This San Francisco Travel Guide shares everything you need to know before visiting the city, including where to stay, what to do and how to save.
You can find a little bit of everything in sunny but foggy San Francisco. Internationally renowned – check out San Fran for shopping, arts, culture and fun. Perhaps the most inclusive city in the States, you will come across a whole host of personalities when wandering the city by the bay.
There is so much to see and do in San Francisco. Spend some time checking out the famous landmarks of San Fran or visit the infamous Alcatraz. Shop in the different neighbourhoods across the city and chow down on some Clam Chowder on Pier 49.
Budget: Dorms can be found from $27 – $50 a night, whilst private double rooms in a decent location starts around $80.
Midrange: $70 – $120 for a private room in a good location, with chain hotels and motels.
Luxury: $150 + for spacious and well decorated rooms in great locations with chain hotels.
Transport: Renting a car will cost between $50 – $70 a day or $170 – $300 a week, plus tax and an extra charge if under 25. Standard fares for buses are $2.25 with tickets that can be purchases onboard.
Cable car tickets cost $6 and can be purchased from the conductor or at the car turnaround kiosks.
We took full advantage of the CitySightseeing Hop on – Hop Off buses, with 2 day ticket costing $54, whisking you to all major sights of SF. Taxi fares start at £3.50 and $2.75 for every mile.
Average cost of food:
Many hotels offer some type of breakfast which is always helpful, if not, a bagel or breakfast burrito from cafes or fast food chains cost around $4 – $9 per person.
Lunches range between $10 – $20 per head at a sit down cafe or lunch time menu in downtown San Fran.
Dinners will set you back around $40 – $80 for two, depending on area of restaurant.
Check out chinatown for some delicious but cheap eats.
Beers, cocktails and wines are rather pricey, costing upwards of $5, though cheaper options can be found in convenient stores.
Best time to visit San Francisco
Aim for the spring or fall months, with May, June, September and October offering clear skies and pleasant weather.
Summer is wonderful and warm but it is tourist season too, so it can get very busy and prices of hotels rise. However, the warmest month is actually September, so visit in this month if you love the warmth.
Winter in San Francisco is the cheapest time to visit, with December and January being cool and wet. However, room rates are up to 15% less.
Where to stay in San Francisco
HI San Francisco Downtown Hostel is located near some of the best spots of SF, near Union Square where many tour companies and buses begin. Dorm beds start at $46 whilst double private rooms start around $120.
For those wishing to be nearer the sea, check out HI’s Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel with dorm beds starting at $39.
Chain hotel, Red Coach Motor Lodge is a popular choice for budget tourists, with rooms start at $99, this place can be found in the Civic Centre area just a ten minute drive from Golden Gate Bridge and the Fisherman Wharf area.
Union Square Plaza Hotel can be found near Union Square, surrounded by some great pubs and restaurants. Rooms start at $109 for this great location.
My recommendation for couples and families is the Super 8 Union Square. Located near the famous Union Square and a few blocks from the Powell Street cable car stop, the Super 8 offers clean and spacious rooms in an ideal location. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful with rooms starting at $178.
For those looking for a hotel nearer the sea, check out Travelodge by the sea. Rooms start at $204, just a few minutes walk from the cable car stop, taking you to popular attraction Lombard street.
Save money in San Francisco
America is not the best place to start if you are travelling on a budget but there are many ways you save money travelling the USA.
- Chain hotels – The USA has many budget chain hotels. These are basic and make sure to check reviews on Yelp and Tripadvisor first, but you can save some serious money staying in places like Econolodge, Travelodge, Days in and Super 8.
- Hotels with kitchenettes – When booking a hotel or motel, check if there is a kitchenette. If there is a room or hotel with a kitchenette, then opt for that choice, especially if you are staying somewhere for an extended period of time. This means you can save loads of money cooking food yourself rather than eating out.
- Farmer markets – Heading to farmer markets or ethnic grocery stores can save you money on snacks and food.
- Early Bird – When eating out, either aim to have a big lunch or head to a restaurant before 5. Many places offer an early bird option, where you can save money when eating between 2 – 5pm.
- Coupons – Pick up the local newspaper to find coupons for attractions and restaurants each week. If you plan on visiting a chain restaurant or cafe (such as Starbucks), check for vouchers or gift certificates on Ebay.
- Reward cards – If you travel a lot, why not get a rewards credit card for your favourite hotel chain. Hilton and Marriott have great sign up offer, so you can collect points each time you spend money on the card and then redeem free stays and upgrades worldwide.
- Compare rentals – If you intend on road tripping, make sure you compare prices for a rental car on websites such as rentalcars.com or hotwire.com.
- Turo – Another option if you are looking to rent a car is by using getaround.com or turo.com. This is a similar concept to airbnb but for cars; you can rent a car from owners and this can work out cheaper than renting from a rental company.
- Avoid checked luggage – If you are flying in or out and visiting for a short period, avoid having checked luggage. You can book budget flights to save money but these don’t always include checked luggage.
- Hotel Tonight – This app can be used in the big cities such as New York, LA, Chicago, Miami and Vegas. It offers last minute rooms, particularly great if you are thinking of a weekend away.
- Download a Wifi Map – This map is fantastic at finding available Wifi Spots in your area. These aren’t just Free Wifi Spots too, they have a database of passwords to make your connection reliable and safe.
- Avoid Public Holidays – Hotel and travel prices rise around the 4th July and Labor Day, so avoiding travelling at this time. If you do want to travel at this time, book everything in advance.
- Avoid hostels – Hostels are a great way to save money accommodation everywhere else in the world but not in the US. There aren’t many hostels and most are overpriced. If you are travelling by yourself, you are better off using a budget hotel or look for a bedroom on airbnb.
- Free attractions – Take advantage of the free attractions in San Francisco, such as Lombard street, Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Bridge.
- Book in advance – There are some fantastic places to explore in San Fran but not all are free. If you are booking Alcatraz tickets or attraction passes, book them online in advance to save money but also avoid being disappointed – tickets for Alcatraz can sell out.
- City Pass – If you plan on visiting many attractions get yourself the CityPass to save money. Keep an eye on their deals too – they have big discounts on their passes throughout the year.
Best things to do in San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge
Lombard Zig Zag Street
San Francisco’s Cable Cars
San Francisco Giants
Golden Gate Park
The Presidio of San Francisco
The Ferry Building
Muir Woods National Monument
The Japanese Tea Garden
How to get to San Francisco
Fly – Many tourists arrive at San Francisco International Airport, where you can jump on the BART people mover to downtown SF for $8.65. Taxis will cost between $40 – $55. Some may arrive at Oakland International Airport, where you can jump on the BART people-mover from terminal 1 to Coliseum Station, where you can change over to trains to downtown SF or grab a taxi costing $60 – $95 to San Fran. Alternatively, you can catch a train or bus from San Francisco Airport to Silicon Valley, if you are planning to spend some of your vacation in this neighbourhood.
Bus – A new bus terminal will be complete 2017, connecting San Fran to the world, until then it is best to catch a Greyhound bus or the like.
Train – Amtrak trains from across the west coast serves Emeryville Amtrak station just outside of Oakland, where you can then catch a free shuttle to San Francisco Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf.
How to get around San Francisco
Cycling is a popular option for tourists on a budget, with bike racks on Muni buses and many wanting to cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge, though the steep hills can be a struggle.
Ferries are a popular choice for those wanted to check out Alcatraz and Golden Gate from the waters; Alcatraz cruises offer ferries to and from the prison every half hour but book a time slot online in advanced as these book up quick. Blue and gold fleet ferries is a great choice to take in a different perspective of San Fran.
Some may wish to rent a car whilst in San Francisco but be aware that parking is difficult and expensive; especially in downtown SF; plus you should check with your hotel if they have parking availability.
If you are a UK citizen, remember to bring both parts of your driving license and check the rental companies policy on international rentals. Buses and cable cars can get you around the city, although rather slow in rush hour.
We found the city sightseeing bus a great option to get across SF, with routes serving Golden Gate Bridge, downtown SF and across the piers.
Taxis are a good choice to catch the early morning Alcatraz cruise or after a late night out, fares start at £3.50 and $2.75 for every mile.