San Francisco sits high on most travellers’ bucket lists. With a fascinating cultural history, impeccable culinary pedigree and a ridiculously scenic coastal setting, San Francisco is the Champagne of US city breaks. At times considered one of the US’s more expensive destinations, there are countless hacks for making the most of the city on a budget. Here are my tricks for getting bang for buck in the Bay…
A CityPASS (£73) is a great investment, including a three-day cable car and Muni Bus pass, plus admission to either the Exploratorium or San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Aquarium, a bay cruise and the California Academy of Sciences, among others. SFMOMA is a true highlight, with a permanent collection that includes Louise Bourgeois’s Spiders, and a spectacular seventh-floor outside terrace with stellar views of the city.
Down at Fisherman’s Wharf, the newly relocated Cartoon Art Museum (admission $8) makes for an entertaining and enlightening hour at an affordable entrance fee, and you’re perfectly placed for a waterfront picnic afterwards.
A street-art tour in the vibrant Mission District is another way to find inspiration on the cheap; grab the BART train out to 16th Street Mission Station, download the free Detours audio tour app and tour the murals.
You can also get a hefty helping of cultural heritage alongside your beer at the Vesuvio Cafe and neighbouring City Lights bookstore in North Beach, a hub of bohemian and artistic creativity since the beat poets made it their home in the 1950s.
From famous street murals to big-hitter museums, like the Legion of Honor, art is everywhere in San Francisco; but the city’s most cherished artefact is the Golden Gate Bridge, visible from almost everywhere in the city. A morning hike or bike ride along the coast and across the bridge to Marin County is a highlight, and one that won’t cost you a penny. If you’re feeling lazy, the number 33 bus functions as an alternative sightseeing tour, taking in the hipster quarters of the Castro and the Mission and making a thrillingly steep ascent towards Twin Peaks.
San Francisco’s culinary scene is the stuff of legend, but it’s not all fancy waterfront seafood restaurants. Eating well is a gloriously democratic activity in San Francisco, with international eats, food trucks and neighbourhood gems that will fill you up for under $15.
A grilled-cheese sandwich at The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen is a superb way to front-load your day and will keep you fuelled through hours of sightseeing. Nearby, at Spark Social, an eclectic collection of food trucks (highlights include Adam’s Grub Truck, SPRO Coffee Lab, KoJa Kitchen) and “neighbourhood block party” fuel local tech workers and creatives, with sangria and craft beers lubricating the crowd. Many of the city’s best-loved eateries began life as a food truck, so you can expect innovative and impeccably executed dishes on the cheap; nothing distresses a San Franciscan more than a wasted mealtime.
San Francisco has a gloriously international food scene, with no-frills but reliably delicious family-run restaurants lining the streets of Chinatown and Japantown. A glossier option is Dumpling Time, the phenomenally popular dumpling and beer house from the team behind Michelin-starred Omakse; this is a particular hit if you’re dining as a group.
For something a little more homely, homegrown mini-chain Perry’s does vast salads for around $10, to a fiercely loyal local crowd.
Nature is generous with her charms in San Francisco, so it’s true that some of the best things in San Franciscan life are free. Not too many visitors venture out to the Lands End trails in the Golden Gate recreation area, but they’re missing out on some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. There are a series of trails leading down to the rugged and rocky shoreline, taking you past caves, disused rail tracks and the ruins of the 19th century-built Sutro Baths (which burned down in the 1960s).
Closer to the city is the Presidio, a 1,500-acre park on a former military post, with miles of trails through densely forested areas. The Andy Goldsworthy outdoor sculptures are a highlight, as is the Walt Disney Family Museum, and the oft-Instagrammed Yoda Fountain outside Lucasfilm HQ.
Base yourself centrally at the cheap and cheerful Argonaut Hotel (rooms from £120 per night) at Fisherman’s Wharf if you want easy proximity to the waterfront attractions.
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