Tl Summer of love, sourdough bread and steep hills – these are just a few of the things that make San Francisco stand out. Despite being home to less than a million people, the “City by the Bay” has a global reputation that has drawn visitors from around the world for centuries.
You’ll find yourself among locals who are a mix of techies and yuppies, artists and activists, as well as tourists wearing Alcatraz hoodies because they were expecting the L.A. weather. Conversations about technology and social innovation are set against the backdrop of the good, like Victorian architecture, and the bad, broken car windows from break-ins. But all of it stimulates the creative spirit that defines San Francisco.
Between Michelin-starred restaurants, sharply distinct neighborhoods, and impressive bridges, there’s plenty to see and do. This is where to start.
Visit the Golden Gate Bridge
Some might say that the only way to truly experience the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is to walk along its 1.7 miles, but while that’s totally fun and manageable, there are other options. Instead of driving or taking a bus to the Welcome Center at the south end of the bridge, as many do, consider crossing over and going up to Battery Spencer for an almost eye-level view of the bridge towers. The advantage of this approach is that San Francisco often has so much sea fog over the bridge that the view is obscured anyway, but the view from above under the same conditions is beautiful. If you have the time and energy, you can also walk across the bridge and then up to the lookout point to get the full experience.
Explore the different neighborhoods
San Francisco is a relatively small city at 7×7 miles, which makes it very walkable, if you can handle the hills, and there is a lot of variety in the different neighborhoods. It may seem like a challenge to explore them all, so plan ahead before you dive in: If you want to feel like it’s the Summer of Love, head to Haight-Ashbury to immerse yourself in hippie culture. Many LGBTQ+ newcomers and visitors to San Francisco are drawn to the city’s accepting culture, particularly in the Castro, where rainbow flags and crosswalks greet you.
Many international cultures have found a home in San Francisco, forming distinct communities. North Beach is where you will find the Italian flavor of the city, but also the legacy of its Beat Poets. Head to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana for the former, and City Lights Bookstore for the latter. Don’t miss out on dining and shopping in the Mission District, historically a Latino neighborhood, now sharing space with the hipster crowd. Finally, don’t miss the sound of mahjong tiles in the city’s Chinatown, the largest outside of Asia and the best place to experience Chinese-American culture. The Chinatown Ghost Tour ($45/£37) is a very special way to get acquainted with this unique part of San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square are the city’s tourist hubs, but it’s okay to skip them as they’re a bit generic.
See as much of Golden Gate Park as possible
Even a lifetime of living in San Francisco is not enough to see everything in the vast and varied Golden Gate Park. Find your way to the de Young Museum ($15/£12), the oldest museum in the city and architecturally stunning even from the outside. It displays fine art and is conveniently located near the California Academy of Sciences, which has interactive science exhibits including a planetarium. Of the park’s many gardens to explore, be sure to visit the expansive San Francisco Botanical Garden ($10/£8), the greenhouse-style Conservatory of Flowers ($10/£8), and the relaxing Japanese Tea Garden ($10-$12/ £8-£10).
take the cable car
If there’s one classically “touristy” experience you have to do in San Francisco, it’s riding the city’s cable car. Catch one at the jukebox on Market Street in downtown and head over the hills to Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can see the famous Pier 39 sea lions. Visit the MTA website for more information on how to get tickets.
Where to stay
If you’re looking for boutique luxury, stay in the SoMa neighborhood at Hotel Zelos. Rooms are stylish and unique, with deep soaking tubs and fun bathrobes. Their restaurant and bar, Dirty Habit, has incredible views and food. Doubles from $209 (£168), room only. viceroyhotelsandresorts.com/zelos
For a taste of the eccentricity that gives San Francisco its unique identity, stay at Noe’s Nest Bed & Breakfast in Noe Valley. Each room is more eclectic and quirky than the next, and all are dog-friendly. If you can pause to peruse the house’s rare collections and memorabilia, you’re in a good position to explore the Mission District. Doubles from $225 (£180), B&B. noesnest.com
For a taste of old-school San Francisco, head to the Fairmont at the top of Nob Hill. This is a luxury hotel, with Edwardian architecture and a refined atmosphere that really evokes the spirit of the city. Whether you’re staying here or not, a visit to the Tonga Room is a must for a taste of San Francisco’s tiki culture. Doubles from $300 (£244), room only. fairmont-san-francisco.com
Where to eat
San Francisco is a foodie city, whether we’re talking about world-renowned restaurants or holes in the wall.
Sam Wo in Chinatown may be the first Chinese restaurant in the entire country, but it’s almost certainly the first in San Francisco. It’s a beloved institution for tourists and locals alike, and can be a great starting point for exploring Chinatown cuisine in general.
Cafe Zoetrope in North Beach is a triple threat: a piece of San Francisco history, a cinematic marvel, and a great place to eat Italian food. This restaurant in the flatiron-style Sentinel building is owned by The Godfather Director Francis Ford Coppola. A collection of movie history and memorabilia will keep you entertained as you dine on traditional Italian dishes.
The House of Prime Rib is a San Francisco institution that harkens back to a time when good food meant good steak and potatoes, and a strong drink. This was fine dining at its finest, and most lifelong San Franciscans agree that the city wouldn’t be the same without this restaurant.
San Francisco is a coastal city and Sotto Mare is the place that offers the best that the local ocean has to offer. This is the house of Cioppino, California’s claim to fame when it comes to Italian food. You can also get Pacific delicacies like Dungeness crab here (when in season).
where to drink
There’s no shortage of places to grab a good drink in San Francisco, whether your vibe is dive (Li Po), tiki (Smuggler’s Cove), posh (Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Hotel), or just plain weird (Kozy Kar). Chances are, no matter what you’re into, Trick Dog will be right up your alley, too.
When it comes to heavy drinking and partying, there’s nothing like Butter. The drinks are strong, relatively inexpensive, and the accompanying snacks are some of the best in town.
This is a city that takes its caffeine seriously, and the Fluid Cooperative Cafe at Mercado Municipal La Cocina is particularly special. This trans-owned beanery serves great coffee and will give you a chance to explore San Francisco’s commitment to social justice through food.
Come to the Japanese Tea Garden because it’s beautiful and relaxing, stay because you can’t miss the tea service. In the midst of exploring America’s first such garden, stop at the tea house, built in 1894, to partake in the serene tea ceremony.
where to buy
Union Square is the main shopping district of San Francisco, with the best brands and department stores. This is where you’ll find Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and the rest. It’s especially nice at Christmas when the tree is up and Macy’s fills its windows with adoptable puppies and kittens from the San Francisco Humane Society.
Wingtip is an upscale men’s store in the Financial District that sells tasteful men’s clothing and accessories, plus cigars, and there’s even a classic barbershop on-site. If you’re lucky, they might let you peek into the private club a few floors up.
The Ferry Building is full of charming shops, but it really comes alive on Saturdays during the farmers market. You may find yourself selecting produce alongside some of the region’s most renowned chefs as they search for the best ingredients.
Some of the best boutiques are concentrated around Haight Street and Valencia Street in the Mission District. Both are home to vintage, second-hand, and one-of-a-kind shops that can’t be found anywhere else.
Edwardian and Victorian architecture define San Francisco, with its bright colors, ornate moldings, and general whimsy. While you’ll find buildings like these everywhere, the most iconic collection in this style is Painted Ladies. They became most famous as the stars of the TV show’s intro sequence. Full house, but originally these great houses reflected the elegance of the gold rush era. Head to Alamo Square Park, especially at sunrise or sunset, for an incredible architectural sight.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
English, although Spanish, Chinese and even Russian can be useful in certain areas.
Do I have to tip?
What is the time difference?
Pacific Time Zone, or GMT-7
How should I move?
San Francisco is a very walkable city if the hills don’t bother you, otherwise the MUNI buses and trains will get you where you need to go. The Van Ness BRT just opened in April 2022 as the city’s newest bus corridor, so give it a try and let San Franciscans know what you think of this highly anticipated project. The Bart train is also available in certain areas of the city and is the best public transportation option to the East Bay. For a scenic and cost-effective option for traveling to the North Bay (and other areas), take the Golden Gate Ferry. More transportation information can be found here.
If you decide to rent a car, make sure you have absolutely nothing, not even trash, visible when you park. Carjackings, also known as carjackings and carjackings, have been on the rise, and the best defense is making your car look worthless.
What is the best view?
Drive up the winding road to Twin Peaks for a breathtaking view of the city and the surrounding Bay Area.
Don’t call it “San Francisco” if you want the locals to like you. And always pack a light jacket, even if the weather seems warm and sunny, coastal fog can sneak up on you fast.
Trying to fly less?
You can take a cargo ship from Le Havre, France, to New York City, from where you can take the Amtrak train to Chicago, another to Richmond, California, and the local train to San Francisco.
okay with flying?
British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic have direct flights from the UK.