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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 19 January, 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.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

San Francisco’s neighbourhoods

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

From posh enclaves to boho ‘hoods, San Fran’s diverse neighbourhoods are the city’s character-filled, cultural heartlands, and the city’s greatest attraction.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

One of the world’s most famous bridges – a red-hued, 1.75-mile suspension bridge that spans the Golden Gate Strait, where the Pacific Ocean meets San Francisco Bay. San Francisco’s most iconic landmark.

Best for ages: 4+ | Free

Alcatraz

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

A mile-and-a-half offshore in the San Francisco Bay, the most notorious escape-proof prison still sends a shiver down the spine. Book in for a tour for fascinating insights into the inmates’ lives and legends.

Best for ages: 8+ | £35

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

One of the largest museums for modern and contemporary art on the planet, with seven floors packed with more than 33,000 works ranging from abstract paintings to Depression-era photographs.

Best for ages: 13+ | £20

Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Long line on free Museum day to the Asian Art Museum
Experience

Asian Art Museum

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

Home to one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art on the planet, this Civic Center locale exhibits everything from future fantasy animations to Chinese jade carvings from more than 6,000 years ago.

Best for ages: 13+ | £15

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Irish Coffee drinks being made on the bar counter at the famous Buena Vista cafe where it was invented, near the Powell Hyde cable car line
Experience

Buena Vista Cafe

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

Hailed as the U.S. home of Irish coffee. Legend has it that in 1952, the cafe’s then-owner Jack Koeppler challenged a well-known travel writer to recreate a drink he’d had at Ireland’s Shannon Airport, and this local landmark has been serving them up (in an endless line along the bar) ever since.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Aerial view down onto Coit Tower
Experience

Coit Tower

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

Telegraph Hill, ascending 275 ft (84m), is crowned by Coit Tower, a mural-covered Art Deco column. An ascent on foot (via sidewalk and stairs) rewards with eye candy in many forms: gorgeous homes, gardens, and spectacular bay views from the observation deck at the tower’s top.

Best for ages: 8+ | Free

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Conservatory of Flowers interior, a giant glasshouse
Experience

Conservatory of Flowers

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

The elaborate Victorian greenhouse at the Conservatory of Flowers is the oldest building in the park, constructed in 1878 and rising 60ft (18m). Plants and flowers from around the world are housed in a variety of climate-controlled galleries, including Highland Tropics and Lowland Tropics. Closed on Mondays.

Best for ages: 8+ | £11

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

Best Alcatraz Prison Tickets & San Francisco Combo Tour

Best Alcatraz Prison Tickets & San Francisco Combo Tour

San Francisco

Why Choose Us? Because we are unconditionally committed to excellence in all we do We offer new custom tours and exclusive outdoor adventure...

$393 | Rating 4.97 / 5 [233 ratings]

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Big Bus San Francisco Hop-On-Hop-Off Open Top Tour and Alcatraz Combo

Big Bus San Francisco Hop-On-Hop-Off Open Top Tour and Alcatraz Combo

San Francisco

See all of San Francisco's top attractions with this special Big Bus hop-on hop-off tour and combo package. Create your own sightseeing itin...

$136 | Rating 4.10 / 5 [437 ratings]

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Big Bus San Francisco Night Tour

Big Bus San Francisco Night Tour

San Francisco

Enjoy the city's sights by night. Beginning at Fisherman's Wharf, our Night Tour of San Francisco takes you through the evening vibrance of ...

$39 | Rating 4.24 / 5 [217 ratings]

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Combo Tour: Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Grand City Tour

Combo Tour: Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Grand City Tour

San Francisco

Combine a San Francisco City Tour and guided visit to Alcatraz for the ultimate introduction to San Francisco! You'll enjoy the beauty and a...

$150 | Rating 4.20 / 5 [2167 ratings]

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Phoenix Hotel

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

Beloved for its rock-star vibe and heated pool, this great value refurbished motor-lodge attracts a loyal clientele, despite its gritty Tenderloin surrounds.

Official star rating:

Hotel des Arts

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

Affordable, funky hotel that’s centrally-located, featuring rooms and public spaces designed by provocative, contemporary artists.

Official star rating:

Hotel Kabuki

San Francisco, California, United States of America (USA)

East meets West at this Japantown Hotel that offers a different view of San Francisco: one more neighbourhood-oriented than touristy. Expect clean lines and cosy aesthetics, as well as free internet.

Official star rating:

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.