San Francisco is a city of contrasts. But it’s those very contrasts that make it such an intriguing city to visit.
One of the most recognised cities in the world, San Francisco is best known for its natural beauty, rich history, diverse culture and progressive spirit.
From its original establishment as a Spanish settlement, through the California gold rush, the Summer of Love Movement of the 1960s and 1970s to becoming the gateway to Silicon Valley. San Francisco has a rich and diverse story that continues to build and shape the city to this day.
Also popularised in movies and TV shows, it’s no wonder that tourists flock to San Francisco each and every year to discover the amazing, eclectic and occasionally outrageous things that make this city so famous.
So, let’s dig into everything you need to be aware of before heading to San Francisco.
Where is San Francisco
If you don’t have any previous reference points, San Francisco is located on the west coast of the United States of America in the state of California.
For those a little more familiar with the geography of North America, San Francisco is actually in Northern California, approximately a 6-hour drive (383miles/616km) north of Los Angeles and a 2-hour drive (87miles/140km) southwest of Sacramento, the state capital.
Situated on the northern end of the San Francisco Peninsula, which is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, San Francisco Bay to the east, and the Golden Gate Strait to the north. San Francisco is a coastal city and is known for its hilly terrain, which offers breathtaking views of the city and the bay.
While the Bay Area actually made up of several different cities, the largest being Oakland and San Jose.
A Brief History Of San Francisco
I touched on the history of San Francisco in the introduction, but San Francisco’s history dates further back to the pre-colonial era when the Ohlone people inhabited the region.
The Spanish explorers arrived in the late 18th century and established a mission and a fort, which led to the original colonisation of the area. Remnants of this history can be discovered in the Mission district of the city to this day.
In 1848, gold was discovered in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains, sparking the California Gold Rush. This firmly established San Francisco as a city as it grew rapidly as the main port for the influx of fortune seekers.
In 1906 the city experienced one of the most devastating natural disasters recorded in the United States when an earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed much of San Francisco. The following rebuilding efforts shaped much of the city we now see today.
During World War II, San Francisco played a critical role as a military and shipping hub for the Pacific Theater. The job opportunities in the city created another boom in the population of the city.
But it’s the economic downturn following the war that probably had the biggest impact on the city when it became a magnet for America’s counterculture leading to the city’s diverse population and liberal attitudes.
All of these made San Francisco a centre for social and cultural movements, including the Beat Generation, the hippie culture, and the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Most notably, in 1967, the Summer of Love brought thousands of young people to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, cementing the city’s reputation as a hub of social and cultural experimentation.
Today, San Francisco is a global centre of innovation and technology, with a rich cultural heritage and a vibrant arts scene. Despite its ups and downs, the city has remained a symbol of resilience and progress, attracting millions of visitors from around the world every year.
What’s The Best Time Of Year To Visit San Francisco
The very brief answer is that summer is the ideal time to visit San Francisco. But let’s delve into it a little bit further.
San Francisco has a mild climate year-round, with temperatures rarely dipping below freezing or soaring above 80°F (27°C). However, there are more factors to consider when deciding when to visit.
The peak tourist season in San Francisco is during the summer months of June to August, and for good reason. This is when the weather is typically sunny and warm. However, this is also when the city is the most crowded and accommodation prices are at their highest.
You might find that the fringe seasons, Spring (March to May) and Fall (Autumn for the non-Americans) (September to November), better suit your travels.
During these months, you will find that the weather is still mild and pleasant, but most importantly, the crowds thin out. This is also when the city hosts some of its most popular events, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
In the Winter (December to February), at least in my experience, San Francisco is very rainy. Which really isn’t ideal when the city’s outdoor attractions are one of the big appeals of visiting. That said, the festive events, most notably the holiday lights at Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39, may make up for the rainy days.
One more common weather phenomenon to keep in mind for San Francisco is the fog. More prevalent in the summer, this typically low-lying fog makes for some stunning images of the Golden Gate Bridge from the higher elevations around the city.
How To Get To And From San Francisco
Second only to Los Angeles, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is not only one of the busiest airports on the west coast of the United States. It’s also one of the two primary arrival points for international travellers into California.
As such, flying into SFO is the most common way for visitors to arrive in San Francisco. The airport is located south of the city, 13 miles (21km) from the downtown area.
SFO is well connected to the city, with the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) linking the airport directly with the city. Just note you will need a Clipper Card to ride public transport in San Francisco, but I’ll get into that in more detail in my getting around the city section below.
However, if you are travelling as a group or just not comfortable navigating public transport on your first day in a new city, there are a couple of other options for you.
Being the birthplace of ride-sharing services, most notably Uber, the airport is well set up to use these services, with dedicated pickup areas right outside the terminals. Just note if you are travelling from overseas, you will need a data service when you arrive. Something I delve into deeper in my guide to visiting the United States for the first time post.
If you really want to simplify your arrival in San Francisco, the best option may be to pre-book a charter to take you straight from the airport to your hotel. There are several recommendations for these services on the SFO website.
Alternatively, if you are already in the United States, another option is taking a bus or train to San Francisco. The closest Amtrak station is in Emeryville (Oakland), where you can link with the BART for the rest of the trip. Several bus companies, including Greyhound and Megabus, also service the city.
One more note, which I’ll get into it in a little more detail in the next section, but San Francisco is probably one of the few cities where I wouldn’t recommend renting a car.
How To Get Around San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the easiest cities in the United States to get around, with plenty of transport options.
Let’s start with the city’s established and interlinked public transport system. Within the heart of San Francisco, you will find well-connected buses, streetcars, cable cars and light rail operated by Muni Transit.
The busses will get you to most places, but one of the unique experiences of San Francisco is the historic cable cars which are also run by Muni. I’ll give you more details about the cable cars later in this post. Also, keep an eye out for the historic street cars for another unique transport option.
To explore more outside the city, there is a train/subway system known as the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which interlinks the other cities of the Bay Area.
Not only does the BART link San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to the downtown area. Other lines connect San Francisco to Oakland and San Jose.
To ride public transport in San Francisco, there are a few different ways to buy tickets, but the Clipper Card is universal across all of them. The best part of the Clipper Card is that you can buy them with your phone before you arrive in the city.
In addition to the public transport options, being so close to the home of start-up and tech industries, all of the ride and car-sharing services are well represented in San Francisco. Even several you haven’t heard of yet.
You can definitely use the ride-sharing service you are most comfortable with. But also keep an eye out for the new services pioneering the use of driverless cars and other leading-edge technologies. Especially if you are a fan of trying the latest and greatest things and want to novelty experience.
One other thing I will mention while I typically recommend renting a car to explore the areas surrounding a city. San Francisco is one of the places where I suggest you don’t rent a car.
Due to the amount of petty crime in the city, something we’ll delve deeper into in the next section of this post, rental cars have a huge target on them for smash-and-grab style theft. It’s so common that you’ll often see locals leaving their cars unlocked and open so they don’t have to replace the windows regularly.
To avoid experiencing that inconvenience and frustration, I’d strongly suggest skipping the rental car while visiting San Francisco. Instead, maybe look to using one of the car-sharing services (like Uber or Lyft, but you actually get to drive the car) to use a car for a day of exploring some of the destinations outside of the city.
How To Stay Safe In San Francisco
As I touched on in the previous section, petty crime is a pretty common occurrence in San Francisco.
So much so that even simple things like toothbrushes and toothpaste are often kept in locked cabinets within supermarkets. When you arrive in the city, you’ll almost immediately notice the heavy gates on every building and security guards (private police) everywhere.
Now part of this is to do with the incredibly large homeless population in the city. While another part is to do with the more liberal laws San Francisco is well known for, even around theft.
That said, the divide between the good and bad areas of the city is very obvious. And by simply avoiding the bad areas, you’d be almost none the wiser as to how bad some of these issues are in San Francisco.
I’ll dig into a lot more with my recommendations on where to stay in San Francisco section, but where you do stay will have a big impact on the sort of experience you have while visiting the city. As a very simplified rule, the closer you are to the bay (the water), the better the area is.
The worst of the issues are in the Tenderloin, Hunters Point, and the Western Addition, where the homeless situation is very confronting, and I would strongly recommend avoiding these areas. But in saying there are a couple of other places you need to be extra vigilant and generally avoid at night, particularly parts of the Mission District and SOMA.
My best suggestion is to take advantage of a hop-on hop-off bus tour on your first day, particularly the Big Bus Tour, to not only get your bearings around the city but also help you work out where the good and bad areas are around San Francisco. That way, you will know where you are comfortable exploring for the rest of your time.
The bad areas will be immediately obvious, where all the businesses are closed. If you start to see tents and tarp structures, just turn around and go somewhere else. At the very least, cross the street and go around them.
Now onto some general safety tips.
- Be aware of your surroundings – Be mindful of your surroundings and the people around you. Avoid dark and isolated areas at night, and stay in well-lit, populated areas.
- Don’t show off flashy gear – It’s quite common for people to walk around with generic-looking backpacks in San Francisco, so take one of those with you to hold your camera or anything else that you want to carry around that might otherwise grab too much attention.
- Use public transportation wisely – San Francisco’s public transportation system is generally safe, but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings when using it. Avoid empty train cars or buses, and keep an eye on your belongings at all times.
- If it looks sketchy, it probably is – Enough said.
The Best Things To Do In San Francisco
Despite what I just mentioned, San Francisco is an amazing city with so much to see and do. In fact, too much to include here, so I created a separate blog post covering everything you must see and do.
San Francisco’s Districts
Part of San Francisco’s unique appeal is the diverse districts that make up the city.
San Francisco is made up of many different neighbourhoods and districts, each with its own unique character and attractions. Some of the main districts of San Francisco include:
Located in the heart of downtown San Francisco, Union Square is best known as the city’s high-end shopping district.
If you are looking for a luxurious experience while you are in the city, Union Square is where you will find some of San Francisco’s fanciest hotels, fine dining, designer boutiques and luxury retailers.
However, it hasn’t always been this way. An important gathering place in San Francisco since the mid-19th century. Over the years, it has been the site of many significant events, including political rallies, concerts, and public demonstrations.
Following a redevelopment in the 1980s, the area has become more up-market, but I would still recommend a visit to the park in Union Square to check out the public art installations.
The Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco is a historic district that is best known for its association with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. During this time, the Haight became a centre of the hippie movement, attracting artists, musicians, and free spirits from all over the world.
Today, Haight-Ashbury is a vibrant neighbourhood that retains much of its bohemian charm. Visitors can stroll down Haight Street and see the colourful Victorian homes, vintage clothing stores, and eclectic street performers that give the area its unique character.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and largest in North America.
Established by Chinese immigrants lured by the gold rush, it now covers 24 blocks of the city and is home to a vibrant community of their descendants.
One of the main attractions of Chinatown is its traditional architecture and decor. The streets are adorned with red lanterns, ornate pagoda-style buildings, and colourful murals. The main entrance to Chinatown is the iconic Dragon Gate on Grant Avenue, which is a popular spot for photos.
However, the most popular destination within Chinatown would have to be the Chinatown Fortune Cookie Factory, where visitors can watch the fortune cookies being made and can even make their own with custom fortunes inside.
Little Italy, also known as North Beach, is a historic neighbourhood in San Francisco known for its Italian-American heritage, food, and nightlife. It is located just north of downtown San Francisco and adjacent to Chinatown.
One of the main attractions of Little Italy is its food. The neighbourhood is home to some of the best Italian restaurants in San Francisco, serving up classic dishes like pizza, pasta, and seafood.
In addition to its culinary offerings, Little Italy also has a rich cultural and historical significance. It was home to the Beat Generation of writers in the 1950s, and iconic figures like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg frequented the neighbourhood’s cafes and bars.
The Mission District is a vibrant and diverse neighbourhood best known as the hub for Latino culture in San Francisco.
With its colourful street art murals, eclectic mix of restaurants and bars, and thriving arts scene, there are many reasons to visit the Mission District. Just be mindful that some parts of the Mission District are a little bit sketchy, so it’s best to explore during the day to be on the safe side.
The Mission District is also known for its food, with a wide range of dining options. It’s definitely where you will find the best traditional Mexican cuisine in the city.
The Castro District is a neighbourhood in San Francisco that is known for being a hub of LGBTQ+ culture and activism. It is located in the heart of the city and is easily recognizable by the rainbow flags that fly throughout the area.
One of the most iconic landmarks in the Castro District is the Castro Theatre, a historic movie palace that dates back to 1922. The theatre is known for its Art Deco design and is a popular venue for film festivals and other cultural events.
Best Places To Stay In San Francisco
The type of experience you have in San Francisco will be determined by where you choose to stay in the city.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, there is a big divide between the good and well… not so good areas of San Francisco. But as a very vague and general rule, the best areas are typically along the water. With that in mind, let’s get into some more specific recommendations.
The most touristy area of San Francisco, Fishermans Wharf is also the most centrally located, guaranteeing the best experience while you are in the city. That said, it’s also one of the more expensive areas.
I’ve already mentioned it, but the most unique experience for somewhere to stay is The Fairmont Heritage Place Ghirardelli Square within the former chocolate factory. But it is easily the most expensive option.
These three hotels all feature modern, spacious rooms, which is a bit of a rarity in San Francisco. As an added bonus, some of their rooms offer views out over the bay.
Accommodation is expensive in San Francisco, but you can find a couple of better value-for-money options in the Marina District area located between Fishermans Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, typically along Lombard Street.
Union Square and Nob Hill
Union Square and Nob Hill (adjacent to each other) are where you’ll find the biggest concentration of hotels in San Francisco. It’s also where you will find the most upmarket options.
That said, you need to pay attention to where you are booking; some very average hotels charge upmarket prices based on their location more so than their facilities. You can get two very different experiences for a similar amount of money.
My best suggestion is the Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel for something a little different. Otherwise, the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and Hotel Nikko San Francisco are exceptional alternatives with modern rooms overlooking the city.
Attending Major Sports Events In San Francisco
If you’ve never been to a sporting event in the United States, then you really must. From its iconic teams to the immersive stadium atmosphere, it’s well worth the experience, and San Francisco is home to some of the best-known sporting teams in the USA.
The most well-known of all of them would be the San Francisco 49ers (NFL), who play their home games at Levis Stadium. Fans of American Football will need no introduction to the 49ers, as the team’s history stands on its own, but they are arguably one of the most popular sports teams in California.
While their current home isn’t directly in the heart of San Francisco, it is well worth the effort to get out to one of the 49ers games if you happen to be in the area during the NFL season (September to January). I’ve put everything you need to know about attending Levis Stadium in this blog post.
Fun Fact: Did you know that you can visit the original home of the 49ers while exploring the city? Look out for Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park.
In addition to the 49ers, San Francisco is also home to the oldest Major League Baseball (MLB) teams, the San Francisco Giants. Although they didn’t call the city home when they were founded back in 1883, they play their home games in the heart of the city at Oracle Park.
The NBA’s Golden State Warriors also call the city home. Representing all of Northern California (except Sacramento, which has its own team), the Warriors play their home games at the Chase Center, only a 15-minute walk from Oracle Park.
Where To Find Food In San Francisco/What To Do In The Evenings
In a city as diverse as San Francisco, it’s easy to imagine that the local cuisine and nightlife are equally as diverse.
From street food vendors to Michelin-starred restaurants, the city has something for everyone. While I typically avoid specific recommendations, there are a couple of things you can’t miss while you are in San Francisco.
The first is Boudin Sourdough. This icon of San Francisco is a must-visit while in the Fishermans Wharf district. Make sure you try the famous clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl.
If San Francisco is your only stop in California, you also need to make sure you try In and Out Burger, the most popular fast food you can get in the state.
Also, the street hot dog vendors are pretty good if you are after a quick meal.
Now for some more generalised advice. Each district has its own specialty when it comes to food. In the Mission District, you’ll find the best Mexcian food you’ve ever had. Chinatown’s Asian cuisine is amazing. And if you are after Italian, yes, you guessed it, head the Little Italy/North Beach.
As for nightlife, you’ll find that it is also district based. If you are looking for a Cocktail Bar, head to Union Square. The Mission District is famous for its dive bars. SoMa is where you will find the best nightclubs. At the same time, you will find a good number of bars and casual dining options spread throughout the city.
Best Day Trips Out Of San Francisco
Yosemite National Park
Easily a destination in its own right, Yosemite National Park can be visited as a day trip out of San Francisco and an unmissable experience while you are in the area.
This iconic national park is well worth the effort to visit to be able to witness the natural beauty first-hand.
I’d highly recommend getting on the road early to make the most of your time, as it will take you about four hours to drive to Yosemite from San Francisco, let alone the return trip.
My best suggestion is to head to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. This is where you will find the famous Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls. That way, if you see nothing else while you are in Yosemite, you’ve ticked off all the key views.
If you are feeling adventurous, there are hundreds of hikes all around Yosemite. Some of the most popular are Mist Trail, Mirror Lake Trail, and Yosemite Falls Trail. That said, on a day trip, you will only really have time to do one of the trails.
If the hikes sound like too much effort, even driving into and out of the valley are adventures in their own right, with dozens of amazing lookouts to stop at along the way. You’ll see them along the way, and I’d recommend the day trip for those stops alone.
Obviously, there is so much more to see in Yosemite National Park, but as a day trip out of San Francisco, a trip into the Valley will allow you to see as much as possible before having to head back to the city.
Muir Woods National Monument
A little closer to San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument is famous for its towering redwoods.
If getting out into nature and hiking is one of your must-dos, then Muir Woods is the best place, just 45 minutes outside of the city. But at the very least, you visit to see the redwoods. The largest and tallest trees in the world.
Combined with the neighbouring Mount Tamalpais State Park, there are dozens of hikes to explore, from the redwood forest all the way to the beaches. Take the main trail from the Muir Woods Visitors Center to see the key attractions, Cathedral Grove and Bohemian Grove.
From there, you can explore numerous other trails depending on how adventurous you are feeling.
For all the latest information about Muir Woods National Monument, visit the National Parks website.
Day trips out of San Francisco don’t have to be all hiking trails and lookouts. One of the world’s premier wine regions, Napa Valley, is a short drive outside of the city.
Famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, there are over 400 wineries to discover in Napa Valley, from small family-run vineyards to much larger commercial operations. Many of which offer tours and wine tastings.
When combined with the neighbouring Sonoma Valley, also famous for its wine, there are too many options to discover on your own during a single-day trip. My best suggestion would be to try one of these wine region tour options that operate out of San Francisco.
That said, if you do decide to drive around yourself, Napa Valley is also home to Northern California’s finest restaurants. So if you do choose to make your own arrangements (remember, wine sampling and driving is a bad idea), there is still plenty to discover.
My best suggestion to sample some of the best foods from the region is to head to Oxbow Public Market. But there are a number of other very good options in the downtown Napa area.
As the gateway to Silicon Valley, no trip to San Francisco would be complete without a day exploring the home of the world’s most innovative and successful tech companies.
With Google, Apple, Netflix, eBay and Facebook all setting up their headquarters in this region of Northern California, Silicon Valley has become the go-to destination for tech start-ups.
For super fans of these tech companies, both the Apple and Google campuses have visitor centres with gift shops that sell exclusive merchandise. But for a more encompassing experience, why not do an organised tour showcasing not only where these companies are now but where they started?
While you are in the area, be sure also to visit Stanford University‘s campus. One of the world’s most prestigious universities, it’s also been the birthplace of a lot of these tech companies.
While for a detailed history of the technological revolution brought about by these companies, you should also visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around the United States of America, I’ll have some more specific content coming in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, check out my general advice for first-time travellers to the US.
And if you have a travel-related question, you would like me to answer, head on over to my contact page to get in touch and let me know.