There’s so much crammed into San Francisco’s little peninsula! San Francisco’s liberal atmosphere and blend of historic sites and an eclectic cultural scene make it a wonderful place to visit. From gorgeous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge to incredible food in Chinatown to historic spots like Haight-Ashbury, you could spend a lifetime exploring SF. This San Francisco travel guide will help you make a memorable trip to the City by the Bay!
What to Expect in San Francisco
Language: English is the main language spoken in San Francisco, but significant Chinese and Mexican populations mean that Chinese and Spanish are also spoken by many.
Currency: The US Dollar ($)
Credit Cards and Banks: ATMs are commonplace throughout the city and most stores, hotels and restaurants will accept credit cards.
Climate: San Francisco’s mild climate features warm but not unpleasant summer days and rainy winters, although the city is famous for the fog, “Karl the Fog,” that often rolls in from the Pacific.
Rainy season: While it rarely gets very cold in San Francisco, there does tend to be regular rain between November and March.
Hot season: September and October are the warmest months in San Francisco
Helpful Tip: Typically, there can be significant weather differences in parts of San Francisco because of the city’s large hills and maritime location. Even on a sunny day, things can get chilly! Your best bet is to always carry a jacket, no matter what season.
Getting Around San Francisco
San Francisco is separated into many different districts and neighborhoods; each offering a unique flavor of the city! The most popular communities worth visiting are:
Golden Gate: Named after the iconic bridge, this part of the city is where many visitors start exploring. Some of the loveliest residential areas are located here, as well as some former military posts – Fort Mason and the Presidio. Visit “The Marina” for some fancier bars and restaurants.
Fishermen’s Wharf: Another popular district for visitors, there are no longer fishing fleets operating here, but several museums and historic ships can be explored. Visit Pier 39 and note that the boat to Alcatraz Island also departs from this district.
Chinatown/North Beach: San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown outside Asia and is a great place for shopping and eating. North Beach is also home to the Italian district. A walk down Filbert Street a great introduction to the area.
The Mission: Home to cool kids, colorful cafes and cultural cuisine, The Mission is the best district to soak up some local flavor.
Union Square & Financial District: At the heart of the city, this area is a popular place for visitors with great shopping and theaters in the city, along with a selection of great restaurants and bars.
Twin Peaks & Lake Merced: On the southern portion of the peninsula, this attractive area has the distinctive peaks that give it its name. There is some good hiking around Lake Merced and the San Francisco Zoo is also a great place to visit for families.
A California Coast road trip is also one of the best ways to see the state. Stop in San Francisco, Monterey, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego-- taking in the incredible beauty on one of the most scenic road trips in the world!
Located atop San Francisco’s iconic Pacific Heights neighborhood, Hotel Drisco is a 1903 Edwardian San Francisco hotel that includes a gourmet continental breakfast, evening wine reception and bikes to borrow.
Location: Pacific Heights
Price Range: $$$
Union Street Inn
Combining the elegance and gentility of an Edwardian home, the Union Street Inn is the perfect pied-à-terre for those who want to explore San Francisco. With only 6 guest rooms, this is the perfect spot for anyone looking for comfort and intimacy in their accommodation.
Location: Marina District
Accommodation: Bed & Breakfast
Price Range: $$
San Francisco’s most historic hotel, Palace Hotel, dates back to 1875 and is located in Downtown SF. At one point in time, it was the largest and most costly hotel in the world. It is still timelessly beautiful. Even if you don’t stay here, come for afternoon high tea in the Garden Court and a cocktail at the Pied Piper.
Price Range: $$$
Nob Hill Inn
Built in 1907 as a private home, the Nob Hill Inn has been lovingly restored to maintain the ambiance of a turn-of-the-century townhouse.
Location: Nob Hill
Accommodation: Bed & Breakfast
Price Range: $$
Cow Hollow Inn
In San Francisco, location is everything. I often stay in motels in the city so that I can stay in my favorite neighborhoods without splurging on a luxury hotel. Cow Hollow Inn is a no frills “inn” (but let’s call it what it is– an overpriced motel). However, it’s walking distance from one of my favorite stretches of restaurants and shops, Chestnut Street, in the Marina District, so it’s a price worth paying! BONUS: There’s free parking!
Location: Marina District
Price Range: $$
Craftsman and Wolves
A contemporary pâtisserie located in San Francisco’s vibrant Mission district
What to Order: Soft boiled egg-filled scallion bacon muffin (thank me later!)
Swan Oyster Depot
A San Francisco institution, Swan Oyster Depot is a local “no-frills fish market” favorite with raw-bar fare & casual seafood.
What to Order: Oysters of course! And the mixed crudo with salmon, scallops, tuna and hamachi, topped with diced onions, capers and olive oil.
Offering wonderful organic vegan food in a Mexican style, this restaurant is enough to convince even a carnivore that not every meal needs meat in it.
What to Order: Pretty much anything. My favs are the Coliflor Frito and Quesadilla!
The Buena Vista Cafe
Opened in 1916, Buena Vista is known as the birthplace of the Irish Coffee. Prepare for crowds and, when you find an opportunity, grab a seat at the bar or wait for a table. It’s a little touristy, but a really cool place.
What to Order: Locals recommend trying a “Ramos Fizz.”
With locations all over California, Ike’s Place started in San Francisco and is the stuff of legends. Their huge sandwiches bring equal sized crowds– so prepare to wait in line. With a three-page menu of hearty and hilariously named sandwiches, you’ll come hungry and leave happy.
What to Order: The “Chased & Confused” (exclusive to their SF location) filled with bacon, flaming hot cheetos, ranch, red pesto, and stuffed jalapeno poppers
State Bird Provisions
Combining innovative cuisine with the best local ingredients, it’s no wonder this restaurant is nearly impossible to get a reservation at. If you want to eat at the hottest spot in San Fran, booking in advance is essential.
Helpful Tip: You realistically need to book at least 30-60 days in advance in order to get a reservation here. Otherwise, you can line up about an hour before they open and hope to get a table.
A trip to SF wouldn’t be complete without a big serving of steaming hot clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. Boudin was established back in 1849 and it’s said that they still use the same starter yeast-bacteria culture they developed back in the California Gold Rush.
Helpful Tip: Stop at The Wharf location to see the bakers in action. Be warned– it’s typically packed with tourists, so try your luck in line, otherwise try getting a reservation upstairs.
Bourbon & Branch
Bourbon & Branch offers wonderful cocktails in a speakeasy type setting. Their set of house rules keeps everything fun and authentic.
Helpful Tip: You’ll also have to book in advance to get a reservation as this tiny little spot fills up fast.
You didn’t think I’d finish this list before giving my brunch recommendation, did you? Nopa’s weekend brunch is a delightful change of pace from traditional egg and potato packed menus. And, you guessed it, you’ll need a reservation a week or two ahead of plans. Otherwise, try showing up 30 minutes before opening and you might be able to grab a seat at the bar.
What to Order: The oven baked egg with trumpet mushrooms or the custard french toast with basil stone fruit and meyer lemon cream
Seaport Village & Pier 39
Two great hubs in the city where shopping, restaurants and entertainment venues are brought together to make for excellent areas for visitors. Don’t miss the sea lions that call Pier 39 home.
Whether you enjoy running, cycling, hiking or other sports, San Francisco is a wonderful place to visit with some great scenery. Runners, there’s a great route from the Lyon Street steps down to the former military base at Crissy Field.
With beautiful Chinese architecture, a wonderful atmosphere and the beautiful Chinatown Gate this is a great area to explore. Going shopping in the Stockton Street Produce Market is a once in a lifetime experience.
Vintage shopping in Haight-Ashbury
This part of the city was at the heart of the Summer of Love. The range of shops in the area is excellent for vintage lovers, with shops selling clothes, books, records and everything in between.
Hire a Bike and Ride Over the Bridge
Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge is another thing every visitor to the city will want to do. Renting a bicycle is a great way to cross the bridge to Sausalito and enjoy the spectacular views. Be warned: This is not a cycling trip for the faint of heart– you will work up a sweat! Be sure to make time for lunch in Sausalito. And, if you’re not up for the ride back, don’t worry. You can catch the ferry or take a taxi back (there are taxis with bike racks usually waiting in the ferry parking lot).
Golden Gate Park
A beautiful park that is home to many of the city’s attractions, Golden Gate Park is 1,017 acres filled with gardens, playgrounds, lakes, venues and all sorts of activities. Visit the California Academy of Sciences for an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum all under one “living roof” made of plants and glass. Or, take a stroll through the Conservatory of Flowers, a victorian-era glass greenhouse with over 2,000 species of plants & flowers.
Root for the Home Team at AT&T Park
If you time your visit right, you can’t miss a San Francisco Giants game at AT&T park! Giants fans love to have fun so be sure to hit up a local pub or beer garden before the game. Joining the locals to cheer on the Giants is a must for any visitor to the city.
Night Tour at Alcatraz
While Alcatraz is an interesting attraction during the day, joining one of the tours around the facility at night includes views of a wonderful Sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge, along with a unique look at the most famous prison in the United States.
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge
San Francisco is known for being one of biggest gay capitals in the entire world. This dive bar is one of the most famous in the city, offering funny and exciting drag shows, and was one of the first gay bars in San Francisco. Whether gay or straight, come for cheap drinks and a good laugh!
The people of San Francisco love their food and the cuisine in the city is among the best I’ve encountered in California. There are amazing eats on just about every corner, so, while you’re out exploring the sites, get a little lost and let your tastebuds discover the city for themselves.
Even MORE Stuff to See
There are endless things to see and do in San Francisco, so be sure to check out my guide on The Best of San Francisco in a Day for more of my favorite things in the city!