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San Clemente Journal

San Clemente on a Budget

House of Trestles offers dormitory-style accommodations with shared bathrooms for as low as $30.

Katie Arons

Honored and excited when the Journal asked me to write for them again, and invited to join their staff meeting to brainstorm story ideas for this issue, I dutifully made my list of ideas. As I walked out the door, I asked my daughter if she had any ideas for a good story, and she said, “What about San Clemente on a Budget?” I thought, “That’s pretty clever!” and added it to my list. 
The staff agreed that it was a unique idea and that I should run with it. So there I was, trying to figure out what does it really mean – “San Clemente on a budget”??? Is that even possible in these crazy times of insane inflation? I quickly realized this was going to be harder than I thought...

Beginning to ask around and discovering some great ways to stay, eat, and play here in our charming seaside town without busting the bank, I was excited to share them with the Journal readers. However, not everyone I spoke with felt the same way! For the past month, as I went around town, saw people I knew, and asked for input, the response from many old-time locals was that they have their favorite places, but they didn’t want to share them with the masses. They closely guarded their secret spots in hopes of keeping the crowds away and the prices from going up. It reminded me of the mentality of the townsfolk when I was growing up here; the mottos were ‘Tourists go home!’ and ‘Slow growth.’

The San Clemente Inn’s one bedroom suites can fit a whole family comfortably.


Slow growth was a dream that went away in the ‘80s, and our little ‘Mayberry’ has become a destination location for travelers from around the world. While I don’t like crowded beaches and roadways, I realize we need tourism to support our community, and I love showing off our beautiful, unique town.

So, diving in for the travelers, I thought back to the backpacking travel days of my youth when I would hit the bookstore for a ‘Frommer’s Guide - Europe on $20 a Day,’ and I thought, “let’s see if we can do San Clemente on $20 a day…”  The answer? No way! (Sidenote – according to today’s Frommer’s, their budget book is now ‘Europe on $85 a Day,’ so we are not alone.)
However … there’s hope:  we once again have a hostel in town for travelers on a tight budget. A cool boutique hotel, House of Trestles, on the south side of town offers dormitory-style accommodations with shared bathrooms for as low as $30 a night. They also have private rooms for under $100 a night. Offering reasonably priced rentals of E-bikes, wetsuits, and surfboards, House of Trestles targets the surfers, or as their website proclaims, “An Experiential Voyage, Colored with Street Art and Surf Culture.”

If you have family coming to visit, check out the San Clemente Inn. SC Inn is a longstanding timeshare resort that offers very reasonable nightly rates. Their one-bedroom suites have small living rooms with kitchenettes and two twin-size, pull-down Murphy beds, easily sleeping a family of four. The resort is a block away from the beach and is full of family-friendly amenities including year-round heated pool and Jacuzzis, tennis, basketball, pickleball courts, 9-hole mini-golf, cornhole, game room with arcade games, pool and ping-pong tables, a fitness center, and BBQ areas.

Taking a free tour of town on the Trolley, walking the beach trail, or lounging on the beach are all no-brainer ways to spend the day on a budget for tourists and locals alike. On Saturday mornings, we have the “Car Show” at the Outlets at San Clemente, featuring amazing cars of all kinds. It’s free to walk around and check out the classic and modern speedsters while chatting with car owners and car enthusiasts from around the world. You’ll often hear multiple languages being spoken as you pass through, and you may get to see some of the rarest automobiles in the world. While you’re there, drop into Rockwell’s for a $5 Bloody Mary or Mimosa–you can’t beat that!

Bands on the Sand. Summer beach concerts are free.

 Throughout the summer, our city offers free evening concerts at the pier or Linda Lane Beach Park nearly every week. These are great for all ages, and we’re lucky that right here in our town we can watch a live band while the sun sets over the ocean... for free! Thank you, City of San Clemente, for putting on these fun community events.

Visiting the Casa Romantica is another great way to spend the day. Walk the beautiful grounds and tour the permanent and touring exhibits on your own with their free digital guide or with the help of one of their friendly, knowledgeable docents. You can even bring in your lunch and enjoy it overlooking the ocean. Open Tuesday-Sunday, the Casa has a nominal entrance fee of $5 while children under 12 and military families are free. They also offer free entrance for all on the first Sunday of each month, thanks to long-time locals, the Yoder Family.

For the kiddos, our public library and Casa Romantica both offer free weekly story times, and MetroLux Theatres have a summer youth program with deep discounts for kids. The library offers many free activities for all ages, from movie and game nights to needlework circles and book and builder clubs. Check out their calendar of events online at
Shopping enthusiasts from all over come to our town to hunt for bargains at the Outlets, but San Clemente is also home to the headquarters of Rainbow Sandals with killer deals at their original factory building on the corner of Avenida Pico and Calle De Los Molinos. Rainbow Sandals anchors the entrance to the ‘Surf Ghetto’ – the stretch of Calle De Los Molinos that is home to many surfboard manufacturers. The Ghetto is experiencing a renaissance with the addition of Los Molinos Brewery, many new shops opening up, and regular pop-up art and shop events. Used Surf is a great place to find all kinds of surf gear at bargain prices. World-renowned Rip Curl has an outlet store on the southside of town on El Camino Real, selling the latest trends in surf wear with annual parking lot sales. $5 bikini, anyone?

San Clemente is also home to many fantastic thrift shops where you can bargain-hunt and support great charities at the same time. I am grateful that my daughter is a thrifter! It saves me hundreds of dollars a year, especially at back-to-school time. Her favorites are the Salvation Army in Shorecliffs and the row of thrift shops in mid-town, along El Camino Real between CVS and the Palizada 7-11. Down the road is Pac Rat, a long-established vintage shop in town with an eclectic selection of clothing and home goods. Avenida Del Mar isn’t where you normally would go for bargains, but it is home to De Lany Clothing, a great shop for women with everything $24 or less!

Casa Romantica has a nominal entrance fee of $5. Children under 12 and military families are free.


Now that we’ve covered lodging, activities and shopping, let’s get to the “real meat and potatoes,” so to speak... FOOD! With the price of groceries these days, it is almost less expensive to eat out if you find the right deal…but as our town has become inundated with high-end restaurants, this part of the story was the most challenging. I recently met a couple from New York who moved to Ladera Ranch, and when I told them I was from San Clemente, they proclaimed, “We love San Clemente! We’re ‘foodies,’ and San Clemente has the best restaurants around!”

Things sure have changed over the years. It seems like there were just a handful of casual restaurants in town when I was growing up, and being in a family business selling bar, restaurant and janitorial supplies to local establishments, we had the inside scoop on all the places in town. We knew who was the busiest, who paid their bills on time, who kept their employees happy, and most importantly, who had the cleanest kitchen. This leads me to my first recommendation for a reasonably-priced, delicious burger and beer in a place where you wouldn’t expect to find the cleanest kitchen in town (but it is), Mulligan’s Bar down in the surf ghetto. For a take-out burger, head to the owner-operated Burger Junkies on Pico for yummy grub with prices that rival their new neighbor, In and Out.


The Fishermans’ Sunset Happy Hour is a bargain for food and drinks, 4-7pm.


Gone are the days of the 99¢ bean and cheese burritos that caused traffic jams at both Senior Pedro’s drive-thrus in town. Now people get out of their cars and line up around the block for 69¢ tacos every Tuesday and Friday from Primos, a new local market and kitchen on South El Camino Real across the bridge from the State Park. From the lines outside, you can tell Primos has great food at affordable prices every day. Tuesday appears to be a big bargain day for all restaurants in town offering specials, not just “Taco Tuesday” at Mexican restaurants.
Happy Hour is the true key to bargain eating.  It’s common for a restaurant to offer “early-bird” specials, but there are two San Clemente standouts for happy hour, The Fisherman’s Restaurant and Seasurf Fish Company on El Camino, just north of Del Mar. Surf Sea is strictly great seafood at great prices Monday-Friday from 3-5 pm, with a large variety of dishes ranging from $2 to $8. Poke Nachos anyone? Fisherman’s ‘Sunset Happy Hour’ from 4-7 pm on the pier has a different theme for each day, and it isn’t just seafood. ‘Monday Night Live’ has $7 Italian sausage plates and $5.25 wine and beer specials, ‘Tropical Tuesday’ serves up $7 BBQ Rib plates and $8 Mai Tais, and so on... check their website for the latest at And don’t forget those metered parking permits $50 residents, $100 non-residents purchased online at

Surf Sea has great seafood at great prices Monday-Friday from 3-5 pm, with a large variety of dishes ranging from $2 to $8. Poke Nachos anyone?


In conclusion, exploring San Clemente on a budget unveils a treasure trove of affordable experiences. As we navigate through economic uncertainty, discovering the town’s hidden gems reminds us of the value of simplicity. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, embrace these budget-friendly adventures to uncover the wonders of our scenic and enchanting San Clemente.