5 under $50: Best affordable things to see and do in San Francisco on a budget

Golden Gate Bridge seen from Marshall beach in San Francisco, California, USA
These affordable activities are a must-do on any trip to San Francisco. (Getty Images) (bloodua via Getty Images)

San Francisco is a favourite vacation spot for Canadians, given that it's a free-spirited, edge of the continent city that embraces liberal causes and values diversity. It’s also got the world’s most famous bridge, great food, wondrous views and cable cars that climb halfway to the stars.

It’s not a cheap city at the best of times, and it’s doubly tough for Canadians given our dollar’s lowly position these days. Luckily, there are tons of great things to see and do for less than $50 USD.

Here are five recommendations from a Bay Area native and frequent visitor.

Free nature hikes

Take in the views from the beach near Crissy Field Park. Jim Byers Photo.
Take in the views from the beach near Crissy Field Park. Jim Byers Photo.

The San Francisco Bay Trail stretches around one of the world’s greatest natural harbours, and there’s a large section slicing through one of the most popular areas of the city for visitors. Start off at Pier 39, home to dozens of barking sea lions, and make your way west towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the beach near Crissy Field Park you’ll find large pieces of driftwood that make a perfect perch for watching boats slide under the deep orange bridge. Continue on to Fort Point, which was built during the Civil War and is made of handsome red brick.

The Batteries to Bluffs walk takes you along beautiful cliffs, with jaw-dropping views of the coast and the Pacific Ocean. The San Francisco Crosstown Trail was created just a few years ago and runs 27 kilometres, from Candlestick Point in the southeast to Lands End in the northwest, which is great for sunsets.

The Glen Canyon Park section takes you from the Glen Park BART station (no need for a car in San Francisco, unless you’re intent on driving down Lombard Street) to Twin Peaks, passing through a lovely canyon filled with sweet-smelling eucalyptus trees and craggy yellow rocks.

Ride a cable car

Ride one of San Francisco's iconic cable cars. Jim Byers Photo.
Ride one of San Francisco's iconic cable cars. Jim Byers Photo.

Other than a gondola ride in Venice, this might be the most sought-after mode of transportation in any city on the planet. Not only are these US national landmarks a necessity given the city’s steep hills (the cars move by grabbing onto a cable buried under the street that’s constantly moving), they’re also charming as can be. Fun fact: Each cable car operator has his or her own bell-ringing pattern.

The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde cable cars take you between Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Square and the Market Street/Union Square area and are the most popular routes. The California Street cable car is scenic as you travel from the bay to Nob Hill, but it’s not terribly interesting after that.

Single fare cable car tickets cost $8, while kids four and under are free. You also can buy a one-day pass for $13, which covers city buses, the Muni Metro light rail system, historic streetcars (San Francisco has collected them from around the world, including from Toronto) and cable cars.

Hippie-dippie Haight Ashbury tour

Take in the sights and sounds of Haight-Ashbury victorian houses painted ladies. Jim Byers Photo.
Take in the sights and sounds of Haight-Ashbury. Jim Byers Photo.

Re-live the wild and colourful “Summer of Love” with a Flower Power Tour of Haight-Ashbury, the neighbourhood that was home to the hippie movement in the 1960’s. An engaging woman named Sunshine “Sunny” Powers runs the tours and knows all the secrets from the “Peace and Love” movement.

As you walk about admiring the fine Victorian homes, often called painted ladies, Powers will point out homes previously owned by the likes of Janis Joplin, and places where folks such as Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison used to hang out.

There are great shops in the area selling everything from books to psychedelic, tie-dyed t-shirts. Tours are $25 US for adults. Kids nine and under are free.

Cycle or walk the Golden Gate Bridge

pathway for pedestrians and cyclists crossing the golden gate bridge
Cycle or walk the Golden Gate Bridge (Getty Images) (Christian Heinrich via Getty Images)

It can get a little foggy and windy, but you don’t want to miss a chance to walk or cycle the famous orange bridge, an architectural wonder that stretches for 2.7 kilometres. The views are obstructed by protective fencing for the first part of the trip north from San Francisco, but it opens up if you persevere for a few minutes.

If you have a bike, continue past the north end of the bridge and take Alexander Avenue into the bayside town of Sausalito, home to a great waterfront promenade and cute shops and restaurants. It’s said that Otis Redding wrote “Dock of the Bay” while resting his bones on the edge of the water here.

Walking the bridge is free, while bike rental prices vary. Bay City Bikes rents bicycles for $32 a day and up. E-bikes (nice for those SF hills) are $48 for two hours. Stop at the Equator Coffees Round House Café at the south end of the bridge for a restorative latte when you’re finished.

Museum of Modern Art

San Francisco, USA - August 2019: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art SFMOMA is a contemporary art museum located near Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art SFMOMA is a contemporary art museum located near Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown. (Getty Images) (CanY71 via Getty Images)

SF MOMA is a striking building on several levels with a wide variety of cool and vibrant works of art. You’ll find brilliant Roy Lichtenstein prints, as well as works by Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Frida Kahlo and others.

Chronicles of SF is a fantastic (and free) viewing panel on the lower floor off Howard Street; a large, L-shaped black and white photo of San Francisco residents. It looks like a still photo, but folks in various parts of the display move at regular intervals, perhaps jumping or even doing push-ups.

Entry is $25 for adults, with discounts for seniors and young adults. Those 18 and under are free.

Bonus activity: Try the ferry from San Francisco to Tiburon ($14 one-way for adults). It’s a lovely, small city on the water with boutique shops and nice waterfront restaurants, including Sam’s Anchor Café.

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