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Our Perspective on San Francisco
San Francisco is a very pretty and multicultural yet expensive city. Seeing all popular spots and sights will typically take you 1-2 days. If you use public transportation or a bike to explore the city, then you won’t need longer than one full day. Be prepared for the very steep hills in San Francisco that literally take your breath away. Sadly, there are very many homeless people, which is a common problem in the United States, and this made us feel sad walking through the streets of San Francisco. Nevertheless, we do recommend visiting. San Francisco is very unique in the way the streets run, plus the Golden Gate Bridge is just breathtaking.
Tips & Tricks for San Francisco
We mentioned above that San Francisco is an expensive city. This is especially true if you’re not earning the type of salary that a local might. However, it’s still a must-see city, which is why we’ve put together a few tips and tricks for your next trip to San Francisco. Get the most out of your trip without spending all of your money.
4 Ways to Eat Cheap in San Francisco
You want to know where to eat in San Francisco? Well, first of all you need to know that San Francisco is generally a very expensive city (we may have mentioned that a time or two already). Even a small lobster roll from the outdoor markets easily costs you around $10+. However, if you are not vegan or vegetarian, you should definitely try out some seafood in San Francisco, as this is one of the city’s specialties. Remember, street food is often cheaper than restaurants when you’re in a tourist hotspot, so you might want to find a stand or food truck to try seafood in order to save some money.
As we always travel on a budget, we chose the cheapest options that were available. Here’s our list of how to eat cheap in San Francisco and save some money on food:
- Chinatown in San Francisco is the biggest of its kind in the US and has the best prices on meals. Naturally, you can find delicious and authentic Asian food here. We went to The Lucky Creation Vegetarian in Chinatown and paid around $20 dollars for two dishes and tea. Tea is only 50 cents, so you should definitely go for that.
- We found another cheap yet really good restaurant close to the Civic Center, which is called Ananda Fuara. They offer all kinds of delicious foods. We went for a vegetarian burger and a wrap; both came with couscous salad. It was super tasty and we only paid $20 in total.
- Since it is so expensive in San Francisco, we decided to buy food from the grocery store a few times. It is really important to us that we eat healthy even while traveling. Luckily, many bigger supermarkets in the US and San Francisco have a deli where you can get fresh salads of all kinds (pasta, potato, couscous, rice etc.) for a cheap price ($7 for a big portion in our case).
- If you stay in an Airbnb with a kitchen, you should definitely make use of it and cook a few meals in order to save money.
Best (and Most Affordable) Place to Stay in San Francisco
Unfortunately, accommodation is even more expensive compared to the food in San Francisco. It was hard to find anything that we were able to afford. It also doesn’t matter if you book a few months or only a few weeks in advance because the offers are just as expensive. So here are some tips for finding cheap accommodation in San Francisco:
- Forget the thought of wanting to stay in downtown San Francisco, unless you are willing to spend over $100/night. The only option would be to stay in a dorm in a good hostel, located in a good neighborhood.
- Any hotel you find for a reasonable price in the city center will most likely be a dump. If you think you found something affordable, make sure to check reviews on more than one website! (One of our friends booked one of these hotels only to later find horrifying reviews on Google (blood stains, human feces in dresser drawers, etc.).
- Some of the cheapest and safest neighborhoods in San Francisco seem to be El Cerrito and Richmond. So try to look for accommodation here. Both areas are easily accessible by the BART train that will take you downtown and to the airport.
- We stayed in the following Airbnb in El Cerrito for only $140 for 3 nights: Cozy house in safe, charming neighborhood. It took us about 30 minutes to get downtown and 1 hour to get to and from the airport. BART tickets are around $4 to the city and $10 to the airport from El Cerrito and vise versa.
- Here are some cheap yet very well-rated hotels to check out in El Cerrito and Richmond: Panda Family 2555, Americas Best Value Inn Richmond, Hotel Mira Vista, Marina Inn
Cheap Transportation in San Francisco
Luckily, public transportation is quite cheap and well-maintained in San Francisco. The two main public transport systems to use are BART for longer trips and MUNI for the city center. However, public transportation doesn’t seem to be as good between San Francisco’s sights. They do have the famous cable cars that you can take, but they are quite expensive in comparison.
However, you really don’t need a car. We always try to travel as cheap as possible, so this is the way we did it:
- We took the BART train from and to the airport and stayed in El Cerrito – $40 total (two trips for two people)
- To get downtown and back, we took the BART train each way for a total of $18 (round trip for two people). We did this twice as we stayed in San Francisco for two whole days.
- While in downtown, we visited all sights and parts of the city that we wanted to see on foot. We only recommend this if you’re really fit because we walked 30 km on our first day and 16 km on our second day. We were totally exhausted after the first day, especially, BUT it was worth it and we wouldn’t do it any other way if given the choice.
- If you don’t want to walk as much as we did, we highly recommend renting a bike ($24 for three hours with Basically Free Rental Bikes) for one day and see everything you want to see, which is easily doable in one day. After exploring, you can decide what you want to see again or explore further and walk there the next day. You can also ride your bike over the Golden Gate Bridge and check out some awesome viewpoints.
- We do not recommend renting a car for the city of San Francisco only because not only is renting a car expensive, but parking is outrageous and gas isn’t cheap either.
- However, if you do plan on leaving San Francisco to go somewhere else, we highly recommend renting a car as it’s the only means of transportation in the US outside of cities. Our next tip will show you where to find the cheapest rental car prices.
- We booked our rental car with rentalcars.com to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, which is free if you drive out of San Francisco. However, if you drive into San Francisco it costs around $8. We also drove to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park and Los Angeles with our rental car. We paid $380 dollars for two weeks.
13 Must See Places in San Francisco
Are you wondering what all you need to see while in San Francisco? Here is a handy little list of the 13 must see places in San Francisco:
- The ferry building – This is the beginning of the piers and a perfect starting point for your walking tour. The ferry building was used for ferries coming to San Francisco before the bridges were built.
- The piers; Pier 39 especially – Here, you should watch the sea lions fighting for a spot on the pier. Additionally, you will have awesome views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge from afar.
- Alcatraz – You can admire Alcatraz either from afar when walking along the piers or you can take a tour ($40/person), which will take you to Alcatraz by boat. The tour also includes a guided tour of the inside of Alcatraz.
- Civic Center – This is San Francisco’s city hall.
- Crissy Field – For closer pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Golden Gate Bridge – Do we need to say more? 😉 Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge with a rental car or rent a bike. Remember, driving over the bridge into the city by car will cost you around $8. It’s free to drive over the bridge leaving the city.
- Golden Gate Bridge Viewpoints – After crossing the bridge, you will find many breathtaking viewpoints to admire the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Palace of Fine Arts – This is a pretty building worth photographing. It is also a great spot to take some awesome Instagram pictures. It is right across from Crissy Field.
- Coit Tower – The tower allows for views over the city. However, with an entry fee of around $30, it is quite an expensive viewpoint.
- Lombard Street – This is the famous curvy red road in San Francisco. You can’t really take a picture of it because no matter which angle you try, there will always be flowers and trees covering the road. Nevertheless, it’s quite an experience to walk up Lombard Street and enjoy the view over the city.
- Chinatown – This is the biggest Chinatown in the United States. You will definitely feel like you’ve been beamed to China. Try out a restaurant here for authentic Asian food; it’s pretty cheap compared to the rest of San Francisco.
- The painted ladies – The famous houses where many movies and shows have been filmed (e.g. Full House). We actually preferred the view of the city from here over the houses themselves.
- The financial district – This is where all the skyscrapers are. Therefore, it’s best to take a picture of them from the piers or from other viewpoints around the city. The district itself is not very safe, so be careful when walking through.
- Karl the Fog – Okay, so this isn’t necessarily a sight to see, but fog rolls in over the Golden Gate Bridge so consistently that locals have given it the name Karl. When you visit San Francisco, chances are you will definitely get to meet him. The picture we’re showing was taken because we didn’t think we would get another chance to actually see the bridge that day due to the heavy fog.
It is possible to see all of these in one day, but it is better to plan for two days in case you get too exhausted.
General Tips & Tricks for San Francisco
Here are some general tips and a short summary to make your stay in San Francisco even easier:
- Don’t rent a car only to see San Francisco.
- Be careful when booking an Airbnb or hotel to make sure it is located in a good neighborhood like El Cerrito or Richmond.
- Bring some snacks and plenty of water because walking up the steep streets of San Francisco can be quite exhausting.
- We advise you to see the financial district by taking pictures from further away. The financial district is a rather dangerous part of San Francisco and it’s hard to get good pictures of the buildings from up close, anyway.
- How does BART work? You do need to buy a clipper card for BART as they are slowly getting rid of the paper cards. One costs $3 but it saves you 50ct per ride. You can see all prices to every destination printed on a piece of paper and hanging on every ticket machine. You simply top up your card with the exact amount you need to get to a certain destination and that’s it. In addition, be aware that the ticket machines only give you change up to $5. So, don’t put too much money in.