Visiting San Francisco for the first time? Follow these insider travel tips to help you plan your San Francisco itinerary, know where to stay in the city, where to find the best eats, and experience the best things to do in San Francisco.
I grew up living in San Francisco and it’s still one of my favorite cities in the USA.
It’s not a cheap city to visit, but after living there and visiting the city as a tourist many times, I’ve learned how to discover the best of what San Francisco has to offer without breaking the bank.
Follow these San Francisco travel tips to help you plan your trip, save money, and make the most of your visit.
Where to stay in San Francisco?
After living in San Francisco for several years, I recommend staying in one of the following neighorhoods:
- Union Square ***Most Popular***
- Fisherman’s Wharf ***Most Popular***
- Marina ***Most Popular***
- Nob Hill
- North Beach & Chinatown
- SoMa (South of Market)
- The Castro
- Hayes Valley
Best budget-friendly hotels in San Francisco
- The Grant Hotel (Just 5 minutes’ walk from Union Square)
- Travelodge by Wyndam Presidio San Francisco
- Castle Inn (Near the famous Lombard Street)
- Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf
- Nob Hill Motor Inn
- Warwick San Francisco (Near Union Square)
Best mid-range hotels in San Francisco
- Hotel Zeppelin (Near Union Square)
- W San Francisco (Next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
- The Marker San Francisco (Near Union Square)
- Staypineapple, An Elegant Hotel (Near Union Square)
- Axiom Hotel (Near Union Square)
1. Watch out for hidden hotel fees
Before booking your hotel, you’ll want to pay attention to any hidden fees that’s included in the price. The most common one is a resort fee.
Many hotels in San Francisco charge a mandatory resort fee per room for each night you stay. This nightly resort fee is to pay for specific hotel amenities. This fee will be charged upon checkout for every night you stayed at the hotel (whether or not you use the amenities).
Do all hotels in San Francisco charge a resort fee? Most hotels charge a resort fee for every night you stay at the hotel. This helps bring in extra revenue for the hotel. However, there are a few hotels in San Francisco that don’t charge a resort fee.
Below are some hotels in Union Square that don’t charge a resort fee:
- Chancellor Hotel in Union Square
- citizenM San Francisco Union Square hotel
- Handlery Union Square
- Inn at Union Square
- Marriott Union Square
2. Save money on attractions with GO City San Francisco Pass
San Francisco is a small city – it’s only 47 square miles – but there are TONS of things to see and do.
Due to this, I highly recommend planning your itinerary ahead of time. This can help you figure out what your “must-see” attractions are so you can make the most of your trip.
According to GetYourGuide, below are the top 10 things to do in San Francisco:
- Alcatraz Island
- Golden Gate Bridge (Walk or drive across, or take a Golden Gate Bay Cruise)
- Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
- California Academy of Sciences
- Walt Disney Family Museum
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
- Coit Tower
- Pier 39
- Golden Gate Park
While there are many free things to do in San Francisco, there are a few paid attractions that are worth checking out, such as the Exploratorium, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California Academy of Sciences, and Escape from the Rock (a tour of Alcatraz).
3. Check out the free things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities to visit in the USA. Fortunately, if you’re traveling on a budget, there are plenty of free things to do in the city. Below are some of my favorites!
- Golden Gate Bridge – It’s free for pedestrians to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. This is something that both locals and tourists love to do.
- San Francisco Cable Car Museum – It’s free to visit and learn about the history of cable cars.
- Explore Chinatown – This is the second largest Chinatown in the world.
- Pier 39 – While some of the attractions are paid, you can explore this pier for free. Check out street performers and the sea lions.
- The Presidio – This 1,500 acre park is one of the best spots to hike within the city limits.
- Golden Gate Park – It’s free to enter the park and explore this urban green space.
- Alamo Square – Here you’ll find the Painted Ladies, which is a row of beautiful Victorian homes.
- Dolores Park – This is one of the most popular parks with locals.
- Mission Murals – There is public art everywhere in San Francisco, but the Mission has as variety of colorful murals.
- Palace of Fine Arts – This is one of the only remaining structures from 1915’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It’s free to walk around the grounds and offers a peaceful break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
- Grace Cathedral – This beautiful Gothic cathedral offers free musical performances.
When is the best time to visit San Francisco?
The best time to visit San Francisco is from September to November. The fall has fewer crowds and is actually warmer than the summer months. Spring is also another great time to visit San Francisco when the weather is mild and there is little rain.
When is the cheapest time to visit San Francisco?
The cheapest time to visit San Francisco is in December and January (except the week of Christmas). This is when hotel rates are at their lowest.
The most expensive time to visit San Francisco is from August to October, when hotel rates are the highest. The best time to visit is in the spring when the weather is good and the prices are low.
4. Which airport to fly into?
When flying to San Francisco, there are two airports you can choose from: SFO or OAK. I like to use Skyscanner to compare flight prices for both airports.
SFO is the largest airport in the region, located south of San Francisco in San Mateo County. This is the airport that most international travelers will need to use to fly into San Francisco.
OAK is much smaller than SFO, located across the Bay Bridge and has fewer flight options. This is best for domestic travelers or those traveling on budget airlines such as Southwest.
Is it cheaper to fly to San Francisco or Oakland? It’s best to compare flight costs to see which airport is cheaper for you to fly to. Also keep in mind that Oakland is further away from downtown San Francisco than SFO (21 miles vs. 16 miles).
The average Uber cost from SFO to downtown San Francisco is around $35 and $45 from Oakland airport.
How to get from the airport to San Francisco
Getting from SFO to downtown San Francisco
It’s very easy to get to and from SFO. Public transportation is the cheapest and fastest option:
- BART – This is the best option to avoid sitting in traffic. The rapid rail connects SFO to San Mateo County, San Francisco and the East Bay.
- Caltrain – This commuter train also serves SFO. You’ll take the BART to Millbrae and transfer.
- SamTrans – This offers multiple routes from SFO to San Mateo County, San Francisco, and Palo Alto. Take bus routes SFO, ECR, 292, 397, and 398.
Getting from OAK to downtown San Francisco
BART – Take the blue Daly City Line or the green Millbrae Line. Both of these lines will make stops at Civic Center, Powell Street, Embarcadero, and the Mission district.
Other options include taking a taxi or Uber / Lyft, airport shuttle, or private transfer.
5. Best way to get around San Francisco
The best ways to get around San Francisco is on foot or using their public transit. Parking is expensive and difficult to find so there’s no need to rent a car for your trip.
Getting around on foot
There are many hills in San Francisco, so you’ll want to wear comfortable walking shoes. Leave your high heels at home and opt for comfort.
If you want a little guidance exploring the city, consider joining a walking tour. This is a great way to learn about the local area. Below are some of the most popular San Francisco walking tours:
- North Beach and Little Italy Food Tour
- San Francisco: Golden Gate Park Segway Tour
- San Francisco: Chinatown Culinary Walking Tour
How to use San Francisco’s public transportation:
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, also known as the “Muni” is safe, affordable and easy to use. The Muni offers numerous buses, streetcars and cable car routes throughout the city.
Planning your trip on the Muni:
- Use the SFMTA Trip Planner
- Download MuniMobile to plan your trip of check arrival times
- You can also find maps and schedules at Muni stations and bus shelters.
Paying your fare on the Muni:
- Clipper Card – This is an all-in-one transit card used for contactless payments throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. You’ll save $0.25 per ride. Tag your card at any door when you board.
- Muni Mobile – You can activate your fare before boarding any door. At a Muni Metro Station, you’ll show your fare to a station agent.
- Cash – Use exact change and put cash in the cash fareboxes which are located at the front of each bus or train. Remember to keep your transfer as proof of payment.
- Muni Ticket – Ticket vending machines can be found in all Muni Metro stations.
Kids ages 4 and under always ride for free. Proof of payment is required for all riders.
Tips for riding the cable cars in San Francisco:
- Walk up one block from the cable car turnaround points – Avoid waiting in the long lines at Powell & Market and Hyde & Beach. Just walk up to the next cable car stop and you can usually get right on the first car (or the next one).
- Ride the Powell-Mason Line – If you’re leaving Fisherman’s Wharf, walk over to Manson & Bay Streets where the lines are usually shorter. This will take you to Union Square.
- Ride the California Line – Get on where California Steet intersects Market by the Ferry Building.There are usually no wait times and you can get off in Chinatown or Nob Hill.
Another great way to get around San Francisco is to take the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour. This allows you to jump on and off the bus tour at any of their designated stops, as many times as you wish.
There are 20+ stop at key points of interest, including Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, and Haight Ashbury.
They even offer an optional 1-hour night bus tour which can be a unique way to see the city lit up in the evening.
6. Don’t rent a car in San Francisco
You don’t need a car to explore San Francisco. Most of the main attractions can be easily reached on foot or using public transportation.
And if you need a car, there is more than enough Ubers, Lyfts, and taxis to get around the city.
Parking is also difficult to find and can be very expensive. Most locals and visitors to San Francisco would recommend against renting a car in the city.
7. Dress in layers because the weather can vary
Even though San Francisco is only 7 square miles, it has microclimates which means it can feel cold in the morning and warm in the afternoon.
This is due to the fog and sea breeze which can quickly lower the temperature by ten degrees. Then once the fog lifts and the sun makes an appearance, you can shed your layers throughout the day.
This is definitely NOT the city to wear t-shirts, shorts, and sandals. The weather is usually on the chilly side and it’s not anywhere close to Los Angeles or Southern California weather.
8. Make time to visit the Golden Gate Bridge
This is one of the most famous bridges in the world and a trip to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without visiting this beautiful suspension bridge.
The red-orange color of the bridge was specifically chosen to make the bridge more visible through the thick fog that frequently blankets the bridge.
There is a toll to drive across the bridge, but it’s free for pedestrians to walk across.
It will take about 30 minutes to walk across the entire bridge at a steady pace. If it’s crowded with other pedestrians (which it usually is), expect to walk slower and plan for it to take at least 45 minutes each way.
My favorite way to experience the Golden Gate Bridge is to take a San Francisco Bay Cruise. Yes, this may seem a little touristy, but it’s worth every penny.
The Blue & Gold Fleet’s Bay Cruise has been the most popular cruise of the San Francisco Bay for over 40 years.
The tour is 60-minutes, and you’ll get to sail underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, see the famous Pier 39 sea lions, and cruise around Alcatraz Island.
9. Be aware of the tourist traps at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
I’ve seen many San Francisco travel guides tell visitors to avoid going to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 because it’s just one big tourist trap.
Yes, it’s a very touristy part of the city and you’ll overpay for mediocre food if you eat here. But it’s still worth checking out, even if you just walk around to look at the sea lions on the wooden platforms behind Pier 39.
Growing up in San Francisco, I have many good memories of spending time at Fisherman’s Wharf with my family and friends. Some of my favorite places to check out here include:
- Alcatraz Escape from the Rock Cruise
- Aquarium of the Bay
- USS Pampanito
- Madame Tussauds
- Sea Lion Center
- Ghirardelli Square
Tips for visiting Fisherman’s Wharf:
- Visit in the morning – This the quietest time to go to Fisherman’s Wharf. There is plenty of things to do here in the morning before the crowds come in the afternoon.
- Book your Alcatraz Cruise in advance – If you plan to visit Alcatraz, tickets tend to sell out quickly, especially during peak tourist season. To avoid disappointment, try to plan ahead and book your tickets in advance.
- Worried that your kids are too young to enjoy Alcatraz? – Take a 1-hour San Francisco Bay Cruise instead. This will take you around Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Avoid eating at Fisherman’s Wharf – Many people flock here to eat clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl, but it can be expensive and the quality is a hit or miss. If you like seafood, consider getting cioppino instead, which is a fish stew that originated in San Francisco.
10. Find ways to eat cheap in San Francisco
- Take advantage of lower prices on the lunch menu – Lunch menu prices are usually cheaper than the dinner menu.
- Ferry Building Marketplace – This is a foodie’s paradise, and they also have a farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.
- North Beach – Here you’ll find some of the best Italian food in the city.
- Mission District – This is a great spot to find authentic Mexican food.
- Have a picnic in the park – Some of the best parks to have a picnic in San Francisco include Yerba Buena Gardens, McLaren Park, Heron’s Head Park, West Bluff Picnic Area (northwest of Crissy Field), Hellman Hollow, Lands End (Battery Lobos), Washington Square Park, and Mission Dolores Park.
11. Skip driving down Lombard Street
There is often a line up of cars waiting to drive down Lombard Street, which is known as the second crookedest street in the world. The crookedest street in the world is actually Vermont Street, in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.
If you’ve never seen a street like this before, then maybe it’s worth checking out. It’s definitely a picturesque street with the beautiful flowers that are usually in bloom throughout the year.
If you’re not driving, there are stairs on both sides of Lombard Street for pedestrians to walk up or down. Make sure to wear your most comfortable walking shoes!
12. Check out the Ferry Building Marketplace
This spot is popular with both locals and tourists. Located in the Embarcadero in San Francisco, this is one of the city’s prime food destinations.
If you visit on Saturday morning, there is a farmer’s market that has over 100 farmers and purveyors selling fresh produce and street food along the pier.
There are smaller markets that also happen on Tuesday and Thursday mornings that are worth checking out. Get here mid-morning to beat the lunch time rush and take your time strolling through the dozens of shops and eateries.
13. Make time to visit at least one museum in San Francisco
Maybe I’m just biased because I grew up living in San Francisco, but the city is home to some of the best museums and attractions in the country. Definitely make time to visit at least one or more museums during your visit.
The best way to save money on admission is to use the GO City San Francisco Pass. Depending on which attractions you visit, you can save up to 56% off the regular ticket price!
GO City offers 2 pass options for San Francisco:
- All-Inclusive Pass: Choose this option if you want to visit as many attractions as possible in 1, 2, 3, or 5 days.
- Explorer Pass: Choose this option to visit 2, 3, 4, or 5 attractions included in the pass. You’ll have 60 days to do so. There’s no need to decide which attractions you’ll visit before your purchase.
Below are some of the most popular museums and attractions to visit in the city:
- California Academy of Sciences
- The Walt Disney Family Museum
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
- de Young Museum and Legion of Honor
- Asian Art Museum
- U.S.S. HORNET Museum
- The Beat Museum
- The Contemporary Jewish Museum
14. Explore the different neighborhoods in San Francisco
Unless you’re only spending one day in San Francisco, get out of downtown and Union Square.
There are so many wonderful neighborhoods to explore in San Francisco, which can give you a good feel of the city. Below are some of the best neighborhoods to check out:
This is a great place to take an afternoon stroll. Here you’ll find cute cafes, high-end boutiques, and tasty restaurants. The prime shopping sports are along Hayes Street between Gough and Laguna.
Just a block or two west of Hayes Valley, you can also check out the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square. If you’re a fan of the TV show “Full House”, you’ll recognize this spot from the opening credits of the show when the family is having a picnic.
“Full House” was a popular sitcom in the 90s about a fictional family living in the city of San Francisco. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the “Full House” house is one of the Painted Ladies, but it’s actually located at 1709 Broderick Street, which is about a 22-minute walk from Alamo Square.
This neighborhood was popular with the hippies of the 1960’s. The counterculture reached its peak in 1967 when over 100,000 young people headed to San Francisco to find love, drugs, and rock and roll.
Today, it’s a great place to explore the funky shops, admire the beautiful Victorian homes, check out the psychedelic murals, or grab a bite to eat and drink at one of the local restaurants.
If you’re a fan of rock music, you can see where some of the most famous 60’s rockers lived. Below are some of the most famous houses in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood:
- Jefferson Airplane – 2400 Fulton
- Grateful Dead – 710 Ashbury
- Janis Joplin – 122 Lyon
- Patty Hearst – 1235 Masonic
- Charles Manson – 636 Cole
- Jack London – 737 Buena Vista West
- Jimi Hendrix – 1524A Haight Street
Located between Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown, this is known as San Francisco’s “Little Italy”, where you’ll find cute sidewalk cafes, gelato shops, and the city’s best Italian restaurants. Below are some of the best things to do in this neighborhood:
- Marvel at the views from Coit Tower
- Check out The Beat Museum
- Exploratorium (The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception) – It’s about a 15-minute walk from North Beach.
- Browse City Lights Bookstore
- Climb the Filbert Street Steps – You might see the wild green parrots who live in the branches of the Telegraph Hill trees.
- People watch in Washington Square Park
Also known as South of Market, this is one of the coolest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Here you’ll find boutique shopping, restaurants and bars, museums, art galleries, and beautiful parks. Below are some of the most popular things to do here:
- The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
- The Contemporary Jewish Museum
- See a Giants game at AT&T Park
- Ice skate at Yerba Buena Ice Skating & Bowling Center
- Museum of African Diaspora
This is the second largest Chinatown outside of Asia, as well as the oldest in North America. Below are some of the best things to do in Chinatown:
- Visit here for Chinese New Year – Watching the parade is one of my favorite memories of growing up in San Francisco.
- Chinatown Dragon Gate – This is the entry point to Chinatown off Grant Avenue.
- Fortune Cookie Factory
- Old St. Mary’s Church –This is the oldest cathedral in California.
This is one of the most colorful neighborhoods in the city on a beautiful sunny day. Below are some of the best things to do in the area:
- Check out the murals
- Eat Mexican food
- Eat unique ice cream flavors at Bi-Rite Creamery or Humphry Slocombe
- Have a picnic in Mission Dolores Park
- Browse vintage clothing shops and bookstores
Located in Eureka Valley, this neighborhood is home to a vibrant nightlife scene and the LGBTQ community. Harvey Milk, a famous gay-rights activist used to live here. Below are some of the best things to do in this area:
- Check out the Castro Theatre
- Explore LGBTQ history
- Take photos of the local street art
- Slide down the Seward Street Slides
Other neighborhoods you may want to check out include Nob Hill, Outer Richmond, Pacific Heights, Russian Hill, Cow Hollow / Marina, and Golden Gate Park.
15. Take a daytrip from San Francisco
If you have time, there are many fun daytrip destinations which are a short drive from San Francisco. Below are some of the most popular daytrip ideas:
- Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (Located in Vallejo, about a 40-minute drive from downtown San Francisco) – FREE entry with the San Francisco GO City Pass
- California’s Great America (Located in Santa Clara, about a 52-minute drive from downtown San Francisco) – FREE entry with the San Francisco GO City Pass
- LEGOLAND Discovery Center (Located in San Jose, about a 1-hour drive from downtown San Francisco) – FREE entry with the San Francisco GO City Pass
- Sausalito (About a 30-minute drive from downtown San Francisco)
- Napa & Sonoma Valley (Here you’ll find California’s celebrated wine regions)
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area (About a 25-minute drive from downtown San Francisco)
- Muir Woods National Monument (About a 41-minute drive from downtown San Francisco)
- Half Moon Bay (About a 47-minute drive from downtown San Francisco)
- Stinson Beach (About a 1-hour drive from downtown San Francisco)
San Francisco Travel Tips FAQs
How much money do I need for San Francisco?
Your daily budget should be around $175 per person for your vacation. Based on the expenses of other visitors, this is the average daily price. (Price are in USD).
|Average Daily Cost|
As you can see, a vacation to San Francisco for one week will cost an average of $1,226 per person. (Source)
What should I do in San Francisco for the first time?
- Take a cruise to see the Golden Gate Bridge
- Tour Alcatraz Island
- Ride the cable car
- Eat your way through the Ferry Building
- Explore Fisherman’s Wharf
- Take a stroll through Chinatown
- Check out California Academy of Sciences
- Enjoy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
- Take in the view from Coit Tower (or Twin Peaks)
- Have a picnic at Mission Dolores Park