Going to San Francisco? 8 Tips for First-Time Visitors

by Janis on September 14, 2010

Visitors to San Francisco enjoy Lombard Street, known as “The World’s Crookedest Street”.

Every Tuesday is Travel Tip Day
Today: 8 Insider Tips for First-Time Visitors to San Francisco

Are you planning a visit to The City by the Bay?  With its clanking cable cars, breathtaking vistas and delectable, fresh-from-the-field food, San Francisco enchants first-time visitors and long-time residents alike.

For five years San Francisco was our home. It’s where we met. We return — several times each year – and fall in love with the city all over again.

It saddens us when we hear that visitors to San Francisco were less-than-thrilled with their stay. Generally, visitor disappointments involve difficult driving, lack of parking, being cold, and/or never seeing San Francisco beyond the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39.    

Here are 8  tips for first-time visitors to San Francisco, California:    

1.   Don’t drive.  San Francisco is a compact city with many public transportation options.  You don’t want to waste your time looking for a non-existent parking spot. Take BART or a ferry to get into the city.  Or a cab.

Once there, take MUNI buses, the cable cars, the historic streetcars or walk.  Or combine all of the options. A MUNI Passport cost $13 for 1 day, $20 for 3 days or $26 for 7 days and gets you on all of the buses, cable cars and historic streetcars, but not BART. Click here to learn more.

For a 7-day Muni pass with an hour-long Blue and Gold fleet cruise and admission to four other attractions, purchase the San Francisco City Pass for $64/person.

2.    Get beyond Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39 Yes, most everyone will enjoy one trip to Alcatraz. And it’s fun to watch the sea lions that lounge on the docks beside the Pier. But to experience the real San Francisco — rather than the only-for-tourists version — get away from Pier 39.  San Francisco offers an amazing variety of neighborhoods, each with its own charms.  Climb steps-only streets in Telegraph Hill to gain amazing views from Coit Tower. Enjoy people watching and a latte at a café in North Beach. Visit contemporary museums and clubs South of Market.  You can spend weeks in San Francisco and not run out of neighborhoods to explore.  

3.   Choose a centrally-located hotel. 

For easiest access to most of the city, stay in Union Square, the Financial District, or around the Convention Center.

Ideally, your hotel should be within 6-8 blocks of Market Street, the diagonal street cutting across the city.  Cabs are plentiful in these areas, as are buses, streetcars and cable cars.

4.   Bring a jacket and dress in layers.  Days often start with fog and cool or cold temperatures.  Then sunshine, without a breeze, can be quite warm, especially climbing the hills.  Weather changes quickly depending on the wind, fog and cloud cover.  This is not a beach city; shorts are rarely the ideal attire.

5.   Wear comfortable shoes San Francisco is a walking city. That means climbing some hills and navigating streets that are made of steps.  Bring comfortable walking shoes, or your feet will be miserable.

6.   Walk There’s no better way to experience San Francisco.  Walk until you are tired, take a break in a neighborhood café or bar, and then walk some more. For a flat walk near the water, follow the Embarcadero.

The walk from Hyde St Pier to the Golden Gate Bridge along the shore through Crissy Field is breathtaking.  Take the streets of stairs in Russian Hill or on Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. Take a culinary walking tour through North Beach or Chinatown.

7.   Embrace the variety of food.  With sun-filled days and cool nights, the farming areas near San Francisco are one of the world’s best for produce and wine.  The city’s chefs use this bounty in all variations of cooking styles.

Meat pie at Hunan.

During our last visit, we sampled the cuisine of the China’s Hunan Province at Henry’s Hunan Restaurant;  Spanish tapas at Zarzuela; sushi and eclectic Asian fusion served with Japanese Animation at Blowfish;  and a taste of Mexico at Mijita in the Ferry Building.  Ice cream tasted great at the original Swenson’s, as did an explosion of Thai flavors at Oshu;  and the Dim Sum at Yank Sing.   Given more time, we would have enjoyed fresh seafood, North Beach Italian, and trend-setting new restaurants.

8.    Get on the water.   To enjoy a different view of the city, take a ferry – to Jack London Square in Oakland, or to Tiburon or a Bay view ride   – or even the ferry to Alcatraz. Check out 25 Fun Ferry Outings from the East Bay Ferry.

The City by the Bay has many faces. Follow these tips and find your favorite parts of San Francisco.  

For easy-to-book tours of San Francisco, check out these offerings from Get Your Guide:

Other recent posts:  

Do you love San Francisco as much as we do?

What’s your favorite travel tip for the City by the Bay?

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