With its dramatic topography, ethereal fog, appealing architecture, bodacious dining, and adventurous outlook, the City by the Bay would seem to have it all - and in the 1990s, that came to include some of America's highest prices. Fortunately, Silicon Valley's dot-bomb crash has lowered food and lodging prices without seriously damaging the city's spirit (in fact, plenty of folks are just tickled pink). Take a look at the following, and you can leave your heart in San Francisco without leaving your nest egg.
1. No-Cal combos
Air/hotel combination packages can save you a bundle right from the start. An example: For departures on selected Mondays in May, America West Vacations (800/356-6611, www.americawestvacations.com) offers airfare plus three nights at the San Francisco Carlton beginning at $525 from Denver, $527 from Newark, or $563 from Atlanta. A five-night package in March at the Clarion Bedford starts at $430 from Phoenix, $593 from Colorado Springs, or $596 from Newark. Other package purveyors include United Vacations (800/328-6877, www.unitedvacations.com) and Delta Vacations (800/654-6559, www.deltavacations.com).
2. Passing through
Manic museum-goers may want to avail themselves of the CityPass, which for $34 includes a seven-day Muni Passport (see below) and admission to the Museum of Modern Art, the Exploratorium, Palace of the Legion of Honor, California Academy of Sciences/Steinhart Aquarium, and a one-hour bay cruise. But you'll need to do all four far-flung museums, or the cruise plus two museums, just to break even compared with full-price admission. Buy the pass at the first attraction you visit, or online at www.citypass.net.
3 Down Under - Or Halfway to the Stars
At $2, a ride on a cable car is still one of the city's cheapest thrills. But they're just a tiny part of the city's extensive transit network, known as Muni. Bus and streetcar fares are $1 (exact change); transfers are free (upon request when fares are paid) and can be used for any two more rides within 90 minutes to two hours. For unlimited rides throughout the system, buy a Muni Passport - $6 for one day, $10 for three, or $15 for seven (if you're in town Monday through Sunday, consider buying the weekly Muni pass the locals use - only $9, plus another $1 per cable car ride). Buy it at the airport information booths near the baggage claim, the Visitors Information Center at Hallidie Plaza, and the cable-car turnarounds, among other places. Get yourself a system map for $2 at the info booths or most bookstores. Details: 415/673-6864, www.transitinfo.org/muni.
4 Virtual Visitors Bureau
Get invaluable free orientation information before you leave at www.sfvisitor.org, which offers an overview of attractions and downloadable self-guided walking tours. Or download free "Diverse City Destinations" otomeraroes at www.destinationssf.com (or request them from the Fan Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau at 415/391-2000 or P.O. Box 429097, San Francisco, CA 94142; you pay postage). Upon arrival, pick up these brochures, along with maps, transit info, and more, at the Visitor Information Center at Hallidie Plaza; Powell and Market Streets (next to the cable car turnaround).
5 Bay Area Beds
Yes, Virginia, there are affordable hotels in San Francisco, including the charming San Remo Hotel near Fisherman's Wharf (2237 Mason St., 800/352-7366 or 415/776-8688, doubles $65 to $90, all sharing spotless bathrooms); the Mosser Victorian Hotel near the Convention Center (54 Fourth St., 800/227-3804, 415/986-4400, doubles from $59, with bath from $89), and the Allison Hotel off Union Square (417 Stockton St., 415/986-8737, doubles from $69, with bath from $99). The motels lining Lombard Street west of Van Ness often have rooms for less than $100; ask for one facing away from the busy highway; amiable standouts are the Mediterranean-style Marina Motel (2576 Lombard St., 800/346-6118 or 415/921-9406, doubles from $75 in winter, $109 summer) and the Marina Inn (3110 Octavia St., 800/274-1420 or 415/928-1000, doubles from $65 winter, $85 summer). Two delightful (and economical) bed-and-breakfasts in the colorful Haight-Ashbury district are the Red Victorian (1665 Haight St., 415/864-1978, doubles from $86 with shared bath, discounts for three days or longer) and Inn 1890 (1890 Page St., 888/466-1890 or 415/386-0486, doubles from $89 with bath). Also try contacting Bed and Breakfast San Francisco (415/899-0060, www.bbsf.com), which arranges stays in private homes starting at $65 a night.
6 Muni-Ficent Sights
Skip the overpriced bus tours and do it yourself on a $1 Muni fare. Ride the #45 through Chinatown, North Beach, and Union Street's boutiques; walk north three blocks and take the #28 to the Golden Gate Bridge. Or catch the F Line at Fisherman's Wharf and ride the vintage streetcar along the Embarcadero and Market Street to the Castro district, a longtime gay mecca. For a more leisurely excursion, take the #6, #7, or #71 to the fabled Haight-Asbury neighborhood, then up the side (though not to the top) of Twin Peaks.
7 Hostel Maneuvers
Hostelling International's top property, the HI-SF Fisherman's Wharf, boasts what may be the country's most beautiful urban hostel, with views of cypress groves, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge (Upper Fort Mason, Building 240, 800/909-4776 or 415/771-1468, from $22.50 for beds in dorms or in family rooms with key). The just-opened HI-SF City Center hostel (685 Ellis St., 800/909-4776 or 415/474-5721; dorm beds from $22, private rooms from $66) makes up for the edgy neighborhood with fancy trimmings-the lobby floor is marble and there's even valet parking (for an additional cost). For a funkier but friendly experience, try Pacific Tradewinds Guest House (680 Sacramento St., 800/486-7975 or 415/433-7970, dorm beds $14 to $24), a private hostel that's laid-back and centrally located.
8 Over Hills, Over Deals
Why pay $15 to $40 for a guided walking tour? City Guides, a program of the San Francisco Public Library, offers dozens of guided tours each week absolutely free (or for a small voluntary donation). Themes run the gamut, from Victoriana to Chinatown to the history of the Golden Gate Bridge. Get schedules at 415/557-4266, www.sfcityguides.org, the Hallidie Plaza Visitors Information Center, or any city library.
9 SF from SFO
Taxis will run $35 to $45, but the cheapest way in from San Francisco airport is Caltrain (650/817/1717); a free shuttle takes you to Millbrae station, from which trains regularly make the 70-minute trip to downtown's San Francisco station for $1.50 ($2 during peak). Or hop the SamTrans BX express bus ($1.10 in exact change; 650/817-1717) to the Colma BART station and ride the BART train (510/465-2278), just under an hour to downtown for another $2.25. Van companies charge $12 to $17 per person. From the Oakland Airport, take them ($27 or more to downtown SF), the AC Transit express bus, route A ($5), or the AirBART shuttle ($2 tickets sold by the machines in terminals 1 and 2; once at the Coliseum station, you'll pay another $2.75 for your BART connection into San Francisco).
10 Ethnic Eats
Ethnic restaurants are mighty easy on the budget. For example, think noodles - a full meal in a bowl under $7: Try the Japannese version at Mifune (1737 Post St., in Japan Center's Kintetsu Building, 415/922-0337), Vietnamese at PPQ (2332 Clement St., 415/386-8266), or pan-Asian at Citrus Club (1790 Haight St., 415/387-6366). The city's best burritos are at El Balazo (1654 Haight St., 415/864-8608), La Canasta (take-out only; 3006 Buchanan St., 415/474-2627), and La Taqueria (iffy neighborhood, bustling restaurant; 2889 Mission St., 415/285-7117). In Italian North Beach, order roast chicken with two sides for under $11 at Gira Polli (659 Union St., 415/434-4472) or Il Pollaio (555 Columbus Ave., 415/362-7727); shovel in four courses - ministrone, salad, pasta of the day, and spumoni - for $10.50 at Capp;s Corner (1600 Powell St., 415/989-2589). Dim sum lunches in Chinatown yield small plates of tasty dumplings for no more than $2.60 a plate at New Asia (722 Pacific Ave., 415/391-6666) and Gold Mountain (644 Broadway, 415/296-7733). On Clement Street's burgeoning Little Asia, between Second and 27th Streets, you'll find block after block of Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Korean, even Burmese - all at rock-bottom prices.
11 Go Soak Yourself
Weekdays before 5 p.m. for just $15, have a luxurious soak and spend all day in the sauna, steam room, and communal baths at Kabuki Springs & Spa (1750 Geary Blvd., 415/922-6000) - and perks like sea salts, chilled cucumber face cloths, and tea are on the house (treatments like massages and facials will cost you, though - $50 and up). Baths are men-only and women-only on alternate days (on coed Tuesdays, swimsuits required); call ahead for the schedule. On evenings and weekends the basic rate goes up to $18.
12 Cultured Pearls
Get half-price, same-day tickets to plays, concerts, dance, and more at the TIX Bay Area booth (Union Square Garage, Geary Street entrance, 415/433-7827), open Tuesday to Saturday. Standing-room tickets for the opera and ballet are a mere $10 (cash only, one per person) as of 10 a.m. (opera) or noon (ballet) on the day of performance. As for the symphony, a Wednesday-morning open rehearsal ticket's only $16 - including free coffee and donuts (call 415/864-6000 for dates and details). Other good venues with concerts $12 or less: Old First Church (1751 Sacramento St., 415/474-1608) and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1201 Ortega St., 415/759-3475). Noontime Concerts (www.noontimeconcerts.org) presents classical music Wednesdays at St. Patrick's Church (756 Mission St.) and first and third Tuesdays at Giannini Auditorium in the Bank of America Center (555 California St.); admission $5. Join in the free Sunday morning "celebration" at Glide Memorial Church (330 Ellis St., 415/674-6000), where the choir bursts forth with jazz, blues, and gospel. The line forms 40 minutes before the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. celebrations; get there early.
13 Park It Here
Golden Gate Park gets all the glory, but there are other great green contenders. The vast Presidio has miles of wooded trails and a restored tidal marsh; for a schedule of free guided walking tours, call 415/561-4323. On a smaller scale, Lafayette Park (Washington between Gough and Laguna Sts.) overlooks the flamboyant Spreckels Mansion and offers stunning bay views. And don't leave town without strolling tucked-away, pedestrian-only paths such as leafy Macondray Lane (off Leavenworth between Union and Green Sts.) or the steep, flower-bordered Filbert Street Steps (between Coit Tower and Sansome St.).
14 Approaching Wharf Speed
Tourist central, Fisherman's Wharf assaults with overpriced kitsch everywhere you turn. Mere blocks away is a more authentic waterfront experience where admission is free: the San Francisco Maritime Museum (Polk and Beach Sts., 415/561-7100), which explores local seafaring history through ship models, figureheads, and vintage photos. For $6, walk aboard the historic ships berthed at Hyde Street Pier (foot of Hyde St., 415/561-3002), and a $10 pass will get you onto the vintage ships as well as the World War II submarine USS Pampanito at nearby Pier 45 (415/775-1943, submarine alone $7). And there's no charge to view the lumbering, adorable sea lions off Pier 39.
15 Radio Days
One of the best cheap seats in town is West Coast Live, the Saturday-morning variety show broadcast on public radio KALW (91.7 FM), with guests like Robin Williams, Elmore Leonard, and Garrison Keillor. Check the schedules/venues and reserve your $12 ticket at 415/664-9500 (or pay $14 at the door).
16 Weighing Anchor
Some say Anchor Brewing Company (1705 Mariposa St.) and its Anchor Steam Beer started the microbrew revolution 30 years ago. See it made and taste the finished product on a free tour (by reservation only; call 415/863-8350).
17 Summer of Love-Them-Freebies
Summer brings a plethora of gratis performances: SFJAZZ's outdoor concerts (www.sfjazz.org); People in Plazas' blues, rock, funk, country, and world music in downtown open spaces (www.marketstreet.citysearch.com); Free Shakespeare in the Park (415/422-2222, www.sfshakes.org); music and dance at Stern Grove (415/252-6252, www.sterngrove.org); and puppets, opera, and ethnic arts at Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (415/543-1718, www.ybae.org). For listings, pick up a free Bay Guardian or SF Weekly at libraries, coffeehouses, and newsstands.
18 Steal This Art
The stately California Palace of the Legion of Honor (Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., 415/750-3600) displays 4,000 years of ancient and European art; show your Muni Passport or transfer to save $2 off the $8 admission (free on Tuesdays). Ogle fine art, antiques, and books before auction at Butterfields (220 San Bruno Ave.). Call 415/861-7500 for auction schedules. For cutting-edge contemporary, visit the downtown galleries, especially Paule Anglim (14 Geary St., 415/433-2710), John Berggruen (228 Grant Ave., 415/781-4629), Fraenkel (49 Geary St., 415/981-2661), and Stephen Wirtz (49 Geary St., 415/433-6879). Shave half off the $10 admission to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third St., 415/357-4000) any Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; on the first Tuesday of the month, admission's free. San Francisco has more murals per capita than any other American city, and it costs nothing to view the WPA-era murals at Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill, 415/362-0808) and the Beach Chalet (1000 Great Hwy., 415/386-8439), or those celebrating Hispanic culture on Balmy Alley (off 24th St. between Treat and Harrison Sts.).
19 Literary License
San Francisco prides itself on its literary heritage, and City Lights Bookstore (261 Columbus Ave., 415/362-8193), ground zero for Bay Area Beat culture in the 1950s, is still a browser's haven. The busiest bookshops for free lectures and readings by authors are A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (601 Van Ness Ave., 415/441-6670), Stacey's (581 Market St., 415/421-4687), and Modern Times (888 Valencia St., 415/282-9246). Consult the pink "Datebook" section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle ($1.50) for other lecture listings.
20 Giant Deal
Plutocrats pay $200-plus just to get first crack at Giants tickets, and most games sell out. But 500 bleacher seats are held back for same-day sale every game, and one of them can be yours for just $10. Be at Candlestick - er, PacBell Park (Third and King Sts., 415/972-2000) four hours before game time; if more than 500 fans show up, the tickets are distributed by lottery. Go to www.sfgiants.com for more details. Your best shot at getting in the gate is midweek early in the season. While you're waiting, walk all the way around the new ballpark - even from the outside, it's a showpiece.