How to visit San Francisco on a budget

Nicola Brady

American cities have a surprising knack for emptying your wallet, and San Francisco is no exception. Between the taxes that bump up every bill, pricey attractions and glasses of local wine that inexplicably cost $20 (£16), it doesn’t take long before you feel the pinch.

But with a bit of forward planning and a dose of savvy, you can take in the city without breaking the bank.

The best place to start? Your flight. Norwegian recently started flying to San Francisco International Airport from London Gatwick, replacing its flights to nearby Oakland. Their fares are a good deal cheaper than other carriers, though I’d recommend adding a checked bag, seat reservation and meal to your trip (£50) to make things more comfortable.

The next expense will be accommodation. With even dorm beds in hostels running at around $50, it can be tough to find value. But don’t make the mistake of shifting further from the city centre – the last time I visited I stayed in an Airbnb in San Mateo, and the commute (and additional expense) was a pain. The Hilton San Francisco Union Square and Parc 55 hotels are bang in the middle of the city, and you can snag a good deal if you book in advance.

The more popular tourist attractions can be pricey, so pick what you really want to see and plan around it. A trip to Alcatraz ($39.90), for example, is one you wouldn’t want to miss. You can buy direct or get a CityPASS ($94) that includes entry to Alcatraz – it’ll also get you 3 days of cable cars and M transport and other selected attractions, with an overall saving of 48 per cent. You can also get a CityPASS that includes entrance to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, if that’s more your bag.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is pricey, but worth it (Henrik Kam/sfmoma)

And a visit to SFMOMA ($25) is worth every penny. For one, it’s an absolute beast following an expansion in 2016 – the exhibition space is spread over 10 storeys, and nearly 45,000 square feet of the gallery is actually free to view. The free bit includes large scale installations including a seriously cool video mural entitled The Chronicles of San Francisco that’s on display until the summer of 2020.

If you want a little more guidance as you mooch around the city, Wild SF offers walking tours that aren’t in any way dull or cringeworthy (as so many can be). Its street art tour of the Mission ($20) serves as an excellent introduction to this eclectic, cool district, and it also runs a Free SF tour every day in the city (though most people tip between $10-15).

Fancy catching a ball game? Admission to Oracle Park is surprisingly cheap – tickets can start at $6 (making entrance far less than a beer inside, which can run up to $20). You can also catch a few innings for free in the standing room viewing area, though you’ll be on your feet for a while.

Pitch perfect: snap up cheap tickets at Oracle Park (Nicola Brady)

Eating on a budget needn’t mean bad food. In fact, the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in America is in San Francisco. Al’s Place is a cool little place in the Mission, where enviably hip wait staff bring out hearty, inventive dishes like brine pickled fries with apple sauce and rare duck with dollops of zingy peach chutney.

Even fast food is done right. At Super Duper Burgers, the patties are all natural and freshly ground, the shakes are organic and the fries come doused with fresh garlic and aged cheddar, should you be so inclined (hot tip – you totally should). I took my burger around the corner to Yerba Buena Gardens and took in a free lunchtime concert.

Can't be beat: the Mission Parade (Nicola Brady)

Street food culture is strong in San Francisco, as is the farmers market scene. Head to the Ferry Building Plaza on a Saturday morning and you can fill an organic cotton tote bag with juicy peaches, local kale and all the fixings for a picnic.

In The Presidio national park, there’s a street food picnic every Sunday until October, with food trucks from local restaurants setting up shop and doling out dishes from all over the world to ravenous reception. My gooey, buttery grilled cheese sandwich cost $8, and a juicy mango, carved into a flower and doused in salt and cayenne pepper, was $7 (a good dollar’s worth dripped down my chin, but boy, was it worth it).

Killer filler: a grilled cheese sandwich from Presidio Picnic (Nicola Brady)

The park itself is a revelation. Just a short hop from Union Square (the free PresidiGo Downtown Shuttle gets you there in 30 minutes) lies a huge expanse of wild Californian countryside, with dreamy views of the city below. You can walk one of the short trails, past Californian poppies and, in a discovery I found oddly thrilling, poison ivy.

Another thrilling discovery? Musee Mécanique in Fisherman’s Wharf. I don’t win any cool points by admitting that I recognised it from The Princess Diaries, but even if you’re not a fan of early Anne Hathaway teen flicks, this free penny arcade is filled with antique games, where you can box with robots, get your fortune told or find out how hot you are. Only 25 cents to learn that I’m ‘mild’? Bargain.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Fly to San Francisco from Gatwick with Norwegian, from £284.80 return.

Staying there

Rates at Parc 55 and Hilton San Francisco Union Square both start at $249, room only.

Visiting there