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Budget Family Vacation In San Francisco

Updated on December 26, 2011


San Francisco is one of the premeire cities of the world, and you can spend a fortune in its opulent Victorian Bed & Breakfasts and haute cuisine restaurants. But the same city is available to you and your family on a shoestring, and this hub will tell you how to do it, and make it fun.

First things first: Where to stay

The best deal in SF for a family is the Fisherman’s Wharf Youth Hostel. A dorm style bed here starts at $24/night. The hostel has one room with only eight bunks, and a friend and I once booked that room, filling all the bunks between our two families. It was a giant sleep over for the kids: they had a blast. A hot breakfast, usually waffles, OJ and tea or coffee is included in the price. For lunch and dinner the hostel has a very reasonably priced café, and also a large communal kitchen downstairs, where you can store groceries and cook. See more pictures of the hostel and grounds here.

If you love Bed & Breakfasts, check out my hub about an affordable one in the city.

Knopf MapGuide: San Francisco (Knopf Citymap Guides)
Knopf MapGuide: San Francisco (Knopf Citymap Guides)

A slim, pocket-sized guide to the city, complete with fold out maps.


Getting around

The best priced alternative: leave your car at home. This will save parking and gas costs, not to mention the occasional ticket. Instead, get everyone in the family a CityPass here, $64 for an adult and $39 for a child. The pass provides 7 days of unlimited bus and streetcar transportation, and one ticket each to the following attractions: California Academy of Sciences, Aquarium of the Bay, Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a choice of the Exploratorium or the de Young/Legion of Honor Art Museum.

In the foyer of the Academy of Science.
In the foyer of the Academy of Science.

Your CityPass attractions include:

California Academy of Sciences: A science museum including a multi story rainforest, an albino crocodile, an aquarium, and replicas of dinosaur skeletons.

Aquarium of the Bay: Walk through a clear tunnel beneath a tank filled with fish, sharks and starfish. Located on Fishermen’s Wharf.

The Exploratorium: Very hands-on science museum – great for kids.


Some quick math

For a family of four to spend 5 nights at the Youth Hostel and get CityPasses = $686

Not bad!

For the same family to share one basement room (two double beds) at the B&B mentioned above plus CityPasses = $1,031

Ghiriadelli Square fountain - Momma Mermaid with Mer-baby.
Ghiriadelli Square fountain - Momma Mermaid with Mer-baby.

Free and very cheap stuff in the city

From the Youth Hostel, you can walk along the waterfront all the way to the Exploratorium. It’s a beautiful walk, past lovely homes, boats, even a yacht club or two.

Once you have your CityPass, you can hang off a streetcar, or take a seat & watch others hang, all up and down the famous San Francisco hills. Kids love this.

Yerba BuenaCenter for the Arts. Directly across the street from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a network of fountains and green spaces that includes the outdoor Martin Luther King Jr Memorial (a waterfall you can walk under), a large playground, and an old fashioned carousel.

Ghirardelli Square. Picturesque brick square with little shops and an amazing sundae shop. Has my personal favorite fountain in the city: two mermaids in the midst of cascading water, one holding an baby mermaid.


The Exploratorium:
3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123, USA

get directions

Exploratorium Science Museum

California Academy of Sciences:
55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA

get directions

Fisherman's wharf Youth Hostel:
Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA, USA

get directions

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art:
151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA

get directions

 Variations on these ideas will work for any urban vacation. Many cities have a CityPass, and the U.S. is dotted with youth hostels. Kids love this informal travel, and familiarity with hosteling will serve them well in adulthood.


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