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The Mill
Photograph: Victor GoodsThe Mill

Cheap date ideas in San Francisco better than dinner and a movie

From urban hikes to affordable grub, we’ve got the best dirt-cheap date ideas in SF for cash-strapped city dwellers

Written by
Lauren Sheber
Shoshi Parks

You don’t have be bankrolled by Google to have a good time in this city. In fact, there are tons of cheap date ideas in San Francisco. Whether you’d rather belly up to a fleet of food trucks or make out against a scenic backdrop, these date ideas include some of the best things to do in San Francisco, and won’t empty your wallet. Still pinching pennies? Check out this list of free things to do in SF, like sights, attractions and museums.

RECOMMENDED: The best date ideas in San Francisco

Cheap date ideas in San Francisco

  • Restaurants
  • Trucks
  • Mission Bay

Food truck hub Spark Social feels like a lively backyard party every night of the week. The crowd—scientists from Mission Bay, tech workers from SoMA, and Dogpatch artists—is as diverse as the cuisine on offer. Up to a dozen trucks converge on the light-strung space each night, offering everything from pizza and poke to ramen and crepes. Get there before 7pm to snag a prime spot—we recommend one of the swinging benches near the fire pit—and happy hour sangria for just $5 a glass or $10 a carafe. Regularly scheduled events like Wednesday trivia night and annual festivals and fundraisers add extra cache to an economical evening.

  • Shopping
  • Markets and fairs
  • SoMa

A Saturday date at the Ferry Building farmer’s market is a food lover’s paradise. The stalls are liberal with tasters, meaning you can gorge on the Bay Area’s freshest fruit, cheese, bread, ice cream, hummus, nuts, and more without spending a dime. If your belly’s still rumbling, snag a plate of Primavera’s famed chilaquiles and a seat on the pier for unbeatable views of the bay. Afterwards, catch a matinee at the Embarcadero Center Cinema up the street, then take a stroll to catch glittering views of the Bay Lights after dark.

Catch an open-air movie
Photograph: Flickr/ Scott Schiller

3. Catch an open-air movie

Scrap the usual old dinner and a movie for a picnic and a (free!) flick under the stars—just don’t forget to layer up. Classic films play on Saturday nights from June to September in Dolores Park, Washington Square Park, and Union Square (check for the schedule). When the summer ends, Proxy’s Fall Film Series begins, screening indie flicks like Sorry to Bother You in the heart of Hayes Valley. When the movie ends, treat your date to a scoop of small-batch ice cream from Smitten.

  • Restaurants
  • Outer Richmond

The lights are fluorescent and the tables are cramped, but the steaming dumplings at Shanghai Dumpling King are among the best in the city. The specialty is xiao long bao, or soup dumplings ($6–$9 for 10). Round out your meal with an order of sugar egg puffs—fluffy, hot-from-the-fryer doughnuts. Eat your fill then walk over to Simple Pleasures Cafe (3434 Balboa St), an old-school neighborhood coffee shop where you can catch free live music.

  • Shopping
  • San Francisco

Live music, workshops, and cocktail booths lend a party vibe to TreasureFest, Treasure Island’s raucous flea market. The two-day event happens the last weekend of every month, when artisan vendors set up booths and 40 food trucks converge on the lawn. The scenery alone is worth the trip across the bridge, where you’ll be rewarded with palm-framed views of the San Francisco cityscape. Admission is only $3, and there are tons of deals to be had: check out the vintage stalls for clothing, housewares, books, and records.

  • Things to do
  • Outer Richmond

An urban hike around Lands End is replete with shipwrecks and rocky beaches. Follow the coastal trail to the Sutro Baths, a private swimming pool built in 1896 which, after sucumbing to a fire in the ‘60s, remains a marshy ruin of low concrete walls and passageways, now overgrown with wildflowers and grasses stalked by pelicans. On the deck of the nearby historic Cliff House, check out the view from the Camera Obscura, a giant, 70-year-old camera, then take your pick for eats: either head inside for free all-you-can-eat popovers and drinks at the diner-like Bistro or head to the Pacific Cafe, a 40-year-old seafood joint where free wine makes waiting for a table fun.

Spend a Sunday in the park
  • Things to do
  • Golden Gate Park

Every Sunday, Golden Gate Park comes alive with a wide variety of free and cheap activities perfect for a day date. The fun starts at 11am on JFK Drive with Lindy in the Park, a joyful afternoon of swing dancing. At noon, beginners can attend a free 30-min lesson. At 1pm just down the road, strap on a pair of skates and join the Roller Disco Party, DJ’d by none other than the Godfather of Skate, D. Miles Jr. For something a bit slower paced, cross to the SF Botanical Garden, a lush, uncrowded green where San Francisco residents get in free. The garden’s groves feature rare foliage native to South America, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand (don’t miss the sweet-smelling Garden of Fragrance or the redwood forest) and the grounds are particularly vibrant in early February, when the most extensive collection of magnolias outside of China pop.

Almost every day of the week, often multiple times a day, San Francisco City Guides offers fascinating tours of San Francisco’s famous neighborhoods and storied histories—for free. The program, run by the SF Public Library, provides a perspective on the city that even its longest term residents may not be familiar with. Show up at designated meeting places throughout the morning and afternoon for walk-and-talks like Gold Rush City, Chinatown Family Associations, Tongs & Gangs, and Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco and learn together what you didn’t know you didn’t know.

  • Bars
  • Alamo Square

Longtime NoPa establishment Madrone Art Bar is known for live music and laid-back dance parties in an intimate gallery space. Events here run the gamut from ‘80s pop dance parties to open mic nights but the most soulful of them all is Motown on Mondays where DJs spin original hits and remixes of Motown favorites all for the the price of a song (free before 9pm, $3 after). Get there when the doors open at 6pm for an hour of $1 off drafts and cocktails. If your feet get tired before your thirst is quenched, cross the street to the neighborhood’s beloved Ethiopian dive bar, Club Waziema, for a beer and a heaping tray of cheap eats.

The Alley isn’t like most karaoke spots. You won’t find pre-recorded music or subtitles played over cheesy interpretive videos here. This joint, founded in 1933, features a real piano and a songbook full of jazz and Broadway standards, as well as some contemporary tunes. Thursday through Sunday take a seat around the keys and sing along or sign up for your turn on the mic. Monday through Wednesday, the piano man is replaced by an equally knowledgeable guitar man. Arrive before 9:30pm if you’re hungry: The Alley offers one of the cheapest steak dinners around.

See the city in 360
  • Things to do
  • Corona Heights

This craggy sunset perch in Corona Heights Park sparks instant romance; you just have to get up there first. Skip the tourist-crowded staircase in favor of the less populated trail off 15th Street. (It starts at the tennis courts, then winds steeply uphill among the trees. At the top, you’ll find a pup-packed dog run and the best vantage point in the city, offering panoramic views from Sutro Tower to downtown. BYOB, but be discreet.

  • Restaurants
  • Cafés
  • Alamo Square

Spend the day at Alamo Square, a dog-friendly park bordered by showy Victorians, then grab a table at The Mill for its supremely satisfying (and delightfully affordable) nightly pizza. At $3.50, the generously portioned slices cost less than the cafe’s famous toast—and the toppings rotate weekly. Order a couple slices and garlic knots for a mere $10. Then head down the street to Bean Bag cafe (601 Divisadero St), where pints of beer are all under $4 from 3pm to 10pm.

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