Your Trip to San Francisco: The Complete Guide

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The culture of San Francisco is diverse and vibrant, which is all too evident in the city’s art, music, and food scenes. Experience a stunning example of the city’s architectural force at City Hall or the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. Or, learn a thing or two at the California Academy of Sciences. Sightsee on the cable car and stop at Ghirardelli Square for a hot fudge sundae or take a walk along the Embarcadero in search of barking sea lions. This beautifully historic city is bursting with unique things to discover whether you’re visiting for the first time or have lived there for years.  

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit San Francisco is in the fall months from September to November. Prices are typically lower, kids have returned to school, and the weather is nice and warm.
  • Language: English
  • Currency: USD
  • Getting Around: Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, is the main regional transit system for getting to and from the airport in the city. The San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni, is San Francisco's main and most popular public transit system, operating both metro trains and buses that connect downtown to outer areas like Ocean Beach.
  • Travel Tip: If there are two things that throw visitors off the most in SF, its hills and fog (so much so that the locals have named the latter). Most residents will agree, always bring a jacket if going out after dark and always wear comfortable shoes if you plan on walking.

Things to Do

It's pretty difficult to pick just a few things to do in San Francisco, so don’t expect to see everything in a day. The mysterious Alcatraz Island, the food-filled Ferry Building, bustling Union Square, the list goes on and on.

There is one attraction that visitors tend to favor, however (especially because it’s pretty hard to miss): The iconic Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco’s most recognized landmark has operated as the gateway to the Pacific, connecting San Francisco to the North Bay, since its grand opening in May 1937. The city offers countless ways to experience it, too. Just outside of the city on the far side, The Golden Gate National Recreation Area supports 19 distinct ecosystems, over 2,000 plant and animal species , and some pretty incredible hiking trails. Or, get a great view of the bridge from Golden Gate Bridge Beach.

San Francisco is practically brimming with historic architecture and inspiring artwork. Museums are some of the best places to experience the city’s rich history and delve into its love of scientific exploration. Some of the most popular include the Academy of Sciences, the Asian Art Museum, the Exploratorium, the Fine Arts Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art (known affectionately as “MOMA”) .

  • Golden Gate Bridge: Whether you walk across the bridge for free or take a bike tour to get a better feel for the quintessential landmark, don’t leave without at least catching a glimpse.
  • Golden Gate Park: San Francisco’s answer to New York’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park is beloved to locals and visitors alike. Home to botanical gardens and museums, take some time to enjoy this verdant and peaceful park.
  • Pier 39: Catch the best of San Francisco’s famous street performers, the tunnels at the Aquarium of the Bay, and the tourist-favorite sea lions here. 

Explore more attractions to enjoy in the city with our guides to the 20 best things to do in San Francisco, how to get around San Francisco’s best attractions, and the top things to do with kids.

What to Eat and Drink

When it comes to California, foodies can’t do much better than San Francisco. Visitors have the opportunity to experience a wide range of cultures and cuisines on a vacation in this dynamic and spirited city. Grab brunch at a French bistro in the morning, a sourdough bread bowl with clam chowder at Fisherman's Wharf or authentic dim sum in Chinatown for lunch, and hit up North Beach for dinner at a classic Italian restaurant in North Beach. Just as many budget-friendly eateries line the city’s streets as world-class fine dining restaurants, so there is truly something for everyone.

Whether you’re a lover of smokey dive bars, hidden speakeasies, or classy cocktail bars (and honestly everything in between), you’re bound to find some of the state’s best in San Francisco. Cap the night off with a mai tai at a tiki-themed lounge, like the Tonga Room, or a historic Irish pub, like the Irish Bank. You’ll be raising a glass to the “City by the Bay” before the end of the night.

Discover more places to eat and drink with articles on San Francisco’s best bars, the best restaurants in San Francisco, and the top breweries in the city.

Where to Stay

San Francisco may only be just under 47 square miles, but each of the city’s distinct neighborhoods and districts still all have their own charm and culture. Get the perfect combination of local and tourist in North Beach, stick close to Union Square in Nob Hill, or go back in time to SF’s bohemian days in the Haight-Ashbury. The Castro is the heart of the city’s LGBTQ community and the Mission District is known for funky nightlife and incredible Mexican food. The SoMa neighborhood, located South of Market, is considered by many as the cultural hub of San Francisco, with many of the city’s popular museums contained within its borders. Richmond has some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, while the Embarcadero and Fisherman's Wharf are both close to the action and the water.

Get to know San Francisco’s neighborhoods with our recommendations for the city’s best hotels and the best neighborhoods to stay in.

San Francisco Cable Car
TripSavvy / Melissa Zink

Getting There

The most convenient international airports near the city are located in South San Francisco and about 25 miles from downtown in South Oakland. If you plan to do some additional traveling down California’s Central Coast, the San Jose International Airport in Northwest San Jose is about 60 miles south of the city. To pair your San Francisco trip with a wine tasting adventure in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa offers another option.

Speaking of day trips and side trips from San Francisco, if you’re planning on staying in the city for your entire vacation, you don’t necessarily need to bring a car. There are plenty of options for public transportation, whether it be Muni, trolleys, BART trains, cable cars, ferries, ride sharing, or taxis.

Money Saving Tips

  • There are a surprisingly high number of free activities available to tourists in San Francisco. Taking a hike up Twin Peaks to the highest point of the city or walking across Golden Gate Bridge are some of the most popular.
  • Keep an eye out for free museum admission days 
  • If you are staying for more than a day, look into a Visitor Passport because they provide unlimited rides on Muni for one, two, or three consecutive days. There are multiple locations to purchase passes, including the city’s Visitor Information Center.
  • For those staying in the Presidio neighborhood, be sure to take advantage of the​ PresidiGo Shuttle system, which provides free transp​ortation to an​d around the Presidio from three routes in the city daily.
  • The San Francisco CityPASS features a seven-day Muni Pass for unlimited rides on a variety of the city’s public transportation including the cable car and trolley, as well as admission to several attractions and the San Francisco Bay Cruise. You can also look into the Go San Francisco Card, which includes admission to various attractions, too.
  • Rates for hotel rooms tend to be highest from August through October. Apart from holiday weeks, a trip in December or January will boast the lowest prices.
  • Tours to Alcatraz are limited, so get yours ahead of time to avoid shelling out big bucks on a more expensive organized tour.
  •  San Francisco is big on walking, so do as the locals do and plan a free walking tour.

Learn more about visiting San Francisco on a budget with our guides to money-saving tips, the city’s free or cheap museum nights, and the best free things to do in San Francisco.

Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. NPS. "Golden Gate National Recreation Area California." July 16, 2020.

  2. City and County of San Francisco. "Visitors." July 16, 2020.

  3. SF Travel. "San Francisco Neighborhoods and Districts." July 16, 2020.

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