Everyone loves San Francisco. For one thing, it's super easy to get around. City center districts like North Beach or the Tenderloin are walkable and full of character. If the slopes get too much, historic streetcars and cable cars serve central areas too, while the wider Bay Area is served by a fantastic public transit system.
Take boat trips to Alcatraz Island, soak up the atmosphere in bohemian Haight, sample oysters at Scoma's in Fisherman's Wharf, or take a cable car ride through historic districts like Ghirardelli Square and Lombard Street. After that, top off your tour with a gourmet meal at highly rated restaurants like SPQR in Japantown or Commonwealth in the Mission District.
There’s plenty for culture lovers to adore as well. Pick up a book of poetry in the City Lights bookstore, catch a gig at the Fillmore, or climb the streets that Steve McQueen sped along in Bullitt. There is always be something to set your imagination racing.
Few American cities boast as many fascinating historic attractions as San Francisco. You can head to Mission Dolores, built by the Spanish in 1776, visit Fort Point in the Presidio complex, see museums dedicated to the 1848 Gold Rush, take restored cable car rides, and visit cultural landmarks like City Lights Bookstore.
San Francisco is a melting pot of cultures and all of them love to cook. You'll find exceptional Vietnamese Pho at Tin Vietnamese (937 Howard St), affordable Chinese masterpieces from Yank Sing (49 Stevenson St), and superb traditional American food at State Bird Provisions (1529 Fillmore St). There's also a galaxy of food trucks like Taco Guys (Mexican) and KoJa Kitchen (Korean and Japanese), who serve up stunning food for those on the move.
San Francisco is famous worldwide for its appearance as much as anything. There are few sights as impressive as the span of the Golden Gate Bridge (some of the best views are from the Nob Hill district) but the views are just as stunning from Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill and the hills in Twin Peaks.
Modern San Francisco may be a tech capital, but it’s still as relaxed and tolerant as ever. Districts like Haight are buzzing with street performances and drum circles. Don’t miss the Flower Power Walking Tour when you visit.
San Francisco is also famous around the world for its music. From the Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin, the city hosted some revolutionary artists. It also has legendary venues like the venerable Fillmore, the Great American Music Hall, and Sweetwater.
Alcatraz was a prison located on a tiny island in San Francisco Bay with a reputation for being impossible to escape, and it's a must-see. Alcatraz tours (tickets cost $29 each) offer a window into everyday life on "the Rock", with reconstructions of prisoners' living quarters and fascinating exhibits on some of the most ambitious escape attempts. There are also some unique souvenirs on offer, like Alcatraz soap or iron coffee cups.
You can't visit San Francisco without listening to live music. Whenever you visit, it’s likely that a music festival is taking place. Popular events include the dance music event LovEvolution in late September and Outside Lands, held in Golden Gate Park in early August. In 2016 it attracted big name indie acts like LCD Soundsystem as well as pop stars like Lionel Ritchie and a host of up-and-coming bands.
Built in the 1930s, the Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most recognizable sight. When you visit, remember that the East Sidewalk caters for pedestrians and cyclists, but the West Sidewalk is solely for cyclists.
San Francisco has a museum or gallery for everyone. Visit the California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Drive) or keep the kids entertained at the Children's Creativity Museum (221 4th St). History fans will adore the Cable Car Museum (1201 Mason St), while art lovers won't want to miss the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St) or the DeYoung Museum, one of America's leading fine art galleries (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive). If museums aren't your thing, there's always the Aquarium of the Bay (Pier 39) or San Francisco Zoo (1 Zoo Rd).
In the 1950s, San Francisco was one of the centers of world literature, as poets and novelists based in the city experimented with new ways to express themselves. The Beat Museum in North Beach provides a window into the lives of literary heroes like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while walking tours visit the bars, poetry clubs, and bookstores where they gathered. If 1960s psychedelic music is more your passion, you can also learn about San Francisco's role in the Summer of Love, by joining Flower Power Walking Tours around Haight-Ashbury - the center of the global hippy movement.
If you want to experience the laid-back essence of San Francisco, summer is the best time to visit. Between June and September, expect frequent outdoor music events and street fairs like the Asian-themed Nihonmachi Fair in Japantown and the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival in Ghirardelli Square. However, locals will tell you that fall is even better. The crowds thin out, the weather is fine and there are spectacular events like the Day of the Dead in the Mission District.
Most visitors touch down at San Francisco International Airport, which lies 13 miles south of the city center, but there are also domestic flights to nearby Oakland and San Jose airports. In both cases, the best way to travel into town is via the BART public transit system. From SFI, the cost is $8.65, and from Oakland, $4 (but with an extra $6 for the shuttle bus from the airport to the BART station). From San Jose, the best option is to connect with the Caltrain Shuttle, which costs $7.50.
San Francisco’s major train stations aren’t actually in the city itself and stops are located just across the bay in Emeryville and Oakland. Amtrak services include the California Zephyr (to Chicago), the Coast Starlight (to Seattle and LA), and the Capitol Corridor (to Sacramento). If you arrive by train, you will need to catch a free Amtrak Thruway bus into town or transfer to a Caltrain service at Oakland.
If you are driving from the south, take US-101 or Interstate 280. From the north, you can take Interstate 80, which crosses the Golden Gate Bridge. If you do cross a bridge into the city, be aware that tolls are levied on inbound motorists. If you have rented a car, your provider should automatically charge you for any tolls, so you don’t need to worry about using the electronic machines.
A number of different bus services run into San Francisco, including:
Greyhound: The main stop is at 200 Folsom St with services to most California cities.
Bolt Bus: Stops at the Greyhound Terminal on Folsom Street and connects San Francisco to LA.
California Shuttle Bus: Stops at Hilton Hotel, 333 O'Farrell St and runs to LA.
Megabus: Stops at the Caltrain station on 4th Street and provides an express to LA.
BART, Golden Gate Transit, SamTrans and AC Transit also provide connections to destinations in the Bay Area.
San Francisco is full of atmospheric hotels with antique furnishings, like the Hotel Drisco (2901 Pacific Avenue) near the Presidio or the elegant Steinhart (952 Sutter St) in the Tenderloin district. High-quality affordable options include the Wharf Inn (2601 Mason St) in Fisherman’s Wharf, while Hi San Francisco (240 Fort Mason) is an excellent hostel in the same area. For a family hotel near Union Square, the Four Seasons (757 Market St) is hard to beat.
The district you choose to stay in makes a big difference to your experience of San Francisco.
Fisherman's Wharf – Fisherman’s Wharf is the tourist hub of the city. It’s the jumping-off-point for boats to Alcatraz and hosts a huge array of souvenir shops and restaurants. If you just want to see the sights and don’t mind the vacation crowds right on your doorstep, it’s a good place to base yourself.
Haight – Haight was famous as the epicenter of the 1960s hippy movement, and it’s still a bohemian enclave in the heart of the city. It's the place to stay if you plan to check out San Fran’s live music scene, tour the homes of long-dead legendary musicians, or stock up on vintage records.
Union Square – Union Square is the civilized heart of San Francisco. It’s the place to be for theaters, art galleries, and chain store shopping, plus it’s handy for arrivals and departures thanks to the Caltrain station and nearby bus stops. It’s heaven for skyscraper fans, hosts many of the best museums, and is home to plenty of great restaurants too. A good base for upscale family vacations.
BART (regional subways), Muni (the metro, buses and streetcars) and Caltrain (commuter trains) constitute one of America’s best public transit networks. A 7 day Muni pass is good value at $40, and includes scenic cable car rides as well. For longer stays, there’s also the Clipper Card, a contactless payment system. Single journeys with a Clipper Card cost $2.25 (for 90 minutes of travel).
San Francisco isn’t a great city as far as taxis go. Passengers are charged $3.50 upfront, then $0.55 every fifth of a mile. However, you can save money by using services like Uber of Lyft, which tend to cost about half as much with a base fare of $2. Expect a normal taxi from the airport to cost $45 and an Uber alternative around $30.
San Francisco is jammed into a 7 by 7 mile peninsula, making it hard to get lost. However, the city doesn’t have a uniform grid like other American cities, with many overlapping forms of street layout in different districts, so be prepared to check your map or GPS. Another thing to remember is that left turns are scarce in downtown San Francisco, so don’t count on being able to turn left on every major avenue. Parking isn’t cheap either, with a general daily rate of $20 in downtown garages.
San Francisco is packed with great shopping opportunities. The Westfield Center on Market and Powell provides a classic mall experience, with up-market fashion stores and chains aplenty. But Union Square is the city’s window shopping capital. There, you can wander past stores featuring big brands like Levi’s, Cartier, and Armani or buy discount shoes at DSW. For an entirely different retail experience, try the Ferry Building Market – a gourmet food lover’s paradise. As far as costs go, it depends what you buy. A pair of jeans costs around $58 and a good bottle of wine costs $15-20. Budget around $80 per person for a meal in a mid-range restaurant.
In recent years San Francisco has acquired a reputation for high living costs. But the costs aren’t so bad if you aren’t planning to rent an apartment. Grocery prices are around 23% higher than the national average. If you shop at supermarkets like Safeway or Trader Joe’s you can still live cheaply in the city. However, for more lavish vacation budgets, boutique grocery stores like Haight Street Market are not to be missed.
Great food is everywhere in San Francisco. In the center of town, vegetarians can feast on Persian delights at Flytrap (606 Folsom St). Asian cooking is well represented in Chinatown and the Tenderloin. Head to Anzu for top-quality sushi (Hotel Nikko San Francisco, 222 Mason St) and enjoy unpretentious but delicious Chinese meals at Hunan Home's (622 Jackson St). Nob Hill is home to the city’s best Italian restaurants, with Acquerello being the pick of the bunch (1722 Sacramento St). Head to Castro or Mission-Bernal for some of America’s best Mexican dishes. La Taqueria (2889 Mission St) is probably the best there is. Seafood lovers have plenty of good options in Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero district, but the best place in town is Farallon in nearby Chinatown (450 Post St). Whatever cuisine you choose, expect a good meal to set you back around $80 per head.