San Francisco, California Travel Guide
San Francisco Summary
- One of the most beautiful cities in the world; combo of bay and hills makes for gorgeous natural setting
- Stunning panoramic views throughout city
- Home to iconic attractions like cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Haight-Ashbury
- Dozens of other worthwhile sites, including Golden Gate Park, Coit Tower, Twin Peaks, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Ferry Building, Lombard Street, AT&T Park, and Ghirardelli Square/Fisherman's Wharf (especially the sea lions at Pier 39!)
- Renowned and eclectic dining; one of the best food cities in the country
- Famous for its liberalism and political activism; epicenter of gay rights movements
- Attractive turn-of-the-20th-century architecture; charming Victorian homes
- A culture-vulture's paradise -- theater, opera, music, and acclaimed art museums like the de Young and SFMOMA
- Ethnically diverse population
- Low crime rate
- Thriving gay scene, especially in Castro District
- Close to other famous Bay Area locales like Sausalito, Napa Valley, Muir Woods, Berkeley, Silicon Valley, and Palo Alto/Stanford University
- Outdoor sports -- cycling, inline skating, sailing, windsurfing
- Clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl
- One of the most expensive cities in the country
- Potentially foggy year round; some sites, like the Golden Gate Bridge, can be completely fogged over all day long
- Potentially cold and windy year round; microclimates within the city means it can be sunny in one neighborhood and gray in the next
- Taxis can be frustratingly few and far between.
- Vagrancy and panhandling are common.
- Feel the burn! -- hills can be extremely steep.
- Sleepy nightlife five nights a week; bars close at 2 a.m. even on weekends
- Hotel rooms tend to be small.
- Locals consider some areas, like Fisherman's Wharf and the Castro, intolerable tourist traps.
- It's the City by the Bay, but few hotels actually overlook the water.
- Street parking can be a blood sport; hotel parking is expensive.
- Many hotels dominated by business travelers
- (Very) slight chance of earthquakes
- Fisherman's Wharf: To locals, a horrific tourist trap; to visitors, a buzzing hot spot for shopping, crab eating, and sea lion viewing, as well as the jumping-off point for boats to Alcatraz
- Nob Hill and Environs: Aka "Snob Hill," it's elevated both geographically and socioeconomically.
- Financial District and SoMa: Two very different neighborhoods, but both are home to mostly large business-oriented chain hotels.
- Union Square: Best known for high-end shopping -- large outposts of Saks, Tiffany, Neiman Marcus, etc.
What It's Like
San Francisco -- don't call it "San Fran," and please, please don't call it "Frisco" -- has long attracted visitors from around the world. The array of famous landmarks and images is reason enough to go: Alcatraz, cable cars (don't call them trolleys), the Golden Gate Bridge, the pastel boxlike houses packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder, along legendary hills. (Does any American city, save New York, have as many iconic sites and sights? Maybe D.C.. But no place else.) In the '60s and '70s, people flocked to San Francisco to experience, or just witness, the epicenter of the hippie movement. And while the flower children of yesteryear are long gone, unceremoniously swept aside by the rise of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and the dot-com boom in the '90s, the city remains a bastion of liberalism and progressive politics. The gay community still thrives in the Castro District (note the rainbow flags hanging from windows), as does an ethnically diverse population throughout the city (a rainbow of a different sort); in the mayoral election, the Republican candidate sometimes doesn't even finish in the top three.
Most of all, though, people come to the City by the Bay for its unsurpassed beauty. San Francisco's peninsular combination of bay and ocean, with steep crests rising in between, creates what is quite possibly the most picturesque natural setting for a major city anywhere in the world. You can find gorgeous panoramic views from half a dozen different spots: Twin Peaks, Nob Hill, Coit Tower, and so on, up and down, peak to peak. So get those thighs in shape. And when you get there, take a walk across the Golden Gate and a hike to the top of Lombard Street. Grab a ferry to Alcatraz and a slice of sourdough. Oh, and bring a jacket!
Where To Stay
You tend to get less hotel for your money here than in most other American cities. For one thing, San Francisco is just plain expensive. Also, though, many hotels occupy buildings that are a century old; no matter how many flat-screen TVs and iPod docks you add, there's no getting around the fact that the room was constructed in 1907. (A good example is the Westin St. Francis, the second-oldest hotel in the city, where the rooms in the original building are a tad bit cozier than today's traveler might like.) Still, as with any major destination for tourists and business travelers alike, San Francisco boasts plenty of variety. Ultraluxe chain outposts (Ritz, St. Regis, Four Seasons); indie budget places (GOOD Hotel, Donatello); business-minded skyscraper hotels (Le Meridien, Hyatt Regency); and cute boutiques (Joie de Vivre and Kimpton) are all well represented in San Francisco.
Although you can find budget-minded inns almost anywhere in San Francisco, the vast majority of the hotels are concentrated in five neighborhoods in the northeastern corner of the city: Union Square, SoMa ("South of Market" Street), the Financial District, Fisherman's Wharf, and Nob Hill. No matter where you stay, you'll need to grab a taxi or bus to many of the most popular sites, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, Twin Peaks, the Castro, and Haight-Ashbury. Union Square is best known for high-end shopping, but it's also a central location with a wide range of hotels in terms of both price and size. The artsy SoMa neighborhood and the Financial District are quite different from each other, vibe-wise, but they both play host mostly to large business-minded chain outposts. To locals, Fisherman's Wharf is nothing more than a ghastly tourist trap, but there are some good values there, and it's the jumping-off point for boats to Alcatraz. Finally there's Nob Hill, also known as "Snob Hill," where the hotels match the reputation. For a taste of old-school luxury, head to the top of the hill, where grand old dames like the Fairmont and Intercontinental Mark Hopkins lord over the city like royalty.