San Francisco is a beautiful and enchanting city loved by many. We have a soft spot for it as it was where we took our first trip together many (….many!) years ago and we love coming back to visit and explore more! With its iconic Golden Gate Bridge, steep streets, old streetcars and architecture, it’s an excellent place for visitors of all ages to revel in urban exploration. In this post, we share seven tips to help you plan your visit to San Francisco.
1. Crime in San Francisco: Is it safe to visit?
Crime and safety in San Francisco have been receiving a lot of media attention as of late. Our opinion (based on visiting San Francisco about 5 times over the past 18 years) is that it’s still a beautiful place worth visiting. That being said, like in other large cities, some of the problems seem to have gotten worse and it has become harder to avoid them. In the past, as long as you stayed clear of the Tenderloin district (a notoriously bad area relatively close to Union Square and other popular tourist areas) things were mostly fine but now the city’s growing problems have migrated beyond. There is a lot of private security in stores and most washrooms are closed to the public. Like other large cities, you need to be aware of your surroundings and take basic precautions. Certain areas at night are probably now best avoided. We noted people on scooters that appeared to be looking into parked cars for valuables and would be very apprehensive about parking on the street.
2. Where to stay:
We’ve generally stayed at one of the large chain hotels near the Financial District and find it very convenient: easy to access the BART, short walk to the Ferry Building, very walkable to other areas, and lots of options for food and shopping.
We really enjoyed our most recent stay at the W San Francisco due to its location near Balboa Gardens, the really nice room, the hotel gym, and the Titanium breakfast was delicious. For the Titanium AKA Platinum breakfast, you can choose between two items: the steel-cut oats or avocado toast. Both items were good quality and perfect to not be too full as we planned on enjoying lots of food in the city!
Here are a few places we enjoyed this time:
- Square Guys Pie: Awesome Detroit-style pizza for takeout!
- Local Brewing Co.: Nice spot for affordable beers and snacks on a casual and chill patio.
- Cellarmaker: Good for unique and standard beers. No patio but cool industrial loft-style space that can get very busy.
- Kaiyō: Two restaurants offering Peruvian Nikkei food. We were unable to get a reservation at the rooftop location so we had food and drinks at the Cow Hollow location. If you can, get a reservation at the rooftop!
- Black Hammer Brewing: We have been craving currywurst so we headed to their location in the Castro.
- Aviator Nation: Yes, Aviator Nation has a retail store here!
We do not recommend staying in the outskirts and taking transit or driving into San Francisco unless that is the only option you have. We once stayed by the airport and took the BART in every day and it was doable but not very convenient or time-efficient and it costs close to $20 per day per person.
3. Using BART: Use your phone to buy fares
The easiest way to get from the airport to downtown is using the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). Yes, you can use Uber/Lyft or a taxi but it ends up being much more expensive and the traffic can be worse at some times of the day. We used Google Pay to load money onto “Clipper” (more information is available here). If you are unable to use your phone, you need to buy a card for $3 and it is non-refundable. It cost $9 per person per way to get to and from the airport. Overall, it was easy to use the phone to tap in and out but you may need to remove it from the case and ensure NFC (near-field communication) is enabled on your phone.
4. Explore: Visit the Saturday Market at the Ferry Building:
There are vendors in the Ferry Building every day and it operates like a local market like Granville Island here in Vancouver, although much smaller. The best time to visit is on Saturday when there is a Farmer’s Market with lots of local produce and products. There are also many food stalls and you’ll find it difficult to choose from all the options! We like to grab a few things and sit on the benches as we admire the Golden Gate Bridge. Our favorite spot is El Porteno for Argentinian empanadas!
5. Wander: Check out The Mission District:
It’s worth hopping on the BART or taking a long walk up via Potrero Hill to explore The Mission District. The Mission is a vibrant neighborhood with lots of Latin American influence. You will find lots of places to eat & drink, and many colorful murals to see. We love to grab a beer and empanadas at Woods Cerverceria (with empanadas from El Porteno) while enjoying a view of Mission Dolores Park. Southern Pacific Brewing is also a good spot for beer and food. Donaji serves up Oaxacan food in a quaint and artsy space.
6. Walking and Weather: Pack for an urban adventure!
San Francisco is a great city to walk in so pack some comfortable shoes and some layers as the weather can change quickly. When the fog rolls in, you’ll be looking for something to warm you up. Every time we go to San Francisco, we end up spending hours and hours walking. The terrain is hilly too, making it a great workout. If you are ambitious, consider walking across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and taking the ferry back; it’s about 10 miles from the Financial District. We loved walking across the bridge to get good views of the city and enjoyed the terrain as we made our way to Sausalito. On the ferry ride back, you also get good views of the bridge and Alcatraz. We’ve only done this walk once but it is on our list of things to do again.
7. How long to stay: Good for a 2 day weekend or long weekend trip
For us, it’s a short 2 hour flight from Vancouver and so a weekend trip to San Francisco is very easy. Unless you plan on doing lots of touristy activities or heading to Napa, you can enjoy what San Francisco has to offer over 2-3 days, but some may wish to spend more time exploring further.
As you can see, we enjoyed our most recent visit to San Francisco despite some of the problems that have gotten worse and heightened concerns with crime/safety. There is lots to see and do in this world-renowned city and it is still worth visiting! We hope to visit again one day to revisit some of our favorites and find new ones. We left out some of the more popular things that people do since they are talked about in most blog posts and travel guides to focus on other things.
Are you planning to visit San Francisco? What are your favorite things to do in the city? Have you been to The Mission District?