Three years ago, I packed up my life in the Midwest and drove across the country to San Francisco. This city is amazing. Every neighborhood is so unique, 100’s of new restaurants pop up each year and there is never a shortage of fun things to do or see in the city. Finally, after three years, I finally feel ready to dish out the most Ultimate San Francisco Travel Guide, made by me, a local.
Read on to find recommendations on where to stay, general city tips, my favorite place to eat/drink, a list of fun things to do and some pointers to find hidden gems. Scroll down to the end to find a Google Maps of all the locations I mention, plus more so you can easily find everything on the go.
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WHERE TO BOOK YOUR HOTEL
While the city is only 7×7 miles, every neighborhood is so very different from the next. It can also take a very long time to get from one part of the city to the next. With that in mind, I’ve pinpointed the three best neighborhoods to stay in so you can experience all the San Francisco charm while still being able to navigate the city well.
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Hayes Valley: I love Hayes Valley for the cute houses, boutique shopping, and incredible restaurants. It’s in the heart of the city – literally, it’s very much in the middle. This lends it to be a great area to call your home base and explore the rest of the city in. Book at Sleep Over Sauce (the restaurants downstairs is incredible!) or an Airbnb.
Nob Hill: Right above Chinatown and Union Square, Nob Hill is what you probably picture San Francisco to be: hilly. Many people book hotels around Union Square, but I prefer to send people up the hill to escape the chaos of that area and instead be treated to amazing views of the city while still retaining that easy-access to other neighborhoods. Try the Fairmont or an Airbnb.
Duboce Triangle: Lastly, Duboce Triangle makes a great place to stay as it’s right nextdoor to the Castro, The Mission and the Downtown area (Soma, FiDi, Union Square, etc). If you like to eat, consider this neighborhood. Look for a cute Airbnb here.
GETTING AROUND THE CITY
As mentioned above, San Francisco is small but it can take forever to get from point A to point B. The public transportation (called Muni) here is also hit-or-miss. It’s really easy to get horizontally across the city (West to East) but really hard to get vertically (North to South) with Muni. Because of that, I recommend taking Uber Pool or Lyft Line to most places as the fares are cheap here and you’ll save a lot of time.
Walk: Wear comfy shoes and walk around! It’s the best way to see the city.
Uber: Use code UVUZV to get your first ride for free.
Lyft: Use code KARA300553 for $5 off your first ride.
Muni: You can buy tickets with a credit card or cash at machines at the stations under Market Street. Otherwise, you’ll need exact change to ride a Muni bus or train. They raise the price every few months, check here for the most updated price. If you think ahead, order a Clipper Card online and have it shipped to your house. You can then load a balance onto that and just carry the card instead of cash.
TOP THINGS TO DO
Exploratorium After Dark Thursdays: While I enjoy the Exploratorium at all times, my favorite time to visit is during their After Dark events each Thursday – it’s adults only! Drinks are poured and they let you run wild through the Exploratorium, which is so fun. They also have fun themes each week (we went to one where we got to experience VR!) Make sure to add this to your list of things to do while visiting San Francisco. You can read more about it here.
Golden Gate Bridge: Obviously, the Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic sight in San Francisco. You can spot it from various points in the city, my favorite being Battery Point and Marshal’s Beach. Make sure to spend an early morning or evening checking it out and snapping that perfect Instagram pic!
Walk Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf: San Francisco is very walkable. My favorite thing to do with visitors is starting from Powel/Market and walk up through Union Square, China Town, North Beach, Lombard Street and down to the Fisherman’s Wharf. It takes just a couple of hours and you can see so much of the city during it.
Brunch: We take brunch very seriously here in San Francisco. You can brunch any day of the week and the options are endless. Try Starbelly in the Castro or 1428 Haight Crepes in the Haight to start.
Giant’s Game: Tickets can run pretty cheap and you can buy them last minute easily. We love heading to games on warmer days because it can get cold in the stadium. Just make sure to bundle up, grab a hotdog and watch some ball!
Ferry Market Farmer’s Market: Each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday is the farmer’s market. With the scenic bay as the backdrop, it’s one of my favorite farmer’s markets in the city. I recommend grabbing breakfast here and looking at all the shops.
Alcatraz: I loved our Alcatraz tour. The view of the city from the island is stunning and the audio tour is really, really good. I recommend booking on a day the farmer’s market is happening so you can stop there first for breakfast, then catch an 11am tour to Alcatraz a few piers down. Make sure to book tickets well in advance (think at least a month) because they sell out quickly. Also bring layers, it can get cold out there!
Ride a Bike Around Golden Gate Park: The park is bigger than Central Park – it’s huge. There’s everything from garden, museums, ponds and bison in the park. It’s a wonderful place and it’s easiest to explore it by bike. Head to the Haight/Stanyan side of the park to find the stand to rent bikes from for the afternoon.
Sunday Funday at Dolores Park: On warm weekends, the entire city flocks to Dolores Park in the Mission. The view of the skyline from this park is stunning and on sunny days, you can almost feel like you’re in SoCal. If you need a lazy day and love people watching, head here (don’t forget to bring lots of beer, water and snacks!)
Anchor Brewery Tour: Anchor is a San Francisco beer staple. It has a great history and the tour is a fun way to spend the afternoon.
Hike Land’s End/Sutro Baths: The Sutro/Land’s End area is a well-kept secret. Head to the west side of the city to find the Sutro Bath ruins (yes, ruins!) and hike trails leading down to the Land’s End Labyrinth, a stone labyrinth that juts out into the bay with stunning views of the bridge.
MY FAVORITE EATS
Sotto Mare: Share an order of the Cioppino!
SOMA Eats: It’s a food truck park!
Foreign Cinema: A great date night spot.
El Techo: Next door to the Foreign Cinema. It’s all rooftop seating and has a great view of city.
Souvla: In the Hayes Valley and has the best greek salads if you are looking for some veggies.
Off The Grid: Only in the summer, these food truck pop-ups have live music and good vibes. Bring lots of cash!
Tony’s Pizza: Some claim it’s the best pizza in the city.
Pizzetta 211: Others claim this is the best pizza in the city.
Taco Underdogs: A hole-in-the-wall joint in the outer sunset that has amazing tacos.
San Tung #1 (and #2): Prepare to wait, but it’s worth it for the wings.
Gracias Madre: Vegan Mexican!
Slanted Door: Upscale Vietnamese.
Mac Daddy: An entire restaurant dedicated to mac ‘n’ cheese. You heard me right.
BEST BRUNCH IN THE CITY
Start Belly: Order the Loco Moco and sit outside on the patio (it’s covered).
Palm House: If it’s a sunny day, head here for tropical vibes and a palm tree literally in the middle of the building.
1428 Haight: Head to the back patio for relaxing vibes and great savory crepes.
La Maris Bakery: There’s a few in the city. I like the one in the Castro the best. Stellar breakfast and amazing pastries.
Rose’s Cafe: Feels like you walked into a little Italian cafe. Brunch is always poping over at Rose’s, but if it’s busy, I suggest booking a table for dinner when it’s less crowded and very romantic. Order the Cabonera – it’s life changing!
WHERE TO GRAB DRINKS
Tipsy Pig: Their back patio on warm days is so fun for happy hour.
The Grove: Head to the one in the Filmore and grab a seat outside on the sidewalk for great people watching.
Hayes Valley Bier Garden: The line can get long, but its such a fun place on warm days.
Cityscape: The best view of the city – and pricey cocktails. Come for one at sunset.
White Chapel: Like gin? Head here. The decor is off the hook and the cocktails are top-notch.
Gibson: 1920’s style decor and romantic lighting with hands down some of the best, most unique cocktails in San Francisco. Treat yourself to the Red Hawk cheese spread and a French 75 to die and go to foodie heaven.
Coin-Op Bar: Drinks + video games. Need I say more?
BEST COFFEE + TEA
Philz: Order the Mint Mojito for a life-changing coffee.
Boba Guys: There’s a few around the city and it’s very addicting.
The Hollow: Hole-in-the-wall spot in the inner sunset with great matcha lattes.
Jane On Filmore: Instagramable! And it has wifi!
Home: Two words – Rainbow Lattes.
Wrecking Ball Cafe: Pineapple wallpaper and outdoor seating for people watching.
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WHAT TO PACK
16th Street Steps: Tucked in the Inner Sunset is an endless staircase of painted steps that lead up to Grand View Park, a killer view of the city.
Land’s End Labyrinth: A well-kept secret. Make sure to hike down to the beach from the Labyrinth for a secluded spot only locals go.
Bernal Heights Hill: It can get windy, but the view of the city is breathtaking.
Kirby Cove Swing: Have a car? Head across the Golden Gate Bridge to Kirby Cove to find a rope swing that overlooks the bridge and bay.
THINGS ONLY LOCALS KNOW
The correct nickname of San Francisco is either “SF” or “The City”. For the love of chocolate, please don’t say “Frisco” or “San Fran” unless you want to really tick off a local.
Streets change quickly. By that, I mean that if one street feels dodgy or unsafe, the next block may be perfectly fine. Just keep walking.
The N Judah is always, always late. Always. UGH.
Weather changes depending on where you are in the city. San Francisco is a microclimate, and there seems to be microclimates within that microclimate. It’s always cold in the Outer Sunset, but you can usually find sun in SOMA. Basically – carry a jacket and expect the weather to change as you travel around the city.
DAY TRIPS FROM THE CITY
Napa Valley: If you love cabs and don’t hate crowds, come to Napa Valley. Try Newton Vineyards, which has great wine and a fun hedge maze.
Muir Woods: Hiking in Redwoods! Head here right away in the morning as the parking lot can get full. Set aside a whole day for exploring the park. Read more here.
Half Moon Bay: For the most scenic beaches, head south to Half Moon Bay. If you have time, drive a bit more down 101 to Big Sur. It can be foggy here, but so serene.
Sausalito: Just across the bay is Sausalito, a charming little port town with great seafood and colorful houses.
Carmel-by-the-sea: One of my favorite places to escape to for a day or a weekend. Carmel has the best sunsets in the world and it’s built to look like a fairytale. Read more here.
So, that’s my Ultimate San Francisco Travel Guide! I hope this helps you plan your perfect trip to San Francisco! If you have any questions or things to add, leave a comment below! Make sure to follow me on Instagram for daily San Francisco + beyond inspiration.
The Exploratorium and I teamed up in a sponsored collaboration. all opinions are my own.