San Francisco is arguably the coolest and most innovative city in the United States. It also has a reputation for being the most expensive city in America. However, with a few smart tricks, you can channel your future Real Househusband of Silicon Valley and ~hack~ your way into an amazing vacation by mixing and matching high/low cost options for every element of your trip:
Likely, the majority of your trip’s budget (or lack thereof) will be allocated toward accommodations. I saved thousands by paying for my trip lodgings in full with points from my Chase Sapphire Preferred card (which has also funded my exotic/not-so-exotic trips to Japan and Tampa! Sign up for one HERE).
Since my trip was points-based, I wanted to maximize the amount of days which I could spend in the city for free, so I selected a hotel which was low on cost/points per night, but high on charm. However, I also fell deeply in love with a luxury option, which would be perfect for an indulgent special occasion. Here are my picks for high/low hotels in SF:
Fairmont San Francisco
[No more after parties]
The Beaux-Arts style Fairmont Hotel in chic Nob Hill offers classic, timeless luxury. It reminded me of the classic pedigree of the Waldorf Astoria New York, with a touch of the more contemporary Waldorf Astoria Chicago.
Though I didn’t get to stay overnight there, I really enjoyed the time I spent exploring the lobby and bar area, and am confident it would be the perfect pick for an opulent trip.
A fun fact about the hotel is that one of the lead architects was Julia Morgan, who in 1904 became the first female architect licensed to practice in California. She was also the head architect for Hearst Castle, site of one of my favorite Lady Gaga videos, G.U.Y.
Hotel San Remo
Located in North Beach, steps away from homestyle Italian pizzerias, rowdy neon-signed dive bars, and Beat-poet endorsed bookstores, Hotel San Remo is the epitome of quirky charm. From my fellow off-beat senior citizen residents, to the authentically odd Victorian-era room décor, to the intriguing historical provenance of the building, everything about my stay was delightfully, weirdly wonderful.
[The infamous doctor’s bag of potential decapitation and ~vintage piercing instruments~ display in my bedroom]
Best of all, the hotel prices also seem to be stuck in a time warp. On average, the hotel costs about ~$100/night, which is super low for accommodations in prime San Francisco, where, on a sunny day, you are walking distance from major tourist spots such as Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39, Coit Tower, and Chinatown. The hotel is also just 2 blocks from the famous cable car which takes you downtown to the Nob Hill area.
[The legendary SWAMPROOT ALMANAC]
The day before I checked out, I received an intriguing flyer on my door, offering me to extend my stay for a jaw-dropping $50/night plus tax. Though I was unable to do so, due to my pre-booked return flight, this just might be the very best hotel deal in central San Francisco, if you have some itinerary flexibility.
[North Beach is the new South Beach, ~sorry Miami~]
There are a few minor inconveniences of the hotel, such as the lack of an elevator and shared bathrooms. The stairs were only an issue when lugging my 50-lb suitcase into and out of my guest room, but otherwise they were no issue, since it is only a 2-story hotel. Though the shared bathrooms may give someone pause, I promise it wasn’t really an issue either. I would estimate there were 6-8 fully private bathrooms, like the ones you would use at someone’s home, to service maybe 30-40 people in total staying at the small, somewhat vacant hotel while I was there. There were also approximately the same amount of private showers/bath tubs. Just about every time I needed to shower, no one else was even in the corridor, so it felt very private. Only once in six days, during the early morning rush circa 7:30AM, did I ever have to wait to use a bathroom or shower, and I had to wait just for a minute or two. The bathrooms and showers were chicly Victorian, with wood paneled furnishings and pull-chains. All of the bathrooms and showers offered posh Gilchrest and Soames toiletries, as well as complimentary mouthwash.
[The ~hallowed halls~]
I had to pay to use the washer and dryer in the laundry room, but it wasn’t too much (maybe $6 in total, in cash), and it was nice to have the convenience of washing my workout clothes in house (though there were also some cute old-school laundromats down the street too). In terms of stocking up on free snacks pre and post-workout, there were lots of options in the lobby, from hot spiced cider to about ten types of tea to hot chocolate, and of course, coffee. There were also giant canisters of complimentary candy, with vegan Twizzlers being my favorite. At the risk of sounding ~basic~, the hotel is 1-2 blocks away from a Trader Joe’s and a Starbucks, which was convenient for times when I wanted a quick snack/caffeine boost or inexpensive meal.
SoulCycle SoMa and SoulCycle Union Street
I knew I had to check out SoulCycle while I was in SF. Full disclosure: I was really lucky to have been able to take a free community class as well as be guested into a regular class for free. (Thank you for ~da hook up SC baes!!!~ <3) However, regular SoulCycle classes in SF are pretty expensive, at $38/class for class/shoes/water.
That said, my new friend Kamelle’s class was amazing, and worth every penny! A noted Beyoncé enthusiast and overall energy bomb, class with him was challenging, but flew by. Make sure you prioritize his class if you’re ever in San Francisco.
[High on sweat and the Lemonade album]
There are a bunch of SoulCycle studios in the Bay Area, and the two I visited had different charms. SoulCycle SoMa was slightly closer to my hotel, in the busy business district where tech companies like LinkedIn, Yelp, OpenTable, etc. have big offices. The studio itself was huge, but also packed. I had to wait about 10 minutes to shower there, even though there were 7 or 8 showers in the locker room. That said, the fact that there was a Pressed Juicery next door mostly made up for the crowded shower situation. PRESSED JUICERY WHEN ARE YOU COMING TO MIAMI?
SoulCycle Union Street was a much smaller studio with just a couple of showers/bathrooms, but also less people overall. It was located on a cute street with lots of boutiques, trendy restaurants, and a busy Equinox next door. I could see how it could be the perfect “home studio” for those living nearby.
Boasting a roster of former Olympic-rower coaches in a welcoming, comfortable environment, RowClub is San Francisco’s premiere boutique rowing studio. I didn’t know that rowing could be so challenging, as I usually thought of it as the “easy” station during an OrangeTheory or other bootcamp class. How wrong I was!
In a typical RowClub class, you are rowing for about 12 minutes or so straight through, followed by plyometrics exercises on the floor, and then back to strong rowing, on and off for the 45-minute class duration. I attended class on “Meter Monday”, so the whole class ended up rowing 6,000 meters or more, interspersed with planks, pushups, and other body weight exercises.
For me, the most difficult part was trying to keep the proper rowing form after so many repetitions. It was easy to slip into sloppier form, after doing the motions over and over, and growing tired. That said, the instructor of our class, Johan, was very diligent with monitoring form and patiently made lots of corrections for each person in the class, while also providing encouragement and/or tips. I am not so sure that all of his SoulCycle corollary examples to me were entirely analogous (or serious), but I appreciated him trying to relate one workout to another.
[Getting in form-ation with Johan]
As an instructor, I would describe him as highly vigilant, extremely funny in a wry manner, and an expert playlist creator. Basically, he was the best and worst rowing instructor because he noticed everything you did wrong but also worked hard to inspire and motivate you to fix it.
If RowClub were to open in Miami, I would definitely add it to my workout rotation. It was a challenging, fun, full-body workout. I paid for this class using Classpass, but they also offer a first, trial class for just $10.
Neiman Marcus/Rent the Runway Boutique
The Neiman Marcus on San Francisco’s Stockton Street is part luxury emporium, part art gallery. The show-stopping glass rotunda is museum-quality, filtering in light and jewel-box beauty to the entire store. As with every Neiman Marcus, there are endless exquisite designer pieces and hands-on customer service.
[When you may have enjoyed the aesthetics of Neiman Marcus more than the renowned art museum, oops]
Since this is a budget trip and I am on a permanent budget UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, I made a bee-line to the Rent the Runway boutique on the top floor. As I have an Unlimited RTR subscription, I assumed I could do an in-person exchange of pieces. Unfortunately, they don’t have this option yet, though they say that they do on their phone messages, when you call Rent The Runway. This obviously upset me as I had specifically schlepped certain garments across the country so that I could exchange them for new pieces in store.
After about 20 minutes of going back and forth on the phone with customer service, they agreed to overnight me two pieces from their flagship store in New York to San Francisco. It would’ve been easier and more cost-effective on their end to just let me do the exchange in the SF store, but apparently they don’t have the correct software set up yet or something.
Anyway, the pieces ended up taking 2 days instead of the promised 1 day to show up, so they gave me an additional $20 off my next month’s subscription, but it was still annoying to have to constantly follow up with them. Luckily, I wasn’t planning to wear them for any one specific event or I would’ve been pretty upset.
That said, I was really happy with the items once they arrived. One was a pale pink BCBG Max Azria cape (which I later realized Kyle from RHOBH has been wearing all season in her interviews!). I wore it on a date to an Italian restaurant, and my date made it a point to compliment my outfit! The other piece was a red Rebecca Minkoff jacket which I ~modeled~ at the San Remo here:
Once RTR gets their shit straight, so to speak, regarding in-store exchanges for Unlimited members, it will be an amazing way for SF fashionistas to instantly expand their wardrobe.
I am really, really picky about clothes, as anyone who has ever tried to shop for me might know. That’s why I was so excited to stumble upon this vintage store in the Mission District, where the owners are clearly really, really picky about showcasing the most amazing finds!
Some of my favorites included:
[Dennis Basso (faux?) fur coat for $47.. A dupe of the $500 Saloni one I wore in NYC]
[Intricately beaded red and pink going out top for ~$50]
[Drapey, Art Deco tunic by River Island for $36]
I was surreptitiously taking pics, because I knew I couldn’t buy anything as my luggage for the airport was already packed and literally bursting at the seams, so excuse the weird quality of these images. But trust me that just about everything in the store was a unique vintage treasure.
For “vintage” clothes, items were more on the higher-end of things, but compared to what you would pay at a conventional store, they were great prices.
Just for fun, I tried to calculate all of my food, transportation and other expenses below. I am sure I missed a handful and also didn’t include my Ubers to/from the airport or food/entertainment on the flights, but this gives you a directional idea of where my $$$ went. I went on 1 dinner date and 1 breakfast date, both which I didn’t pay for, but otherwise paid for all of my meals myself and actually spent a lot less than I projected on food, considering I ate some really high-quality, organic vegan meals.
Ubers on the other hand were twice as much as they are in Miami and I am pretty sure I took Uber pool every time. I usually love to walk 5-7 miles per day when at home, but I took notably more Ubers in SF than I do in Miami because a) there were some pretty aggressive people on drugs and I was nervous to walk around certain areas by myself and b) it was raining almost every day.
The trips to Angel Island/Tiberon/Alcatraz were also kind of pricey in my opinion, since the islands are all approximately 1-2 miles away from the mainland and you’re only on the ferry for 10-30 mins. But there is no other way to reach them unless you have your own boat, which was clearly too opulent for me *~*THIS [NON-AIRBNB SPONSORED] TRIP~*~.
Miscellaneous, Possibly Accurate SF Money Diary [All Currency in USD, obv]
3.45- Starbucks iced coffee w/ soy
24.66-Vegan garlic “chicken” and vegetables at Green Papaya
27.00-Additional 3 SF classes on Classpass (I only actually use 1!!! UGH. But I didn’t pay for SoulCycle, so still an overall win.)
3.99- Uber pool
11.80-Vegetables and brown rice at Ming’s on Tiberon
12.11- Uber pool
5.95- Pressed Juicery freeze ❤
8.07- Uber pool
3.75- Uber pool
47.55- Dinner at an all-vegan Bolivian place called Peña Pachamama. I had their sampler menu AND dessert because fuck, it’s my bday week!
7.03- Trader Joe’s breakfast… a giant container of blueberries and a granola bar
3.75- Uber pool
2.00-Water bottle at SoulCycle
3.75- Uber pool
12.00-Ticket to Tiberon on ferry
17.12-Dinner at an Indian restaurant in SoMa (naan with no butter and some random veggie main course)
6.48- Late night snacks from Trader Joe’s
13.24- Vegan pancake breakfast at Judahlicious Juice
2.98-Something cheap from a place called Rustic Bakery… Maybe a water or bar?
35.50-Roundtrip ferry ticket to Alcatraz and tour of Alcatraz
5.00-Hot tea and a granola bar on the ferry home from Alcatraz
14.21- Uber pool, this was probably to Ocean Beach since it’s $
12.60- Acai bowl from Project Juice
3.05- Iced coffee
12.72- Vegan pho from MAU
8.72- Uber pool
11.29- Uber pool
4.72- Uber pool
7.44- Uber pool
21.77- Green juice and vegan lunch at Judahlicious
7.21- Uber pool
4.39- Uber pool
18.00- Roundtrip ferry to Angel Island
4.75- A non vegan cinnamon bun at Angel Island because I was stranded there for hours without food and dying *wincing face emoji*
1.98- Trader Joe’s… probably a bar or water
9.74-A meditation book from Dog Eared Books in the Mission