San Francisco Travel Guide
A city like no other, San Francisco has a charm of its own. Its perch on 43 (named) hills, sweeping views of the bay, and brightly painted Victorians save it from being the next concrete jungle, and its open vistas are matched by only by its open mind. From the Gold Rush to the Beats, the hippies to the tech boom, San Franciscans have never been afraid to do things a little differently. It’s where Otis sat on the dock wasting time, where others tuned in and dropped out, and where Steve Jobs came up with just “one more thing.”
Today, San Francisco still isn’t afraid to innovate. While the Summer of Love was replaced with Silicon Valley, ideas still flow freely and pioneers push us forward. And San Francisco has plenty to offer visitors, whether you’re going for entrepreneurial inspiration or just to get away.
History, creativity, cool restaurants, old buildings, and beautiful bay views on the California coast? Come on, take another little piece of our hearts, San Francisco.
Fisherman’s Wharf: No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a stroll along the Wharf. Unashamedly touristy, Fisherman’s Wharf is a hodgepodge of chain restaurants, seafood joints, street performers, and souvenir shops. Take a stroll along the Bay, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head down to Pier 39 to say hi to the city’s famous sea lions, and pick up a sweatshirt if you, like many unsuspecting visitors, weren’t prepared for the city’s fickle climate.
Ghirardelli Square: Yes, that Ghirardelli. Just up the hill from the Wharf, this beautiful brick square houses shops and restaurants, not the least of which is the original Ghirardelli shop. They give you free chocolate just for walking in the door. Need we say more?
Lombard Street: Known as “The Crookedest Street in America”, the block of Lombard connecting Hyde and Leavenworth makes eight tight hairpin turns designed to lower the impact of the hill’s 27% grade. Today, it just attracts visitors watching the row of cars precariously make their way down through the course. Beautifully landscaped with stairs taking you up & down the hill, it’s definitely worth a stop and a photo.
Haight-Ashbury: One of the most famous intersections in America, this set of city blocks stretching to the edge of Golden Gate Park became the hotbed of the hippie movement in the 1970s. Today, it’s filled with restaurants, shops, record stores, buskers, and modern-day hippies harkening back to the Summer of Love. If you go, be prepared to dodge requests for spare change and offers to buy illicit substances, but don’t worry – most of these self-appointed vagabonds are harmless. If you can see past it’s bohemian exterior, this is a place you must visit for history’s sake alone (not to mention the great vintage & vinyl finds).
The Mission District: This recently gentrified hipster hotspot is the destination for the city’s foodies. With some of the best breakfast spots, coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants lining Valencia and Mission streets, this is a great place to get a taste of the local side of San Fran. With historically Latin roots, you’ll find the beautiful Mission San Francisco de Asís, the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco, and the best Mexican food around. During the day, The Mission is one of the few parts of the city guaranteed sun, so take a trip up to Delores Park to sunbathe and get great views of the city.
Hayes Valley: Though in the past Hayes Valley wasn’t much to talk about, it’s taken on a new life of its own, and the city’s residents – as well as the press – are loving it. Adjacent to the city’s performing arts district, Hayes Valley is now home to some of the city’s trendiest restaurants and shops. Urban farmers, independent bookstores, and craft coffee shops make Hayes undeniably cool yet still under-the-radar enough to offer a calm break from the busyness of the city.
Palace of Fine Arts: Originally created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, this beautiful domed structure still stands on the edge of the Presidio, a former military base now owned by the National Park Service. Take a stroll through the beautiful architecture or venture deeper into the forested park, which offers plenty of opportunities for hiking and exercise, including a run at Crissy Field, an old airstrip turned Pacific promenade.
Ride the Cable Cars: The San Francisco cable car system is the last manually operated cable car system in the world – which is quite an impressive feat on the city’s hills. A quintessential San Francisco experience, you can wait your turn to get on at the beginning of the Hyde-Powell line, which starts at Fisherman’s Wharf or hop on at one of the many stops along the way. Be aggressive and jump on board – the operators aren’t allowed to stop you.
Beat It: On the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac’s cross-country journey to “’Frisco” and when he arrived, Vesuvio Café was his stomping ground of choice. Here, in this 1940s cafe and bar plastered with art and old Beat photos, he hung out with Neal Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty, and Bob Dylan, among others. Right across the street is City Lights, an independent book publisher and seller, most well known for publishing Alan Ginsburg’s Howl and the controversy that ensued. Literary lovers will love the look into history, while both spots offer great modern hangs for those who just miss bookstores not called “Amazon.com.” (A historically Italian area of town, North Beach is worth a visit even if you don’t tend to wax poetic. Stop in for a bowl of pasta and catch a view of the city from the top of Coit Tower.)
Find the “Full House” House: Whatever happened to predictability? It’s something all 80s babies have been wondering since John Stamos’s hair swept into our lives and never left our hearts. No one can forget the classic row of houses memorialized in the final shots of the ‘Full House” theme song. In real life, these are called “Painted ladies” and admired as one of the best examples of San Francisco’s classic Victorian architecture. They sit on the edge of Alamo Square Park at Hayes and Steiner St.
Get “Déjà Vu” at Hyde Street Studios: Though San Fran is most well-known for its role in the Summer of Love, its musical history runs much deeper. Make a stop at Hyde Street Studios, one of the oldest multi-room studios, where artists such as CCR, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, CSNY and Gram Parsons recorded some of their most famous work. Still active, this nondescript building sits on the edge of The Tenderloin, one of the rougher parts of town (go during daylight hours), with just one subtly painted door marking its location. Though they don’t offer official tours, give Nathan and Jack, two of the studio’s engineers, a call ahead to see if you can take a peek, or better yet, book a session and record something of your own.
Channel Your Inner Child: San Francisco offers plenty of fun for the kids, or even just kids at heart! Urban Putt, an indoor putt putt course in the Mission, serves up food and a high tech, creative game of golf. At The Exploratorium, a museum described as “a mad scientist’s penny arcade, a scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one”, you can check out interactive and creative exhibits that change the way you learn.
Drive Across the Golden Gate Bridge: As if driving across this iconic art deco structure wasn’t an experience in and of itself, on the other side you’ll find Sausalito, a quintessential coastal town perfect for lunch by the water, and Muir Woods, a national monument known for its redwoods forests and hiking trails.
Take a Ferry: If the fog just won’t lift and you need some sun, take a ferry out to Tiburon, a cute little town on a peninsula across the Bay. With restaurants, shops and boutiques lining this bayside town, you’ll feel like you were teleported to the Mediterranean rather than just the West Coast. If you don’t have time to explore a whole new town, you can just take a harbor cruise, which leaves from the Wharf several times a day.
Go Behind Bars: The infamous Alcatraz sits ominously in the Bay, a reminder of the famous criminals who used to live just a little too close for comfort. Today you can tour this famous prison through Alcatraz Cruises. Be sure to get your tickets ahead of time – weekend tours often sell out weeks in advance.
The Buena Vista Café: at the corner of Hyde Street right on the Wharf, The Buena Vista is a historic establishment that gives you great views of the Bay and the cable car stop. Thought they’re most famous for bringing Irish Coffee to the United states, their menu offers a variety of sandwiches, salads and entrees, perfect for lunch by the water.
Boudin: San Francisco is known for its sourdough bread, and no one does it like Boudin, weaving its dough into intricate shapes like turtles, teddy bears and crocodiles. Its flagship shop is right on Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can see the bread being made and stop in for a loaf or lunch.
Sushi: In a city with the country’s oldest Chinatown and its own Japantown district, it would be a shame not to partake in authentic sushi. Though there’s no shortage of choices, in Russian Hill, both Okoze and Elephant Sushi are well-known as some of the city’s best, in one of the best locations.
Mission Burritos: Though the Mission is full of plenty of hipster hotspots such as Foreign Cinema, the district’s Latin roots are not forgotten. If you’re searching for authentic Mexican food, head to any of the taquerias in the area and join the debate about who has the city’s best burrito. ESPN says it’s La Taqueria.
Tadich Grill: The oldest running restaurant in San Fransisco, having opened as a coffee stand in 1849, Tadich Grill offers meats cooked over charcoal, stews, and casseroles, as well as locally sourced Dungeness Crab for the true seaside experience.
Presidio Social Club: For a fun, off-the-beaten path experience, head to Presidio Social Club, an old military barracks turned restaurant that sits at the edge of the Presidio near the Palace of Fine Arts. Though its modern decor captures the Northern California style, you’ll still get hints of 1900s vintage vibe.
Hayes Valley: It’s impossible to pick just one of the great restaurants in Hayes Valley, a must-go for trendy dining. You can choose from just about any type of cuisine, from French food at Chez Maman and Absinthe, Cajun food at The Boxing Room, or a new twist on American at Rich Table and Zuni Cafe. These are the sorts of restaurants where the menu changes with the seasons and where the chefs are local institutions. If you’re looking for a nice dinner in the city, head to the corner of Hayes and Gough, and wander from there.
Tartine Bakery: San Francisco has several famous bakeries, but Tartine often has a line out the door as locals and tourists alike try to get their hands on their morning buns, croissants and other baked goodies. If you don’t have the patience to wait, try La Boulange, the bakery that now sources Starbucks pastries.
Tips & Tricks
Packing: Cardigans are your new best friend (as if they weren’t already!). Though California is typically associated with sun and warmth, San Francisco is known for its microclimates, meaning the weather can change throughout the day, on a dime, and depending where the city you are. Most mornings start out foggy, with a chilly breeze coming from the water. On good days, the sun will break through the clouds for the afternoon, but be prepared to experience temps ranging from 50 degrees to 90 degrees in a single day. Layers, layers, layers.
Staying: With rent prices that land upwards of $3,000/month for a one bedroom, space in San Francisco is quite the commodity. Depending on when you go and what kind of deals you can land, it’s not uncommon for the Days Inn to push $400 a night. If you’re comfortable with the idea of crashing at a stranger’s place, Airbnb is the perfect alternative to expensive hotels. In a city where the sharing economy is king, there is no shortage of great apartment rentals in amazing parts of town for under $200/night. Aim for Russian Hill, Nob Hill, Hayes Valley and the Castro for easiest access to the rest of the city.
Getting Around: Though San Francisco does have public transportation, for a city of its size, its train service is limited and most rely on the bus for cheap transportation. If you’re intimidated by the navigating the bus routes, or lacking in cash for a ticket, Lyfts and Ubers are abundant and affordable, especially if you’re splitting fares with a travel buddy. It’s only about $15 to get all the way across the city and with an average of $5-$8 for most trips to dinner or a destination, it’s a safe bet for getting around. (Note that parking in the city is extremely difficult. If you plan to rent a car, which isn’t recommended, be prepared to pay $30/day to leave it in garage when you aren’t using it).
Working: Entrepreneurs will find themselves right at home in San Francisco. If you need to take a break from your adventures for a quick catch-up on business, you’ll have no trouble finding a spot in one of the cities 200+ coffee shops. For a taste of the local roasts, try Ritual, Four Barrel, or Grand.
Exploring: San Francisco has more than enough to discover on its own, but one of the city’s best features is its proximity to so many of Northern California’s other wonders. The perfect basecamp for exploring, you can get to Napa Valley in 45 minutes, Santa Cruz in an hour, Lake Tahoe in 3.5 hours and Yosemite in 3.5. If you have time, take a week and make a trip of it.