Here’s our heads-up on a few things before you visit San Fran.
You already know that it’s foggy and that you want to visit the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and you probably even know that everyone bikes everywhere, but there are a few other things you should know to expect when you visit San Francisco. From its hills and homelessness problem to its hidden resort fees, we have pulled together a few tips to avoid fog-brain (it’s a thing) when you visit this beautiful city.
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Pack for San Francisco Not "California"
California has drawn in many a traveler with visions of sparkling beaches and endless sunny days, but the average high in the Bay Area is only 63.8 degrees (F) and nights tend to drop into the low 50s. So, while it is beautiful, it’s not exactly beach weather. And yes, we’re talking 50s and 60s temps during the summer months, too, which are marked by particularly foggy, windy weather. Pack accordingly with layers, a light rain jacket, a scarf that can be easily stashed or wrapped as needed, and sturdy walking shoes.
Those Hills Are Pretty but Not so Much on the Way Up
San Francisco is famous for its sometimes formidable hills, which are both a blessing and a curse. Yes, the altitude lends itself to spectacular views, but the hills can also be physically challenging, particularly for those with limited stamina or mobility. Exploring by foot is both possible and rewarding, but it’s essential to plan accordingly if you’re not up for a climb. Some hills are steep enough that they have steps built right into the sidewalk (easier for some but still not exactly a stroll in the park!) and the city is committed to being ADA-friendly, which includes accessible public transportation. If you’re up to hoofing it, pack your practical shoes; if not, take advantage of public transportation.
You Can Rely on Public Transportation
While public transportation is a feature of every major city, few places have the sheer variety offered by San Francisco. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is a mix of both heavy rail and subway and serves San Francisco, Oakland, and a variety of suburban areas. At the same time, San Francisco has hybrid Muni buses, Muni Metro Light Rail, cable cars, historic streetcars, electric trolleys, and a range of privately run options such as taxi, app-based rideshares, electric bicycles, and motorized scooters. Between the public and the private options, you will have an easy time getting to where you need to go.
San Fran Has the Highest Rate of Street Homelessness Nationwide
San Francisco is famous for a great many things, but for a multitude of reasons, including the city’s acute lack of affordable housing, this, unfortunately, includes homelessness. The circumstances which lead to people being homeless are varied and often tragic, and the reality of the problem can be jarring for first-time visitors to the city: you can expect to see tent cities, panhandling, and the presence of used drug paraphernalia and human waste in public places across the city.
There Are More Than 1,000 Murals
San Francisco is one of the top three cities (along with Los Angeles and Chicago) for murals in the United States, and the city’s walls and alleys are adorned with vivid colors and poignant messages. The Mission alone has almost 500. Some highlights are the Chris Ware mural at 826 Valencia, the multitude of murals in Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley, and the Hidden Garden Steps.
Side Trips Are a Must
San Francisco is vibrant, but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you only stick to the main tourist neighborhoods. Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills is a less-crowded alternative to Muir Woods National Monument (but it’s okay to do both if you have time); Daly City has some of the best Filipino restaurants in the country, and Berkeley is home not just to a famous university but also a variety of museums, cafes, and legendary restaurants like Chez Panisse. And don’t neglect all that incredible wine to be had in nearby Napa and Sonoma. The tourist spots are popular for a reason, but if you want to get the most out of your trip, you should make sure to explore broadly.
Know Which Richmond You’re Renting In
Richmond District, also known as “The Richmond” is a neighborhood in the northwest corner of San Francisco while Richmond is a city 20 miles northeast of San Francisco in the East Bay. Drilling further down on the Richmonds, the Richmond neighborhood’s sub-neighborhoods include Outer Richmond (the western portion of the Richmond), Inner Richmond (the eastern portion of the Richmond), and Central Richmond (between Inner and Outer Richmonds). Got all that?
You Should Give in to Pier Pressure
Let’s be honest: San Francisco’s public piers are tourist traps, and you can expect them to be loud, crowded, and filled with tourists wearing white socks with sandals (that’s actually stylish now so don’t judge) and Hard-Rock t-shirts (possibly stylish, too?). There’s a reason the piers are such a famous tourist-magnet––they’re kind of awesome! The straight, weatherworn expanse of Fisherman’s Wharf is iconic, and Pier 39’s basking sea lions and a multitude of vendors make it a vibrant and popular destination. Even if you don’t think of yourself as the kind of person that these sights would appeal to, give them a shot. Wander along the Embarcadero, stop for some crab legs and oysters along the way, and enjoy one of the most leisurely parts of the city.
Private Parks Are Public
It’s a little known fact that cities often require privately-owned buildings to provide public spaces. In San Francisco, those spaces are known as POPOS (Privately-Owned Public Open Space), and they’re all over the city just waiting for you to come to sit, feel like a local, and use the bathroom. These spaces are legally required to be labeled with visible signage indicating both how they can be accessed and what their hours of operation are, but in the off chance those signs are hard to find (or simply aren’t there) the San Francisco Planning Department also provides a searchable map that lets you see which sites have amenities such as bathrooms, food, tables, and seating.
It’s Not Cheap
San Francisco is not only one of the most expensive cities in the entire world in which to live, it’s also expensive to visit. Between the high price of flights, hotels, and meals, if you’re budget conscious, you’ll need to plan ahead to maximize your resources. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to explore cheaply with just a little research. CityPASS bundles together public transit passes and museum tickets for both ease and savings, and the customizable GOCard lets you build your own itinerary from scratch while still saving money. The city’s public transportation network also sells unlimited ride day passes, which will help you get around while saving you money.
Many San Fran Hotels Charge Hidden Fees
As with major cities like New York and Los Angeles, the majority of upscale hotels in San Francisco now charge fees that are separate from the advertised room rate for the hotel. Often listed as “urban,” “Resort,” “Amenity,” and “Facility” fees, these tack-on rates are usually around $25 per night but often as high as $85 per night (and sometimes more). Avoid any surprises and ask about such fees before you book (with an old fashioned phone call) or when you are checking in. Feel free to contest these fees in person and on social media if you feel you have been misled.
Your Dog Is Very Welcome
If you’re a dog lover or like to travel with your dog, San Francisco should be high on your list for a pup-friendly vacay. There are hundreds of acres in and around the city where your pup can romp off-leash. Every neighborhood as one of two parks with sizeable dog-run areas and people are just out and about everywhere with their dogs, socializing with other pets and pet-parents. There are dog-friendly bars; dog-friendly beaches like Baker Beach, Ocean Beach, and Lands End beach; dog-friendly cabs; dog-friendly gyms, pet-friendly apartment rentals, and hotels; dog-friendly wineries in Napa, and lots of dog-friendly walking tours. In April, the annual DogFest is a huge celebration of all things canine in Duboce Park.