San Francisco is best known for rolling hills, summer fog, and iconic sights. In my opinion, this city is the best California has to offer due to its tourist friendly nature and plethora of things to do. For example, San Francisco is home to both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, which alone is worth visiting for. Add in some of your favourite activities such as shopping, exploring museums or eating at some of America’s best restaurants and you have all the makings of an awesome city getaway.
There are a couple things to note about San Francisco which include its high cost and a massive list of things to do. The bare minimum is a 4-night stay and you’ll probably be kicking yourself because of all the attractions you’ve missed. One week is a more realistic period of time to explore San Francisco and chances are you’ll probably still need to go back! In my city guide, I’ll be highlighting ways to save money, what to see and where to stay.
How to Make San Francisco More Affordable
Buy a San Francisco CityPass:
You will save a ton of money with the purchase of a CityPass. The package includes admission to four of San Francisco’s top attractions and unlimited access to cable cars and municipal buses. Considering the high cost of parking and cabs, you’ll be thankful to have access to public transportation. Contrary to popular belief, the cable car network can be a viable option to navigate parts of San Francisco and with the CityPass you won’t have to pay $7 per ride!
Stay in a Hotel Outside San Francisco:
To put it simply, hotels in San Francisco can cost a fortune. You can find some awesome deals by crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge near Sausalito and Tiburon. Not only will you be saving money, but these towns are very quaint and charming. This strategy best works for people on a California road trip and have a rental car at their disposal. In addition, there are a couple hidden costs to consider, which include a $7.50 fee for entering San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge and parking in touristy areas. There is potential to save hundreds of dollars by staying in Sausalito or Tiburon, it just takes some extra planning and driving.
Plan Your Trip Early:
It pays to start planning your trip to San Francisco early. Alcatraz tickets are essentially scalped by tour groups that purchase bulk quantities years in advance. To work around the law, these companies package tickets with other services and then proceed to jack up the price. There is a 99% probability that you’ll need to go through one of these tour guides to score tickets to Alcatraz. The modest packages sell out quickly and last minute options are +$200.
What to do in San Francisco
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge, it gives me the same sense of amazement as Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower. Spanning almost 3km, people can make a day of walking or biking across the world’s most iconic bridge. Professional photographers and enthusiasts will love capturing the countless angles from all over the bay.
Alcatraz or “The Rock” was America’s most notorious prison, housing dangerous criminals such as Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman. The Island resides 1.25km offshore from San Francisco and can only be accessed by ferry. Getting tickets to Alcatraz is difficult, so you’ll most like have to go with a tour group. You can get a good deal by booking early.
Golden Gate Park
Out of anywhere in San Francisco, you’ll probably be spending the most time in Golden Gate Park. It’s bigger than New York’s Central Park and arguably has much more things to do. You could easily spend a whole day lounging about and exploring each area. I’m also including some of the park’s most prominent features in separate headings because they in themselves warrant around 3 hours of your time.
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition and remains the only structure left standing from this event. Nothing beats admiring the architecture and sitting beside the pond during a sunny day. You’ll have plenty of swans and ducks to keep you company.
Ride a Cablecar
No trip to San Francisco is complete without riding the cable cars! Hanging off the side is an unforgettable experience, especially if you select a line with lots of hills. As I mentioned before, the cable cars can be a viable alternative to using cabs or walking and is much more fun.
California Academy of Science
The California Academy of Science is a ton of fun for both adults and children. Some of the highlights include an albino alligator who’s name is Claude, the Morrison Planetarium, and a four storey rainforest. The Academy of Science is part of your San Francisco CityPass which means you can skip the long queue for tickets.
Take a Bay Cruise
Blue and Gold Fleet’s bay cruise is approximately one hour and leaves from Pier 39. The trip is highlighted by sailing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz Island. It is a cool experience to see San Francisco’s biggest attractions from a different point of view. You may even see a few whales!
De Young Museum
Experience a priceless collection of fine art within the confines of Golden Gate Park. The De Young museum is a must-see for art lovers and admission includes same-day access to the Legion of Honor Museum. In addition, there is a tremendous view of Hamon Tower, which rises 144 feet.
The Painted Ladies
The term “Painted Ladies” refers to Victorian style houses which use three or more colours to accentuate architectural details. San Francisco contains many buildings that fall into this category, but none are more famous than those at Alamo Square. This is one of the most photographed areas of the city and was featured in the opening credits of the TV show Full House.
The Twin Peaks stand almost 300m above sea level and provide an excellent view of San Francisco. Most people stop by for the lookout but are unaware of trails around the area. If you’re in Golden Gate Park, you can easily end your day by driving over to the Twin Peaks for sunset.
Known as “the most crooked street in the world”, Lombard features eight hairpin turns that stretch one city block. The wait times to drive this section of road can be long but it is a cool experience. There are also free places to park nearby, so you can walk over and take pictures.
Located 19km north of San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument protects a large population of California Redwoods. The trees here aren’t gigantic compared to Sequoia National Park, but if you’ve never seen one before I highly recommend it. In addition, there are plenty of trails that connect to Mount Tamalpais State Park.
A Day Trip to Sausalito
Venturing over to Sausalito can be a nice break from the city. This picturesque town holds a wide variety of fine dining options that one would associate with a much larger population. You can drive to Sausalito over the Golden Gate Bridge or take a ferry from Pier 39.
Geek Out at Lucasfilm
Star Wars fans will love an opportunity to take pictures with the Yoda fountain and venture into the foyer of Lucasfilm. You’ll find lifesize models of Darth Vader and Boba Fett in addition to some iconic memorabilia. A lot of people think that the Yoda fountain is hard to find in the Presidio, which makes the journey even more fun!
San Francisco is known for having the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Browse through the many stores and check out some amazing Chinese restaurants. There is even a fortune cookie factory that gives free tours, it is short but fascinating.
Catch a Game at AT&T Park
AT&T Park is one of the best in Major League Baseball. The stadium has so much personality and the location is excellent. If you visit during the regular or post-season, attending a San Francisco Giants game is a must!
Where to Stay in San Francisco
The Fairmont– Located atop Nob Hill, the Fairmont is the epitome of indulgence and luxury. It is my favourite hotel in San Francisco and holds some amazing history. A long list of American presidents have stayed here and the United Nations Charter was drafted in the Garden Room.
Loews Regency– Every single person who stays at this hotel rave about the views. Rooms are located on the top 11 floors of a 48 storey building, with beautiful views of the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. It’s located in the Financial District and is a short walk to Union Square.
The Westin St Francis– In terms of location, it is very hard to beat The Westin’s whereabouts in Union Square. This luxurious hotel is the perfect choice for someone who wants easy access to San Francisco’s best shopping.
USA Hostels– Widely regarded as the best hostel in San Francisco, USA Hostels has a reputation for being clean and friendly. The price is great and is a short walk to Union Square.
Green Tortoise Hostel– A family run hostel with free breakfast and a huge kitchen. The location is great, being a short walk to the pier area.
Staying Just Outside San Francisco:
Cavallo Point– A luxurious hotel located just over the Golden Gate Bridge. Reviews are glowing and you’ll be saving money versus the Fairmont or Loews.
The Lodge at Tiburon– I love this hotel and the town of Tiburon. You have the choice of driving or taking the ferry to San Francisco.
Casa Madrona Hotel & Spa– Sausalito is a little more developed than Tiburon and has more tourist amenities. It doesn’t quite have the same quaint nature but is still charming! Casa Madrona is a little pricey but provides a modern vibe and great location.
Holiday Inn Express Mill Valley– This hotel is one of the cheapest options in the whole bay area. You have to book early to ensure a spot!
***Remember you must pay $7.50 for crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco and parking for the day. Factor this into your daily cost!
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