5 Budget Friendly Places in San Francisco to See in a Day

San Francisco is one of the most popular cities to visit on the West Coast of the US. It’s foggy pretty much everyday from November until April, but it ever seems to drop below 58 degrees. San Francisco is well known for its Golden Gate Bridge, but what else is there? As a SF native, if you are in a hurry, here are 5 places you can see in a day that will not disappoint you. Always have at least a light jacket with you ready to go. SF can be very chilly. 

1) Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf

pier 39 san francisco, sleeping sea lions
Image taken from Fog City Secrets

 I would start your day at Pier 39 or Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s located right along the waterfront of San Francisco Bay and provides some great photo ops of San Francisco’s other famous bridge, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (Bay Bridge). Pier 39 has your typical shops to enjoy, but one of my favorite places to visit is Boudin’s bakery. They are best known for their sourdough bread. I like the calm chowder bread bowl on a cold morning, but it’s a lot of food. If you have a person with you split one!

The area has a variety of shops that offer saltwater taffy. Pick up a few to munch on for the road.  You may hear some loud “barking” along the water at the pier entrance. Look out for sea lions! They love to lay about and sun bathe and pretty much make up the fishy smell you will encounter when you look out at them. There are many different cruise or boat options available to venture out to Angel Island, Alcatraz Prison, Whale Watching, etc. If you have time, they are all pretty good. Keep in mind Alcatraz can take all day and is difficult to see without reservations.

If you have a family, I would recommend the Aquarium of the Bay if you have time. It’s a small aquarium that can be a little pricey, but if you want to have an idea about the native fish species in California, visit it. You can see everything in under an hour. 

2) Ghirardelli Square

Image result for ghirardelli square
Image taken from SF Eatery

This square used to be the home of the San Francisco based Ghirardelli chocolate company. It’s often less crowded than Pier 39 and is a nice walk from that location. It’s about 1 mile down the Embarcadero waterfront. The factory does not offer any tours, but you’ll be able to see the famous exterior and enjoy their cafe. If you are looking for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can expect it see it here. This area is mostly shopping. If you are in a hurry, it’s worth the stop here at least fr the scenery.

3) Chinatown

Image taken from SF Travel

Next on my list is San Francisco’s Chinatown. This is one of the largest Chinese communities in the United States. This is the best place to shop for your souvenirs at cheap prices in SF. Chinatown’s unofficial tourist street is Grant Street. It runs from North Beach to the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. I would just walk around and enjoy the architecture and culture. 

The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is well worth a visit is you want to learn about how they are handmade here. They offer a free tour (note that pictures are .50). I love the fresh cookie bags you can pick up after the tour. The factory is located at 56 Ross Alley. One other notable point of interest is Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral. It’s the only building in this area that survived the 1906 fire after the earthquake destroyed most of San Francisco. Old Saint’s Mary’s is on Grant and California streets.

If you make a right and go to the end one block to the right on Grant street, you can find my favorite bakery, Eastern Bakery. There are some fameous people with photographs of them visiting the bakery like former president Bill Clinton on the walls. The pork buns here and pineapple bus are my favorite treat when I need a cheap and quick meal. Many of the smaller bakeries in Chinatown are cash only locations. Be prepared.

4) Union Square and Powell St

Image result for union square sf
Image taken from Visit Union Square

If you are interested in catching the Cable Car trolley, this might be a stop for you to consider. Powell Street is the beginning of the cable car line.  There are two lines, Mason St and California St that run through San Francisco. Make sure you know which one you want to ride. The cable car trollyes are very popular throughout the year. The tickets are $5 each way. Go early in the morning if this is something you want to experience. You can buy your ticket from the booth to the right of the Powell BART station. Have your ticket before you get in line and watch out for homeless and pick pockets. 

Union Square is another central location to enjoy eating and shopping. The flagship Macy’s is here along with several other large well known fashion brands such as Chanel, Valentino, Gucci, Cartier, Prada, Luis Vuitton, etc. My personal favorite stores are Tiffany’s, the Apple Store, Giants Dugout, William Sonoma and the Disney Store on Stockton Street! It’s the 3rd largest Disney Store in North America and the best Cast members if I do say so myself! 

In the holiday season there is a festive ice skating rink and large Christmas tree in the middle of the square. You can also find food trucks and many festive pop up shops in the area to enjoy. If you want to head out to the other side of San Francisco walk over to Geary Street. Look for the number 38 Muni bus. The Ocean beach side of San Francisco is famous for the Sutro baths, Golden Gate Park, museums and Palace of Fine Arts. 

5) Palace of Fine Arts

It’s difficult to narrow down what to choose for my last must see location, but the Palace of Fine Arts will win every time. Built in 1915 for the World Expo, the scenery here is why you want to visit. It’s a peaceful garden area to walk around with yet another great place to view the Golden Gate Bridge. The Palace of Fine Arts sits in the Marina district of San Francisco. If you have the time explore the rest of the area known as the Presidio. The Presidio was once an active army base. 

My favorite locations there are the Walt Disney Family Museum and Lucas Film studios. The WDFM is not what you think it is; rather it is a museum dedicated to the life of Walt Disney and his legacy. It’s run by his family and  often will have special exhibits available as well. Lucas Film is closed to the public, but you are able to find a life sized statue of Yoda if you ask the security guard. 

On the way back to your hotel you may be able to stop by Lombard street, the well known crooked street that looks like a maze. It’s often crowded and only goes crooked for about a block. It’s not my personal favorite location, but tourists seem to love it. 

Wrapping Up

You can see a lot of San Francisco in a day. Yes there are a lot of places that I’ve left out, but I wanted to include broad places that wouldn’t cost a lot of money and have varied hours. This should be a starting point for you to get to know the city. San Francisco is a large city, but petty much everything is accessible by public transit. Get to know BART and MUNI if you plan to visit. It can take a lot longer to travel by car! San Francisco is an expensive city! Be warned. Until next time, happy travels.