Bay Area on a budget: San Francisco and Napa Valley without the hefty price tag

The Napa Valley Wine Train is a popular attraction but can be pricey. Opt for a lunch or dinner trip, which are less than half the cost of some of the other packages.
The Napa Valley Wine Train is a popular attraction but can be pricey. Opt for a lunch or dinner trip, which are less than half the cost of some of the other packages. (Visit California/David Collier)

San Francisco and Napa Valley regularly are among the top U.S. vacation destinations — and for good reason.

With its historic neighborhoods, homes in the hills and picturesque views of the bay, San Francisco is a cultural and food mecca bursting with diverse options sure to please the most discerning of tastes. Just north, California's Napa Valley wine country offers equally stunning views and experiences.


Both places aren't exactly cheap — San Francisco is known as one of the most expensive cities in the country — and many attractions require reservations in advance.

But with some careful planning, travelers can experience the world-class cuisine, award-winning wine and breathtaking views without emptying their wallets.

Alaska Airlines will begin non-stop service from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to San Francisco in October, the airline announced Thursday.

Napa Valley

Timing is everything in this world-famous wine region.

Avoid Napa Valley on the weekends. There are two main streets in the region, and they get plenty crowded on the weekends.

Travelers on a budget should also opt out of "Harvest Season," which runs from August to the end of October. During this time, in which grapes are crushed for the winemaking process, hotels and other experiences can triple in price. Save that for the rich and famous who flock to the region during that time.

Instead, visit the region during "Cabernet Season" (November to April) when it's slower, cheaper and chefs are more apt to whip up heartier, more complex meals.


And before you leave, go to visitnapavalley.com to score two-for-one wine tasting coupons. (Those come in handy.)

During your visit, try these places to eat, drink, stay and play for a quintessential Napa experience without the hefty price tag.

Conn Creek Winery

8711 Silverado Trail, St. Helena


The experience alone of creating and bottling your own blend of red at Conn Creek Winery more than justifies the $125 cost. But when you add in the blending technique class, where customers combine already-made wines (to take home and drink after six months of aging), guided barrel tastings and overview of the Napa Valley region, the experience is a steal. Great Wine Capitals, an industry organization that promotes excellence within the wine community, agreed. They gave Conn Creek the International "Best of Wine Tourism" Award in 2010. Email info@conncreek.com to make a reservation for the class.

Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort

1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga


Volcanic ash mud baths are a popular form of relaxation in the Napa Valley region. But Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort, which opened in 1952, was one of the first to have it. From the historic red and maroon signage out front to rooms that are reminiscent of the home from "The Brady Bunch," this place has comforting familiarity that will resonate with guests. And although the spa area is a bit rustic, the charm of the employees more than makes up for the lack of sleek chrome and marble fixtures. Rooms start at $229 a night, a better deal than some nearby hotels whose prices can exceed $300 a night. The rooms are huge, very clean and full of amenities found at more modern hotels.

But what sets the resort apart are the reasonably priced spa services. The "Mud Bath" option includes a volcanic ash mud bath, facial mask, mineral bath, steam room and blanket wrap for $94. "The Works" gives you all the services in the "Mud Bath" package with a 30-minute massage for $149. Competing packages at other spas hover around the $200 range just for a mud bath and massage.

Hurley's Restaurant

6518 Washington St., Yountville


While Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro and The French Laundry garner a lot of attention, neighboring Hurley's Restaurant in Yountville is definitely worth a visit for a relaxing — and delicious — lunch. The restaurant offers a two- or three-course prix-fixe lunch menu for $24 or $29 every day of the week. (Entrees at Bouchon range from $31 to $50.) Although the menu changes constantly to incorporate seasonal ingredients, recent offerings included filet and corn soup, and macaroni and cheese with honey-cured bacon. (Tasty does not begin to describe the latter dish.) Also, check out the Monday through Thursday happy hour from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. for $5 draft beer, $6 featured wine and $7 snacks. The restaurant also allows guests to bring their own wine, with free corkage on the first bottle, at dinner.

At the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa, rooms typically cost less than $300 a night if you book a month in advance, and Marriott Rewards discounts are available.
At the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa, rooms typically cost less than $300 a night if you book a month in advance, and Marriott Rewards discounts are available. (Courtesy of Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa)

The Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa

3425 Solano Ave., Napa


Along with rooms that are spacious, extremely clean and comfortable, the Napa Valley Marriott boasts the lovely Heirloom Gardens, which were designed and built by hotel Executive Sous Chef Francisco Aguilar and Executive Chef Brian Whitmer. Since the first crops were planted in 2011, the hotel has been offering daily tours of the garden, which is used for produce and spices at VINeleven, its onsite restaurant.

Every dish on the menu at VINeleven is $30 or less. On a recent visit, the grilled hanger steak with Yukon potato risotto, baby string beans and a pomegranate demi-glace ($30) was cooked and seasoned to perfection.The artichoke and mascarpone ravioli was a close second, and at $26, the hearty portion was perfectly plated.

For a $20 daily destination fee, hotel guests have access to the culinary garden tour with sparkling wine, yoga classes, the spa and eucalyptus steam room, two cups of fresh-brewed Napa Valley Roasting Company coffee, wireless internet and more. It's well-worth the optional fee.

Rooms typically cost less than $300 a night if you book a month in advance, and Marriott Rewards members typically save about $60 per night on rooms. The membership is free to join.


1140 Main St., Napa


Those traveling in a group should head to Torc, the contemporary restaurant nestled in the heart of Napa Valley and owned by Chef Sean O'Toole and his wife, Cynthia O'Toole. The space — a mammoth open dinning room with additional second-floor seating — is always bustling. And for good reason; the food is spectacular, with offerings in a variety of price ranges. Groups can call in advance and order off-menu family-style plates to share, including whole braised 12- to 15-pound beef shank with black perigord truffles for 10 (pre-order for $275); whole roasted halibut tail for four (pre-order for $125); 6-pound lobster Thermidor for four (pre-order for $155), and dry-aged bone-in rib eye (available nightly for $165). There's also a nightly three-course prix-fixe menu for $46 per person plus $18 for wine pairings. And the daily happy hour, served at the bar until 6:30 p.m., offers an array of hearty, tasty bites including the Bengali sweet potato pakora for $5, $4 beers, and $6 glasses of wine and cocktails.

Whitehall Lane Winery


1563 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena


800-963-9454 ext. 19

It's truly a family affair at Whitehall Lane. It's not uncommon for the owners to pop into a tasting or take over leading a tour of their stunning vineyard and winery. Everyone is very friendly and hospitable. It spills over into their packages.

The wine and cheese tasting is $60 and comes with four glasses of wine and four local artisan cheeses. The great thing about this package is that they typically throw in a couple extra pours and small bites from their kitchen.

There's also the "current release tasting," where customers can chose from four wines from the tasting menu for $25 per person.

The best time to visit the Oxbow Public Market, and other attractions, is November to April. David Collier/Visit California
The best time to visit the Oxbow Public Market, and other attractions, is November to April. David Collier/Visit California (Visit California/David Collier)

Culinary Institute of America at Copia

500 1st St., Napa


The Culinary Institute of America's new campus is gorgeous. There are wine tastings, the fantastic Restaurant at CIA Copia, a great gift shop and cooking classes for the public.

"Family funday" themed classes — pizza making or cooking with "hidden" vegetables — start at $15 per person. More complex classes geared toward adults, like making handmade cheeses or sourdough bread, last a little more than an hour and hover around the $25-$35 range.

The Restaurant at CIA Copia is exactly what you'd expect from the famed culinary school. It's modern. The open kitchen model creates a sense of excitement and intimacy to fill the massive dinning room. And the food is beyond reproach.

Although the menu changes seasonally, there are constants like the Copia burger, which will make you tear up it tastes so good. And at $16, the tender burger with white cheddar cheese, house dill pickles and perfectly cooked french fries is a filling, steal of a meal.

Be sure to stop next door at the Oxbow Market, which is a treat in and of itself. Highlights include Fieldwork Brewing Company, where you can bottle your favorite beer on tap for $16, and Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant, which offers cheeses and wines from around the world. Check out "locals night" from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Tuesday, where the merchants offer discounts and debut special items.

Bouchon Bakery

6528 Washington St., Yountville


Its big brother Bouchon usually has a wait and comes with a hefty price tag. Get around that by visiting the quaint, cozy bakery next door. There are tons of mouth-drooling goodies— like the cherry macarons ($3.50 each) and chocolate almond croissant ($4.95) — and the lines don't take long.

Napa Valley Wine Train

1275 McKinstry St., Napa


Despite its past troubles — a group of African-American women were kicked off the train, which resulted in a lawsuit last year — the wine train does not appear to have lost its customers. (On a recent trip, it was packed with an array of diverse passengers.)

The multicourse meal was a gourmet experience. And the views from the train are Instagram-worthy.

Book the gourmet lunch ($146) or dinner ($166) trips, which are less than half the cost of some of the other packages. Sure they don't come with a wine tasting at a vineyard, but if you're in Napa Valley, you'll have your fill of wine every place you visit.

A couple moves from San Francisco to suburban Danville and is quickly won over by its all-American charms.

San Francisco

In San Francisco, where fine dinning bills can rival a car payment, food can easily break your bank. But fear not. The city has an array of great bites at all price points — even a Michelin-rated spot where you can eat for less than $50.

Foodies will delight in sampling fare from spots along the city's piers — macarons at Miette in the Ferry Building, animal-shaped loaves of sourdough bread at Boudin at Fisherman's Warf, and fast food from California staple In-N-Out Burger.

Tourism website sftravel.com regularly has discounted tickets to entertainment and sometimes you'll be able to snag complimentary tickets to certain events. Purchase a CityPASS now for $89 — down from the usual $154 — and get tickets to California Academy of Sciences, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, Aquarium of the Bay and Exploratorium or de Young Museum, plus a three-day pass to use the cable car. The pass also allows you to skip to the front of the line at other attractions.

Save your weekdays for Napa. San Francisco is best enjoyed on a weekend, when hotel prices drop and some offer free parking.

Happy hours

San Francisco has a ton of great happy hour spots, but the historic Castro district lays claim to some of the best deals.

El Techno has a good rooftop deck and good happy hour specials Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. With $4 beers; $5 bar bites and $7 margaritas, it's great for those with a taste for delicious Mexican fare. (2516 Mission St., San Francisco, 415-550-697; eltechosf.com)

Hog and Rocks' happy hour runs from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Standouts include $7 cocktails, fantastic corn dogs for $7 and amazing meatball sliders for $8. (3431 19th St., San Francisco, 415-550-8627; hogandrocks.com)

Yank Sing

49 Stevenson St., San Francisco


This Michelin-rated Chinese restaurant serves some of the most delectable dim sum in the city. It also appears on virtually everyone's "best of" lists. With two locations, and affordable prices — you can eat for less than $49 — there's no reason to miss this experience.

Take a pinch of adventure, add a dash of wanderlust and mix in opportunity. Blend in a passion for deliciousness and what does the recipe yield? For three chefs with Maryland ties — Duff Goldman, Michael Voltaggio and Ryan Coffey — the dish might be called California dreamin'.

La Taqueria

2889 Mission St., San Francisco


If you want something a little more casual, street food is the way to go. Mission district eatery La Taqueria has the best burritos per price. Period.

It's a steal with most menu options priced below $10. The super burrito with meat is priced at $12.50, but it's more than enough to feed two people.

Historic John's Grill


63 Ellis St., San Francisco


For a quintessential San Francisco meal, go to Historic John's Grill. It's been open for 109 years. And it's easy to see why.

Hillary Clinton, Billy Joel, Bill Gates and Derek Jeter have all dined at the institution — their photos are hung on the walls of the restaurant.

And the price is right. Almost every dish — except for steaks and seafood — costs less than $30. The portions are generous, and the food is flavorful—the surf and turf is a crowd favorite. The service is good. And with live music on the second floor, the atmosphere is distinct and classic.

Hotel Griffon

155 Steuart St., San Francisco


Situated along the Embarcadero waterfront, the boutique hotel offers amazing views of the Bay. Once again, planning is key. If you are able to book in advance, you'll save some bucks.

For example, the "View King" rooms, which have excellent views of the Bay, Pier 14, Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, typically hover in the mid-$200 to low $300 range per night. But if you book at least two weeks in advance, rooms drop to as low as $180 a night. If you pre-pay, you'll save 20 percent. And if you stay at the hotel on the weekend, you'll enjoy complimentary parking Thursday through Sunday.

With a slew of craft cocktail and elevated food options and other shopping options, it’s clear that BWI Marshall Airport has upped the ante as far as offering luxurious options for its cu

Alcatraz Cruises

Pier 33, San Francisco


Alcatraz is a must-see. As a result, it can be pretty difficult at times to purchase tickets. Tickets for the night tour are even more limited in availability. Book tickets—up to 90 days in advance — as soon as you know you're coming to San Francisco.

There's no way to get around the ticket costs — $29 for adults, or $20 for seniors and children 5 to 11. Instead, save cash on your transportation to the cruise launch site by avoiding parking garages, which can exceed $20 for just a few hours. Use a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft, grab a metered parking spot ($1.50 to $3.50 an hour), or take public transportation (a day pass on the trolley is $17).

Parc 55 San Francisco, a Hilton Hotel

55 Cyril Magnin St., San Francisco


With its breathtaking views, vast restaurant offerings and central location—it's near the theater district and a variety of other entertainment—Parc 55 is great bet.

The rooms are new and modern and the staff is extremely helpful. Rooms typically are less than $250 a night. But online deals can result in rooms dropping to as low as $105 per night. Also book rooms on the weekend because they tend to be cheaper than weekdays, a spokeswoman for the hotel said.

The hotel offers three restaurants, but opt for the breakfast buffet at Cable 55. It's $39 for noodles, dim sum, pancakes, waffles, fresh fruits, eggs and assorted breakfast meats. Kids eat for $9.

Pier Market Seafood Restaurant

Pier 39, Beach St., San Francisco


Since July 2013, Pier Market Seafood Restaurant has served all sustainable seafood. And this year the restaurant completed a remodel of the restaurant. The rich wood interior is reminiscent of the interior of a grand pirate ship or a fictional tavern.

Located on Pier 39, the restaurant provides great views of the water and tasty, affordable dishes.

Try the Fisherman's Platter ($20.95), which includes a humongous assortment of shrimp, calamari, fish and chips.

The award-winning New England clam chowder is rich and filling. It comes in a cup for $5.75 or classic sourdough bread bowl for $8.95.