Summary: Frequently at the top of the best US cities lists, San Francisco is many visitors’ favorite, but might not be the first on the mind for cheap travel. But this easy-natured, west coast city, known for its counterculture, sourdough bread, and colorful Victorian homes, boasts just as many quaint neighborhoods and other understated gems as it does tourist landmarks. Easy on the eyes, easy on the heart-strings–now consider it easy on the budget.
Getting in: All of the major airlines fly into SFO, including JetBlue and Southwest. You should find ample options from United, since the airport is one of the airline’s hubs. If you’re staying outside of the city proper, consider the two other airports in the area: Oakland (OAK) and San Jose (SJC).
From SFO, the local commuter train (BART: Bay Area Rapid Transit) is your best bet to your hotel or hostel. It can drop you off at eight stations within the city itself. A one-way trip to one of the downtown stops is $5.35. Otherwise, a door-to-door shuttle (such as QuakeCity or SuperShuttle) costs $15–17.
If a slower pace is more your style, catch a Greyhound bus and disembark right in downtown San Francisco. Amtrak also stops nearby, but you’ll need to make your way ten miles from the closest stations in Oakland and Emeryville, in the East Bay.
Where to stay: Hostelling International offers reliably inexpensive options with their downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf hostels. Downtown is all about the location–just a block from Union Square, it’s in the heart of the city that’s renowned for capturing ours. The Fisherman’s Wharf location is more peaceful and removed–housed in the historic buildings of park-like Fort Mason. (It’s a bit of a misnomer: walking to Fisherman’s Wharf will take about 15 minutes.) Both come with free wi-fi and breakfast, and free or low-cost tours. But it depends on what you’re looking for–stores and nightlife outside your doorstep, or sprawling lawns and views of the Golden Gate Bridge? Either way, at about $25-27 for a dorm, and $69-75 for a private room, the price is right.
At hotel price, but still relatively reasonable is Good Hotel. It’s a new addition to the City by the Bay, and a new premise to the hotel world–it’s been billed as “the first hotel with a conscience.” What does that mean? Their decor is made of recycled goods, amenities are made of sustainable materials, and the hotel can link guests with philanthropic “voluntouring” events while they’re in town. Prices seem to range from $76–230, but they’re offering a winter sale right now–20% off a 3-night stay through March 5, 2009.
What to see: There’s only one reason to head toward Fisherman’s Wharf–to take the ferry to Alcatraz. The infamous jail-island is one landmark that lives up to its reputation. Self-guided audio tours lead you through the prison cells (and back in time) with stories of inmates like Al “Scarface” Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud. As an extra bonus to the $26 cost, the ferry ride also makes for excellent bridge- and skyline-viewing.
Don’t let the hills fool you–San Francisco is a walkable city. If you’re up for an urban hike, you can join a free walking tour by San Francisco City Guides, or embark on your own. Choose the natural setting of Golden Gate Park, or ramble through any of the neighborhoods for distinctly different walks. A walk through North Beach (the Italian district) could include everything from perusing poetry at City Lights Bookstore and taking a cappuccino at Caffe Trieste to watching the wild parrots circle overhead at Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. See what sights, sounds, or people pull your interest to linger or change your plans. At the very worst, hop on a cable car or one of the vintage street cars to bring you back where you started.
Who says all of the good things have a big price tag? The Saturday farmer’s market at the Ferry Building is as bustling as any other event in the city, and it’s ripe with the season’s best produce–grown on local, organic farms. Sampling is encouraged!
Just as exhibitions rotate in and out of the city’s museums, so do free days. Once a month, the admission fee is waived for many of the city’s art and cultural museums. That means the first Tuesday of every month at the de Young, which greets you in the entry courtyard with an Andy Goldsworthy sculptural installation. Then again, you can always enter the observation tower for free–you’ll get a great 360° birdseye view of the city. Or else, be one of the first to visit the new California Academy of Sciences, which reopened in September 2008 and features a four-story rainforest, planetarium, and a living roof that grows native plants. Stop by on the museum’s free day–the third Wednesday of every month.
If you find yourself needing to indulge a bit after all of the walking and skimping, consider Kabuki Springs and Spa for a relatively cheap afternoon ($22-25) at the communal bath and sauna, Japanese style. Just be sure to check the calendar before you go: the baths are designated solely to men or women on alternating days, and Tuesday is the only co-ed day. Or for a big (in all ways: hats, costumes, voices, fun) San Francisco experience, splurge on a ticket to Beach Blanket Babylon, a music review that spoofs the latest in pop culture–now in its 34th year.