San Francisco is one of the world’s most popular cities, a free-wheeling, edge of the continent place that embraces diversity and has one of the most wondrous natural settings on the planet. It's also the latest destination for Porter Airlines, which begins direct flights on Embraer jets between YYZ and SFO on 25JAN. Like many big cities, San Francisco can get a little expensive if you're not careful. With that in mind, here are five things to do in the City by the Bay for less than $50 USD, compiled by a frequent visitor who was born and raised in the Bay Area.
A CABLE CAR RIDE
Is there any city in the world where one single mode of transportation plays such a defining role as the cable car does in San Francisco? Not only are these US national landmarks a necessity given the intense urbanization of the city and the steep hills, they’re also charming as can be. Even folks like me who grew up in the Bay Area can’t resist a spot on the outside of the car with their arm holding on tight and their body half-dangling out over the street (but watch for oncoming cars or other cable cars). Each cable car brakeman (the cars move by grabbing onto a cable buried under the street that’s constantly moving) has his or her own bell-ringing pattern, which adds to the fun. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde cable cars take you between Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Square and the Market Street/Union Square area and are the ones I’d recommend. The California Street cable car seems to have less of a crowding problem. Tickets cost $8 USD. Rides are free for three days on all SF Municipal Railway vehicles, including buses and the city’s historic streetcars, if you’ve purchased a San Francisco CityPASS booklet.
A tour of Alcatraz island is one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco. It’s a chilling experience to listen to an audio tape as guards and former prisoners talk about their days – and long nights – on The Rock. It’s only a couple miles off the shore of San Francisco, and former inmates can be heard talking about how they could hear the parties on New Year’s Eve. “Every day you would see what you were longing for; what you were missing,” one ex-con can be heard to say. Yet another ex-con talks about learning to crochet to pass the time. The prison is fascinating, but you also can do nature walks on the island (when it’s not bird-nesting season) and admire beautiful flowers in the gardens and the island’s old buildings and steep cliffs. Of course, the views of the city and the Golden Gate are amazing. Tickets start around $41 USD.
A HIPPIE TOUR OF HAIGHT-ASHBURY
A woman named Sunshine “Sunny” Powers runs a wonderful tour of the Haight-Ashbury district near Golden Gate Park, famous as the centre of the “Peace and Love” movement in the late 1960’s. She’ll point out homes previously owned by the likes of Janis Joplin and places where folks like Jimi Hendrix or George Harrison used to hang out when they visited. The area was a source of cheap, rundown housing in the 1960s but is now quite gentrified, with beautiful paint jobs and lots of decorative, Victorian bits. There are great shops in the area selling everything from hippie books to cool clothing. Alembic is a marvellous restaurant, while Haight Street Sandwich is great for a quick lunch. Sunny runs a fun shop called Love on Haight, with tons of tie-dyed gear and other sixties-influenced material. Tours are $25 USD for folks 10 and older.
SF MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
You’d expect a liberal city like San Francisco to have a cool, eclectic museum of modern art. And it does. SF Moma is a gorgeous, well-lit building on several levels with a wide variety of cool and vibrant art works. You’ll find everything from Andy Warhol to Roy Liechtenstein, as well as newer, thought-provoking bits with a political take. When I was there in late November there was a cool display from North Bay, Ontario artist Duane Linklater, including painted linen tepees in soft shades of purple and ochre. Chronicles of SF is a fantastic (and free) viewing panel on the lower floor off Howard Street; a large, L-shaped black and white photo of San Francisco people. It looks like a still photo, but folks in various parts of the display move at regular intervals. It might be a young man doing push-ups or a group of school girls jumping with glee. It’s utterly fascinating, and it’s a great way to show the diversity and, quite frankly, a little of the weirdness of this magical city. The museum is in the heart of the convention centre district just below Market Street, and it’s only a short walk from the Bay Area Rapid Transit Station (BART). Entry is $30 for adults, with discounts for seniors and young adults. Those 18 and under are free. The museum is free if you’ve purchased a CityPASS booklet, which you can do in a number of cities around the world. They’re a great way to save money.
One of the great things about San Francisco are the magical views of bays, beaches, bridges and neighbourhoods, which don’t cost a penny. Views of the Golden Gate Bridge are excellent from Baker Beach, which is a great place for a walk on a sunny day. You’ll also get great views of the towering cliffs and hills in Marin County, which are quite wild and rugged. I also like the view of the bridge from Fort Point, a Civil War-era brick fort that is jammed underneath the south end of the world’s most famous bridge. The Batteries to Bluffs walk takes you along beautiful cliffs, with awesome views of the coast and the Pacific Ocean. Tourists tend to go to Twin Peaks for views of the San Francisco Skyline, but I like Corona Heights Park. It’s an old quarry with odd-shaped , exposed rocks you can climb for great views of the city, so you’ll get great downtown and bay photos but also a touch of nature at the same time. There’s a new, 27 kilometer crosstown trail in San Francisco that runs at an angle from around Candlestick Point in the southeast corner of the city up to Lands’ End in the northwest.