With a red-hot restaurant scene, head-spinningly beautiful views, and major highlights, like the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and notorious Alcatraz, San Francisco is secure in its ranks as one of the top cities to visit in the U.S. From charming Victorian homes on famously hilly streets to its funky counterculture, the city has something for everyone. As with anywhere, San Francisco has some very particular quirks that visitors should suss out before touching down. Read on for the rookie mistakes to steer clear of in San Francisco.
1. Renting a Car in San Francisco
Most cities in the U.S. require a car in order to properly see its attractions and various neighborhoods. San Francisco is not one of them. We can all but guarantee that you’ll have a better time in San Francisco without a pesky rental to deal with. Overnight parking costs can be exorbitantly expensive (and may double during special events), plus some parking garages do not offer in/out privileges, so you’re stuck paying the high fee without any of the perks of having a car. Street parking isn’t a great option, as it is very hard to find and potentially stomach-dropping, if you’re trying to squeeze into a tight spot on a steep hill. Even if you do find a space, street parking is metered seven days a week in the central areas, and time is limited by street cleaning, rush hour restrictions, and other rules. Save yourself money and the headache and skip the rental car while in San Francisco.
2. Skipping Public Transit in San Francisco
So you’re forgoing the rental car, but that doesn’t meet you should walk everywhere. Yes, many parts of San Francisco are walkable, but the city is home to a truly remarkable public transit system that should not be missed. In fact, riding one of the city’s iconic cable cars is a real treat for visitors. The cable cars are part of the MUNI system, which runs street cars and buses to many of the city’s major attractions, including Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square (catch the Hyde Street cable car through Russian Hill to get there). One-, three-, and five-day passes are all available. The BART (Bay Area Transit System) is even more extensive, and, of course, homegrown Lyft and Uber are always an option.
2. Packing for Sunny California
You’re going to California, so who can blame you for wanting to throw tanks, sundresses, and other summery apparel into your suitcase. However, San Francisco’s weather is a far cry from the sun and warmth associated with the Golden State. The peninsular city, with San Francisco Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, can be cool and cloudy year round, with pervasive fog earning it the moniker “Fog City.” May and June — the time of “May Gray” and “June Gloom,” respectively — are the most overcast months of the year, though the cloudy conditions may stretch into the following months (“No Sky July” and “Fogust”). Despite the general sunlessness of summer, it rains little this time of year, and warmer weather is just around the corner come fall. Also note that because the city is extremely hilly and surrounded by water on three sides, it has many microclimates: The waterfront Presidio (home of the Golden Gate Bridge) might be cooler and cloudier than the inland Mission. All this is to say: Do as the locals do and master the art of layering. Bring a jacket or hoodie with you at all times.
4. Wearing Brand-New or Unsupportive Shoes
What’s tiny and has the power to wreak havoc on an otherwise lovely day in San Francisco? A blister. Walking is a joy here, but not in bad (or fresh-out-of-the-box) walking shoes that rub, pinch, slide off, or offer zero support. Go into your getaway in tried-and-true walking shoes that can tackle San Francisco’s insane hills and stairs. We swear by Adidas Sleek Shoes, Tretorn Nylites, and Nike Roshe Ones, as well as Comfortiva Blossoms for women to wear on casual outings and nights out (yes, they can handle SF’s crazy-steep grades). You’ll thank us when you hit the zip-zagging walking paths of Lombard Street, dubbed “the crookedest street in the world.”
5. Not Booking Alcatraz in Advance
Visiting the spine-chillingly fascinating Alcatraz is a must in San Francisco — for you and the thousands of other visitors in town during the same time. Make your reservations to the former federal prison (whose infamous gangster inmates included Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Alvin Karpis, the first-ever Public Enemy #1) in advance or risk finding tours all booked up, especially in the tourist high seasons of spring and summer. The national historic landmark is only accessible by tour (many options combine a visit to the island with other attractions around the city); ferries depart daily from Pier 33, near Fisherman’s Wharf. The 15-minute boat ride glides past Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island (that hoodie or jacket we mentioned earlier will really come to the rescue on the windy trip). Night tours are extra cool — and creepy — but even more limited.
6. Eating Chain-Bought Anything in San Francisco
San Francisco’s food landscape is vast, diverse, and delicious — even just a bite from a national chain or subpar place is nothing less than a missed opportunity. Tartine Bakery is not to be missed for its truly superlative breads (get the sourdough), pastries, tarts, salads, and sandwiches. Bread lovers should also hit Kantine on Market Street for its Scandinavian-inspired brunch boards, poppy seed danishes, and rosé from Sonoma winery Scribe. For a cheap, tasty, and quick meal, try Tacos Cala, a stand-up lunch spot from Gabriela Cámara of Contramar in Mexico City. During an afternoon of exploring the historic Italian neighborhood (and Beat Generation epicenter) North Beach, go on an epic self-guided food tour with stops at Molinari Delicatessen for a focaccia sandwich stuffed with meat and cheese, Sotto Mare for cioppino and clam chowder, and Cavalli Cafe for a cannoli and espresso. While in the North End, take a peek into Caffe Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for “The Godfather,” and have a drink at the historic saloon Vesuvio, a Beat-era watering hole frequented by Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. In Union Square, you can experience one of the world’s 50 best restaurants without breaking the bank: The affordable Michelin-starred Thai eatery, Kin Khao, is currently ranked at number 49. (Other Union Square recommendations: Super Duper and Foundation on Kearny.) If you find yourself in the Mission, Universal Cafe and its insanely delicious low-key brunch are worth the likely wait. Vegetarians will do well at the neighborhood’s vegan joint Gracias Madre. For dinner, Trestle is a Michelin-rated hot spot with an ever-changing prix fixe menu that — for San Francisco — is an absolute steal at under $40. (Reservations are mandatory.) Union Square restaurant Ayala, located in Hotel G, is a fantastic pick for its raw bar and martinis. Oh, and Humphry Slocombe has the best ice cream.
7. Staying in Town
If your travel time allows it, budget at least a day trip to explore San Francisco’s surrounding areas. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (and just 12 miles north of the city), Muir Woods National Monument is a redwood forest that is home to some of the tallest trees in the country. The nearby harbor town of Sausalito has a charming boardwalk with outdoor bistros and the best views of the 4,200-foot-long Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. Some of the best wineries and restaurants in the world are found in Sonoma and Napa counties. For sunnier, warmer beaches than those found in San Francisco, drive the hour-and-a-half south to Santa Cruz, the quintessential Cali beach town with a beachfront amusement park on the boardwalk. Closer to the city (about a 40-minute drive south) is the seaside town of Half Moon Bay, with stunning cliff beaches and a quaint downtown area. Many day or multi-day trips can be arranged via a guided tour, or else require a rental car. If your time in San Francisco is too short for a mini trip, Golden Gate Park offers more than 1,000 acres for strolling, hiking, biking, and sunbathing. The grounds also house the San Francisco Botanical Garden, de Young Museum, and Japanese Tea Garden.
Where to Stay in San Francisco: Hotel Emblem
The 96-room Hotel Emblem is a quirky, literary-themed boutique hotel located in downtown San Francisco, two blocks from Union Square. The stylish property has a scene-y vibe and a fun style that pays tribute to the Beat Generation (think throw pillows that read “Pot Is Fun” and William Carlos Williams quotes embedded on custom carpeting). The attractive rooms feature funky, midcentury-inspired decor, as well as flat-screen TVs and glass decanters by the bed (each floor has a station with filtered water and afternoon fruit and cookies). Perks include a hip lobby bar with excellent cocktails, a billiards room, and an outpost of the Brooklyn-based Bluestone Lane coffee shop.
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