San Francisco Travel Tips, Attractions & More
There’s a unique atmosphere in San Francisco that you will feel as soon as you step foot there. And it’s not just from the fog that creeps its way through The Golden City every single day like a gentle lover or the cool weather that seems to cling on to it, even in the middle of summer. It’s more from the attitude, personality, and openness of the city itself.
Known for its liberal outlook, which probably rooted from the American Beat Movement that made its mark here in the 50s, San Francisco welcomes anyone and everyone who seeks a different way of life. It’s a paradise for countercultures really – here, hippies, hipsters, LGBTs, feminists, homeless people, and anybody who doesn’t want to stick to the status quo live in harmony of those who do, accepting, respecting one another.
And that’s true trademark of this city. It’s not the stunning Golden Gate Bridge or the Alcatraz or the adorable ups-and-downs of its streets; it’s the fact that here, everybody is encouraged to be exactly who they are or want to be. That’s the legacy of the City by the Bay.
Season Suitcase Essentials
City Logistics – Getting Around the City
Getting in and out of San Francisco is a breeze! Not only is it serviced by the fantastic San Francisco International Airport, which is connected by SamTran buses and the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) System, the city’s main public transport, it is also serviced by the Oakland and the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airports located in its neighboring cities of Oakland and San Jose. The Oakland Airport is serviced by AirBART shuttle buses while the San Jose Airport is serviced by free shuttles to take passengers to the VTA Light Rail and CalTrain.
The city is also easily accessibly by train (Amtrak) or by car if you’re coming from other parts of the United States. Be aware though that if you’re travelling by train, you might have to pay more on tickets and the trip will take longer and that if you’re travelling by car, you’ll have to deal with traffic getting into the city and pay for parking, which can be very expensive. If you’d rather travel on the road, try the Greyhound buses or one of those lesser-known bus companies. They’re inexpensive and they make good time.
After all, you don’t really need a car to get around the city; in fact, it isn’t recommended for tourists. SF has terrific public transport systems – the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) System, which takes you to and from neighboring Bay Area cities, and the Muni, which is made up of the Metro subway system, street and cable cars, and city buses. Try riding the Historic Streetcar F Line from downtown SF to the Fisherman’s Wharf. You will be rewarded with a sweeping view of the Bay and an exciting ride you won’t soon forget.
If you’re exploring one area of the city like downtown, Chinatown, or the Fisherman’s Wharf, you should definitely go around on foot. The weather is always coolly pleasant in SF so you probably won’t even break a sweat. But since the city is situated on a group of hills, walking from one neighborhood to another might not be the best idea since the streets have extreme uphills and downhills. Same goes with going on a bike – if you have strong cyclying legs and are used to going uphill then by all means, go for it; otherwise, it’s best if you rely on the public transportation for longer trips.
The weather in SF is almost always mild. It doesn’t get too hot, rain too hard here, or get too cold here. So really anytime in the year is a good time to visit, the best time being in the summer (September would be the warmest and driest month), especially if you aren’t very fond of the wet weather.
Where to Stay in San Francisco?
You will notice, if you go on Airbnb.com, that rooms and apartments for rent in San Francisco doesn’t come that cheap. That’s because SF is really an expensive city. In fact, it’s been named time and time again by multiple sources as one of the top 5 most expensive cities in the United States. So don’t be surprised if you have a hard time looking for anything below $50-a-night for a private room there. The upside is, it’s still a cheaper option – you will find entire apartments for less than $200-a-night close to the downtown area – and the places you get will be nice and classy.
Dorm beds in hostels are around $30/night, which is very much as far as hostels go the usual price. Pacific Tradewinds Hostel, HI San Francisco, and San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel are the best reviewed ones in the city. Budget hotel rooms, on the other hand, cost anywhere from $80 – $150 a night. Some of the best are Nob Hill Inn, San Remo Hotel, Touchstone Hotel, Hotel Kabuki, and Inn on Castro. For a splurge, check out Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons Hotel, Argonaut Hotel, and Chancellor.
Top Things to Do
Despite its size, there are so many things you can do in San Francisco. It has a fresh in-your-face attitude when it comes to culture and arts and a classic, romantic feel due to its points of interest. The combination is absolutely stunning and the experience is unforgettable, so much so that you wouldn’t want to leave until you’ve breathed it all in. From its iconic and historic attractions to its energetic scenes, SF will charm you at the very depths of your soul.
Here are its top attractions:
- The city’s best attraction is the Golden Gate Bridge. It is world-famous and iconic and there’s a reason for that. The red bridge hangs over the bay, at times half shrouded in the city’s famous fog, in a magnificent display of might and beauty. See it at the Vista Point next to the 101 across the city or even better, at Battery Spencer in the Marin Headlands in Sausalito, CA.
- Visit and tour the Alcatraz Prison, one of the world’s most infamous. Although it’s now more of a museum than the notorious high security prison that it once was until the 60s, you can still feel the chilling conditions it kept while still in operation. And rumor has it that it is now home to the ghosts of some of its inmates.
- Take a cable car up at Lombard Street, the most crooked street in the world, and watch in wonder as locals speed down the street like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
- Art museums. SF is not only rich in history, it’s also rich in beautiful brilliant art. Make sure to spend a day walking around the halls of the Museum of Modern Art or the Asian Art Museum and be inspired. Also, to keep your little ones distracted, take them to the interactive Bay Area Discovery Museum.
- What is a bay city if not for its wharfs, shorelines, and marine life? Head down to the Fisherman’s Wharf for a day sampling succulent seafood, watching sea lions up close in the marina, or strolling down the beach. Then wonder at the beautiful marine creatures in the Aquarium of the Bay or hop on an adventurous cruise around the Bay.
- Stop by the famous Coit Tower (also Lilian Coit Memorial Tower), a great memorial to the city’s firemen. Learn the legend behind it, gaze upon the murals it houses, and climb all the way to the top to see the spectacular views it offers.
- SF was once a city with an amazing music scene, and not just from its Summer of Love days. Check out its best music attractions like the baroque beauty of the Great American Music Hall, the famous jazz venue of Filmore, the Boom Boom Room, Bimbo’s 365 Club, and the movie palace of Warfield.
- Experience the vestiges of the Hippie (Flower Power) movement at one of the most famous intersections in the world, Haight and Ashbury. It is around this area that the 1960s counterculture gravitated.
- Explore the city’s history by visiting Presidio of San Francisco, a former military defense base home to Battery Chamberlin and Fort Point.
- Bring out your inner beat by checking out the Beat Movement’s legacy in the Beat Museum, the City Lights Bookshop, and Vesuvio then top the day off by grabbing a drink at their favorite haunt, Tosca.
- Walk to the Civic Center and gaze at city’s magnificent Beaux Arts style City Hall and its equally striking interior, complete with a sweeping staircase and intricately designed ceiling.
- Imagine what it’s like living in one of SF’s fancy and famous Painted Ladies, a row of colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
For something new, enjoy some delicious Japanese noodle soup dish at The Ramen Shop. Named as one of the best new restaurants in the area, this new spot comes highly recommended by ramen-lovers and foodies alike. It’s in Oakland, though, so you’ll have to make a short trip out to the East Bay.
SF may be a tad expensive but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it for cheap. Aside from some of its main attractions, which are wonderfully free, you should definitely check out some other things we found that also won’t cost you a cent:
- The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival hold free shows every Saturday and Sunday in September.
- During the Noise Pop Festival in February, there will be a lot of venues holding free shows.
- Free walk-on tours on the Lady Washington, a replica of an 18th century ship, are being offered when it’s docked.
- The San Francisco City Guides also offer free tours of the city, introducing visitors not only to its famous attractions but also to its rich history.
- Learn about the city’s cable cars and their history at the Cable Car Museum, where admission is always free.
For more free things to do in San Francisco, check out National Geographic’s extensive list.
Explore SF Best Neighborhoods
SF is full of such beautiful neighborhoods. At the same time, it has also its share of shady alleys. Don’t get us wrong; the city is not at all dangerous. But it’s important to know that it’s got a big population of homeless people and while they’re probably the friendliest and happiest ones you’ll come across in your life, it’s still important to be vigilant. Or better yet, stick to the city’s best neighborhoods, especially if you’re travelling with your kids.
- SF Downtown is probably the first neighborhood you should explore, especially if it’s your first time in the city. It has Union Square, the Civic Center, the busy Market Street, the Financial District, and the Embarcadero.
- If you’re staying a while, venture out to Nob Hill, with its beautiful (and expensive) homes, and Chinatown, where you can shop and have authentic Chinese food.
- Despite its notoriety for being a tourist trap, the Fisherman’s Wharf has some of the best seafood dishes in town so it’s definitely a must-stop during your stay. Maybe you can burn off some of those calories by heading down to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, where you can walk on the empty Aquatic Park Pier and see a nice view of the Golden Gate Bridge from a distance. Then head back down to North Beach, home of the 50s Beat poets, for a cup of hot coffee.
- To experience the city’s vibrant counterculture movements, look no further than hipster-central Mission, the gay neighborhood of Castro, and the old Hippie enclave of Haight-Ashbury, where you can enjoy other things like Mexican food, Japanese cuisine, and jazz.
- Explore the foggiest side of the city, the West side, which contains the districts of Sunset and Richmond, and the Golden Gate Park.
- And lastly, to the right of those two neighborhoods are the affluent neighborhoods of Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow, and the abandoned military base of Presidio of San Francisco.
SF Shopping Trips
Mission Street, Union Square, and the Embarcadero are SF’s main go-to shopping districts. Here you will find your go-to brands and then some. Lesser know to visitors are Chestnut Street (lots of boutiques specializing in different things), Polk Street (a lot of thrift and consignment shops), and Filmore Street (many luxury brands).
For tea shops, apothecaries, fabric shops, and pretty much everything else that you can get at a bargain, stop by Chinatown.
Last but not least, for a chance to give something back, stop by Dave Eggers’ quirky little pirate shop at 826 Valencia. The proceeds go to the free workshops and after-school tutoring they hold for the local kids.
Foodies – Where to Eat & Drink
The City by the Bay is known for, you guessed it, seafood! In this city, you can have all the freshest crab, shrimp, and mussels you desire. Head down to the Fisherman’s Wharf and feast on the some of the most delicious seafood dishes you’ll ever have this side of the Pacific. Try the Franciscan Crab Restaurant, Restaurant Gary Danko, and Crab House.
SF has one of the largest Chinatowns in the United States so don’t just go filling up on seafood at the wharf! Walk up that hill to Chinatown and have some delicious authentic Chinese food as well. Some of the best Chinese restaurants in that neighborhood include Z & Y Restaurant, Empress of China, and Bund Shanghai Restaurant. Remember to pick your restaurant here carefully as some of them have menus in Chinese and servers that don’t speak English very well.
If you’re not in the mood for any of these, don’t despair. SF has a long list of some of the most amazing restaurants in the country. These include Benu, Fleur de Lys (French), Amber India Restaurant (Indian), Rich Table, and Acquerello (Italian). Looking for something different? Why not enjoy a classic foreign film with your dinner at the Foreign Cinema?
For drinks, have some great cocktails with friends while enjoying front-row seating to the beautiful Californian sunset at the famous Beach Chalet or sip some amazing coffee at one of these coffee shops: Blue Bottle Coffe, Fourbarrel Coffee, Philz Coffee, and Sightglass Coffee.
Late Night – Nightlife in SF
Cap your chilly San Franciscan nights off with a glass of absinthe or other exotic drinks at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, a taste of the old and have a drink at one of the city’s really long-standing haunts, some of which used to be speakeasies, like Café du Nord, Slide (formerly Coffee Dan’s), and The House of Shields, or some good wine or fantastic cocktails at Fish & Farm, Millennium, Slanted Door, and Alembic.
Special Events in San Francisco
SF has a number of amazing festivals and they range from normal to super weird, reflecting the city’s daring and rad attitude. These are the best ones:
- Noise Pop Festival. SF’s version of Austin’s SXSW takes place from late February to early March.
- How Weird Street Faire. Musicians, artists, exotic food vendors, crafters gather in the neighborhood of SoMo to kick off the city’s festival season with what claims to be the “greatest street fair in the galaxy” in May.
- LGBT Parade. It’s only right that because SF has one of the biggest LGBT populations in the world that it has the world’s largest Gay Pride Parade, which happens in June.
- San Francisco Waterfront Festival. Fireworks over the Bay are the highlight of this July festival but throughout the day, there are live entertainment, food, and arts as well.
- Jazz Festivals. The city has a few Jazz festivals, two of which (the Fillmore Street and North Beach ones) happen in July and one (the San Francisco one) take place in October.
- Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival. Taking place at the Golden Gate Park in August is one of the city’s biggest music festival, where many famous bands play for huge crowds of music lovers.
- Overcooked Cinema Film Festival.
- Film Night in the Park. Enjoy your favorite classic movies under the stars and with a botte of wine with your friends and family during this festival in September.
- Street Fairs. Both Folsom and Castro Streets have their own street fairs, which happen in September and October respectively.
- Holiday festivals, which include:
- The Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony at Ghirardelli Square
- The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
- The Celebration of Craftswomen
- The Holiday Festival of Lights
- Macy’s Union Square Tree Lighting Ceremony.
Did you know that San Francisco was once called the Paris of West? That wasn’t just to sell tourism, there’s some accuracy to it. San Francisco is probably one of the most romantic cities in the United States, if not the top, what with its easy disposition, its serenely magnificent fog-covered sights, and its overall pleasantness. I mean, why do you think Tony Bennett used to coon that song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco?” So as far as lover spots are concerned, SF will never will you wanting. Here are some of them:
- Head up to Battery Spencer at sunset across the bridge for a gorgeous view not only of the Golden Gate Bridge but also of the city of San Francisco itself. Stay awhile, until after dusk, and witness as the city comes alive, twinkling against the dusky blue sky.
- Climb up the top of the Coit Tower and be treated to a 360-degree view of the city then wander along Filbert Steps’ lovers lane for a nice walk on a wildflower-lined path.
- Rent a rowboat and paddle your way around Stowe Lake at the Golden Gate Park. Bring a book and a picnic basket and enjoy a nice quiet romantic lunch together.
- Go on the San Francisco Bay cruise of your liking – whether it’s a dinner cruise, a getaway to a nearby island like Angel Island, or whale-watching, guaranteed you’ll have that touch of romance you’re looking for.
- Walk hand-in-hand around the ground of the Palace of Fine Arts where there’s a lake full of swans, an ancient Greek temple, and a grassy area for a relaxing picnic.
- Grab cups of coffee and enjoy delicious bread and pastries together in the idyllic North Beach and either sit at a café or walk around to see the European-style sights there.
Best Day Trips Outside the City
The list of things to do in San Francisco seems neverending and you probably won’t have enough time to see them all. But if you’re looking to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city for a little while, there are some places you can explore to do exactly that.
- Take a boat or a ferry to the historic Angel Island. There, you can learn about its history, go on a hike, rent bikes, and have a nice relaxing picnic with your loved ones away from the city rumble.
- Explore the massive Golden Gate Park where there are bridges, a flower conservatory, a Japanese Tea Garden, and the historic site of the Summer of Love.
- Feel the grandness of nature in the Muir Woods National Monument where old redwoods stand tall surrounded by the marine layer from the gulf.
- Head east to the East Bay area of Oakland and Berkeley and rub elbows with politically charged and avant-garde people there.
- Drive up to the vineyards of Napa Valley. Sip some California wine, walk the grounds, and just enjoy the change in scenery.
San Francisco City Map
San Francisco is not only a city of tolerance, equality, and openness. It’s not just a city that pushes the limits and deviates from the status quo. It’s also a city full of romance, rich history, and unforgettable sceneries. So if you’ve been wanting to visit it, there’s no time than now to experience it and let it mold you.
If you have any tips or suggestions to make a visit to San Francisco even more worthwhile, we’d love to hear from you!