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Bucket list destination:

Last updated: 04 July, 2023
Expert travel writer: Laura Kiniry

San Francisco often gets second billing to its celeb-filled sister down south, but the stunningly-pretty bayside city full of Victorian manses and fog-shrouded, steeply-sloping streets packs plenty of charm. What started as a boomtown during Gold Rush days has emerged as one of the US’s most vibrant and interesting metropolises.

From brand-name attractions (the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz) and artsy offerings (museums and galleries galore), to diverse neighbourhoods conveying their own hyper-local style – not to mention the innovative chefs fuelling (arguably) the State’s best culinary scene – it’s easy, as Tony Bennett croons, to leave your heart in San Francisco.

Orientation

Located on the tip of a peninsula, SF is compact (it’s proudly 49 square miles) and hilly (thanks to the peninsula’s mountainous nature).

It’s divided into more than 35 different – and sometimes distinct – neighbourhoods, of which Union Square is the best known, unofficial tourist heart of the city; most neighbourhood directions will be given in relation to the square.

The Embarcadero promenade traces the bay from just south of the Bay Bridge to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Culture & Customs

SF has been the centre of counterculture in the US since hippies and homosexuals deemed it Mecca in the 1960s.

Nowadays, you’ll find the State’s most progressive movements here, from the green-leaning, to the politically-blue and free-thinkers. And it’s this liberal attitude that fuels the boho sensibility that’s among the Bay City’s best calling cards.

SF is also home to a large community of highly educated residents, and their patronage of the city’s cultural offerings is high.

Tours, tickets & transfers

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Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers

Combo Tour: Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Grand City Tour

San Francisco

Combo Tour: Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Grand City Tour
Combine a San Francisco City Tour and guided visit to Alcatraz for the ultimate introduction to San Francisco! You'll enjoy the beauty and attractions of everyone's favorite city, in addition to a scenic ferry ride to Alcatraz Island for an audio walking tour.

Price: $144

Min age: 0

Rating 4.20 / 5 [2200 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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San Francisco Love Tour

San Francisco

San Francisco Love Tour
For an unforgettable City Sightseeing tour, hitch a ride in a 1970's VW Hippie bus. This is an authentic and unique way to experience San Francisco. This tour is packed with with facts and fun about San Francisco!

Price: $85

Min age: 1

Rating 4.85 / 5 [1909 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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Painted Ladies San Francisco City Tour

San Francisco

Painted Ladies San Francisco City Tour
Come jump on a city tour with us to cruise through some of the 15 top city highlights including Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Hayes Valley, Golden Gate Park, the Haight/Ashbury, Western Addition, Civic Center and The Marina. Also, you get 3 stops for photo ops at landmarks such as The Golden Gate Bridge, Painted Ladies and Palace Of Fine Arts (shhhh ...on occasion you might see us driving down that crooked Lombard Street if traffic permits). Fun fun fun! Bonus is you will be transported in one of our vintage VW buses while rocking out to classic hit songs of the 60's-70's (Pearl, Poppy, Skye and Rosie). Please arrive at the pick up location 10 min prior so we can depart on time as we have lots to cover in the city. Thank you!

Price: $79

Min age: 1

Rating 4.90 / 5 [1274 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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GoCar San Francisco Tour

San Francisco

GoCar San Francisco Tour
It's the most exhilarating, entertaining and enlightening way to see San Francisco - the first-ever GPS-guided storytelling car! The clever talking car navigates for you and points out the sights that bring San Francisco to life. Experience what the press is buzzing about, what visitors rave about and what Time Magazine has nominated "as one of the coolest inventions of the year".

Price: $97

Min age: 0

Rating 4.51 / 5 [777 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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Small Group: S.F, Muir Woods and Sausalito + Optional Alcatraz

San Francisco

Small Group: S.F, Muir Woods and Sausalito + Optional Alcatraz
This San Francisco tour is our most popular and top-rated because you get to see our beautiful City by the Bay with a friendly, local guide. 8:00AM – Depart Fisherman’s Wharf 8:00AM -9:30AM – Explore San Francisco’s BEST neighborhoods! During this time, you are treated to entertaining stories about the neighborhoods, including several photo stops. 9:30AM - 11:00AM – Explore Muir Woods After a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco, you will have over an hour to walk amongst some of the last remaining coastal redwoods in the world! 11:00AM - 12:00PM – Lunch in Sausalito Enjoy a scenic lunch in the quaint town of Sausalito where you can shop, explore, and capture views of San Francisco across the Bay. 1:30PM - Return to Fisherman’s Wharf We return at the same location we started for you to enjoy the rest of your day!

Price: $109

Min age: 0

Rating 4.92 / 5 [625 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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Travel advice

When to go

Proximity to the ocean means temperatures hover in the 60s and 70s (16-26°C) year-round and fog and damp winds roll in off the Pacific constantly.

The consistently mild weather is both good and bad news: 65 degrees during winter feels balmy; during summer, it’s downright cold.

The warmest, fog-free days are in September and October, and you’ll find countless outdoor activities, from concerts in the park to street festivals.

Winter and spring bring rain, but winter is also when hotels are priced lowest, and when the city’s cultural calendar (opera, ballet) is in full swing.

Getting there and away

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is 14 miles south of the city. The best way to go is via BART, the Bay Area’s rail and subway system (it takes around 30 minutes, and costs less than USD10). BART’s hours are 5am to midnight daily.

A pricier option is shared rides like Uber and Lyft, and costs tend to surge when the airport is at its busiest. Supershuttle offers a reasonably-priced in-between with their shared van service. But be forewarned: heavy traffic often slows down all above-ground rides.

Getting around

Heavy traffic and steep streets make SF a city best explored on foot (translation: no rental car).

Regional rail service BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) has several stops in the city, but your best bet, walking aside, is the MUNI (the Municipal Transportation Agency), which runs SF’s efficient network of buses, under-and-above-ground streetcars, and vintage cable cars (not all that practical, but one hell of a ride). There are also a plethora of taxis prowling the streets.

Where to stay

San Francisco’s compact size and good public transportation system make many of its neighbourhoods viable places to stay, as the city’s best sights are never too far away.

Most first-timers choose to bed down in and around Union Square, SF’s commercial and tourist heart which does have some great hotels.

Also consider staying slightly off the more-travelled path, notably SOMA (which stands for south of Market Street), a formerly industrial district full of warehouses which is now home to chic hotels, restaurants, and cultural attractions, such as the Museum of Modern Art.

Where to shop

There’s good reason to break out the plastic in most of SF’s neighbourhoods, where shops often adopt their home district’s tone.

You’ll find the standard luxury brands in Union Square, while things go a little more indie in Hayes Valley, where some of the city’s best designers and gallerists have set-up shop.

Record and vintage stores harken back to the Haight’s hippie-filled past, and chic boutiques line Fillmore Street in privileged Pacific Heights.