Having spent two weeks gallivanting around the glitz of LA and the surfers paradise of San Diego, it was a strange old feeling coming into San Francisco in the middle of the night after an all-day train journey to Oakland and then a bus ride from there into the city centre. In comparison to our first two stops on the trip, San Francisco seemed almost European!? This was partly due to the higgledy-piggledyness of the streets and partly to the fact that there seemed to be a very clear city centre which is easily navigable on your own two feet. And I’m proud to say that even though it was dark and scary outside, we managed to find the HI San Francisco Downtown quite easily as I had become a dab hand at copying maps off of hostel computers, in record timing might I add. (Our trip was so budget that Internet was only available in wifi hotspots or at pay-per-minute hostel computers, so you’ll understand now why this is the Budget Edition of things to see in San Francisco)
So…here we go pals. In no particular order, for those who are interested, these are my recommendations for how to explore San Francisco on a strict budget. (It’s totally 100% possible, trust)
Use your feet! (But be careful where they take you)
Obviously I’m a big fan of getting around on foot and getting ever-so-slightly lost but San Francisco is definitely one of the best cities in America in which to do this. I’d describe a lot of the buildings here as having a ‘faded splendourness.’ Not really sure that splendourness is a real word, but you know what I’m saying. Beautiful and grand and shabby. Which is a combination I love.
Take care that you at least have a vague idea of the direction you’re heading in. We ventured out to have a look around on our first morning in the city and accidentally stumbled into the Tenderloin neighbourhood. If it hadn’t been broad daylight I probably would have feared for my life a little more seriously. There were several semi-comatose people lying across the pavement and some of the non-horizontal people seemed the types that might attack if you look them in the eye. It was uncomfortable to say the least. We slowly reversed out of there in the most casual way possible…but it did make me feel sad to see the massive number of homeless people that are in that area.
Go on down to China Town
Don’t quote me on this but I’m pretty sure San Francisco’s China Town is the largest one in the whole of the United States, partly due to the massive number of Chinese immigrants to that area when they began coming to America. I felt like I was actually in China! LITERAL CHINA. Signs are written in Chinese, traders sell all manner of weird and wonderful (and scary looking) creatures to eat, and there is a Fortune Cookie factory located there as well, as if everything else wasn’t Chinese enough.
Stay in a hostel
Accommodation in San Francisco can be costly, and actually in comparison to smaller, less touristic cities, even the hostels are on the expensive side. We stayed for a few days at the HI: San Francisco Downtown, and then a few days more at the HI: Fisherman’s Wharf, both of which have a very different vibe but were totally AWESOME bases for exploring different areas.
What makes the biggest difference money-wise is being able to cook your own food, and also making the most of any communal activities they have going on…they had a pizza and movie night at the Downtown Hostel in their cinema room so we decided to hang out there one evening. Because hello, who doesn’t love free pizza!? These are the kind of opportunities you need to make the most of in life. The film of the evening was The Rock. Set in San Francisco, of course, starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage, two classics. I actually found it pretty entertaining, though I wasn’t so sure about visiting Alcatraz afterwards just in case we get dragged into a hostage situation. We also met a great guy there called Canadian Nick, who was a highly skilled chess player and also taught us how to play Blackjack in preparation for our next stop: Las Vegas.
We probably could have stayed Downtown a bit longer but I loved the HI Fisherman’s Wharf as there’s so much fresh air! It’s on the cliffs at Fort Mason and overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz…such an amazing view. The building actually used to be army barracks, so the dorm we were in had extreme army-style sleeping arrangements- 24 beds to be precise. There are a few rooms with less beds in them but as we were on a budget and essentially a bed is a bed, I wasn’t too fussy. I did half-expect some kind of drill at any moment though.
Enjoy the ride on a cable car
The San Francisco trams are kind of old school and rattle-y, and personally I was full on love with them because of that very point. Awkward times though as the first time we boarded one we waited for it for ten minutes, on the wrong side of the road. We were fully aware of what direction we needed to go in but forgot that vehicles actually drive on the right on the opposite side of the ponds us. Duh.
Eat out at lunchtime and make sure you try some clam chowder in sourdough while you’re at it
Wherever you are in the world, as a general rule it’s cheaper to eat out at lunchtime than for dinner; it goes without saying folks! So we made the most of our communal hostel kitchens by night, and ate at various diners/coffee shops/food trucks by day.
But let me tell you this for free, homies. I highly recommend a trip to Boudin- the bakery famous for it’s sourdough bread- if you ever find yourself hungry (or at least mildly peckish) whilst in San Francisco. My only experience of sourdough prior to this was when I attempted to bake a loaf at school- it was rock solid and tasted like cheese- so in comparison this was a spectacular triumph and I’m now a sourdough fan. I had clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, which is a surprisingly funny experience. There’s just something odd about eating from a bowl made of bread you know?
See the city from the water…
We went on a jolly old boat trip around the bay which made me feel a bit like a pirate to be honest except without anything illegal involved. We went under the Golden Gate Bridge and all around Alcatraz, with a beaut view of the city from the water. I found Alcatraz a bit creepy, mainly since there used to be a lot of not very nice people on that island and going close to it gave me the slight shivers. It’d probably be really interesting to look round- but also mildly disturbing I reckon. I did enjoy the boat a lot though. Not sure about the Disney-style fanfare/ tour guide they blast out on deck but it’s probably what you’ve got to expect in such a touristy situation.
On a side note, we were given the trip on the boat by a girl at our first hostel who was leaving but hadn’t used all of her 7 day San Francisco city pass (or something like that). This is another beauty of staying in hostels. The rule is, if you’re not going to use something you pass it on, be it tickets, food, toiletries or books. We gave fellow travellers our unused tickets when we moved on, in the same way that we were lucky enough to be given some from different fellow travellers. It’s a nice little community thing in a very large world, know what I’m saying!?
Climb the windiest road in the history of the world
Lombard Street is the windiest road ever in the history of my life, and honestly it blows my mind that cars are allowed down there. I would not be up for driving down it, that’s for sure. It was a proper knackering climb up the hill, but full on pretty once we made it to the top. All the houses around there are straight out of Mrs Doubtfire…I wonder if it ever gets annoying to live there though, with a group of people just consistently loitering at the top of your street taking photos. And you can’t get from one end to the other in a hurry cause it’s so ragingly bendy.
Pier 39 is the pier where all the sea lions hang out…apparently they just turned up one day years and years ago for no particular reason, and they’ve been there ever since. Those guys crack me up big time, they’ve got quite mental-sounding voices and they just seem to like lazing around all day occasionally rolling into one another or chest-bumping their pals. Maybe they know they’ve become a tourist attraction so they just stick around for the attention, who knows…
Also: I am extremely delighted to be able to announce that WE SAW THE WORLD FAMOUS SAN FRANCISCO BUSHMAN. He’s a homeless man who hides behind shrubbery and growls at passing tourists. What a brilliant idea! And he obviously loves his job as he’s been doing it for years, since around 1980! What a good’n, I’m so happy that we stumbled upon him.
Branch out to the Mission District
The public transport network in San Francisco is very good in camparison to many American cities, so as well as the trams there are buses aplenty to get you from A to B. So, we decided to utilise this fantastic bus service to reach the Mission District. It reminded me of a San Francisco version of Camden in a way…there’s a grimier part like Camden Market and a nicer part like Camden Lock. But, really it’s completely different so don’t think that by going to Camden you will never need to see the Mission District. There’re some ginormous thrift stores around there- I was so tempted to buy a tonne of old Superman comic books but my practical mind told me they’d probably get destroyed in my mega-rucksack. Booo. Good coffee shops too, and bookshops. And vintage clothes galore.
We read about a place at Pier 45 called the Musee Mechanique, so we decided to go and take a look as it was close by to our second hostel. It’s basically a massive games arcade on the pier filled with antique/retro games. Some of them are slightly creepy (laughing mechanical sailors have a particularly eerie effect), and some of them are quite simply AMAZING. It’s free to go in though obviously you pay to actually have a go on the games. I’m quite easily entertained so my favourite was actually a giant miniature funfair; you put the money in the slot and then the whole thing lights up and plays music and the rides start moving.
- There are hostels aplenty in San Francisco, including three HI hostels, all of which include breakfast within the price of a bed, which starts at around $23. We stayed at the HI Downtown and the HI Fishermans Wharf, partly because of being HI members, and partly because as part of HI we felt we could trust that they were up to a certain standard.
- Even if you’re not going for hostels, Union Square and Fishermans Wharf are great locations to stay in as they’re so close to everything you might want to see.
- Don’t be shocked by the amount of homeless people there are around. Most of them are fine and totally lovely human beings, but we did have one sticky situation where a man grabbed hold of my BFs hand in an attempt to force him to hand over some money. So just keep your wits about you.
- I had been warned that the weather in San Francisco can be pretty weird, almost as if it has it’s own separate weather system from the surrounding areas, mainly due to its location in the bay. It can cold and wet even in Summer, and it’s known for its fog that comes rolling in over the sea. Having said that, we were lucky with the days that we chose to visit the city, so all I’m getting at here is- be prepared! Pack a raincoat!
- Buy a MUNI Passport to save money on public transport. It costs about the same price as two tram rides, so is definitely 100% worth it.
- The airport is located around 13 miles from the city. We got a taxi to the airport as there was a discount for our hostel at the time, but it’s easily accessible using the BART.