12 Steps to Planning a San Francisco Vacation

Downtown skyline at dusk, San Francisco, USA
Matteo Colombo / Getty Images
  • 01 of 12

    What San Francisco Is Like? Why Go? Will You Like It?

    Street Performer Holding a Small Dog and a sign saying Welcome to San Francisco
    Bob Rowan / Getty Images

    We know how hard it can be to start planning a San Francisco vacation if you don't know much about it. Instead of using mood-altering substances to get you through your vacation planning, try our easy, 12 steps (or less) to plan a San Francisco vacation. We've arranged the steps in the order which fits our vacation planning style, but you can go through this guide in any order that suits you.

    If the budget is a priority, start by learning to say the M-word (money) without fear.
    If you're going to San Francisco because you want to enjoy an annual event, start by finding out when it happens.
    If you want to just show up and figure out the rest of your vacation after you arrive, we applaud your sense of adventure, but don't count on your good luck to get a San Francisco hotel room at the last minute. 

    What San Francisco Is Like

    You've seen a million pictures of San Francisco and watched it in dozens of films and television shows, but all that viewing doesn't tell the whole story. San Francisco is smaller than most people think, roughly square in shape and only 7 miles long on each side. Its population is under a million, but they're packed in, making it the second-most densely-populated city in the country. Most of the popular tourist sights are in a smaller area, making them easy to get to.

    Learn a little more. Browse 15 Fascinating Facts About San Francisco. Learn what Alcatraz means, why it's foggy, and how the Golden Gate got its name.

    Why Go to San Francisco

    Visually, San Francisco is a postcard-perfect city, its hills facing a calm bay. Many visitors say the city's beauty was the best part of their visit. Other often-cited characteristics are its excellent restaurants, vibrant arts scene, and outdoor recreation.

    Will You Like San Francisco?

    If you like gorgeous surroundings, shopping, arts, architecture and great food - or if you just want to see all those things you've heard or read about - San Francisco may be the place for you.

    No matter where they're located, local visitor's bureaus will claim their city has it all, but even a city as popular a San Francisco isn't for everyone. Visitors who prefer open, uncrowded places can find their nerves frayed by the population density and people from New York and Los Angeles tend to spend much of their time crowing about how much better their home cities are - so much so that we wonder if they're really covering up a bad case of envy.

    San Francisco is also famous for its fog, which is heaviest in June and July. If you equate all of California with the sunny, beach-scene image portrayed by Bay Watch, you should head for southern California instead.

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  • 02 of 12

    Best Time to Visit San Francisco - How Long to Stay

    Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower at sunset from Mandarin-Oriental Hotel.
    Holger Leue / Getty Images

    San Francisco can be fun in any season and the best time to visit depends on your personal preferences.

    • Weather: Many people think San Francisco has sunny skies and warm weather 365 days a year, but in fact, it's often foggy, temperatures over 80°F are considered a heat wave, and the water is too cold year round for all but the heartiest souls to venture in. It rains in the winter, but seldom the rest of the year. April and October have the clearest skies and moderate temperatures. Check the climate for the time you plan to visit.
    • Crowds: In summer, the top sights are crowded with tourists. Spring and fall are busy but not hectic and winter is least busy except around Thanksgiving1 and Christmas through New Year's, making it a great time to get around without having to elbow your way through crowds.
    • Costs: Hotel rates are lowest in winter (except when a big convention comes to town).

    How Long to Stay

    According to the San Francisco Visitor's Bureau, people stay just 4 to 5 nights on the average and you may have even less time than that, so some prioritizing is essential. These are the highlights:

    If you have just one day, use our guide to make the most of it. Using these tips, you can ride a cable car, see Union Square, visit Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach (Little Italy) and Pier 39 and drive down crooked Lombard Street.

    If you have a weekend, you can slow down a bit. Plan a weekend getaway and you can add a bay cruise, a visit to Golden Gate Park, a walk at Crissy Field, or tour the city on wheels with a plan that turns 49-Mile Drive into a short spin.

    If you have 3 to 4 days, add a side trip. You'll find plenty of ideas for them in the Day Trips Around San Francisco section of this guide. You'll also have time to visit Alcatraz, go to a museum or take a walk on the Golden Gate Bridge. To get a taste of life in San Francisco, take a walking tour or visit one of its neighborhoods - Fillmore Street, the Marina (centered at Chestnut and Scott) or Haight-Ashbury (starting at the intersection of those two streets) are good choices.

    If you have 5 to 6 days, you can fit in another side trip and also take a day off. Spend a couple of hours people-watching at a North Beach sidewalk cafe, amble down the street to lunch, take a nap or find a shady spot in Golden Park and relax. You'll also have time to visit Angel Island and take a day trip by ferry to Sausalito or take the train south to Palo Alto.

    1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

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  • 03 of 12

    What's Where

    At the risk of sounding like a geography teacher, learning where things are in San Francisco can help you with the rest of your planning, especially when deciding where to stay. The map above can help you get an idea of the San Francisco area, as well as how far the airport is from downtown. 

    Learning more about San Francisco's layout can save you from the embarrassment I once suffered when I hailed a taxi in Union Square and asked to go to the Chinatown gate, which is only three blocks away! It can also help you choose the best place to stay, picking a hotel that's close to the things you want to see most.

    Hotels near the airport can be a little cheaper, but take a look at the map and you'll see why they're not the best choice, far from any tourist sights and not well-connected to public transportation, requiring a car to get around with associated parking fees, fuel costs, and traffic aggravation.

    Areas of San Francisco

    Some people call San Francisco a collection of villages and it's a good analogy. If you went wandering, you'd find little neighborhoods all over town, each with their own personality. If you're looking for the most popular tourist areas, you'll never see most of them and we aren't going to confuse the issue by listing them all here. The areas shown on the map most popular with tourists are:

    • Union Square: Popular shopping area, near the theatre district
    • Chinatown: A cultural mix that's uniquely San Francisco
    • Fisherman's Wharf: Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square - and of course, the wharf. Also close to the financial district and Ferry Building
    • Golden Gate Park: A large city park that's home to some great museums, gardens, a Dutch windmill, a herd of buffalo and lots of other interesting sights.

    Not shown on the map, but also of interest to some visitors:

    • South of Market (SOMA): Its name defines where it is, South of Market Street and south of Union Square. Places of interest in SOMA include the Convention Center, newer hotels, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and AT&T Park baseball stadium.
    • Nob Hill: Most people of modest means go to Nob Hill for the great views and to ogle at the posh neighborhood. It's above Union Square, centered on California Street and Mason and easiest to reach by cable car.
    • The Castro: San Francisco's GLBT main street runs south from Market Street, east of the waterfront. It's easy to get there on the historic streetcar that runs along the waterfront and down Market Street.
    • Haight-Ashbury: The center of the Summer of Love is the intersection of Haight streets near Golden Gate Park, a fun place to shop in its funky little shops.
    • Japantown: Small but interesting, it's just off Geary Blvd at Fillmore, about halfway between Union Square and Ocean Beach.
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  • 04 of 12

    The M-Word: Money and How to Spend Less

    In a poll, 25% of our readers said that keeping everything within their budget is the hardest part of planning a trip. We can understand why. According to the San Francisco visitor's bureau, tourists staying in a hotel spend $244 per person per day, on the average, but don't despair. We've got some handy tips to help you beat the averages (in a good way):

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  • 05 of 12

    San Francisco's Top Sights: The Famous Spots

    Cable car in the streets of San Francisco,
    Francesco Vaninetti Photo / Getty Images

    San Francisco's top attractions include Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Chinatown, Lombard Street and Golden Gate Park. You can see where they all are on the map of San Francisco attractions above. Use a guide to things to do in San Francisco to learn more about them.

    If you'd rather, you can use a larger, interactive version of the map to explore the city.

    Other Popular San Francisco Activities

    Besides seeing the sights, many San Francisco visitors enjoy a bay cruise. It's a good way to rest your tired feet and see the city from a different angle. Most people take the traditional sail around Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge, but you can find other, more interesting options in the bay cruise guide.

    More Things to Do in San Francisco

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  • 06 of 12

    Finding the Real San Francisco

    Fruit market, Chinatown.
    Rick Gerharter / Getty Images

    This page is for visitors who want to get past the tourist veneer to find out what San Francisco is really like - something you can't do by hitting the most popular spots, especially the ones San Francisco residents try to ignore like a bad case of hiccups.

    Try the "Best of the Rest" Things to Do in San Francisco, still popular and fun but not quite victims of their own fame.

    To explore San Francisco in more depth, here are some ideas:

    San Francisco is a "minority majority" city, with more than half its residents members of a minority. The largest group are Asian (especially Chinese), but the city has vibrant pockets of many other origins. A visit to Chinatown can be quintessentially touristy, but if you get off Grant Street and away from the tourist shops, you'll see a different side of this community. Other ethnic enclaves include Japantown (Geary at Fillmore) and the Latino Mission District.

    Peek into San Francisco's past with these activities:

    • San Francisco's Beginnings: Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asis) was the spiritual center and the Presidio the military, both founded in 1776.
    • 1849 Gold Rush: The shiny, yellow metal may have been far inland, but San Francisco was where everyone came to seek their fortunes - and the largest ones may have actually been made here instead of in the mines. Take San Francisco City Guides' Gold Rush City tour to learn more about it.
    • 1906 Earthquake and Fire: You can still find a few remnants of the big disaster.
    • The "Summer of Love": There's no shortage of tours to help you remember what went on in 1967, including City Guides, Haunted Haight and the Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour.
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  • 07 of 12

    Day Trips Around San Francisco

    Walking Path At Muir Woods
    Richard Hamilton Smith / Getty Images

    If you have more than one or two days to spend during your San Francisco visit, anywhere within the circle is about a two-hour drive. These are the most popular places for a San Francisco day trip:

    A Day in Napa: Specially designed for a one-day trip originating in San Francisco, this itinerary lets you avoid traffic while you sample Napa Valley's wines, foods, and scenery.

    Santa Cruz: You may know about the Boardwalk and pier, but what about the butterflies and the historic mission? And the Wednesday night sailboat races?

    Monterey and Carmel: It take about 2 hours to reach the Monterey Peninsula, home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and 17-Mile Drive and a great locale for sea otter-spotting or window-shopping in cute little downtown Carmel.

    The "Big" Trees in Muir Woods: They're the closest redwood trees to San Francisco, but not the biggest or the tallest. Check the guide to redwood forests in California before you decide if they're the ones you really want to see.

    Take a Drive on the Coast Highway: California Highway 1 (the "coast" highway) goes north and south from the city and a drive in either direction is nice, but the drive you're visualizing may be far from San Francisco. Use the guide to driving on California's scenic Highway One to help figure out what you want to do.

    Try some great places to take the kids in the San Francisco area.

    More San Francisco Day Trips

    In case you're looking for something a little different, try day trips. You'll find fruit orchards in bloom, a place to get muddy without getting into trouble, a sweet factory tour, a cartoon museum and some surprising artistic and architectural treasures, all within a day's drive of San Francisco.

    Guided San Francisco Day Tours

    If you'd rather have someone take you out for a San Francisco day trip than do it yourself, you can find plenty of companies that offer day trips to Wine Country, the Monterey Peninsula, Muir Woods, the Winchester Mystery House and even to Yosemite.

    A few San Francisco tour companies offer personalized, small group tours, which are the most enjoyable way to go. They include A Friend in Town and Blue Heron Tours.

    Longer Side Trips

    Yosemite National Park in One Day: Although the energetic traveler who starts early and drives back late could visit it in a day, it's really better to stay overnight if you're traveling from San Francisco - otherwise you'll regret making such a rushed visit and wishing you had stayed longer.

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  • 08 of 12

    How to Get to San Francisco

    Aerial shot of San Francisco city lights
    Praveen P.N / Getty Images

    San Francisco is on the California coast, 381 miles from Los Angeles, 502 miles from San Diego and 330 miles from the Oregon border. It takes almost 4 hours to drive there from Reno and it's 9 hours from Las Vegas.

    People ask about some places so often that we've compiled special pages that detail all the ways to get to San Francisco from Las Vegas or from Los Angeles or from San Diego, from fastest to most scenic.

    Coming from other places, use the guide to getting to San Francisco to find out how to get there by air, car and bus. Amtrak doesn't go directly to San Francisco, but we'll also tell you how to get there by train.

    Almost 30% of people who responded to our transportation poll said they rent a car to travel in California. 

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  • 09 of 12

    Where to Stay in San Francisco

    Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel.
    Lonely Planet / Getty Images

    You don't have to stay in a seedy motel with paper-thin walls to keep your San Francisco lodging budget under control. Armed with price-busting tips that have landed us in four-star hotels for the price of a budget chain, you can find a great place to stay in a convenient location.

    With hotel occupancy consistently over 80%, it's best to reserve ahead of time. Choose the planning option that suits you best:

    If you've already decided what you want to see and do in San Francisco: Deciding what area to stay in will be easy. 

    How to find a San Francisco hotel - fast: We know you're busy, so we put together a step-by-step guide that you can use to get the job done fast, while finding the place that "just right" for your visit.

    Other Ways to Stay in San Francisco

    Bed and Breakfasts: Quaint and sometimes cozy, these bed and breakfasts and small hotels offer an alternative to the mainstream hotel.

    Camping: There aren't many options for campers that are close to the city of San Francisco, but you'll find lots of variety within an hour's drive.

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  • 10 of 12

    How to Get Around

    Trolley in Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, California, USA
    Richard Cummins / Getty Images

    By now, you probably know that San Francisco is a small city with most of its popular attractions clustered in about a square mile.

    San Franciscans view double-parking as an inalienable right, late-coming cars blast through intersections after the traffic light turns red and street parking is scarcer than coins made in the old San Francisco mint. Parking garages fill up early and are expensive. All of it makes driving in the city is maddening and with everything so close together, it's mostly unnecessary.

    If you bring your own car, park it and leave it in one place. If you're staying in a hotel overnight and there's a city-owned garage nearby, it may be less expensive than hotel parking.

    If you're thinking of renting a car for your entire visit, think again. Hotels charge up to $20 a day for parking and most days, it will just sit there unused, burning your hard-earned cash. If you walk or take public transportation, you can use the money you save to get a nicer hotel room - splurge on a nice dinner - or buy your sweetie a gift. If you're planning on visiting other areas of town that aren't so easy to get to or making a side trip out of town, just rent for a day or two.

    Find out about all the options, including cable cars, bus tours, trolleys, BART and everything else.

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  • 11 of 12

    Plan Your San Francisco Vacation Like a Pro

    Downtown skyline at dusk, San Francisco, USA
    Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

    Imagine having a California travel writer with almost two decades of experience living next door. Let's have a chat and we'll share our best San Francisco tips with you. Use them to plan a no-fuss, no-hassle trip to San Francisco and your traveling companions will think you're a wizard of the highest order.

    10 Ways to be a Smart San Francisco Tourist: Less-savvy San Francisco visitors stand outside the Alcatraz ticket office with a disappointed look on their face, wait in an endless line to catch the cable car and shiver in the city's summer fog, but you know better. Discover how to be a smarter San Francisco tourist, enjoy your trip more and spend less of your hard-earned money doing it.

    Buy Your Tickets Ahead of Time: Not only can you stay out of lines at the ticket booth, but you're likely to save some bucks at the same time if you take a few minutes to figure out what you need tickets for and look into multi-attraction passes.

    Be Ready to Cross the Golden Gate Bridge: In early 2013, Golden Gate Bridge toll-taking went all electronic and visitors need to take a few steps to pay their tolls before they cross, to avoid any fines or penalties.

    What to Bring on a San Francisco Vacation

    • Clothing
      • Bring warm clothing, especially in mid-summer. When the fog comes in, you'll need a jacket, windbreaker, and maybe two or three more layers. Ignore this advice and you're likely to contribute to the local economy when you have to buy something warm, quick.
      • Bring comfortable shoes. San Francisco is best visited on foot.
      • California attire is generally casual. You won't need your suit and tie (or cocktail dress and high heels) unless you're planning a very special activity.
      • If your vacation is in winter, bring an umbrella and light raincoat or jacket. If you don't have room for them in your suitcase, wait until the first drop of rain falls: the shops in all the tourist areas will sprout umbrellas faster than you can say: "I'm getting wet."​
    • Get it, Bookmark It, Print It
      • Hotel Confirmation
      • Rental Car Confirmation
      • Airline Boarding Passes (many airlines let you print these at home)
      • Print self-guided tours of Chinatown, Union Square, North Beach, the 49-Mile Drive and a bunch of other great places - or bookmark them on your mobile device.
      • If you have a smartphone, look into apps that help with public transit. The SF Weekly entertainment guide may be useful, Yelp is good for finding restaurants people like anywhere you are - and if you're ignoring our advice about driving a car in the city, consider getting a traffic report app and one that helps you find parking.
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  • 12 of 12

    Food, Drink, Entertainment and Nightlife

    United States, California, San Francisco, Transamerica Pyramid (Transamerica Tower) from architect William Pereira
    LEMAIRE StŽphane / hemis.fr / Getty Images

    Places to Eat

    San Francisco is well-known for its fine cuisine and it has more Michelin-rated restaurants per resident than New York City - in 2010, it had 15 star-rated places within the city limits for a city of 800,000 vs. 23 for 8.3 million in that big city across the country. Reservation service Open Table keeps a list of all of them.

    The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco magazine are also good resources if you're looking for professional reviews of fine dining spots.

    Things to Do After Dark in San Francisco

    San Francisco has its share of typical evening fare: theatre and performing arts, fine dining and nightclubs, but it's often difficult to find things to do if you don't enjoy those typical after-hours pursuits or are traveling with a family. 

    Performing Arts Tickets

    If you enjoy the symphony, dance, or theatre, check to see what's on when you're visiting and read reviews at the San Francisco Chronicle. For bargain tickets, head to TIX, Union Square's same-day, half-price ticket booth as soon as they open.