Golden Gate Bridge. Fisherman’s Wharf. Chinatown. While there are plenty of well-known things to do in San Francisco, these are just the tip of the iceberg. As you plan your San Francisco vacation, make an itinerary of the tried and true as well as the hidden gems that only locals know about.
Here, you’ll learn about some of the best things to do in San Francisco, plus tips on making your trip as fun as possible and stretching your budget to the max.
Best Times to Go to San Francisco
Weatherwise, San Francisco is pretty consistent throughout the year. Temperatures range from the 50s to 70s during the day, making a vacation here any time a great idea.
However, you may be more likely to find travel deals if you travel off-season, so outside of the May to August summer season.
While summer travel may be the most popular, there are events in the city throughout the year:
• February: Chinese New Year
• April: San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM)
• May: How Weird Street Faire
• June: San Francisco Pride
• October: Italian Heritage Parade
• November to January: Illuminate SF Festival of Light
Bad Times to Go to San Francisco
If you want warm weather for your San Francisco trip, know that you may not get it in summer. Many people assume that because San Francisco is in California, it’s hot come June, July, and August, but sometimes that isn’t true. The weather can change quickly once the sun dips behind the buildings, and the city is known for its fog. Pack a jacket.
While fog and chilly weather aren’t going to ruin most people’s vacations, the unexpected can happen, so you may want to look into travel insurance before you head to the city by the bay. Your credit card travel insurance may cover you, or you could purchase your own policy.
Average Cost of a San Francisco Vacation
As you work on your financial prep for travel, you’ll need to know how much to budget for your San Francisco vacation.
If you’re traveling alone, the average cost for a week in the city is $2,348. For couples, it’s $4,217.
The type of accommodations you choose will impact your budget. Hotels in San Francisco can be found for $82 to $357 a night, although there may be ways you can save on hotels, such as joining a rewards program or applying discount codes. If you prefer a vacation rental (where you can cook to save money), expect to pay $280 to $610 per night.
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10 Fun and Affordable Must-Dos in San Francisco
San Francisco is made up of distinct neighborhoods such as Japantown, Chinatown, Mission District, Financial District, Haight-Ashbury, and more. You may want to explore a different neighborhood every day on your trip.
Here are 10 fun things to do in San Francisco according to frequent visitors, locals, and top-rated online reviews.
1. Spend Time in Japantown
While its cousin, Chinatown, tends to get all the attention, Japantown in San Francisco is also worth a visit. This is one of only three remaining Japantowns in the country, and here you can find delicious food, cultural events, and plenty of shopping. Whether you’re looking for an authentic kimono, teapot, manga, or Japanese groceries, you’ll find them here. sfjapantown.org/
2. Check out Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is bustling and crowded. Be sure to snap a photo under the iconic pagoda doorway that marks the start of Chinatown before ambling through the quarter.
After you get your fill of shopping, stop at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a hole in the wall you might miss if you don’t know to look for it. Here you’ll see the employees deftly throwing round batter on a hot skillet and shaping them into those delicious cookies we all know and love. sanfranciscochinatown.com/
3. Don’t Forget Fisherman’s Wharf
Yes, it’s touristy, but yes, you still need to visit this famous area. It’s been around for more than 100 years and now offers many things to see including museums, shops, and restaurants.
A favorite place to spend some time in Fisherman’s Wharf is Musée Mécanique, which offers an impressive collection of old-time arcade games, music boxes, and slot machines. Bring your quarters, and get lost in nostalgia.
After that, you’ll work up an appetite, so head over to one of the many restaurants. Seafood is a must! Restaurants like Cioppino’s, Crab House, and Pier Market Seafood Restaurant offer clam chowder, shrimp, and other delicacies from the sea. If you wind up splashing out on a seafood feast, you might want to pay with plastic to earn and then redeem credit card rewards. fishermanswharf.org/
4. Explore an Amazing Aquarium
After visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, head to the Aquarium by the Bay a short walk away at Pier 39. There are more than 20,000 aquatic critters, including jellyfish, sharks, bat rays, otters, and more.
Explore the aquarium on your own by getting up close and personal with different exhibits including Under the Bay, Sharks of Alcatraz Tunnel, Go With the Flow, and more. General admission tickets are typically $31.75 for adults and $21.75 for kids ages four to 12. aquariumofthebay.org/
5. Get Outdoors at Golden Gate Park
Another of the fun things to do in San Francisco is to spend a few hours in Golden Gate Park. There are over 1,000 acres of meadows, lakes, gardens, playgrounds, and museums. While some of the museums and gardens charge admission, there is plenty available at no cost, making it a fun free thing to do in the city and a way families can afford to travel.
Don’t miss the Bison Paddock, which has attracted visitors since 1892, or the Japanese Tea Garden, which boasts azaleas, cherry trees, and Japanese maples. Incidentally, if you are traveling with a pet, know that most areas (though not buildings) in the park are dog-friendly. sfrecpark.org/770/Golden-Gate-Park
6. Marvel at Mind-Blowing Science
Visiting San Francisco with science lovers? Don’t miss this institution located right at Golden Gate Park in an architecturally amazing building. It includes an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest (yes, a rainforest), and natural history museum under one umbrella. Admission is typically $43.75 for adults; $34.25 for youth.
If you’re looking for something unique to do in the evening in San Francisco, visit one of the California Academy of Sciences’ properties for NightLife ($22.75), which offers the chance to get your science on while enjoying adult beverages and food. calacademy.org/
7. Head Over to Haight-Ashbury
For the hippies at heart, no San Francisco trip is complete without a visit to the iconic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. This is where flower power sprang up, and where you can now find quirky boutiques, restaurants and brightly painted Victorian buildings.
8. Peruse the Painted Ladies
A beautiful juxtaposition between modern and historic San Francisco, the Painted Ladies are a row of Victorian houses painted in cheerful colors near Alamo Square Park. Consider having a sunset picnic in the park to get a great opportunity to see and shoot the ladies in the golden light. It’s a wonderful bit of architecture that San Francisco is known for.
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9. Fuel Up at the Ferry Building Marketplace
Foodies, this is one of the top things to do in San Francisco. On the Embarcadero at Market Street, you’ll find the Ferry Building Marketplace. Inside, you’ll find a wealth of artisanal food shops and eateries, as well as a farmer’s market and events.
Get your coffee fix with local legend Blue Bottle Coffee, then splurge on a delicious vegan donut at Donut Farm, known for flavors like Orange Creamsicle and Lavender Earl Grey. Or go for lunch at Grande Creperie or Delica. You’ve got options! ferrybuildingmarketplace.com/
10. Hop on a San Francisco Cable Car
One of the best things to do in San Francisco is to take the quintessential cable car. This historic form of transportation has been getting people around the city for nearly 150 years.
Be sure to stay on until the car turns around at the Powell/Mason Cable Car Turnaround. Here, the car will be manually turned on a large wooden circle so it can make the return journey. Tickets are $8 for passengers age 5 and up. sfmta.com/getting-around/muni/cable-cars
San Francisco is the ideal vacation spot because it appeals to foodies, history buffs, science lovers, and anyone who enjoys a good walk in a park. The bonus? You’ll get your steps in if you choose to walk up and down its picturesque hills!
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What are free things to do in San Francisco?
Enjoy a stroll around Golden Gate Park or picnic with the Painted Ladies at sunset to enjoy the city without spending a cent.
Where should I eat in San Francisco?
San Francisco is a food lover’s paradise. Both Chinatown and Japantown offer great options, and the merchants at Ferry Building Marketplace specialize in artisanal delicacies.
How many days should I spend in San Francisco?
With so much to do, you could easily spend five days in San Francisco. At a minimum, budget three days to see a decent amount of attractions.
Photo credit: iStock/Eloi_Omella
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