The familiar ding, dinging of a bright red cable car rising to the top of California Street, the Golden Gate Bridge stretching across the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, the lantern-strewn streets of Chinatown; these are some of the most recognizable sights and sounds of California’s City by the Bay. To seasoned travelers, San Francisco is “European,” with its many small, distinct neighborhoods like majestic Nob Hill and friendly Castro Street. For artists, it’s an eclectic city of vibrance, represented by the post-hippie Haight and the quasi-post-hipster Mission District. For activists, San Francisco is a beacon. For technophiles, it’s heaven. Now a cosmopolitan city on the world stage, forgetting that San Francisco was once a makeshift town of travel-weary amateur miners isn’t difficult.
When gold was first discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1848, it initiated a massive influx of prospectors during the period famously known as the Gold Rush. San Francisco served as the perfect landing point for those arriving from around the world, a place for miners to begin and end their journeys, a place where they could plan and ultimately lose their fortunes in the many saloons and cathouses. As the population grew—it rose from 1,000 to 25,000 people within the first year of the Rush alone—the town had no choice but to establish governance. The international influence and wealth, along with the Wild West penchant for rebelliousness, led to an amalgamation of culture and vice, the perfect muse for quirky columnists like Mark Twain and wildlife enthusiasts such as Jack London. “The Paris of the West” seemed exactly that, until it was destroyed on April 18, 1906 by a great earthquake and subsequent conflagration. The city would limber forward in defiant high spirits until it unveiled itself once again to the world, grander and shinier than ever before, as the host of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
San Francisco has always maintained a history of diversity. And while time has reshaped the once notorious Barbary Coast to bistros and chic work studios, curious eccentricities remain. In the Financial District, a modern business hub home to skyscrapers, one might pass a restaurant that once served prospectors in 1849. Establishments in North Beach, SF’s Italian district, still feature venues where the great poets of the Beat Generation frequented. Union Square is bustling, the Marina is posh, Chinatown is rambunctious and Fisherman’s Wharf is the best kind of tacky; like the rainbow flags flying during Pride, there’s a color here suitable for any personality.
A convenient ride via the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) light rail system provides access to a diverse number of East Bay cities, including Berkeley and Oakland. Get in a ferry boat and a scenic commute sets the mood for visits to the North Bay, where photo-friendly cities like Sausalito and Tiburon are found. A Caltrain ride south takes visitors straight into Silicon Valley, home of tech giants Apple, Facebook and Google, leading the way to the sprawling city of San Jose. Of course, foodies and wine lovers ought to already know that both the valleys of Napa and Sonoma, the heart of the American wine scene, are just a short drive away.
Best of Fisherman’s Wharf … Seafood and sea lions along the waterfront
Best of the Tenderloin … What to see from Little Saigon to City Hall
Secret Monuments of Downtown … Discovering landmarks hidden in plain view
San Francisco Gardens … Where gardens thrive on steep slopes, rooftops and barren sandhills
Top Family-Friendly Adventures … Best attractions for the entire family
Yerba Buena: culture, art, innovation … A walking tour through the vibrant neighborhood
And even more local itineraries below.
If chill, fog and rain aren’t on the list of things you love, opt to visit San Francisco during the fall. The city experiences “Indian summers,” meaning the hottest days of the year occur in September. Autumn, from August to the end of October, will no doubt be the ideal time to visit San Francisco, as the weather is more facilitating and the crowds are at a minimum. From September to November, you’ll find great events such as the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Dia de los Muertos (the ghoulishly colorful yet family-friendly “Day of the Dead”) and the Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival.
Summers bring in the most visitors to San Francisco, but they’re also the least rainy months for the city (San Francisco sees the lowest amount of precipitation during the period from May to September, with July being the least rainy month). While it will be more difficult to book a hotel or schedule a popular attraction like a tour of Alcatraz, you’ll be rewarded with more street events such as Bay to Breakers, the Fillmore Jazz Festival, Carnaval, numerous neighborhood festivals and, of course, the San Francisco Pride Celebration which occurs in late springtime. Thankfully, all of these festivals are outdoors and free to attend, so you won’t be fighting off your fellow traveler for a view of the show.
The period from November to March brings in the most precipitation, with the rainiest months being December, January and February. The holidays attract a fair share of visitors, as the city provides a magical backdrop for festivities. Outdoor ice skating rinks are set at both Union Square and Justin Herman Plaza. Giant Christmas trees can be found illuminating the light at Union Square and along the waterfront at Pier 39. For shoppers, Black Friday entices crowds with numerous sales, creating a bustling congestion downtown. After the holidays, many restaurants participate in Dine About Town, a program that occurs at the end of January during SF Restaurant Week when diners can sample from normally pricey menus at top restaurants for a fraction of the cost.
Unlike other cities, San Francisco is a technological hub with many conferences, and booking a hotel downtown during, say, Dreamforce (usually in autumn) or the Game Developers Conference (usually in spring), can be exceedingly difficult. Additionally, you’d have better luck swimming back from Alcatraz than you would at finding last-minute room vacancy during Outside Lands, the city’s largest music and arts festival (usually occurring in August) which brings in up to 60,000 attendees per day. Always plan ahead when booking, as exact dates for such conferences often change from year to year.
For full coverage of the city, four days of adventuring should provide a nice introduction. Each neighborhood could warrant at least half a day of exploration, and museums can often be a most-of-the-day affair. Like many walkable cities, San Francisco is best digested slowly, block by block. It’s in the well-paced and deliberate passing that one sees the real surprises the city has to offer, from the colorful alleys of street art to the hole-in-the-wall diners offering world-class cuisine. And no matter which season you choose to visit, be sure to bring plenty of layers (the number one rule given by any local when discussing SF climate), as even the warmest days lead to potentially chilly nights.
San Francisco is widely recognized as one of the country’s most expensive cities to live in, mostly due to the inflated rent. Space is at a premium in the city, and visitors may feel the bind if arriving during peak periods. Thankfully, everything else remains fairly affordable, at least in terms of a major metropolitan city, throughout the year.
Hotels, particularly historic or luxurious ones, will run a traveler up around $400/night or more. However, they offer an experience akin to living in palaces. For more modest stays, boutique options are available for around $150-200/night, even near Union Square.
While Airbnb was birthed in San Francisco, you’ll also find great deals at independent European/pensione-style accommodations, particularly those with shared facilities. Numerous hostels can be found across downtown, many of them offering hotel-level amenities as well as fun outdoor and social events. Small hotels and hostels can run slightly above $100/night on average.
If you’re traveling with a car, Van Ness Avenue and Lombard Street (along Highway 101 from the south of the city to the Golden Gate Bridge) offer many motel options with available on-premises parking. Expect to pay a higher room rate for the luxury of an included parking space, even if the property isn’t anywhere near downtown.
San Francisco is a foodie city, so costs for food and drink span the spectrum. With the many small eateries and the popular food trucks zipping about, a full meal can be had for under $10. For example, the numerous taquerias in the Mission offer affordable Mexican fare that can fill your belly for around $7. In the Tenderloin, Vietnamese eateries offer banh mi sandwiches and soothing bowls of hot pho at very affordable prices. For more upscale dining, book in advance for popular restaurants and those run by renowned chefs.
Seek out happy hours, as many restaurants and bars offer two-for-one deals or significantly reduced prices for menu items. While cocktails and craft beers aren’t particularly cheap on average—San Franciscans have a penchant for fine drink—many locales offer pours at reasonable prices, particularly in more low-key places. Most venues don’t charge a cover fee unless there’s a live musical act or an event, though larger nightclubs, as in any other American city, often require higher admission fees and a dress code.
With free museum days and a calendar full of street festivals, enjoying time in San Francisco can come cheaply. Most major museums offer a free day during the month, which can save a good amount of money for those traveling in groups. For example, the Legion of Honor and de Young museums are both free during the first Tuesday of each month. The Asian Art Museum is free during the first Sunday. Deals can often be found by visiting attraction websites, such as the SF Zoo’s small discount for those who take public transit. For regularly priced admission, inquire at ticketing offices if you’re a senior, a university student, if you’re traveling with children or if you’re a member of the U.S. Armed Forces for possible discounts.
For general tipping, follow the standard rule in the United States of 15% or more, depending on service. Travel during off-peak times, away from holidays, high seasons, and tech conferences, and hotel prices will be comparatively lower.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Unlike many American cities, a visitor can easily get around by foot in San Francisco. In fact, it’s a preferable method for truly taking in the city. But when legs are tired or the sun goes down, the city’s many transportation options make getting around a breeze.
For public transport within the city, SF Muni is your friend. The Muni system encompasses the bus system, the street cars and the Muni Metro. Pick up a Clipper Card at any Muni ticketing machine, at City Hall or at drug stores; one card gets you easy payment access to all of the city’s means of transportation, even those not affiliated with Muni. Simply reload the card with funds whenever it’s running low. For unlimited rides, select from a number of pass options (available in 1-, 3- and 7-day passes), including the CityPASS which also includes access to many of the city’s top attractions. If you’re paying for each Muni ride in cash, be sure to grab a transfer from the driver. Transfers can be used for unlimited rides within the designated period stated upon it. Get real-time schedules online with NextBus, or simply check a bus stop kiosk (when available) to see when the next bus is arriving.
Being the techy city that it is, you can also hail a ride with your smartphone using one of several transportation apps like Uber, Lyft and Flywheel. These are especially convenient as available cabs often run few and far between when compared to the offerings of, say, New York City. For reserving your own car, most car rental companies operate within the city and are easily found throughout the downtown area.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system runs from Millbrae, just south of San Francisco International Airport, to numerous destinations in the East Bay. It’s also the main public transit option for reaching and departing both SFO and OAK airports. BART is easy to use, and stations can be found throughout downtown San Francisco and the Mission District. If Berkeley or Oakland are on the agenda, BART is the ideal mode of transport as it eschews the traffic and tolls of the Oakland Bay Bridge.
From its station in San Francisco near AT&T Park, those looking for a ride into Silicon Valley can take Caltrain as far south as Gilroy, 40 miles south of the Mineta San Jose International Airport. Caltrain is the preferable public transit system for reaching destinations like Stanford University in Palo Alto, as well as Redwood City, Menlo Park and, of course, San Jose. Caltrain utilizes a six-zone fare system, so longer distances of travel accrue higher ticket fares.
For reaching destinations in the North Bay that aren’t reachable by the ferries, opt for the Golden Gate Transit bus system. Buses stop at multiple points within San Francisco before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to cities in Marin and Sonoma counties. There are six fare zones in total from San Francisco to the final stop in Santa Rosa, so calculate your fare in advance.
Heading across the bay? Easily reach North Bay towns like Sausalito and Tiburon, or East Bay destinations like Alameda and Jack London’s Waterfront in Oakland, via the ferry system. Most ferries depart either from the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street or from the Pier 39 area in Fisherman’s Wharf. Depending on the company, you can purchase your ticket in advance, pay on the boat or use your Clipper Card (discounts are sometimes available for card users). Commuter ferries are also an affordable method for enjoying a boat cruise across the bay, a voyage that’s particularly beautiful at night.