If NYC is the center of the universe (or at least of the North-East) then San Francisco is the cultural, commercial, and financial center of Northern California. The hilly city found on the tip of a peninsula that is surrounded by both the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, is home to a little bit of everything. San Francisco is one of those cities that will make you will fall in love with it in just hours and will have you coming back to visit for years to come. From its sweeping views of the ocean, gorgeous beaches, and plethora of free activities and concerts, it’s no surprise that San Francisco’s residents are among the happiest and healthy people in the country.
I loved having the opportunity to explore San Francisco when I visited a friend who was living there two and a half years ago, and I am excited to share tips and advice on the best things to do on your next visit.
Best Time to Visit San Francisco
San Francisco is a great city to visit at any time of year so the timing of your trip will really depend on your personal preference! While many people think San Francisco is all sunny skies and warm weather, this is not necessarily the case. The weather in San Francisco varies by month and even by location in the city. Even on a nice day, San Francisco’s steep hills can influence the weather with fog, wind, and rain.
It is important to pack accordingly when you plan your visit – layers are important. Skies are clearest and temperatures are most moderate in April and October, with the rainy season falling in January. It may come as no surprise that summer months are the busiest with crowds found at a lot of the major tourist attractions, and winter months tend to be cheapest when it comes to booking accommodations.
Find monthly temperatures and rainfall guides in USA Today’s post on the Best Times to Visit San Francisco.
Top things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of those cities that you probably already know so much about. There is no shortage of things to do, both in the city and in the surrounding areas. This list of things to do, are definitely worth looking into on your next visit.
This neighborhood and popular tourist attraction is definitely worth checking out. The Fisherman’s Wharf has a number of dining and drinking options right in the heart of the area. There are attractions for everyone including Pier 39, the Sea Lion Center, and the Aquarium of the Bay. Make a stop at Ghirardelli’s, the landmark square with shops and restaurants, not to mention the unforgettable view.
Take a tour of Alcatraz Island but make sure you book in advance as tours tend to sell out quick especially during the busy season. This legendary island, located just more than a mile offshore from San Francisco has been home to a civil war fort, a military prison, and one of the most notorious federal prisons of all time. You can book a regular day tour or the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Tour or Alcatraz Night Tour depending on if you are looking for a tour that is something out of the ordinary.
San Francisco has the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia so it is definitely worth checking out. Situated on Grant Avenue and Stocktown Street, this area of the city offers a variety of activities. Sample some traditional dishes, explore the local shops and come back after dinner to experience Chinatown’s Nightlife scene.
Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
This must do activity will give you a great view the entire way, while getting up-close with one of the most famous bridges in the world. You’ll end up in charming Sausalito where you can grab lunch and explore the town before taking the ferry back to San Francisco.
Check out the Japanese Tea Garden
This popular feature of Golden Gate Park is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. A visit here will provide peace and tranquillity from the hustle and bustle of the city and is especially beautiful in March and April when the cherry blossom trees bloom.
If you’re still looking for things to do, check out San Francisco’s fantastic restaurant scene (recommendations can be found below), go to a sports game (San Francisco 49ers or the San Francisco Giants are my favorite San Francisco teams) or plan a day trip to a nearby area such as Napa, Muir Woods, or Santa Barbara.
Want more things to do in San Francisco? Check out this article by USA Today on Best Things to Do in San Francisco.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Figuring out where to stay is always an important decision on any vacation. The good news when planning your San Francisco getaway is that there are several areas of the city to stay in, and this decision can be made based on the priorities of your trip and who you are traveling with. I’ve listed the most popular areas of the city for travelers to stay below:
• Union Square is a great area of town if you want to shop in San Francisco. You will have your pick in terms of where to stay as most of the city’s hotels are found in this area. Union Square is centrally located in the city and is one of SF’s major transportation hubs – it is easily accessible via public transportation.
• Waterfront/Financial District is the best area of town to find a hotel with an incredible view. Hotels here are newer than those in Union Square and it is possible to find hotels in this area that are more affordable than in other areas.
• SOMA, an acronym for South of Market Street is the perfect place to stay if you and your travel buddies are foodies. The dining scene in this area of the city is amazing and has recently had an influx of innovative dining establishments in the past few years. SOMA is also in close proximity to the Mission District, SF’s oldest neighbourhood with some of the best new restaurants, many of which boast moderately priced entrée options.
• Fisherman’s Wharf is perhaps the most touristy area of town, and you will find many major hotel chains in this area, including the Marriott, Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Hilton, etc. Unfortunately, most of these hotels will be a few blocks away from the waterfront so the view will be mediocre at best. There are several attractions in close proximity so Fisherman’s Wharf might be the place for you if you are looking to be in the center of it all, and close to SF’s waterfront marketplaces.
Another great alternative for accommodation in San Francisco is Airbnb, where private rooms start at $30 and offer a unique way to experience the city from a more local perspective.
Don’t have an Airbnb account yet? Sign up now and receive a discount to put towards your first Airbnb stay!
For more advice on best hotels in San Francisco, check out The Telegraph’s Best Hotels in San Francisco.
Find and book these hotels on our favourite accommodation search website: Booking.com
Where to Eat and Drink in San Francisco
San Francisco has become known for its rising foodie scene in recent years so you will have no trouble finding good food on your next trip! SOMA is the place to begin if you are looking for quality restaurants. Check out Zero Zero, an upscale Neapolitan pizza and Italian eats spot, Garaje if you are craving Mexican, or Marlowe if you are looking to eat dinner at a trendy American bistro. For more suggestions check out: The foodie’s guide to eating and drinking in SOMA.
For dining suggestions in other areas of the city, read Eater San Francisco’s most recent article on the hottest restaurants in SF this month.
Featuring restaurants all across city in areas such as The Mission District, Lower Pacific Heights, and the Financial District you’ll be sure to come across some good options regardless of where you are visiting and/or staying for the night.
When it comes to drinking, San Francisco has something for everyone. From wine bars to speakeasies, to beer gardens, you will have more than enough places to check out (probably too many depending on the amount of time you have in town). Save some time by checking out this article that has mapped out every important cocktail bar you should check out or go with the flow and stumble into the first watering hole you see!
How Much Time Do You Need in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of those cities that will make you want to come back time and time again. With nearby destinations such as Napa, Sausalito, and Muir Woods National Monument, you could easily dedicate a week to exploring just these surrounding areas.
However, according to the San Francisco’s Visitor Bureau, people just spend 4 or 5 nights on average in San Francisco. With this amount of time, you should be able to adequately get a feel for the city, explore like a local, and even take a side trip or two to the destinations mentioned above.
For more info on how to make the most of your time in San Francisco, check out the following guides:
- San Francisco in two days
- Three days touring San Francisco
- San Francisco itinerary – 3 days in San Francisco for first timers