Hi everyone! Many of you know that we are local to San Francisco and spend lots of time in the city. It’s one of our playgrounds for the weekend/date nights and of course day trips. I’ve been meaning to write a San Francisco Travel Guide sharing some of our favorite hotels, restaurants and must-do activities while visiting for a long time now…
For those of you who don’t live in California, one of the nice things about living in the SF/Bay area is that the weather is pretty consistent and perfect for traveling year-round. However, San Francisco is surrounded by water (The Bay & Pacific Ocean) and is a microclimate so it can get pretty cool – especially in the Summer. A famous quote to keep in mind is, “The Coldest Winter I ever spent was a Summer in San Francisco.” – Mark Twain. Bring layers because different neighborhoods are very diverse in climate.
One of the things I love about San Francisco is that it is a very diverse city full of different people bringing their cultures together. It’s laid-back and chill, and a little bit rough around the edges.. yet full of character and fun. It’s also different than many cities in that it’s full of hills with ocean/bay views.. even when you’re driving down the street.
A little History…
San Francisco became the main base of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, and became the largest & most important population, commercial, naval, and financial center in the American West. It was completely devastated by the great earthquake and fire in 1906 but quickly rebuilt. The SF Federal Reserve Branch opened in 1914 and the city continued to grow as a major business city. It was known as the Paris of the West. Alcatraz Prison was in operation from the 1930s-1960s & housed America’s most ruthless prisoners: Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Mickey Cohen to name a few. San Francisco became the city most famous for the hippie movement in the 1960s. It is now an important center of Finance & Tech thanks to Silicon Valley growth. High demand for housing – it is now one of America’s most expensive cities to live. (Credit to Wikipedia for the history lesson.. so interesting!)
San Francisco Neighborhoods
If you’re planning on visiting San Francisco, it’s important to note that the city has LOTS of neighborhoods with extremely different vibes, cultures, and food/shopping. Some are “up & coming” while others are luxurious, & others are touristy. I’ll share some of the famous ones below:
- Fisherman’s Wharf – Famous touristy area which includes the wharf and Pier 39. (Seal watching!!)
- Union Square – Landmark park in the center of the downtown shopping & hotel district. Where most tourists visit.
- Embarcadero/Financial District – Famous for the Ferry Building, Oracle Park (Home of the Sf Giants), Chase Center (Warriors!) and tech/financial companies.
- Chinatown – The oldest and largest chinatown outside of Asia. Exotic shops, food, and markets.
- Haight Ashbury – Famous hippie district known since the 60s.
- Castro – Famous LGBTQ+ Community.
- North Beach – Rich in Italian heritage & cabaret/jazz clubs.
- Mission – Oldest neighborhood.. up & coming. Famous for art. Lots of good food, shops, and things to do.
- Tenderloin – Seedy reputation, not as safe as other districts. Would avoid if just traveling through the city unless you Uber to a specific/bar.
San Francisco is rather large – it’s actually around 47 miles in size! It’s not exactly the easiest “walking city” especially with it’s HUGE hills. There are a few options of getting around.
If you are here for just a few days or a couple of weeks, the most practical and economical way of getting around San Francisco would be to get one of the 1, 3 or 7 day passes that allow unlimited travel on all the buses, streetcars and cable cars (but not BART) in the city. This is a great website to help with transportation information.
- City buses (called Muni)
- Streetcars/Trolleys (called Muni Metro)
- BART trains (Bay Area Rapid Transit)
- Cable cars
- San Francisco Bay Ferries
- Golden Gate Ferries
- Golden Gate Transit (SF & North Bay buses)
- PresidiGo (free shuttle)
- BART – Aka Bay Area Rapid Transit. This is the SF version of the Subway system. It’s an easy/fast/inexpensive way to get from the airport into downtown SFO. BART costs are associated with how far you travel; the greater the distance, the higher the fare. A round-trip BART fare from SFO to downtown San Francisco is $19.30 ($9.65 one-way). Getting around on BART is relatively easy in the city as well but unfortunately it mostly goes from the Mission to Embarcadero and doesn’t touch the western half of the city.
- Uber – This is the easiest in my opinion because you can decided whenever/wherever you want to go on a moment’s notice. Public transportation is limited to the eastern half of the city for the most part so getting out towards the park/ocean is tougher.
- SF Muni Bus/Trolleys – San Francisco Muni operates both a bus system and a network of streetcars (or trolleys) that run on rails. Cost: Adults: $3.00 (Clipper card/MuniMobile: $2.50). Must pay in Cash or by the Visitor 1, 3, or 7 day passes. Easy way to use: Find the bus route and fare: plug in your starting and ending locations. Get bus #, transit times, and fare, plus a route map. See Trip Planner.
Throughout the last 30 years, our family has had the great opportunity to live in San Francisco, the Peninsula, South Bay Area and now the East Bay. And as a result – everyone in our family has a ton of hot spots and favorites to share with all of you who may be thinking about visiting San Francisco. We’ve added all below in different categories to make it easier for you.
Where to Stay
San Francisco has many different neighborhoods and areas that are completely different from one another. Lots of hotel options! Listed a few of our favorites below.
- Union Square is one of the most popular spots to stay in for it’s shopping, restaurants and location to the touristy areas. We love many of this area’s hotels including The Westin St. Francis, Hotel Fairmont SF, and the Grand Hyatt San Francisco.
- San Francisco Proper Hotel – Located in the Civic Center/SOMA area. Gorgeous rooftop bar, fun design, and luxurious rooms. Boutique feel.
- The St. Regis – Probably the most luxurious hotel in San Francisco. Located in SOMA. Beautiful rooms.
- The Ritz-Carlton – For those who are celebrating something special.. this hotel is absolutely beautiful and one of the best in the city.
- Staypineapple – Adorable boutique hotel off of Union Square.
- Hotel Zetta – A boutique hotel made for business travelers/tech-ys.
- Hotel Drisco – Based in Pacific heights, was built in the early 1900s. Beautiful and classic. Elegant and classic in style.
Where to Eat
We are complete foodies in this family.. especially Jeff and Emma. They love to drag me to all the hippest and newest restaurant spots throughout the city. San Francisco is definitely a foodie city with lots of cultures bringing their best. Below I’ve linked some classics along with new trendy spots.
- Hog Island Oyster Co – Located inside the Ferry Building & it’s absolutely DELISH. Famous for it’s seafood with views of the Bay. Worth the long wait.
- Pier Market – One of the famous restaurants located at Pier 39. Delicious seafood.. make sure to snag a table by the window to watch the boats/harbor.
- Foreign Cinema – Famous & one-of-a-kind restaurant concept where you combine independent films with California food. Adorable indoor/outdoor spaces with cozy vibes and a huge projector screen to watch films. YUMMY food. Pricy but great date night/anniversary fun.
- Boudin Sourdough Bakery Cafe – One of the most famous spots in SF and while it’s extremely touristy.. you really can’t beat the Clam Chowder in a bread bowl. It’s so good – we love it and go all the time!
- The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus – Our family has been coming to this restaurant for 30 years.. we love it. Gorgeous spot in Union Square to enjoy a delicious lunch or high tea. Make reservations in advance. (We love everything but get the chicken salad!)
- Burma Love – Insanely delicious Burmese restaurant located in the Mission district. Also a location in Oakland we frequent. Such great food. Definitely order the Tea Leaf salad & Spicy and Crispy Chicken.
- House of Prime Rib – Famous restaurant in San Francisco known for steaks and high-end service. Pricy but incredible! Make a reservation at least a week beforehand.
- Farmhouse Kitchen Thai – VERY popular Thai restaurant located in the Mission district. DELICIOUS food and fun atmosphere! Make sure to order the Thai iced tea & Fried Chicken with Curry.
- Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar – Extremely fun tiki bar/restaurant located inside the Fairmont Hotel. Extremely famous for it’s fun atmosphere, yummy drinks and food, and the indoor swimming pool that surrounds the tables!
- International Smoke – We love this restaurant! Run by Top Chef Michael Mina and Ayesha Curry.
- The Front Porch – Delicious mix of southern & Caribbean food. We LOVE their Brunch. Located near SF State. Order the beignets!
- Mamo – Delicious Venezuelan food located in the Marina. Very small but yummy food. Happy hour is from 3-6pm.
- Sotto Mare – Absolutely great Italian Seafood restaurant located in North Beach. Great food & service.
- Wildseed – A brand new Vegan Restaurant located in Cow’s Hollow. Sounds and looks amazing.. such a fun concept.
Desserts & Bakeries
- Bi-Rite Creamery – Homemade organic Ice Cream made fresh everyday. Cult following & has over 9K reviews on yelp. We love it. Salted Caramel is one of our favorites. Located in the Mission near Dolores Park.
- Tartine Bakery – World famous bakery known for lines wrapping around the block. Everything is good here and worth the wait. Also located in the mission. Can’t emphasize enough how good this place is.
- The Original Ghirardelli & Chocolate Shop – Everyone should stop here and at least pick up a free sample of chocolate! Of course it’s delicious. We love their sundaes.
- Cafe Jacqueline – Incredible Souffle place. 82 year old chef. Romantic space. Insanely good.
- Bourbon & Branch – An actual speakeasy in the Tenderloin. Extremely cool place and worthwhile to visit. Read this article for info on how to get into the different rooms (passwords, secret passages and more.)
- The Hidden Vine – Cozy little wine bar tucked away in an alley – has a speakeasy feel. Pottery Barn held an event here, so you know it’s gorgeous. Yummy food & even a bocce ball court. Located in the financial district – (so very close to the tourist areas!) amazing selection of wines!!
- Buddha Lounge – Chilled out Chinatown kitchsy dive. Beer served in a green Buddha bottle. Bartender may or may not challenge you to Liar’s Dice.
- Buena Vista Cafe – Best Irish Coffees around and this cafe is historic: evidence shows that this cafe introduced the drink to the U.S. first!
- Comstock Saloon – Second oldest bar in SF, turn-of-the-century cocktails, and throwback decor.
- Golden Gate Tap Room – Close to Union Square.. this HUGE sports bar is such a blast. Tons of arcade games/TVs/pool/foosball/etc. And over 100 beers on tap!
What To Do
There are literally 1000 things to do in San Francisco. It is such a fun city that I am trying to limit everything down to the BEST of the BEST/Touristy.
- Visit Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39. I definitely think this is an important thing to do as a tourist! Fun shopping, Seal-Watching and fun to be had. Famous aquarium, arcades, carousel and more.
- Tour Alcatraz – 1.5 miles off shore of San Francisco is Alcatraz Island. The prison that was built here held the most infamous of prisoners, and even had one of the most famous escapes of all time. Definitely a must-do. Make reservations weeks ahead of time. Tickets sell out.
- Union Square Shopping – Lots of high-end retail outlets, restaurants, and more. Love the Williams-Sonoma Home Flagship store. Walk down Powell and ride a Cable-Car to Ghirardelli Square. It’s also very beautiful during the holidays and the square becomes a giant ice skating rink with a HUGE Christmas tree.
- Chinatown – One of the most famous Chinatowns outside of Asia. (and the largest and oldest!) Tons of interesting shops and restaurants. We love watching Fortune Cookies being made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (a must-do). More visitors visit Chinatown than the Golden Gate Bridge each year.
- Watch a Giants Game at Oracle Park – Oracle Park is such an amazing stadium with great food/drinks. We have been to so many throughout the years and it’s a beautiful place to watch baseball.
- Check out the Painted Ladies – One of the most photographed spots in the city. If you’re a fan of Full House you’ll remember these iconic homes. Beautiful SF architecture.
- Bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge – Such a beautiful view, and on a nice day it’s so nice to ride bikes across the iconic bridge.
- Visit Bakers Beach – One of the prettiest beaches near SF with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Perfect place for a picnic. (especially in the Summer) At the very end of the beach it becomes a clothing-optional area, although I’ve personally never seen anyone partake in this.
- Visit The Palace of Fine Arts – A beautiful monumental structure located in the Marina district. Was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Very fun to walk around the area and awe at the beauty of the lagoon/structures.
- Shop & Eat in Hayes Valley – One of our new favorite areas to be in San Francisco is Hayes Valley.. in the middle of the city. Was revitalized in the last 10 years or so and is an extremely desirable area now to live/be in. Really fun shopping area with tons of boutiques, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and more. Great for guys & girls shopping. Bring your dog (very dog friendly) and perfect area for sitting on a bench + people-watching.
- Drive Down Lombard Street – Known as “The Crookedest Street in the World”! Extremely fun to drive down and view the beautiful homes and gardens along side of it.
- Hike Lands End – If you have a little time to enjoy the fresh air & Golden Gate Bridge/Pacific Ocean views.. don’t miss Lands End trail. Located in the Sutro district very West of the city. It is less of a hike and more of a nice walk along the coast with stunning views and pretty foliage. It also loops in the historic Sutro Baths Ruins which was burned down in the late 60s after being a large privately owned public saltwater pool complex in the 1890s & throughout the early 1900s.
- Exploratorium – Visit the coolest science museum ever. Perfect activity for the kids but even cooler for the adults. You can spend hours inside taking part in more than 650 exhibits. Emma used to love visiting as a kid and occasionally goes as an adult. Voted the #1 museum in San Francisco.
- Visit The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park – The oldest public Japanese garden in the United States! Absolutely beautiful area – features a complex of paths, ponds and a teahouse. Lots of florals throughout.
- Head to Ghirardelli Square – Eat some chocolate and be happy. We always bring family to the square while visiting SF because it’s full of fun and is home to Ghirardelli’s Chocolate Cafe & lots of great shopping/restaurants. Across the street is the green/lawn where many artists/vendors have set up stands to shop from. At the bottom of the hill is the ocean. Short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Drink an Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Cafe – Not only are the Irish Coffees absolutely delicious, but this cafe is the famous history spot where the drink was first introduced to the United States. So fun to sit & people watch in this busy place with windows looking out to Ghirardelli Square.
- Sample Food/Drinks at the Ferry Building Market – One of our favorite spots is in the Embarcadero. Historical building which has now been converted into an amazing market with tons of shops, wine bars, food stalls, restaurants and more. Beautiful views of the Bay/Bay Bridge. Has a fabulous farmers market on the weekends.
- Catch a Sunset View from Twin Peaks -Hailed as the most beautiful view in all of San Francisco. You can see everything from here: The Golden Gate, Downtown SF, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, and even the Marin Headlands off in the distance. Here’s a guide to the climb.
- 16th Avenue Tiled Steps – If you want to get in a good workout visit these gorgeous tiled steps. This neighborhood helped create them and they take pride in the beautiful art.
- See a Show – There are amazing shows to see in San Francisco.. they are constantly changing. Unfortunately, a cult classic show in SF will be closing after 45 years in December – Beach Blanket Babylon. Otherwise I would recommend you to see it.. it was AMAZING.
- Rent a Car & Visit Muir Woods – Perfect day-trip location outside of the city.. see beautiful redwoods and do a bit of hiking.
- Visit the top shopping streets: Union Street, Fillmore Street, Valencia Street in the Mission, Sacramento Street (Home Shopping), and more. All have gorgeous boutiques and interesting small shops throughout.
- Sip at a local Brewery – San Francisco has lots of delicious breweries! Some of our favorites include: Anchor Brewery (Ask for a tour!), 21st Amendment, Cellarmaker Brewing Co, and Barebottle Brewing Co.
- Sunday Funday at Dolores Park – Bring a blanket and have a fun picnic at this huge park with thousands of others! People relax and chill out here all day. You may smell a bit of weed while you’re here though (it’s legal here!), so if that bothers you, you may want to skip this one.
Fun Day Trips From The City
There are lots of places you can day trip to from San Francisco that are beautiful and close. Rent a car and head there! Listing some of our favorites below.
- Napa/Sonoma – Wine country is only a short drive away! While I think it’s WAY more fun to plan an entire trip to this area alone, if you only have a day.. definitely take advantage! We visit all the time. Stay at Carneros Resort if possible.. it’s the best in the area. Click here for our Napa Travel Guide.
- Half Moon Bay – Known as a local ‘hidden favorite’ weekend getaway spot for it’s beautiful and picturesque beaches and seafood. Stay at the gorgeous Ritz Carlton if you can – it’s amazing. Make sure to eat at Sam’s Chowder House or Barbara’s Fish Trap.. both are incredible.
- Monterey – Such a fun little town. Definitely visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium (one of the best in the U.S.) and shop.
Hope this guide helps you if you’re thinking about visiting San Francisco! There is so much to do in this beautiful city and we have loved sharing it with all of you. If you have any helpful info that you would like to include in the San Francisco Travel Guide, please share below! As usual we look forward to all of your input and recommendations.