San Francisco is arguably one of the world’s most enchanting cities – but it’s also one of the most expensive, too (weekend rates for a mid-range hotel will set you back around $250 a night, on average). But a trip to the City by the Bay doesn’t have to be a budget-buster. Here, five ways for visitors to get an affordable, yet authentic SF experience – in other words, while you're saving money, you'll be mingling with the locals too. Need further incentive? October is a beautiful month to visit, with fewer crowds than summer and still-warm days.
Spend a sunny afternoon at Crissy Field: America’s Cup may be over, but there’s still plenty of action to enjoy at this beautiful, grassy stretch of waterfront: kite and windsurfers whipping across San Francisco Bay, scores of sailboats, and incredible views of the Golden Gate Alcatraz. Pack a picnic (there’s a Safeway nearby) and join the locals who congregate here, especially on weekends. Or, for a sure kid-pleaser, mosey over to House of Air, a trampoline park housed nearby in a cluster of former military warehouses on Old Mason Street.
For affordable, unique souvenirs with real SF flavor – think posters with lovely Deco artwork, handcrafted soaps, and beautiful books about local hotspots – the Warming Hut is a hands-down winner (unfortunately, it’s currently closed because of the government shutdown). Even if it’s sunny, be sure to bring layers, since the weather can quickly turn chilly.
Window shop (and people watch) along Valencia Street. The most vibrant street in the Mission District, Valencia is bursting with quirky shops and even quirkier characters, from free-spirited artists to tattooed hipsters who call this ‘hood home.
To get there, take BART to the Mission/24th Street station, walk one block west, and browse your way up the street. Some highly recommended stops: 826 Valencia, a head-scratching hybrid of writing center and pirate supply store where you can pick up affordable, offbeat souvenirs (like $5 eye patches and $1.75 skull-and-crossbones dice); Paxton Gate, which specializes in weird, whimsical gifts and housewares inspired by nature (mounted insects are a popular seller); and Radio Habana Social Club (pictured above), a pint-sized wonderland where you can tuck into a $10 plate of Cuban comfort food and a $6 goblet of sangria while puzzling over the funky art made from discarded junk.
Feast at the Ferry Building. This spectacular building – which once fell into disrepair and was in danger of being torn down – is now one of the culinary gems of San Francisco. A cornucopia of food shops and eateries beckon with local gourmet goodies, from the impossibly fresh bivalves at Hog Island Oyster Company to the cheese of Cowgirl Creamery (ask for a sample); indulge in a budget-friendly buffet with small plates from wherever strikes your fancy. Oenophiles, meanwhile, will love the California-leaning list at the Ferry Building Wine Merchant. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, a farmer’s market offers a wide bounty of local produce.
Play old-school video games at Musée Mécanique. This quirky, one-of-a-kind destination is one of the few reasons to stop by tourist-choked Fisherman’s Wharf. Housed in a large warehouse, the museum is one of the world’s largest private collections of coin-operated art, with 300 antique games and musical instruments – most of which cost a mere quarter to operate (there are on-site change machines, too). Entry is free, too, making this offbeat spot an ideal and affordable way to take a trip down memory lane.
Tour the city by bike. San Francisco is routinely lauded as one of the country’s best biking cities, and two-wheeled tours are a great way to kick around the sights while getting some exercise. For newbies, the best – read: flattest – neighborhoods to ride are the Marina (you can venture all the way to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge) and the Mission; Golden Gate Park, which does have some mild rolling hills, is a recommended choice too. Bike rental facilities can be found around the city, or check out the newly launched Bay Area Bike Share. It’s ideal for quick jaunts, as 30-minute rides are free of charge (3-day pass $22, or 24 hours for $9).