Romping around the Bay Area without breaking the bank



Riding in Fort Ord.

Riding in Fort Ord.

Delicious Humphry Slocombe ice cream in Oakland.

Delicious Humphry Slocombe ice cream in Oakland.

Tartine Bakery

Tartine Bakery

Beautiful San Francisco houses on Valencia Ave in the Mission District.

Beautiful San Francisco houses on Valencia Ave in the Mission District.


Our first year on the road, 6 years ago, we did cities, museums, paying activities and organized campgrounds most of the time. We quickly realized that it wasn’t sustainable for our limited budget… Fast forward to now, we very rarely pay for campgrounds, only do free activities and go to the restaurant once every two months. However, we couldn’t pass on San Francisco. We had spent 10 days here in 2015 and our dear friends who had been living in the Mission District for decades showed us around to many cool spots. I reached out to Liza for her suggestions for ways to explore SF, Berkeley and Oakland on the cheap.


There are good spots to spend the night for free on iOverlander around Berkeley, but with all the bikes we have on the Westy, we decided to go for a campground this time (Anthony Chabot Regional Park). That is one of the downside of our current set-up… So with that expanse, we knew we had to be even more thrifty.

In Berkeley, we went to check out the amazing grocery Berkeley Bowl and had fun looking at all the cool produce, we checked out a few bookstores (Pegasus was great) and thrift shops on Telegraph Ave, and drooled over the menu of Chez Panisse and the Cheeseboard. If you want a quick meal on a budget, check out the food court right by the Imperial Tea Room, they have amazing sushis to go.

We went to have an early dinner at Vik’s chaat to beat the crowds. Chaat is Indian street food (and it doesn’t mean you eat it in the street here… it’s a big open area behind an indian grocery store). It’s very decently priced (not cheap, nothing is cheap here, but their weekday specials are the best deals, we got 2 of those to share and a few sides) and we discovered new-to-us food (do not skip the cholle bhature if you go!). We then bought what we needed at the store to make a delicious saag paneer at home the next day (for a little over 20$) and some more Indian fare.

We ended the night walking the streets of Oakland and tasting the ice cream at Humpry Slocombe (get their Blue Bottle vietnamese coffee flavor).

Another fun outing would have been to go to Ranch 99 in Richmond (about 20 minutes North of Berkeley, depending on trafic). It’s an asian mall with lots of cool things to see and eat - I hear the dim sums are great. I also really wanted to tour the St. George Spirits distillery in Alameda, but the tours were only on the weekends and children under 21 are not allowed on the premises. There is also Faction Brewing that sounds like a great place to enjoy a beer on an open deck (dogs and children allowed) and watch the city from across the water.

In San Francisco, we went straight to the Mission District to find a spot to park since it was Thursday and we walked around on Guerrero. The Mission was once a multicultural neighborhood of artists and intellectuals and is now an enclave for the privileged… It is still a beautiful place to visit, but it is also a pretty sad reality. Only white college-educated professionals with double income can *maybe* afford it… There are tent and tarp cities on many street corners (and even more in Berkeley and Oakland)...

We went into chez Panisse (one of the best bakeries) and quickly got out when we saw the prices (as tempting as their offers were, we cannot fork out 5,50 US$ for a pain au chocolat - that’s almost 8$ CAN - or 6$ for a *short* baguette!). We checked out Bi-Rite Market around the corner, but the prices were also too high for our budget (they sold the Chez Panisse Country loaf for 11$...) and went to their Creamery across the street instead where we shared a large size bowl (4 flavors) for 7,50$ (always share! That’s the best way to sample the good food on a budget).

We checked out some cool stores on Valencia, a used and new Scifi and mystery bookstore (Bordelands book), a really beautiful store selling *nomad tools* (mostly amazing journals, charging stations and cute slippers...), JF and I had a coffee at Rituals (the beans a very pricey, so we didn’t buy any…), I went to drool over all the Italian goodies (and Amari!!) at Lucca Ravioli Company (and only left with a jar of passata, I’m such a good girl). We then went to Buffalo exchange - a thrift store - where we found amazing deals. The girls really needed puffy coats and wind breakers and we left with a brand new looking REI insulated vest (19$), a Montbell 800 coat (22$) and a Nike windbreaker (12$).

We thrift about  85 % of our clothes (the 15$ is mostly bike shorts, sneakers and bike shoes). We are by no mean an example of anything… Heck, we still forget our cloth grocery bags way too often. When we lived in the farm, we were much greener in many ways, but I'm pretty sure our ecological footprint was still bigger there than on the road… Anyways, I’m very aware that the #vanlife is simply a new iteration of privilege, so I’m not gonna play holier than thou. We just thrift a lot, it’s good for the planet and good for the budget.

We had an early dinner of burmese food that was delicious. Again, we shared 5 dishes (2 were appetizers) that were simply amazing. If you go to Burma Love, do not miss their Platha & Dip, Nan Pia Dok and Rainbow salad (people rave about their tea leaf salad, but we were not crazy about it). The calamari melt was amazing but too greasy for my taste (my family loved it!).

We then headed to Japantown for desert! Japantown is a cool indoor mall (sprawling on both sides of Webster street over 6 blocks - we parked at the Safeway for free parking and got a few things from there). We had read about an ice cream and crepe shop (Belly Good café and crêpe) that made cute little animal face deserts and Mara really wanted one, so she did and we shared a few taro bubble teas (super reasonable prices). We had planned to sample the ramen at Marafuku, but we were not hungry anymore and everything was closing down.

Walking around, we could witness the Japanese "kawaii" phenomenon. Kawaii in Japanese translates roughly as "cuteness", and is a big part of the Japanese popular culture. Kawaii encompasses all the ultra "cute" creatures of Hello Kitty, Pikachu and the numberless anime characters, not to mention all the accessories with big-eyed, baby animals, pink hearts… So if you know Mara, you know she was all over that

One of the coolest spots in SF to see or photograph the Golden Gate Bridge is Crissy Field that you get to by driving through the Presidio (which also has some museums). Crissy Field is on the water and there is a narrow beach right there where you are so close to best close up view of the bridge. There is free parking and the beach is off leash dog friendly- it is just gorgeous. Also if you like fresh clams and oysters, the best place is Swan Oyster Depot- tiny place south one long counter and there is a line down the street to get a seat at the counter- usually an hour wait, but so worth it. Just fresh shucked clams and oysters, clam chowder, big hunks of sourdough bread and cold beer and wine! Also go for a stroll in the Golden Gate Park and drive by the Conservatory of flowers, one of the most beautiful building in SF, and head to the Huntington Falls and Stow Lake and ride the Carousel and visit the Arts Studio, where you can see stained glass artists and jewelers at work. There is a great used book library not too far on Clements called the Green apple books. Go see the Diego Riviera mural at the SF Art institute. You can roam the halls and look at studios. Don’t miss Burma superstar (lots of vegan and vegetarian option, the Rainbow salad was AMAZING). Check out Mission Dolores, it is the first Spanish Mission was created in 1791. It is San Francisco's oldest standing building. There are lots of amazing murals initiated by the Chicano Art Mural Movement of the 1970s and inspired by the traditional Mexican paintings made famous by Diego Riviera. Some of the more significant mural installations are located on Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley. In North Beach district, you can go to Lombard street (the world’s steepest and more crooked street in the world) and check out City Light Bookstore where Jack Kerouac and his friends used to meet for literature and poetry readings. Go to Caffe Trieste, known as the beatnik hangout of the '50s. Their home-roasted coffee is impeccable.

So that is to say: cities are never cheap, but there are ways to make then budget-friendly. Ask the locals you know (in person or online), focus on ethnic food (forget the pretty restaurants, go for the hole-in-the-wall places full of locals, Yelp is your friend). Spend time walking the isles of international markets and buy stuff to cook at home (or in your bus). Share to taste a little of everything.

Also note that our girls often offer to pay if they want something special. We don’t do allowances, but our girls have money from gifts and work they did. They are very reasonable (it’s not always been that way for all 3). They know that our lifestyle doesn’t allow us to splurge (and are very aware of our budget situation since Stout got sick), they also have a clear sense of what they need vs. want (and very little space to put it, be it clothes or books or else), so they choose wisely. And that helps.

San Francisco's Golden Gate Park

This amazing park in the middle of the city is 20 percent larger than New York's Central Park. I could not believe my eyes when Liza told me that Golden Gate Park was once only sand dunes. Thanks to engineer William Hammond Hall and master gardener John McLaren, it is now a real oasis in the heart of the city. By 1875, about 60,000 trees, mostly Eucalyptus globulus, Monterey pine and Monterey cypress had been planted in order to stabilize the dunes.

We drove by the Conservatory of flowers, one of the most beautiful building in SF and headed to the Huntington Falls and Stow Lake, then went to ride the Carousel and visited the Arts Studio, where we got to see stained glass artists and jewelers at work that took the time to explain us how they created their art. 

San Francisco: North Beach district

We parked the Westy on Lombard street, the so-called “crookedest street in the world” and walked to the San Francisco Art Institute where we could see young artists at work.

This neighborhood is San Francisco's Little Italy. It is also the historic center of the beatnik subculture and we were quite excited to visit the City Light Bookstore where Jack Kerouac and his friends used to meet for litterature and poetry readings. The Beats' legacy of anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking continues to be a strong influence in the store, quite evident in the selection of the book titles. We actually went to Caffe Trieste, known as the beatnik hangout of the '50s. Their home-roasted coffee is impeccable and its old world charm remains unspoiled.


Dia de los Muertos Procession in SF

Dia de los Muertos is a traditional Meso-American holiday dedicated to the ancestors; it honors both death and the cycle of life. In Mexico, neighbors gather in local cemeteries to share food, music, and fun with their extended community, both living and departed. The celebration acknowledges that we still have a relationship with our ancestors and loved ones that have passed away.

In San Francisco, Day of the Dead has been celebrated in the Mission district since the early 70s with art, music, performances and a walking procession, which help us contemplate our existence and mortality -- a moment to remember deceased friends and family, and our connections beyond our immediate concerns. (from here)

Read more here about the history of the Day of the Dead celebration.

San Francisco, The Mission district

The Mission district features plenty of cafés, thrift shops and used-book stores that cater to the college grads, artists, activists and other alterna-types. It also has a very strong Latino influence (taquerias, pupuserias, salon de bellezas... all evidence of the Central American and Mexican families that have been settling the Mission en masse since the 1950s). The first Spanish Mission was created in 1791 (Mission Dolores). It is San Francisco's oldest standing building.

There are lots of amazing murals initiated by the Chicano Art Mural Movement of the 1970s and inspired by the traditional Mexican paintings made famous by Diego Riviera. Some of the more significant mural installations are located on Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley.