I'm sure there are plenty of SF travel posts, but many are written by native residents of the area. That can be good, except that natives don't know what's confusing about their own city, because it's normal to them! My family came here 2 years ago from the Midwest, so we are very aware of the unusual things (great and not so good and just quirky) about the area. Here's some things I wish I had known when we first got here, and some of my favorite spots to visit - it's a great city, enjoy!
HOW TO DRESS (specifically in "summer" months of June-August):
1. Layers. It's usually cool in the morning and evening, or when a fog or wind blows in. Always carry a packable large scarf to drape around your neck and/or shoulders. I would also recommend carrying a very thin merino wool layer - I prefer a cardigan - that you can stuff in your bag when it warms up. Normally a cotton cardigan works for most places in the summer, but not in San Francisco. Let me be clear, you will only need that wool layer in the city, not once you leave "West Bay" (the San Francisco peninsula part of the Bay Area) - when you travel to Berkeley and Oakland ("East Bay"), Napa, Sonoma, Sacramento, LA, you will not need that layer. In Marin County ("North Bay), once you cross the Golden Gate bridge the weather usually immediately clears and warms, but near the bridge it's not as warm as up toward Napa and Sonoma. So, I highly recommend that light wool sweater (or a hoody would do) as an extra layer (like under your denim jacket and over your top) to survive SF in the "summer". Or, you can pay for an overpriced sweatshirt down on Fisherman's Wharf, like I did during my first visit. If you actually want a SF sweater, great, buy one here, otherwise bring one or there's a good chance you'll have to buy whatever is available wherever you happen to be shivering. (Or, if you don't have a store near where you live, visit the Uniqlo store at Union Square or Stonestown Mall and buy one of their packable light coats or other well-designed layers you can wear back home, too. They sell them all year round because we need them all year round - smart merchandising plan, right?). You may hit a gorgeous, sunny 70 degree day (which all the San Franciscans will think is really hot) during your trip, but even so, it will be cool in the morning and evening, and it's doubtful you'll get much of that weather during June-August (the warmest, sunniest days in SF tend to come in September and October). However, there are often windows of warm, sunny weather within the day, depending where you are in the city, so having a short-sleeve base layer on means you're ready for whatever highs or lows the day brings. Being prepared means you can enjoy the cool refreshing fog, or the warm sunny air, whichever (or both) you may encounter.
2. Comfortable shoes. You will probably be walking quite a bit, probably up some hills. Women here wear cute but practical shoes, for the most part. Since sneakers are fashionable, just save yourself some drama and wear them with a cute dress (and your layers!). Or this is the perfect spot to actually wear those cute shorts and ankle booties outfits you saw on Instagram without sweating your feet off (though your legs will be cold at times...) You can wear sandals, but you might be chilly at times, especially in the morning and evening....
3. Not shorts. Pants or a maxi skirt are good options for wearing all day - through the cool morning, warm afternoon, and cool evening. Shorts are not your best choice unless you hit a really warm spell, or you're really warm-blooded. Or add a warm top layer (like a long breezy open sweater) and some boots to your shorts.
4. Bring a tote bag (or foldable bags). You pay 25 cents for every store bag in the Bay Area, and 10 cents for even a plastic bag to carry your takeout food. I prefer to just use my reusable folding bag, or stash smaller things in my tote. Up to you. However, check out the fun Daiso Japan store at 570 Market (just past Montgomery St, very close to your Uniqlo stop at Union Square) to find lots of fun reusable bag options you can buy and use later (almost everything in the store is only $1.50), as well as other fun gift items. Everything is from Japan, so it's not items you'll find at your local dollar store, and some things are so cute! I love their little makeup bags and travel bottle sets, plus they have adorable little fabric gift bags to wrap your gifts (my favorite looked like a little pink fish for my niece). It's a fun store to check out, and a great place for kids to spend a little of their trip money and be able to get a few things, not just one.
5. GETTING AROUND:
If you want the cable car experience, you can pick up cable cars at Market and Drumm streets near the Ferry Building, and there isn't usually a line. The cable car stop at Hyde and Beach streets (near Pier 41) always has a line. There's also a stop right above Powell Street BART Station, at Powell and Market streets. That one also often has a line, too, though. Be aware, it's $7 each trip, it's not your usual Muni $2.50 bus or streetcar fare.
While we're at it, do you know the difference between BART and Muni? You should, at least if you plan to take any public transportation while you visit the area. BART is a mostly underground train system that runs in the whole region (it stands for Bay Area Regional Transportation)- it goes to many stops in the Bay area - from the San Francisco airport down in South SF, under the Bay to Oakland and to many other East and West Bay destinations. Muni is the San Francisco city transportation, mostly buses and streetcars, but includes some cable cars. If you're in a downtown BART station that has entrances to both BART and Muni, make sure you know which you're taking and follow the signage. Muni has letters as streetcar route names and is usually on the middle level of the station, BART lists their trains by the last stop name and is on the lower level. Signage for BART is blue, Muni signage is red. Employees from each system are completely separate - the little station offices are well marked "BART ONLY" or "MUNI ONLY", so don't torture the poor Muni employees if you're riding BART, or vice versa. When you're buying your train ticket at the automated machines along the station entrance walls, pay attention to the blue BART machines or red Muni machines. The payment cards are different, unless you get a Clipper card, which works for both BART and Muni (only available to buy in person at certain BART station and other locations, probably not worth it if you're only in SF for a short visit. although Muni rides are only $2.25 instead of $2.50 with a clipper card vs. a limited use ticket or cash fare).
Which one will you want? If you're going from the airport to any downtown destination, or from downtown to the "Mission District" (around the 16th and Mission station) you'll want BART, it's the fastest and best for that (although a hair pricier, usually at least $3 a ride, depending on how far you go, while Muni is only $2.50 a ride - $2.75 after 7/1/17). But, if you look at at the BART system map, you'll see that the train stops are mostly in the east of the city. Perfect to get to Chinatown, Embarcadero, Ferry Building, Union Square, Market Street. But if you want to get to areas more West of the city - Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, Presidio, Pier 41, Fisherman's Wharf, you'll want to use Muni. Or, be ready to walk, a long way, from the nearest BART station to your destination. Transfers on Muni are free for up to a half-hour after you punch your card on one bus, or for several hours if you get the paper transfer slip. The fun renovated classic trolleys are part of the Muni system, too, and cost the same as a regular MUNI ticket. The transfers for the trolleys and buses are interchangeable, you shouldn't need to pay again if you take a bus and a trolley if you're within the time on your transfer slip (more on the trolleys in the Fisherman's Wharf section below).
Oh, one last hint about using BART. It's not like some big cities, where you can just buy one Metro card, load it up with some money and put it through once for each person, then again for the next person. Each individual has to have their own card. This is because the fare is determined by how far you go, it's not a set fare for all rides. So be sure you punch in and out each time you enter and leave BART, even if the gate is broken or something, because if you don't punch out, you'll end up getting charged more than your actual trip was, and you might not be able to use your card again until you talk to a station agent. (All of this is our free advice to you, based on our actual dumb adventures in stupidity when we first got to SF.)
6. BATHROOM TIPS:
There are no public bathrooms here. Even the supposedly public ones in very busy public areas usually need a code. It's ridiculous. Okay, to be fair there are a few little free standing, self-cleaning single stall bathroom buildings around (at Market and Powell, up by Twin Peaks, and some other popular locations), but there is often a line, and it takes time between each person to run through the cleaning process, so the line takes longer than an average bathroom line. Don't wait until you're dying to pee... Plus sometimes people take a really long time in those. Some Starbucks are busy enough that you can dash in to use a bathroom without a purchase, but there is usually a bathroom code you'll need to open the door, and many Starbucks locations on Market St don't even have bathrooms. There are no bathrooms in any downtown BART stations. I know. It sucks. Just be ready to buy something to use a bathroom, and don't wait until you (or your kids) are desperate, because it may not be fast to get to a bathroom. And always ask for the bathroom code when you're making your purchase so you'll be ready when you get to the bathroom. (I know some secret spots where you can usually get in without a code or a purchase, so if you're headed to SF, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you some tips.)
7. DON'T MISS SIGHTS:
Obviously this is up for debate, and people have different opinions. These are the things I make sure to show my guests - bonus, most of them are free. They're not in order of importance, but loosely grouped by location, kind of running in a circle from Golden Gate bridge east into the city, then west to Ocean Beach and back toward the bridge.
|Golden Gate bridge|
Golden Gate Bridge. You can't miss this, right? The parking situation here actually isn't horrible, there is a parking ramp on the San Francisco side of the bridge that only charges something like $7 for a whole day, so if you are driving, you could stop here without major hassles. You can get also great photos from across the bay in Marin County where there is a tourist area with free parking (which sometimes fills up, but parking opens up regularly as people come and go). You can also rent bikes down on the Wharf and ride to the bridge. It could be pleasant on a nice day, but there are always lots of pedestrians, and usually only one side of the bridge is open for bikes/walkers (at least on weekdays, I'm not sure about weekends), so it can get really congested. There are also trails along the water near the bridge, though. We plan to bike down there sometime. And the Presidio is right around here - a pretty area without a ton of traffic. On a nice day, biking in the Presidio could be a lot of fun. There is a Walt Disney Museum there, also, and it is near the Palace of Fine Arts and the Marina district. Right in the heart of the Presidio is Lucas Films headquarters (at 1 Letterman Drive, if you want directions), where there is a pretty campus with various Star Wars themed statues for photo ops. There's a quite nice Starbucks in this office campus (you can walk around in the outside areas), and behind that Starbucks toward the Palace of Fine Arts is a gorgeous garden where you could sit and enjoy your hot or cool drinks. From there it's a very quick walk over the to Palace of Fine Arts - you should be able to see the rooftop from there to see how to get there, or use Google Maps for the walking path.
|The view from the Marin County side of the Bridge|
|Palace of Fine Arts|
(Fisherman's Wharf/Pier 41). Many people like this area, and if you like touristy shopping areas and overpriced medium quality food, feel free to go. I personally don't like this area and only take guests if they really want to go. If you do go, it's fun to take the F-Market trolley from the Embarcadero BART station or from the Ferry Building. They are cool vintage trolley cars that run just between the Wharf and the Castro (where there is actually good, regular priced food to eat, and very San Francisco sights to see). Don't plan on parking nearby unless you like paying lots of money. A great place to get well-priced food is to hit the McCormick and Kuleto's restaurant happy hour between 3-6 pm in the Ghiradelli Square building. (There's also a Ghiradelli chocolate shop there, too, obviously... Some swear by their chocolate sundaes.) Otherwise there is a Chipotle along Jefferson Street, right near the Maritime Museum. (Obviously this section reflects my bias. I don't like the restaurants along here. They may have been here a long time, but in my experience they now cater only to tourists and aren't very good for the price since they aren't really trying for repeat business. I'd prefer to eat in the Mission District - more on that later.) This is the area to go for boat tours. The best one actually stops on Alcatraz Island, most of them just go around it. Make sure to make reservations (alcatrazcruises.com)- maybe even before the trip, as that particular trip fills up fast. If you just want to ride a boat around the bay, there are plenty of options available at any time. This is also where you can rent bikes or little go-cart like cars that give audio tours as you drive them.
|The view from Alcatraz|
Exploratorium. Pier 15 not far from the Ferry Building. A pretty cool museum for adults and kids. Hard to explain, but basically science and engineering based, with lots of touchable exhibits. Not something I've ever seen anywhere else. ($30 adults, $25 seniors and teens, $20 kids, 3 and under free)
Ferry Building. Beautiful spot for photos of the Bay, and you can pick up a ferry, which will drop you right at a fun little shopping/restaurant area in Oakland called Jack London Square. There is also a daily Farmer's Market outside the Ferry Building and lots of artisanal "foodie" food shops and restaurants inside. Blue Bottle Coffee is a SF classic. Big burgers and sandwiches at a reasonable price can be found at Gott's Roadside (great to feed a family or teens, plus it looked like they had good beer options? I'm not a good one to ask about that, but I remember noticing the options.). Acme Bread is really good (my SF native friends love it), and you can buy just a bun if you just want a little snack, or a whole loaf of delicious SF sourdough. Cowgirl Creamery cheese would combine well with that delicious Acme bread. The Wine Merchant has a good selection - we were able to find a wine from our anniversary dinner in Petaluma for sale there (County Line chardonnay, if you want to try it). You could get a little sweet treat at either Dandelion Chocolate (they usually have samples!) outside in front of the building or I adore the chocolates at Recchiuci Confections, which is inside the building. There's also ice cream, honey, pork parts (not kidding, I forget what the store is called), oysters, tea and lots of other items for sale. None of it is cheap, but it's all good. It's the perfect spot to buy a gift for the foodie person (or yourself) in your life. Come hungry and find all kinds of treats.
Embarcadero area. There are some interesting little street vendors along here with interesting handcrafted jewelry (some from old sterling silverware), hats, cloaks, independent tee shirt designers. We often buy things there when we're downtown. One of Mike's favorite men's shops (to mostly look, but sometimes splurge) is called Wingtip, right down by Embarcadero at 550 Montgomery. There's also a nice playground right across from the Ferry Building and near the Hyatt hotel, if your kids need a play break.
Chinatown. You can get here from Embarcadero by walking down Market and turning west on Clay (to the right as you point away from the Ferry Building) and walking up to Grant Street, or you can get here from the Montgomery BART station (Walk west on Grant from Market St). This is one of my favorite areas of the city to take tourists (at least those who don't live in a city with a Chinatown already). It's the perfect place to get SF tourist merchandise, and usually has the best prices for those kinds of things. Don't be afraid to ask for a discount if you buy multiple items at the same store, especially if you're paying cash. We usually walk along Grant Street from the Dragon Gate at Grant and Bush up toward Broadway. My favorite store here is The Wok Shop at 718 Grant St. Even if you're not in the market for a wok, hearing Randy elaborate about all the different types of woks is an entertainment in itself. And their products are legit. I love my wok! The Chinatown Kite Shop is right across the street, and while I'm sure you can find better deals online, it's pretty fun to see so many kites in one store. And you might want a kite to fly on Ocean Beach later in the day.... (More on that later) We also love the shops at Asian Renaissance (on the corner of Grant and Sacramento) and another one further along Grant (possibly Peking Bazaar? I'll have to confirm next time I'm in the area) for nicer items like silk robes, scarves or slippers - even adorable matching travel cases for jewelry and other accessories.
North Beach If you keep walking on Grant Avenue through Chinatown toward Broadway, you'll notice, especially once you turn left at the odd intersection of Grant/Broadway and Columbus, things start to get more Italian. Gelato, pizza, pasta, expresso. This is the San Francisco equivalent of the "Little Italy" of other cities. Take your pick of pizza places. Multiple friends of ours from SF swear by Golden Boy Pizza at 542 Green Street (we haven't gotten a chance to try it yet), and we liked our pizza from Tony's takeout place on Stockton (there's a sit-down restaurant across the street). It's a great walk down Columbus to see this area of the city, and you'll pass by a famous and pretty church (Saints Peter and Paul) where Joe Dimaggio and Marilyn Monroe got married, with Washington Square park (right at Columbus and Union) nearby with a green space where you can relax and kids can run. I believe there are public bathrooms in that park, as well!! Across the street from the park, on Filbert and Columbus, is Victoria Pastry, with some killer desserts. Get some to go and eat it in the park. I love their tiramisu, Mike loves a delicious chocolate cake concoction they make. I always get some of their delicious coffee with my dessert. On the opposite side of the park from the bakery is Goorin Brothers, a longstanding San Francisco hat maker. We like to go try on hats and enjoy the serious hipsterness of some of the staff members.
If you keep walking down Columbus and turn right on Greenwich St, you'll see signs for Coit Tower, at the top of Telegraph Hill, with some gorgeous sights from the base and the tower. It's free to enter the base, but to go to the top is $8 for adults, $5 for senior and youth, $2 for age 5-11 and free 4 and under. Whether you go to the top or not, it's worth a walk to the base of the tower for the views of the city and the bay. Here are some scenes from the top on a beautiful September day:
|Views from Coit Tower|
|Views from Coit|
|Views from Coit|
One final note on North Beach, if you are traveling by car, you can (eventually) find free parking in this neighborhood. If you come from Golden Gate bridge, I recommend you park in North Beach and then walk down Grant to Chinatown. If you want to get to Embarcadero from North Beach, just walk down Clay St toward Market Street . It's also a fun walk from Telegraph Hill down Montgomery Street in some pedestrian only paths. You'll end up right at the Montgomery Street BART station. Just don't walk back up the same way, it's steep!
SF Moma. Continuing into the downtown area, near the Powell Street BART station, on 3rd St, is a great modern art museum. It was closed all during 2015 for renovation, and reopened in 2016. It was worth the wait. If you like modern art museums, give it a try. And if your kids need a play break, on the other side of 3rd St is the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which has some large open green space and outdoor seating. One block over, on 4th and Howard is the Children's Creativity Center, a well-reviewed children's museum (we haven't gotten there yet, so I can't make a personal recommendation).
|Inside the SFMOMA|
"Mission District". This is a classic neighborhood in SF, with lots of restaurants, some great coffee shops, and a few cute shops. You can take BART to 16th St/Mission stop and take 16th Street over to Valencia Street. Some of my favorite restaurants are Pica Pica Arepa at 401 Valencia, a gluten-free Columbian Restaurant, Four Barrel Brewing coffee shop (just a block up Valencia, at 375 Valencia), but there are lots of good ones to choose from. I have lists of restaurants around here my friends recommend, I just haven't had time to try all of them!
|The view from Dolores Mission Park|
Dolores Mission Park is also in this neighborhood, and not only is a gorgeous park (and a great playground for kids) with great views of downtown, situated right next to the oldest Mission building in SF, but it is the best place to people watch, especially on a beautiful day. The first day we went, we had the most stereotypical "summer of love" San Francisco experience, where young free spirits danced and waved ribbons and rings in the air while a nearby bluegrass band played in the grass. Bi-rite Creamery is nearby at 3692 18th Street, and is considered a SF classic. The ice cream is pretty good, but expect to wait in line, especially on a nice day.
|People watching at Delores Mission Park is always fun|
Neighborhoods. There are so many interesting neighborhoods with little shopping areas. Our favorite is called Hayes Valley, where 2 blocks or so along Hayes Street between Laguna St and Gough St have cool boutiques (of varying price points), coffee shops and restaurants. We love the Marine Layer store at 498 Hayes, which is a brand you should check out online if you can't get there in person (free shipping and returns!). Softest tee shirts ever by a company started in SF and made in CA. Mike has had several of them for over a year on non-stop rotation and still going strong. We each just added more to our collection. My husband also really likes the upscale Emile LaFaurie for Sean men's clothing store, at least for browsing if not so much buying. Not far away, another fun neighborhood called Fillmore District has shopping and eating centered more or less on Geary, Fillmore and Webster Streets. Perfect to hit up various happy hour food and drink specials. We are just getting to know and like Inner Sunset (sometimes called the Avenues by longtime SF residents), which further west and is smack dab in the middle of the Presidio and Golden Gate Park (which is NOT the same as the Golden Gate bridge, more on that later). Try Pascuale's Pizzeria at 700 Irving Street (if you google it, make sure you choose the right location). I broke from my wheat-free rule for their pizza, and while my body was sorry, my taste buds were not. Great bread, too (oh I went full out wheat that night). There are also lots of other tasty restaurants along Irving. Korean restaurant Hahn's Hibachi is pretty good, and across the street at 524 Irving Street is Loving Hut, a vegan restaurant that my non-vegan friend says has her favorite salad of all time (there is another location in the Westfield mall on Powell and Market streets). We drive to this neighborhood, we usually park in Golden Gate Park and walk up 7th Avenue to Irving. It's not far and parking is free and usually available in the park.
|One of the windmills at Golden Gate Park|
|Bison at GG Park|
|The view from DeYoung Museum Tower|
|Site of old Sutro Baths at Point Lobos|
|Legion of Honor Museum arch|
|The view from the paths near Legion of Honor Museum|
|Daytime view from Twin Peaks|
So that's my big, fat tourist recommendation post. Let me know if you have questions, want secret bathroom locations downtown, or if this helped you at all!!