Surviving San Francisco on a shoestring budget

When my J1 plans went awry, I got a unique opportunity to explore the California city of culture, cable-cars, and chocolate.

Each year over 8000 Irish students go on a J1 visa to work in America for the summer – it’s become a rite of passage. They return with tales of beach parties, road trips, regrettable tattoos, and Four Loko benders. But my experience was slightly different.

In summer 2013 I found myself stranded in San Francisco with no job, no money, and four chickens (long story). I was miserable, and just a few weeks into my three-month adventure I was ready to give up. But one day as I sat looking out onto the water at Ocean Beach, 5000 miles from home, I decided that I needed to take advantage of my time in San Francisco. I set a goal to immerse myself in the city as much as I could, and by spending as little money as possible.

I had no idea what to expect going to San Francisco. I’d travelled to several cities and states in America before, but this place is so unique and disparate from anywhere I’d ever been. It’s only seven by seven miles, but San Francisco manages to pack it all in – a bustling city, expansive beaches, breathtaking views, and a rich cultural scene. From the California gold rush, to the hippie counter-culture of the sixties, and the more recent influx from tech companies, it’s a city that updates faster than your Twitter feed, yet still coherently embraces its eclectic melange of heritage.

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Famous view of the ‘Painted Ladies’ at Alamo Square

The atmosphere of the city is hard to describe. San Francisco is simultaneously buzzing with people and new technologies, and super relaxed with an enormous sense of history. The city’s districts are so different and distinctive in character that you’d immediately know where you are – each neighbourhood is like its own universe. From skyscrapers in SoMa, to the hip surfers paradise at Sunset; soak up the Latino atmosphere in the Mission or the gay nightlife in the Castro; hang with the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, or eat in the most famous Chinatown in the US; climb up some killer hills or just stroll through one of the many national parks.

Hard to believe this is all one compact city, right?

In a city of such stark contrasts, it was the weather that really took me by surprise. Really. Mark Twain once stated that “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”. I had been warned that, unlike most of the west coast, a summer in San Fran is not dissimilar to a summer in Dublin, but I was not prepared for this. The fog in the city is infamous and incredible. It descends heavily over coastal areas in the summer months, but once you cross Divisadero it begins to lift, and once you cross the bay you’ll probably end up in a heatwave. These microclimates are fascinating, but infuriating if you’re expecting a reliable sunny holiday.

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A good spot of sun at Ocean Beach….
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….But it also gets its fair share of fog

Exploring the city on my own was exciting and not too difficult. In such a small distinctive city I could navigate my way around without too much hassle or reliance on wifi for directions. It’s a great place for walking, unless you want to avoid those hills I mentioned earlier. Locals constantly complain about the public transport system, but I thought it was fantastic – a great, cheap way to get around and see all the sights. With an extensive tram and bus system it’s possible to get anywhere in the city easily in under an hour and for only $2. In comparison with Dublin Bus this was a revelation.

San Fran is a city that has a rich history of artists, musicians, and outsiders, and so most of my days were spent soaking up this culture. When I wasn’t meandering through the expansive vistas of Golden Gate Park reading Bukowski and Keroac, I was tracking down vintage Jefferson Airplane vinyl on Haight Street. Sound idyllic? That’s because it was.

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Lazy days in the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park

San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in America to live in, however, and is causing major problems for residents at the moment. But, accommodation aside, the city can be explored on a very modest budget if you’re organised. There’s plenty to do out and about that won’t cost a thing – from watching the sealions on Pier 39, to hearing the choir in Grace Cathedral, or checking out the views from Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

You can even experience most of the major museums for free or for discounted rates. On the first Tuesday of every month you can explore the deYoung museum, the Legion of Honour, and the Conservatory of Flowers without an admission charge. The Cable Car Museum is a hidden gem that only accepts donations, entrance to the Japanese Tea Gardens is free if you go before 10am during the week, and the SFMoMA has many exhibitions and spaces that are open to the public.

If you check the guide books before your holiday, they’ll all direct you to Fisherman’s Wharf, with its tacky tourist traps, and overpriced restaurants. Don’t bother! If you want a more authentic San Francisco afternoon by the water, just take a stroll along Embarcadero and end up at the food markets in the refurbished Ferry Building instead.

But there was one time that I had to make an exception – I couldn’t leave San Francisco without a trip to Alcatraz. The island dominates the view from Fisherman’s Wharf and has probably become the biggest tourist attraction in the city – in the summer you need to book tickets weeks in advance to secure a space.

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View of Alcatraz Island. It is said that nobody escaped the prison alive (except for Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage of course)

Alcatraz is a former federal prison which was shut down in the 1970s, but remains hauntingly on this solitary island. A short boat ride, which provides you with great views of the bay and its bridges, takes you to the island, and transports you back in time. The island and the institution have had a fascinating and storied past, which is illuminated through this great museum, bringing visitors into the heart of the “inescapable prison”. It’s definitely a must see if you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood’s Escape From Alcatraz, or my personal favourite The Rock starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.

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Alcatraz has a varied history – in 1969 it was occupied by Native Americans

The other main attraction that you simply can’t ignore is the Golden Gate Bridge – it’s the principal icon of the San Francisco. To be honest, it’s something that I thought would be overrated, but when you see that red, art-deco structure emerging from the fog of the bay it’s pretty spectacular, and you can clearly see why it has earned this landmark status.

I despise the phrase “it’s just like riding a bike” because I think that cycling is impossible. But I forced myself to get back onto two wheels for the first time in well over a decade, because when you’re in San Francisco you have to bike across the Golden Gate. The entire journey from North Beach to Marin country took around three hours, but was completely worth it for the wind blowing through my hair, the breathtaking views, and the ample photo opportunities. Just on the other side of the bay is sunny Sausalito – a cute little waterside town and a great spot to recuperate with margaritas which I desperately needed after my arduous cycling trip.

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Biking across the Golden Gate

If you’re willing to go further north (you’ll have to ditch the bike for a bus at this stage) then Muir Woods makes for a great day out. In this natural haven just outside the city, you can get some fresh air and get lost in a forest with some 800 year old redwood trees. The hiking trails are beautiful, taking you high among these towering 200 foot trees, but not too tasking thankfully as my legs were still recovering from the bike day.

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Giant redwoods in Muir

I like to think that I tried all things quintessentially San Fran without breaking the bank – I saw my first baseball game in the cheap seats of AT&T Park, tasted my first In-N-Out burger in North Beach, partied on the streets at the Gay Pride festival, heard the prestigious San Francisco Symphony Orchestra twice (for free!), stuffed myself with Ghiradelli chocolates, and saw the entire city from the iconic cable cars.

I never felt out of place in San Francisco, never unsafe, never unwelcome. Although I did get a few strange looks if I described something as “grand” or “a bit of craic”, the city is a real melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and really embraces diversity and change.

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Mark di Suvero sculptures in Crissy Field, inspired by the bridge

Initially I had been so homesick, but when the time actually came to leave, I was devastated. On my journey home I had a stopover in New York, and was excited to spend some time there. But when I stepped off the subway from JFK, and was hit with the dirty, humid air of the Big Apple, I was instantly disappointed. This city felt big and impersonal, brash and unwelcoming. I looked out from the top of the Empire State Building to the putrid, grey streets below, and thought of how different this was to the vibrant city I had just left.

I realised that San Francisco now felt like home.

“In San Francisco – life goes on. Hope rises and dreams flicker and die. Love plans for tomorrow and loneliness thinks of yesterday. Life is beautiful and living is pain.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

All photographs are my own, taken on a 35mm Holga 135.

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