First time San Francisco: discover the best of the City by the Bay

Welcome to America’s most liberal city, where you can say what you like, do what you want and act like a freak without anyone caring. Even if you prefer khakis to chaps, and Sarah Palin to Nancy Pelosi, you’ll still have a blast in SF – just don’t call it Frisco, or San Fran.

San Francisco skyline at night. Image by Sudheendra Vijayakumar / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 San Francisco skyline at night. Image by Sudheendra Vijayakumar / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

First timers will soon notice that locals love a party, that the city’s culinary scene leads the nation, and that they’re visiting probably the most beautiful city in the US.  But what really grabs the attention are the people. If the idea of the American melting pot worked anywhere, it worked here. Once you’ve shopped at the downtown boutiques, ridden the cable cars, and sailed to Alcatraz, explore the off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods to meet the locals and get a true sense of place. A couple of weeks here and you may start shopping for apartments – or at least a pair of chaps.

Stats

Population: around 838,000

Visitors per year: around 17 million

Daily budget: $50 to $300, plus hotel

Best time of year to go: Apr–May or Sep–Oct: summer is often foggy and cool.

Restaurants per every 10,000 households: 39.5 (highest in the US)

Neighborhoods & sights

Sea lions relaxing at Pier 39. Image by Bill Christian / CC BY Sea lions relaxing at Pier 39. Image by Bill Christian / CC BY 2.o

Fisherman’s Wharf

The city’s number one tourist destination, Fisherman’s Wharf has a honky-tonk vibe and teems with crowds. See (and hear) the sea lions near Pier 39, explore the Musée Mécanique’s century-old arcade games, and tour the 19th-century tall ships at the Hyde St Pier and Maritime National Historic Park, before jumping on a modern ferry to the world’s most famous prison, Alcatraz, where the audioguide tour gives an atmospheric impression of life on the inside.

Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco at night. Image by Bob Dass / CC BY 2.0 Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco at night. Image by Bob Dass / CC BY 2.0

Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco’s most spectacular icon, the Golden Gate Bridge, rises 80 stories above the waters of the Golden Gate, the narrow passage between ocean and bay. Visit midday or early afternoon, when the clouds usually clear, and either walk, cycle or drive across for panoramic vistas of the downtown skyline and the Pacific. Begin at the visitor center, where cutaways of the massive suspension cables reveal the thousands of tiny woven wires that support the 1937 structure.

Holding on tight aboard the cable car. Image by Kay Gaensler / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Holding on tight aboard the cable car. Image by Kay Gaensler / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cable Cars

San Francisco’s famous cable cars are moving National Historic Landmarks. Their routes are named for the streets they travel: California, Powell-Mason, and Powell-Hyde – the latter covers the most diverse terrain and rides the most hills. Both Powell St lines are extremely popular with visitors so climb on board early in the morning, or get your fix on the less-traveled California St line. To learn how this massive mechanical system functions, drop by the (free) Cable Car Museum.

The Ferry Building now houses a great selection of food outlets. Image by Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0 The Ferry Building now houses a great selection of food outlets. Image by Ken Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0

Embarcadero waterfront

San Francisco puts its love of food front and center in the landmark Ferry Building, built in 1898 and now transformed into a vast covered market showcasing artisanal foods exclusively from local producers. Come at midday (when all the stalls are open) and join the throng of lunching local workers. Afterward, wander north along the Embarcadero Promenade to the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum that nudges you to question how you perceive the world around you. And make sure to come back in the evening when the Bay Bridge – the city’s other bridge – becomes the world’s largest LED display, with 25,000 lights creating never-repeating patterns. Position yourself on pedestrian-only Pier 14, just south of the Ferry Building, for the best views.

Drivers love the challenge of Lombard Street. Image by Richard Heyes / CC BY 2.0 Drivers love the challenge of Lombard Street. Image by Richard Heyes / CC BY 2.0

Russian Hill and Lombard Street

The world’s ‘crookedest street’ zigs and zags through eight gorgeously landscaped switchbacks, down a one-block-long stretch of Lombard St, on the eastern flank of Russian Hill – one of the city’s seven main hills. You’ve seen it in a thousand photographs and maybe a few films, too – Hitchcock used it in Vertigo, and Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal flew down it in the classic car-chase scene from What’s Up, Doc? For the best photographs, arrive late morning (when the fog clears) and head one block east, up the skirts of the adjacent hill.

Everyday San Francisco life captured in the Coit Tower murals. Image by Ed Bierman / CC BY 2.0 Everyday San Francisco life captured in the Coit Tower murals. Image by Ed Bierman / CC BY 2.0

Chinatown, North Beach and Coit Tower

The largest Chinatown in the country dazzles with pagoda-style architecture and blinking colored neon. Wander one block west of touristy Grant Avenue to Stockton Street, and peer into side-by-side shops where local women jostle for everything from ginseng to live turtles.

Recharge at Caffee Trieste in North Beach, the city’s ‘little Italy’ and birthplace of West Coast coffee culture, before burning off your caffeine buzz on a hike uphill to Coit Tower. This Art Deco monument crowns Telegraph Hill and has sweeping views and glorious WPA murals depicting life in California. Afterward, find the Filbert Street Stepsa semi-secret wooden staircase, with wild parrots squawking in the trees overhead, that leads down to the Embarcadero waterfront.

Sunny day in Union Square. Image by Olivier Bruchez / CC BY 2.0 Sunny day in Union Square. Image by Olivier Bruchez / CC BY 2.0

Union Square and the Tenderloin

San Francisco’s principal shopping district, Union Square, is also the location of most hotels. Chances are this is where you’ll be staying. People-watch from the middle of the square over an espresso at Emporio Rulli, then ride the glass elevators at the Westin St Francis for bird’s-eye views.  A word of warning: most first-time visitors are thrown by the grittiness of some downtown areas, including lower Powell St, terminus of two of the city’s cable car lines. While generally safe, the area west of Powell St and south of Geary St, known as the Tenderloin, is rife with panhandlers and junkies, though it’s also where you’ll find the highest concentration of cheap ethnic restaurants and trendy bars: ask your hotel staff for the best directions and be cautiously adventurous.

The Japanese Tea Garden is a tranquil spot in Golden Gate Park. Image by Ruth Hartnup / CC BY 2.0 The Japanese Tea Garden is a tranquil spot in Golden Gate Park. Image by Ruth Hartnup / CC BY 2.0

Golden Gate Park

When locals talk about “the park” there’s only one that gets the definite article. Nearly five miles long and stretching all the way to the ocean, Golden Gate Park’s famous gardens include the Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers, and the Japanese Tea Garden. Star attractions are the fine-arts MH de Young Museum, with its spiraling copper-sheathed tower, and the California Academy of Sciences, whose ‘living roof’ of wildflowers covers a planetarium, indoor rainforest, and thousands of live animals.

What to pack

  • Layers The weather changes fast, and it’s rarely hot.
  • Good walking shoes Those hills take no prisoners.
  • Sense of humor You’re going to see some eyebrow-raising sights on your visit.
  • Product, not flowers, for your hair The Summer of Love has long since passed.

Getting around

From the airport to downtown take a Bart train ($8.65 one-way) or a taxi (roughly $50, plus tip).

In the city, walking and MUNI (the city’s transit system) are the best ways to get around. The cable car is practical only if you’re staying atop Nob or Russian Hills.

Visitor Passport transit tickets come in 1-, 3-, and 7-day versions, allowing unlimited travel on buses, streetcars, cable cars, and metros. They’re available from the kiosk at Powell and Market St, local Walgreen’s drug stores, and various outlets.

In addition to taxis, ride-sharing companies, such as Lyft and Über, also operate in San Francisco.

Safety

Most areas are safe, but be careful in the Tenderloin.

Don’t leave purses hanging off the backs of chairs in restaurants.

Watch out for grab-and-run smartphone thieves.

Etiquette

San Francisco is casual – nobody wears a tie – but locals prize unique or unusual fashions: expect to see a lot of expensive denim, clashing prints, and maybe some sequins and feathers, too.

Booking ahead

Hotels double their room rates when there’s a major convention in town so consult the city’s convention calendar portal.sanfrancisco.travel/calendar_public before you decide your travel dates.

Book top restaurants one to four weeks in advance, Alcatraz tickets at least a week ahead, and concerts and shows when tickets go on sale.

John A Vlahides is the author of Lonely Planet San Francisco and host of the adventure-travel TV series Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled. He’s a former chef, and Les Clefs d’Or luxury-hotel concierge, and also sings tenor with the Grammy-winning San Francisco Symphony & Chorus.