3 Days In San Francisco: The Budget-Friendly Guide

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Not sure what to do during your stay in San Francisco? This is how I crossed everything off on my bucket list in 3 days. Here's the cheap guide to San Francisco to visit, eat and see, all on a budget. - www.theballeronabudget.com

Last month during December Jun and I made the split decision to head to San Francisco in order to make use of his floating holidays from work. We wanted to get out of Southern California and spend time somewhere far from home but also accessible – for us, that’s up north!

It’s been about 2 years since our last visit to San Francisco, so of course, I had to brush up with my mini-guide to San Francisco on a budget.

I’ve also featured this trip on my Youtube channel as my very first vlog! Check out our San Francisco shenanigans here:

Also remember to keep reading for my best tips on staying budget-friendly in San Francisco!

More Budget Travel Posts:

Cheap Travel to San Francisco

One advantage for us was how close we are to San Francisco. Living in Southern California means San Fran is only about 400 miles away, and where we live, that’s a little further than driving to Las Vegas. It’s definitely not a bad drive! Although during our last trip I was able to spend only $134 for a round-trip flight to San Francisco, it was still much cheaper to drive there and back home.

Another added bonus: we didn’t want to take our cars since we own 2 BMWs and a Ford F-250, so I asked my mom if we could borrow her Prius for the trip. We wound up paying only a fraction of the price on gas had we taken our other vehicles.

Unless you have an economical car already at your disposal, I recommend against renting a car to avoid costly gas and putting mileage on your own, because after rental fees and insurance it can be even more expensive. With that money, you may have to bite the bullet and fly to San Francisco.


If you’re trying to fly into San Francisco and aren’t close enough to drive, try catching a flight to Oakland as it’s much cheaper than flying directly into SFO. From Oakland airport you can take the BART directly into the city, and it’s free if you’re coming straight from the airport.

Affordable Places to Stay

San Francisco is known for having a huge variety of boutique hotels, which means that most hotels can get fairly expensive. However, just a week before, I was able to grab a room at an Airbnb on the south end of the city for only $66.67 per night for 3 nights, which brought the total up to $200.

Here’s the price breakdown:

  • $66 x 3 nights: $200
  • 3-6 night stay offer: 7%
  • Service fee: $24.00
  • Occupancy taxes: $31.36
  • Coupon: – $40.00
  • Total: $215.36

Jun was able to redeem $40 off since it was his first time using Airbnb and his booking was over $75. You can also get $40 off with this link.

Cheap Places to Eat

Although San Francisco is known for seafood and expensive restaurants at its various piers, there are still tons of delicious places to eat that won’t break the bank.

Shrimp Har Gow and Chicken Shu Mai from Good Mong Kok Bakery in Chinatown, San Francisco - www.theballeronabudget.com

Shrimp Har Gow and Chicken Shu Mai from Good Mong Kok Bakery. The BEST.

Dim Sum

Dim sum is a type of Chinese breakfast food that consists of various kinds of dumplings. If you’re willing to try something new, definitely give the dim sum in Chinatown a try – it’s cheap and delicious, so you won’t regret it!

  • Good Mong Kok Bakery: Dumplings are the size of my palm! Prices $1-$2/piece. Get the shu mai, har gow and BBQ pork buns.
  • Delicious Dim Sum: This is a close 2nd to Good Mong Kok – prices are cheap and the dumplings are incredible.
  • Shanghai Dumpling King: Excellent green onion pancakes and pan fried dumplings
  • Kingdom of Dumpling: Delicious xiao long bao and Shanghai soup dumplings
  • Good Luck Dim Sum: Dumpling prices are between $0.90 – $3/piece. Fried sesame balls and turnip cakes are my favorite!
  • Wing Lee Bakery: Aside from dumplings, their plates like roasted duck and BBQ pork are so good!


  • Boudin Bakery and Cafe: Locals might roll their eyes at my recommendation, but I love Boudin! They have great sourdough bread, sandwiches and soup. It’s a good place if you don’t want to wait in line at a packed restaurant or if you just want something quick and convenient since there are several locations throughout the city.
  • Art’s Cafe: Diner-style breakfast with a Korean twist. They’re known for their hashbrown sandwiches.
  • Red Cafe: A classic dinner restaurant with some Mexican breakfast dishes. Great omelettes and Insta-worthy mochas.
  • Beanstalk Cafe: If you like sandwiches and iced coffee for breakfast, try this place. They have delicious “cragels” (croissant bagels) and toast cups.
  • Golden Coffee Shop: A great restaurant if you like waffles, pancakes and french toast.
  • Bacon Bacon: If you like bacon on everything, check this place out. It’s more suitable for lunch, but they also serve breakfast burritos and sandwiches.
  • Moulin Rouge Restaurant: Probably one of my favorite diners to eat at. They have an incredible short rib breakfast plate, but everything on the menu is good!
  • La Boulangerie: French-style pastries and plates perfect for breakfast. If you love quiches, tarts and good bread, go here.
  • Il Canto Cafe: Delicious paninis and breakfast burritos!
  • Mr. Holmes Bakehouse: Probably the most Instagrammable place on this list. They have a cute neon sign that’s iconic on Instagram, and their cruffins (croissant muffins) are delicious. Do go here if you’re a light breakfast eater or want a snack and coffee.
Cookie Bits Sundae from Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop in San Francisco - www.theballeronabudget.com

Cookie Bits Sundae: Vanilla and cookies ‘n cream ice cream, hot fudge, chocolate chip cookie crumbles and two Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel minis. We also ordered brownies to go with ours because why not?


  • Ghirardelli: You can’t visit San Francisco without checking out Ghirardelli Square. This shopping center features the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, where you can get sundaes, shakes and more.
  • Bob’s Donut and Pastry Shop: This place is a must-visit if you love old school donuts like apple fritters, bear claws and cake donuts.
  • Dynamo Donut and Coffee: This donut shop has more modern flavors like maple glazed bacon apple, lemon pistachio, and candied orange blossom. Their cappuccinos are delicious too!
  • Bi-Rite Creamery: No-frills old-fashioned ice cream with gourmet flavors like salted caramel, honey lavender and more.
  • Uji Time Dessert: If you like taiyaki and green tea soft serve, try this place! These cute fish-shaped cones are actually fresh pastries filled with sweet red bean paste and soft serve.
  • Pineapples: People who love Dole Whip from Disneyland will love Pineapples. It’s much cheaper and you can get creations like a Dole Whip float.
  • Sophie’s Crepes: Located inside the mall in Japantown, these crepes can be filled with fruit, ice cream and much more. The black sesame gelato crepe is my favorite!
  • Milkbomb Ice Cream: Instagrammable ice cream down to the T. You can get purple-colored lavender cones, ice cream donut sandwiches, and top off your colorful creations with rainbow sprinkles, Fruity Pebbles and more.
  • Hot Cookie: More of a novelty than anything, this cookie shop has chocolate-covered dick-shaped cookies on a stick. Yes, you read that right. If penis cookies aren’t your thing, they have regular rated G cookies your grandma would make too.

Best Seafood in San Francisco

Dungeness Crab

Dungeness crab season started in December of 2017 and continues on until July 30, 2018, which means if you go in the early year you’ll probably get the best crab. Although crab isn’t exactly the cheapest, going at the start of the season will probably get you lower market prices than later in the year.

Here are my top picks for dungeness crab in San Francisco (make sure to double-check prices before going as it may change):

  • Bar Crudo: Half crab for $20 or whole for $40, roasted crab for $28
  • Mission Street Oyster Bar & Seafood Restaurant: $37.95 crab (the oysters are incredible too!)
  • Woodhouse Fish Co.: $19 whole dungeness crab (also try the lobster rolls and chowder)
  • Swan Oyster Depot: $22 fresh dungeness crab
  • PPQ Dungeness Island: $70.95 dinner for 2 includes a whole roasted butter crab, eggrolls, chicken-cabbage salad, garlic noodles and deep-fried banana with ice cream for dessert. That is a HUGE dinner for two at a great price!
  • Alioto’s: Whole crab $32.95. This place is a restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf, so expect higher prices, but it’s worth it – Alioto’s is one of the last family-owned restaurants from the early beginnings of San Francisco fishing, which means you’re getting great quality seafood and age-old recipes.

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Cheap Oysters & Oyster Happy Hour

Every time I’m in San Francisco I always make it a point to eat as many oysters as I possibly can without getting sick. Although crab season is almost half of the year, when you go during off-season it doesn’t mean you can’t have good oysters! Here are the best places for oyster happy hour:

  • El Rio: FREE oysters on Fridays at 5:30PM. Get there as early as possible because they sell out fast!
  • Ichi Sushi: $1 oysters from 5:30-7pm, Monday – Saturday
  • Mission Rock Resort: $1 oysters 3-7PM, Monday – Friday
  • The Ramp: $1 Oysters 4:30-7PM on Mondays and 11AM-7PM on Thursdays (+ $5 beers)
  • Mission Street Oyster Bar: $1.50 oysters 12-6PM Monday – Friday, Saturday and Sunday $2 all day (my favorite happy hour out of the bunch – oysters are a good size, great quality, good selection)
  • Hog & Rocks:  $1 oyster Monday – Friday 5-6:30PM, Saturday 11:30am – 5PM, Sunday all day
  • Waterbar: $1 oysters 11:30AM – 5:30PM (beware, they are small!)
  • Waterfront Restaurant: $0.99 oysters Monday – Friday 3-6PM
  • Fog City: $1.50 oysters Monday – Friday 4-6PM
  • District: $1 oysters Monday – Friday 4-6PM, Saturday 5-7PM

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You just can’t go to San Francisco without trying some chowder. Get it with sourdough bread, or better yet, in a sourdough bread bowl, and your meal is complete. Chowder is a great way to warm up in the cold weather – and not to mention, it’s inexpensive.

  • Boudin Bakery and Cafe: The chowder here is foolproof. It’s great and accessible, since they have tons of locations. Make sure to get the sourdough bread bowl!
  • Woodhouse Fish Co$6 cup, $10 bowl for chowder. This is a mid-range-priced restaurant, so don’t expect everything else on the menu to be super cheap. However, you have to try their lobster rolls!
  • Swan Oyster Depot$5 bread bowl (don’t forget to try the dungeness crab and oysters)
  • Chowders: If you’re willing to put up with tourists, go here – Chowders has the best chowder (at least to me they do.).
  • Crab Station$6.50 bread bowl. If you like a runnier, fishier chowder with more pieces of clam, then this is the chowder spot for you.
  • Alioto’s$9 bread bowls. This sit-down restaurant is more upscale, but try the cioppino while you’re there too! Whole crabs are also $32.95.

Popular Places to Go

Fisherman's Wharf: One of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco, California - www.theballeronabudget.com

Fisherman’s Wharf: Perhaps the most touristy place in San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf has a great view of the bay along with tons of museums like the Ripley’s Museum and Madame Tussaud’s.

Inside the Ferry Building lies almost 50 shops, from restaurants to grocery stores. This place is great for foodies to eat at several places while exploring the many shops it has to offer. - www.theballeronabudget.com

On the prowl for more good food in the Ferry Building.

The Ferry Building: The south end of the Embarcadero towards the financial district is the Ferry Building, which has almost 50 shops inside. This is a foodie’s paradise! One day for breakfast we got one food item from each restaurant and ate until we couldn’t anymore. I highly recommend the empanadas from El Porteño!

San Francisco's Chinatown is a densely packed part of the city that boasts delicious cheap dim sum, tea rooms, and tons of shops to buy souvenirs. - www.theballeronabudget.com

The is the “I just ate a bunch of dim sum and am now digesting in happiness” stance.

Chinatown: Grab some dim sum to go and eat while visiting the many shops in Chinatown. Although most shops carry similar items, it’s great to do a little bit of souvenir shopping and haggle with the shop owners for good prices. If you’re shopping for jewelry, be wary of shops that try to sell you fake jade!

Don't forget to snap a photo at the famous Vinton Court Steps in Chinatown! They are located at Pine and Grant. St in Chinatown, San Francisco. - www.theballeronabudget.com

Don’t forget to snap a photo at the famous Vinton Court Steps in Chinatown! They are located on Pine and Grant. St in Chinatown.

Japantown: If you’re craving good sushi, ramen, or Japanese food in general, head to Japantown and visit the Peace Pagoda tower and other traditional Japanese sights while you’re there.

Not sure what to do during your stay in San Francisco? This is how I crossed everything off on my bucket list in 3 days. Here's the cheap guide to San Francisco to visit, eat and see, all on a budget. - www.theballeronabudget.com

Didn’t realize how much of a tourist I looked in my “tourist dad from the 90’s” ensemble.

Sightseeing in San Francisco

  • Painted Ladies: If you’re an avid Instagrammer, you have to take pictures in front of the famous Painted Ladies. These $3M+ historic Victorian homes are nestled together against a beautiful San Francisco skyline, which means it’s hard not to take a picture in front of them.
  • Top of Lombard Street: Also known as Crooked Street, this is one of the most interesting (and useless) roads in San Francisco. Will it doesn’t serve much of a function except to entertain tourists, you can’t say that you wouldn’t take a picture here.
  • Cable Cars: I mean, you gotta ride one to say you did, right? The cars at Powell Street and California have the best spot to take pictures at.
  • Telegraph Hill: This pretty neighborhood yields cute homes, streets and views that are totally Instagram-worthy. The famous Stairs of Telegraph Hill will also take you up to Coit Tower. I’ve done the stairs – be prepared to sweat!
A ticket for the Alcatraz tour will get you ferried over to Alcatraz island for a 2-hour tour of the prison. - www.theballeronabudget.com

A view of Alcatraz Island from the ferry boat.

  • Alcatraz Island: A ticket for the Alcatraz tour will get you ferried over to Alcatraz island for a 2-hour tour of the prison. While it’s definitely a touristy activity, I actually did enjoy learning a lot about the history of Alcatraz! Buy tickets here; any other website that sells tickets are resellers.
  • Coit Tower: This monument holds one of the prettiest views of the Bay. It’s free to enter, but if you want to take the elevator to the top for the best views it’s $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $2 for kids. You can get to Coit Tower by walking uphill on Lombard Street from North Beach, or take the Muni bus 39 from Washington Square Park.
  • Museum of Fine Arts: Not only is this place a great museum to visit, but its architecture makes it a photographer’s dream as the building and its structures light up at night.
  • San Francisco City Hall: City Hall might sound like a boring destination, but trust me on this one: San Francisco’s City Hall has gorgeous architecture that will leave you dumbfounded. It’s a great place for taking pictures!
Not sure what to do during your stay in San Francisco? This is how I crossed everything off on my bucket list in 3 days. Here's the cheap guide to San Francisco to visit, eat and see, all on a budget. - www.theballeronabudget.com

Hanging out in North Beach

What spots are you going to visit in San Francisco? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter below for more budget-friendly travel guides and tips.

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Not sure what to do during your stay in San Francisco? This is how I crossed everything off on my bucket list in 3 days. Here's the cheap guide to San Francisco to visit, eat and see, all on a budget. - www.theballeronabudget.com


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