Our guide navigating the city's best neighborhoods for a fun weekend that won't break the bank.

By Jenna Scatena
November 11, 2015
San Francisco mural wall
Credit: San Francisco Travel Association/Scott Chernis

Ignore those depressing headlines about how expensive San Francisco has become (both for renters and travelers)—there’s still plenty to do on a budget in this constantly evolving city. By sticking to one neighborhood each day, you’ll save on transportation costs and allow yourself more time to dive into the city’s nooks and crannies. Here’s how to do it all without shortchanging your experience.

Friday: China Town

You’ll find some of San Francisco’s most colorful and affordable dive bars in China Town. Li Po is the most famous of the bunch, named after a great poet of the Tang Dynasty. It opened in the post-prohibition bar boom of the 1930s and hasn’t changed much since (it has the worn red leather booths and tattered Chinese lanterns to prove it). The oddball vibe sets the mood for their notorious lethal Chinese Mai Tai: dark and light rum, Bacardi 151, Chinese liqueur and pineapple juice for $9, which is pretty cheap considering it has the strength of four drinks in one.

Head around the corner to Z&Y, a Chinese restaurant frequented by every spicy food fan from locals to President Obama. Their atomic Szechuan-style crispy chicken ($8.95) is a local favorite, and served in a traditional Chinese restaurant setting (think groups at large round tables with a massive Lazy Susan in the middle).

Brave souls can cap off the evening at Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge, the tiniest, grittiest, and liveliest karaoke dive in the city, with an immortalized bartender who goes by the name Mama Candy.

Saturday: Cruising the Embarcadero

Rise early and book it down the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, open Saturdays year-round from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. More than 120 vendors crop up, selling anything from fresh-baked kouign-amanns to heirloom dragon tongue beans. Most Saturdays, CUESA hosts free seasonal cooking demonstrations (with tastings) at their post in front of the entrance.

As a general rule of thumb, stick to the southern end of the Embarcadero pedestrian promenade to avoid the row of overpriced tourist traps that comprise the north end (Fisherman’s Wharf; Pier 39). Make a slight exception to hit The Exploratorium a few steps south. While general entrance is a pricey $29 a pop, check their calendar for the occasional free day. Otherwise, you can check out their thought-provoking outdoor installations gratis.

Nearby, head to Waterbar, which has an oyster happy hour for $1.05 per shuck, from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Make a pits top at the Instagram-worthy Cupid’s Span—a giant bow and arrow sculpture puncturing the Rincon Park grass. Continue down to Red’s Java House, a historic waterfront dive where you can score a hefty sourdough cheeseburger for $5.52. Work it off with a bike rental at neighboring Bike Hut $6 per hour ($3 per hour for kids’ bikes).

Sunday: Culture in the Mission

In the morning, fuel up with a cup of drip coffee from one of The Mission’s scene-y third-wave coffee houses, like Ritual Coffee Roasters (from $4 per cup). Nurse it from the succulent-clad curbside parklet, the perfect perch to watch the Mission awaken.

Do as the locals and swing by Bi-Rite market for a bottle of bubbly under $12, then head to Dolores Park. Really, they should charge for seating here because the people-watching is better than a movie. Dolores is the confluence of the city’s archetypes—flannel-clad hipsters, Google Glass-eyed techies, vendors pushing popsicle carts, shirtless bros in pastel polos tossing around a game of ladder golf.

When you’ve had enough of the show, walk to La Taqueria, where you can score one of the best tacos in the city starting at $2.10 (though you’ll probably want more than one). The Mission is saturated in murals. Spend the afternoon strolling Balmy and Clarion Alley and the 24th street corridor until the sun begins to set.

Jenna Scatena is on the San Francisco Bay Area beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.