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Penny Pinching In The City By The Bay: How To Do San Fran On A Dime

You don’t have to be a tech mogul to have fun in San Fran.

Golden Gate Bridge. Lombard Street. World-class museums. Lively parks. Some of coolest bars and food spots on the United States’ West Coast. Passing through San Francisco on your all-American adventure is a no-brainer.

But it’s also crazy expensive. Like, more expensive than New York City-expensive. According to a 2017 study by Nested, it’s the most expensive city in the world to rent in – thanks, in large part, to the Silicon Valley boom and the ability of tech giants like Google, Apple and Amazon to lure expats to the city en masse.

And if rent prices are up, you can bet you’ll be paying a loftier sum for temporary lodgings, food and experiences, too.

San Francisco could end up becoming the priciest pit-stop on your USA sojourn but, fortunately, you don’t have to be a cashed-up tech mogul to have fun in the City by the Bay.

To market, to market

Just because you’re penny pinching, it doesn’t mean you can’t sample some of San Francisco’s finest fare. Sure, you probably won’t be able to book a (staggeringly expensive) table at Saison – but there’s a wide variety of A-grade food options available for just a few bucks.

SOMA Streatfood Park

Image: SOMA Streatfood Park

Your holy grail? Food markets. There’s a ton of ‘em dishing up fair-priced, fresh food for on-the-go. Like the SOMA Streatfood Park, a year-round revolving collection of the city’s finest food trucks; the seasonal Mission Community Market for a little local flavour; or street food with a view at the Ferry Building Farmers Market.

And as a much less glamorous alternative, head to the sandwich section of Whole Foods (still a fun and eye-opening excursion for most Australians) or grab a slice from any of SF’s corner pizza joints.

Head for the hills

Instead of forking out for digs anywhere around Union Square or the trendy Mission District, look to San Francisco’s more residential neighbourhoods. There, you’re more likely to score cheaper lodgings without compromising on cool stuff to do.

San Francisco

Image: Jason Leung

Suburbs like Bernal Heights, Glen Park and Excelsior, while expensive to buy in, have cheaper accommodation options due to their distance from the busy city centre. You need only head down to the main street in each neighbourhood to stumble upon a bunch of unique and fun food, coffee and cocktail joints.

Dive in                                  

What San Francisco lacks in cheap accommodation, it makes up for with no-frills bars. From the dimly-lit dive establishments like Rock Bar to more kitsch and vibrant spots like Virgil’s, American sports bars like Ace’s or neighbourhood watering holes like El Rio, there’s no shortage of places for cheap thrills.

El Rio, San Francisco

Image: El Rio

And, if Karl the Fog has made himself scarce, hike up to the open-container-friendly Strawberry Hill Picnic Area in Golden Gate Park, BYO booze and drink in the view.

Wander on

Lombard Street, San Francisco

Lombard Street. Image: Pedro Lastra

We’ve all seen enough Instagram shots of twisting Lombard Street to make our eyes bleed (though it’s worth a visit anyway), but just about every turn of a corner in this jam-packed city reveals some breathtaking architecture, eye-catching local boutique or cool cafe to park yourself in for an afternoon.

There are obvious must-sees, like iconic Market Street, colourful Haight Street and Steiner Street (home to the Painted Ladies). Then, once you’ve ticked off the tourist-heavy spots, spend the afternoon discovering hidden spots in the culture-filled Mission District or head to Outer Sunset for local beach vibes.

Painted Ladies, San Francisco

The Painted Ladies. Image: Jakob Owens

Get out of town

Got a car? Hit the road and get out of the city for a day. There are stacks of epic day trip options around San Francisco.

Check out the Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park, head down Highway 1 – an iconic USA road trip stretch – to beautiful Monterey and Big Sur, or sample world-class vino in Wine Country.

Big Sur, California

Big Sur. Image: Iris Papillon

And, if you’re on your own two feet, hitch a ride on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to the Berkeley campus or take the train down to Palo Alto and San Jose to play tech-mogul for a day. A return trip will cost you less than USD$20. Bargain.

(Lead image: Joseph Barrientos)