San Francisco, California
Planning a visit to San Francisco, a city with a fascinating mix of old and new influences? Here, iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf exist alongside more modern amenities such as the Moscone Convention Center and the MOMA, making the city one of the United States' most popular destinations.
I typically only post about places I’ve traveled to but it occurred to me the other day that I actually have a lot of traveler recommendations for places I’ve lived, and San Francisco is one of them. I’ve been spending time in San Francisco since I was a small child and lived in the city during my law school years. My husband and I lived in Sausalito, then spent several years in Nob Hill, so I know the Bay Area well.
San Francisco holds a special place in my heart. If it weren't for the cold weather, I’d probably still be living there. But as the old adage by Mark Twain goes, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” Though the city is incredible, the weather leaves little to be desired, which is really the only reason we left. So bring lots of layers--even in the summer--and make sure you're prepared for the temperamental temperature swings. This should not deter you though, as San Francisco is easily one of the most exciting, diverse cities in the world.
What to do?
A city that is known for its eccentricities, one can never grow tired of this vibrant, bustling city. If you’re a foodie, San Francisco boasts some of the best restaurants in the world and has nearly a hundred Michelin star restaurants. There are also great “divey” hole-in-the-wall restaurants that have been around for ages and though they don’t hold a coveted Michelin star, they are sometimes just as good. If it’s shopping you like, well then there is everything from great boutiques and unique items in the Haight, Hayes Valley or the Marina, to four story malls on Market Street and high-end luxury stores right off Union Square. Into sports? Then catch a baseball game at AT&T Park or a basketball game at the Chase Center. Or if you’re up for a drive, see a 49ers game in Santa Clara at Levi’s Stadium. If you like the arts and museums, San Francisco has dozens, including MOMA, De Young, The Academy of Sciences and more. Or see a play at the Orpheum.
Use Reservations.com for the best deals on hotels, flights and more--year round.
Although the city is located in the small area of a seven-by-seven-mile square of land, it’s certainly not a boring town as you will get to enjoy many indoor as well as outdoor things to do and indulge into. San Francisco holds many exciting adventures. This is a city to explore whether you are alone on vacation or are looking to bring the family along. So, come and discover the endless entertainment options and magic of San Francisco in your next vacation.
Here are my picks for what first-timers must do on their trip to San Francisco:
Ride the cable cars: You can never end up your tour to this magnificent city without exploring the city via the famous cable cars. It’s an iconic symbol of the city and is one of the ancient and comfortable modes of commuting.
Harbor tours: If you want to see this graceful town in a whole new manner, then the best way is to see this amazing city from the waters of San Francisco Bay.
Do a walking tour with Walks: Walks offers small group walking tours in the city. You'll get an experienced local guide, who will lead you through the city and provide historical context along the way. You can choose between the Alcatraz Tour, which includes the hop on, hop off option on the open air buses, or their San Francisco in a Day tour, where you'll see the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf and ride the cable cars through the city. Choose from a complete list of tours by clicking HERE.
Walk the Golden Gate Bridge: Travelers can experience stunning bay views from the iconic bridge, and walking across it is a good choice. Those looking to get that perfect shot of the bridge should start at Fort Point and either walk the trails up to the bridge or hop in a quick cab.
Shopping: If you’re a shopping freak, then San Francisco is the perfect place for you to be in during your coming vacations. With so many shopping malls, beauty stores, food stalls at the roadsides, designer labels, bustling markets, and high- end boutiques, it’s known as the place of nirvana for shoppers.
See the "Painted Ladies" and Dolores Park: One of the most photographed locations in the City and also called the "Seven Sisters", this row of colorful Victorian houses are located at 710-720 Steiner Street, adjacent to Dolores Park. Snag some photos and do a picnic in the park with one of the City's best vies behind you.
Stroll through Chinatown. A visit to San Francisco wouldn't be complete without a stroll through one of its oldest neighborhoods. Start at the "Dragon's Gate", located at Bush and Grant and walk north along Grant Street until you reach the intersection with Columbus Avenue. Once you've hit Columbus, you'll know that you're no longer in Chinatown and have entered the North Beach neighborhood.
See a Baseball Game at Oracle Park: If you've never been to Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park and Pac Bell Park), it's a must-see even if you're not a Giants fan. It's truly one of the most beautiful ballparks in the U.S. The brick facade is simply stunning and the location is incredible. You truly cannot get a bad seat because the view reserve seats have beautiful views of the bay, the bleachers have a great view of the field and anywhere infield is just closer to the action. The food at this ballpark is also top notch. I recommend getting a crab sandwich from Crazy Crabs, located in the food area behind the bleachers (next to the Coke bottle). And of course, the famous Gilroy Garlic Fries are also a must. Dress warm at night though, the park can often get pretty cold--especially if it's windy.
Keep the kids entertained at The Exploratorium: If you've got extra time to kill and have little ones in tow, head over to the Expoloratorium on pier 31. I remember going to the Exploratorium when I was a kid, but they've recently moved it from the Presidio to where it lives now, a new state-of-the-art museum on Pier 31. Here, kids can interact with a number of exhibits that are both fun and informational.
Take the Ferry from the Ferry Building to Sausalito: Hopping on a ferry and heading north to Sausalito offers travelers the opportunity to not only snap photographs of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, but also see a quieter part of the Bay Area. Start at the Ferry Building, where you can dine and shop (be sure to grab some Blue Bottle coffee while you're there) and then have a civilized lunch in Sausalito.
Do "Lauren's Walking Tour": If you're not keen on group tours, follow this tour that I've taken several friends and family members on:
Start in Union Square (this is usually about where I stay, and it's a good place to start because it's one of San Francisco's most iconic spots). Here you'll find high end shopping and busy streets.
Walk north on Grant Street to Dragon's Gate in Chinatown.
Keep walking on Grant through Chinatown until you hit Columbus Avenue, which is the start of North Beach. If you're feeling up for a bit of a hike, take a detour northeast up to Coit Tower and then back again. Return to Columbus and walk northwest through North Beach. You'll find Washington Square on the right hand side and if you're lucky, you can pop in to hear mass done in Italian or Latin (Sundays only) at St. Peter and Paul's Church. This is a great place to stop for a coffee at one of the European-like street cafes or eat a Canoli from Victoria Pastry.
From Washington Square, head north on Stockton Street toward Pier 39. Again, you won't miss it because you'll find Pier 39 at the water's edge. This spot is touristy, yet still fun and great for the kids. Shop for souvenirs, see the sea lions chilling on one of the nearby docks, or take the kids to the Aquarium. Stop at Boudin Bakery and Cafe for their famous chowder in a bread bowl. If you're hungry for something more substantial for lunch, enjoy seafood at one of the old staples like Alioto's or Scoma's.
From Pier 39, walk west along Jefferson Street past all the other souvenir shops. If you're into history or naval ships, check out the USS Pampanito or SS Jeremiah O'Brien, which are two restored naval ships from WWII that have now been opened to the public for viewing.
Continue walking west, past Acquatic Cove and the Maritime Museum. Walk through Fort Mason, past Marina Green and then through Chrissy Field. During all of this you will stay less than 200 yards from the water.
Continue walking toward Fort Point. If you want to go into the Fort, head out to the end until you can't walk any further. Once you're done, you'll need to walk backwards a bit until you get to the SF World Monument and a little cafe called the Warming Hut. From here, you'll see a set of stairs that are marked with signs that say "Historic Batteries" and "Presidio Promenade." From here, you'll enjoy a bit of a hike through what used to be Civil War era gun batteries.
You'll continue walking along the Battery East Trail, which has two great lookout points to snap photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you reach the top, you'll be at the Golden Gate Bridge.
If you're still up for a walk by this point, continue walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and down into Sausalito. If you're tired--although the rest is downhill--you could always call an Uber or a cab to take you the extra few miles. From Sausalito, hop on the ferry that goes back into the city.
Arrive back at the Ferry Building. Grab a snack for later at one of the many shops selling gourmet cheeses, bread, meats and snacks. Or sample wines by the glass at the wine shop in the middle of the building.
If you're heading back to where you started, just walk southwest on Market until you hit Post Street, where you'll veer to the right to head back toward Union Square.
Where to stay?
San Francisco is truly an exciting travel destination. However, before you can soak in the city's numerous sights and sounds, it’s important that you look for hotels in San Francisco that will afford you maximum convenience at a cost that fits your budget.
In San Francisco, it’s not unusual to observe a wide range of starkly-contrasting accommodation that provides guests with different levels of luxury and an eclectic mixture of experiences. For instance, you can choose from boutique hotels or budget lodgings with quaint Victorian architecture, or opt for more conventional contemporary hotels.
When it comes to the budget, you can also pick from small, independent hotel chains and guesthouses on one end of the spectrum, or 5-star hotels and beautifully-restored historical buildings on the other end. The deluxe hotels offer the ultimate luxury experience with attractive inclusions such as spacious suites and in-room spa services and are generally clustered near San Francisco's city center, which is where the cultural and business districts such as Union Square are located. On the other hand, the Victorian-style lodges exhibit an old world charm but are found further from the city center, such as in Golden Gate Park.
If you're new to the city and would like to learn a little bit about the history while seeing the sites, try a small group tour with Fat Tire Tours.
They offer guided bicycle and segway tours in major cities across the globe. You'll meet other tourists, see all the big sights and learn more about the city with an experienced guide.
My top picks for hotels in San Francisco are: The St. Regis for a luxury property, The W if you're looking for something with a hip vibe (these two hotels are literally next door to each other), the JW Marriott Union Square, the Hotel Griffon, The Westin St. Francis, the Fairmont or The Ritz Carlton. Each of these hotels are super centrally located. If you're looking for something a bit quieter, but still close to the city, I'd head north to Cavallo Point in Sausalito. Budget-friendly options that are still centrally-located include The Carlton, a Joie de Vivre hotel, and the San Francisco Marriott at Fisherman's Wharf.
Another option if you’re on a budget is to stay in Oakland. There, the Courtyard by Marriott Oakland Airport is a good bet. Just a 20 minute drive into the city over the Bay Bridge, travelers looking to save some money can stay in Oakland for cheaper and either take Uber or Bart into the city. This place actually used to be one of my go-to places to stay for Warriors games back when they were still playing at Oracle Arena (they now play at the Chase Center in San Francisco). It's right by the airport (next to both Oakland International and Surfair) and is just across the freeway from Oracle arena. It's just a few minutes away in a cab or an Uber. The rooms are decent enough, though the beds could probably be a bit more comfortable. For what you pay though, it's a good spot.
What to eat?
Get ready for the flavor of the Bay Area because San Francisco restaurants are simply some of the best in America. What are you in the mood for? A delicious spice-rubbed steak or some fresh seafood? Maybe some interesting fusion food is more your style? Whatever food tickles your fancy, you'll find it in bustling San Francisco. The city's restaurants are as creative as they are delicious. Dining on your vacation should be as enjoyable as all the sightseeing you'll do. Below are some of my favorites:
Quince + Others
If you’re a foodie or you’re into fine dining, Quince is one of the hottest restaurants in San Francisco right now. Boasting two stars (and one of only seven in the city that have two stars), Quince offers a dining experience like no other. The service is outstanding, the food is beautifully done and always exciting, and their wine list is wildly impressive. If you're lucky enough to be in town during one of their white truffle dinners, be sure to snag a seat.
If it’s find dining you’re after, well then you’re in luck—San Francisco is home to 55 Michelin Star restaurants. Some of the best restaurants in the country—places like Saisan, Gary Danko, Sons & Daughter’s, Benu, Commis, Lazy Bear, and Californios—can be found right in downtown San Francisco. They’re all incredible but it would take me ages to talk about each of them. Sons & Daughters is a personal favorite of mine since I lived just a few doors down from it and have been able to see them grow into the restaurant with a Michelin Star since they first opened and once had a tasting menu for only $52 (it’s now around $150)
House of Nanking
For an old school staple, and not too far of a walk from Union Square, House of Nanking serves up authentic Chinese food in comfy, close quarters. Situated just outside of the Financial District, but before you get to North Beach, diners at House of Nanking can walk through Chinatown on their way back toward Market Street or Union Square.
Comstock is clearly one of the best places in SF to get craft cocktails. Their attention to detail and love for craftsmanship when it comes to their cocktails is easily apparent when you order something fun from their list. Or ask the bartender to fix you up something based on what you're feeling--they'll ask you what type of spirit you want and what sort of flavor you are looking for and they'll whip up something fun for you. The food is pretty good too. I stop here almost every time I'm in the City. Definitely recommend.
This is one of my favorite places in the City to grab happy hour drinks and food. I've had dinner here as well but the happy hour is my favorite. Walk upstairs to the bar and grab one of the high tops or sit outside. The cocktails are really great (their moscow mule is insane) and they have good local craft beers. Really any of the food will do but the oysters are always a good choice.
Waterbar is one of my favorite places in the City to grab happy hour drinks and food (and if it's too busy, you can always go next door to Epic, which is also good). Their oyster selection is top-notch. On a nice day, you can't beat sitting outside on the patio. This place is a most-go for brunch, lunch or dinner.
Red's Java House
Red's is an old school staple that locals love. Stop by and grab a beer on your way to a Giants game. They have cheap beers and decent food and on a nice day, their patio is one of the best places to sit and enjoy the sun.
Pin this photo on Pinterest to refer back to it at a later date!
Questions? Comments? Feel free to reach out to me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more destination guides, browse Destinations A to Z, where you'll find guides for beach destinations, cities and metropolitan areas, ski destinations and the great outdoors.
Head over to my Tips page for everything from packing guides to travel products and camera gear. For information about group trips, head to my Group Trips page. If you're looking to collaborate (whether it content creation, static blog posts, static Instagram posts or drone photography), find out more on my Work With Me page.
To shop the items I love most when I travel, shop my Amazon Storefront.