Cross streets. As San Francisco streets are numbered (100 per block) from the beginning of the street, and even and odd numbers are always on opposite sides, it is best when asking directions to ask for a cross street or neighborhood name rather than relying on the address alone. For instance, addresses on Mission Street at 18th Street are in the 2200s, but one block away on Valencia at 18th, addresses are only in the 700s. This is because Mission starts at the Embarcadero, two miles further east than Valencia’s start at Market Street. Local residents rely on cross streets.
Numbered streets and avenues. San Francisco has both numbered streets, in the Mission, the Castro, and SoMa, and numbered streets an alphabetically ordered avenues in the largely residential Richmond (starting with Anza) and Sunset districts (ending with Yorba). Mixing numbered streets and avenues when asking directions may leave you miles from your destination. This can be confusing, as San Franciscans will not say “Street” or “Avenue” unless it is required to avoid ambiguity. Thus, they won’t say “I live on Fifth Avenue,” but will say “I live near Fifth and Geary.” Street signs generally don’t have “Street” or “Avenue” either; they just say “GEARY” or “MASONIC”, although numbered streets and avenues do.
Multiple street grids. One of the most confusing aspects of driving in San Francisco is the presence of multiple street grids, particularly in the downtown area where two grids intersect at an angle along Market Street. Even more confusing are streets in the middle of the standard blocks, like New Montgomery Street.
No left turns. Several key San Francisco arterial streets, including 19th Avenue and Market Street, do not have space for dedicated left turn lanes and therefore bear NO LEFT TURN signs at most intersections. As a result, you will be frustrated when you drive for miles on these streets with no opportunity to turn left. The trick, of course, is to go around the block with multiple right turns after passing one’s desired street, which requires you to stay in the right lane, not the left lane.
Walking can be an enticing option to get from one neighborhood to another, so long as you are aware of where you are and keep your street smarts. San Francisco is a city of friendly neighborhoods, but it is also a big city so be aware of your surroundings and keep in mind the dangers that commonly accompany a city of San Francisco’s size.
However, streets that often go straight up and down hills may make walking challenging when attempting the uphill portions (but provide good exercise). Driving can be difficult up and down hills but have breathtaking views. There are many stairway walks scattered throughout the city when the streets are too steep. You can find maps that include hiking trails, bikeways, and the grade pitch of all streets marked in varying colors by how steep each segment is, that can help you orient to city walks suitable to your ability and temperament, such as the downloadable map issued by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Note that locals rarely use the designations “street” or “avenue,” even when differentiating the numbered streets and avenues. Numbered roads designated “Street” are located on the east side of the city, south of Market in Downtown, Castro, Noe Valley, and Mission. Numbered roads designated “Avenue” put you in the Richmond and Sunset districts on the west side.
By public transit
San Francisco has one of the most comprehensive public transportation systems in the United States, arguably the most comprehensive system west of Chicago. Transport services within San Francisco are provided by several bodies; they are separate organizations and although they have many interchange stations, tickets are not normally transferable across the systems (except for monthly or longer period passes). The major transit systems are:
- Muni — Metro subway, streetcars, buses, trolley buses and cable cars within San Francisco proper.
- BART — regional subway services in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Caltrain — commuter rail services to San José.
San Francisco Municipal Railway or Muni, +1 415 701-2311, runs a network of local transport that covers most areas of touristic interest well. An all day Muni passport good on all Muni services, including Cable Cars, costs $17. Other passports and passes are available for longer periods: a 3-day pass costs $26, while a 7 day pass costs $35. The passports come in the form of scratch cards; be sure to scratch off the appropriate dates before using.
The Clipper Card was fully introduced in 2010 and is a contact-less, multi-agency fare card similar to Octopus in Hong Kong and Charlie Card in Boston. Clipper cards are free at any MUNI ticket machine and are accepted on BART, CalTrain, San Francisco ferries, and many regional transit systems outside the City of San Francisco, in addition to all of MUNI’s vehicles (streetcar/subway, busses and cable cars). Clipper can either be set up with pay as you go with all transfers calculated automatically or a 1 day, 3 day, 7 day or monthly pass. MUNI has also created a single use “Clipper Ticket” as the new subway turnstiles no longer accept cash. You can still pay with exact change when boarding a streetcar above ground or a bus.
MUNI operates on a proof of payment basis, sometimes called an “honor system with teeth.” 90 minutes of travel on the Muni system (Metro, F-line streetcar, buses) costs $2.25 ($0.75 for youth 5-17, disabled, and seniors 65+) including transfers and return trips if they fall within the 90 minute limit. If you’re using a Clipper Card, be sure you “touch on” at any of the readers located near the streetcar or bus door to pay your fare and start the 90 minute clock (you can board at any door as they all have readers). If you aren’t using a Clipper Card, don’t have a Muni passport, and pay cash, you must board at the front door and obtain a transfer ticket from the driver. The MUNI Saturation Team (fare inspectors) and sometimes the SFPD randomly and frequently patrol streetcars, subway stations and buses with handheld Clipper Card readers checking for proper fare – residents who ride MUNI regularly report being checked once or twice a week. The fine for being caught without proof of payment is $250, although tourists are sometimes issued a warning if it’s their first offense.
Cable Cars are not included in these transfers and cost $6 per ride (one way, no transfers), or $17 per day. Before 7am and after 9pm, seniors and disabled pay $3 for cable car rides. Muni Passports and FastPasses greatly reduce this cost, including cable cars in the regular daily, weekly or monthly fares.
A portable wallet-sized map of San Francisco and all its public transit (MUNI, BART, Caltrain) is also available at stores around the city or through their website online. Many of the city’s bus stops also have posted copies of this map with the location of the stop marked, a godsend for lost pedestrians.
You can plan your Muni travel online. Muni arrival times are also available online for many lines at NextMuni. An unofficial site is RescueMuni.com, which often has information on routes that are not listed officially.
Muni consists of:
- Muni Metro (Lines J, K, L, M, N, S and T) is a modern light rail and subway system. It connects many southern and western neighborhoods to downtown, where you can transfer to one of BART’s four downtown stations and the Caltrain terminal at 4th and King. Outside of the Market Street and Twin Peaks subways, Muni Metro operates as a surface light rail system, running in the center of the street with stops every couple of blocks (note that some of these stops are not wheelchair accessible – check the map to see which ones are). Tickets can be purchased from ticket vending machines before boarding; if the stop does not have such a machine and you do not have a ticket, you must board through the front door and buy one from the driver or risk being fined by a fare inspector. MUNI Metro operates seven days a week from 4:30am to 1:30am. Between 1:30am and 5am, OWL Buses substitute for Metro service. The Metro system (trains and buses) has a reputation for being extremely crowded. Buses are often slow due to frequent stops and heavy boarding especially during rush hour. However, it is by far superior to most other parts of the Bay Area.
- The Historic Streetcar F Line uses historic streetcars, in original colors from several cities in the US, Milan, Italy, and Zurich, Switzerland. The line runs from Fisherman’s Wharf south along the waterfront Embarcadero to the ferry building at the foot of Market Street, then up Market Street on the surface to the Castro district, terminating near the Castro Theater. Board through the front door and buy tickets from the operator if you do not already have a transfer or pass.
- The world-famous Cable Cars run on three lines in the steep streets between Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf: the north-south Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines and the east-west California Street line. These cars are a fun ride, especially if you get to stand on the running board, if a bit impractical for everyday use (though residents of Nob and Russian Hills do, in fact, use them on a daily basis). The cable car is such an attraction that, especially on weekends, it takes longer to wait in line to ride up Powell Street than it does to walk the short but sloping distance. If you want to save yourself time standing in line at the turnaround, just walk up a couple of blocks to the next stop — the conductors save a few spaces for people boarding along the way; you won’t get first choice of seats, but you’ll save yourself a long time standing in line. Board through any door or just grab a pole on the running boards; tickets are checked and sold by a uniformed conductor. Do not buy tickets from anyone off the car except for clearly marked ticket booths — scam artists are common.
- Both diesel and electric trolley buses serve the rest of city. Board through the front door and buy tickets from or show your pass or transfer to the driver. You may board the back with a Clipper card, however their cost makes them only recommended for visitors staying for at least a month. Service ranges from a consistent two minutes on many lines leaving Market, to a more sporadic 20 minutes for buses to Treasure Island and between outlying neighborhoods. Bus delays, leading to waits of 20 to 30 minutes, are not uncommon and are a source of much grousing among locals. MUNI operates 24 hours a day / seven days a week in San Francisco although late night owl service is limited in both lines and stops.
Other public transportation options include:
- BART, the regional metro, has eight stations in San Francisco, making it a nice way to get between well-trafficked parts of the city, especially downtown and the Mission. BART gets you across the Bay to Berkeley and Oakland and to the airports of San Francisco and Oakland. BART Trains run over 107 miles (172km) of track, serving 46 stations. BART trains operate on third rail power and accelerate to speeds approaching 80mph (130km/h). BART operates seven days a week from 4am to 12:30am. On weekdays BART trains depart downtown San Francisco stations at two to three minute intervals. Outer stations in far outlying suburbs have a maximum wait of fifteen to twenty minutes between trains. After 12:30am, AC Transit and other east bay transit providers provide late-night bus service, serving principal BART stations until about 6am. BART routes are named for the two terminus stations, not by line color as denoted on the system map. For more information on BART, see the ‘Get in’ section above.
- Caltrain has three stops within San Francisco. Other than the 4th and King terminal in SoMa, these are the 22nd St. Station and the Bayshore Station (off Tunnel Ave), neither of which are particularly attractive for visitors. Of interest to visitors who wish to travel outside of the city is the Palo Alto Station (at University Avenue), across the street from the campus of Stanford University, and San Jose Diridon Station. Burlingame, San Mateo, Redwood City and Mountain View also have attractive downtown areas that are easily accessible from the stations and have attractive retail and restaurant areas. Caltrain operates fast frequent commuter rail service, seven days a week. Service generally runs from 5am to midnight. For more information on Caltrain, see the ‘Get in’ section above. If you are using Caltrain to see the peninsula and South Bay make sure you buy a “day pass” from the ticket machine. It is the same price as two one way tickets but gives you unlimited on-off privileges for any station within the zones purchased so can be a great way to see several of the peninsula cities.
If you have strong legs and a bit of urban cycling experience, bicycles are an excellent option for transportation within San Francisco. The city is fairly small in land area– just about 7 miles from north to south and 7 miles from east to west– so it’s fairly quick to get from one end to the other, and in recent years, the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency has installed many miles of new bike lanes and paths. Cycling is a common transportation choice for San Francisco residents, moreso than in most other American cities, as it is often the quickest way across town. This means that motorists will generally be aware of the presence of cyclists on the roadway. However, it is extremely important to ride with caution, as gridlock and congestion can lead motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike to act unpredictably and in an unsafe manner, at times. Theft of bicycle parts and entire bicycles is unfortunately very common in San Francisco, so it is recommended to avoid leaving a bicycle unattended in public for extended periods of time, and if it is necessary to do so, to lock the bicycle as securely as possible, with a strong lock.
If you plan on cycling in San Francisco, consider that much of the terrain is extremely hilly, making for some tough climbs. In addition, coming downhill means, if you’re not careful, you may find yourself barreling out of control into cross traffic at the bottom of the hill. However, there is almost always a bicycle route to get you from one place to another while avoiding major climbs within the city. If you’re unsure of how to get around the hills, ask a local cyclist for advice.
Do not be misled by maps depicting the city’s street grid and assume that these streets are always flat. Even the straightest of San Francisco’s streets might include steep hills or even staircases instead of a roadway. And remember, children may tire even sooner than adults will. A recommended easy ride for children and cyclists with little experience is from the tip of Golden Gate Park’s panhandle in the Haight, along paths and JFK Drive through the park to Ocean Beach. JFK Drive is lightly trafficked, and closed to cars on Sundays.
SoMa, the Mission, the Sunset, and Richmond districts are relatively flat. There are a number of bike paths and bike routes on city streets; the San Francisco Bike Coalition keeps a lot of information about them. There are a number of bike rental companies in town, including Dylan’s Bike Rental,Bay City Bike, Bike and Roll and Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals with locations in Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Bike Hut and Pacific Bicycle in SoMa.
A very popular ride for visitors to San Francisco is the ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, a small town in the relatively undeveloped Marin Headlands. The Golden Gate Bridge has sectioned off pathways on each side for pedestrians and bicyclists. When open, the Western side of the bridge is for cyclists only. When the Western side is closed for construction, the Eastern side is intended for shared use by pedestrians and cyclists. When sharing the Western side with pedestrians, ride courteously. Avoid riding side-by-side, and do your best to make way for groups of pedestrians, as well as commuting cyclists, who ride at higher speeds, and generally have less patience for obstructions. When the bridge is closed to pedestrians during nighttime, you may continue to bicycle across by stopping to press the buzzer at the automatically closed gates to be buzzed in and out.
Taxis in San Francisco are, for a large city, surprisingly inefficient and expensive, starting at $3.50 just for getting in the cab and $0.55 per fifth of a mile and per minute of waiting.
San Francisco is home to several startups which are trying to provide a better ride-for-hire service, including UberCab, Lyft, and Sidecar, which are generally cheaper and more reliable than a taxi. Download the free app for any company to view cars in your area, and request a ride.
Except for taxi stations at or near downtown business hotels, or cruising just a few major arteries, taxis can be hard to find and hail — and calling for a cab can mean a 30-45 minute wait, if the cab shows up at all. Now, if you’re anywhere near Union Square and are holding shopping bags, just by standing on the curb and hailing passing cabs will usually get you one quite quickly. It is significantly easier to catch a taxi on weekdays, not including Friday night.
If you are heading to the airport, your best bet is to call ahead with a specific pickup time to one of the many taxi companies. You will also want to schedule your cab ahead of time because if you are going beyond 15 miles, you will end up paying 50% extra.
Perpetually-clogged traffic, steep hills, a confusing system of one-way streets downtown, expensive parking, and a fleet of parking control officers who enforce parking laws with zeal can make driving in San Francisco extremely frustrating; visitors to the city should seriously consider alternatives to automobiles when possible. Car rental is expensive, registration fees are the highest of any US state, and because collisions are common, rates for liability insurance (legally required) are high as well. In addition, traffic from the Golden Gate Bridge uses surface streets either along CA-1, 19th Avenue or US-101 on Lombard and Van Ness. A car is really only useful for visiting destinations outside of the city (excluding Oakland and Berkeley, which is served by BART) or parts of the city less frequently served by MUNI. The greatest hazard of driving is on Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth, where a stretch known as “The Crookedest Street in the World” runs one-way down a steep hill making eight hairpin turns. Oversized vehicles such as pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, and recreational vehicles should NOT attempt to pass through the winding stretch of Lombard Street.
The most difficult problem with your car in San Francisco will be parking. Parking throughout the city is extremely scarce. Garages, where they are available, are quite expensive ($20-30/day downtown). San Francisco has some of the strictest parking laws and enforcement in the country. For day trips into the city, consider a park-and-ride at a Peninsula Caltrain station, at a Peninsula BART station, or at an East Bay BART station.
When parking on a hill (and there are many of them in San Francisco), remember to always apply that parking brake and turn your wheels so that the tires are against the curb (Facing uphill, the front wheels should be turned out until the tires are resting against the curb. Facing downhill, the front wheels should be turned in so that they are set against the curb). Failure to park properly doesn’t just run the risk of having your car roll downhill, but it is also against the law and you may be ticketed.
Motorcycles and Scooters are a common sight on San Francisco streets; in fact, San Francisco is known as one of the most motorcycle-friendly places in the US. Street parking for motorcycles is plentiful and relatively inexpensive ($0.40 to $0.70 an hour), but note that parking on sidewalks is usually illegal. There are several motorcycle rental shops like Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals, along with many dealers, service shops, and motorcyclist hangouts. As elsewhere in California, motorcyclists must wear helmets. Motorcycle theft is a problem; always use a disk lock or secure your bike to a stationary object using a cable or chain.
Segways, though more novel, are fairly common in San Francisco. So far there is only one authorized Segway dealer that rents out Segways, though various tour operators (many of whom operate from Fisherman’s Wharf) offer guided trips throughout the city.
Ride share programs
Ride Sharing is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to taxi cab services in San Francisco, offering an arguably friendlier and more reliable service at a cheaper price. Programs including Lyft, Sidecar, Uber and Carma involve downloading their mobile application to request a ride. Programs such as Sidecar, Lyft, and Uber’s “UberX” utilize local drivers, and Uber also offers a more up-scale service, providing town cars and luxury SUVs at a premium price. The local drivers whom drive for Sidecar, Lyft, etc. usually do not have a taxi license. They are residents who own cars and are looking for an extra income on the side. But be assured, each driver in the ride share programs go through background checks and are tracked via GPS during your ride. Driver photos and their cars are displayed to the rider before pick up to ensure rider safety.
To request ride, the ride share programs usually requires the rider to download their mobile application and create an account and store credit card information. When requesting a ride, the rider enters their pick-up location, and drop-off location. When a driver confirms your ride request, a GPS map will track the driver’s location, ETA, as well as show a picture of the driver and their car.
All forms of payment are done through the mobile application, so there is no need to carry cash. Carma has a fixed $0.20 per mile but drivers can choose to give free rides. Lyft is a fixed $2.50 pickup fee, $1.00 trust and safety fee, $1.90 per mile and $0.40 per minute of waiting in traffic. UberX has a $3.00 base fare, $1.40 per mile and $0.30 per minute waiting in traffic.
San Francisco has much to see — these are just the most significant sights. For more detail see the individual district sections, often linked from this entry.
Two passes are available which offer discounts to many interesting attractions:
- San Francisco CityPASS. A relatively cheap and easy way to cover many attractions of the city is the CityPASS. For a fare of $84 for adults and $59 for children 5-12, you get admission to the California Academy of Sciences, a Blue and Gold Fleet bay cruise, the Aquarium of the Bay or the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Exploratorium or the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum (both must be visited on the same day). A CityPASS works for 9 consecutive days starting with the use of your first ticket (each ticket only accounts for one visit to each attraction). The pass also includes seven consecutive days of Cable Car and MUNI fares.
- Go San Francisco Card. Another easy way to cover many attractions and tours is the Go San Francisco Card. This card allows you to take some tours for free, such as the Wine Country tour, San Francisco Sightseeing, City Tour, Bay Cruises, museums, aquariums, The Conservatory of Flowers, and many other activities. Other tours and activities are also discounted from $5 to 40%. The cost of the card is $50 for 1 day, $80 for 2 days, $85 for 3 days. $115 for 5 days, and $136 for 7 days.
- Aerial tour if you are adventurous, you can see San Francisco from the air. There is a new modern power gilder at Palo Alto airport about 25minute south of San Francisco. You can see Stanford, get an idea of how long SLAC is, and be exposed to some of the most beautiful natural vistas. Check out power glider tours at palo alto airport http://www.powerglidertours.com
There are many highlight walks you can take to really capture the feel of the city and see a whole lot of attractions at the same time. Some of the best ones are:
- Chinatown. Grant from Bush to Broadway takes you through the heart of the famous district. Returning by the parallel Stockton or Powell will give you a better feeling of the day to day life of the residents, and are both good for those looking for imported commodities such as tea or herbs.
- Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach is entirely open to pedestrians in both the Richmond and Sunset districts from the Cliff House restaurant and Sutro Baths in the north to the zoo in the south. For a shorter walk, the windmills near Lincoln at the end of Golden Gate Park offer a good base for a stroll north.
- Telegraph Hill. Greenwich and Filbert Steps on the east side of Telegraph Hill, both strenuous and unforgettably beautiful, offer cottages and a flock of wild parrots to enjoy on the way up to the Coit Tower.
- North Beach. Columbus runs from North Point in Fisherman’s Wharf, through the grand church and famous cafés at the heart of North Beach to the landmark Transamerica pyramid, accessible to transit on nearby Market.
- Haight Ashbury. Haight from Divisadero to Stanyan covers the shopping district famous for hippie culture; at Stanyan the street becomes a path through Golden Gate Park to a popular site (then and now) for relaxing and concerts.
- Cow Hollow. Union Street between Gough and Fillmore is one of the finest shopping streets outside of the city center.
- Mission. Mission between 15th and Cesar Chavez streets provides a look at a neighborhood famous for its Latino food and culture, as well as occasional gang activity east of Mission Street. Parallel to Mission, Valencia Street is the artery of the many higher end boutiques and offbeat cafés starting to characterize the neighborhood, and has little of the grit of Mission St. 16th Street between Mission and Guerrero Streets offers a diversity of cuisine and several hip bars.
- Pacific Heights. Fillmore between Pine and Broadway is lined with a good mix of shopping, views, steep slopes, and some of the city’s largest and most expensive homes.
- Fillmore. Post from Laguna (near 38 bus stop) to Fillmore takes you through upscale shopping and restaurants in Japantown, and turning left onto Fillmore across Geary and on to Turk takes you past the internationally known jazz venues and a mix of Black and Korean owned shops.
- Castro and Noe Valley. Market from Church to Castro St. and a left down Castro St to 19th takes you through the center of the city’s famous gay mecca. Continuing up Castro St over the hill from there takes you to 24th St, the main drag of bohemian Noe Valley.
Perhaps the most recognizable landmark in San Francisco and one of the most famous bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge, spanning the Golden Gate, has been called one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and is the first thing you see of San Francisco if driving in from the north, as it is one of the major road routes into and out of the city. Overlooking the Golden Gate is the Presidio, a former military post with beautiful architecture and a very scenic park setting. Within the Presidio is the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts, built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and reminiscent of Roman and Greek architecture.
Within the center of the city, the famous cable cars run up and down the hills of San Francisco between Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf and offer quite a ride (see above under Get around for more info). Atop one of those hills, Telegraph Hill in North Beach, is Coit Tower, a gleaming white tower dedicated to the San Francisco firefighters. At 275′ high, the hill is a healthy hike from the nearby neighborhoods just below. Another prominent tower nearby is the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest and most recognizable building in the San Francisco skyline, located among the skyscrapers and highrises of the Financial District. Perhaps the most famous view of that skyline is from Alamo Square Park in the Western Addition district, home to the famous Painted Ladies row of Victorian houses, with many other pretty Victorians encircling the lovely park.
Over on Russian Hill is the famous stretch of Lombard Street between Hyde & Leavenworth, the (nearly) crookedest street in America. The city also has a twistier but less scenic stretch of street, Vermont Street on Potrero Hill. Other street oddities in San Francisco include 22nd Street between Vicksburg and Church in Noe Valley and Filbert Street between Leavenworth and Hyde on Russian Hill — At a 31.5% grade, these streets share the honor of the steepest streets in San Francisco.
San Francisco is also well-known for its collection of unique and intriguing neighborhoods. Most tourists start with Fisherman’s Wharf; although many of the locals consider it a tourist trap, it is a great place to see amazing street entertainers, watch sea lions, visit museums, or take a cruise to the infamous Alcatraz Prison or the pleasant Angel Island. Working fishing boats still come into the small harbor here, and the district is home to several excellent seafood restaurants. The fresh breeze from the bay can provide a bracing setting.
The Downtown area around Union Square-Financial District | Union Square, is the heart of the city’s main shopping and hotel district. Many other interesting areas are in walking distance or a short Muni ride from there.
Chinatown, just north-west of Downtown, centered around Grant Street from Bush to Columbus, is part tourist trap, part an exhibit of local life. Good eating places abound, and the side streets especially have stores one wouldn’t find in a mall. Stockton Street is where most locals do their shopping for groceries; be sure to sample some of the dim sum and other specialties offered in the many bustling shops. However, many local Chinese prefer to eat and shop in the new Chinatowns located in other neighborhoods such as on Clement Street between 2nd and 12th Avenues in the Inner Richmond neighborhood. The Muni #1 (California) and #2 (Clement, does not run at night) buses get people from one Chinatown to the other.
South of Downtown is the Civic Center, with its impressive Beaux Arts buildings including City Hall and the War Memorial Veterans Building, the celebrated Asian Art Museum, music and theater venues (including large concert halls and a renowned Symphony and Opera), and the main public library.
The SoMa, across Market and Mission streets from Downtown to the south-east is rapidly gentrifying. Ii is the loaction of the city’s main convention center and several new museums.
Further south is the Mission District, home to the Mission Dolores Church, one of the oldest structures in the city, and a fantastic collection of murals of all sorts on the walls of many nearby buildings, especially on alleys between Market and Valencia. BART and the Mission street #14 bus go there.
At the southern end of Market Street is the Castro, the center of San Francisco’s Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender (LGBT) community, with numerous theaters, small shops and restaurants. The Muni historic F-line is the best way to go there, although most underground Muni-trains stop there as well.
Further west is Haight Ashbury, famous for being a center of the Hippie movement in the 60s and 70s. While tourism has softened the image of the neighborhood somewhat, the area still retains its distinct feel with small organic coffee shops and store after store selling marijuana-themed goods, tie dye tee shirts and hand bands. The Muni Judah N-line and the Parnassus #6 bus from market street go there.
Treasure Island, an artificial island half-way between San Francisco and Oakland connected to the Bay Bridge, has excellent views of the San Francisco and Oakland skylines and quirky structures from the international fairground-turned-navy base-turned-neighborhood. Accessible by Muni bus #108 from the Transbay Terminal in SoMa.
When the morning is foggy, you may want to spend a few hours in one of the city’s many world-class museums. Golden Gate Park is home to the copper-clad M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, which houses an impressive collection of contemporary and indigenous art. The de Young Museum’s former Asian collection is now permanently housed in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, located in the Civic Center. Across from the de Young Museum stands the California Academy of Sciences, which holds a huge array of science exhibits, including an aquarium and a natural history museum.
The California Palace of the Legion of Honor is in Lincoln Park in the northwest corner of the Richmond district. In Nob Hill, the Cable Car Museum offers exhibits on the famous moving landmarks of San Francisco. Near the Castro is the Randall Museum, a lovely little children’s museum. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Moscone Center, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Zeum, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Museum of Craft and Folk Art are all located in SoMa, south of Union Square. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, which was designed by Daniel Libeskind and opened in June 2008, is the latest major addition to San Francisco’s museum scene.
At the Hyde Street Pier in Fisherman’s Wharf you can go on board several historical ships, including the 1886 Balclutha clipper ship, a walking-beam ferry, a steam tug, and a coastal schooner. At Pier 45 just to the east, the World War II submarine USS Pampanito and the World War II Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien can be visited. Nearby is the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39 and the newly opened Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. The Musee Mecanique on pier 45 contains hundreds of coin operated amusement machines, many from the 19th century. Most can be used for just a quarter.
The newly relocated and bigger and better than ever Exploratorium on Pier 15 is walking distance from Embarcadero and will keep you busy for an entire day with their science and perception exhibits. In the Marina district is Fort Mason, home to a few cultural museums.
Many museums offer free admission on certain days during the first week of every month.
Parks and outdoors
San Francisco has numerous parks, ranging from the tiny to the huge. The most famous of them is Golden Gate Park in The Avenues district, a massive (roughly 1/2 mile-by-four mile) urban oasis with windmills, bison, museums, a carousel and much more hidden among its charms. The park contains the antique palatial greenhouse of the Conservatory of Flowers, the modern and ethnic art focused de Young Museum, the large Japanese Tea Garden, the new California Academy of Sciences building designed by Renzo Piano and the Strybing Arboretum, a collection of plants from across the temperate world. Defining the extreme Northwestern corner of the city is Lincoln Park in Richmond, which provides majestic views of the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge from the ocean side, and the Pacific Ocean itself. At the extreme western end the well known Cliff House provides both semi-casual and a more formal eating and drinking place. The Legion of Honor museum at the center of the park houses many incredible artworks.
Near the physical center of the city is the Twin Peaks, one of San Francisco’s highest points (875′ above sea level); providing spectacular views in all directions. Tour buses can get backed up here during the day, but it’s a great place to really appreciate the city from above, especially at and after sunset. Temperatures up there can be quite a bit lower than in the rest of the city, so bring a jacket. Nearby in the Lake Merced area is the San Francisco Zoo, a large and well maintained zoo which is a great place to go if you are traveling with children or have a fondness for penguins, primates, lions or llamas.
While not particularly well known for its beaches, San Francisco has a couple of good ones along the Pacific Ocean — but the water is brisk, the winds can be rough, and due to strong rip currents swimming at any of them is not recommended. Ocean Beach along the Sunset district is the largest and most famous beach, with plenty of sand and people enjoying themselves. China Beach in Richmond and Baker Beach in Golden Gate are smaller, rather secluded beaches with lovely views.
On sunny days hipsters flock to Mission Dolores Park, so named due to its location across the street from the Mission Dolores Basilica. The park often comes to resemble a large party, with music, coolers of beer and, er, uh…medical marijuana treatment. Mission Dolores Park is situated on a slight slope in the Noe Valley neighborhood, just a few blocks from the many restaurants and bars in the Mission. The east side of the park is bounded by Dolores Street, a hilly and scenic drive lined with palm trees and Victorians. During the fire of 1906 that destroyed much of the city, one of the few working fire hydrants was located near the Southwest corner of the park. This fire hydrant provided water that helped stop the fire. The fire hydrant is still functioning and is repainted gold once a year on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.
In the southern half of the city is the often overlooked but wonderful Bernal Heights Park, a small park on top of a hill overlooking the entire eastern half of the city, with excellent views of the skyscrapers in the Financial District, the Mission District, and the hills in the southeastern corner of the city. A wide trail runs around the base of the park below the peak which can be walked in ten to fifteen minutes. Bernal Heights Park is dog friendly, so much so that a coyote is often observed there.
One of the best ways to see San Francisco is from the waters of San Francisco Bay. There are many companies offering harbor tours of varying durations and prices but they all provide marvelous views of the bay, the bridges, the island of Alcatraz and the city.
Only specific island tours are allowed to land at Alcatraz, but the typical harbor tour will circle the island at a slow crawl, giving you plenty of opportunity to photograph the now-inactive prison from the water.
Also consider taking a ferry from San Francisco across the bay to Tiburon, Sausalito, or Alameda. Same views for a fraction of the price.
Most tours leave from docks at Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 39. Tickets can be purchased at kiosks along the waterfront walk. Buy tickets a day or two in advance during the summer high season.
Boats usually leave roughly hourly starting around 10am and ending around 5pm. Multi-lingual guides are available on some tours. Prices range from $20-$40, more for sunset, dinner, or whale watching tours.
- Even on a sunny day the bay can be chilly, so be sure to bring a sweater as well as sun screen.
- Some boats have snack bars on board, but bring your own water and treats to avoid paying high costs or going without. There are now limited refreshments and a souvenirs shop on Alcatraz.
The diversity of options to enjoy music and theater is huge. An excellent source for finding current offerings is the edited San Francisco Classical Voice, in addition to specific venues listed here. Concerts by small groups, classical to modern, and often free are listed at the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music page. The SF Classical Music Examiner provides insightful reviews and previews.
- San Francisco has a Half-Price Ticket Booth located right in the middle of Union Square, where tickets for most San Francisco theatre performances can be purchased the day of the performance for half-price. Run by Theatre Bay Area, the income from all service fees collected from the sale of tickets by TIX Bay Area goes right back into the theatre community.
- Go to a concert. There are performances most days to choose from by the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, in the Old First Church. Last minute tickets are often available at the door. Symphony tickets have a wide price range, Terrace seats are often less than $20. There are recitals most days, as well as occasional major performances, at the San Francisco Conservatory nearby. All these venues are located in or near the Civic Center. The museum of the Legion of Honor, located in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate (north end of 34th Ave), has organ concerts which can be heard in many of its galleries, Saturdays and Sundays at 4pm, as well as music performances in its Florence Gould Theater by the San Francisco Lyric Opera. Around the holidays many churches will have performances and sing-alongs of seasonal music. The classical Herbst Theater (where the UN charter was signed) is temporarily closed for earthquake and major interior updates.
- Musicals from Broadway and Los Angeles are shown at the traditional Golden Gate and Orpheum theaters on Market, near the Civic Center. For outrageous fun, princes and paupers go to Beach Blanket Babylon in North Beach. Teenagers are welcome at the Sunday matinees. It considers itself the longest running musical revue in theater history
- For jazz, rock, or folk music the choices are diverse. A new, attractive venue with a wide variety of offerings is SFJAZZ, a few blocks from the Civic Center. There are performances most days, popular artists often sell out early. San Francisco also has many jazz clubs, best found by browsing the web (an excellent site is SFStation.com). Contemporary bands are featured at The Fillmore Auditorium and less frequently at the large Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in the Civic Center. There is an annual blues festival in late September, at various locations, and at least two great bluegrass music festivals each year — during February around the area and late September or October in Golden Gate Park. Many, but certainly not all, events are listed by the City Box Office.
- Ballet of the world class variety is performed in the Spring by the San Francisco Ballet at the War Memorial Opera House in Civic Center. Standing room tickets, with excellent views from the back of the orchestra section, are available for only $10 during the afternoon of each performance as well as two hours before showtime. In winter, the popular The Nutcracker is performed; those tickets often sell out early.
- Plays are performed at the Geary (by the American Conservatory Theater), Curran, Marines Memorial theatre and San Francisco Playhouse near Union Square, and at the small New Conservatory Theatre Center near the Civic Center.
- Silent, rare, and classical movies are frequently shown, accompanied by a live organist, and sometimes a band, in the classical 1930’s Castro Theater just off Market street in the Castro district. Tickets are available on-line or on the day of the performance. Popular features may sell out early. The Castro theater is also a venue for various film festivals. The Opera Plaza Cinema often shows rare classical and foreign movies in its cozy theaters. Opera Plaza is located just a few blocks up van Ness Avenue from the Opera and Symphony. The San Francisco Symphony shows movies in its large auditorium, accompanied by its orchestra, several times a year. Both silent movies and movies with intense musical contents, as Walt Disney’s Fantasia, are presented. They are a great way to introduce kids to classical music.
There is an incredible array of events going on in San Francisco — virtually every day there will be something of interest to anyone going on, and San Francisco’s mild climate ensures that practically every weekend will bring another major festival or some sort of large event. Listed here are just some of the really big events going on:
- Cherry Blossom Festival, Western Addition. April. In Japantown, this kid-friendly event includes a parade, a street fair, and music.
- Fringe Festival, taking place at various theaters in the Civic Center-Tenderloin area. Just after Labor Day. A 10 day festival about theatrical experimentation and having fun, even if you don’t know what you’re doing exactly.
- Haight Ashbury Street Fair, Haight. On the second Sunday of June, people pack the Upper Haight for this event featuring local bands, food stalls and plenty of shopping.
- LovEvolution (formerly Love Parade and Love Fest). A yearly annual event held on a Saturday in late September or early October. It has become the largest public electronic music festival in the nation. The revelers and floats gather at 2nd and Howard in SoMa with the floats going down Market and ending at Civic Center Plaza. It attracts well known electronic DJ’s and thousands of partiers, with some dressing up in wacky costumes to join in the parade.
- San Francisco Blues Festival, Fort Mason in Golden Gate. Last weekend in September. The oldest continually running blues fest in the world, attracting some great Blues performers every year. For the famished, they also have some flavorful New Orleans style barbeques to complement the music.
- San Francisco International Film Festival, based at the Presidio in Golden Gate, but smaller events take place throughout the city. Two weeks in Apr/May. Organized by the San Francisco Film Society who are based in the Presidio, but the arthouse movies, documentaries, and short films are shown throughout the city.
- Tet Festival, Civic Center-Tenderloin area. Mid-January to mid-February. Celebrate New Year’s Vietnamese style at this festival. It’s a great opportunity to sample some of the delicious Vietnamese dishes that they have in the area.
- Union Street Art Festival, Golden Gate. First weekend in June. This festival attracts many local artists who line the streets displaying their arts and crafts, along with live jazz and classical music performances and an organic farmer’s market.
- Chinese New Year Festivities, Chinatown. January or February. The San Francisco version of the Chinese New Year dates way back, with a colorful, vibrant parade with decorative costumes, lions, deafening firecrackers, “lucky-money” envelopes, colorful banners, ornately themed floats, martial arts groups, stilt walkers, acrobats, and, of course, a 200 foot Golden Dragon.
- Columbus Day Parade, North Beach. This hugely popular parade celebrates Christopher Columbus and Italian heritage. Handmade floats run all the way from Fisherman’s Wharf up Columbus Avenue through North Beach.
- Easter Parade and Spring Celebration, Union Street in Golden Gate. The kid-friendly but diverse festivities include a petting zoo, pony rides, live music, train rides, alfresco dining, and a parade.
- Fourth of July. San Francisco’s main Independence Day celebrations take place on Fisherman’s Wharf. There is lots of free entertainment during the day, culminating with an impressive fireworks display from the foot of Municipal Pier, and at the other end of the Wharf from barges moored off the north of PIER 39.
- Tree Lighting Ceremony at Ghirardelli Square, Ghirardelli Square, Fishermans’ Wharf. End of November. Ring in the holiday season by attending the festivities at Ghirardelli Square. There’s theater, live music, and then at the end they decorate a 45 foot Christmas tree with ornaments, lights, and chocolate bars.
LGBT community events
San Francisco is famous for its exuberant and visible lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, who always put together some very festive events:
- Halloween in the Castro. Halloween, the holiday when everyone puts on a mask, has long been a special time for gay, lesbian and bisexual people to take off the “straight-looking mask” they sometimes wore all year, and be themselves. What remains today is a huge, sometimes poorly controlled, street party in the Castro on the evening of October 31st each year. In recent years, the police have cracked down, and it has been much diminished.
- Pink Saturday is a street party in the Castro on the Saturday night before the Pride Parade and Celebration.
- Folsom Street Fair is a street fair, generally the last Sunday in September. One of the largest leather / kink events in the world, attracting a wide range of straight, gay, and queer attendees.
- The San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade and Celebration is one of the largest gay pride parades and festivals in North America, centered in the Civic Center area. It’s a huge, happy, chaotic celebration of diversity, politics, sexuality, and San Francisco wackiness, on the last weekend in June. About a dozen stages and spaces offer everything from square dancing to hip-hop, from a family garden to Leather Alley. It’s a movement, it’s a market, it’s a party. Both parade and celebration are for everyone — straight as well as gay are welcome.
Outdoor and recreational events
- Bay to Breakers. Third Sunday in May. An annual footrace that is one of the largest in the country. The route runs from Downtown to Ocean Beach. Many runners do the whole thing in costume, wearing anything from elaborate costumes to wearing almost nothing at all, lending a party atmosphere to the event.
- Critical Mass. On the last Friday of each month, bicyclists in San Francisco (and about 200 like-minded cities world-wide) gather at the north end of Market Street on the Embarcadero and ride en masse to some destination, militantly demonstrating their right to occupy the roads. If you are driving in SF on a Critical Mass day, you will want to listen for radio traffic reports, but if you are stopped by the mass the best thing to do is maintain a good sense of humor and remember that it will all pass in about 5 minutes. Although, tempers can and do flare, and there have been cases where run ins with drivers and bicyclists have gotten violent. If your car is surrounded by bikes, definitely do not move until they have passed or they might feel threatened.
- Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Second Sunday in June. Participants (which often include world champions and Olympic medalists) swim 1.5 miles through chilly waters, bike 18 miles, and then run an extra 8 miles. The course winds its way throughout the city, but the transition and finish line is at Marina Green in the Golden Gate area.
- Fleet Week, Fisherman’s Wharf. Usually held in the first week of October, it’s a tribute to the men and women in the armed forces. A flotilla of Navy ships dock on the Wharf in parade fashion, and there are many free Deck tours available from crew members. There are also several air displays by the Navy flyers.
- Sunday Streets. Sundays in the Summer, various locations. See the website for where and when Sunday Streets is happening and head out for some good times with other walkers, bicyclists, skateboarders, roller skaters, etc. The cars are kicked off of the streets for some hours allowing the neighborhoods to come alive. There are food vendors, bike workshops, music performances, and all kinds of other great events. Sunday Streets is modeled after Bogotá’s Ciclovia.
San Francisco has several professional sports teams, although the spread-out nature of the Bay Area means there are also teams nearby in San Jose and Oakland.
The San Francisco Giants are the city’s Major League Baseball team, playing their home games at the lovely AT&T Park in SoMa. The other major league team in San Francisco is the San Francisco 49ers, the city’s National Football League team, who used to play their games at Candlestick Park on Candlestick Point in Southeast San Francisco. The 49ers have now relocated to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Both teams command huge fan bases.
As far as college sports go in San Francisco, there are the University of San Francisco Dons, who play various college sports including baseball, basketball, soccer and volleyball at their campus in Western Addition. The San Francisco State University Gators play various college sports including baseball, basketball and soccer at their campus near Lake Merced.
San Francisco is a hotbed for underground music; a highly diverse array of musical styles is represented (e.g., rock, pop, experimental, weird folk, and avant-jazz). Shows occur every night, with as many as fifteen small shows occurring each Thursday through Saturday night. Much of this activity is not always well covered in the mainstream media; useful community-driven resources for finding about local shows include Dar Dar Dar and the Transbay Calendar. For major and regular events, see the section on Performing Arts above.
Meet and greet locals
For those who want to meet actual San Franciscans in addition to exploring major landmarks, in 2010 a group of locals started a new service, “See San Francisco with a local”. You join 90-minute walks, The local guides show you city landmarks (and the stories and anecdotes that go with them), but they also engage their visitors on life in SF. You chat with a local, you “decode” the city, and you learn from an insider about local events and festivals, about where to shop, good places to eat or drink, secret places locals keep to themselves etc.
- Discover Walks, 2454 Chestnut St ☎ +1 415 494 9255, . Several tours to choose from everyday. Free service – guests choose their tip/donation.
Free Walking Tours of San Francisco
City Guides are local volunteers who love the City, its history, lore and legends…and they’re ready to share it all with you. The regularly scheduled tours are free and open to the public, except for groups of 8 or more. No need to make a reservation, just show up at the time and place indicated on their schedule; groups of 8 or more are asked to schedule a special tour several weeks in advance. The tours are fun and informative, with a combination of tried-and-true San Francisco landmarks and off-the-beaten path sites. Donations are welcome!
- San Francisco City Guides, c/o SF Public Library, 100 Larkin St ☎ +1 415 557 4266. The list of tours, schedule, and FAQs can be found at their website.