How to plan your time in San Francisco to make the most of your trip
Travel San Francisco
Home to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, a booming, culturally diverse metropolis, vibrant food, arts, entertainment and night life scenes, a waterfront that attracts fishermen and tourists from afar and so much more, San Francisco is full of wonders. It’s also got a reputation as one of the most expensive U.S. tourist destinations you can visit. Luckily, we’ve done our homework, and are ready to help you save on accommodations, places to eat, attractions, and more.
Geography, population and more
San Francisco, California is located on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. One of United States’ most cosmopolitan cities, it’s under 50 square miles and has a population of just over 800,000 (making it the fourth largest city by population in California).
Currency and budget
Exchanging your Canadian currency for American dollars before your trip is the cheapest way to do it, since you can shop around for the best currency exchange rates, says Nerd Wallet, which breaks down where you can exchange without paying huge fees. If you wait to do it at an airport kiosk or somewhere else, fees, delivery charges and poor exchange rates could eat into your budget.
The Broke Backpacker ballparks a budget of between $70 and $85 USD ($93 to $113 CDN) per day, though they say you can get by on as low as $25 to $30 USD ($33 to $40 CDN). Budget Your Trip, which publishes average travel costs for thousands of cities around the world provided by other travelers, is in line with that range, pegging average daily cost per person per day at $68 US ($91 CDN) if traveling on a budget. According to the website, a couple could spend a week in the City by the Bay for just over $950 US ($1,274 CDN). There’s also a breakdown for accommodation, food, entertainment and other expenses.
It’s also worth it to skim The Baller on a Budget’s three-day guide to San Francisco on a budget. It’s packed with tons of great ideas for cheap places to eat, popular places to go, and more.
Save money with attraction passes
The San Francisco CityPASS (which you can buy online or at the box office of any attraction on the ticket) gets you:
- a seven-day Muni Pass good for unlimited rides on the cable car, historic trolley and other public transport
- a San Francisco Bay cruise
- entrance to either the Exploratorium science museum OR de Young Museum of Art + Legion of Honor
- entrance to California Academy of Sciences
- entrance to Aquarium of the Bay
You can also pick up the Go San Francisco Card, which can get you into 28 attractions such as:
- Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Bus Tour
- Madame Tussauds
- The San Francisco Dungeon
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
- San Francisco Zoo & Gardens
- and more
If you’re visiting San Francisco for the first time, picking either of these passes can help you save money on popular tourist attractions and make planning your itinerary a bit easier.
When to go
If you’re hoping for clear, mild weather and fewer crowds, hotel expert Santorini Dave advises making the trip in the spring or fall – May, June, September or October. Avoid the winter, which is bound to be chilly and damp, and the summer, when you’ll see prices climb and more tourists flood the attractions. Dave has a good rundown for when to go depending on whether you want to sightsee, shop, stroll the Golden Gate Bridge, visit Pier 39 and more.
Where to stay
Though inflated prices might make you think twice at first, there are also cheaper accommodations. Affordably priced hostels, couch surfing hosts and (if you’re feeling extra adventurous) semi-urban campgrounds await. The Broke Backpacker says you’ll find most hostels are high-quality and reasonably priced, around $20 to $25 USD ($27 to $33 CDN). USA Hostels San Francisco is consistently voted as the best hostel in the city on hostelworld.com, with a well-designed and maintained property, free daily breakfasts and free dinners on Monday and Friday, plus a yoga room.
Lonely Planet also has a list of quirky motels, great hostels and cute guesthouses, from Hi San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf hostel on the waterfront for $32 USD ($43 CDN) per night to the San Remo Hotel in North Beach for $88 USD ($117 CDN) per night, you’ve got options. Be weary of traditional hotels, though – at the time of this writing (early April 2019), a booking.com search for three-star hotels available the week of May 6, 2019 revealed prices anywhere from $200 to $400 USD per night per couple with no children for one room (switch the currency converter at the top right of the screen to reveal Canadian rates).
Also, Airbnb was founded here. If you’re looking for an authentic San Fran experience, this is the way to go.
You can also check out Rough Guides’ article Where to stay in San Francisco: an area by area guide.
Passport and safety issues
When entering the U.S., you’ll need to provide proof of your Canadian citizenship and your right to return to Canada (The Government of Canada says a Canadian passport that’s valid until the date of your intended departure from the United States is best, although you can also use several other documents). In most cases, you won’t require a visa. See travel.gc.ca for more about entry and exit requirements.
When traveling to the U.S., all the traditional safety precautions you would in any other country, like keeping close track of personal surroundings and watching out for petty theft, pickpocketing and credit and debit card fraud.
The probability that you’ll be a victim of a violent crime such as a mass shooting is low. If you are threatened by robbers, stay calm and do not resist, and lock windows and doors securely whether you’re staying in private or commercial accommodations.
Flights and transportation
Flying into San Francisco, you’re likely to land in one of three major airports:
1) San Francisco International Airport (SFO) – San Mateo County
2) Oakland International Airport (OAK) – Oakland
3) Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) – San Jose
CNN Travel has a great rundown of each airport and what to consider before you decide which one to fly into.
As for flights, Adventures with Luda recommends adding San Jose Airport and Oakland International to your list when reviewing airports to save some cash. You can also try flying mid-week and shopping around for best deals – take a look at Google Flights, then head to Skyscanner or Momondo to book.
TripSavvy advises against renting a car if you’re seeing the sights in the city due to high rental costs and most attractions being so close to one another, since the city is only 49 square miles.
A Muni Passport costs about $10 and is good for unlimited travel on the cable cars, historic streetcars and buses. While it’s included on some of the discount attraction admission cards, you can also purchase them separately at specific locations, although travel blogger Whimsy Soul says it’s hit or miss, adding it’s easy to head West to East across the city, but difficult to go North to South. Instead, she recommends taking Uber Pool (Uber’s carpool option) or Lyft Line to most places, since the fares are cheap. San Francisco is also a walkable city.
Another option is to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which connects the San Francisco Peninsula with Berkeley, Oakland, Fremont, Walnut Creek, Dublin/Pleasanton and other cities in the East Bay. Kids 4 and under ride free, but everyone else must have a valid BART ticket or Clipper Card. Because fares are determined by distance traveled, time-based passes (weekly or monthly) are not available. Plan your trip and travel costs on BART using their fare calculator.
Where to eat
You won’t leave San Francisco hungry, even if you’re here on a budget. The city has an eclectic mix of options for everyone from fresh fish eaters to Chinese food lovers, food truck aficionados and farmer’s market browsers.
Visiting the waterfront? Free Tours by Foot recommends lunch at The Codmother. Though your journey will take you a few blocks away from the tourist trap restaurants, they say it will be worth it, as amazing fish and chips await. They come right off the boats at Fisherman’s Wharf! Free Tours also suggests getting the junior size, since the regular size is huge.
If you’re hankering for street food, Whimsy Soul suggests heading to food truck park SOMA Eats or to Off The Grid, food truck pop-ups with live music (bring cash). There’s a hot debate among locals about who has the best pizza – Tony’s Pizza or Pizzetta 211. She also has favourite places to grab brunch, drinks, coffee and more.
Of course, San Francisco has plenty of lounges and dance clubs with more than a few alcoholic drinks to choose from if you’re looking for a fun night out. Cider enthusiasts will enjoy Upcider, where you can get a flight of ciders and taste test different variations. Ordinary Traveler gives a thumbs up to the food here too. Over at Infusion Lounge, you’ll have fun dancing the night away and sipping moderately priced drinks. You can sign up for their guest list online and get $10 off your cover charge. Even better, at Temple Nightclub, you can do the same and get free admission.
Looking to shave some expenses? Cook at home. Getting up early one Saturday morning to visit the iconic Ferry Building that houses one of the city’s best farmer’s markets (a hallmark of the city’s organic food scene) will be worth it, raves travel blog The Planet D.
Tip: Chinese food is very good in San Francisco and tends to be less expensive than other choices. – TripSavvy
You also might have heard about Chinatown – one of the city’s most iconic neighbourhoods. Venture here and you’re in for a treat. You’ll find everything from My Canh’s late night Vietnamese to the best egg tarts in town at Golden Gate Bakery, classic and spicy Sichuan at Z & Y Restaurant (which has welcomed President Barack Obama, living Chinese legend Cecilia Chiang and others), and even delicious blue collar fare at New Lun Ting Cafe. Eater San Francisco has a great guide for where to eat and drink in Chinatown featuring these places and several more.
What to do
See Pier 39 and the amazing waterfront
Every great major city has a waterfront with stunning views, and San Francisco is no different. Although it’s one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions, there’s also lots to see and do there, including sea lions, Bay cruises, jugglers and magic shows, several shops and places to eat, rides, and gorgeous waterfront views. Fog City Secrets has a detailed rundown of Pier 39 from a local’s point of view.
Appreciate street art
You’ll see signs of San Francisco’s thriving arts scene everywhere – no need to set foot inside a gallery. In fact, some of the most vibrant murals are just waiting to be discovered at Clarion Alley in the Mission and inside the Coit Tower. Though these are a couple of the most popular sites for street art, you can find murals across the city, says The Culture Trip.
Visit Union Square
Whether you’re looking for theatre, shopping, galleries or hotels, it’s all in San Francisco’s Union Square. This is true old San Francisco, with all the cable car photos, speakeasies like Bourbon & Branch, historic buildings and vibrant nightlife you could want. And if you’re a clotheshorse, Union Square is a rite of passage, notes Viva Lifestyle and Travel in its no-nonsense guide. Just keep in mind: homelessness is also prevalent here, so always beware of your surroundings as street characters mill about (usually minding their business).
See Golden Gate Bridge and park
Did you know you can walk or bike across one of San Francisco’s most recognized landmarks? Golden Gate Bridge – opened in 1937 and an enduring engineering marvel – is stunning at any time of day, but if you make a day of it, you can also take time to explore Golden Gate Park, a magical place with something for everyone, from the Conservatory of Flowers to the California Academy of Sciences, a carousel, aquarium, Japanese Tea Garden, and more.
Alcatraz is on most everyone’s list of must-see places in San Francisco and for good reason. Although the former federal prison on Alcatraz Island was closed in the 1970s, it still holds allure as a national landmark. As Nomadic Matt notes, it was home to some of the worst criminals in the United States! Book your spot on the ferry early if you’re visiting in summer, since it fills up fast.
Looking for even more ideas? See TripSavvy’s 18 free things to do in San Francisco.
Don’t forget to tell us about your experience! Have you ever traveled to San Francisco, or are you planning to book a trip? What are your best tips when it comes to saving for vacations? We’d love to hear what you’ve planned, or any tips we’ve missed. Share your story in the comments and tell us what destinations are on your wish list. Our team love saving for holidays and we hope to inspire our members with exciting suggestions to spend your Caddle money.