Look outside the window of your San Francisco flight and watch the dense fog begin to evaporate as the monumental Golden Gate Bridge slowly makes its debut and your sybaritic journey is about to commence.
For years the City by the Bay has been attracting bohemian artists, musicians and technophiles who all flock to its fascinating neighbourhoods and world-class museums. And holidaymakers who book flights to San Francisco won’t be disappointed either. Your first day should begin with a walk across the Bridge then hop on a cable car and take a hilly ride through the city. Stop in Chinatown, which has one of the largest Chinese communities in the US, and sample some delicious dim sum. Then take a nostalgic stroll down the famous Haight-Ashbury district, where hippies congregate and in 1967 the 'Summer of Love' took place.
If you have some extra time, don’t miss a ferry ride to the chilling Alcatraz Island dubbed ‘The Rock’, home of the infamous prison where the likes of Al Capone and other notorious gangsters were imprisoned. Another island worth visiting is Angel Island. Although Angel was once a prison and quarantine station for immigrants, it’s come a long way since. Today visitors BBQ on the green grass, hike to the top of Mt. Livermore and go mountain biking around the picturesque island.
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San Francisco climate
San Francisco is surprisingly chilly, even in summer. Summer temperatures occasionally go above 21 (Celsius) with a morning fog over the city. Due to the fog, the city rarely sees more than a few hot days in a row, but just a few kilometres inland it’s clear, hot, and dry. Autumn has clear skies and temperatures in the mid-20s. Winter temperatures are usually in the teens and rarely go below freezing. But the winter rain combined with ocean breezes can make it feel cold. San Francisco is a popular holiday destination and has visitors, festivals, and events year-round. There’s always something going on.
When to fly to San Francisco
San Francisco’s peak season is the summer when most of the tourists come to visit.
Winter is the low season for flights to San Francisco; however, this is when the ballet and opera seasons are in full swing.
Mid-September to mid-November is the best time to visit San Francisco. Most of the tourists have gone home, and San Francisco is usually warm and sunny.
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Getting around San Francisco
Renting a car in San Francisco is more trouble than it’s worth. The city is covered with steep hills and one-way streets, traffic backups can be a nightmare and parking is scarce and expensive. You’ll only need a car if you’re heading out of town. It’s easy to get around on foot and the public transport system can get you anywhere else.
San Francisco’s main transport network is the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). It has 100 bus lines with electric trolley buses and the famous historic cable cars. Riding one of the cable cars from Nob Hill down to Fisherman's Wharf is an integral part of the San Francisco tourist experience. Check out the Muni Passports that offer unlimited rides for several days.
Biking is a popular way to get around, but you’ll have to steel yourself to get up and over some of the hills. The easiest way to get a cab is calling ahead or lining up for one at a hotel stand. To get out of the city, you can hop aboard the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the fast and efficient subway linking the city to the East Bay. You can also catch one of the many ferries sailing for Sausalito, Larkspur and Tiburon.
San Francisco insider information
- San Francisco is a city for walking. The promenade between Crissy Field and Fort Point at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge has some of the best views of the bridge, bay, and city. Take a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, even just part way, for an exhilarating San Francisco experience. In town, climb the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower, a monument to the city’s volunteer firefighters, and a spectacular view of the city and bay.
- Golden Gate Park is the biggest and loveliest expanse of green in San Francisco and is filled with gardens, lakes, sporting facilities, concerts, wildlife exhibits, and museums. On Sundays, the main drive closes to traffic and opens to joggers, cyclists, roller-bladers, and strollers. Even when filled with people, the park doesn’t feel crowded and you can always find a secluded space.
- San Francisco has a wealth of freebies and free exhibits; some are free on certain days and some are always free. Here’s a starter list: the Cable Car Museum, Creativity Explored, Fisherman's Wharf's Musée Mécanique, Mission Dolores, Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Centre, the Randall Museum, galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Tattoo Art Museum, and the Wells Fargo Bank History Museum.
- Alcatraz sends chills up many a tourist’s back. More than just the prison, the island was the location of the first US fort and lighthouse on the West Coast. There are gardens, tide pools, and bird colonies to explore. Make your reservations in advance, even online before you arrive, as the tours fill quickly. If you’re there at the end of September, watch or join the Alcatraz Invitational Swim and see if you can swim from the Rock to shore.
- Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square cover several blocks along the waterfront and are probably the most popular sights. But the city’s neighbourhoods show you the true spirit of San Francisco, particularly the Mission’s Latin shops and restaurants, North Beach’s shopping and Italian restaurants, Pacific Heights’s extraordinary mansions and bay views, and Chinatown’s sights, herbal shops, and a tour and free cookie at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co.
- The Castro district is predominately gay and is home to many of the city's gay-owned businesses. The area has a neighbourhood feel, is safe, and has lots of stylish shops, restaurants, bars, and restored Victorian houses. The Castro is busy during the day and really comes alive at night. There are events and festivals year-round, including the city’s longest running street fair and a Hallowe'en festival bigger and more extravagant than any other.
- Russian Hill has steep streets, lush gardens, and homes occupied by both the wealthy and bohemian. Lombard Street, dubbed “the crookedest street in the world,” has such a steep decline that it has to zigzag, with eight switchbacks, down Russian Hill. Lined with Victorian mansions and some of the most expensive real estate in the city, Lombard is popular with tourists. Traffic is heavy as they queue up at the top to drive down, then gather at the bottom to take pictures.
- Nob Hill is a genteel, well-heeled district originally settled by railroad barons and gold-rush kings whose mansions are now luxury hotels. For something a little different, take an evening Vampire Tour of Nob Hill.
- The wine country is about an hour from San Francisco. Most of California’s wineries are in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley and offer tours, tastings, restaurants, and spas. Napa Valley has more wineries and a higher volume of tourism, and Sonoma Valley is lower key with family-run wineries and a relaxed ambience.
- For discounts on attractions, transportation, tours, restaurants, and entertainment, check out the San Francisco City Pass and the Go San Francisco Card and see if either one fits your itinerary.