A favourite city with tourists, San Francisco is cool and courteous with radiant art scene and lively nightlife in a terrific waterside location topped by appealing hills clad in Victorian houses. Like New Orleans, this is a city that is only vaguely American, with a European climate, ambience and a mixed dynamic yet somehow mellow population to match. ‘Frisco offers exquisite dining experiences due to the mixed race origins, accompanied by fine, good value wines produced in the Wine County nearby. This is a good compact walking city, though, of course, it’s hardly horizontal.
• San Francisco’s relatively small city center can be touristy but also easily and quickly experienced. • You may well encounter the city’s infamous and sudden sea fog, particularly in summertime, which drops temperatures considerably and shuts down views.
San Francisco seen across the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Daniel Schwen
Best San Francisco weather: September – October (the warmest) and May – June, for dry and mild weather with average temperatures of 11C – 21C. Worst: July and August (chilly coastal fog, hot inland) and December and January (wet and cold), with average temperatures between 8C and 19C and substantial rainfall in winter months.
The Top Six things to do in San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge and Baker Beach. Photo by Christian Mehlfuhrer
Golden Gate Bridge
This is one of the most famous bridges in the world and San Francisco’s iconic landmark with its art deco design and bright orange colour. Located in Golden Gate district north of the city, 1280 metres across the San Francisco Bay, it is the USA’s second longest suspension bridge and the most popular spot to commit suicide in America, if not in the world, even though three quarters of attempts are successfully discouraged by the security officers. Walking is only allowed on the east side while tourists can get a breathtaking panorama of the city and bridge from a view point on other, Marin side.
Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park; photo by Wolfman SF
Golden Gate Park
This three mile long park in the Avenues district just southwest of the Golden Gate district is an excellent place to ride, skate, stroll or relax. Visit the Japanese Tea Gardens (photo below), Conservatory of Flowers and Stow Lake with Strawberry Hill. If you have spare time for a little wilderness go further to Beach Chalet and Ocean Beach which is an OK surfing spot, though with its strong rip currents and cold water is not ideal for casual swimmers.
Japanese Tea Garden. Photo by Daderot
San Francisco’s mobile historic landmarks are a touristic must-ride. Seen them in movies, yes, but experiencing these antique contraptions yourself is a different thing. It is a great way to tour the city with three routes; Powell Street – Mason Street; Powell Street – Hyde Street (both lines begin at the Powell Market and end near Fisherman’s wharf); California Street. Although a ride costs $3, they offer various passes and a 2-hour city highlight tour is also available at the Information Center.
A traditional San Francisco Cable Car. Photo by Dietmar Rabich.
Palace of Fine Arts
Situated in Japantown (aka ‘Nihonmachi’ or ‘Little Osaka’), this magnificent Roman/Greek style structure overlooks a lagoon is an ‘exploratorium’ and museum with a 1, 000-seat theatre used for concerts and festivals. It is also a popular place for weddings. The best time to be in Japantown, west of the downtown, is early April, during the Cherry Blossom Festival or the Nihonmachi Street Fair in August.
City Pass: Check out the San Francisco City Pass and cards to cover admission fees and discounts to the city’s sights.
Castro Street Rainbow pedestrian crossing. Photo by Pimpinellus
This lively, friendly gay centre, adorned with funky shops and bars is superb for interesting shopping as well as people watching, especially at the famous Café Flore. Don’t miss the best view of the city from the Twin Peaks at the geographic centre of San Francisco, two 280 m high hills with 360 degrees views. Other star sights are the historic movie venue Castro Theatre; Alfred ‘Nobby’ Clarke Mansion, an English baroque stately home (now an apartment block); Harvey Milk Plaza, a square dedicated to the murdered gay politician; Randall Museum, a kids-friendly natural history museum. The Castro is located in middle of the city, south of downtown, next to the Mission District.
The Castro theater. Photo by Another Believer
Haight-Ashbury. Photo by Daniel Schwen
An historic district with a slightly tired but still colorful bohemian quality, this was once the centre of San Francisco Renaissance, a liberal political phenomenon in late 60’s. Old hippies might like to see where Flower Power originated. The area is home to many refurbished ‘Painted Lady’ Victorian or Edwardian houses, while sights around the famous Haight-Ashbury intersection include hip cafés, eccentric shops and pastel coloured terraced houses. Check the view from Buena Vista Park or nostalgics might smoke a pipe at Hippie Hill. Various guided walking tours are on offer such as Flower Power Walking Tours. The Haight Ashbury Street Fair attracts many tourists in June. It’s east of Golden Gate Park.
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay. Photo by Mike Peel
Alcatraz Golden Gate National Recreation Area is an island known as The Rock, with one of USA’s oldest lighthouses and a former federal prison, this is a historic site as well as nature recreation and bird watching area run by National Park Service. An excellent audio tour is available. Alcatraz is located in San Francisco Bay; get there via a 15 minutes ferry ride from Pier 33, just southeast of Fisherman’s Wharf, but book ferry tickets in advance, particularly on summer weekends and during holiday times.
Some comments from American visitors to Alcatraz
“So it was a prison on an island. Big deal. ”
“The boat ride there is very nice. For me, that was the best part. ”
“Skip the long, pricey, boring tour and instead take one of the commuter ferries which pass right by Alcatraz and, if you’re lucky, will have a full bar on board. ”
“Not a decent restaurant in the place. ”
“The day we went, a ex-convict was there to sign autographs of the book he wrote. Really? We have an ex-con who is a celebrity? He robs people. “
Pier 39 entrance, Fisherman’s Wharf. Photo by Besopha
This historic waterfront neighbourhood on the north coast of the city, is one of USA’s most visited sights, but has sadly aged into little more than a hideously touristy, over-priced shopping mall with disappointing seafood (except fresh street crab) and tedious entertainment. But check out the exceptional Musée Mécanique, a private collection of musical instruments and antique arcade machines. Parking is almost impossible so go early or take the Hyde St cable car to get there. You can see the seal lions on Pier 39, varied colourful buskers (street performers) and an old carousel.
The largest Chinatown outside Asia, this dense and bustling immigrant district, is worth visiting especially during the Chinese New Year around February, though touristy of course. Located around Grand Street and near Nob Hill it is good place to eat well and to shop for imported Asian produce. You can visit a couple of culture centres, a museum, temples or sample a few cookies at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
Adjacent to Chinatown, this Italian community known as ‘Little Italy’, is one of the city’s oldest and most popular neighbourhoods. Telegraph Hill, a residential area, is capped by the art deco Coit Tower in Pioneer Park; Filbert Steps is a scenic route up to Coit Tower, though going up by car is NOT suggested. For art lovers, there’s the San Francisco Art Institute and a couple of curious museums such as the Tattoo Art Museum and the Beat Museum.
Yerba Buena Gardens and Center for the Arts (YBCA)
Located in the SoMa (South of Market) district, southeast of Downtown, YBCA is a relaxing grassy hang out surrounded by many arty places such as the highly regarded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Ansel Adam Gallery (Photography), Cartoon Art Museum and Museum of Craft and Folk Art.
Nob Hill – Russian Hill District
Nob Hill is a classy neighbourhood with up-scale hotels such as the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins as well as flash shops, while Russian Hill is a posh residential area with elegant houses, apartments and the world’s most famous serpentine roadway, the red-paved Lombard Street. You can catch a splendid city view from there, especially at the night and this zigzag street with flower-beds can be seen from Coit Tower. Other notable sights in this area: the graceful, Paris Notre Dame-alike Grace Cathedral; Francisco Street and its collection of dazzling mansions; cobbled pedestrian Macondray Lane with precise Edwardian houses; Filbert Street, the city’s 2nd steepest street (the steepest is 22nd Street in Noe Valley); the Cable Car Museum; and for fine dining head to Polk Street, even if you are a vegetarian. The district is compact enough and pleasant to stroll, though quite strenuous.
This one-block plaza and its neighbourhood host a large collection of department stores and up-market flagship stores, making it San Francisco’s premier shopping area. Situated in the heart of downtown Union Square also features a French Quarter and fine hotels and restaurants. There is a Half-Price Ticket Booth at the square and the city’s leading theatres including Herbst Theater and American Conservatory Theater can be found in the area (Theater District and Civic Center District). San Francisco Visitor Information is nearby and it’s easily accessible by streetcars or cable cars.
A central business area with many high-rise corporate buildings, particularly along Market Street. For architectural splendour try the immense Bank of America Building and its top floor restaurant with views over the city and the bay; also the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest building of all; the stunning Ferry Building with 70m clock tower in the Embarcadero (corniche). The Financial District is east of the city and west of Union Square.
San Francisco Zoo
Positioned next to Lake Merced in the southwestern corner of the city, the zoo is home to 245 animal species, the oldest and largest zoo in Northern California, and very popular with families.
As one of America’s 10 Best Walking Cities, the best way to understand the city is on foot – Chinatown, The Castro and Haight-Ashbury in particular if you can handle steep gradients. If you feel fit then cycling is also a convenient way, if hilly, to get around this compact city. Get a city map from the Visitor Information Center or print from their web site – Only in San Francisco maps. Also check out information on varied walking tours from the same sources.
For those who are short of time or have no need of exercise, the good news is that the city runs an efficient and fully integrated public transportation system, Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway) with buses, Metro streetcars (both above and below ground) and the famous cable cars. For a self-guided city tour try The Historic Streetcar F Line from Fisherman’s Wharf and Embarcadero through Market Street to The Castro. Get a passport (a travel pass) in advance from a ticket booth or board at the front and buy a ticket from the driver. It is the best to avoid driving in this city due to heavy traffic, a disconcerting one-way system, steep hills, pricey and restricted parking. However, there is a well-prepared, tourist-oriented ”. Cycles are common and easily rentable but the hilly aspect may be tiresome.
Air – San Francisco International Airport (SFO), is 13miles (21 km) to the south, though some low-cost airlines use nearby Oakland and San Jose airports instead. Road – if time permits then approaching the city from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara direction on the magnificent Pacific Coast Highway is a gorgeous trip, whether by bus or car, or coming the other way from the north is almost as spectacular.
Arts, Culture and Nightlife
Thanks to its creative inhabitants all kind of arts – visual, performing, fine, fashion and literature – are big in San Francisco. The city offers many first-class museums and galleries as well as a huge variety of entertainment and music at a range of venues from grand theatres to tiny piano bars to mega night-clubs. Performing Arts – the highly regarded San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is based in the (grotesquely named? ) San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center; there’s opera and ballet in the War Memorial Opera House; musicals in Golden Gate Theater and Orphem Theater; or try the New Conservatory Theatre Center for plays.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Caroline Culler
Museums and Galleries
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in SoMa; California Place of the Legion of Honour; San Francisco National Maritime Museum; Hyde St Historic Ships Pier; the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, located in Civic Center.
San Francisco is not a beach city, more of walking, biking, skating or jogging place, with a lot happening in urban parks such as Golden Gate Park, Lincoln Park and Twin Peaks. The Information Center or several independent organizations such as the excellent San Francisco City Guides run varied city walking (more of trek! ) tours, so check out their free neighbourhood walks. Or try the Barbary Coast Trail, following bronze signs embedded in the sidewalk, or their MP3 digital audio tour, and wander around historic sites. For nature walks, head for Mt Tamalpais State Park, across Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.
From January to April the migration of gray whales, (and other seasons blue whale or humpback whales), can be seen from shore of Point Reyes in Marin Country.
This is an excellent way to see the city from the level of San Francisco Bay. Several companies run varied cruises including visiting Alcatraz; most of the tours leave from Fisherman’s Wharf.
Surrounded by water, watersports such as fishing, sailing and surfing are available and the windy nature of the area also benefits hang gliding and paragliding. For baseball fans, San Francisco Giants’ games can be seen at the stadium in AT&T Park.
The AT&T Park
The ’49-Mile Scenic Drive’ in and around the city’s highlights starts at the City Hall (the Civic Center) and is a great way to accomplish sightseeing, though it’s not recommended in rush hours in the congested downtown area. The route is clearly marked on the official visitors mapand the route indicator on the site lead you through it. For a much longer drive, try California State Route 1, known as Pacific Coast Highway (PCH or Highway 1), one of the world’s most scenic drive routes. It starts at San Diego passes San Francisco and ends near Seattle.
Desperate for beach? Try large, wild Ocean Beach along the west coast, Baker Beach in Golden Gate, or China Beach near Lincoln Park. All have plenty of sand and views though none of them are really swimming-friendly. All are along 49-Mile Drive.
Some of the USA’s best cuisine is available here thanks to the diversity of immigrants and the local’s gourmet nature. Now called Californian Cuisine, this cutting edge, state-of-the-art cuisine has been a long time evolving here and some world class chefs have fine restaurants well-established in the city. In addition, proximity to the Wine Country makes dining scenes affordable with great value local wine.
You can find sushi bars or restaurants as easily as Starbucks while Asian, South American, Italian, French, and seafood are all prepared with style and ethnic verve throughout the city but generally each district specializes. Head to North Beach for Italian; try Mission district for Latin American and Mexican; Seafood – particularly fresh crab and clam chowder – at Fisherman’s Wharf, never mind that it’s a tourist trap; Chinatown, Japantown and Richmond do Asian/ Oriental food.
Still high in Haight-Ashbury then. . . Photo by Bernard Gagnon
Festivals and Events
Jan-Feb, Chinese New Year Celebrations and the Golden Dragon Parade, Chinatown.
April, Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown, with a parade and fair.
Early June, Union Street Art Festival, local artists displaying their works with live music and a food market.
Last weekend of June, the San Francisco Pride in the Civic Center vicinity, with Pink Saturday, a street party and a wild parade, North America’s largest gay procession.
Marin County: just across the Golden Gate Bridge there are lots of hiking and biking opportunities, especially at Mount Tamalpais State Park, with superb views. Point Reyes Seashore is picturesque and a good whale watching area.
Napa Valley vineyard and château. Photo by Almonroth
Napa Valley and/or Sonoma Valley, both an hour drive north of the city, are excellent day-out destinations, even you are not a wine connoisseur. Napa Valley, the centre of American wine, is home to more than 250 wineries including some of most famous brands while Sonoma Valley has the Wine Country’s oldest town complete with historic plaza. Although driving is the best way to explore the valley, there are many guided package tours available, especially for those whom tasting is the prime aim. For just wine tasting, a day trip will do but the area is also a great for hikes, bikes, picnicking and peacefully canoeing on the Russian River. The season runs from April to October, though September to October is picking and crushing time and the whole of Wine Country celebrates with festivals and fairs until November.
Head down the coastal route of Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay for beaches, further on to spot elephant seals at the Ano Nuevo State Park or the nearby Big Basin Redwoods State Park and keep going to end up in gorgeous Santa Cruz.
A vast wilderness area famed for the spectacular Yosemite Valley (a World Heritage Site) and its waterfalls, forests and massive rocks is one of USA’s most visited national parks, with terrific hikes and bike trails. though it should be at least a few days trip as it is 300 km away from the city, 3-4 hours drive.