to touristy Fisherman's Wharf, has a much safer and accesible beach - no waves.

Japantown is too far from the main attractions, and forces you to drive, taxi or bus, to all the sights. Try one of the downtown business type hotels on weekends or off season.

If you're flying into San Francisco - don't rent a car! San Francisco has great transportation and is a walking city. You obviously save money, but more importantly, a lot of headaches. Trying to navigate a busy city, with one way streets, and steep hills is not a vacation. Parking? Forget about it, there isn't enough for the people who live here, and you'll spend half your day searching for a spot.

You came to San Francisco and didn't eat? Shame on you. Try North Beach for food and Night Life.

Walking across the Golden Gate, not recommended for kids, is still free.

That's enough for now.

Maggie Wells's picture

I'll stick to Japantown! It's clean and easy with kids! That's a major factor with kids who inexplicably like to lie down on concrete for a few minutes. If you like being harrassed for money, like urine stained streets, then by all means, stay downtown. But the idea of this piece is that there really is more to see in the city than the basics of the guidebooks. Japantown is a quick jaunt over the hill to the Marina or North Beach. A quick ride to Golden Gate park. Less congested parking. Good eats. We are talking about a town that's only 7 sqare miles. It's not going to take you too long to get anywhere.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

We jut got back from SF and had a fabulous time. The highlight was visiting Giants stadium! For only $10 you can go behind the scenes, in the dugout, clubhouse and more! Fabulous fun, beautiful stadium.

Carrie Kirby's picture

One of my absolute favorite days in SF is to lunch or dine at Burma Superstar, grab some bubble tea and then browse the shops on Clement, mainly Green Apple Books.

You're correct that there are so many free activities in SF -- mostly walking or hiking outdoors. Sigh, I miss it so.

I blog at www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

Guest's picture

Sorry, but not everyone has kids, or visits San Francisco with kids. Here's two more ideas for kids and families visiting San Francisco.

Before you visit San Francisco, visit http://www.sfkids.org
They list most of the kids activities going on around San Francisco and the Bay Area, a lot of the events are free.

Take your kids on an Urban Jungle Safari, search for the elusive Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, take bus 39 to Coit Tower and walk down Filbert steps.

Here is a write-up I did on my San Francisco Neighborhood, North Beach Telegraph Hill, with pictures.


Enjoy San Francisco! It's a beautiful day, and I'm not going to waste it on the computer, gotta go...

Guest's picture

I'm making a return visit to San Francisco in November, so this is beautiful timing!

A couple of questions: any recommendations for eating out on a budget?

Also, last time we went to SF we walked down into the North Beach area around 9ish, looking for somewhere to eat/hang out, but everywhere was closed! Bar a kebab shop. We were quite surprised as we had heard that the area was good for nightlife. Where should we have gone?

Maggie Wells's picture

We tend to do lunch specials. All four us seem to go for the lunch special at Sunflower (Vietnamese) on 16th and Valencia. Not stroller friendly but quick and yummy and cheap with lots of food.

I concur with the Burmese place as well--love that place. We're going at the end of the month!

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

If you're coming with kids, definitely don't miss the Exploratorium, right next to the Palace of Fine Arts. Plan to do that in the early afternoon, then walk with the family over to Crissy Field for a picnic. It's one of the most family-friendly and idyllic parks in the city, right at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge. If everyone's energized after the picnic, then walk the over to Fort Point. It's a Civil War era fort at the base of the bridge, now a museum.

I don't have a family, but I'm a kid at heart, and I love to act like a tourist in my own city.

Guest's picture

For that picnic in Crissy Field, you can go the expensive route and buy the food at the Crissy Field cafe (nice cafe run by the parks service) or you can go to the Marina Safeway and pick up everything you'll need.

Oh and... Margaret was dead-on about the hostel in Fort Mason. Without a doubt the nicest and most well-situated hostel I've ever seen. You will love going to sleep and waking up in this place. The location cannot be beat. If you're going the hostel route, you'll be sorry if you pass this one up. Did I mention it's great?

Guest's picture

Hi everyone. I'm new here. Just wanted to say hi