When to fly
San Francisco’s peak season is between June and August when most of the tourists come to visit. For cheap flights during that season, make sure to book well in advance.
Winter is the low season however, this is when the ballet and opera seasons are in full swing. January is a good time to fly to San Francisco and see the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday. The 1.5 mile march starts at San Francisco's Caltrain station and finishes at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts and Gardens. Civil rights advocates, performers and singers add to the celebrations by bringing Martin Luther King's message back to life. Thousands join together to take part in this parade, so take into account roads may be closed and there may be more traffic in some areas.
Mid-September to mid-November is the best time to visit San Francisco. Most of the tourists have gone home, and the city is usually warm and sunny.
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 their 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 barbeque the green grass, hike to the top of Mt. Livermore and go mountain biking around the picturesque island.
The majority of San Francisco's cultural institutions are located in and around Golden Gate Park. These include the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and its daughter institution, the Asian Art Museum. Newer museums are located in the South of Market (SoMa) area, just a short walk from the train station on King Street. These include the Museum of Modern Art, the Cartoon Art Museum and more. If you are flying to San Francisco you will definitely find yourself walking on the waterfront area which is popular with tourists; attractions include watching the sea lions frolic along the piers as well as strolling along the waterfront with its colourful shops and vendors. History buffs can explore the World War II submarine USS Pampanito, while children and adults alike love the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum. The city's naval history is reflected in the many ships stored at the Hyde Street Pier Maritime Museum.
San Francisco climate
San Francisco is surprisingly chilly, even in summer. Summer temperatures occasionally go above 21 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 miles 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. Getting downtown from the airportSan Francisco’s International Airport (SFO) is about 13 miles south of the city. Getting into San Francisco from the airport is easy: Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains run from the airport into the city. Alternatively, travellers can take BART to the Millbrae CalTrain station and take a train to the station on the corner of 4th and King Streets. Buses link the airport, the city and points to the south.
Getting around San Francisco
Hemmed in by the bay on three sides, San Francisco is a very compact city. It is therefore good for walking or cycling, although it is very hilly. Bus and subway services are good, and a few of the historic "cable car" trams still run. Driving and parking in San Francisco can be challenging.
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 (either on selected dates or every day); 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 are some examples.
- 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.