Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance you or someone you know has been to San Francisco – the City By the Bay is among the most visited cities in the United States. For international tourists, whose entry and travel patterns are easier to track, it’s the country’s fifth-most popular urban destination, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office‘s 2013 report – behind only New York City, Miami, Los Angeles-Long Beach, and Orlando.
On account of its vibrant economy and pleasant climate, San Francisco is also a popular destination for millennial transplants from other parts of the U.S. and abroad. Some longtime residents would say it’s too popular, in fact. The city is in the throes of a seemingly permanent housing crisis caused by high demand, low supply, and restrictive development practices, and exacerbated by a frothy tech sector whose well-compensated contributors endanger San Francisco’s already tenuous middle class.
It’s common knowledge that renting a one-bedroom apartment in New York City is an expensive proposition. What is less well known is that it’s much, much more expensive to do the same in San Francisco. According to RentJungle, as of August 2016, the average San Francisco one-bedroom costs nearly $3,500 per month. While prices are similar or higher in many Manhattan neighborhoods, they’re far lower in upper Manhattan and New York’s outer boroughs, where one-bedrooms under $2,500 are the norm.
Housing is merely the most egregious example of San Francisco lifestyle’s dear cost. Just about everything is more expensive in Frisco – gas (though that’s mostly due to high California taxes), car insurance, restaurant meals, groceries, household goods, entertainment, you name it.
So why would any frugal traveler possibly want to visit San Francisco? Well, for starters, its inimitable character, photogenic setting, rich history, and innumerable tourist attractions for every imaginable taste. San Francisco is worth at least one visit in a lifetime.
And the City By the Bay actually isn’t all that hard to do on the cheap, relatively speaking. San Francisco’s well-developed tourism industry is highly competitive – a real luxury for savvy travelers willing to dig for hard-to-find deals and trade convenience or optimal scheduling for better pricing on tours, transportation, lodging, and food. Downtown San Francisco has a slew of basic, budget-friendly hotels that charge less than $150 per night, and plentiful hostels where clean, shared accommodations cost less than $50 per night.
Here’s what you need to know to plan a frugal trip to California’s second-most popular tourist city, which sights to see while you’re there, and how to make sure the experience doesn’t break your budget.
Resources, Packages, and Discount Bundles
San Francisco Travel
Not sure where to begin your San Francisco adventure? Start at San Francisco Travel‘s excellent website. Use the interactive Utrip-powered feature to build your own trip replete with as many San Francisco deals as you could possibly want for entertainment, hotels, touristy activities, and shopping.
Though it’s an awesome, comprehensive resource for novice and frequent visitors alike, San Francisco Travel has relationships with businesses across the city and beyond, so don’t expect it to be completely impartial. Before jumping on any hotel deals you find here, cross-reference rates with major online booking sites such as Expedia and the hotels’ own websites.
San Francisco CityPASS
If you’re staying in San Francisco for more than a night or two, buy a San Francisco CityPASS booklet. Booklets cost $94 per adult and $69 per child. Not exactly cheap, but a bargain given what they cover – all together, approximately $185 in adult admission and transportation, a 49% savings when compared to face value.
San Francisco CityPASS includes:
- A seven-day cable car and Muni passport (good for reaching most attractions within San Fran’s city limits)
- Admission to the California Academy of Sciences
- A Blue & Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Adventure, which showcases the city’s skyline, history, and the natural environment of the bay (including, potentially, sea lions and whales)
- Admission to the Aquarium of the Bay (at Pier 39) or the Monterey Bay Aquarium, about two hours south of San Francisco
- Admission to the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor Museum (two art museums) or the Exploratorium (a science museum)
CityPASS really came on in handy on my trip to San Francisco – especially the transit component, as I used public transit heavily in town and would have shelled out $40 for a seven-day pass at full price. I didn’t have time to take advantage of the Blue & Gold Fleet Adventure opportunity, and it’s a shame that the Monterey Bay Aquarium (regarded as one of the world’s best) was so far away, but I otherwise found San Francisco CityPASS to be a great value.
Don’t forget about CityPASS when you leave the Bay Area either. San Francisco is one of about a dozen North American cities and regions with CityPASS service, along with Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, Southern California (Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego), Tampa Bay, and Toronto.
Go San Francisco Card
Trying to pack as many San Francisco attractions as possible into the few days you have in town? Pick up a GO San Francisco Card from Smart Destinations. Unlike CityPASS, which gives you as much time as you need to hit a handful of included attractions, the GO San Francisco Card challenges you to reach as many destinations as possible within a strict time-frame.
GO San Francisco Cards come in several flavors. Your choice will depend on how long you spend in the city:
- One Day: $65 per adult, $49 per child
- Two Days: $90 per adult, $62 per child
- Three Days: $115 per adult, $85 per child
- Five Days: $150 per adult, $110 per child
Each GO Card includes general admission to approximately 25 Bay Area attractions, including many featured in this guide: California Historical Society, California Academy of Sciences, Asian Art Museum, and Contemporary Jewish Museum, to name a few. GO Cards also come with exclusive deals and discounts (often 10% to 20% off admission or purchases) at more than a dozen additional attractions and businesses.
If you’re up to the challenge of planning your sightseeing efficiently – namely by setting strict time limits at each place and hitting proximate attractions on the same day – GO Cards can save you and your family a boatload. Exactly how much is up to you, but longer passes theoretically offer greater potential savings.
Like CityPASS, Smart Destinations offers GO City Cards in about a dozen cities in North America and beyond: Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, London, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Oahu (Honolulu), Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., plus customizable passes for California and Florida.
Big Bus Tour
Not a fan of public transit or driving on congested city streets, and don’t mind fully immersing yourself in the role of gawking, camera-toting tourists? Big Bus Tour might be for you. It’s one of several hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tours that ply the streets of San Francisco, hitting virtually all the city’s major attractions, monuments, museums, and other points of interest, all while providing an up-close and personal view of the intervening streets and neighborhoods.
Big Bus Tour is not cheap, and it doesn’t come with admission discounts or comps at most attractions. A one-day (24 hour) ticket costs $50 when purchased in person (or $45 online) and includes three guided neighborhood walking tours. If you’re in town longer, the three-day tour costs $70 in person and $63 online, and includes three guided walking tours, a tour of Sausalito, a two-hour night bus tour of San Francisco, and complimentary admission to the Aquarium of the Bay.
Historical Sights and Tourist Attractions
More than any other West Coast city, San Francisco wears its history on its sleeve. These are among the top sights for visitors looking to learn more about the city’s past – and how it grew into such an amazing place.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
- Adult admission: Free to walk or bike across, $4.50 and up to drive
- Hours: 24/7
The Golden Gate Bridge needs no introduction. Gracing countless postcards and providing a backdrop for dozens of film scenes, this Depression-era engineering marvel is one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks.
Many first-time San Francisco visitors are surprised to find that the Golden Gate Bridge doesn’t exactly dominate the city’s skyline. It spans the Golden Gate, a mile-wide strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, from far northwestern San Francisco to suburban Marin County, and is hidden by high hills on both sides. It’s also frequently shrouded in fog, a function of the constant clash between warm inland air and the ever-chilly Pacific.
Still, the Golden Gate Bridge is definitely worth a close look, and it takes nothing to snap photos or walk across (though it’s a long walk). The best views can be found in Lincoln Park, which is free to enter. If you want to cross by car, it’ll cost at least $4.50 to get back to San Francisco, per the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
- Adult admission: $35.50 for day tours; $42.50 for night (sunset) tours
- Hours: Ferries leave Fisherman’s Wharf every 20 to 30 minutes between 8:45am and 3:50pm, then less frequently until 6:30pm; Tours, including the ferry to and from the island, take approximately two-and-a-half hours
Visible from much of northern San Francisco’s waterfront, including the Fisherman’s Wharf area and the Presidio of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island is a picturesque slab with a fascinating past. Once an important military installation, the island’s buildings were modernized in the 1930s and famously used as a maximum-security federal prison until the early 1960s. Dozens of notorious criminals, including Al Capone, involuntarily lived at Alcatraz over the years.
Today, Alcatraz is a wildly popular tourist attraction operated by the National Park Service. Unlike most national parks, advance reservations are strongly encouraged for day visitors. Otherwise, you have to wait in line at the ferry terminal at Fisherman’s Wharf, and you’re not guaranteed to get a spot on an outgoing boat.
Alcatraz Cruises is the official ticket vendor and ferry operator. Inquire with it about package deals and trip planning information.
3. Coit Tower
- Adult admission: Free to enter; $9 for for the observation deck
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 6pm, May through October; Daily, 10am to 5pm, November through April
Bequeathed to the city by a wealthy, offbeat heiress, and designed by the architect responsible for San Francisco’s beautiful city hall, Coit Tower is concrete column rising 210 feet above Pioneer Park, at the apex of San Francisco’s steep Telegraph Hill neighborhood.
The park surrounding Coit Tower is small, but pretty, and provides great views of downtown San Francisco. The structure’s observation deck is even better, with panoramic views of the city, bay, hills, and immediately recognizable landmarks such as Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. On the lower floors, an impressive collection of Art Deco murals celebrates the populist ethos of the 1930s, the tower’s inaugural decade.
Be warned that Coit Tower can get extremely busy, so arrive early to take photos without bumping elbows or cluttering your shot.
4. California Historical Society
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11am to 5pm (closed Monday)
Located smack in the middle of downtown San Francisco, the California Historical Society is a small but extremely well-kept museum dedicated to the Golden State’s fascinating history and culture. Its extensive collection includes more than 50,000 books and 500,000 photographs, not all of which are on display in the gallery, and serves as a crucial resource for historical research. Areas of focus include native cultures, Spanish colonization, the Gold Rush era, landscape art, and 19th and 20th century migration, among others.
5. Lombard Street
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: 24/7
For most of its length, Lombard Street is a major east-west thoroughfare in San Francisco’s northern neighborhoods. But for one block between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, it’s a mess of hairpin turns, stop-and-go traffic, and gawking tourists. This stretch is described as the “crookedest street in San Francisco,” and that’s probably an understatement. If you’re in the area, Lombard Street is definitely worth a photo.