You need not always pay in the city by the bay, writes Alexia Santamaria.
Even if you've never been to San Francisco before, it feels like such a familiar city — the Golden Gate bridge with its famous misty haze providing the backdrop to so many well-known movies and images. It's a place anyone and everyone can enjoy — and its friendly, creative vibe, good times and big smiles make you feel as if anything is possible. But is it still as much fun if you're seeing San Fran on a restricted budget? — we know some places really aren't. Yes, absolutely — much of the enjoyment of this vibrant city is soaking up the atmosphere and cruising the neighbourhoods, which doesn't cost a thing. Here are some tips for all the other stuff:
You don't need to rent a car to get around the city — San Francisco has great public transportation systems: BART to get from the airport into the city and MUNI to get around town (including the historic cable cars and F-Line streetcars, tourist must-dos in themselves). It's also one of the best walking cities in the States — and of course there's Lyft and Uber if needed.
There are plenty of options for good, inexpensive eating in this city — and many of these cheap eating areas will simultaneously expose you to San Francisco's multicultural nature.
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While you're checking out the murals the Mission District, drop into a taqueria for Mexican and other Latino options. Japantown is great for Japanese food (funnily enough, but actually there's some good Korean there too) and neighbourhoods like the Richmond and Sunset Districts also are full of discoveries. There are plenty of reasonable, very authentic, Italian gems in beautiful historic North Beach, as well.
Make sure you try some San Francisco sourdough during your stay — in fact the quintessential clam chowder served in a bread bowl is an excellent way to taste two local classics. At Fisherman's Wharf, this famous soup in a bowl will only set you back only US$8 (NZ$12) at Boudin. San Francisco has several farmers' markets each week but the granddaddy of them all is the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings. Don't miss this if you're lucky enough to be in town that day.
See for free
There's plenty to do without even putting your hand in your pocket. Of course, there's the bridge. Walk across it, or just gaze and admire from the side — it really is a beautiful feat of engineering. Or you could take a free walking tour with San Francisco City Guides.
Their routes include popular neighbourhoods like Castro, Haight-Ashbury, Westwood Park, Chinatown and Potrero Hill. Don't miss the murals in the Mission District. These larger-than-life colourful works of street art provide commentary on many of San Francisco's social issues over the years. Check out the very relaxed sea lions lolling about from Pier 39, with views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge too. Wander around Chinatown or check out the inside of the dome that caps San Francisco City Hall (there are free tours at 10, 12 and 2 weekdays).
If you like walking, or even a little hike, you're in luck in San Francisco. The Presidio — a former military base — now offers hiking trails, historical buildings and beautiful views.
There are plenty of gorgeous parks everywhere too: Land's End, Golden Gate Park (complete with waterfall, windmills and resident bison herd), Alamo Park — home of the Painted Ladies, Dolores Park for killer skyline views and Alta Plaza Park for family fun. If you're feeling a bit more energetic, climb Twin Peaks or Mt Davidson, but take something warm as it can get windy up there. If you want an amazing view of the bay and chance to watch a San Francisco Giants baseball game, head to Oracle Park to check out the Portwalk, a large walkway right between the ballpark outfield wall and the bay, allowing guests to watch up to three innings of any game, gratis (numbers are limited and it's standing room only). The Harmon Observation Tower at the de Young Museum will also cost you nothing for 360-degree views of the city and Grace Cathedral has labyrinths, gardens, and a schedule of free musical performances on top of its already impressive structure.
It's well worth looking into CityPass or Go Card San Francisco as they include entrance and discounts to many of the city's most popular attractions. You do need to be covering a certain amount to make it worth it, so maybe do some research first to see if it's worth it for the things you want to visit.