Last Updated on June 22, 2020 by Amanda Stancati
With 17 million visitors per year, there is no doubt San Francisco is a North American hotspot. There is lots to do outdoors in this fairly small city and loads of famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island to discover. The densely populated city is the financial capital of California, known for its cool summers, interesting architecture, and reputation as the home of 70s counterculture. Much of the tourism has to do with exploring the charming neighbourhoods, coming across hip street art, colourful Victorian mansions, and theatre, dining, and shopping gems. Is San Francisco for you? Read on to learn more.
Who should go?
Visitors to this free-spirited peninsula want to experience what California dreamin’ is all about. San Francisco isn’t just a place for bikinis and surfing (there’s LA for that). Fog City is for the bohemian spirit who can fit in a world of tech start-ups, farmer’s markets, and San Fran cool.
San Francisco City Pass: This access pass gives you admission into some of the hottest San Francisco attractions like the Exploratorium and Aquarium of the Bay, plus unlimited use of the cable cars and Muni public transport.
Golden Gate Bridge: Bike or walk across the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge built in 1937 and painted its famous International Orange colour. The surrounding Golden Gate Park is a green space filled with natural wonders like the Conservatory of Flowers and San Francisco Botanical Garden. You may even spot some buffalo during your hikes. You’ll also find an aquarium, Japanese tea garden, playground, and sports like a nine-hole golf course, basketball, paddle boating, archery, and more.
Alcatraz Island: Accessible by boat, Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s biggest attractions, home to the infamous federal penitentiary that sheltered A-list criminals like Al Capone and George Kelly. We recommend securing reservations in advance: guests must take a ferry from Pier 33 (operated by a private ferry company) which includes admission to the cell house audio tour in a variety of languages. The island is also a natural hub for bird colonies, gardens, and beautiful views of the city.
Fisherman’s Wharf: Full of waterfront activities for people of all ages, you’ll find attractions like the National Liberty Ship Memorial, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Madame Tussauds, and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The area features some of the best dining (albeit expensive restaurants), so make sure to try some fresh seafood or even pick up some crab from the side of the street to sample later. At night, enjoy live music, dancing, and comedy clubs in this entertainment hub.
Pier 39: This marketplace near Fisherman’s Wharf is full of family-friendly attractions along the waterfront such as an aquarium, musical stairs, street performers, and loads of shopping and dining options. Visitors can arrange whale watching tours or sailing charters from the marina or enjoy wine tasting, sumptuous local chowder, or watching sea lions at play. Pier 39 has over 90 shops and 14 full-service restaurants and provides remarkable views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.
Coit Tower: Located on the top of Telegraph Hill, the Coit Tower has been part of the San Francisco skyline since 1933. The observation deck provides views of the city and the bay while the lobby has frescos painted a year after the tower was built.
Union Square: This commercial shopping area comprises 20 square blocks of hotels, department stores, upscale boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops, jazz bars, and art galleries.
Museums: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) houses a collection of over 30,000 works of art including photography, painting, sculpture, and media arts. Other notable museums include the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, Cartoon Art Museum, and Asian Art Museum.
Chinatown: San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the world’s largest and one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Browse the area’s market stalls, shops, churches, and restaurants to get introduced to the Chinese culture outside of Asia.
Castro: Filled with stylish shops and bars, the lively Castro neighbourhood is the center of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco. Home to the Castro theatre, cafes, shopping (including adult shops), and nightclubs, the Castro is bustling during the day and night. It is also the heart of Pride and Halloween celebrations in the city.
Haight-Ashbury: Flash back to the free-loving 60s during a trip to Haight-Ashbury, where the clock is permanently set to 4:20, and vintage clothes, old school records, and colourful homes are abundant.
Mission District: Infused with a strong Mexican and Latin culture, the Mission District is home to independent bookstores, cafes, restaurants, street art, galleries, and bars and nightclubs, a favourite area among the city’s hipsters. Some parts are grittier than others, considering this is the city’s oldest neighbourhood.
North Beach: North Beach is the Italian quarter, a place to get a cappuccino or gelato and browse the galleries or hit the nightclubs. Aside from many restaurants, Little Italy is also home to Washington Square Park, St. Peter and Paul Church and St. Francis of Assisi Church.
Kids: The Exploratorium science museum, Cable Car Museum, and Musee Mechanique, featuring antique arcade games, are just some of the stops on a San Francisco itinerary the kids will love. Golden Gate Park is home to the California Academy of Sciences with live underwater web cams, a penguin colony, and Claude, the albino alligator. Pier 39 is also a great area for kids to watch sea lions, grab an ice cream, or enjoy attractions like musical stairs, the arcade, carousel, and more.
Helicopter Tour: See famous sites like Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge while high in the sky on a half hour helicopter tour (which includes a musical soundtrack and narration).
Day Trip to Yosemite National Park: Spend 5-6 hours inside Yosemite National Park to explore the raw beauty harboured in a grove of Giant Sequoia Trees. Then continue your journey to Inspiration Point for a view of the whole valley. Enjoy a picnic by the Merced River or hike to one of the waterfalls, rent a bike, or relax by the Visitor’s Center in the museum or restaurant.
Day Trip to Napa and Sonoma Wine Country: Take a coach to beautiful wine country and walk through vineyards while learning about the process of winemaking as you sip on locally made fine wine.
Day Trip to Muir Woods and Sausalito: Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and drive to the coastal mountains to Muir Woods to explore the forest of virgin redwood trees that are among the tallest and oldest on earth. Then, head to the quaint seaside village of Sausalito to walk along the waterfront or stop in the shops.
San Francisco is equipped with accommodations ranging from 5-star hotels to economical hostels. Popular San Francisco areas to stay in include Union Square, Nob Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Financial District for business trips. Here are some of our hotel recommendations, but consult your travel agent for a personalized opinion on where to stay in San Francisco.
Holiday Inn Express Fisherman’s Wharf, 3 star: Located in the heart of the Fisherman’s Wharf entertainment district and close to the Financial District, this hotel offers great value, complimentary breakfast, a pool and a fitness center.
Galleria Park Hotel, 3.5 star: This trendy boutique hotel in Union Square combines Art Deco and Art Nouveau design. Here you’ll find a Parisian-style brasserie, meeting and event facilities, and pet-friendly accommodations.
Handlery Union Square, 4 star: Right in the center of the Union Square action is Handlery hotel, offering comfortable rooms and suites and amenities like a gorgeous outdoor heated pool, sauna, and restaurant.
Fairmont San Francisco, 5 star: Situated atop of Nob Hill close to Chinatown, the Fairmont San Francisco promises luxury and impeccable service. The hotel features elegant accommodations, three fine dining restaurants and lounges as well as 55,000 square feet of event space.
For more information on where to stay, check out the neighbourhood guide on trip happy.
When to go and for how long?
San Francisco is known for its mild weather. Summers are foggy and cooler than expected, with September seeing the warmest weather, averaging lows of 13C and highs of 22C. January temperatures average 8C-14C. Wet season takes place from October to March, while dry season is June to September. Dress in layers to accommodate for the weather.
San Francisco is host to many festivals year-round. Some highlights include the Chinese New Year in February, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in March, San Francisco International Film Festival in April/May, Cinco de Mayo in May, and LGBTQ Pride celebrations in June.
Three to five days is sufficient to explore the city. Keep in mind there are some day trips you may be interested in that require some extra time.
San Francisco is commonly booked as part of a 2-6 day vacation package, where flights and hotel stays are bundled together, as well visited as part of a guided tour or cruise.
Tours of San Francisco lend a great overview of the city with included sightseeing, transportation, and other perks. Choose a spotlight on San Francisco with stops in Napa Valley and Monterey or opt for a broader tour with stops in places like San Diego, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Young adult tours and adventure tours of San Francisco are also available where you can camp, surf, or hike your way through California.
San Francisco cruises usually include ports in other California cities like Santa Barbara, Long Beach, and San Diego, and are typically paired with stops in Mexico. Some San Francisco cruises also visit Hawaii, Colombia, Panama, Bahamas, and Florida. San Francisco shore excursions include visits to Alcatraz, city tours, and day trips to wine country or Muir Woods.
The San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is located 20 km south of the city, about a 20 minute ride (40 minutes during traffic hour) to get downtown. The BART subway system runs every 15 minutes and a ride from the airport to downtown takes about 35 minutes and costs $8.65. Taxis are approximately $50. Private transfers are available to and from the San Francisco airport and hotels.
Non-stop flights are available from Toronto and Western Canada including Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton and start at less than $500 roundtrip. Eastern Canada offers connecting flights to San Francisco and range from $600-$1000 depending on the season.
Getting around San Francisco is relatively easy because of its small size and efficient transportation system. The city is almost 13 km from the west side to the east side. Walk, bike, or ride the streetcar or underground metro to get where you need to be. The city is very walkable – but be wary of steep hills. There are a lot of cabs but also a lot of demand for them, making them a struggle to find. San Francisco is not a good place to rent a car because of the one-way streets, lots of hills, heavy traffic, and scarce parking.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is San Francisco’s subway line with fares depending on how far you travel. Muni is the light rail transit system that includes buses, street cars, and cable cars. A single adult ride is $2.25 on the Muni bus and rail, and $7 for a single cable car ride. Visitor Passports can be purchased for 1, 3, or 7 consecutive days for unlimited rides on Muni, street cars, and cable cars. A 1-Day visitor passport is $17.
The San Francisco Hop-on Hop off ticket provides great value to first time visitors who want to tour at their own pace. Board the double decker bus and hop off at any of the 13 stops, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, and Chinatown. Return ferry and admission to Alcatraz is also included.
- Self-cleaning, coin-operated toilet kiosks are available in some parts of the city
- Stay safe with common sense: keep your belongings in view at all times (no purses hanging on the back of chairs) and avoid walking alone at night (especially in The Tenderloin area)
- Foodies may enjoy food tours that take you through neighbourhoods like Chinatown, Little Italy, and North Beach to sample their culinary delights.
- Food truck lunch: $10
- Downtown hotel – $180-500+$ per night
- San Francisco vacation package (including flights and hotels): Starting at $780 from Vancouver and from $1130 from Toronto