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How to Plan an Affordable San Francisco Vacation

Budget travelers can have a fantastic time in the City by the Bay

vintage cable car in San Francisco

Alamy Stock Photo

En español | In San Francisco, my hometown, nothing soars with as much heart-stopping drama as the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Nothing, that is, except the stratospheric cost of living.

But high prices shouldn’t deter you from diving into one of America’s most dynamic and exciting cities, so long as you adopt an out-of-the-box approach to budget travel. Become a local.

Skip hotels, especially in tourist zones such as Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, and instead bunk in the neighborhoods where most of us live, dine and shop. Through online platforms such as Airbnb, you can rent directly from homeowners in West Portal, Inner Sunset or other residential districts within striking distance of major sights. Cozy bed-bath suites with a private entrance (and coffee maker, mini fridge and microwave for making breakfasts and picnic lunches) start at around $125 per night, including taxes and fees, with full studios slightly more.

Don’t rent a car and instead get a seven-day unlimited pass for the municipal buses, streetcars and iconic cable cars. Though your tight budget won't generally allow for taxis or online ride services, if you absolutely need a lift, do as many San Franciscans and share an Uber or Lyft with other riders for steep discounts.

Set out on Day 1 with your San Francisco C3 mobile phone pass, which offers discounted admissions for three attractions of your choice. For a bold welcome to the city, use it for a bike rental, a bay cruise, or a visit to the Exploratorium hands-on science center.

On other days use the same pass for the California Academy of Sciences and its walk-through rain forest, or top art museums such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the de Young and the Legion of Honor (the latter two count as one if visited on the same day).

San Francisco is blessed with terrific cheap eats.

The Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, San Francisco, CA.

Tai Power Seeff

On Day 3, you might visit historic Mission Dolores in the Mission District, then find prodigious burritos at La Taqueria. Later in the week, shop for inexpensive souvenirs in Chinatown and lunch on fantastic steamed shrimp dumplings at tiny Dol Ho. Or hit Japanese ramen spots that dot the entire city, along with hundreds of other economical Asian eateries — from Thai and Korean to Burmese, Vietnamese (love the pho at Turtle Tower) and Indian (ditto the crepe-like Indian dosas at Dosa). Pizza is practically a civic obsession; my go-to is PizzaHacker.

Happily, much of what makes San Francisco so memorable is free: Make plans for a picnic in Golden Gate Park; world-class exhibitions at Pier 24 Photography (advance online reservations are required); barking sea lions at Pier 39; the gorgeous panorama along Crissy Field’s bayside trail. Then, of course, there’s the Golden Gate Bridge. One view of the afternoon fog wafting past its towers and you’ll leave your heart in San Francisco, not your wallet.

Splurge: Escape to Alcatraz

The “Behind the Scenes” tour ($181 for two people; $169 if you’re both 62 or older) includes a guided look at tunnels and other features not generally open to the public, a compelling audio tour of the cell house narrated in part by ex-cons and guards, and the ferry to and — fortunately — from the island prison.

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