Budget Guide 2013: San Francisco

san francisco
San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive, but that’s not to say you can’t enjoy it to the fullest on a budget. The joy of this compact, walkable city is that you don’t need your own transportation. Remember, though, that food is the soul of San Francisco. That means loads of pop-up restaurants, street food, food trucks, farmers markets and ethnic bites for cheap. The cultural and multi-ethnic focus of the city also means there’s no shortage of art exhibits, festivals and parades, many of which are inexpensive or free.

The number one thing to do on the cheap? Walk! San Francisco is one of the world’s great strolling cities, with dozens of hidden stairways, garden walks, parks, narrow streets and bay views. There are even books devoted to the subject. If you want more of a historical, architectural or culinary focus, spring for an affordable walking tour of specific neighborhoods. Tip: If your feet are tired from all that trudging, one of the city’s best deals is the 60-minute “foot” massage – which includes head, neck, shoulders, back, arms and legs – at Delightful Foot Massage on Polk Street. And yes, it’s a reputable place.

If the weather is cooperating, take the ferry from Pier 41 to Angel Island ($17) and hike to a picnic spot (everything you need for lunch is right there; more on that in a minute). Since this is San Francisco, though, there’s a distinct possibility of crappy weather. No problem – hit the city’s plethora of museums or the Exploratorium (the latter is a must if you have kids with you). Most have free days. Check here for listings.

The way locals prefer to pass the time? Eating! Great food of almost every imaginable ethnic persuasion is so readily available in San Francisco. You can graze your way through the day for less than the cost of a mid-range dinner. Not hungry? Linger over a cup of exceptional – try Four Barrel in The Mission, and don’t forget a Bacon-Maple-Apple donut for later – and a good book. Used bookstores abound nearby.


San Francisco has loads of scuzzy motels, but there are plenty of great places to stay, from hostel to boutique, that won’t bankrupt you. Avoid the depressing youth hostels located on sketchy side streets off of Union Square, the main shopping district, and the sad little motels in the Tenderloin (although there are some pleasant exceptions). For a little bit extra, you can have a more secure, peaceful and cleaner place to lay your head. Tip: Lombard Street just off the Golden Gate Bridge/101 is jammed with motels, most of which are decent, and usually offer parking – a precious commodity.

Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel at Fort Mason: This ain’t no ordinary, janky hostel. Situated in the historic waterfront buildings at Fort Mason, this attractive property with a cool, vintage nautical vibe straddles the border of the Wharf and Marina (which has a glorious green for strolling, kite-flying and soccer playing, as well as a beach). Dorm beds and private rooms provide wallet-friendly accommodations for all types, from young backpackers to older couples. There’s a free continental breakfast; clean, attractive rooms and airy common areas; loads of discounts and activities on offer; and a location that can’t be beat for views and convenience. From $28. sfhostels.com/fishermans-wharf 240 Fort Mason

Casa Loma Hotel: This sweet, 48-room, Euro-style hotel is centrally located in Alamo Square. The clean, spare rooms have a Scandinavian, modern aesthetic that gives off a hip IKEA vibe. Close to the park and famed “Painted Ladies” houses (think: title sequence of “Full House”). From $65 standard/shared bath.
casalomahotelsf.com 610 Fillmore Street

Hotel Des Artes: This swank, modern art hotel, a block off Union Square, is decorated with the current works of local artists. The special “Painted Rooms” are all unique (literally, the walls are murals) by emerging global artists, while standard rooms feature washbasins with shared baths. Seekers of San Francisco’s modern Boho scene will feel right at home at this kaleidoscopic boutique property. From $79.
sfhoteldesarts.com 447 Bush Street

Hotel Diva: Describing itself as, “sexy, modern, and fresh from a facelift,” this Union Square boutique hotel reopened last June. And it’s indeed seductive, from the gray and white color scheme with violet accents, to the sleek modernist trappings. Think the “W” with SF flair: nightly sake hour, fitness center, dog friendly and on the fringe of the rapidly hipsterfying Tenderloin. From $140 deluxe Queen.
hoteldiva.com 440 Geary Boulevard

Eat and Drink

Farmers Markets: You’re in Northern California, birthplace of the modern local food movement. That means year-round farmers markets, the most famous of which is the massive, Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on the Embarcadero (there are also smaller Tuesday and Thursday markets). Hit the market by 10 a.m., before the swarms arrive, and snack your way through the stalls. The Embarcadero itself has undergone a major renovation in recent years; it’s safe day or night, and populated with art installations and trendy cafes and restaurants. It’s also an ideal place for a long, bayside stroll or run on a sunny day.

The Ferry Building is a concentration of farmer- and artisan-owned shops featuring everything from estate olive oil to certified humane meat. Tip: Plan on buying a late breakfast or early lunch at the market. Top picks are the porchetta sandwich at Roli Roti’s stall (get there early or go hungry), anything from La Primavera’s stall, or a sit-down brunch at Boulette’s Larder in the Building (not served on Saturdays). If it’s oysters you want, hit Hog Island’s Raw Bar at the far end of the main hall. Then go stock up on edible souvenirs from Cowgirl Creamery, Miette (pastry), McEvoy Ranch and Recchiuti Confections.
ferrybuildingmarketplace.com One Ferry Building

Off the Grid: Every Friday from 5 to 8 p.m., a fleet of the city’s best food trucks arrives at Fort Mason, down in the Marina. Up to 40 sweet and savory vendors may appear on a given night, featuring street food as creative, multi-culti and adventurous as only San Francisco would have it. There’s music, views of the bay, Golden Gate and Alcatraz, and a seriously local vibe – this isn’t a tourist attraction. It’s simply a raucous, joyous, festival of flavor, San Fran-style. offthegridsf.com

Go Ethnic: Between the Asian restaurants of the Sunset and Richmond Districts (locals know better than to eat in Chinatown) to the diverse ethnic dives of the Tenderloin, you can indulge your inner glutton for less than a ten-spot. Best of all, adventurous eaters have almost every style of cuisine to choose from, as well as menus that boast authenticity (frog legs or sea cucumber, anyone?) Some of the best: Brother’s Korean and King of Thai Noodle on Clement Street (I don’t know why, but this is the only location that does it for me); Wing Lee Bakery and Burma SuperStar (Inner Richmond); and Shalimar, Pakwan, Turtle Tower and Osha Thai (Tenderloin).

The Mission: If you love Latin flavors, you won’t need to venture beyond this Hispanic neighborhood, where you’ll find excellent everything, from El Salvadorean to Peruvian. But the Mission is also the newest hipster ‘hood for craft foods, from coffee and chocolate (such as Dandelion’s “bar to bean” aesthetic) to modern Korean food. Check out the latter at Namu Gaji, or the insane happy hour deals at Wo Hing General Store ($6 craft cocktails to die for, and $5 for a bamboo steamer of shiu mai or plate of pork dumplings, 5:30 -7 p.m., daily). Whatever you do, don’t miss out on the baked goods at Craftsmen & Wolves (yes, you’ll pay $7 for a muffin, but it will have a soft-boiled egg encased within, as well as cheesy, hammy bits and it will fill you up for hours) or Tartine Bakery. Get there early to avoid a wait, and let go of guilt. One look in the pastry case, and you’ll understand.

Get Around

If walking isn’t an option, the bus, MUNI, will get you anywhere you need to go. Sure, it’s a crowded mobile petri dish and full of freaks, but do as the locals do. San Francisco is an easy city to navigate, since it really is a giant grid. Google maps makes things a snap on your phone or computer.

There are also the cable cars, which are just $6 a pop and always fun (they may not admit it, but locals love them, too), the trolley down in the Embarcadero/Market Street area, and BART, which covers the East Bay. It’s also the fastest, easiest way to traverse the Downtown, Financial and Mission districts of the city; otherwise the bus is your cheapest bet.

Budget Tip

One way to save a chunk of cash is to take BART to and from the airport (it services both SFO and Oakland). It will run you around $8, instead of a $50 cab ride, or $17 for a shared van, which can take well over an hour if you’re not the first drop-off. Even if you’re too far to hoof it to your hotel from the BART station, you’ll still save time and money, unless you’re staying out in the hinterlands of the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Trodel]

Turn Your Phone Into A Subway Card

If you’ve ever visited one of the more technologically advanced Asian metropolises like Tokyo or Hong Kong, you’re probably already familiar with the easy-to-use technology called RFID. It works like this – instead of paying cash for a bus or subway fare, you hold up a simple plastic card (or a chip embedded in your cellphone) to the ticket gate, and voila! You’ve paid and gotten on your way without pulling a dime out of your wallet.

Wouldn’t it be great if that same technology worked back in the USA, dear reader? Well, now you too can embed an RFID reader inside your fancy iPhone, thanks to a little creative hacking and a DIY company called Adafruit Industries. Using a relatively inexpensive tool kit sold by the company, they’ve put together the nifty video above showing how to install your very own RFID card for use with your iPhone. Not all cities have RFID payment systems, but an increasing number of American cities accept it on their mass transit systems. Care to give it a try? Check out the video above for a tutorial.

Top ten cities with best public transit systems

These ten public transportation systems, in random rather than top-to-bottom order, are among the world’s best. The transit systems profiled here include some of the most impressively massive as well as some of the best-scaled urban transportation systems. Today’s focus is on international public transit systems; as such, the better US public transit systems (New York, Chicago, and Portland, among others) are not included.

1. Curitiba, Brazil. The capital of Brazil’s southern Paraná province has a widely emulated public transportation system consisting exclusively of buses running on dedicated lanes, all of which utilize bus shelters (see above). The system prizes simplicity. There is a single price for tickets. The network is estimated to be used by a remarkable 85% of the population.

2. Moscow, Russia. If you take the metro to work in Moscow, you don’t really have an excuse for being late. The sheer reliability and frequency of Moscow’s metro system makes it among the world’s best. The city’s metro system also features a number of ornately beautiful stations. Some stand-out stations include Mayakovskaya, Kiyevskaya, and Kropotkinskaya.

3. Vienna, Austria. Vienna’s public transportation system is a favorite for tourists in part due to its iconic red streetcars, which have become a symbol of the city. The city’s five U-Bahn (subway) lines join 30 streetcar lines and over 80 bus lines in blanketing the city with transit options.

4. Hong Kong. The public transportation system in this crowded metropolis absorbs most of its residents’ transportation needs. Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway takes the lion’s share of traffic. Fares are paid via a smart card known as an Octopus Card, which can be used to charge transactions in all sorts of non-transit venues.

5. Munich, Germany. Bavaria’s biggest city boasts a very comprehensive multi-pronged public transportation system, which consists of an U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (commuter rail), an inner-city tram network, and buses. Munich’s transit systems is efficient and its range is broad.6. Seoul, South Korea. The famously user-friendly public transportation system is centered on an integrated metro-bus system. It’s very contemporary throughout and extremely useable for visitors, with English language announcements and Wi-Fi access soon to be rolled out on subway trains.

7. London, United Kingdom. The Tube is pilloried by many who ride it on a daily basis, and in fact has a number of structural problems that render certain lines slow and not particularly user-friendly. At the same time, it has an awe-inspiring range. London is also well-served by buses, a light rail, and ferries for cross-Thames travel.

8. Paris, France. Parisians benefit from a multi-level public transportation system: the Métro (subway), commuter train (RER), bus, and the tram system. The most recent addition to the transportation system is a tramway covering the city’s periphery. Paris boasts an incredible density of underground stations.

9. Copenhagen, Denmark. The Danish capital’s highly regarded public transportation system includes a driverless metro network. The metro’s two lines are fully automated and run 24 hours a day. A major metro extension is due to debut in 2018. Buses and commuter trains fill in the blanks.

10. Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo’s public transportation system includes a subway network, light rail lines, and bus lines. The system features enormous numbers of riders, high-tech displays, and remarkably user-friendly features throughout. The subway system is also incredibly clean, and as such stands apart from most other well-used public transportation systems.

(Image: xander76 / Flickr)

The Chinese bus that straddles traffic

China is suffering some growing pains. Its cities are booming and road builders are having trouble keeping up. After last month’s nine-day traffic jam that stretched for 62 miles, it’s become obvious that something needs to be done.

One company has come up with an innovative result–a large bus with a tunnel underneath to allow two lanes of traffic to pass below it. The so-called Straddling Bus will cruise along at 60 km/hr (37 mph) and can carry up to 1,400 passengers. It’s 6 meters (6.6 yards) wide and up to 4.5 meters (4.9 yards) high. Sensors will warn when cars are getting too close to the sides or if a truck is too tall to make it into the tunnel.

The Straddling Bus has already been approved for use in Beijing, with 186 km (115 miles) of lines earmarked for the new system. Construction will being at the end of the year.

The video shows how it works. Hopefully the safety measures will be built with someone who has a greater grasp of engineering than the translator has of the English language.

How to visit Los Angeles without a car

Los Angeles is known for a lot of things: celebrities, beaches, smog and police chases, to name a few. But, when it comes to planning a trip to LA, perhaps the fact that will stick out the most is that LA is a car town (which explains the smog and police chases). Los Angeles is a sprawling city that is really several towns and neighborhoods that are connected by a series of highways that stretch for miles.

As such, when you’re planning a trip to LA, somewhere on your to-do list will be the task of renting a car. But what if you don’t want to spend that money? Or contribute to that smog? Or be chased by police? There has to be a better way! As I prepared to head to LA last week, I decided to skip renting a car. I asked my friends on Twitter and Facebook if I was crazy and received these responses:

“It can’t be done.”
“You’re insane, Barish.”
“People will stare at you if you walk more than two blocks.”

Not a lot of optimism there. Was I crazy? Can you visit LA without a car? Well, I endeavored to do just that. Join me, won’t you?
It’s worth noting that I was only in Los Angeles for two days. While not a lengthy stay, I did have a packed agenda. I needed to attend three meetings, a dinner and a charity event. My challenge: to make all those activities happen without having a car of my own. How did I do it? It was simple really.

Airport Shuttles – Before arriving in LA, I had made a reservation with SuperShuttle. A one-way trip to or from LAX costs $16, and they have discounts if you book round trip or use a discount code. Sure, we meandered to my hotel in West Hollywood while dropping off other passengers, but, 90 minutes after my Virgin America flight touched down, I was in my room. That’s not terrible and and it’s cheap. I took the SuperShuttle back to LAX two days later and arrived with time to spare.

The Internet – First, the bad news: Google Maps and HopStop don’t include Los Angeles in their transit directions. Now, the good news: The Los Angeles MTA website provides detailed transit directions with astonishingly accurate time estimates. It fast became my best friend when I needed to take…

Buses – Yes, people take buses in LA. Despite what my friends and native Angelinos told me, I found the bus routes to be quite convenient. I caught a bus right outside my hotel and, three miles and 30 minutes later, I arrived a half-block away from Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles for my first meal in LA. I transferred between two buses while traveling the 13 miles from my hotel to the Skirball Cultural Center in the Santa Monica Mountains. Sure, it took me an hour, but the buses delivered me practically door-to-door.

Selfishness – My first night in LA, I was staying at the Mondrian. It’s home to SkyBar, which is a bit of a hip scene. So, when I offered to schedule one of my meetings at the other person’s office, she quickly suggested that we instead meet over drinks at my hotel. I quickly agreed and avoided having to commute anywhere. Is this cheating? I had my meeting, avoided all transportation and had some delicious mojitos. Seems fair to me.

Rely on Friends – I had dinner plans with a friend while I was in town and we decided to eat in Venice. In order to get us eating sooner rather than later, she offered to pick me up from my hotel and give me a ride to the restaurant. We used the time in the car to catch up and she was happy to do me the favor. And, at the end of that charity event that I attended, a very nice business contact of mine offered to drive me back to my hotel. It may have been out of pity (or maybe it was because I’m charming), but it got me to where I needed to be and only cost me a profuse series of thank yous (thanks again, Sarah).

Walk – Shockingly, you can walk places in LA. So long as Point A and Point B are in the same neighborhood. I walked the mile or so back from my lunch meeting in Hollywood to my hotel and enjoyed working off the meal. And no one stared at me!

Taxis – I actually wanted to avoid taxis. I had been told that they were expensive and they’re not much better for the environment than just having my own car. But, I had left my sunglasses at the Mondrian (after checking out) and had to be at a meeting in 30. The only way I could manage to be on time was to take a cab back to the hotel and then to my meeting. The four mile, 30 minute errand cost me $27 (including tip) and proved my friends right about one thing: cabs in LA are beyond pricey.

Trains – The LA Metro was great for…oh, who am I kidding? Everyone I spoke to said that the Metro was useless and, as far as I can tell, they’re right.

I spent roughly $33 dollars on SuperShuttle trips, $5 on buses and $27 on a taxi. That’s $65. Or, less than the cost of a rental car for one day (and that taxi fare was only necessary because of my carelessness). I used the time on buses to check email and I didn’t contribute to the smog or get chased by the LAPD.

I will concede that I managed without a car for two key reasons: I was able to isolate much of what I was doing to one neighborhood (Hollywood) and it was a short visit. But I hope my point was made. LA can be done without a car if you plan in advance, impose on some friends and don’t mind getting asked by at least three people if “you lost your license because of a DUI.”

Photos by flickr users biofriendly (top) and stevelyon (bottom).