Aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and Marin Headlands

The Travel Guide to San Francisco



March 11, 2024

12 min read

Table of Contents

Welcome to San Francisco

Lush parks. Amazing food at every price point. Near-constant sweater weather. There’s a lot to love about San Francisco, especially when the sun breaks through the iconic fog or you’re riding a cable car cresting one of the city’s vertigo-inducing hills. 

Yes, tech is big here, but there’s so much more. San Francisco is a feast for the senses, with some of the country’s best restaurants and art museums, a diverse population and eclectic neighborhoods, and one of the largest urban parks in the US—all packed into just 47 square miles. 

It’s one of the country’s most LGBTQIA-positive cities, and it’s within striking distance of some incredible outdoor attractions and simply stunning natural wonders. Whether you’re coming for a weekend in the city or stopping over en route to other Bay Area adventures, here’s your travel guide to San Francisco. 

Who’ll love San Francisco

Gourmets (and gourmands), nature lovers in need of a jumping-off point before or after getting into the wild, families, friends, and couples.

How to budget for a trip to San Francisco

Maybe you’ve heard: SF is expensive! Depending on when you go (September is the high season; December is the low), expect to pay $150-$250 on average for a basic hotel, nightly, with swankier digs $400 and up. Airbnbs are less expensive and good for groups. 

Food is more negotiable: You can find incredible Mexican food for $10/meal or less, while a nicer dinner out—without drinks—starts at around $30 and just goes up from there (think $300 per person for a multi-course tasting menu), but the average is around $35 per person.

Safety considerations‍

Like in any big city, being safe in San Francisco means being mindful of one’s surroundings, not leaving valuables unattended, and remaining alert while in crowds like at bars, or on public transit. If you rent a car, don’t leave your belongings in plain view once you’ve parked or you’ll likely come back to find your window smashed in (better yet, avoid overnight street parking and opt for a parking garage instead). 

That said, San Francisco is largely safe. While some degree of risk is ever-present for anyone identifying as female, BIPOC, or LGBT+ in the world, diversity and inclusion are woven into the very fabric of the city, and hate crimes are rare.

Weather in San Francisco

So many tourists come to San Francisco in summer expecting balmy SoCal weather that the San Francisco airport installed vending machines selling puffer coats. Shorts have their place in SF, but generally not from June to August. 

While heat waves do happen (and anything above 80°F is cause for a beach day) the average high during summer is only 67-68°F. It’s often even cooler, in the low 60s, and colder at night or in the mornings before the fog burns off. 

From August through early October, it’s fire season in California, and the season seems to be expanding every year. While San Francisco is not in danger of wildfires, the smoke from fires elsewhere in the state can occasionally make for hazy skies and poor air quality in San Francisco. Fires can also interrupt your plans for side trips to spots like Napa, Sonoma, or Lake Tahoe. 

Winter (December to February) brings much cooler temps (around 58°F though temps rarely dip below the mid-40s) and occasional much-needed rain. 

When to visit SF

June through September are among the most popular times to visit and prices are at their highest. For pleasant weather but lower prices, October-November and March–May are great times to visit. 

During May, the annual Bay to Breakers race takes place. Racers don crazy costumes and run (or walk and drink) their way across the city in an all-day citywide party. The famous sea lions are also at Pier 39 through mid-May. October brings the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the SF Fleet Week airshow, and Litquake, a week of readings and events from the city’s best authors. 

Money saving tips 

Buy a Clipper card. This stored value card is required for riding BART, helpful for riding buses (which don’t give change), and will save you money on ferry rides across the Bay. 

Ditch the car rental. You’ll need it for adventures outside the city, but it’s more hassle than it’s worth inside city limits. Parking is limited and expensive—$40 per day or more at most hotels. 

Don’t spend on breakfast. This city loves its bakeries so skip the hotel breakfast and head out for pastries at spots like Le Marais in the Marina or Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission.  

BYO. Many Bay Area restaurants allow you to bring your own bottle of wine, usually for a $20-$25 corkage fee. If you’re picky about wine, you can save on the cost of paying for it at the restaurant. Just make sure it’s a nice bottle (no five-buck Chuck), and it’s not on the restaurant’s wine list. 

Check for free days. Dozens of SF museums, like the deYoung Museum and the Legion of Honor, offer free entrance at least once a month, often on the first Tuesday. 

What to see, do, and eat in San Francisco

san francisco cable car

Top 10 things to do in San Francisco

  1. Board a ferry to see the famous prison on Alcatraz
  2. Ride a bike or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
  3. Take a ride up the city’s massive hills on a centuries-old cable car
  4. Check out Lombard Street, the self-proclaimed curviest road in the world
  5. Head to Fisherman’s Wharf to visit the aquarium, get something sweet at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, and glimpse the seals lounging on Pier 39
  6. Picnic at Ocean Beach with an up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge
  7. Spend a day in quaint Sausalito
  8. See Muir Woods, a nearby nature escape
  9. Get some Italian food in the North Beach neighborhood
  10. Stand in line at Tartine in the Mission, a world-renowned bakery dishing out loaves of bread, pastries, and more

The local picks for top attractions and activities in San Francisco

Dolores Park in San Francisco

  1. Check out the enclave known as the SoMa StrEat Food Park, open daily for food trucks, workouts, haircuts, and more
  2. Stroll through Clarion Alley in the Mission to find tons of amazing public murals; stop of a picnic in Mission Dolores Park
  3. Head up to the Observation Deck at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park for (free) 360-degree views of SF and Marin
  4. Take a hike from the Castro up to Twin Peaks, the second-highest point in the city
  5. Find the hilltop swing in Bernal Heights Park for an Instagrammable moment
  6. Go see Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, a psychedelic fun house full of lasers and neon lights
  7. Take the 49-Mile Scenic Drive by car or bike for a leisurely loop around the city
  8. Visit the Alameda Point Antiques Faire the first Sunday of every month for everything from $5 oddities to large pieces of vintage furniture
  9. Hike 1.7 miles down to Tennessee Valley in Marin County for a remote beach tucked between bluffs (and shipwreck views at some low tides)
  10. Spend an afternoon on Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights for world-class people watching, window shopping, and retail therapy at both mainstream and boutique stores

What to eat and drink in San Francisco

When it comes to cuisine, it’s hard to go wrong in San Francisco. This is a city that loves good food and is willing to stand in line for it. The Mission is famous for epic burritos and other budget-friendly Mexican eats, Richmond District boasts dozens of Chinese restaurants, vegetarian and vegan dining abounds, and some of the best pasta and sushi in the country are readily available. For a classic San Francisco meal, try some cioppino, a fish stew that originated in the city in the 1930s, served with some fresh-baked sourdough. 

  • The Mill is a must for great coffee and its menu of rotating artisan toasts, the perfect treat after a morning run
  • Woods Beer & Wine Co boasts five locations in the Bay and proffers creative, small-batch beer and natural wine 
  • Elephant Sushi is a go-to for both traditional and creative sushi rolls, whether you’re with friends or it’s date night
  • SPQR is a worth-the-splurge sort of Italian eatery with the Michelin star to prove it—sit at the counter to watch the chefs in action
  • Bourbon & Branch was the first in SF to kick off the speakeasy trend—get the password and have a drink on the DL 
  • Taqueria Cancun is one of the city’s most beloved burrito joints for the fact that they’re enormous, cheap, and wrapped in warm, slightly crunchy tortillas
  • Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen is a fail-safe when it comes to bagels, corned beef, and the like; it’s always a good option for anyone nursing a hangover or looking for a grab-and-go meal to enjoy in the nearby Yerba Buena Park

Where to stay in San Francisco

Marina neighborhood in San Francsico

San Francisco has had a thriving tourism industry for decades, so the hospitality sector is robust. There are hundreds of hotels to choose from in neighborhoods throughout the city. While most are clustered around Union Square, SoMA, and Fisherman’s Wharf (all good bases for exploring) you can also find charming spots in the Presidio, and in neighborhoods like Japantown and Nob Hill. Options range from the basic (around $150/night) to the resplendent (upwards of $350/night). 

Airbnb is often less expensive than a hotel room. If you’re planning on spending more time outside the city than in, you can also check out options in Oakland or Marin County (both just across a bridge), which tend to be cheaper. 

Top San Francisco neighborhoods for visitors

Union Square
Union Square is the beating heart of San Francisco’s tourist district. It’s home to the big name shops (both commercial brands like Nike and Apple and luxe retailers like Gucci and Cartier) and Union Square itself, a 2.6-acre public plaza filled with cafe tables. For those averse to trekking up the city’s hills, it’s relatively flat with just a slight incline at the base of Nob Hill and it’s close to BART. 

The Mission
Hip, busy, and a little gritty, the Mission remains one of the city’s coolest ‘hoods, with both casual and high-end restaurants, bars, and clubs. It’s the spot to go for thrift shops, amazing Mexican food, and to see some incredible murals from local street artists. 

The Marina
If Lululemon is your go-to uniform and brunch is your favorite meal, look no further than the Marina. Lined with posh boutiques and sidewalk cafes full of the post-yoga crowd, it’s the place to be for singles and young couples any day of the week, but especially on weekends. 

North Beach
SF’s Italian enclave, North Beach is a charmer, with quiet side streets, beautiful old churches, and dozens of excellent restaurants. Its position on the edge of Chinatown also makes for a delightful juxtaposition as you’ll see old Italian gentlemen talking over cappuccino at a sidewalk cafe as elderly Chinese ladies practice Tai Chi in the park next door. 

Nob Hill
Tony Nob Hill towers ovr Union Square as one of the taller, steeper hills in SF—or at least it feels that way as you’re hiking up it. Thankfully the cable car is there to whisk you up to the top to the stunning Grace Cathedral and fancy hotels like the Fairmont and the Ritz-Carlton. 

Outer Sunset
The Outer Sunset is a trek from downtown, but one that’s worth it for the beautiful beach views, excellent local restaurants, and the far edges of Golden Gate Park. Just be sure to bring a jacket as the temps here can be much lower than downtown. 

  • Phoenix Hotel (~$160/night) Quirky and hip with two rare amenities: parking and a pool. 
  • Hotel Vertigo ($260/night) Boutique hotel that pays homage to the Hitchcock film of the same name. 
  • Clift Royal (~$180/night) A modern classic with 100 years of history. 
  • Hotel Zetta (~$160/night) Fun and funky in the heart of SoMa.

Getting around in San Francisco

Public transportation options in San Francisco

City buses and BART are your options for public transit in San Francisco—and while they don’t rival the NYC subway in terms of convenience, they’re easy to navigate and much more affordable than hopping in a Lyft. Be mindful of rush hour, when just about everything but BART is going to involve lots of traffic but plan your time wisely as BART doesn’t run late at night. While a car is a hindrance within the city, visiting California without getting outside is like visiting New York without going to NYC, so rent one just for the days you want to do some day trips. 

San Francisco airports

San Francisco is served by two main airports: SFO just south of San Francisco, and Oakland in the East Bay. SFO is a hub for United Airlines and Alaska Airlines and is the larger of the two airports, with four terminals, including a large international terminal. Oakland Airport is a hub for Southwest and has just two terminals. Its international flights are limited to the Azores and Mexico.

How to get From San Francisco Airport (SFO) to San Francisco

Getting from SFO to the city is easy on BART's Yellow Line; it takes about 30 minutes and costs just under $10 each way. A taxi, Uber, or Lyft can take anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour depending on traffic and time of day. The final cost will depend on travel time and where in the city you're headed, but expect to pay around $30-40.

How to get From Oakland Airport (OAK) to San Francisco

BART also serves the Oakland Airport, but getting to the city requires a transfer. You'll first take BART from the airport to to Coliseum Station and then take the Blue or Green Line bound for San Francisco/Daly City. The ride takes about 40 minutes and costs $11. Taxis and rideshares can cost considerably more, especially in rush hour gridlock. Expect to spend at least $40 and for the ride to take 30 minutes with minimal traffic.

Where else to go from San Francisco

Napa Valley sign

Day trips from San Francisco

Head up north to Napa or Sonoma for a day of wine tasting in the country’s most famous wine regions (~1 hour away). Beer lovers should make a beeline to Russian River Brewing in Windsor and Santa Rosa.

Just across the bay, Oakland is a less crowded (and less expensive) diversion, with lots of food and shopping to keep you busy from morning till late night (~30 minutes away by car or BART).

Point Reyes remains one of the most underrated day trips north from SF, featuring relatively empty beaches, miles of trails, and seafood restaurants worth the drive  (~1 hour away).

Mount Tamalpais is one of the highest points in the Bay Area, a great pick for an athletic day of cycling and/or hiking (~1 hour away).

Where else to visit from San Francisco

Drive three hours east to Lake Tahoe, where you can swim in the pristine blue lake in the summer or hit the slopes in the winter.

Fly open-jaw into San Francisco and drive the 460 stunning miles of oceanfront Pacific Coast Highway, spending a few days in the Carmel/Monterey/Big Sur area en route to LA for your return flight (be sure to check current highway conditions, as wildfires and landslides occasionally lead to road closures).

Head 3.75 hours east to Yosemite National Park, a stunning wonderland for hiking, rock climbing, swimming, horseback riding, and more (but be prepared for crowds).

Go north as far as you please to see the tallest trees in the world: Redwoods and Giant Sequoias abound in the Redwood National and State Parks, along the famed Avenue of the Giants highway, and throughout the Mendocino, Shasta Trinity, and Klamath national forests.

Books, movies, and tv shows set in San Francisco

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn and Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco Blues to Mrs. Doubtfire and The Social Network, San Francisco has long been the subject and setting of countless books, movies, tv shows. Here are some of our favorites. 

Vertigo: The Hitchcock classic was filmed all over the city, from Fort Point (below the Golden Gate Bridge) and the Palace of Fine Arts to Nob Hill and Mission Dolores. Additional scenes were shot in Big Basin Redwoods State Park and 17-Mile Drive near Monterey. 

Full House: Okay, the series doesn’t show much of San Francisco outside the opening sequence, but you can catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge and the colorful row of Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies (find them on the edge of Alamo Square Park). 

Tales of the City: The first in a series of novels by Armistead Maupin (and the basis for a Netflix series of the same name), it’s set in 1970s San Francisco, and chronicles the lives and loves of a group of tenants in a small apartment complex.

Previous cheap flights we've found to San Francisco: 

  • Chicago nonstop to SF for $89 roundtrip
  • Austin nonstop to SF for $107 roundtrip

Want incredible deals on cheap flights to San Francisco and around the world? Join Going and save up to 90% on airfare.

Published March 11, 2024

Last updated March 11, 2024

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