As the cultural and commercial heart of Northern California, San Francisco is an exciting destination sought out by travelers all over the world. Whether you’re visiting for a weekend or a week, you’ll keep wishing you had just one more day to play. Check out this guide make specially for first timers, filled with San Francisco travel tips, places to go, and all the different kind of tours this city has to offer.
Travel Tips for First Timers
- Get a Guide Book
If this is your first trip to San Francisco, you’re in for a treat. But sometimes a city can be so exciting that it’s too much of a good thing, making it difficult to know where to start. Before you arrive, invest in a good San Francisco travel guide. Check out Lonely Planet‘s handy city guide, filled with local Bay Area tips and informative maps that you can refer to throughout your entire trip.
- Dress for the Weather
California conjures up images of sun and sand, but San Francisco is often on the cooler side. As Mark Twain once said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Although the city is blessed with warm and sunny days from time to time, you’ll definitely thank yourself if you’ve got a cozy jacket in your luggage, because Karl the Fog tends to roll in at some point. Yes, the fog is so common in the city, that locals have officially named it and made it Instagram famous.
- Bring Some Walking Shoes
There are so many things to do in San Francisco, and there’s no better way to see the city than by putting your feet on the street. By all means, take a ride on the famous cable cars, but don’t miss an opportunity to disembark and explore the captivating sights and sounds.
- Try San Francisco’s Most Famous Food
San Francisco is foodie heaven, with a huge variety of exciting eateries to explore. No visit is complete without grabbing a mission-style burrito from La Taqueria in the Mission District, or stopping at Boudin to eat clam chowder out of a sourdough bowl. And if you make your way to Fisherman’s Wharf, make sure you try fresh Dungeness crab.
Seeing the City’s Landmarks
If you’re visiting the city for the first time, you should definitely take the time to pay a visit to some of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks.
- The Golden Gate Bridge
If you’re setting off on your first trip to San Francisco, be sure to include this postcard favorite on your itinerary. You can get great views of the bridge from several points around the city. Baker Beach, Crissy Field, Fort Point National Historic Site, and South Vista Point are all great options. If you really want to impress your friends back home, go for a walk or a bike ride across the entire bridge and hop on the ferry back into the city.
Alcatraz Island operated as a prison for just under 30 years, but it housed big names like Al Capone during its short lifespan. It closed its doors as a prison in 1963, but it has been open as a tourist attraction since the 1970s. Take a ferry ride to the island and take a tour of the infamous facilities. You can also combine a visit with a cruise tour of the bay, giving you great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island and other amazing sights.
The largest and oldest Chinatown in the country is one of the best places to visit in San Francisco. Spend an afternoon wandering the streets and taking in the various sights, sounds and smells. Pop into one of the many great cafes, restaurants and bakeries to try some delicious Chinese delicacies. Be sure to explore some of the side streets to get a feel for the hidden side of Chinatown.
- Fisherman’s Wharf
From sea lions lounging on wooden rafts off Pier 39 to the famous chocolates at Ghirardelli Square, you’ll find lots to see and do in and around Fisherman’s Wharf. Even though this is a tourist hot spot, it still has a fun atmosphere, and the stunning view of the bay makes a trip worthwhile on its own. You’re best walking or taking a cable car to this attraction, as the area can get crowded, but if you absolutely must drive, you can find parking near Pier 31, Pier 35 and Pier 43 1/2.
- Mission District
Once upon a time, the Mission District was where artists and intellectuals congregated. Even though the neighborhood is now a poster child for gentrification, it still maintains much of its creative flair, with artwork adding character to the neighborhood’s streets. Enjoy browsing hip boutiques, grab a bite to eat at one of the area’s excellent cafes and walk down Clarion Alley, filled with vibrant street art. When your feet need a rest, take a break in Dolores Park.
- Ride a Cable Car
Getting to the top of San Francisco’s famous hills can be a bit of a hike, but luckily, taking a cable car trip uphill combines two bucket list activities. To beat the crowds, go early in the morning or catch the California Car to Nob Hill.
- The Painted Ladies
The “Painted Ladies” have graced many a postcard over the years, but now you can see them in person. Take a stroll around Alamo Square and enjoy the views of these local fixtures.
Pick a Tour to Explore More of the City
There’s so much to see that a newbie tourist — and often, a seasoned one too — couldn’t possibly see everything without some very careful planning. Fortunately, the city of San Francisco has a wide selection of unique tours that will take you to all the places you want to see.
- Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tours
Double-decker bus tours are international hits when it comes to getting to know any new city. Big Bus San Francisco features more than 20 stops at destinations including Union Square, the Painted Ladies, Haight Street, and more. If you want to see as many sites as possible in one trip, this would be the right tour for you because you can hop off at any stop you wish, then hop right back on the next Big Bus! You even have the option to purchase a 2-day deluxe ticket, because it’s physically impossible to explore San Francisco in its entirety in only a day.
- Alcatraz Island Tour
One of the most famous jails in American history is just a boat ride away from San Francisco’s Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. Get up close with the prison that held the likes of notorious criminals such as Al Capone. You have the option to do either the Day Tour or Night Tour, but keep in mind that if you opt for the Night Tour, you may have to book months in advance due to high demand.
- One-Day Napa Valley Tour
Napa Valley is world-renowned as one of the most cherished wine regions. If wine falls on your short list of guilty pleasures, then consider a day trip to Napa as a mini vacation from your San Francisco vacation. Viator’s semi-private wine tour will pick you up downtown and coordinate a customized itinerary, allowing you to visit 2 to 4 wineries based on where you and the other participants in your group would like to go.
- Bike Tour Over the Golden Gate Bridge
Take this three-hour bike tour from Fisherman’s Wharf, which takes you through local attractions before crossing the famous Golden Gate Bridge. The end of your bike ride takes you to Sausalito. This tour costs $55 per person, which includes a helmet, a map, a bike lock, and the option to choose between a classic bike or an electric bike.
- GoCar GPS Tour
As you’re wandering the streets of San Francisco, you might notice tiny yellow cars zooming through the city. Those yellow cars are called GoCars and you can explore the city in them! The GoCar Tour is pre-loaded with narrated tour information for hundreds of local sights, landmarks and locations.