These days, you're more likely to overhear chatter about crypto start-ups than of free love, but some things never change about SF (aka The City): The weed is dank, layers are a must (don't forget your Patagonia fleece), and superlative dining abounds.
Once the nerve center for the counter-culture movement, the San Francisco of today is less about flower power and more about the tech giants revolutionizing the way we live. That doesn't mean remnants of old San Francisco have been totally erased; they simply coexist alongside third-wave coffee shops, boutiques selling sustainable outerwear, and electric cars. Surrounded by the stunning natural beauty of the Bay Area, San Francisco is as much a place to lose your inhibitions as it is a stage for those looking to make their mark in the world. Chromatic Victorians line the streets, and keeping up with the latest iterations of California cuisine is as much a feat as it is hiking up the hilly streets. Whether you’re here for a gastronomic pilgrimage or to revel in the region’s natural splendor, be sure to lean into the chill vibes: kick back, relax, and let The City work its magic.
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With mild, relatively stable weather — temperatures fluctuate between the 50s and 60s, occasionally hitting the 70s or higher during warmer months — a trip to SF is a good idea pretty much any time of the year. That said, visitors should be aware that there is a wet season (roughly November-April) and a dry season. Regardless of when you visit, packing light layers is a good idea.
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San Francisco offers a variety of transportation options, each with its own advantages and challenges. BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit runs from SF to the outer regions such as Richmond and Oakland. It is basically a commuter line (as it doesn't service many areas) and fares are charged by zones. Within the city it is mostly concentrated in Downtown and the Mission.
The MUNI network, however, includes a fleet of energy-efficient buses, light rails, streets cars, and the historic cable cars that operate throughout the entire city. The downside is that, because MUNI runs above-ground, traffic can become problematic. The upside: because the city is small, overall transit times aren't so bad.
Visitors planning to rely heavily on MUNI may want to purchase a Clipper card ($3) at a local Walgreens or Whole Foods, and reload money onto the card as necessary. Otherwise, you'll be paying with cash (single rides cost $2.50). If you're transferring at any point, ask for a transfer, valid for 90 minutes, to avoid paying twice. Those using BART may also use a Clipper card to pay, or purchase a single ride with cash or credit card in the station.
If you choose to take a ride on one of the iconic cable cars, hold on tight: the three lines run through some of the city’s steepest hills, making for a thrilling ride. A single-ride is $7 one-way, paid to the conductor in cash or via your Clipper card.
The public transportation system doesn't operate 24/7. Don't get stranded: MUNI runs between 5am and 1am on weekdays, with later start times on Saturdays (7am) and Sundays (8am). Late-night services, or Owl service, is available along the L and N lines. BART operates from 5am til midnight on weekdays and starts at 6am on Saturday and 8am on Sundays.
While the city is hilly, walking is common. (Having pleasant weather year-round certainly helps.) Both bike- and scooter-sharing companies are popular and offer an easy way to get around. Car rental apps and major ride-sharing services are much more popular than taxis in SF — although taxis do exist. As always, Uber/Lyft provide a fixed price depending on distance and demand.
The currency used is the US dollars. Major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere but don't be surprised if some places accept cryptocurrencies as a form of payment. Carrying some bills around for cash-only establishments or last-minute rides on the cable car is a good idea.
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For such a small city (the peninsula is seven-by-seven miles long and with a population of less than one million), San Francisco hosts a plethora of cultural institutions. From science and art to a 20th-century penny arcade games museum, there are plenty of places to spend a foggy afternoon. Urban hiking is also abundant here, meaning you don't have to leave San Francisco proper to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views. Parks like Buena Vista or the Twin Peaks summit can satisfy all of those natural highs.
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You’ll find a lot of heavy hitters in the restaurant scene here, many of which hold Michelin stars, and continue to reinvent and push the culinary boundaries. The fine-dining establishments and buzzy newcomers all share one thing in common: they take full advantage of the pristine produce available at local markets (farm-to-table fare is basically a given). The Bay Area is, after all, the birthplace of Chez Panisse, an emblem of California cuisine.
As far as regional specialties go, Mission burritos reign supreme, and are aptly served in and around the Mission District. These burritos tend to be oversized, stuffed to the gills, wrapped in tinfoil, and are typically served with chips and salsa. Also, like in many coastal cities, the seafood is not to be missed. Though it may seem counterintuitive, avoid eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, where most restaurants are middling tourist traps. If visiting in the winter or spring, Dungeness crab is a particular treat.
Another standout here is sourdough bread. The foggy conditions in the Bay Area help cultivate a specific yeast (the bacteria strain fondly named L. sanfranciscensi), sour-style breads became synonymous with the city, especially amid the 1980s artisan bread movement. (Tartine is a good place to start your bread adventures.) On the sweeter side of things, having an It’s-It ice cream sandwich is practically a rite of passage.
Before Silicon Valley took over, San Francisco operated as home base for a bustling literary community. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and their band of Beat poets and writers flocked to City Lights Bookstore and the surrounding North Beach Area in the 1950s and produced some of their most respected works. And although Hollywood lies to the south, San Francisco has had its fare share as the limelight. Alfred Hitchcock shot many of his most beloved films in and around the Bay Area, most notably "Vertigo" (1958). You can still visit the cemetery at the Mission Dolores Church where Kim Novak's character mourned the death of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes.
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In the 1960s, the hippie movement was embedded in Haight-Ashbury. Today, you'll find an abundance of vintage and second-hand shops among the colorful Victorians. For those less keen on the fashion trends of yore, rest easy. Haight's packed with bookstores, record shops, skateboard and art supplies, and tattoo parlors if you're in the market for new ink.
For higher-end purchases, the idyllic neighborhoods of Noe Valley and Hayes Valley are flush with boutiques selling women's and menswear, accessories, beauty products, sustainable fashions, and home goods.
Known for its predominantly Latino roots, the Mission District is now a hub for the hipster age. Here you'll find excellent restaurants, third-wave coffee shops and, most notably in the area, enough dive bars to keep you occupied through the night. Civic Center and Hayes Valley are central to San Francisco performance halls, from ballets to Broadway shows. Beyond the tech headquarters of SoMA (or South of Market), lies a slew of dance clubs, DJ sets, and other live music venues. You'll find anything from pop and punk to cabaret performances and hot yoga powered by music.
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Literary minds should hit up North Beach to pay homage to the Beat writers of the 1950s at City Lights Bookstore. The independent shop, co-founded by famed poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published and was later jailed for selling Allen Ginsberg's controversial poetry book, "Howl." North Beach's other alias is Little Italy; naturally, red sauce joints and gelato shops pepper the streets of this boisterous, hilly neighborhood. Here's your chance to try cioppino, a seafood stew invented by the local Italian fishermen who coupled together whatever was left of the catch of the day from the surrounding bay.
Despite the mobs of tourists winding their way down Lombard Street, Nob and Russian Hills keep things on the swankier side of things. Posh hotels and Grace Cathedral go hand in hand with old money and mansions of the bygone railroad barons. There is still plenty to do in the neighborhoods, like strolling through Huntington Park, visiting the Cable Car Museum, or taking in the breathtaking views of the city from the highest peaks.
Union Square is the commercial center of San Francisco but also a great option for families. The historic cable cars turn around at Union Square, so you and the little ones can hop on and head to Fisherman's Wharf to visit the sea lions on Pier 39 or ferry over to Alcatraz. Union Square also transforms during the holiday season with Christmas lights and an ice skating rink at the center of the square. Embarcadero is where kids can get hands on at the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum.
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The Presidio may now be home to the Lucasfilm headquarters and the Walt Disney Family Museum, but before Mickey and Darth, the neighborhood served as a military fort that dates back to the 1700s. It is now mostly a park and residential neighborhood with great views. Excellent hiking trails can be found throughout, with Crissy Field being an excellent picnic spot on sunny days. Further west lies Lands End Trail in the Outer Richmond, a pleasant trek along the rugged and windswept shorelines of San Francisco.
The Olmsted-designed Golden Gate Park offers plenty of urban green space, too. At over 1,000 acres, it is larger than Central Park and houses countless attractions including the Botanical Garden, de Young Museum, the Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and even a bison habitat. Roads are closed half day on Saturday and all of Sundays to traffic, and because it is bordered by the residential areas of Richmond and Sunset Districts, Golden Gate feels like even more of an escape than its sister park in the East Coast.
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SF’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. Red lanterns line the maze of streets and alleyways in this bustling, historic neighborhood that’s home to some of the city’s best regional Chinese fare. For a dramatic entrance, go through the iconic Dragon’s Gate, then get ready to walk up some gnarly hills to experience the rest. In February, line the streets to witness the Chinese New Year Parade, a tradition that’s as old as the Gold Rush.
If you’re looking for a vibrant community, look no further than the Castro. The first gay-friendly neighborhood in the United States, it continues to be a prominent setting for LGBTQ activism events today. Rainbow flags and crosswalks are a point of pride, as are the neighborhood’s lively nightlife options, including bars and the iconic Castro Theater, the city’s last remaining movie palace.
With views this nice, it’s no wonder that the Marina is the opposite of a hidden gem. Look beyond the bottomless mimosas and athleisure-clad bodies, and you’ll find plenty to love about this picturesque neighborhood. Walk (or jog) along the waterfront, stand in awe of the Palace of Fine Arts, or eat your way through Fort Mason’s food truck event, Off the Grid.
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