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A Traveling Insider’s Guide to San Francisco

Allow us to help you navigate your San Francisco vacation using this expert’s guide to the Golden City. | By Paul Oswell | September 3, 2021 (Updated March 9, 2023)

The resplendent Golden Gate Bridge is the quintessential image of San Francisco. But a barrage of complementary styles make up this city, from the gleaming futuristic steel and glass to the Victorian mansions to the red and gold pagodas. Cable cars, streetcars and ferries transport locals and tourists, and you’ll hear a dozen languages throughout the character-rich neighborhoods, from North Beach to Mission to Chinatown.

World-class cultural institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and legendary locations like Alcatraz and Coit Tower are there to be explored, as is the city’s incredibly diverse culinary scene. The surrounding wine country and tech of Silicon Valley also influence the city’s attractions.

Here are some ideas for making memories in The Golden City:

  • Famous sights: Instantly familiar landmarks are accessible all across the city, such as Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and Coit Tower

  • Tasty bites: There are around 4,500 restaurants in a 7-mile radius, and the choices encompass everything from the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy to authentic dishes in Chinatown

  • Exciting nights: Elaborate tiki bars, bohemian nightclubs, jazz clubs and, of course, thriving theater and classical music scenes are all great options

Why should you visit San Francisco?

San Francisco contains multitudes, from its stretch of Pacific coastline, recognizable landmarks and tech offices. It’s rightly one of the country’s most popular vacation spots.

Despite a seasonally unpredictable climate, San Francisco celebrates the outdoor life. Golden Gate Park is one of the largest civic green spaces in the country, and one of the most botanically diverse. The Presidio has woods, walking trails and views out over the Bay. Ocean Beach, China Beach and East Beach deliver equally dramatic views and accessible sands. Land’s End and Mount Tamalpais are peppered with hiking trails, for when the city’s urban hills have been conquered.

Paint the town

Relax in Alamo Square Park and take photos of The Painted Ladies, a striking row of Victorian houses.

Mission Dolores is the oldest building in the city (dating back to the 18th century) and its adobe walls and red roof tiles set the standard for the statewide Mission style. The Jackson Square neighborhood largely dates back to the mid-late 1800s. Nob Hill is a legacy of railway barons’ affluence and Haight-Ashbury defined the 1960s.

The diversity of arrivals during the Gold Rush created an early culinary scene unlike anywhere else in the United States. Add to that a year-round regional harvest of some of the world’s freshest produce, and it’s little wonder that the city is home to a world-class contemporary foodie scene. Michelin-starred restaurants set the pace for cutting-edge cuisine, while centuries-old recipes are honed to perfection throughout Chinatown.

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San Francisco is also one of the most inclusive cities in the United States. The Tenderloin and Castro districts are hubs for LGBTQ travelers, and the SF LGBT Center (1800 Market St.) is a great resource and place to take workshops, listen to poetry slams and more. The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) and African American Art & Cultural Center (AAACC) are great places to see Black art and performances, from open mic nights and concerts to permanent and rotating art exhibits.

Historic neighborhoods

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest in the country. It’s easy to spend entire days wandering and eating authentic dishes, like salt-and-pepper squid, stir-fried noodles and steamed dumplings.

When is the best time for your trip to San Francisco?

August to October, with average daytime temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), are the best months to visit, as they are the warmest and the least crowded. Spring is also fairly mild and relatively dry. No matter when you plan to visit, you should plan for a variety of climates.

Many tourists arrive in the height of summer, looking for that California sunshine. But the city has its own microclimate — you can thank the chilly Pacific Ocean wind for that — that makes it tricky to commit to a week at the beach. Winter brings fewer people, but you’ll need layers as the fog brings in a real chill.

Getting to and around San Francisco

The San Francisco Bay Area is served by three international airports, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) connects all three airports to downtown stations. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is 13 miles (21 km) south of the city, is one of the country’s busiest airports, but very efficient. Rental cars, shuttles, taxis and ride-hailing apps are readily available. Oakland International Airport is 20 miles (32 km) southeast of downtown. Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport is 45 miles (72 km) south of the city.

Amtrak trains arrive at Emeryville, to the north of Oakland. Amtrak runs a free shuttle to the city center. Cruise ships dock at Pier 27, while Greyhound buses arrive and depart from the Salesforce Transit Center. SamTrans provides a 24-hour bus service to the city.

A streetcar, if you desire

Once you’re in the city, there are equally as many ways to get around. The most famous of which are the cable cars and streetcars, which is what most people picture when they imagine themselves getting around San Francisco. However, they can get crowded, so you might want to consider other modes of transport, too.

BART operates six routes to 46 stations and issues reloadable, reusable cards. During the week, trains run from 4 a.m. to midnight every 15 minutes. On the weekends the trains run every 20 minutes and start at 6 a.m. on Saturday and at 8 a.m. on Sunday. There are passenger ferries at Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building.

You can buy money- and time-saving Muni passes (San Francisco Municipal Railway), which transfer between modes of transport.

With all of the public transportation options, you could skip a car rental unless you’re planning a day trip. Taxis are best ordered from hotels, and ride-hailing apps are popular.

Ride on

It’s a very bike-friendly city — for routes and information, check out the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

San Francisco really is a golden city, from the bridge views to the beaches to the gilded decorations of Chinatown. You’ll find it welcoming no matter what your aesthetic, social or scenic tastes, and with wine country and incredibly fresh produce just beyond the city limits, the culinary pleasures are beyond compare. Come with an open mind and a plan to make the most of the great outdoors and you’ll leave with the most magical memories you could wish for.

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Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”

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