Travel tips every first time San Francisco visitor needs to know

Use these San Francisco travel tips to survive and thrive in the city
Photograph: Flickr/furnari
By Shoshi Parks |
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Welcome to San Francisco! You may have heard that things are changing here, what with tech companies and gentrification. It’s true that San Francisco is more expensive and less hippy-dippy than in its Summer of Love days but it remains the most beautiful city in the Western United States (not that we’re biased). With its hills, extensive green spaces like Golden Gate Park and the Presidio and towering landmarks like Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is still everything you imagined, complete with a healthy dose of on-point restaurants, bars and shops.

San Francisco travel tips

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31 reasons San Francisco kicks LA’s ass
Photograph: Shutterstock

San Francisco is surrounded by the sea

San Francisco is at the top of a peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean. Across the Bay Bridge to the east is Oakland and Berkeley. Across the Golden Gate Bridge to the north is Sausalito and Marin County. South of the city is Silicon Valley, the home of Facebook and Google.

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22 things that only San Franciscans would ever put up with
Photograph: Shutterstock

You can walk almost everywhere, as long as you don’t mind trudging uphill

San Francisco is a compact seven square miles and the city’s core, from North Beach to the Mission, is much smaller. If you have comfy shoes, walking the city’s streets is the best way to experience its historic neighborhoods. Contrary to popular belief, many neighborhoods, including the Mission, Tenderloin and Downtown, are relatively flat. You’ll find the most intense hills in North Beach, Russian Hill, Nob Hill, Noe Valley and Pacific Heights.

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New BART cars
Photograph: Felicia Kieselhorst

We have four types of public transportation but only tourists ride the Cable Cars

San Francisco’s public transportation system is not nearly as efficient as New York, London or Madrid but we make do. Buses (currently $2.75/ride) have the most extensive routes, followed by our above/below-ground streetcar system. BART will take you to the airport, Glen Park, the Mission, downtown and across the Bay to Oakland and Berkeley. There are only three Cable Car lines, two of which depart from Market and Powell street downtown, ridden almost exclusively by tourists.

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Photograph: Courtesy Bay Are Bike Share

But sometimes walking (or biking) is the fastest way to get somewhere

Traffic in SoMa and Union Square can be brutal, especially at rush hour. Avoid taking a car or bus in these neighborhoods at peak hours—you can literally walk to your destination more quickly. You’ll move faster on foot than the #30 bus from North Beach through Chinatown to Market Street any time of day.

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Hiking Mount Davidson
Photograph: Aaron Yabes

Always bring a sweater...

Ever heard the Mark Twain quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco?” Well, Twain never actually said this, but the sentiment holds true—San Francisco is frickin’ cold, especially in the summer months from June to September (and no matter how hot it is just ten miles away). Nights are uniformly between 50-60 degrees year round.

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Fog and fully-clothed frolickers... is this not standard beach fare elsewhere?
Photo: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/William Welch

...especially in the microclimates to the West

San Francisco, with its hills and valleys, fog and ocean breezes, is a city of neighborhood microclimates. Generally the farther you are from the ocean, the warmer it will be, particularly in the Mission, Bernal Heights and Potrero Hill. The “fog line” crosses through Pac Heights and NoPa and everything to the west, will see the fog roll in and temperatures drop by late afternoon most days.

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Fog on Mt Tam
Photograph: Aaron Yabes

The fog here has a name (and an Instagram account)

Fog is such a constant in San Francisco, that some brilliant San Franciscan went ahead and named it. Karl. The fog’s name is Karl. You’ll get a glimpse of Karl blanketing the city from most neighborhoods but for a front-row view, head up to Sutro Tower or the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge. Stalk him on Instagram @karlthefog.

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The newly re-opened Dolores Park
Photograph: Gaelen
Things to do

On sunny days, the park is the place to be

Despite Karl’s stranglehold on the city, we get plenty of sunny days and on a bright, warm Saturday or Sunday, the place to see and be seen is a city park. For a more raucous good time, head to Dolores Park in the Mission where hipsters gather in droves. On Sundays, check out the Presidio Picnic food-truck bonanza at the Main Post in the Presidio or free Lindy Hop at Golden Gate Park.

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The perfect picnic in San Francisco
Photograph: Courtesy Alite Designs
Things to do

And on really sunny days, hit the beach

When Karl has the day off, soak up the sun on one of the city’s handful of beaches. At the Outer Sunset’s Ocean Beach you’ll find the most space to spread out and public fire pits for keeping you warm when the sun goes down. Baker Beach is the only place in the city where you can gaze at the Golden Gate Bridge nude, while the beach at Crissy Field is more family friendly.

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Ferry Building Marketplace
Photograph: Courtesy Flickr/Ken Lund
Shopping, Markets and fairs

...and local, organic, sustainably raised food...

icon-location-pin SoMa

San Francisco is a food lover’s city and just about everywhere—from modest cafes to Michelin-starred restaurants—fresh, organic and sustainably raised fare is on the menu. Almost every day you’ll find a farmer’s market somewhere in the city with artisan foodstuffs, fruits and vegetables from the far reaches of the Bay Area. Inside the permanent stalls at the Ferry Building, you can taste hand-crafted cheese and oven-fresh breads any day of the week.

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Foreign Cinema
Photograph: Courtesy Foreign Cinema

...but we don’t have many outdoor cafes

Unlike some cities where there is an outdoor cafe around every corner, there aren’t many places to have a meal al fresco in San Francisco. Parklets (tiny public parks made out of parking spaces) located in front of cafes in most neighborhoods serve as a default outdoor seating but typically do not allow alcohol. Some eateries, including Zazie in Cole Valley, Foreign Cinema in the Mission, and Biergarten in Hayes Valley have enclosed patios.

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Eaze
Photograph: Yelp/James F.

You can buy weed legally, but not everywhere

Since January 1, 2018 weed in California is legal for recreational use but not all dispensaries have converted from serving medical patients to the general public. Weedmaps and the free Leafly app can help you find the right place to purchase a joint, vape pen or edibles. Just be sure to empty your pockets before getting on the flight home.

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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Todd Lappin
Things to do, Walks and tours

If you want to go to Alcatraz, reserve tickets in advance

icon-location-pin San Francisco

Alcatraz is one of the most interesting destinations in San Francisco but, although they run tours all day every day, spots disappear fast. Choose your day and time and buy your tickets online or risk having to wait around for hours until they have space. Boats to Alcatraz leave from Pier 33.

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Wild SF Walking Tours
Photograph: Yelp/Wild SF Walking Tours

You can learn San Francisco history for free

If you’re a history buff, don’t miss out on San Francisco City Guide’s excellent free tours. Run through the public library, these volunteer-led excursions will give you the down low on some of the city’s most important landmarks and neighborhoods. Check out the tour schedule on the City Guides website.

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Golden Gate Bridge
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/yuyang226
Things to do

Golden Gate Bridge is an icon for a reason

icon-location-pin Presidio

No matter the weather, it’s always worth getting up close and personal with Golden Gate Bridge —whether you do it on foot, rent a bike or ride an open-topped tourist bus. The bridge and the narrow strait between the Marin Headlands and San Francisco will take your breath away. Pedestrians can cross the bridge between 5am and 6:30pm; bikes are allowed access 24-hours a day.

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movies in Jack London Square
Photograph: Courtesy Jack London Square

Don’t forget about Oakland...

A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete with a stop in Oakland. Take BART to downtown Oakland at the 12th Street or 19th Street stops or a ferry across the Bay to Jack London Square. In both areas you’ll find some of the Bay Area’s best new restaurants, bars and more.

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Tuk-tuk tour of Napa Valley via Laces and Limos
Photograph: Courtesy Laces and Limos
Bars

...or Wine Country

About an hour north of San Francisco you’ll run right into Sonoma and Napa counties which offer some of the world’s most picturesque wine country and tastiest wines. There are buses and trains that can get you there but you’ll find it hard to wine taste via public transportation. Some areas such as the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys in Sonoma are easily bikeable and rentals are widely available. In others you’ll have to hire a driver, rent a car or call a Lyft or Uber to get to your preferred wineries.

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