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The cruises of the Blue & Gold Fleet might seem touristy, but that's okay ... be a tourist. The big boats provide a unmatched view of many atractions, including Alcatraz island.

The affordable San Francisco

Looking for a way to get big vacation bang from modest vacation bucks? Consider a drive to San Francisco.

Sure, it's on everybody's list of most expensive cities. But if you live in the Rogue Valley, circumstances align to make it worth considering.

To fly anywhere from Medford, travelers have to pay extra — the "small-town airport tax." The City by the Bay, one of the world's great destinations, is less than a day's drive. With gas about half what it cost last summer, you can take the money you saved on air fare for Hawaii or Orlando and pay your hotel bill in San Francisco.

"San Francisco has a downside," our server at Scoma's said last week. "It's not affordable anymore."

Maybe. But it doesn't have to cost a fortune to visit.

We spent six days in the city and saw many of the big arts and science attractions, attended two concerts and a play, went birding, tried two great, new-to-us restaurants and a little gem of a new watering hole, all without breaking the bank.

Bargains

One of the best ways to save money is to buy the $59 ($39 for kids) CityPass (citypass.com). Available in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities, CityPass claims to knock up to 50 percent off the price of some of the biggest attractions, and it did just that for us.

It's a booklet that fits in your pocket. You skip the ticket lines and pay with a coupon out of the booklet.

WARNING: DO NOT TEAR OUT COUPONS!

You may encounter an officious person with a little authority, as we did at the Marina, who will deny you admission based on not seeing you tear the coupon out. No matter that he can see the perforated stub in your booklet. No matter that you don't look like you've been scavenging the gutters for coupons that mysteriously float out of others' CityPass booklets.

We simply went to another entrance and had no further problem.

A map, hours, directions and tips from Geographic Traveler magazine help make it a smart buy. Get one for a weekend or up to nine days. It includes five admissions to major places plus unlimited Muni bus and street car rides and unlimited cable car rides (otherwise $5 a pop).

Here are the biggies:

  • California Academy of Sciences
  • Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure
  • Aquarium of the Bay
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • A choice of either the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor


One cool thing about CityPass is that you can use it to get to the attractions. We didn't take our car out of the hotel all week. No gas. No traffic. No getting lost.

Best of all, no looking for a place to park.

Getting out of your personal steel-and-glass box and actually interacting with other humans is a whole different world for many of us. It's not only possible in a big city with public transportation, it's fun. We had some great conversations with interesting residents and tourists we would never otherwise have met.

There are alternatives to the CityPass, including tours and packages with more out-of-town attractions, but for spending anything from a long weekend to a week in the city, we found CityPass a good choice.

Large Attractions

Blue and Gold Fleet (415-773-1188, blueandgoldfleet.com).

Sure, it's touristy. But so are you. And it's fun. So spend one of your coupons and hop on one of these big old boats that take off from the Pier 39 Marina and work their way down San Francisco's inimitable skyline with surprising dispatch. It's always a kick to cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge (why, those cars look like little toys!). Ditto for the slow swing around the back side of The Rock, where you picture Al Capone and the Birdman doing time.

Aquarium of the Bay (415-623-5300, aquariumofthebay.com).

Best done just before or just after that boat ride. Check out fish and marine animals from the Bay and the highlight: a 300-foot tunnel tank you walk through. Don't trip over the kids oohing and ahhing at all the sharks.

California Academy Of Sciences (415-379-8000, calacademy.org).

What can you say about the only place in the world where an aquarium (yes, another one), a natural history museum and a planetarium are found under one roof. And what a roof. Two-and-a-half acres of living roof with 1.7 million native plants and 60,000 photovoltaic cells. From the air it looks like one of those photos of the Martian surface people are always trying to see a face in.

Recently completed after 10 years at a cost of $500 million, the Renzo Piano-designed structure also contains a four-story rainforest, a 3D theater, a lecture hall, a naturalist center, two restaurants, a garden and aviary and, of course, a store. Not to mention a scientific archive of more than 20 million specimens.

The centerpiece, architecturally if not thematically, is the rain forest. You walk in (it's wheelchair accessible) and check out the life on the forest floor, then work your way up. Those butterflies and birds you catch fleeting glimpses of down there? Wait until you get to the fourth floor, which puts you at the forest canopy.

The planetarium is a digital wonder, with sights and sounds out of this world. The show we saw was only so-so, a brief look at SETI and the search for other habitable planets in the galaxy.

It's free, but you must get a ticket after you've been admitted to the Academy. A tip: Get in line 15 or 20 minutes early so you can sit near the top. You won't have to crane your neck.

Exploratorium (415-EXPLORE, exploratorium.edu).

We'd been to the de Young and Legion of Honor before, but never to the Exploratorium, so this was a no-brainer. If you've ever wanted to make a mummy, electrocute a pickle or dissect a cow's eye, this is your place.

The Exploratorium is what might result if the mutant offspring of Rube Goldberg and a lab full of mad scientists got together with The Discovery Channel's MythBusters guys on a big budget and acquired their own corner of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts.

This is stuff designed, literally, to mess with your mind — with the effect of opening it to the world around us. The displays and experiments are all hands-on. You're encouraged to touch, pick up, ride, peer through, tinker with and otherwise abuse everything but the staff.

To get out there from downtown take Muni bus 30. Check out the faux-Grecian Temple restoration project on the 915 Pan-Pacific International Exhibition-era Palace of Fine Arts while you're in the neighborhood. Or just stretch out in the grass by the swan lake, which these days is actually a gull and mallard lake. The weather was so fine the day we visited that we couldn't resist walking from the Presidio down to the Bay and through the Marina and Fort Mason to Fisherman's Wharf for dinner.

Sall Attractions

Many of the best things in San Francisco, if not in life, are free — or at least cheap. If you have time and energy left over from the big attractions, it is fun to just walk around neighborhoods such as North Beach, the Castro and the Haight. Fish Alley, Yerba Buena Gardens, the Barbary Coast Trail, the Cable Car Museum, the Coit Tower, the Presidio, Union Square and Golden Gate Park are all free.

And don't forget the South of Market area, or SoMa. We stayed there in the Good Hotel, which is marketed as a hotel with a conscience, aka lots of green stuff and recycling. It's a clean and comfy boutique hotel for under $100 a night (plus taxes and parking).

There are cool restaurants and clubs mixed in with the derelict buildings in SoMa, lots of art and nightlife and even little theaters doing good work. Yes, there are lots of homeless and street people in the area, especially near Market Street. We've found walking in the area safe on repeated visits, but check out the streets and determine your own comfort level.

If you just must get that car out, consider San Francisco's 49-mile Scenic Drive. It's full of iconic sights, great views of the bay and ocean and a smorgasbord of neighborhoods from the Marina to the Mission. Blue and white gull signs are there to guide you, usually, although you might want to pick up a map, too. The drive is a good thing to do your first day in town as a sort of taste of things to come, or perhaps on your last day in town as a fond farewell.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

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