San Francisco has an outsize reputation in the American consciousness, from the myth-making Gold Rush to the Summer of Love to gay liberation to the current tech boom. The long story of the 'Cool Grey City of Love' has somehow spanned counterculture and culinary revolution, dive bars and dot coms, sailors and psychonauts – a range of experiences as far-reaching as the iconic Golden Gate Bridge that branches from the big city to big redwoods across the bay.

No matter what impressions you have on arrival, San Francisco is sure to shift and subvert them. Despite plenty of gentrification in recent years, San Francisco retains a certain mystique belayed by its shimmering white skyline shrouded in fog. It's not the westernmost point in the continental United States – that honor goes to Cape Alava, Washington – but somehow San Francisco has always felt as if it sits on the rim of America, marking some sort of edge or tipping point. At the very least, it was the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway, the original trans-American mother road that ushered generations west in the age of the automobile.

If it's your first time visiting San Francisco, no doubt you have a long list of must-see experiences vying for top billing – whether you're seeking old school dishes like Hangtown fry, a classic cablecar ride, a visit to Alcatraz, the rhythm of the beat generation, some '60s nostalgia, a little comeback '70s Cali cool, or some Party of Five 90's nostalgia. That's the wonderful thing about San Francisco – this is a city that contains multitudes, which invites you to return again and again and again as you find little pieces of yourself scattered in its storied neighborhoods.

Not sure where to get started? Just read on, man.

Stats

Population: around 883,305
Visitors per year: around 25 million
Daily budget: $50 to $300, plus hotel
Best time of year to go: April–May or September–October; summer is often foggy and cool.
Number of restaurants: 4,415

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Classic view of historic traditional Cable Cars riding on famous California Street in morning light ©canadastock/Shutterstock

Neighborhoods & sights

Fisherman’s Wharf

The city’s number one tourist destination, and you could write off Fisherman’s Wharf as a trap, but really that's only true for the seafood that passes through this strip of working warehouses and quirky attractions. Fisherman's Wharf recently survived a football-field sized fire, and continues to process vast quantities of seafood for a city that takes eating seriously (just a few years ago, San Francisco had the most restaurants per capital in the nation). Humans aren't the only fans of the Wharf's bounty – you can see and hear the sea lions near Pier 39 before ducking into the Musée Mécanique to check out century-old arcade games that hint at San Francisco's long legacy of cool.

Next, tour the 19th-century tall ships at the Hyde St Pier and Maritime National Historic Park to learn more about the city's naval ties – which were also the origin of San Francisco's eventual reputation as the capital of LGBTQI America.

Meanwhile, Alcatraz offers a jumping off point to learn about San Francisco's complicated history of crime and punishment, as well as its role in the indigenous rights movement – from 1969 to 1971, Alcatraz was occupied by the activist group Indians of All Tribes. Take a tour to learn more about the long and varied history of one of the world's most famous prisons.

Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco’s most spectacular icon, the Golden Gate Bridge, rises 80 stories of gleaming orange above cold, dark waters. Visit midday or early afternoon when views will be clearest. If you're curious exactly how San Francisco's most famous structure stays aloft, stop by the welcome center in the Presidio – a former military complex –  to see a cross section of the thousands of tiny woven wires that have held the bridge since 1937. The Presidio also offers some fantastic vantage points not only of the Golden Gate, but other nearby scenery like Chrissy Field and glimpses of the downtown skyline.

You can walk, cycle or drive across for panoramic vistas of the downtown skyline and the Pacific. For an especially unique angle, you can even sail underneath. Children especially will be thrilled by a fire truck tour of the Golden Gate– a memory sure to linger for decades.

Cable Cars

147 years ago, San Francisco's iconic cable cars were cutting edge technology. Today, they're a tourist attraction and part of the city's vital public transportation network immortalized in the 1953 George Cory song that goes, "I left my heart in San Francisco/ High on a hill, it calls to me / To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars / The morning fog may chill the air, I don't care." 

Now those pretty little cars are National Historic Landmarks on wheels. Just a handful of the original routes prevail, named for the streets they traverse: California, Powell-Mason, and Powell-Hyde. Expect the biggest crowds – and even lines to board– on the Powell St lines. You can get your chance in the morning before rush hour, while most tourists are still enjoying breakfast at joints like nearby Lori's Diner, or head to the less-harried California Street line. If you want to learn more about San Francisco's perennial workhorses, swing by the Cable Car Museum – always a hit with children.

USA CA San Francisco City Lights bookstore. Image shot 2014. Exact date unknown.
Vesuvio Cafe with City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, San Francisco © travelstock44 / Alamy Stock Photo

Chinatown, North Beach and Coit Tower

San Francisco's Chinatown was once the largest in the country, a fact that transformed it into a political as well as culture hotspot. While San Fransisco's Chinese-American population has largely filtered into the Richmond and Sunset districts and broader bay area suburbs, one only needs to come in February to see the old district come to life. Old Chinatown is at its smoke-filled best when its hosts San Francisco's annual Lunar New Year Parade, quaking with firecrackers as the city gathers for dragon dances and tours of the fortune cookie factory. Another prime season to visit is  Christmastime, when many of San Francisco's wonderful dim sum restaurants put out special menus.

Recharge at Caffe Trieste in North Beach, the city’s ‘little Italy’ and birthplace of West Coast coffee culture. Though the city has a whole has changed quite a bit since big tech arrived, North Beach is still an area where you can glimpse old school San Francisco. Just keep an eye out for anywhere that distinguished gentlemen in cabby hats tend to gather where there's nary a fleece pullover in sight – that's a sure sign you've stumbled on a local hangout that stands the test of time.

Just around the corner, duck into the famous City Lights Bookstore. This is hallowed literary ground, and has been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1953, when it was founded by the great beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Right next door is another important landmark in San Francisco's beatnik legacy, the Vesuvio Cafe, where the likes of Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan were known to gather. 

If you aren't tempted by a book or a beer, burn off your caffeine buzz on a hike uphill to Coit Tower. This Art Deco monument is perched atop Telegraph Hill and has sweeping views of the city, not to mention a series of murals made by the Works Progress Administration almost a century ago, with colorful scenes of life in the Golden State. Afterward, find the Filbert Street Steps. This semi-secret wooden staircase feels like you've stepped out of San Fran and into another world, where friendly cats will say hello while wild parrots squawk in the trees overhead. It's the perfect route to cut down to the Embarcadero waterfront. 

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Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park of San Francisco, California, USA. ©Tupungato/Shutterstock

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is San Francisco's back yard – what Central Park is to New York, but even more. It spans five miles, reaching from San Francisco's most storied neighborhoods to the white capped Pacific coast. It contains everything from the formal Victorian gardens of the Conservatory of Flowers to distinctive pagodas of the Japanese Tea Garden. The MH de Young Museum is a must-see for art lovers that stands out as a gleaming copper landmark even if you never step inside. Meanwhile, the California Academy of Sciences speaks to California's conservation-minded ethos, its planetarium capped with wildflowers. Inside is an indoor rainforest and a variety of live animals that will delight all ages.

Even if you skip the major sites, you could easily spend a whole day hiking through Golden Gate Park. Often an aimless stroll is the key to experiencing this green space like a local, and to take in the endless people watching that might attune you to the city's unique vibe.

SOMA, Union Square, the Tenderloin

Once upon a time, San Francisco's City Hall sat on the eastern edge of the city before the Bay was steadily filled in, forming the foundation of new neighborhoods. Even just 25 years ago, TV shows like Party of Five that celebrated San Francisco's historic neighborhoods further west cast the Mid-Market and SOMA (South of Market) neighborhoods near city hall as crime-ridden loft spaces appealing only to broke college students and up-and-comers.

Today, Twitter and other tech companies have set up their headquarters here and fancy high-rise apartment buildings have cropped up next door. You'll find an assortment of food trucks and fast-casual ramen joints just a stone's throw from the gorgeous gilt dome – grab a burrito from Señor Sisig and sit on a benh to watch the happy couples stream out of city hall fresh from getting hitched.

This part of San Francisco has seen dramatic growth in recent years, and as a result the hotel epicenter around Union Square now abuts the rough-and-tumble Tenderloin – once (and somewhat still) the Skid Row of SF. The area's reputation may make you tighten your grip on your handbag, but there's a concentration of cheap ethnic restaurants and trendy bars that have locals and visitors alike venturing into what was once verboten territory. Block to block you'll see everything from hip craft beer emporiums to homeless camps – remember this is the result of high housing rates, not criminality. Keep an open, compassionate mind.

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A street corner in the Haight showcases the blend of Victorian and Art Deco architecture found throughout San Francisco © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

The Haight and Hayes Valley

When many people picture San Francisco, they're picturing the Haight, whether they realize it or not. Full of handsome old Victorians that once housed anonymous communes, the Grateful Dead, Joan Didion, and even Charles Manson, the neighborhood hasn't lost its bohemian charms.

The Summer of Love may be over and you can't find free meals from the Diggers and LSD on every street corner, but the Haight's counterculture is still alive and well. There's plenty of tie-dye on display at the annual Haight Ashbury Street Fair each June, not to mention boundless records at the world-famous Amoeba Music, where the likes of the Violent Femmes have been known to play free shows. When the sun goes down, nightlife keeps the Haight's streets bright, and you're sure to find a good tipple or a concert – not to mention a souvenir or two if you duck into one of the neighborhood's many head shops and tattoo parlors. 

Nearby, Hayes Valley has a decidedly different vibe, full of posh shops, piano bars, and hip eateries. One of the most iconic restaurants in San Francisco is here – don't miss the chance to try the legendary roast chicken at Zuni Cafe. Judy Rodgers' light-filled flatiron restaurant has been wowing diners with simple, perfectly prepared dishes that, over the past forty years, have come to define California cuisine. Another must-visit is The Riddler, the tiny, female-owned, impossibly chic champagne bar where you can chow down on caviar-strewn tater tots while sipping impeccable bubblies. 

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Rainbow pedestrian crossings at the intersection of 18th St and Castro St. ©Brigitte Merle/Getty Images

The Mission and the Castro

Home to lively street art, burritos the size of your arm, and generations of Chicano culture, there's a reason the Mission District is one of San Francisco's most popular neighborhoods. That's also meant some of its charms have been blunted by gentrification in recent years, but loyal locals haven't let beloved mainstays like Foreign Cinema and Mission Chinese founder. A slew of dive bars and bookstores still survive, too, not to mention packed hole-in-the-wall taco shops like El Farolito and La Taqueria, which serve up the neighborhood's very own Mission Burritos – a genre all its own. Indulge in a morning pan au chocolate at Tartine before enjoying a long, winding tour of the area's murals and history. When your dogs are barking, pick up a couple paperbacks at Alleycat Books before settling onto a bar stool at Phone Booth underneath the naked Barbie chandelier for a shot and a beer.

Just west of the Mission is another neighborhood whose reputation precedes it. Instead of following the yellow brick road, keep an eye out for the rainbow crosswalks to know you've found the Castro, America's original gayborhood. Take in views of San Francisco's own Oz from Buena Vista Park, atop the tall hill that separates the Castro from Haight Ashbury, or the small-but-spectacular Corona Heights before dipping back into neighborhood where locals like Harvey Milk once hit up the Castro Theatre and Twin Peaks Tavern – the oldest gay bar in SF. Book a Castro walking tour so you can get the inside scoop on the kind of neighborhood lore that typically gets left out of history books.

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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco ©Can Balcioglu/Getty Images

What to pack for San Francisco

  • Layers: Even in peak season, the City by the Bay has the potential to be chilly and cloudy. That's ironically true even in the summer, when Karl the Fog (yes, San Francisco's marine layer has been personified) is feeling friendlier than usual
  • Sensible footwear: San Francisco is famously hilly, yes, but it's still a pedestrian-friendly city where you can easily hoof it between neighborhoods. Even if you aren't typically a walker by nature you might find yourself strolling transit stops and Uber pickup locations. Leave the heels at home and bring something (festive) with support
  • An open mind: Whether you're ready to commune with the chaps-clad glitterati or are expecting a refined Silicon Valley experience, San Francisco demands a blend of acceptance, patience, and whimsy
  • A generous budget: While it's certainly possible to do San Francisco on a budget, let's face it – this is a spendy city. If you're hoping to Uber around, shop, take advantage of SF's well-lauded fine dining scene or book prime hotel rooms, budget a little more than you might even in other major American cities or West Coast locals
  • A good book: San Francisco is a city layered with stories. While anyone can drop in and have a fabulous time, you'll get a whole 'nother level of appreciation if you read your way through this city that's jam-packed with ride-or-die bookshops. From Gary Kamiya's Cool Grey City of Love to David Talbot's Season of the Witch to Rebecca Solnit's The Infinite City to classics bu Kerouac, Didion, Jack London and Richard Brautigan, there are no shortage of books that will help you tap into the spirit of San Francisco. Pick something up ahead of time, or once you arrive at local favorites like Green Apple Books.
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Mural in Mission District neighborhood in San Francisco ©Julien Hautcoeur/Shutterstock

Getting around

The BART train from the airport to downtown will cost about $10.20 one-way, or you can take a taxi (roughly $50, plus tip). A ride share like Lyft or Uber will run a little cheaper than a cab – San Francisco is home turf for both companies.

It's most practical to get around San Francisco by the MUNI (public transit) system or your own feet. While the cable car will help you get up some steep hills, its predominantly a tourist experience in a small area of the city rather than a serious tool for commute. Visitor Passport transit tickets can be had for 1-, 3-, and 7-day blocks which give you unlimited travel on buses, streetcars, cable cars, and metros. You can pick one up from kiosks at Powell and Market St, as well as at local pharmacies and other retail spots around the city. You can also use your smartphone as a transit pass using the MuniMobile app.

Etiquette

San Francisco is casual – you're more likely to see a ubiquitous techie fleece-and-brogues uniform or feather boas and glitter than you are to see anyone in a tie. Locals are likely to rely on outdoor apparel to navigate the ever-changing weather, let their freak flag fly with thrift store finds, or dress for cute comfort than to rock couture. Even evening wear steers away from the binding and formal towards the expressive and earthy.  

Booking ahead

Because San Francisco is a busy, expensive city, it's wise to plan ahead. Check the city convention calendar before booking your lodging as rates are often higher when there's a convention or event in town. That's especially true now that many of the city's AirBnB's and other short-term lodging stock has been knocked out by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For the city's best-known restaurants, you'll want to book at least a week or two in advance – or as much as a month in peak season, especially if you're hoping to score special (sometimes cheaper) tasting menus only offered on certain nights. Do advance research on tours, too, especially if you're hoping to book specific day and times for sites like Alcatraz that are on everyone's must-see list. Concerts, theater, and dance events should be booked as soon as dates are announced – after all, you're competing with locals who pay a premium to take advantage of everything San Francisco has to offer.

It's best to skip a rental car in San Francisco – public transit, ride shares, and your feet will get you where you need to go more efficiently. Even if you want to head further afield to see sites like Muir Woods or wine country, it's often easier to book a tour than fuss with a vehicle.

You may also like: 

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This article was first published August 2014 and updated June 2020

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