in an article about Northern California, an orange car in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

Things To Do in Northern California Without Breaking the Bank

From San Francisco to Redwood National Park, NorCal offers plenty of fun for budget-conscious visitors.
January 30, 2022
8 mins read

Sunny California is one of the most well-known places in the world. Hollywood, San Francisco, Yosemite — the list of iconic locations is extensive. That being said, it seems that travelers looking to explore the state tend to think of Southern California locations like Los Angeles or Disneyland. In reality, Northern California has just as much to offer, if not more. Only in NorCal are there iconic spots like San Francisco or Santa Cruz, places that college students and tourists can explore without paying an arm and a leg.

San Francisco on a Budget

San Francisco is arguably the most iconic and world-renown place in Northern California. With globally recognizable features like the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco has an abundance of places to explore without breaking your bank.

For starters, when looking for a place to stay, don’t bother with expensive hotels. The Bay Area is a giant, extremely populated hub with a wealth of affordable Airbnb’s to choose from. By scanning Airbnb for just one minute, anyone traveling on a budget can find stays like this superhost for just $56 a night. With a 4.96-star rating, Airbnbs like this provide a reliable, comfortable and cost-effective way to travel to places in Northern California.

If you’re more of an outdoors person and prefer another affordable option besides Airbnb, camping is available within and near San Francisco, which may surprise some travelers. Camping in general is one of the cheapest stays one can book, and it’s perfect for nature-lovers. Kirby Cove Campground is just one of the amazing campsites people can stay at. It’s cost-effective, right next to the water, surrounded by beautiful greenery and one can even get an amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge. In short, it’s a breath-taking experience, one that doesn’t cost a fortune to book.

As for fun activities in San Francisco that are budget-friendly, there are literally dozens of options. For starters, the city has plenty of free, awe-inspiring beaches that are the perfect place for a picnic. One of the best places to visit is Baker Beach, which gives visitors a stunning view of the ocean, cliffs and the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition, visitors can check out the vast Golden Gate Park.

While some of the facilities within Golden Gate Park, like the California Academy of Sciences, are not wallet-friendly, just entering the park is free of charge and is one of the most iconic places in San Francisco. Walking up and down the famous piers is another free activity perfect for travelers and college students on a budget. One can stroll all the way from the Ferry Building to Pier 39. At Pier 39 you can bring a few bucks for a sweet treat and enjoy watching the sea lions that frequent the pier’s docks.

While other places like Coit Tower do cost money to enter, the cost of admission is only $10, a modest price for the view you can get of San Francisco. There are still more free things you can do, such as peruse the Palace of Fine Arts or walk down the famous, zig-zagging Lombard Street. With these activities in mind, it’s certainly feasible for anyone on a budget to explore San Francisco without wasting money.

Santa Cruz

While perhaps less well-known than San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a beauty that deserves travelers’ attention. The city is home to a wealth of beaches, parks and campsites that make for the perfect nature getaway, one that is affordable for those wishing to save some money.

Unlike San Francisco, Santa Cruz unfortunately doesn’t have too many cheap Airbnb options. By digging, one can still find a superhost stay for $85 a night. However, if this is too much for some people, there are some excellent campsites inside and around Santa Cruz. Some great spots include Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Sunset State Beach. Camping areas like these are cost-effective and allow travelers to explore some of California’s most famous natural features, such as beautiful sunsets and towering redwoods.

Santa Cruz is also the perfect place to experience Northern California beaches, which are distinct from their flat and crowded Southern California counterparts. Compared to Southern California, Northern California is home to captivating beaches filled with towering cliffsides, interesting rock formations and greenery. Santa Cruz is one of the best examples of this; some highly recommended spots are Panther Beach, Shark Fin Cove and Bonny Doon. These beaches are free of charge, and people will get an added bonus of getting to drive down a portion of Highway 1, which is a worthy and captivating feature of California in and of itself.

National Parks in Northern California

Northern California is also home to numerous must-see national parks. Unfortunately, some parks in the United States have daily entrance fees that can be as hefty as $35 per vehicle, and parks in Northern California like Muir Woods and Yosemite are no different. Because of this, I suggest buying the annual national parks pass. While the pass costs $80, it lasts for an entire year and gets a vehicle into costly national parks around the country without having to pay extra. The parks pass will come in handy for places in Northern California like Yosemite that should not be missed, but that come with those entrance fees.

The good news is that the annual parks pass will be one of the priciest aspects of your adventure. Campsites are thankfully one of the cheapest types of lodging, and you better believe the national parks of Northern California have an abundance of beautiful campgrounds to offer. Yosemite National Park is a nationally renowned park that’s also fairly affordable for those on a budget, especially if you use the annual parks pass and opt for camping rather than pricy lodging. Another highly recommended park in Northern California is Muir Woods, which has an awe-inspiring forest of giant redwoods and lush greenery.

Other recommended parks include Sequoia National Park, Redwood National Park, Kings Canyon National Park and the Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes in particular is an underrated Northern California location, one that is cost-effective to travel to and is definitely worth the drive. This majestic region gives “Lord of the Rings” vibes with wild elk roaming rolling green hills and mist often descending on the area. Point Reyes is also home to a stunning cliffside lighthouse. Travelers can also see dozens of elephant seals from the cape, which is an unusual, awesome sight.

Overall, Northern California has a wide variety of national parks (and seashores) to explore. These regions contain some of the most alluring nature that the U.S. has to offer, and the parks are something that college students and travelers on budgets can experience without spending ridiculous amounts of money.

Exploring Northern California While Saving Your Wallet

As you can see, Northern California has so much to offer to the curious traveler. Besides the iconic locations mentioned above, there are still more places to explore, such as Berkeley or Half Moon Bay —the list is endless. As a college student myself, I understand the desire of travelers to hunt down novel experiences without sacrificing their bank accounts.

That’s why doing your research is the single most invaluable thing you can do to save your wallet while exploring any area, not just Northern California. Search for those great Airbnb deals. Try camping more often. Find great offers like the national parks pass. Walk or find public transportation options (like BART for Northern California) to save money on gas and parking. These are just some tips as some of you hopefully come to Northern California one day to discover the one-of-a-kind beauty of this region.

Sonia Noorbakhsh, UC Berkeley

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Sonia Noorbakhsh

UC Berkeley

Hello! My name is Sonia. I have always loved anything pertaining to English. In my free time I enjoy traveling, reading and drinking plenty of coffee.

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