Affordable San Francisco

Travel is close to my heart, and despite money being a shade tight (isn’t it for everyone!) we really wanted to take a trip somewhere to celebrate my husband’s (gasp!)  thirtieth birthday. We choose San Francisco because I’ve been there once briefly and it’s a great maritime environment, which I knew he’d love. And is it turns out, the city by the bay is a great, affordable place to hang out.

Flight and accomodation are always the budget-eaters. In the states, we always fly Southwest – if you keep an eye out, you can usually catch one of the $99 Get Away fares to just about anywhere.

For accomdations, you can’t beat hostelling. Most places don’t have lock outs, offer private rooms and have great locations. Our pick in San Francisco will always be Green Tortoise. We got a private room on a corner (windows on two walls!) on the top floor of the hostel for about $70 a night. We could watch the sunrise/sunset over the city from our room and it was amazing. The view was great and the room was a decent size with a queen bed, chair, sink and mirror. The best part is the location though – it’s located in the heart of North Beach so you can walk anywhere – Chinatown is right there, and you’re a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Financial District. Everything you want to see is a stone’s throw away – Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill, Lombard Street, Ferry Plaza, the cable cars, etc.

As far as stuff to do, free or affordable attractions abound:

Golden Gate Park is worth the trek. From North Beach, you can walk down to the Financial District and take the #5 Muni Bus all the way out to the park. The park is huge and offers a lot to do – sports, museums and great outdoor spaces. The attractions we were drawn to were the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden. The Arboretum and Botanical Gardens are free and a fantastic way to spend a morning. The gardens are beautifully designed with secret “rooms”, water features and an amazing array of plants. Some of our personal favorites were the bamboo and redwood forest recreations. There is also a secluded pond with a deck near a creek with a waterfall. The Conservatory was also well worth a visit, and affordable at $5.00 each. The Japanese Tea Garden was also a good visit, at $3.50 each, but if you go before 10:00 you can get in free.

Musee Mechanique was our favorite surprise visit – we just popped in on a whim. Located at Fisherman’s Wharf in a large warehouse, this museum is actually an arcade of mechanical gimmicks and games – everything from Victorian-era viewfinder movies and palm readers to Pac Man and skee ball. Admission is free and the best part is – every one of them is in full working order. Most games only take a quarter or fifty cents to play too. You can go in and spend $5 or $10 and have a one-of-a-kind arcade experience. It was great fun.

The San Francisco Martitime Park was another affordable treasure. The Hyde Street Pier was a great experience and an incredible bargain – for only $5 you can get a boarding pass that will allow you to board and tour six boats/ships – among which are a restored ferry, open-sea tug boat, a square-rigger and a schooner. They are all restored and have informative exhibits on the interior. My favorite vessel was the Eureka ferry – the car deck was filled with early twentieth century cars and trucks and the passenger decks were amazing – milk glass light fixtures and polished wood benches. But the most endearing aspect of the Eureka is her resident boat cat – he’ll follow you around until you pet him and purrs like crazy. Must be a hard life for a cat. 🙂 Even if you don’t shell out for a boarding pass, you can still tour a houseboat,  the small boat shop and look at the small craft also docked at the pier.

For a big day excursion, a visit to Angel Island is great. It’s a “mountain island” that has been used by the military and and as a western immigration station. There are 13 miles of trails and roads and some great sites – the immigration and quarantine station, a former Nike missile site and two military encampments – Camp Reynolds and Ft. McDowell. Walking the perimeter road is a great way to see all of the cultural sites and the views of the bay area are stunning. There are running water and toilets at reasonable intervals on the island, so refilling water during your hike is no problem. We took a leisurely four hours to hike around the whole island, which gave us a good amount of time to explore and have a picnic lunch of tomato and green onion focaccia, salami, cured olives and white wine at the Quarry Beach by Ft. McDowell. The native plants are beautiful – lots of wildflowers and maritime scrub plants and we saw a good amount of wildlife – tons of birds, a tiny lizard running across the road, and even a young buck in the woods. Visiting Angel Island is free. The only cost is the ferry ride there – only $15.00 each for a round-trip ticket. I was also excited to learn that there are limited tent camping sites on the island – that’s certainly on our to-do list the next time we’re out that way.

Food is another important consideration when travelling. The hostel did offer free breakfast, and I did take them up on making tea in my travel mug each morning. But for a cheap, addictive breakfast, we headed to the Italian French Bakery every morning. Chocolate croissants are my favorite – and at about $1.50 for a giant one, that’s a pretty affordable breakfast. Husband really favored almond biscotti, and the peanut butter cookies and walnut biscotti were also quite tasty.

North Beach abounds with good, but pricey tourist-oriented Italian restaurants. Pomodoro was the Italian restaurant we loved and also didn’t break the bank. It’s a local chain of Italian eateries in California. Their minestrone soup was excellent, and the focaccia with a pesto dipping sauce was amazing as the free bread element. We both tried several dishes, but our favorite was the spaghetti polpette – spaghetti with spicy meatballs and tomato sauce. We spent about $30.00 for two courses and wine – and would’ve spent two times as much elsewhere.

Good Chinese food is a must when visiting San Francisco, and you can’t go wrong with Hunan Home’s. Don’t be off-put by the kitschy teal and pink decor – the staff is attentive and friendly and the food is amazing. We didn’t have a single bad dish. The place is filled with locals and in-the-know tourists alike, and does a steady stream of business. Everything is fresh – most of the seafood items on the menu are alive and swimming until moments before they hit your plate – the massive bank of tanks along the wall on the way to the kitchen attest to that. But oh, the food. Jasmine tea appears on your table mere seconds after you sit down. The menu is large, but not intimidating – to start with at our first meal (the ubiquitous thirtieth birthday dinner) we ordered with won ton soup, egg rolls – and xaio long bao. The won ton soup was divine – a rich, chickeny broth with tender slices of bok choy and bite sized won tons filled with with shrimp, pork and finely diced vegetables. I’ve never had a better won ton soup. The egg rolls were good. But the divine food moment was the xaio long bao. We were initially going to order potstickers, which we’ve had a million times, but we decided to try something different. The xaio long bao sounded similar, but also something new and exciting. They arrived to the table in a steamer basket lined with a leaf of cabbage – six tender little dumplings pinched together at the top and still steaming. Our waiter (he was wonderful and had a great sense of humor), recognizing that we were trying something new, discreetly instructed us in how to eat them – you place a dumpling on a soup spoon and use your chopstick to pierce it – a delicious, intense broth seeps out of the inside and you drink this broth from your spoon – which is a revelation all in itself. Then, you use your chopsticks to dip the dumpling into the soy sauce -based dipping sauce (I believe it also contained ginger, garlic and maybe a touch of honey) and eat it in one bite. Filled with pork, shrimp, scallions and ginger it is simply delicious. Following the appetizers (although we could’ve sat there and eaten xaio long bao for hours) we had an incredily spicy, tasty mongolian beef and sweet and sour chicken. Everything is served family style, which I love. The second time we popped in for lunch and made a meal of dim sum style items – won ton soup, more xaio long bao (of course), fried prawns (with a great sweet and sour dipping sauce), potstickers, and egg rolls. Dinner cost us about $40 and lunch about $25, which are great bargains.

For fresh seaford at the Wharf, which I think everyone has to experience, skip the indoor seating at the touristy restaurants and order from their stands along the promenade instead – you can get fish and chips, fried prawns, whole steamed crabs – you name it – to go for a fraction of what you pay indoors and get better service and ambiance by eating al fresco on the embarcadero or one of the piers.

And for the ultimate foodie experience (in case downing a plate of xaio long bao isn’t enough) you must check out the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. It’s like heaven on earth, and for midwesterners, the sheer size of it blew us away. Every imaginable thing grown under the glorious California sun was available – strawberries, cherries, lettuce, tomatoes – it’s almost pointless to try to make a list. Beyond the abundance of produce, there were also stands offering charcuterie, olive oils, butter and cheese, eggs, baked goods, frozen meats and prepared goods. And everyone was eating at ten o’clock in the morning – heuvos rancheros on paper plates, gnawing on fresh salami, consuming plates of potato salad, eating grapes out of hand. The most enthralling prepared food stand was the rotisserie – it was a small truck where one side opened up to reveal a large rotisseries just filled with aromatic, crackling, golden brown chickens, and in a tray underneat where cut up potatoes, just roasting away in every drop of chickeny goodness that dripped down upon them. The line at that stand was several dozen people long, and for good reason. We put together a nice little spread for our picnic at Angel Island by stopping at the market first – to the focaccia we picked up at the Italian French Bakery, we added a salami, cured mixed olives and a bottle of California white wine from the wine shop inside the Ferry Plaza building (where you’ll find a host of permanent food and gift shops as well as restaurants).

Other great things to do on the cheap that we loved – walking down Lombard Street, riding the historic F Market train (vintage train cars from all over the country – only $1.50 per ride), watching the sunset from Telegraph Hill (you can also view the WPA murals inside Coit Tower for free, though we didn’t get a chance to on this trip), walking around Fort Mason (near the Presidio), checking out the shops in Chinatown (great place to buy ethnic food at a good price and smartly-priced kitchenware – just beware the tourist-oriented tchotche’s that are also everywhere), trolling around town checking out interesting shops and bookstores (Russian Hill Bookstore is our favorite – they have an amazing selection of food and local books), and having a drink at some select spots – our favorites were Spec’s and Vesuvio. Spec’s is kitschy yet classic and the drinks are strong. Very avante-sailor atmosphere. Vesuvio is cozy and classic and practically across the street – they’ve got a second floor with big picture windows and intimate tables, so it’s great for people-watching on Columbus.

There are so many great things to do in San Francisco – it’s an incredibly intimate, walkable city, yet lively and vibrant. These were just a few of our favorite things.

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