San Francisco is known for its Northern California charm, man-made marvels like the Golden Gate Bridge, and historical spots like North Beach, Chinatown, the Ferry Building, and Alcatraz. These are probably the first things you think of when you think of SF!
But one does not just arrive in San Francisco and just what to do. This city is unique — very different from the likes of Manhattan or Chicago.
Having lived in the Bay Area for 25+ years at this point, I’m here to give you all my juicy tips and discuss some of the best advice you need to know before visiting San Francisco.
When visiting a city, there are often things you are not prepared for, some of which can even put a dent in your trip. You end up blaming the city for being a certain way, when in fact, you could have just prepared better!
The best way to avoid bad/sad situations is to learn as much about the city you want to visit as possible, and luckily, this is one of the ways we can help you! We’ll cover essential tips around getting around, accommodations, what to eat, what to do, as well as what NOT to do!
If you want to truly enjoy your time in San Francisco, here are some tips that can help.
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Essential Things To Know About San Francisco
Before we get into the inner workings of the city, it is best to first acquaint yourself with the more general information you may find helpful on your trip. Below we dive into our list of tips, let’s start with some general info and things you need to know about San Francisco, its weather, and culture.
Location And Geography
San Francisco, being a trendy city both to live in and visit, is one of the main hubs of Northern California and is surrounded by water. You know what that means? Ample amounts of boat cruises and seafood-eating opportunities!
Because of where the city is, the area is quite hilly. San Francisco has some of the steepest hills and roads in the US — something the city is well known for and often gets photographed! Because of these hilly streets, you can expect a workout when exploring on foot.
Apart from all of the prominent neighborhoods of the city itself, there are also other fun areas you may want to visit in the vicinity, such as San Jose and the South Bay, Oakland, Berkeley, Napa, Sonoma County, Sacramento, and more, which are all within a two-hour drive away.
Weather And Best Time To Visit
Because the ocean surrounds San Francisco, the weather can change drastically and quickly. Karl the Fog is no joke!
You can expect the most stable weather close to the city’s center. Because of the finicky weather, locals (especially those who run cold like me) recommend you bring layers and extra clothes and always keep a jacket or sweater with you, even if the day seems sunny and warm.
If you are looking for the sunniest or warmest time in San Francisco, your best bet is to go in September or October. Which is funny, because it’s actually considered fall, with the summer months a thing of the past!
Even still, you will be met with nights that can get chilly, and there is a high likelihood of seeing the famous San Francisco fog roll in.
Currency And Language
Since San Francisco is in the USA, the currency you use here is the US dollar. The primary language spoken here is English, though San Francisco is home to a diverse population with many different native languages.
Another thing to consider is that there is an extensive Chinatown in San Francisco, which means many people converse in Mandarin and different Chinese dialects. If you’ve got Chinese-speaking skills, you can definitely show it off here!
The Diverse Culture
Have you ever wanted to be in a place where you can be completely yourself? If so, San Francisco is going to be your jam. It’s a total melting pot of culture and acceptance!
Not only does San Francisco have a rich culture, bred from its broad acceptance of beliefs, customs, and diverse population, but it also has some areas where you can shed the cloth that binds you and literally walk around nude! Ever heard of the Earth Day World Naked Bike Ride?
With so many different communities that share a living space, you’ll find that the city is full of diverse traditions and festivals, many of which you may be able to join in on.
If you plan on going to San Francisco at the end of June, don’t miss SF Pride events, including the amazing annual parade. Summer also brings the How Weird Street Faire, North Beach Festival, Soy and Tofu Festival, Carnaval Festival & Parade, and so much more.
Essential San Francisco Travel Tips
Don’t call it “San Fran”. It’s called “SF” or “The City”.
If I called San Francisco “San Fran” when visiting, it would be a dead giveaway that I’m a tourist and not a local. Only people who have never spent significant time in SF call it “San Fran.”
Residents and most visitors know to call it “SF” or refer to it as “The City” when talking. Saying “San Fran” screams “I’m not from here!”
I’d get funny looks if I asked people if they wanted to “check out San Fran for the day.” To blend in, be sure to use the shorthand “SF” that honors the city while still keeping things brief, as locals do!
Dress in layers.
Even in the summer, mornings and evenings in San Francisco can be cool and chilly due to the coastal climate. Packing layers when you head out to explore will help you stay prepared for any kind of weather.
Don’t be fooled by the daytime sunshine either. When night falls, it almost always gets chilly!
Of my 20+ years of living in the Bay Area, I have never gone to SF without bringing a jacket with me… yes, even in the summers!
Wear extremely comfortable walking shoes.
Even though public transportation is plentiful, San Francisco is a very walkable city and you’re going to be doing some hill climbing while you’re at it.
My all-time favorite travel shoes these days are the tried and true Ecco Soft 7‘s (they’re stylish, comfortable, and have been raved about for decades since they were first created)! The best part is that they have them for both men and women.
Expect fog and wind while in San Francisco.
Visitors to San Francisco should always be prepared for foggy, windy weather even in spring and fall, as the city’s iconic microclimate brings a marine layer that rolls in almost daily.
Located on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco experiences frequent fog and breezes off the Pacific that can dampen spirits if one is unprepared. Have a delayed flight? It’s probably due to the fog!
Bring layers so that when it rolls in, you’re prepared! Sure there are clear, sunny days, but that’s more common in the summer and early fall.
A scarf and beanie are also good to have on hand during cooler seasons since the winds passing between high-rises can feel quite brisk, even when the thermometer reads mild.
Try the cioppino while you’re here.
As a first-time visitor to San Francisco, I highly recommend trying cioppino, the city’s iconic seafood stew!
Cioppino originated in the city’s Italian fishing community and is a tomato-based blend of multiple types of fish and shellfish. What makes cioppino unique is the variety of sea creatures that go into each bowl, with options like clams, crab, squid, mussels and different kinds of fin fish simmered together in a light, briny broth. It’s truly a taste of San Francisco’s bounty from the bay!
To get the best cioppino in the city, you should head to Betty Lou’s in the North Beach area. The cioppino there is brimming with fresh, high-quality seafood and has the perfect balance of flavors. It’s my fave!
Bay Area rush hour traffic is no joke.
If you’re driving into the city from elsewhere (or driving out of it), be prepared for the horrendous Bay Area traffic, especially on weekdays during the morning and late afternoon rush hours.
The same goes for driving out of the city! Hopping onto the Bay Bridge to leave San Francisco could take almost an hour during rush hour. Plan your drives accordingly to avoid traffic.
The worst possible route you could take to get out of the city during rush hour (based on time spent in traffic) is easily the Bay Bridge. For daily commuters, it’s a soul-sucking part of life!
SFO airport is not actually in San Francisco.
The airport is actually in Millbrae, CA, likely about 20-25 minutes away from where your SF hotel is.
If you are arriving in San Francisco by plane, you’ll want to figure out how to get to your accommodation after landing.
You can opt to take the BART or an airport shuttle service. These services usually offer better rates than Uber/Lyft, which aren’t the cheapest around these parts.
If you have no other options, you can also use a taxi from the airport, though you can expect to pay nearly double the other rates. Having said that, I’d like to quickly point out that taxis are rare here. Taxis in SF are hard to hail and have some of the highest fees in the US.
Locals usually use their own two feet, public transportation, or take Lyft/Uber to get around SF.
If you haven’t yet booked your hotel and don’t mind staying outside of SF, these hotels offer complimentary shuttle service.
Hotels situated outside of SF actually tend to be cheaper, so you’d be doing your wallet a small favor too!
Take advantage of the public transportation options.
To experience San Francisco in all of its glory, you will want to use some of the other modes of transportation the city is known to have.
BART, the train system that runs through certain parts of San Francisco, is known for being relatively on time, so this is one of the better ways to get around larger areas in San Francisco like the Embarcadero, the Mission District, Union Square, Civic Center, etc.
However, Muni, the light rail system, and the cablecars are the more likely options if you want to travel while seeing the city around you.
511.org is a great resource that will provide you with detailed SF and Bay Area transportation information.
Available both as an app and on the web, it should be your go-to resource for Bay Area traffic, transit, carpool, vanpool, and bicycling information.
Since it’s catered towards commuters, it’s more comprehensive than Google Maps and will tell you exactly what you need to do to get to destination by public transportation.
Do not rent a car if you’re primarily going to stay in SF.
Traffic sucks and parking is an expensive nightmare. What’s worse is that if you do rent a car, many hotels charge $35+ for overnight parking.
If you’re considering street parking as an alternative hack to save money on parking fees, good luck… because most hotels are located in metered street parking areas.
San Francisco is relatively small, so most tourist attractions are close to each other, and public transportation options are plentiful. Once you get to a neighborhood (by Muni, Bart, or rideshare), the neighborhoods are very walkable.
But if you want to explore outside of SF, having a car is a must.
If you want to explore San Francisco’s surrounding areas on your next trip, you will want to look into a car rental.
Though we don’t recommend using a car in San Francisco to see the city itself (we almost always prefer walking for a more immersive experience), car rentals are almost always a must if you want to leave the city to do some self-guided exploration.
If you do rent a car or bring your own, there are some INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT things you need to keep in mind. First and foremost, you should never leave anything valuable in your car. Since the pandemic, car break-ins within SF are all too common. Take this one seriously. Don’t even leave your luggage in the trunk. It’s sad to see the rise of theft here, but true. Stay vigilant!
If you REALLY need to park somewhere within SF with valuables in the car, choose a parking lot with an attendee or a security guard on duty.
When you’re outside of SF city limits, the chances of break-ins drop dramatically.
You’ll find cheaper hotels in neighboring cities.
As I mentioned before, staying just slightly outside of SF is going to be cheaper than staying within the city. Here are a few neighboring areas and hotels I would personally recommend:
South San Francisco: 18 minutes away from San Francisco | 7 minutes away from SFO
- Fairfield by Marriott Inn & Suites San Francisco Airport Oyster Point Area – free airport shuttle and free breakfast!
- AC Hotel by Marriott San Francisco Airport/Oyster Point Waterfront – no free airport shuttle, but so modern and clean!
Millbrae / Burlingame: 22 minutes away from San Francisco | 5 minutes away from SFO
- The Dylan Hotel at SFO – free airport shuttle, 3 minutes’ walk to the Millbrae BART/CalTrain station
- Residence Inn by Marriott San Francisco Airport Millbrae Station – free breakfast, 4 minutes’ walk to the Millbrae BART/CalTrain station
There is a wide range of accommodation options within San Francisco too (including hotels, hostels, Vrbo).
As with most other cities in the US, there are many accommodation options to choose from if you are looking for something within San Francisco.
If you’re looking for something like a hotel, there are many options, including some very fancy places (ahem, The Fairmont Heritage Place or Four Seasons Hotel SF), as well as historic and quaint Victorian boutique hotels (like the Queen Anne) where you can lay your head.
There are even hotels that appeal to the retro enthusiasts in us, like Beck’s Motor Lodge.
However, if you are looking for accommodation on a tight budget, your best bet may be to book at one of the many different hostels in San Francisco. Not only are the prices more affordable, but you can usually also cook your food, which helps you save money in that way too.
Alternatively, you can always try Vrbo for vacation rentals in SF. This is a particularly good option if you’re traveling with a larger group and need more space!
Choose the neighborhood you stay in based on what you like.
Though the city isn’t too overwhelmingly big, there are still a lot of areas to stay in if you want an authentic San Francisco experience. We also know that different people have different needs, so let’s cover a few of the best places to stay depending on your situation.
Best For Family – If you are looking for an excellent place to stay on a family trip, Noe Valley is a decent area. You will find that many other families use this area as their primary residence. This area has adequately sized houses for families, parks for children to play, and other activities that can keep the kids busy.
Best For Ocean Views – If you love the ocean, there are two neighborhoods you may want to stay in, North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf, which are not too far from each other. Not only are these areas a great place to get seafood, but there are also still a lot of activities not too far away.
Best For The Full Experience – If you want to experience as much San Francisco as possible on your visit, picking a relatively central place to stay is best. You’ll want to choose a hotel close to many forms of public transportation so you can get anywhere relatively quickly. With this in mind, Union Square is a good place to look, with many, many hotel options. It’s not the most charming, but because of where it is, it is connected to a fair amount of tourist sites and is a popular place to find accommodation.
We also like Hayes Valley (which is much more charming!). Expect cute tree-lined streets, classic Victorian houses, safe streets free of riff-raff, and unique SF charm!
You can find cheaper hotels during certain months.
If you’re looking to find the best place to stay for the lowest price, there are two things you should always consider, the view and the time of year.
Seasonal prices can make the accommodation you want skyrocket in price, and so can the view. If you want to experience the city of San Francisco but don’t care too much about the view in the morning or at night, you may want to avoid a “view room.”
If you want to pay as little as possible for your accommodation in San Francisco, you should consider going during the low season, usually around May or December.
Book tickets to iconic landmarks early.
Some of San Francisco’s landmarks are iconic feats of engineering or history, and since they are well-known around the entire world, they get booked very quickly.
For this reason, if you want to see places like Alcatraz or even ride the cable cars without having to spend over 30 minutes in line, you must book your tickets in advance.
To ensure you have guaranteed tickets for any iconic landmarks, booking a week or two in advance is best!
Check out the Golden Gate Bridge from different vantage points.
One of my favorite spots to see the bridge is at the Marin Headlands Vista Points at Hawk Hill. You’ll be treated to a spectacular panoramic view of the entire Golden Gate strait, with the bridge framed against the backdrop of the city skyline.
It’s truly breathtaking, and (surprisingly) even better when the fog rolls in!
Baker Beach offers another special perspective, where you can watch the bridge take shape against the landscape with waves crashing in the foreground. And for a more lush setting, head to Lands End Lookout in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for glimpses of the bridge peeking through the trees.
Be sure to pack your camera and make time for these unique vistas!
Make time to see all the smaller, charming neighborhoods.
Though you may want to visit all of the iconic landmarks in and around San Francisco, you will miss out if you don’t see the lesser-known spots too!
With incredibly unique and historical areas such as North Beach, where Italian heritage bleeds out into the streets, and Haight-Ashbury, preserved due to its fame in the hippy movement, you can fill up your time by exploring a bit.
And with one of the biggest Chinatowns in the USA, you will not experience the full beauty of the city if you don’t have at least a walk through here! Not will you experience the culture, but the shops offer excellent opportunities to buy unique items.
In addition, The Castro is a place of great pride to the LGBTQ community and is most certainly worth a visit.
Don’t miss Japantown while you’re here.
As one of the few remaining historic Japantowns in America, it offers a unique cultural experience that’s hard to find anywhere else.
Most Japantowns were displaced after World War II as Japanese Americans faced racism and internment. But SF’s Japantown has endured in the Western Addition since the early 20th century.
Here you can wander pedestrian streets lined with Japanese gardens, shops and restaurants. Soak in the atmosphere of the Japan Center, where the sights, sounds and smells of Japan are strongly felt.
It’s a special opportunity to learn about the city’s Japanese American legacy and current community! With cultural performances and seasonal events held year-round, Japantown gives valuable insights into this important local culture.
Its survival makes it well worth a visit for those interested in diversity and history.
There are some areas you can skip, too.
While Market Street is a major thoroughfare, I’d recommend you avoid walking through the Tenderloin area if possible. The neighborhood unfortunately struggles with issues like unhousedness and drug use. As a visitor, you’ll likely feel uneasy and it isn’t very scenic.
Union Square also isn’t what it used to be – many stores have closed since the pandemic, so it can feel empty. Fisherman’s Wharf is very touristy as well, with expensive parking and lots of souvenir shops and touristy human statues.
While it might appeal to young kids into wax museums and stuff, you’re unlikely to feel like you’re experiencing “real San Francisco” there. For a better perspective of the city, I’d suggest steering clear of those areas in favor of the neighborhoods I listed above.
The bakery scene is poppin’ in SF.
The bakery scene in San Francisco is truly something to write home about, with some of the best pastry shops in the country! It seems like a new artisan bakery is opening up every month, elevating the simple loaf of bread or scone to an art form.
From Tartine in the Mission to B. Patisserie in Pac Heights, you’ll find bakeries churning out incredible croissants, cookies, and cakes that rival what you’d find in Paris.
SF bakers have really perfected rustic sourdough and the croissant (don’t miss Ariscault for the perfect croissant)! They all take pride in using local, seasonal ingredients — and with such talented pastry chefs in the city, it’s no wonder bakeries seem to have lines out the door on weekends.
As a local, I’m always excited to check out the latest openings and try new creative twists on classics. The bakery scene here truly keeps things in the city interesting!
Summer weekends are a ton of fun.
Summers are the best here in SF — there’s ALWAYS something happening on the weekends. Some of my faves include the Stern Grove concerts and Outside Lands Music Festival. But for every major event/festival, there are a million smaller ones taking place simultaneously!
Not sure where to find these events and festivals? I will personally stalk SF Fun Cheap whenever I have a free weekend to spare. This site features all the best local festivals and events that take place across the SF Bay Area.
Summer also brings the How Weird Street Faire, North Beach Festival, Fillmore Summer Fest Kick-Off, Soy and Tofu Festival, Carnaval Festival & Parade, and so much more.
Take advantage of the free days at museums and art galleries.
However, if you want to save as much money as possible, there are free days to enter and walk through the museums without paying for entrance! For the SFMOMA, you will have to look at their website to determine the free days, but the de Young Museum offers free days on Saturdays, so be sure to have a look when you can.
This botanical garden, located within Golden Gate Park, is a great place to visit if you love exotic plants, flowers, and trees.
There’s also the SF Botanical Garden, where admission is free on the second Tuesday of every month, along with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. For SF residents, the gardens are always free.
The Good Vibrations Museum is a popular yet off-the-beaten-path museum with a collection of antique vibrators dating from the late 1800s up through the 1970s. The museum is free to enter and is located at Good Vibrations’ San Francisco Polk Street store.
Both the Cable Car Museum and the Streetcar Museum are also free. If you’re interested in the history of San Francisco streetcars, this is the place for you.
There are a ton of other free things to do in SF too.
While visiting the numerous free museums SF has to offer is certainly worthwhile, there are actually a ton of other free activities you can enjoy in the city beyond just museums. Golden Gate Park has countless ways to spend the day without spending a dime, from picnicking and jogging on the scenic trails to simply people-watching in the park.
You can also explore scenic neighborhoods like Telegraph Hill, taking in lovely views from Coit Tower or hiking staircases with panoramic vistas. And don’t forget about simply walking around diverse areas to take in unique street art installations, architecture, and quirky neighborhoods.
There are also often free concerts, outdoor movie screenings and festivals happening on weekends. You’ll find no shortage of affordable entertainment if you know where to look beyond the usual tourist spots. SF offers a truly bargain experience if you seek out all the free fun!
Consider getting the Go City San Francisco attraction pass.
If you plan on hitting up a few of the museums/attractions listed in our itinerary above (and a few more of your own), you should consider getting a version of the Go City San Francisco Pass. It’s a really great way to see what you want to see while saving a bunch of money.
The Go City All-Inclusive Pass is really great for travelers who want to see as much as possible while they’re in San Francisco. With the Go City San Francisco All-Inclusive Pass, you can choose between a 1, 2, 3, or 5-day pass that will grant you admission to 25+ museums and attractions. This includes the following:
- California Academy of Sciences
- Escape from the Rock (Alcatraz cruise tour)
- Aquarium of the Bay
- The Walt Disney Family Museum
- Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus 1-Day Classic Tour
- All-day bike rentals
- and a bunch more good stuff not listed here…
If you don’t plan on visiting a ton of different attractions, Go City also has an Explorer Pass which will still save you a lot of money (you’ll pay one flat fee for a 2, 3, 4, or 5-choice pass).
No matter which pass type you pick, you’ll ultimately save far more with these passes compared to buying separate attraction tickets!
Got a few extra days to spare? Explore the rest of NorCal!
If you’ve seen the major highlights and done most of what you wanted to do in SF, we recommend hopping on BART or grabbing a seat on a guided tour to see what else the Bay has to offer. You’ll have no issues filling that time with fun stuff to do!
From forests to beaches, wineries to breweries, and some of the best hot chicken sandwiches you’ll ever eat in California, the Bay Area has got it all.
Check out a few great day trips around the Greater Bay Area from San Francisco below:
- Take a day trip across the bridge to visit Oakland and Berkeley
- Take a road trip to Sonoma County for the weekend
- Go hiking at Mount Tamalpais State Park
- Explore Monterey and Santa Cruz
- Visit the epic Yosemite National Park
Don’t want to deal with the hassle of having to rent a car? Here are a few bestselling full-day tours from SF:
- Napa and Sonoma full-day tour from SF
- Monterey, Carmel, and 17-Mile Drive full-day tour from SF
- Yosemite full-day tour from SF
- Take a Muir Woods / Sausalito half-day combo tour
Tipping is a thing in the USA, SF included.
As with anywhere else in the USA, tipping is a great way to show appreciation for the service people provide and can make someone’s day if you’re generous.
Most professions that you consider tipping for have lower-paying jobs, and therefore a lot of their income comes from the tips they get.
If you’re new to the tipping world, here’s a high-level tipping guide you can use:
- Bartenders, restaurant staff, and taxi or rideshare staff all have similar tipping rates, around 15% – 20% of your bill, though you can stick with 15% for your rides.
- For anyone doing you a service that isn’t necessarily standard, like tour guides, you can tip between $10 – $20.
- For bellhops or airport luggage personnel, you can tip $1-3 per bag.
- If you take advantage of housekeeping at your hotel, consider tipping $2-5 per day.
I’m not a fan of tipflation, so please use this as a starting point as opposed to the rule. The exact amount you choose to tip is up to you.
Do some off-the-beaten-path things.
While the major tourist attractions in San Francisco like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Fisherman’s Wharf are certainly worth visiting, I highly recommend trying to experience some of the more unique, local sides of the city.
Did you know, for example, that there’s a Yoda water fountain in The Presidio?
There are also the tiled steps. The 16th Ave Tiled Steps are probably the oldest and most visited tiled steps in SF. These steps were tiled as a neighborhood beautification project, and boy are they beautiful!
Can’t get enough of these beauties? Well, you can actually find three sets of tiled stairs in San Francisco. My personal favorite set of tiled stairs is the Hidden Garden Steps (showcasing snails, flowers, and mushrooms), located a few streets away from the 16th Ave Steps. The Lincoln Park Steps on 32nd Ave also showcase a beautiful mosaic.
Wander through neighborhoods like Bernal Heights or Noe Valley to get away from the crowds and discover charming shops, indie cafes and beautiful views. Check out a street fair or have a lunch picnic in Dolores Park on a warm day. This is where you’ll find actual locals hanging out!
Getting off the beaten track is the best way to feel like a real San Franciscan and encounter some hidden gems. SF rewards those who explore beyond the top sights – I’m sure you’ll find plenty of memorable discoveries!
Top Annual Events In San Francisco, California
- Golden Gate Park Band (April to October)
- Bay to Breakers (3rd Sunday of May)
- Stern Grove Festival Concerts (June to August)
- Yerba Buena Gardens Free Concerts (May to October)
- North Beach Festival (June)
- SF Pride Week (June)
- Shakespeare in the Park (June to September)
- Salsa Festival on the Fillmore (June)
- Fillmore Jazz Festival (July)
- Folsom Street Festival (September)
- Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (October)
San Francisco is such a beautiful city, and you deserve to enjoy it in every possible way!
A city with so many unique sites to visit and areas to explore is most certainly worth a visit if you know how to stay safe and informed. With the tips discussed above, we hope you have the perfect trip and remain prepared for anything, from the weather to even stumbling across nude locals in public!
More on SF:
- 60+ Free and Affordable Things To Do In San Francisco, California
- 8 Best San Francisco Neighborhoods To Visit (And What To Do Beyond SF!)
- 25 Fun Things To Do In San Francisco At Night
- 68 Free Things To Do In The San Francisco Bay Area, California
- 40 Best Weekend Trips From The San Francisco Bay Area
More on Northern California:
- 15 Best Family Day Trips In Northern California
- 50 Exciting Things To Do In Berkeley, CA (From A Local’s Perspective)
- 42 Fun Things To Do In Oakland, California (A Local’s Guide)
- 33 Exciting Things To Do In Napa Valley Besides Wine Tasting
- 27+ Unforgettable Things To Do In Sonoma County, California
- Big Sur Road Trip: 2-Day Itinerary Of The 23 Best Things To Do In Big Sur, CA
- 20+ Best Towns Between San Francisco to Los Angeles: California Coast Road Trip