Visiting Alcatraz, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and riding the cable cars. That's what D and I had on our list of things to do on our recent trip to San Francisco.
They might be the city's biggest claims to fame but we quickly realised that San Fran offers so much more for loved-up travellers.
Heavily multicultural and artistic, gastronomic delights from around the world pepper the districts while murals displaying San Francisco's history colour the sprawling cityscape. Then, there's the yawning green spaces and elaborate museums.
With so much to see and do, we've summed up what you need to know to ace that romantic getaway to The City by the Bay.
TL;DR: Our San Francisco guide
Weather: Four seasons with temperatures from 14℃ (winter) to 22℃ (summer)
Accommodation: Average of US$300 per night. Stay near Fisherman's Wharf to sightsee or Union Square and Nob Hill to discover more.
Things to do: Picnic at Crissy Hill, ride the cable cars, see the sea lions of Pier 39, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, visit museums, tour Alcatraz and eat in Mission.
Best restaurants and bars: Tartine Bakery, Craftsman and Wolves, Farmers Market, Boudin Bakery Cafe, Tacolicious, House of Prime Rib, RT Rotisserie, Bi-Rite Creamery, The Interval at Long Now and Seven Stills Distillery.
Transport: Muni and BART trains, buses, trams and cable cars.
We're Stef and D, a pair of married jetsetters. We've visited over 50 countries in total, and are determined to see even more. And all while working full time and paying off a mortgage. We count our dollars at home and away and are here to share our tips on how you can travel on a budget.
California is a coastal city but it's not hot all year-round. Sure, it experiences all four seasons, but the city's bay positioning means that temperatures are consistently mild, running maximums of 14℃ during winter and 22℃ in summer. Even then the weather often takes chilly turns. Day by day, hour by hour.
We visited during August and witnessed warm mornings transform into cold afternoons and then back into warm nights. The fog too was unpredictable, rolling in at odd hours of the day. It's an eyesore for photos but doesn't really affect the temperature.
The moral of the story? No matter when you visit, treat San Francisco as you would Melbourne and bring a jacket along for the ride. You'll appreciate it when the cold snap hits.
Winters are pleasant enough to sightsee in and are generally cheaper for flights and accommodation. Just avoid the Christmas break to stay on budget.
San Francisco accommodation
From glamorous 5-star hotels that overlook the waterfront to budget-friendly hostels, you won't fall short on options in San Francisco. What will sway your decision is cost and location.
Rooms for two in San Francisco average around US$300 a night. During peak season this can rise to US$400 and during off-peak can fall to US$200 a night. Surprise, surprise, we decided to travel during peak. To give you an idea of what to expect, here are some hotels we considered:
On the lower end of our "maybe" list was the 2-star The Urban. It's not the most ideal for romantic endeavours as its king rooms have shared bathrooms, but the price-tag was a nice US$200 per night.
A pricier but more appealing option was the 4-star Axiom Hotel. It's around US$480 a night, boasts generously sized rooms with ensuites and is conveniently located on top of the train line and cable car station.
For an even more upscale hotel, we toyed with the idea of the 4-star Argonaut Hotel. Its prime positioning on the waterfront at Fisherman's Wharf will set you back US$700 a night making it one to keep in the backpocket for a special occasion.
Best area to stay in San Francisco
If, like us, this is your first time in San Francisco you'll want to stay in or north of downtown as this is where most of the action happens.
For short stays we recommend Fisherman's Wharf as its close to the Golden Gate Bridge, Crissy Field, Pier 39, Alcatraz, Lombard Street and the cable car turnaround.
For longer stays, aim for Union Square, the Financial District, Nob Hill and North Beach. You'll be within a stone's throw of Fisherman's Wharf as well as areas like the hippy Haight-Ashbury district, the foodie Mission district or the green Golden Gate Park. We wound up staying at Axiom Hotel in downtown and found it a short transit distance to everything we wanted to see.
Homeshare platforms like Airbnb are available in San Francisco and throughout the USA. Prices are competitive against hotels and if you're lucky you could score a stay in a historic home.
Romantic things to do in San Francisco
From romantic walks along Crissy Field to artistic discussions in SFMOMA, there's something for every couple in SF. Because of this, we've broken our favourites down by style.
For everyone: Catch the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field
This former US Army Airfield was revitalised by the National Parks Service in 2001 and is now a recreational area of parks, museums and dog-friendly beachfront.
It also has some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Pack a picnic and sit on the beachfront as the sun goes down for unforgettable views of the bay and bridge.
For the cheap romantics: Ride the historic cable car to Fisherman's Wharf
One cable car ride sets you back US$7 a pop, but if you have an unlimited Muni it's included in your pass (more on that later).
There are three lines (two running north to south, one running east to west), so decide on which one to go on depending on where you're headed. North to south takes you to Fisherman's Wharf where you can visit the historic Pier 39 and say hello to its resident sea lions.
Queues run long at the two major turnarounds. There's one in downtown on Powell/Market and the other is near Fisherman's Wharf on Powell/Mason. To skip them, hop on at a stop along the way. The staff let a handful of people on at each stop. If you can, take a standing position to feel the wind in your hair and catch the view of the hills and tracks in front of you.
For the active: Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
Another great way to see the bridge is to bike it. The path starts at Fisherman's Wharf and hugs the coast past Crissy Field and across the bridge into the Mediterranean-like town of Sausalito where you can grab an ice cream and sit on the water's edge. From there you can bike back or catch the ferry.
As rides go, the way is straightforward and flat with only a few hilly bursts. It takes 45 minutes each way, though if you're like us and love to take your time, give yourself double that. We were hoping to catch the last ferry back and would have made it if we hadn't stopped so much.
There are plenty of bike hire companies on both sides of the bridge. We were hosted by Blazing Saddles which is at Fisherman's Wharf on Hyde Street. At US$9 an hour or US$31 a day prices are reasonable. Hire it out for a day to avoid any stress of having to return it on time.
For a romantic treat hire a tandem bike and ride the bridge together.
For the curious: Spend a day in a museum
SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Museum of Ice Cream, California Academy of Sciences, Walt Disney Museum, Museum of 3D Illusions, Aquarium of the Bay… the list of museums goes on. All you have to do is shortlist them.
As one of the largest art museums in the country, SFMOMA made it onto ours. It features an impressive 16,000m2 of exhibition space across 7 floors, including an outdoor sculpture garden, 2 football-field-sized galleries and a floor dedicated to photography. We loved the variety of artworks which ranged from Andy Warhol pop-art to art in space. We also enjoyed the sense of openness and light across the museum. Tickets are US$25.
The other museum we said yes to was the Walt Disney Museum. We're kids at heart so we loved stepping back in time and reliving the Disney classics while learning about the genius behind them.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a tour of Alcatraz. You can only get there by ferry from Pier 33 and pre-booking is a must as spots sell out weeks in advance. Tickets are timed for entry but not departure so scoring seats on the first ship means it's less crowded and you have more time to explore.
Audio tours are included with your ticket and walk you through each segment while regaling you with inmate tales. We were particularly impressed by how well coordinated this was.
While on the island make sure you take a couple pic with the bay and bridge in your background. Alcatraz has one of the most panoramic views of San Francisco which is a blessing for us but torture for prisoners as it was a steady reminder of just how close freedom was. Tickets start from US$39.90.
For the foodie: Go on the tour of Mission
If there's one place you should dedicate your foodigrams and stomach space to, Mission is it.
This district is hipster central and the cuisine is second to none. Venues are bred on passion and a desire to offer something unique and trailblazing. If you're unsure where to start, a food tour is the perfect way to introduce you to those hidden gems.
We were hosted by Avital Tours which offers tours on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It takes you on a 4-course progressive meal of 2 appetisers, 1 entree (main) and 1 dessert, for US$99 per person. You can pair your meals with a drink for an extra US$26, which we highly recommend.
What we loved about Avital is that the guides choose the venues they take you to. So it's not a matter of partnership but a genuine recommendation from a local foodie.
Mission is also renowned for its murals and street art so keep your eyes out for the stunning displays, particularly on Clarion Alley.
The activities mentioned above are ticketed, aside from Crissy Field. To keep costs down you can walk the Golden Gate Bridge, spend a day at a free museum like the Musee Mecanique (so much fun, bring quarters to play the machines), catch the view of Alcatraz from Pier 39 and eat at your own pace in Mission.
Best restaurants San Francisco
Fun fact: San Francisco has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. 75 at last count. That's something to brag about, but it also speaks volumes about the calibre of gastronomy within the city.
While we didn't dine at any Michelin restaurants we did eat our way around the city. So, what was on our "hot" list?
The glass counter at Craftsman and Wolves. Image: Finder
For breakfast go to Mission and follow your nose to Tartine Bakery. You'll smell that buttery bread from miles away as it begs to melt in your mouth. The line runs long but moves quickly and everything is good, including the croissant and the morning bun. Alternatively hit up Craftsman and Wolves (pictured). Its desserts are shiny and reminiscent of Sydney's Koi, though for brekky order the signature dish The Rebel Within. It's made of asiago, sausage, green onion and a soft-cooked egg.
On Saturday and Tuesday mornings head straight to the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building to tuck into the best of local fare with a view to boot.
Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl at Boudin. Image: Finder
For lunch order the chowder at Boudin Bakery Cafe. The bakery is an institution and boasts the creamiest chowder and the chewiest bread. In Mission, try the Tacos at Tacolicious. They're flavoursome and will leave you drooling for more.
For dinner, make it a date at House of Prime Rib. It serves up the highest quality well-marbled prime rib in a classic English dining room setting. Bookings are recommended, however walk-ins are welcome. You can sit in the lounge with a drink while you wait. A more casual eat is RT Rotisserie which serves up American-style roast chicken with a friendly smile.
Finally for dessert on a hot summer's day, join the line at Bi-Rite Creamery. The ice cream is organic and there is a wide variety of vegan flavours. Nothing is too out there in terms of flavours. It's just creamy ice cream goodness.
Best bars in San Francisco
One of the most romantic bars we found in town was The Interval at Long Now. It has an old-worldly feel to it with a giant globe at the entrance, a library office up the stairs and specially crafted furniture to the theme of long-term projects. The drinks are quirky and unique though not as aesthetically pleasing as the surrounds, but the general atmosphere is perfect for a date.
The Long Now, San Francisco. Image: Finder
Seven Stills Distillery. Image: Finder
Whiskey lovers seeking something different should swing by Seven Stills. A play on the word seven hills, which San Francisco is famous for, its schtick is small batch one-time-only whiskeys made from craft beer. They're exclusive to Seven Stills' bars and generally boast a cheap and cheery flavour profile. A traditional scotch is available for puritsts, but ultimately these were made to be easy drinkers.
When we visited there were 13 whiskeys on offer and D and I each found our favourites. To find yours order the flight. You'll choose 5 to sample for US$20.
Getting around San Francisco
Between the Muni trains, BART trains, cable cars, trams and buses travelling around San Francisco is a breeze.
Visitors can purchase a 1-, 3- or 7-day unlimited pass for US$12, US$29 or US$39 respectively which will get you on all Muni transport. Basically, that's everything except BART trains which you probably will only use to get to and from the airport.
This pass also gets you on the famous cable car which otherwise costs US$7 a ride.
A single ride on Muni transport is US$3 or US$2.50 using the app. If it works out single rides are better for you go ahead and download the app. It's easy to use and accepts Australian credit cards.
How much did we spend?
Flights. $910.68 + 126,000 Qantas Frequent Flyer Points (flights from Sydney to San Francisco, return).
Accommodation. $0 (We were guests of Axiom Hotel and San Francisco Travel. Otherwise, it's US$1,933 for a king booked in advance).
Meals and drinks. US$519.43.
Activities and experiences. US$90.90.
Other. US$58.02 (souvenirs and SD card).
Annual leave days taken. 3 (21 in total for our full USA trip).
Total for 5 days, 4 nights: $2,121.28 (or $4,979.51 with accommodation).
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Stephanie Yip is the travel editor at Finder and has been writing about travel and lifestyle for over a decade. She has written for Travel Weekly, Escape, Thomas Cook Magazine, Showpo, The Nibbler and Hostelworld. She was also the editor of kids magazine DMAG. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Communications from the University of Technology Sydney and has visited over 50 countries (and counting). She has a passion for sharing her experiences and knowledge of travel and helping readers stretch their dollars while on holiday.
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