San Francisco has built itself a reputation as a city you could visit for the same price as a moderately priced international trip: you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent hotel for under $100, drink specials at any mid-range bars would make you feel incredibly lucky to find a $5 beer, and everyone forgets about occupancy tax (14%!) until the bill comes.
Because the city is one of the most beautiful in the country due to its preservation of historic homes, natural surroundings like the bay and mountains, and temperate weather most of the year, it’s no wonder that many tourists from around the world still fly into SFO and suck up the cost. The good news is that spending a week in San Francisco doesn’t have to drain your wallet as much as you might think.
1. Hostel in Marin Headlands
Hotels in the city, Peninsula, and even the East Bay are incredibly difficult to find for a price a budget traveler could afford, and those that can may come to realize why. San Francisco has a number of hostels to fight this problem, but when you have to pay the same price for a bed in a dorm room that you would for a private room at a Motel 6 or Red Roof Inn outside the Bay Area, it’s somewhat disheartening. These hostels are centrally located between Powell Street and City Hall, meaning they’re loud, often full, and still usually over $40/night.
Hosteling International’s Marin Headlands location, on the other hand, is around $30/night and less crowded because it’s well outside of the city. If you have a car or are willing to chance hitchhiking — not many buses go up there — it’s a great alternative to see Sausalito, the Golden Gate Bridge, and hiking and surfing areas. Just remember the toll across the bridge going south, or to take the ferry using a Clipper Card.
2. Walking distance
From end-to-end, San Francisco is only 7.5 miles (12 km) long. Sure, that’s a long way to walk, but it’s hardly impossible. If your sights are set on attractions like cables cars, Chinatown, Ghirardelli Square, Union Square, and Fort Mason, they are all within a couple miles of each other. You only need to spend money on transportation outside the city if you’re so inclined.
3. Public transportation
I failed to mention that between Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square are some of the hilliest parts of the city, which is the whole reason for the cable car in the first place. The good news is whether you need help getting across the city, escaping to Berkeley, or making a stop in Stanford, there are always public transportation options in the Bay Area: Caltrain operates at regular times up and down the peninsula, BART goes all the way from the airport into San Francisco for under $10, and MUNI operates trains and buses reaching every corner of the city.
4. SF Funcheap
This website is just what it sounds like: a definitive guide for cheap and free events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Food truck gatherings, pillow fights, free yoga, standup comedy and open mic… nearly everything is listed and just a short trip away. With this in your hand, the only times you’ll need to pay top dollar for events in San Francisco is dining out in style, attending the symphony, anything for New Years, and buying tickets for certain plays, concerts, and performances.
5. Food and culture
There are only three places in the US with passable Mexican food: New York (too expensive), Texas (more often than not, just Tex-Mex, which is also delicious), and California. Unless you’re from Mexico or another area famous for good Mexican food, why not indulge in some on your trip to San Francisco and save a few bucks on meals? Taquerias are easiest to find in the Mission District and can offer delicious and unique meals to keep you fed on a budget.