San Francisco has been the recipient of many a love song. Tony Bennett, Eric Clapton, the Arctic Monkeys, Scott McKenzie; each one of these artists and many, many more spoke about this city as if it were some pure maiden, a demi-goddess that no one could even dream of winning.
So beautiful, so open, so enchanting is San Francisco that it captures everyone.
I must say, having been backpacking in San Francisco several times myself, I fell almost as immediately for its spell as my far more eloquent predecessors. San Francisco is, to put it bluntly, one of the greatest cities on the planet.
San Francisco is famous for many reasons: hippies, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the fog – lovingly referred to as Karl the Fog – to name a few. All of these things are just as magical as visitors make them out to be.
These days though, San Francisco is perhaps most well-known for its prohibitive prices. It seems that everyone has fallen in love with city, and wants to be as close as possible to it. For those who want to go backpacking in San Francisco on a budget, this overwhelming fact can be intimidating.
Fear not my broke backpackers, I have seen the promised land and know how to do it on the cheap. With this San Francisco travel guide, you’ll have everything that you could need to see the metropolis at a good price.
We’ll cover topics ranging from what the “cheapest hostels in San Francisco” are to “San Francisco daily costs” to “the best things to do in San Francisco on a budget.” Everything – and then some – is covered in this guide; with it, you’ll be more than prepared to go visit this amazing city.
Related: Not sure which neighborhood in San Francisco is right for you? Check out our Guide on Where to Stay in San Francisco, here!
Table of Contents
I’m going to be frank here: San Francisco can be dishearteningly expensive sometimes. You and just about every soul on this planet want to live in and visit this booming metropolis, which means that prices, as well as demand, are extremely high. Make the wrong move; go to the wrong bar; book the wrong lodge, and watch your funds dry up.
Do not deter though, my eager backpackers, as nothing is impossible in this world if you set your mind to it. San Francisco can be cheap so long as you do everything right. You won’t get by on, say, a Southeast Asia budget but, compared to what other people spend, it’ll sure feel like you did.
An average daily budget in San Francisco will be around $70-85 per day, though stingy travelers can get by on as low as $25-30. Most of your day-to-day expenses in San Francisco will revolve around food/drink and transportation.
Hostels, though pricey by some standards, are still reasonably priced for the value. Should these still prove too expensive, there are plenty of couchsurfing hosts that would love to take you in. Hotels tend to be a bit pricey, especially downtown, so find a group to split a hotel or apartment.
If you want to stay in San Francisco long term, don’t even think about renting a conventional apartment unless you have the means – take this guy as an example. Instead, try one of the many forms of alternative living in the city – because of the astronomical prices, many are getting creative about housing.
Below is a breakdown of the costs of travel in San Francisco for the average backpacker.
San Francisco Budget Backpacking Tips
There are always (ALWAYS) ways to save cash when visiting a new city; San Francisco is no exception. With the proper spending habits, you can stay in San Francisco without feeling the screws tighten around your wallet.
Below is a list of tips for backpacking in San Francisco on the cheap. Follow these words of advice and you’ll find that your dollar goes much further.
- Go for (lots) of walks: This way you don’t have to pay for the overpriced tram! Since San Francisco is such a compact city, most walking distances are manageable as well. In a day you could reasonably walk between its top attractions. Most of the city’s free tours revolve around walking as well.
- Always pre-fade before going out: Buying full-priced drinks at the bar is a great way to waste your money. Instead, buy booze at the store and drink with your friends at the hostel/their house/the park/anywhere besides the actual bar. Actually, many locals prefer to spend their Saturday’s at the free park with some food and booze.
- Cook at home as often as possible: One of the most proven ways of saving money for backpackers: buying your own groceries and cooking at home will save you heaps of cash.
- Buy a discount pass for public transport: If you plan on utilizing San Francisco’s admittedly amazing public transport, then buy a discount pass of some sort; full-priced, individual tickets are for suckers. The SFMTA offers visitors passes that range in length and price. Note that these particular passes aren’t accepted on BART.
- Take advantage of happy hour: If you simply have to buy a drink in a bar, do so during happy hour. A much-loved time of the day, happy hour (usually 4pm-6pm) is when you’ll find the cheapest drinks.
- Pack a travel water bottle and save money every day!
- Free Breakfast
- Free City Tour
If there’s one forgiving thing about San Francisco’s inflated price, it’s that there are lots of (cheaper) alternative means of staying in the city. Between the plethora of well-priced hostels, Couchsurfing hosts, and even semi-urban campgrounds (huh?), there is plenty of breathing room when trying to backpack San Francisco on a budget.
Most of the San Francisco’s hostels are found around the central districts of Nob Hill, Tenderloin, and Market Street. Aside from a few outliers, most hostels in San Francisco should be reasonably priced at around $20-$25. They are, thankfully, of a very high quality as well.
Otherwise, I’ve created a brief summary of San Francisco’s three best hostels:
Best Overall Backpacker Hostel in San Francisco: USA Hostels San Francisco
Consistently voted as the best hostel in San Francisco on hostelworld.com, USA Hostels San Francisco has everything that a backpacker could need or want. Though slightly more expensive than other hostels in San Francisco, this one is more than worth it.
The property is very well designed and maintained. Dorms are comfortable and amenities are diverse; there’s even a yoga room! Free breakfasts every day and free dinners on Monday and Friday means that you’ll get a break on grocery costs.
Finally, discounted urban and outdoors tours means that there’s always plenty going on as well. USA Hostels San Francisco is definitely worth staying at.
Best Party Hostel in San Francisco: Green Tortoise Hostel
This hyperactive hostel is the best place to party thanks to its outstanding social scene and organized pub crawls! People rave about this hostel’s after-hours activities including Beer Olympics, which is a popular (and “effective”) drinking game amongst college kids. No curfew means that you can stay out all night long as well. An in-house sauna will help you sweat-out all of those toxins the next day.
Did we mention that there are three free dinners per week and free breakfast every morning? The extra cash you’ll save from these will allow you to party more in the city! Otherwise, the large communal kitchen is very well equipped.
Best Hostel for Solo Travelers: HI – San Francisco City Center
This artsy hostel is a great place to either meet other travelers or just be left in peace. Gendered dorm rooms and private bathrooms ensure privacy. Fast WiFi makes this a great place for digital nomads as well.
When feeling social, head to the wonderful cafe downstairs or to the tour desk to join one of the many organized activities. Everyone loves a good free breakfast as well. Many travelers like to talk about their crazy nights or upcoming days at breakfast time.
To save the most money, you can, of course, reach out to potential hosts via couchsurfing. San Franciscans are a very worldly and curious bunch. The prospect of hosting an exotic foreigner, such as yourself, may prove irresistible. Be sure to follow all the usual courtesies and rules of staying with a stranger though.
Believe it or not, there are actually a number of campgrounds that are within a reasonable distance of San Francisco proper. Some are located within one of San Francisco’s many parks like Camp Ida Smith at Lake Merced or Rob Hill Campground at the Presidio.
For the best campgrounds though, head across the Golden Gate Bridge. There are many places to camp amongst the towering trees of Marin County. Adamant nature lovers may even head as far north as the Muir National Monument to sleep with the giant redwoods. Make sure to book campsites far in advance though; San Francisco residents love to camp!
Top Things to Do in San Francisco
Below I have listed the top things to do in San Francisco on a budget!
1. Walk or bike across the Golden Gate Bridge
Take a hike across San Francisco’s icon! It’s longer than you think… Many people choose to rent a bike and ride across to the quaint town of Sausalito. You can ferry back to San Francisco too.
2. Visit Alcatraz
Once the USA’s most airtight prison, Alcatraz is now a museum exhibiting the lives of dangerous criminals.
3. Ride a cable car at Fisherman’s Wharf
The Wharf is, in my opinion, a bit of tourist trap, so what better way to experience it than on the move while riding the cable car?! Do a drive-by of one of SF’s most hyped attractions while on an equally hyped cable car. You’ll effectively be killing two birds with one stone.
4. Catch the sunrise from Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks has the finest views in the entire city and is a great place to catch the sunrise. They don’t call San Francisco the city with a 1,000 views for nothing.
5. Have a picnic at Dolores Park
This park is probably the most-loved public space in the entire city. Grab a bite, a bottle, and just go people watching here. Trust me, there is lots to see. Afterward, take a walk around San Francisco’s historic and increasingly gentrified neighborhoods of the Mission and Castro.
6. Catch a Giants’ game
The Warriors may be becoming one of the greatest NBA dynasties ever and the 49ers may have been the talk of the town at one point, but there’s only one true sport for a San Franciscan: baseball. Go to Giants game and feel the camaraderie all around you.
7. Explore Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest of its kind in America and hosts the largest Chinese population outside of China itself. Come here for a (slightly westernized) taste of Chinese life and cuisine. This is one of the best places in San Francisco to eat.
8. “Lounge” on the beach
San Francisco is famous for its near-constant fog, which can get dreary sometimes; what better way to say “fuck off” to this soupy mist then relaxing on the beach in spite of it. You may even get lucky and spot the Golden Gate from the likes of Baker, China, and/or Marshall’s Beach. Bring a sweater!
9. Get outside of the city
San Francisco is only the tip of the iceberg known as “The Bay Area.” Seriously, this gargantuan urban conglomeration is full of a ton of things to do. Take the BART across the bay to trendy Oakland. Ride south to San Jose to see where all those tech entrepreneurs work and live. Go wine tasting in the Napa Valley, or Sonoma for a cheaper option. There’s lots to do besides just backpacking around San Francisco!
10. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts and Presidio
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of my favorite landmarks in the city and should not be missed. This structure really stands out from the rest of the surrounding architecture. From here, you can head to pastoral Presidio district with its many groves and charming houses. Check out our San Francisco itinerary guide and our best places to visit in San Francisco guide!
Looking for a little inspiration? Well here’s a sample itinerary for backpacking San Francisco! Give it a look and use it for yourself if you like.
Note: Check out our California Road trip guide if you are on a larger trip in California!
Day 1 in San Francisco: The Touristy Stuff
Day 1 of this itinerary for backpacking around San Francisco is meant to knock-off the big tourist attractions. Starting at the ever-popular Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll travel along the northern edges of San Francisco and end-up at the picturesque Golden Gate Bridge.
Fisherman’s Wharf was once the primary marina for SF’s large fisherman population, harboring hundreds of vessels at one point in time. Nowadays, it’s the most popular district in San Francisco and receives millions of tourists each year.
Most come to sample some of the city’s finest seafood while others just enjoy walking around the piers. Note that many ferries depart to and from this district, including the ones heading to Alcatraz.
Must see sights at Fisherman’s Wharf include the fascinating Exploratorium Museum and Ghirardelli Square, which was once home to the famous chocolate factory of the same name.
Keep an eye for the native sea lions and street performers as well. Once you’ve had your fill of this bustling area, hop on a cable car and head west towards the Presidio.
On the way to Presidio, you’ll pass through the Marina, Pacific Heights, and Cow Hollow neighborhoods. Here is some of the most stunning architecture in the city – mansions, villas, and overall really expensive houses dot the ridges of these areas.
Most impressive is the Palace of Fine Arts, a wonderfully bucolic Romanesque-looking rotunda sitting in an equally pretty park.
Upon leaving the Palace, you’ll be in the Presidio. This district was once a huge military base – now it’s home to some SF’s best parklands. Set against the Golden Gate Bridge, there dozens of excellent trails here. Chrissy Fields, the Bay Trail, and Coastal Trail are some examples.
Wrap up your day by walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and then back. Touted as the most beautiful bridge in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is San Fran’s claim to fame; missing it would be an enormous error.
Day 2 in San Francisco: Explore the City Center
Hang out in San Francisco’s dense urban core and get a healthy dose of its history! On Day 2 in San Francisco, we’ll be backpacking around San Francisco’s Tenderloin, SoMa, Chinatown, and Nob Hill neighborhoods.
Our route for this day is going to look a bit like a giant loop. Starting in the Tenderloin, we see some of San Francisco’s most reputable civic attractions. Here are several of the city’s top museums, theaters, and public buildings. City Hall, host to a famous NYE party, is located in this district, as well as the Asian Art Museum, SF Opera House, SF Symphony, and exalted Orpheum Theater. Take note of the classical architectural styles while walking around.
From Tenderloin, we head to the SoMa (South of Market) area. This once decrepit district was SF’s primary industrial district; now, it’s the epicenter for city’s massive urban renewal. All kinds of warehouses and factories are being turned into clubs, housing, arcades, you name it.
Most visit this neighborhood for some entertainment purpose, either to see a show, go party, or see a Giant’s game at AT&T Park. The SF Museum of Modern Art is also here among a few other small galleries.
Next is Chinatown across from the city’s main thoroughfare, Market Street. While walking there, you’ll walk through San Francisco’s Financial District, which is where the majority of its towering skyscrapers are found.
Be sure to stop by Union Square on the way – this is one of the largest shopping areas in the nation and is considered “the heart of San Francisco.”
Upon arriving in Chinatown, just go for a wander in its many alleys – some appear directly out of some distant oriental village so much so that they have even be used in several films.
Finish your day at Nob Hill. This affluent neighborhood is full of cool sights like the twisted Lombard Street and Grace Cathedral. The streets of this district are pretty steep, but the views are awesome. Luckily, several cable cars run up and down to assist in your climb if you need it.
Day 3 in San Francisco: The Mission, Haight, Castro
We save the best of your San Francisco backpacking trip for last! On our third and final day in this glorious city, we visit the awesome neighborhoods of the Mission, Castro, and Haight. Here is a thriving art scene with lots of great cafes, parks, and pubs to relax in.
Running all the way from Golden Gate Park to Market Street, the Haight was once ground-zero for San Francisco’s hippie movement. These free-lovers, in addition to several other minority communities, took refuge in this district and pretty much had free reign. A distinct culture arose here that still pervades to this day, though it’s been washed-away over the years by urban renewal and gentrification.
The best way to experience the Haight is to just walk around and try to absorb as much of the residual culture as possible. Several icons of the 60s and 70s lived in this neighborhood and their homes still stand today. Former residents include Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Charles Manson. Be sure to also check-out Hippie Hill.
Next, we visit the Castro. Like Haight, the Castro was a haven for another sort of societal abject, this time the LGBT community. Unlike the Haight though, Castro is still firmly in the grasps of its community.
Visit one of this neighborhood’s many civic centers, like the GLBT Historical Society and LGBT Community Center, for a lesson in gay history. The Castro is also a great place to party and just let loose.
In closing, we spend our last hours in the Mission. Historically a Hispanic neighborhood (again threatened by gentrification), the Mission is a very fun neighborhood to explore. Many of the city’s best parks, like Dolores and Bernal Hill, are here and many residents spend long afternoons picnicking in these. Visit the Mission and its many cafes before the area is completely erased by redevelopment.
Off the Beaten Path in San Francisco
Wanna explore a bit? My best advice is to hop on the next train or bus and get out of the city; either to the Bay Area’s many other cities or to the California wilds. San Francisco is brimming with activities, yes, but they’ve been done already. Go somewhere less visited by tourists for a real taste of the Bay Area.
Here are a few suggestions for backpacking outside of San Francisco.
1. Go backpacking in Oakland
Oakland is San Francisco’s rougher, more down-to-earth cousin. Historically an industrial and port city, one that has had its fair share of crime and hardship, Oakland is quickly coming into its own. Drug dens are turning into bistros; once violent lots now host farmer’s markets; decrepit churches are now nightclubs. Oakland is becoming the new “it” place in America.
2. Drink wine in Napa Valley
Napa Valley is arguably the most well-known and well-regarded wine region in the entire United States. As an Oregonian who insists on Pinots and shuns most Californian products, trust me, it’s hard to accept that truth. Tour the many vineyards of Napa Valley for a taste of a California Cab plus many more grape varietals.
Nearby Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have some pretty good vineyards as well that tend to be more affordable.
3. Surf in Monterey County
Southern California usually gets all of the attention when it comes to surfing; then again, it’s hard to compete with that year-round sun and gnarly swell. Lesser-known Monterey County has some of the best, if not mistiest, surf in all of the state though. Head down to infamous Santa Cruz for the best vibes.
Continue further to Big Sur State Park for a piece of the prettiest coastline in California as well.
4. Travel to San Jose and Palo Alto
Of great renown, the Southern Bay Area, composed primarily of San Jose and Palo Alto, is home to such prestigious institutions like Stanford University, Silicon Valley, and whatever the Elon Musk is cooking up these days. This part of the Bay is pretty affluent and downright sterile at times but paying a visit, nonetheless, is still a worthwhile experience. Maybe you’ll bump into the world’s next tech billionaire?
5. Hike in Yosemite and the Northern Sierra Nevada
Perhaps one of San Francisco’s biggest draws its close proximity to the Sierra Nevada mountains. Just a few hours away from San Francisco, you’ll find yourself at the doorstep of some of America’s most loved outdoor destinations like the uber-popular Yosemite National Park or superlative Lake Tahoe.
There are plenty of trails crisscrossing these mountains, many of which you’ll knock your socks off. Check out our list of the best hikes in California, here.
Check out my post on the Best National Parks in the USA
Best Walks in San Francisco
For a good mix of urban and pastoral hikes, check out these top 5 walks around the San Francisco area:
Golden Bridge Walk: Perhaps the most well known and touristy walk in San Francisco. Walk 2 miles across the bridge and back for a total of 4 miles.
Mt Tamalpais: Located north of SF about an hour in the Muir Woods. This area offers amazing views of the Bay and its constantly shifting fogbanks.
Land’s End: Surprisingly rugged coastal walk located at the northwestern tip of San Francisco.
Angel’s Island: Hike around the second largest island in the San Francisco Bay, which was once the primary immigration station for the West Coast.
Russian and Telegraph Hills: This urban hike that connects two of San Francisco’s most prominent hills. There are lots of photographic opportunities at Lombard Street and the Coit Tower.
Below I have covered everything you need to know before backpacking San Francisco!
Best Time of Year to Visit San Francisco
San Francisco is subject to a fairly tame climate, one that doesn’t see too much variation in temperature or too extreme of weather. Summers are cool and dry while winters are only slightly cooler and rainy. Fog will, of course, be an issue year round so there’s no point in trying to avoid it, although it seems like the city is warming up, and seeing sunnier days more often every year.
I’ve personally visited the city during all of its seasons and can comfortably say that there really is no bad time to visit San Francisco. It’s never too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, or uncomfortable at all really (again, excluding the fog).
If you really wanted to go backpacking in San Francisco during the best possible time, the weather is, reportedly, the best from September to October.
Temperatures at this time are actually higher than those during the summer. On top of this, there are fewer tourists in the city.
On that note, San Francisco should be avoided during the height of summer when all of the tourists are actually there: prices will be much, much higher and the city will be a zoo.
Getting In and Out of San Francisco
There are several ways of getting into San Francisco. Most visitors arrive at San Francisco International Airport, located about 14 miles south of the city center. This somewhat maddening airport (it’s a jumbled mess) is serviced by the BART – one-way tickets cost around $10.
Alternative airports include Oakland International Airport and Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. Flights to Oakland Airport, in particular, are usually more affordable than SF or San Jose. When traveling to San Francisco, 9 times out of 10 I fly to Oakland because I received a good deal. The train ride from Oakland Airport to Downtown SF is only an extra dollar as well ($11).
San Francisco is one of the West Coast’s main arteries and so is connected by many bus routes and commuter roads. Several companies service San Francisco; take note though: there is no central bus station in the city so each company has there own drop off point. Check Greyhound, Bolt Bus, Megabus, and Hoang Express for tickets.
If you’re self-driving, you can access San Francisco in many ways. You can travel up the peninsula and end up in the southern suburbs of the city or take one of the many bridges that all drop you downtown. I really suggest parking the car in one of SF’s outer neighborhoods though as parking can be a nightmare in the center of the city. While you can park for free in the outer neighborhoods, downtown parking can sometimes cost $20 per hour!
For a slightly different way of entering the city, try catching one of the many ferries across the bay! The views from one of these are often lovely and the ride is comfortable. Many Bay Area folk use these ferries to actually commute to work from North Bay.
If you are traveling to more places in California, check out our California travel guide!
How to Get Around San Francisco
San Francisco has some of the best public transport in the entire United States! A fleet of buses, subways, trolleys, streetcars, and cable cars link the city in nearly every way possible.
Nearly all public transport within San Francisco itself falls under the MUNI (Municipal Rail). Though primarily a rail line, MUNI has also incorporated most of the city’s public transport into itself meaning that MUNI tickets will be accepted just about anywhere. Single tickets cost $2.75 and last for 90 minutes. Day passes can be bought for $20 and, in addition, allow unlimited rides on the historic cable cars, which require separate tickets for single rides.
There are a couple of different MUNI passes available to visitors. Most will simply get a 3-day pass for $31 or a 7-day for $40 – these “scratch cards” are accepted on all forms of transport.
Clipper Cards are also available, which are, essentially, a more permanent ticket. These cards are dispensed for free and charged with funds to then be used on the bus, train, etc. Simply tap them to the card reader on whatever form of transport you’re using and then go on your way.
The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) is a larger rail system that connects the Greater Bay Area. Tickets bought on MUNI vehicles are not accepted on the BART, though Clipper Cards can be used. BART charges based upon distances traveled and these fees can be quite expensive if you’re commuting a long way. Use BART only when necessary.
Moreover, BART only connects part of San Francisco (Downtown, Union Square, SoMa, and the Mission) to East Bay and down to the Airport. To go further South, Cal Train goes south to each downtown city on the Peninsula towards San Jose and beyond.
Types of Transport in San Francisco
San Francisco’s transit system can be a little daunting at first, but once you figure out the system you’ll have unlocked the city. To help you sort through the many forms of transport, refer to following breakdown below:
Buses: standard public buses; some run on diesel while others use electricity. There are bus stops throughout the city.
MUNI Metro: San Francisco’s light rail/subway.
Streetcars: Long, deco buses that are locked into rails. They look very similar to some European streetcars.
Cable cars: An icon of San Francisco. Open-aired cars that commuters hop on and off. More of a tourist attraction than convenient commute.
BART: Long-distance trains that connect the Bay Area, mostly East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Hayward, etc.)
Cal Train: This is an overground train that links San Francisco – the station is in SoMa near the Giants stadium – to the Peninsula and South Bay. This is the best way to get from San Francisco to Burlingame, Palo Alto, San Jose, etc.
Long Distance Trains and Buses from San Francisco
In the same way that you entered San Francisco, you can depart the city. Long-distance buses and trains connect San Francisco with other major West Coast locations as well as some continental cities.
There are many ways of moving up and down the West Coast from San Francisco. The previously mentioned Megabus and Hoang buses connect SF with Southern California and other parts of Northern California, while Bolt Bus runs all the way north to Vancouver, BC.
Greyhound goes just about everywhere.
If you’re a lover of locomotives, there’s a lovely train the runs the entire length of the West Coast. Called the Coast Starlight, this train takes 36 hours to complete its entire route. Along the way, you’ll see some highlights of the West Coast’s natural beauty including views of Mt Shasta, the Pacific Coast, and Southern Oregon. There are even wine tastings!
Another long-distance rail option is the California Zephyr, which connects San Francisco with Chicago. At 52 hours, this is one of the longest train rides in America and, purportedly, one of the most beautiful. On this train, you’ll travel across the gorgeous Colorado Plateau and be afforded views of the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, and eventually the Great Plains. Be sure to hop-off halfway at Denver, which is one of my favorite cities in the USA.
Safety in San Francisco
San Francisco is a fairly safe city by American standards. Many once grimy neighborhoods have been redeveloped recently (for better and worse) and violent crime is down significantly. There are certainly some districts that still see a fair bit of crime (this is America after all) so travelers should remain aware of their surroundings and keep their guard up.
Refer to our guide for staying safe while backpacking.
The most concerning thing that travelers need to keep an eye out for in SF is homelessness. San Francisco has the largest homeless population per capita in the entire United States, thanks in part to the temperate weather.
Most homeless persons are harmless, with a bark that’s almost always bigger than their bite. Many will scream either at a stranger or some imaginary antagonist for no reason at all. Few, if any bums, actually have the strength or intentions to hurt you. In rare instances, a bum with a chip on his shoulder may hold someone at knifepoint though, so don’t start thinking that they’re completely passive.
If a bum approaches you for money or any reason, just politely say no and walk away. Avoid indulging or misleading them.
In my experiences, beggars are usually most upset when they’ve been talking to you for awhile and don’t get anything in return. NEVER EVER leave any belongings in your car either – though vagrants won’t outright accost you, they’ll certainly rob you when your back is turned. I’ve had my car window broken several times because I left a bag or even spare coins in the center console.
Get Insured Before Backpacking San Francisco
Even if you are only going on a short trip to San Francisco, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your backpacking adventure, but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be traveling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you
head off on a backpacking adventure! Traveling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
San Francisco Accommodation Travel Hacks
Let’s face it, sometimes we all need to stay in a hostel. Hostels are great for meeting fellow travelers and just having space where you can do your thing at your own pace. Backpacker accommodation in San Francisco is far from cheap, however.
I will just say the prices are staggering once you learn what they are. So, stay at a hostel for a night or two and consider your other options:
Couchsurf!: If you manage to land a Couchsurfing spot in San Francisco, you will have successfully eliminated your biggest cost: accommodation. I’ll be honest with you though; Couchsurfing is more popular than ever before.
I’ve been told Couchsurfing hosts in San Francisco can receive up to 50+ requests PER DAY! Point being, whilst I would not explicitly count on Couchsurfing in SF, I would sure give it an honest go. Make sure you send a very convincing message short of selling your body and your soul.
Tap into your backpacker network: If you have done any sort of backpacking before, odds are you know someone who knows someone from SF. Californians love to go backpacking! Before you begin your San Francisco backpacking trip, I suggest you put your feelers out there and ask your network of friends if they know of someone whom you can crash with for a night or two.
This might sound far-fetched, but honestly, this has helped me out multiple times in SF as well as in other cities. As it turns out, my friend of a friend host was awesome and we are still friends! Ultimately, if you can find a balance between a hostel night and a free night, you will save more money
Eating and Drinking in San Francisco
There are many ways to grab a bite and beverage in San Francisco. From unassuming holes-in-the-wall to cinque gastro lounges, there’s a little of everything here.
To help you sort through San Francisco’s many options, I’ve broken down the different types of establishments where you can get food and drink.
Diner/Cafe ($-$$): Usually the simplest form of dining in San Francisco. The offer food and drink for reasonable prices and the quality is sometimes very good. Aesthetically, diners are often very retro while cafes feel more European.
Food Cart ($-$$): As the name suggests, these are carts or small mobile kitchens that make food. The food from these is, in my opinion, the best there is. With less overhead, owners can spend more time on creating great food and at great prices. Check out Off the Grid to get a schedule of the Bay Area food trucks.
Fast Food ($): McDonald’s, Wendy’s Burger King, Taco Bell…go to these only if you’re desperate or drunk. In N’ Out Burger is an icon of California and should actually be visited at least once.
Restaurant ($$-$$$): Comes in all shapes and sizes from American bistros to Turkish mezzes to ultra-experimental gastro kitchens; these are only a few examples. Prices vary but most are usually more expensive than the previously mentioned varieties.
Bar/Pub ($-$$): The most common way to get a drink. Conventionally, pubs have a greater food selection while bars are more basic. These days the two are becoming less distinct though.
Club ($$$): Large spaces that feature musical and/or performance acts. Most charge an entrance fee (cover). Drinks here are overpriced and most attendees show up drunk already or high on something.
Cellar/Taphouse ($$): Craft bars that offer huge array of beers or wines. Many selections are quite rare as well and so prices will be justifiably higher.
Brewing, Distilling, and Wine Making in San Francisco
San Francisco has an amazing craft booze scene, one that churns out all sorts of alcohol. Beer, wine, spirits – you name it – can all be found locally in the Bay Area. Aficionados will find just about anything that there heart desires while backpacking in San Francisco.
Below is a list of some of the Bay Area’s best breweries, distilleries, and wineries.
Best Breweries around San Francisco:
- Almanac (Alameda)
- Local Brewing Co. (Mission Bay, SF)
- Anchor Brewing (Potrero Hill, SF)
- Russian River (Santa Rosa)
- Cellarmaker (Market, SF)
Best Distilleries around San Francisco:
- St. George Spirits (Alameda)
- Hangar One (Alameda)
- Seven Stills (Bayview, SF)
- Anchor Distilling (Potrero Hill, SF)
- Raff Distillerie (Treasure Island, SF)
Best Wineries around San Francisco:
- Loma Prieta Winery (Santa Cruz)
- Ridge Vineyards (Cupertino)
- David Bruce Wines (Los Gatos)
- Bogle Vineyards (Clarksburg)
- Anything in Napa Valley
Nightlife in San Francisco
Once a refuge for druggies, hippies, and hideaways, the nightlife of San Francisco has changed along with its people. Gone (but not forgotten) are many of the dives and corner pubs that once kept SF’s residents going, transformed into something modern yet familiar at the same time.
Every day, new drinking holes of every sort are opening up in San Francisco. Rustic whiskey rooms, dazzling clubs, raucous concert halls, all are there, eager to take away the stresses of the work week. There seems to be no end to the type of bar in San Francisco and, if there isn’t a bar for you yet, then it’ll definitely be there next week.
Each district is catered to a different group of people. Gritty Tenderloin is where you’ll find most of the city’s hipster haunts, complete with craft and dive bars alike. Marina District is full of young professionals handing out business cards and drinking Moscow Mules. Castro is still the best place to go out for LGBT community and has a fun nightlife for all.
SoMa is full of industrial buildings that have been converted either into breweries or nightclubs. North Beach is the strip club capital of SF. Finally, you can find just about any sort of bar in the Mission or Nob Hill – going out in these neighborhoods is probably a no-fail.
San Francisco has an increasingly active “after-hours” and “underground” scene as well. There are warehouse parties happening all the time in SF. At the same time, many unsuspecting venues hold special performances or events that can be surprisingly debaucherous. Check the papers and on Facebook for links to these secret parties.
To get you started I’ve included five of the best bars in San Francisco.
- Thieves Tavern (Mission)
- Wreck Room (Nob Hill)
- Tipsy Pig (Marina)
- DNA Lounge (SoMa)
- Cobb’s Comedy Club (North Beach)
Books to Read on San Francisco
These are some of my favorite travel reads and books set in San Francisco, which you should consider picking up before you begin your backpacking adventure…
The Backpacker Bible – Get it for free! Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. To inspire and help the next generation of Broke Backpackers, you can now grab ‘How to Travel the World on $10 a Day’ for free! Get your copy here.
The Maltese Falcon – One of the most iconic detective novels in American literature. A solitary private eye gets entangled with a dangerous woman.
On the Road – The infamous vagabond novel based upon Jack Kerouac’s journeys across America. A significant chunk of the novel takes place in San Francisco.
Tales of the City – Perhaps the most appropriate book for your San Francisco reading list. A collection of short stories about the city.
Joy Luck Club – One of America’s great immigrant novels. About the struggle of four Chinese girls and their families as they try to settle in a new world.
Lonely Planet San Francisco – It’s sometimes worth traveling with a guidebook. Despite Lonely Planet’s history of selling out and writing about places they haven’t been to, they’ve done a good job with San Francisco.
Volunteering in San Francisco
Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long-term on a budget in San Francisco whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than World Packers. World Packers is an excellent platform connecting travelers with meaningful volunteer positions throughout the world.
In exchange for a few hours of work each day, your room and board are covered.
Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in an awesome place without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project.
Worldpackers opens the doors for work opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs, and eco-projects around the world. We’ve tried and approved them ourselves – check out our Worldpackers in-depth review here.
If you’re ready to create a life-changing travel experience and give back to the community, join the Worldpacker community now. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll get a special discount of $20. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $29.
Make Money Online Whilst Backpacking San Francisco
Traveling in San Fransico long-term? Keen to make some cash after spending to0 much of your money exploring the city?
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income—from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills! It’s a win-win! Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
Learn what it’s like to be a VIPKID teacher, a top company in the field of online English learning.
In addition to giving you the qualifications to teach English online, TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Being a responsible backpacker in San Francisco
Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.
Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, get off my fucking site.
Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.
Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.
Recently, my gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint, don’t be a dick.
Need more guidance? – Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
Backpacking in San Francisco will bring you ample opportunities to participate in debauchery, and it is very important to have fun, let loose, and get a bit wild at times. Most backpacking trips I have been on across the world have included at least a few mornings where I wake up knowing I went too far. There are a ton of bars in SF to get down in!
Some things will put you in the category of a straight up jackass if you do them. Being super loud and obnoxious in a tiny hostel at 3 AM is a classic rookie backpacker mistake. Everyone in the hostel will hate you when you wake them up. Show your fellow travelers respect whilst backpacking in SF and anywhere else for that matter!
To end this article on backpacking San Francisco, I’d like to give a special shoutout to all those who helped me write it. Jeannie Horton, Logan Robinson, Elizabeth Donaldson, and Ana Pereira; thank you for your advice! It’s difficult for one man to truly grasp San Francisco, but I think between the five of us we did a decent job. Cheers.
“Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.”
Need More Inspiration?
- A guide to the best Hostels in San Francisco
- Where to Stay in San Francisco
- Los Angeles Travel Guide
- New York City Guide
- 3-Day San Francisco Guide
- What’s in my backpack?
- The Ultimate Guide to Big Sur Camping
- Most Epic Places to Visit in the USA
- Backpacking the USA: Road Trips and More
- 17 Great Things to Do in Fremont, California to Complement Any Trip!
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Ralph is a former manager in the hospitality industry turned wild child. With a desire to experience all things unconventional, Ralph enjoys visiting the lesser-known landscapes of the world and has ended up in some pretty strange and wonderful places. Recently, he spent eight months travelling around Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, spending as much time as possible in the wilderness and doing everything to avoid the crowds.