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 for cash-strapped city dwellers
The Mill
Photograph: Victor Goods The Mill
By Lauren Sheber |

You don’t have be bankrolled by Google to have a good time in this city. 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 gratis sights, attractions and museums.

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Cheap date ideas in San Francisco

The Mill
Photograph: Victor Goods
Restaurants, Cafés

Spring for slices

icon-location-pin 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.

Photograph: Courtesy San Francisco Botanical Garden
Things to do

Detour to South America

icon-location-pin Golden Gate Park

Spend a day wandering the SF Botanical Garden, a lush, uncrowded green where San Francisco residents get in free. Stock up on provisions—cookies, focaccia—at Arizmendi Bakery, then unfurl a picnic on the main lawn. The surrounding 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.) The grounds are particularly vibrant in early February, when the magnolias pop—this is the most extensive collection of the blooms outside of China.

Photograph: Courtesy Spark Social SF
Restaurants, Trucks

Check out food trucks and fire pits

icon-location-pin Mission Bay

Food truck hub Spark Social feels like a lively backyard party every night of the week. The crowd is diverse—scientists from Mission Bay, tech workers from SoMA, and Dogpatch artists converge—as are the dishes available. 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 a happy hour sangria ($5 a glass; $10 a carafe).

Ferry Building Marketplace
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Ken Lund
Shopping, Markets and fairs

Sample NorCal’s finest

icon-location-pin SoMa

A Saturday date at the Ferry Building farmers market is a sampler’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. Catch a matinee at the Embarcadero Center Cinema up the street, then stroll down Embarcadero to catch glittering views of the Bay Lights.

Movies in the park
Photograph: Flickr/ Scott Schiller

Catch an open-air movie

Scrap the usual old dinner and a movie for 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). Then Proxy’s Fall Film Series starts in September, screening indie flicks like The Big Sick and Landline in the heart of Hayes Valley. Warm up afterwards with a stein and a bratwurst at Biergarten.

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Todd Lappin
Restaurants, Dim sum

Hail the king

icon-location-pin 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. Then walk over to Simple Pleasures Cafe (3434 Balboa St), a neighborhood coffee shop where you can catch free live music three or four times a week.

Treasure Island Flea

Island hop

icon-location-pin San Francisco

Live music, workshops, and cocktail booths lend a party vibe to Treasure Island raucous flea market, held on a former military base. The two-day fest 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 Bay, where you’ll be rewarded with palm-framed views of the San Francisco cityscape. Admission is only $3, and there are deals to be had: check out the vintage stalls for clothing, housewares, books, and records.

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ Herr Olsen
Things to do

Take an urban hike

icon-location-pin Outer Richmond

Hike around Lands End, a coastal park replete with shipwrecks and rocky beaches. Follow the coastal trail to Sutro Baths, a private swimming pool built in 1896. Since a fire in 1966, all that remains at the marshy site is its low concrete walls and passageways, now overgrown with wildflowers and grasses. (It’s not unusual to spot pelicans stalking among the ruins.) Check out the view from the Camera Obscura, a giant, 70-year-old camera. Afterward, head to Pacific Cafe, a 40-year-old seafood joint with the happiest wait-list around: The wine is complimentary until you’re seated.

Corona Heights Park
Things to do

See the city in 360

icon-location-pin 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.

Wise Sons bagel
Photograph: Yelp/ Michelle G
Restaurants, Delis

Turn back the clock

icon-location-pin Mission

The secret to an affordable dinner date when you’re broke: Make it breakfast. Though this Jewish comfort food cafe is typically swarmed for brunch, those in the know wait for the rush to clear out. When evening hits, the crowd turns to neighborhood regulars. The dinner menu features entrees like brisket and chicken shawarma, sure, but it also offers breakfast all day. (Somehow, challah French toast hits a sweet spot that the usual burrito bomb won’t.) Most dishes are generously portioned and hover at around $12. The walls are hung with haphazardly black and white photos and the soundtrack strikes an old-school vibe. Seal the deal with the pillowy caramelized challah cake ($5), which comes heaped with whipped cream and fruit, then drizzled in brown butter. One of the brick-sized slices is more than enough to share.