After a fantastic first visit in 2008, I swore though I’d never live in San Francisco. But oh what a wonderful place to visit. Fast forward 5 years later, I found myself living in the East Bay (across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco). The “Bay Area” as people who live there refer to it, has an amazing diversity of things to see and do. It’s like New York City, but slower paced, better weather, friendlier people, and more diverse nature. Exceptional national and state parks, food that will blow your mind, incredible music scene, and booming entrepreneurial, tech and big business economy with innovation and creativity everywhere. Despite that, a lot of people continue to move out of San Francisco to other up and coming, more affordable hipster cities that resemble San Francisco when it was in its infancy. This incredible place has a lot to offer and requires multiple trips to see it all!
See & Do (Downtown)
- Mission District. My favorite neighborhood in San Francisco. Still a bit rugged and raw, there’s such a variety of hip trendy restaurants, odd and eclectic shops, and authentic hole-in-the-wall eateries. Walk along Valencia and Mission streets between 16th and 24th streets. Check out Paxton Gate taxidermy (trust me), and there’s also a nearby pirate store. You must eat at Foreign Cinema (excellent food, old movies playing on the big screen on their outdoor patio). Limon Rotisserie is possibly the best Peruvian food I’ve eaten in the U.S. There are also tons of Mexican restaurants. Nearby Mission Delores Park is a nice place to sit solo or with friends and relax on the green. A very off-the-beaten-path activity is a tour of Kinks Armory, literally what it sounds like, an old armory building that films bondage porn. Of course you don’t watch porn, you get a tour of the sets which are quite impressive. Created by engineers at popular tech companies and set directors from Hollywood.
- The Castro. The epicenter for LGBT. Great area, great people, good food, overall fun time. For an interesting adventure, at the top of the hill, find the Randall Museum, a nature museum with nice views.
- Haight-Ashbury (aka “The Haight”). Few neighborhoods have a cooler history than Haight-Ashbury where many hippies of the 60s/70s congregated, including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and countless other musicians, artists, and writers. Eclectic stores, cool bars, some good music still remains as well. Located just down the street from Golden Gate Park.
- SoMa. Popular area of downtown San Francisco with lots of shops, food trucks, and tech companies. The popular Union Square on Geary St with an ice skating rink in winter and more shops. Yerba Buena Gardens are just north. And of course you have Chinatown, which is great. Wonderful Asian shops, markets, and tea tastings! You must stop in for a tea tasting at Vital Leaf, it’s so much fun, plus the tea is very good. There are several of them, check out Grant Ave. The iconic Chinatown gate is at Grant and Bush. The Asian Art Museum is quite nice. There’s also the cable car on Powell St you can ride, which is ok. I think there are much better uses of time.
- Embarcadero and the Financial District. You’ll find some great quick Asian places to eat. Check out the Ferry Building which houses an indoor market, great food, and an awesome candied almonds stand. If you like science and/or have kids (I loved it as an adult), the Exploratorium is fantastic.
- North Beach (aka “Little Italy”). Touristy, but outstanding places to eat, including gelato. Visit the iconic Coit Tower. Pier 39 is nearby along with Fisherman’s Wharf, which personally I don’t find that interesting plus it’s always cold and windy. If you like Jack Kerouac and the beatnik generation, definitely check out the Beat Museum. Popular streets are Columbus, Green, and Stockton. The main parts of North Beach and Chinatown are right next to each other for eating and shopping. Nearby over in Russian Hill, you’ll find the famous winding Lombard Street.
- Pacific (“Pac”) Heights, Fillmore, and Western Addition. More restaurants, nicer area. Nearby Japantown has an underground mall, market, and restaurants which are not obvious if you’re just driving by. The famous Fillmore music venue is here if you have time to catch a show. For those Victorian home lovers and/or Full House enthusiasts, the “Painted Ladies” row of houses is here.
- The Presidio. Great views, fancy housing, old military barracks, access to the Golden Gate Bridge. Crissy Field is a great spot for views of the bridge and also some nice greenery for relaxing. Two other wonderful museums include The Palace of Fine Arts and the Walt Disney Family Museum. A division of Lucas Arts is headquartered here, see if you can locate the Yoda statue.
- Richmond District. Lesser traveled area, probably because the BART doesn’t head out that way, but there are other public transportation options or ride share. You’ll find some great attractions here including Lands End lookout and labyrinth, Ocean Beach, great selection of dim sum places, and of course Golden Gate Park which is lovely. Specifically in Golden Gate Park I recommend the Botanical and Japanese Garden, de Young Museum (art), and California Academy of Sciences (fun fact: they hold adult after hours some Thursdays with music and booze while you tour the place). If you want something off-the-beaten-path, seek out the Tiled Steps or Twin Peaks.
- Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch. Waterfront area around the baseball stadium.
- Nude Beaches. Yep, there are a few of them hidden around various beaches throughout the city.
- 49-mile Scenic Drive. If you want a more guided experience, you can find these signs and stops throughout (and outside) the city. Takes you through much of what I described above.
- Alcatraz. Yes, the famous prison that held Al Capone. I’ve never actually been, nor do I know any locals who have either. Not saying you should or shouldn’t go, but of all the things to do in San Francisco, this is not on my top ten. Alternatively, there are boat cruises that take you around the bay, during which one of the things you’ll go past is Alcatraz.
Food & Drink
- The Mission. Foreign Cinema (American, amazing), Limon Rotisserie (Peruvian), Eiji (amazing sushi), Kiji (sister restaurant of Eiji, also great, not sure if still open), Blowfish (sushi, Japanese) Mr. Pickle’s Sandwich Shop (sandwiches), Ike’s Place (sandwiches), Taqueria Cancun (Mexican), Little Chihuahua (Mexican), El Farolito (Mexican), Tacolicious (Mexican), Manako (organic Japanese, tataki), Specchio Italian).
- SoMa. Kama Sushi, Bamboo Asia (cafeteria style, takeaway, near Union Square). SoMa StrEat Food Park is an awesome selection of food trucks. Beats some food you can get in restaurants. Other notables include, Thirsty Bear (Spanish tapas), Deli Board (sandwiches), Kami Sushi. A unique seafood restaurant (pricey but good) is Farallon. In Chinatown, I liked Great Eastern (dim sum), Yin Du Wonton Noodle (some of the best noodles and wonton I’ve had), Dol Ho (dim sum). Up in the nearby Financial District, find the popular Yank Sing for dim sum. Tonga and Hurricane Room is a really interesting experience, tropical themed, ship inside, great food, cocktails. For tea, Samovar Tea Lounge at Yerba Buena.
- North Beach. Rose Pistola (Italian), Tomasso’s Ristorante (Italian).
- Fillmore. Lunchpad (sandwiches), Noir Lounge, Souvla (Greek), Fillmore Street Cafe, Happy Shabu Shabu (Japanese shabu shabu), Izakaya Kou (Japanese tapas), Udon Mugizo (noodles), Shabusen Restaurant (Japanese sukiyaki, shabu shabu), Woodhouse Fish Co. (seafood).
- Richmond. Cliff House (fancy seafood restaurant with cliffside views). For dim sum, Hong Kong Lounge and Shanghai Dumpling King.
Drinking & Nightlife
- Polk Street. More of your traditional strip of bars and nightclubs. One interesting non-club place is Edinburgh Castle Pub.
- The Mission. There are some exceptional bars, cocktail bars, and smaller music venues. The Monk’s Kettle is great for happy hour or later in the evening. Also, especially for happy hour, Trick Dog, Homestead, and Elbo Room.
- The Haight. Probably a bit less traveled for nightlife, some good bars and live music.
- The Castro. LGBT friendly as mentioned, all kinds of different places.
- North Beach. Variety of bar & restaurants.
- SoMA. Variety of places, including Monarch and the very unique Smuggler’s Cove which feels like being on a pirate ship. It gets crowded, go early to avoid long waits. Nearby is Mikkeller, modeled after Copenhagen, has a great beer selection.
- Live Music. Some of the popular, more intimate music venues I’ve been to include Slim’s, Great American, Bottom of the Hill, The Independent, and of course The Fillmore.
- Theaters. The Roxbury in Mission Delores features indie films. Audium at Van Ness explores how sound moves in space.
- East Bay (Berkeley). College town and hippie residence. The campus is great, some places nearby to eat, neat downtown, nice weather, hills with some great views of downtown San Francisco. The main streets in downtown Berkeley are Telegraph, College and Shattuck. Relax at Tilden Regional Park. Looking for a Whole Foods, but want something more local? Check out the Berkeley Bowl. There’s also a wonderful weekly farmer’s market in downtown Berkeley. My favorite breakfast spot is a small local place called Homemade Cafe. Royal Cafe and Sam’s Log Cabin are also good breakfast spots in the next neighborhood north, Albany. Also there, Solano Ave has some great restaurants, such as Troy Greek restaurant. The Junket in El Cerrito is a great place for bratwurst (German-British market with made to order options). Also in Berkeley, some other favorites are Kirala (absolutely amazing sushi), Cafe Leila (good food, outdoor patio, occasional live music). A few more options include Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen, The Sandwich Spot, Toss (noodles), Tomato Cafe, Cafe Clem, Pizza Moda, Thai Noodle (best duck noodle soup I’ve ever had), Kaze Ramen Noodles, Bangkock Thai. You’ll also find a few tea and bubble tea spots around Berkeley downtown and by the university.
- East Bay (rest of it). Neighboring Oakland, a bit rough in spots, has a few nice neighborhoods such as Lake Merritt and Piedmont, the Fox Theatre for concerts, and Chabot Space Center for stargazing. If you like Belgian beer, check out Trappist. For food, try Tribu Cafe, Xolo (Mexican), and Duende (Spanish). Nearby Emeryville has shopping and is home to Pixar (though I’m not aware of a way to take a tour or anything like that). Temescal is an interesting little pocket with some good eateries. If you’re up for a fun drive with nice views, venture out to Mt Diablo. If you want some shopping and nice restaurants and happen to be farther out in the East Bay, try the suburb of Walnut Creek.
- Marin County. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge you’ll find the tiny town of Sausalito on the water. Fancy but nice for a stroll or meal. Check out Sushi Ran, ranked one of the best sushi restaurants in the world (it’s great, but pricey). And directly on the other side is Golden Gate National Recreation Center (views of the Golden Gate Bridge, among other things). Mount Tamalpais is good for hiking and don’t miss the giant redwood trees at Muir Woods. Just up the way from there is Stinson Beach which is quite nice and a magnificent view of it traveling north off of Route 1. Tiburon is a neat little town if you have extra time on your hands. And if you have even more extra time, there’s Angel Island State Park (ferry over to the island). Lastly, though I’ve not been, there’s a popular meditation center called Spirit Rock.
- Chinese New Year. (spring)
- Pride Parade. (June)
- Outside Lands. (summer, Golden Gate Park, music & art)
- Folsom Street Fair. (fall, world’s biggest leather event, outrageous people, EDM, adult only)
- Wine Country. It’s hard to visit San Francisco and not visit either Napa Valley or Sonoma to partake in some wine tasting. There is something like a few hundred wineries, which span about 20 miles up to Calistoga. There are shops, restaurants, wine tastings, wine cave tours, and spas. It’s a beautiful area to drive through and sit outside with a glass of wine or champagne. Find a designated driver, ride share, or book a tour. There may also be buses. Napa is a bit more upscale, while Sonoma is more laid back and down to earth (also has more free wine tastings). Napa has a small downtown, featuring the very popular French Laundry restaurant. Redd was also very popular but after researching, it has recently closed. If you’re up for some relaxation, there are several places in the area where you can visit outdoor hotel pools and “hot springs” by simply paying a fee if you’re not a guest (like in Calistoga for example).
- Palo Alto. Home of Silicon Valley and Stanford University. Wonderful area, great weather, nice town, lovely campus, Rodin sculpture garden and museum at Stanford. Nearby headquarters of Apple, Google, and Facebook whose campuses are quite impressive. I always like to take visitors to Palo Alto downtown and to Stanford if time permits (about 45 minutes drive from San Francisco).
- Santa Cruz. Surfer town, very chill. First trip down I remember driving around and seeing people out surfing or in front of their garages sporting convertibles and surf boards inside. Pretty area, people are very friendly and laid back. Beautiful drive down Hwy 101 to get there. About 90 minutes from San Francisco.
- Getting There. SFO is the main airport south of downtown. BART (subway) will take you all the way into the city and even across to the East Bay. You can also fly into Oakland which can be less convenient or San Jose if you’re staying farther south.
- Getting Around. If you plan to do a lot of sight seeing and museums, consider CityPass, which includes admissions, discounts, and transportation. Otherwise BART will take you to most of the main neighborhoods and attractions downtown (on the east side). There are also additional metro lines, buses, and ride shares of course. No need to rent a car if you’re staying and exploring exclusively in the city, only if you want to do day trips. There are traditional rental car companies as well as services like ZipCar.
- Budgeting. San Francisco (and the rest of the Bay Area) is one of the most expensive places in the world, pretty on par with New York City. Expect expensive meals and lodging. I don’t really have any great budget saving tips other than look for free things to see and do, try CityPass, and may don’t eat super fancy meals and go out drinking every night. But it’s also your vacation in a wonderful city, so save for it and don’t be stingy if there’s something you want to do, explore, or experience.
- Accommodations. Most people end up downtown in Union Square which is pricey. For some reason there are limited hotel options downtown. Your best bet is AirBnB in one of the “near-to-things” neighborhoods. Consider staying in an area you plan to explore most. Or if you want something more relaxed, try the East Bay. Or split between San Francisco and say, Napa or Sonoma. There are also some camping options nearby.
- Walking. There’s a running joke in SF that you only ever walk “up” hills, never down. I don’t know how, but it’s true. You’ll be amazed at the sheer number of hills in this city and the steepness of them. Additionally, San Francisco is a huge city, be prepared to walk…a lot.
- Weather. You may have heard of San Francisco’s microclimates and having lived in the Bay Area, it’s definitely a thing. You can seriously be in one area, walk 15 mins in one direction and the weather will be noticeably different. Near the east coast of downtown it’s usually windy and sunny, but go to the north coast, and it will likely be cold and foggy. The west part of downtown is very often foggy and on the cooler side. The East Bay is a few degrees warmer and Marin County varies due to where it is along the coastline and/or up in the hills. What you need to know is that you better bring at least a light jacket, it gets cool if there’s no sun or you’re in the shade, not to mention the wind. In summer, it’s cold and foggy due to the “marine layer”, so unless you’re used to cooler weather, you won’t be comfortable in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops. Vendors along Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge make out like bandits selling sweatshirts to tourists in July. It’s truly bizarre. The best time to visit is in May/June or Oct/Nov, it’s lovely. The weather as you move farther outside the city is sunny, dry and warmer most of the year. Wine country is great in the spring/fall, and hit or miss in the summer because it can get pretty hot. Along the coast is always cool pretty much everywhere.
- Crime & Crazies. San Francisco has a huge homeless population, many of whom are mentally ill. Most are harmless and non-violent, just don’t make eye contact if you want to avoid bizarre interactions or cons (or do, your choice). In general, stay away from the Tenderloin at night, it’s one of the least safe areas downtown. If you have a car, DO NOT leave anything inside, especially not visible. There are numerous stories of people stealing literally anything they see and breaking windows to get at things like cigarettes, umbrellas, tissues, and I even had a friend whose used, smelly hiking boots were stolen! In general, just use common sense. In my 2 years living there combined with previous trips, I only ever had one scary experience, but no harm done.
- Rental Gear. Flying into San Francisco, but want to go camping? Head to Sports Basement. This place is like REI, but offers an assortment of rental gear like tents, sleeping bags, etc. And of course you can also buy anything you need as well.