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What Not to Do in San Francisco
It's easy to come up with a list of things to do in San Francisco or to find the places that every tourist flocks to see.
If you stop with one of those lists, you could miss out. You'll end up going to places you really should skip, spend too much time doing the things you want to - and maybe even do something that can be embarrassing and awkward. That's why I wrote this guide, so you don't have to endure any of those vacation failures.
San Francisco Attractions You Can Skip
There are times when the masses are just plain wrong about places to go. And times when lazy writers borrow others' ideas and write about them without any personal knowledge.
In nearly two decades of writing about San Francisco, I have been to every single tourist attraction more times than you can imagine. I watch people, and I think about the things that are truly worth your time to do. This list will give you better alternatives to the same old tired tourist experiences - and hopefully save you... from bad crowdsourcing.
The next several pages outline the things you can skip and the most common mistakes visitors make at others.
Other Things You Shouldn't Do
There are a few things you can do when you go to San Francisco that can be embarrassing. You can say something that will leave you standing alone, wondering why everyone suddenly walked away as if you had the plague. And some things will make you the butt of cruel jokes, too. This guide will warn you about those, too.Continue to 2 of 17 below.
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Don't Get on the Wrong Cable Car
If you want to ride a San Francisco Cable Car, you need to know which ones they are.
Don't Ride the Hyde or Powell Cable Cars
I'm not just talking about getting confused here. You can stand in line for an hour waiting to make a 15-minute cable car ride, going over a steep hill and hanging on for dear life. Or you can do the same thing, but wait just a few minutes to get on. Smart visitors like you know which is better.
Don't Get on the Wrong Transit
Some San Francisco visitors think the waterfront trolley is the cable car. It isn't. Neither are the electric buses that attach to overhead cables to get their power.
The San Francisco cable cars move because they grab onto cables buried beneath the street. They're the ones with the places to stand outside, the ones you see in the photos, running up or down a hill looking too cute for words.
INSTEAD: Catch the California Car
Riding a cable car is really about the experience, and you have options. Instead of wasting time... waiting, head for the end of the California Street line, just off the waterfront near the Ferry Building and the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Drumm Street.
The ride from there to the top of the hill is steep and exciting. If you get off at Nob Hill, you can tour that area without making the steep climb. Or get off at Chinatown instead.
The San Francisco Cable Car Guide will make your ride even easier.Continue to 3 of 17 below.
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Avoid Driving Down Lombard Street
Lombard Street is an iconic San Francisco stop, even if it isn't the crookedest street in town, much less in the world. But don't try to drive down Lombard. That is unless you enjoy being stuck in gridlock.
Before you think about going, use this guide to Lombard Street to get all the insider tips you need.
INSTEAD: Walk Down the Street
Take the Hyde Street cable car or use a ride-sharing service to get to the intersection of Hyde and Lombard, then walk down the sidewalk.
If you just have to drive it, do it at night when traffic subsides. Just please don't screech your tires and disturb the folks who live there.Continue to 4 of 17 below.
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Don't Miss the Boat to Alcatraz
If you or your traveling companions are dying to see the prison at Alcatraz, here's what you need to know:
Don't Wait to Buy Tickets
Alcatraz tour tickets are limited, and during any busy time, they sell out days ahead of time. If you wait until an hour before you want to go to visit the ticket office, you might end up being very disappointed.
Don't Go On the Wrong Tour
Some tours say they include Alcatraz, but what they really mean is that they sail past it. That may not be what you had in mind. Only Alcatraz Cruises will take you to the island.
Don't Go in the Daytime Either
It takes too much time. The trip out and back, waiting for the boat on both ends and touring the prison can take up nearly a half day of sightseeing time. Instead, take the Night Tour, which actually starts before dark. It takes just as long but frees you up to see other things during the day that may close early.
INSTEAD: Be a Smart Visitor and Do This
Start by getting the inside track on how to visit... Alcatraz in this guide. It will also tell you what to do if tickets are sold out. Go for the night tour. And make your reservations as far ahead of time as you can.Continue to 5 of 17 below.
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Don't Miss the Best Parts of Chinatown
If you look at the map or ask your GPS to take you to Chinatown, you'll end up on Grant Avenue. At first it appears to be Chinatown's Main Street, but in fact, it's lined with souvenir shops, cheap electronics dealers and other locations that are mostly out to help you transfer your money from your pockets into theirs.
Don't fall for it. Spend a little time on Grant if you need to buy some souvenirs, but then get off that too-well-beaten path.
INSTEAD: Get Off the Main Street
If you want to find out what Chinatown is really like, explore the side streets and alleys. Use the Chinatown Walking Tour Guide to see it all.Continue to 6 of 17 below.
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Don't Buy Chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
Don't listen to those friends and neighbors who insist that Ghirardelli makes the best chocolate. San Francisco chocolate-making has moved on — a long way — since Domingo Ghirardelli arrived during the Gold Rush.
If you want to over-sweeten yourself with a hot fudge sundae at the Ghirardelli Square location, go for it, but buy your chocolate treats somewhere else.
INSTEAD: Visit Some Artisan Chocolate Makers
For really yummy chocolate to take home, use this guide to find tested and proven recommendations for the best places to get your San Francisco chocolate fix.Continue to 7 of 17 below.
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Don’t Listen to People Who Get Snooty About Sourdough Bread
San Franciscans scorn anything at Fisherman’s Wharf as a knee-jerk reaction, branding it as “touristy” and unworthy of their attention. They’ll tell you to go to Tartine Bakery for sourdough bread instead of Boudin Bakery, but they miss the point.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with Tartine. Their bread and pastries are what earned their chef a James Beard Award. But you'll have to travel out of your way to get there — and likely stand in a long line just to get a loaf.
Furthermore, you need to know there’s sourdough bread in general and then there’s San Francisco sourdough bread.
Traditional sourdough bread is made from a starter that uses wild yeast. To get authentic San Francisco sourdough, you have to start with San Francisco’s native yeast. It’s named for the city: Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis. Bread made from it is crusty, chewy and has a distinctive, sharp and tangy taste.
INSTEAD: Decide For Yourself
Go to both if you want to. Get a taste of a real San Francisco... treat from Boudin, then go see what an award-winning pastry chef can make at Tartine.
You could also make sourdough at home. Sour Flour offers classes in making sourdough starter and how to make bread from it. You can also buy San Francisco sourdough starter to take home from some souvenir shops, but experienced cooks say it's good for one or two loaves before it starts to lose its potency.Continue to 8 of 17 below.
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Don't Eat Fish at Fisherman's Wharf or Chinese Food in Chinatown
I'm going to start here by acknowledging that you may not listen to me about this. But before you go looking for fish at Fisherman's Wharf or Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, think about who said you should try them. Was it Great Aunt Agatha who visited San Francisco a century ago? Or that guy down the street who thinks Chef Boyardee makes gourmet spaghetti?
Don't Go to the Tourist Areas for Good Food
San Franciscans shun the tourist areas when they're looking for a good meal and that's not just because they're snobbish. In fact, food in any tourist area tends to be overpriced and poor quality — they're only out to get you in the door and don't expect you ever to come back, no matter good their food and service might be.
INSTEAD: Go Somewhere Else
Get out your favorite food-finding app or try some of Zagat’s top picks.
For a fun, local neighborhood cafe experience and super-fresh seafood, get out of the tourist zone to Pacific Cafe, which has been serving... fresh fish - simply prepared - on the corner of Geary Blvd. and 34th Avenue since 1974.
Swan Oyster Depot is a San Francisco classic, serving fresh shellfish to patrons at 20 stools along a marble counter. Except for the chowder, everything is cold. They close when they run out of fish. You can also get Hog Island oysters at the Ferry Building Marketplace.
If You're Going Anyway
If you're afraid to go home and tell Good Neighbor Sam that you ignored his advice about where to eat, you can use this guide to Chinatown restaurants or check out these restaurants at Fisherman's Wharf.Continue to 9 of 17 below.
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Don't Go Shopping at Union Square
I'm not telling you to skip visiting Union Square. In fact, you should see it, but it may not be the best place to buy things. It's grand looking and one of the city's best open spaces, but you won't find much that's unique or different than what you can get in any other American city.
You will find a few unique places that are worth your time and money. They're outlined in this guide to Union Square. Otherwise, it's worth a quick stop to see the largest Macy's store west of the Mississippi and to ogle the stained glass ceiling inside Nieman Marcus, then go over and ride the spiral escalators at the San Francisco Shopping Center.
INSTEAD: Go Shopping Somewhere Else
For local boutiques, try Hayes Valley along Hayes Street between Franklin and Laguna, just west of Symphony Hall. You can also find interesting shops in the Fillmore neighborhood and along Valencia Street in the Mission District.Continue to 10 of 17 below.
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Don't Drive When You Can Walk. In Fact, Don't Drive At All
San Francisco has the third worst traffic in the country, according to SFist.com. The freeways are a mess. The city streets are worse.
Add to that the parking which Thrillist describes as a situation where: “The laws and rules of society don’t apply when you see a free space across the street on a hill." And parking in a garage (if you could find one) could cost more than dinner at a top-rated restaurant.
Just. Don't. Drive.
If you got to San Francisco by car, leave it parked. If you were thinking about renting a car to see the sights, just forget it.
The only exceptions to that advice are day trips out of town — and if you want to follow the 49-Mile Drive. If you do that, use my guide to cut the driving part down to just 20 miles of the interesting stuff.
INSTEAD: Walk or Let Someone Else Do the Driving
San Francisco is a small city. The majority of the tourist sights are within little more than one square mile. Walk everywhere you can. Not only will you see more and get a better... feel for the place, but you might actually get places faster than you would behind the wheel.
You can also take public transportation. Your options (including the cable cars) are outlined in this guide to getting around San Francisco.
If you tire out after that trek up Hyde Street, don't expect to stand at the curb and hail a taxi. That was never a good idea in San Francisco, but you can use a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft.Continue to 11 of 17 below.
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Don't Leave Without Exploring a Neighborhood
This tip comes from my friend and tour guide Jesse Warr of A Friend in Town. You'll probably hear about the Mission District, Chinatown, North Beach and Haight-Ashbury. You might even plan to visit one or more of them, but they still aren't the "real" San Francisco where the locals outnumber the tourists.
INSTEAD: Try These Areas
Spend a little time in the Marina District, exploring Fillmore Street, prowling around Pacific Heights, or browsing on Potrero Hill. When you get there, walk through the shopping area, but also wander the side streets.Continue to 12 of 17 below.
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Don't Go Looking for the Summer of Love in Haight Ashbury
It's been a long time since 1969 and the Summer of Love. Haight Ashbury isn't the center of free thinking and hippie philosophy it was all those decades ago. Some people like it, and it can be a fun side trip, but it's not what it used to be.
INSTEAD: Be Informed or Skip It
Go to Haight-Ashbury with the right expectations. Use this guide to find out what it's like now and what you can see there.Continue to 13 of 17 below.
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Don't Go Looking for Those Banksy Murals Either
I love the British street artist Banksy. He does those great stencil art pieces that you may have seen like the one above. In 2010, he bombed San Francisco with six murals.
You can still find lists of Banksy mural locations in San Francisco that will make you think they're all still around, but I've stalked them and can say from experience that only two survive today and one of those is behind glass in an art gallery.
In fact, I almost saw the mural above disappear in front of my eyes, there one week when I walked by and gone two weeks later, painted over forever.
The remaining Banksy in the wild is at the southeast corner of Columbus and Broadway, on a wall above the street. It says: "If At First You Don't Succeed, Call in An Airstrike."
You'll also find the Guerilla Rat at the 836M Gallery at 836 Montgomery Street. The last time I walked by, it was visible through the front window.
INSTEAD: Look for Murals Elsewhere
The Mission District is full of great murals,... especially on the street called Balmy Alley. In Chinatown, street artist Twick seems to be a one-man mural-making machine who is transforming once-bland walls into pieces of art. I particularly like his Terracotta Army mural at Grant Avenue and Clay Street.Continue to 14 of 17 below.
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Don't Pack the Wrong Stuff
Of all the things tourists do in their San Francisco, nothing amuses the residents more than shorts-and-tanktop-wearing tourists shivering in their flip-flops as they cling to the side of a cable car for dear life.
About ten years ago, I lost count of the number of people I've talked to who think San Francisco weather will be warm and sunny, 365 days a year. When I tell them they need to bring warm clothing to watch the Fourth of July fireworks, they either think I'm playing a practical joke on them, or they ask (with that dear in the headlights look): "But we're talking about California, aren't we?
Southern California may be the place they're thinking of, but that's hundreds of miles away and on the average, warmer by 10 degrees or more. To top that off, San Francisco's geography makes it cold and foggy in the summer.
Don't Pack Your Bikini - Or Your Speedo
San Franciscans get a hot weather warning when the forecast says 85 degrees. They spend Fourth of... July night wearing five layers of fleece while watching the fireworks.
Skip the short shorts unless the short range forecast tells you they're justified. Bring a couple of layers that are easy to stuff in your day bag, and you can avoid buying one of those tacky sweatshirts at Fisherman's Wharf just to stay warm.
Don't pack your snowshoes, winter parkas, and furry Russian hats, either. While it isn't hot, it won't be frigid cold, either. In fact, native San Franciscans have never seen snow unless they went out of town to do it. You might need a rain jacket or a raincoat, but only if you visit in the winter.
INSTEAD: Know What to Expect
Check the average San Francisco weather by month in this guide. Start planning your wardrobe around that. Then, check the forecast a week before you go. In San Francisco, you never know when there will be a hot spell in January or a cold snap with rain in July.Continue to 15 of 17 below.
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Don't Call the City By the Wrong Name
There are about as many opinions about what to call the City by the Bay as there are residents. If you use the wrong one, the name police may not arrest you and toss you into a locally sourced artisan jail, but you'll certainly sound old-fashioned - or even worse, like a clueless chump.
Don't Call San Francisco "Frisco"
The debate over the use of Frisco as a short form of San Francisco may go back as far as the Gold Rush Era in the late 1800s when local character Emperor Norton declared the use of the word a misdemeanor punishable by a $25 fine (which he would probably have pocketed).
In the early twentieth century, people who said their homes were in "Frisco" were branded as impostors and the word was labeled “tenderfoot talk."
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once quipped: "May you be boiled in oil, and fried in Crisco, if ever you call San Francisco Frisco" and since 1974, the visitor’s bureau has been warning visiting journalists not to... use the name.
Mother Jones has a history of the entire debate in case you're interested.
Oddly, no one complains about the word in the Otis Redding song (Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay, when he sings: “I left my home in Georgia, Headed for the Frisco Bay.”
Don't You Dare Say "San Fran"
The consensus among San Franciscans is that only clueless newcomers use that short form of the city's name, in an attempt to appear more sophisticated than they are. Say it to someone over the age of fifty, and you'll see them flinch as if you ran your fingernails over a chalkboard.
A single exception is allowed for airline employees, but even then, it's best to leave the phrase at work.
Don't Say SF Either
If you use SF in conversation with a San Franciscan, you may be branded as a Southern Californian. Which opens up a whole new set of issues You can read about them on the next page.
INSTEAD, Use These Names
The proper name of the city is the best bet. It's only four syllables, so don't be lazy. Just in case you can't resist trying to sound trendy or like you're just too busy to say the whole thing, here's the lowdown on the city's nicknames:
It may sound weirdly egotistical, but in the San Francisco area, an acceptable nickname is just "The City," as if it were the only city on earth and no further qualifications are required.Continue to 16 of 17 below.
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Don’t Say You Like Los Angeles - Or Even Worse, That You Live There
An almanac published by the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression offered this advice for tourists:
If you want to be liked in San Francisco,
Remember not to call it "Frisco."
If you'd rather not arouse our ire,
Remember the earthquake was "the fire."
If you want to earn our friendliness,
Remember to knock Los Angeles.
Things haven't gotten any better since then. San Franciscans have an inexplicable dislike for Los Angeles. They have lots of stated reasons for that, and it’s best not to attempt to change their minds.
In fact, even finding a Southern California coffee roaster like Intelligentsia in San Francisco is almost like finding a Blood sneaking into Crip territory.
If you say you like LA or (god forbid) live there, a San Franciscan may turn up their snooty nose like you just stepped in dog poo. Do it twice, and you’ll be left standing alone at the bar, nursing that overpriced craft brew.
What can you do? Just try to avoid the topic. It's as toxic... as politics, religion, and Apple vs. Microsoft.Continue to 17 of 17 below.
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Things You Should Do in San Francisco
If these are the things you shouldn't do in San Francisco, then what should you do? If you're a contrarian traveler who seeks out the undiscovered spots, then don't miss these things to do in San Francisco.
If your budget is limited (which applies to most of us), you can have a lot of fun without spending a penny. Just use the Guide to Things to Do for Free in San Francisco.
It might rain in San Francisco in the winter. Here's what to do on a rainy day in San Francisco. And if it's summertime when you visit, you'll definitely want to know What to Do on a Summer Night in San Francisco. And what to do at night any time of the year.
If you want to find out what the most popular San Francisco tourist attractions are, you can find them (with their pros and cons) in the Top Things to Do in San Francisco.