This story was first published on 18 October 2016 It is now updated with the latest information on travelling to the United States under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL).

 

Thanks to fine dining, fantastic views and historical highlights such as Alcatraz and the highly photographed Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is a tourist's dream. Given that it’s possible to travel quarantine-free to this beautiful city from Singapore under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme with the United States, this dream can now be easier to realise!

But with skyrocketing real estate and rental prices - and the average price of a main dish being US$30 - you might think only the resident tech billionaires can afford it. Luckily, there are ways to stop your bank account from going bust. We explore some dos and don'ts in San Francisco, and look at how to save those precious dollars.

Here’s what you should do.

Do go on a hike – it’s free

A picture of a hill and a suspension bridge, covered in mist A picture of a hill and a suspension bridge, covered in mist

A hike is one of the easiest ways to see some amazing sights in San Francisco

San Francisco has some gorgeous places to help you stay fit and keep the cash flow low – after all, walking is free! Just remember that masks are mandatory outdoors, so be sure to carry additional ones in case you get dirty.

Grab your camera and prepare for panoramic views of Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco from Tank Hill. This 650-foot-high mini park offers an abundance of native plant species, endangered butterflies and rare birds such as the elusive hawk. Likewise, Kite Hill, a small park in the middle of the city, has some equally stunning views that you don't have to pay a penny for. There are some great suggestions for free walks on the Hidden SF website.

Do make every hour a happy hour

Happy hours can save you big bucks in the land of US$15 cocktails and US$30 entrées. You can get US$4 cocktails at Blackbird's happy hour. While you’re at it, play some pool and admire the work of local artists. Meanwhile, Reed and Greenough have half-price wine and other discounted drinks from Tuesday to Saturday between 5pm and 7pm, and all day on Sunday.

If a taste of the ocean is in order, Bar Crudo serves up US$1 oysters and mussels, US$6 seafood chowder and US$4 beer every day from 5pm to 6.30pm. If you’re after a greasier snack, US$5 truffle fries from The Dorian’s discounted menu are a must – it’s a popular spot in the Marina, which is also pretty good for people-watching. Patrons must still mask up when not eating or drinking.

Do get your cultural fixes for free

If uncovering cultural treasures is your thing, there are heaps in this city to explore on the cheap. Several museums, for instance, offer free entry on some days. While some museums are starting to require proof of vaccination before entry, masks must always be worn within.

The Museum of Craft and Design is (technically) free every Wednesday, when visitors are allowed to pay what they wish for admission, while the de Young Museum offers free admission on the first Tuesday of every month. The Cable Car Museum, The Japanese Tea Garden and the California Academy of Sciences are always free. If you need even more museums to visit, check out the Free Museum Day website for a great list.

For something a little different, there are free theatre performances too. Shakespeare in the Park is a recurring free theatre event that, as the name suggests, honours the Bard’s masterpieces. 

Do ride the best buses for budget travel

A picture of a tram track and an oncoming tram in San Francisco A picture of a tram track and an oncoming tram in San Francisco

The Muni transport system is a cost-efficient way to get around San Francisco

The San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency, or Muni for short, is San Francisco’s public transport provider. The 7-day Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport provides unlimited cable car rides and discounts to attractions, so it’s a good way to get a bigger bang for your buck.

On weekends and public holidays, there’s a free shuttle service operating along the length of Golden Gate Park from 9am to 6pm, with lots of stops on the way. See San Francisco highlights such as Stow Lake, where you can rent a pedal boat or row boat if the weather allows.

Now, here’s what you shouldn’t do.

Don’t dine out without a discount

Stop and read this before you splurge on a dinner night out. Farmers markets in San Francisco are known for being sources of very affordable (and very fresh) produce for purchase.

If something fancier floats your boat, lots of San Francisco’s best restaurants take part in the SF Restaurant Week and offer special discounts. The next one is from 18–29 January 2017, so try to time your trip accordingly. Alternatively, soup, pizza and sushi lunch deals can be found every day throughout the city at US$10–$15 per person, as opposed to a dinner at twice or maybe three times the price, so have lunch in the city instead of dinner.

Don't just shop on the tourist trail

A picture of Union Square in San Francisco A picture of Union Square in San Francisco

Union Square offers great and reasonably priced shopping options

Stay away from tourist traps such as Haight. This street was a hot spot in the 1960s, but now, thanks to its popularity, it’s a place where only the rich can afford to drop big bucks. Make your way to Union Square instead, where street performers make shopping even more fun. You can also snag some great discounts there. The DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse, where the locals shop, has a plethora of footwear at amazing prices. Alternatively, visit Marmalade, where most items are reasonably priced.

Don't be afraid to go your own way

Once full of fisherfolk, the quaint Sausalito is now a bustling tourist haven, full of fish ‘n’ chip shops and souvenirs. It's worth a visit, but for something more authentic and less crowded outside the city, head to Tiburon. In Marin County, it offers equally lovely photo ops, affordable boutiques and all the major high street chains. And if you want the best views in the Bay area, hop on the ferry from Tiburon to Angel Island. It costs US$15 per adult and only takes five minutes – it's worth it for the photos.

Don't pay for a guided tour

Why pay for a guided tour of the city? City Guides, a San Francisco-based non-profit, has more than 200 trained volunteers who lead free tours covering the historic and architectural sites around the city. From tours of Golden Gate Park and the secrets of Victorian San Francisco to a walk around Nob Hill, there's something for everyone. Tours adhere to the latest guidelines from the San Francisco Department of Public Health too, so that should give you peace of mind.

On the other hand, movie buffs will love the Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco tour, which puts them in the clubs, stores, hotels and other places that were part of his movies. For green-fingered flower fans, there’s the San Francisco Botanical Gardens tour, though pre-registration is required.

Don't miss out on some wine time

A picture of Napa Valley in San Francisco A picture of Napa Valley in San Francisco

Rent a bike and take in the beautiful views at Napa Valley

San Francisco is surrounded by some of the very best vineyards that the United States has to offer, and plenty of tour companies offer trips to sample award-winning wines and take in pretty views. Instead of taking a guided tour, drive in and then rent a bike to explore Napa Valley. Calistoga Bikeshop and Napa Valley Bike Tours both rent bikes for under US$50 per day. To taste wines on a budget, download the Winery Finder app and you'll soon see where all the discounts are. Do note that all Napa Valley wineries now require appointments for tastings to keep things safe.

 

Things to note while travelling in San Francisco

  • San Francisco has largely lifted restrictions for most businesses and activities, but proof of vaccination is required for entry to bars, restaurants, clubs and gyms.
  • Regardless of vaccination status, masks are compulsory in public places like stores, restaurants and large indoor events. Face coverings are required on public transportation, while riding in a taxi or a rideshare vehicle.
  • Masks requirements, however, are eased in certain indoor settings where stable groups of fully vaccinated people gather. This includes offices, gyms, and fitness centres, employee commuter vehicles, religious gatherings, and indoor college classes or other organised gatherings of individuals who meet regularly, not exceeding 100 vaccinated people.
  • In addition to local mask requirements, everyone will need to show proof of vaccination in San Francisco when visiting bars, restaurants, clubs, large indoor events, or any event or place that serves food or drinks indoors.
  • Travellers from outside the US must show verified proof of vaccination provided by their respective government authorities. You will also need to show a photo ID, so keep your passport handy at all times. San Francisco is currently only accepting verification of World Health Organization (WHO) approved vaccines for travellers visiting from other countries.

 

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Best Time to visit

September to November is a great time to visit San Francisco. It's less crowded and the autumn months are often warm. Hotel bargains can be found in winter months, but take plenty of clothes to layer up. It can get cold by the water.

Transportation

The Muni will get you around on the cheap via its network of buses, trams, streetcars and cable cars. Face coverings are required on public transportation (or while waiting for one) and while riding in a taxi or a rideshare vehicle.

Uber and Lyft operate in San Francisco and both are great ways to get around, especially outside peak hours. If you're flying into SFO, take the BART towards Pittsburg / Baypoint and then call a car to your destination. It's cheaper and faster than driving from the airport.

Currency

US dollar. Most major credit cards are accepted in many places. Keep some dollar bills on you for tipping – it's customary to tip US$1 per drink at a bar, and your bellboy will appreciate a couple too.

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