The centerpiece of the Bay Area, San Francisco is one of the most visited cities in the world, and with good reason. The cultural center of northern California, San Francisco is renowned for its mixture of scenic beauty and unique culture that makes it one of the most vibrant and desirable cities in the nation, if not the world.
Sandwiched into a small seven-by-seven mile (11x11km) square of land between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco offers a wealth of treasures for the visitor, from the windswept and often foggy bay to the steep hills lined with Victorian homes that overlook the spectacular scenery of the city. Great ethnic and cultural diversity shows itself in the city's varied neighborhoods, from the crowded and exciting streets of Chinatown to the eclectic attitudes of the Castro and the gleaming condominium towers built on the city's more recently gained tech-savvy reputation.
And yet San Francisco is just one of the cities which makes up the entire San Francisco Bay Area. At the center of a metropolitan area of 7.6 million people, the city is a fantastic base to explore the treasures of San Francisco's neighbors to the east across the Bay Bridge, to the north past the Golden Gate Bridge, and to the south down the peninsula. There's enough to see that one could devote a lifetime to exploring the region, and it'll become clear why people continue to make their way to this special place.
Prior to European settlement in the area, the peninsula that now contains San Francisco was home to the Yelamu tribe, who were part of the larger Ohlone language group which stretched south from the Bay Area to the Big Sur of California. Due to San Francisco's characteristic foggy weather, the earliest European explorers completely bypassed the Golden Gate and the San Francisco Bay.
The first European settlement in the area was founded by the Spanish in 1776 as a mission community surrounding the Mission San Francisco de Asís, in what is today called the Mission Dolores in the Mission District. In addition to the mission, a military fort was built near the Golden Gate: El Presidio.
Upon gaining independence from Spain in 1821, the area became part of Mexico. Under Mexican rule, the mission system gradually came to an end and private ownership of land became a possibility. In 1835, an Englishman named William Richardson founded the town of Yerba Buena, the first significant settlement on the peninsula outside of the Mission Dolores area. As the new settlement gradually grew, Yerba Buena developed a street plan and became attractive to settlers.
In 1846, the United States claimed California, and in July of that year, the U.S. Navy arrived to raise the American flag above Yerba Buena. Over the next couple of years, California officially became part of the United States following the Mexican-American War, and the name of the town was changed from Yerba Buena to San Francisco.
In 1848 the California Gold Rush started in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Waves of fortune-seeking immigrants arrived by boat in San Francisco, increasing the City's population from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. People who made their fortunes then settled in San Francisco, which at the time was the largest, most exciting city in northern California. Like other large cities, eventually San Francisco developed into districts by nationality or social status: the Italians in North Beach, the Chinese in Chinatown, and the wealthy mining, railroad titans on Nob Hill. During the gold rush years many major businesses were created and flourished in San Francisco (Wells Fargo Bank, Levis, Bank of America), and famous (and infamous) personalities settled in the city. Of course, with all this success came problems: the rapid growth of the city outstripped any efforts at city planning, meaning proper sanitation and infrastructure were largely undeveloped, which led to a cholera outbreak in 1855. Violence and corruption were evident, and anti-immigrant violence resulted in many race riots.
In the 1890s, there was a large campaign to modernize and beautify the city, the success of which led some officials to proudly call San Francisco the "Paris of the West." But in 1906, a devastating earthquake shook the city and a resulting fire leveled much of the city (in fact, almost 90% of the total damage was from the fire, and not the quake itself). Nevertheless, officials at the time immediately set out on a plan to rebuild the city, with new parks, boulevards, the current civic center complex, and landmarks such as the Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. In 1915, San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific Exposition (where the Palace of Fine Arts complex is currently located) to showcase the completely rebuilt city.
In the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s, San Francisco remained largely unscathed. In fact, it was during this time that the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge were conceived and built. It was also during this time that the Federal Government established a prison on Alcatraz Island, which would hold some of the most notorious criminals of the era.
After World War II, San Francisco continued to grow in population. Aggressive urban planning projects led to a changing skyline, the City adding more highrises to its Financial District. In the 1950s new freeways rimmed the City's waterfront (deemed ugly and an eyesore to an otherwise beautiful waterfront, after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake the "Embarcadero freeway" was torn down and not replaced).
Besides being a beautiful city to visit, from the 1950s forward San Francisco became known as the city of the cool, quirky, unusual, and counterculture. There were the Beatniks of the fifties and sixties, and the "stoned" hippies in the sixties and seventies. "Only in San Francisco" became part of the lexicon to describe San Francisco's counterculture and rebel population, a reputation that still exists today.
The film industry also made San Francisco world-famous and instantly recognizable. The City provided a superb backdrop for a movie, regardless of genre or topic.
Since year 2000 San Francisco has experienced a boom in business and other development. When the dot-com bubble burst San Francisco city government quickly acted. It loosened building restrictions and aggressively courted industry/business with tax breaks and other incentives, to either locate to San Francisco or not move out. Significantly, City government pushed for development of its blighted industrial section (known as "South of Market" and "China Basin"). The San Francisco's SoMa area now has numerous office complexes, a major league baseball stadium, condominium housing, the University of California (medical school), dot-com industry, and supporting infrastructure (roads, rail, and bus). As a result of its efforts, San Francisco's business economy was not as hard hit as other cities by the dot-com bust, recession, and later real estate downturn.
Business is second to tourism as San Francisco's largest industries. Tourism is San Francisco's largest industry. The City consistently remains at the top five of the world's most popular tourist destinations.
San Francisco has a mild climate, with cool, wet winters and dry summers. In most months, you can expect the high temperature to be in the upper 50s, 60s or low 70s degrees Fahrenheit (between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius). However, these mild temperature readings belie a unique climate not shared by other major cities in the state or country.
Summer days usually start out under fog, slowly burning off towards the ocean into a sunny albeit windy afternoon. Measureable precipitation during the summer months is rare, although light drizzle is possible. Humidity is very constant, but rarely uncomfortable. At late afternoon, when the fog and wind returns people generally find themselves needing a jacket (and this is summer!). There are some days when the fog lingers all day.
In the winter, the rainy season is in full swing. That being said, the chances for a calm, windless, sunny day are actually higher in the winter than in the summer! However, the overall temperatures are going to be lower in the winter.
Spring and fall are not so much seasons in themselves in San Francisco, but rather they are quick transitional periods with some days resembling summer and others the winter. Fall in particular is a good time to visit because the summer wind & fog has mostly gone, but the rainy season has not yet started. The late summer month of September, as summer transitions into fall, is the warmest and driest month of the entire year for San Francisco. Heat waves can occasionally occur around this time of year.
Within these general rules, San Francisco also has a series of microclimates created by the city's topography and maritime setting. Large hills in the city's center block much of the fog, wind, and precipitation that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. Because of this, there can be significant weather differences in different parts of the city and the surrounding Bay Area at the same time. Generally, the more windward areas along the coast (e.g., the Outer Sunset) are cooler and foggier, while the more leeward areas in the east are warmer and drier (e.g., the Mission). Temperature differences of 10-15 degrees or so are common on days where the fog persists on the western side of the city. These differences continue as you move east, out of the city, into the East bay, and into the outer East Bay (on the other side of the hills from Berkeley and Oakland), where it can be much hotter and drier. Local meteorologists routinely have three forecasts: one for the coast, one for the bay, and one for the inland areas. In short, if you don't like the weather, perhaps travel a few miles east or west to your desired climate.
San Francisco Bay Area Airports
Oakland and San Jose tend to offer more discount airline flights, while San Francisco Airport attracts more international flights and can be more convenient for those staying in the city. Private pilots should consider Oakland (ICAO: KOAK) rather than SFO, as the separate general aviation field there is more accommodating to light aircraft.
Public Airport Transportation
San Francisco and Oakland Airports are connected to downtown SF by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system (Oakland Airport indirectly through an AirBART shuttle buses).
Passengers arriving in SFO can walk (5 minutes from United's domestic terminal) or take a free airport shuttle (AirTrain) to the BART station (which is adjacent to the G side of the International Terminal). The BART ride from SFO to San Francisco costs about $8 one-way and runs frequently, every 15 or 20 minutes depending on the time of day. BART trains run through San Bruno, South San Francisco, Colma, Daly City before reaching the city of San Francisco, from where the SF MUNI can take travellers anywhere in the city.
From Oakland Airport, passengers take a 10-15 min "AirBart" bus ride to the BART station; the cost is $3 for adults ($1 for seniors/children) exact change only; the bus runs every 10 minutes during the day. BART trains from there run directly to San Francisco and cost about $4.00.
The San Jose airport is served by a free shuttle to both VTA Light Rail and Caltrain called the Airport Flyer — VTA Route #10 . Passengers arriving in San Jose can use Caltrain to reach San Francisco directly (this costs $7.50 one-way). Caltrain also links with the BART system at the Millbrae intermodal station. Be aware that public transportation within the South Bay is not as developed as around San Francisco. Also, when riding Caltrain, be sure to buy your ticket at the automated station kiosks before boarding, as they are not sold on the trains.
Private Airport Transportation
Taxis are considerably more expensive than the public transportation options. A taxi from SFO to the city can easily cost more than $40, and over $60 from OAK. Taxi and van prices from San Jose to San Francisco are significantly higher. Shared vans will cost around $14. If you plan to drive from a car rental area near the SFO airport to downtown San Francisco, you can take the 101 freeway. When returning a rental car to SFO, remember to take the rental car exit, otherwise you will have to wind your way slowly back to the rental car center.
Amtrak, +1 800 872-7245, serves the Bay Area with long-distance and intercity trains. San Francisco's long distance station is across the bay, outside city limits. Passengers arrive in Emeryville or Oakland's Jack London Square Station in the East Bay and may take an Amtrak California Thruway bus over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco's Amtrak stop at 101 The Embarcadero (near the Ferry Building) and usually several other downtown destinations (note that Amtrak passengers are not subjected to any extra charge for the bus). Travelers on some shorter distance Amtrak routes can also transfer to BART trains at the Richmond or Oakland Coliseum stations (see below). Alternatively, riders approaching the Bay Area from the south may transfer to Caltrain at San Jose's Diridon Station for a direct ride to Fourth and King Streets in San Francisco.
Amtrak routes serving the Bay Area are:
There are two regional rail systems which serve San Francisco:
Caltrain, +1 510 817-1717, operates a regional rail service from San Jose to its San Francisco terminal at Fourth and King. The service also runs between San Jose and Gilroy during rush hour. Caltrain is very useful for travel between San Francisco and communities on the Peninsula, Silicon Valley or South Bay. On weekdays Caltrain provides two trains per hour for most of the day but run more during commute hours, including "Baby Bullet" limited services that cruise between San Francisco and San Jose in 57 minutes; on weekends and public holidays trains run hourly, except that after 10PM only one train runs, leaving at midnight. The 4th & King terminal is served by Muni Metro (see 'Get around' below) giving connections to the rest of the city. Fares vary depending on how far you go. Tickets must be purchased before boarding the train from ticket vending machines at any of the stations or from ticket clerks at staffed stations. Tickets are checked on the trains and anyone found without a ticket is liable to a substantial fine. Cyclists should use the designated car at the northern end of the train, and be aware that bike space is often limited during commute hours.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), +1 415 989-2278, provides a regional frequent rail service connecting much of the East Bay and Contra Costa County with San Francisco and the San Francisco Airport through the Transbay Tube, a tunnel underneath San Francisco Bay. BART operates five routes, of which four run through San Francisco. There are three or four trains per hour on each route; consequently trains within San Francisco are generally less than a 5 minute wait. In the East Bay, BART runs mostly on elevated track; in downtown San Francisco it runs in a subway under Market Street, and several underground stations provide easy access to downtown areas and simple transfers to the Muni Metro subway. BART also meets Caltrain at Millbrae. Bicycles are allowed on BART except between stations designated in the schedule brochure during commute hours. Fares vary depending with distance traveled, and start at $1.50 for trips within the city. You will need to insert your ticket into barriers when entering and exiting the system. Tickets hold a balance, deducting the appropriate price for each trip, so someone who plans to use the system several times can buy a $10 or $20 ticket and not worry about fares until the card is used up. Note that the BART vending machines accept any credit card only twice within any 24 hour period. BART also accepts the Clipper Card, and BART ticket machines can be used to refill Clipper Cards, although do not sell them.
Several regional bus systems serve San Francisco from the immediate suburbs:
In many ways a boat is the ideal way to approach San Francisco. The city's spectacular skyline is best appreciated from the water, and from the deck of a boat the bay and its bridges and islands can be viewed as a whole. Cruise ships and private yachts are regular visitors to San Francisco, and passenger ferries regularly link other Bay Area cities to San Francisco.
Ferries run to San Francisco from Larkspur, Sausalito and Tiburon in Marin County, from Vallejo in Solano County and from Alameda and Oakland in the East Bay. In San Francisco, the ferries dock at one or both of the city's two piers at Fisherman's Wharf and the Ferry Building, the later of which is a very short walk from the Amtrak San Francisco bus stop as well as Embarcadero Station, where the BART and Muni trains stop, and the stop for the historic streetcars that run above ground down Market Street. For more information on boat connections:
There are four major highway approaches to San Francisco. US 101 comes up the eastern side of the SF peninsula and is the most direct route from the south, although it often backs up with traffic. Interstate 280 is a more scenic route into the city from the same direction, but with poorer connections than 101. Interstate 80 approaches the city from the east over the San Francisco Bay Bridge. From the north, US 101 takes you over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Cross streets. As San Francisco streets are numbered (100 per block) from the beginning of the street, and even and odd numbers are always on opposite sides, it is best when asking directions to ask for a cross street or neighborhood name rather than relying on the address alone. For instance, addresses on Mission Street at 18th Street are in the 2200s, but one block away on Valencia at 18th, addresses are only in the 700s. This is because Mission starts at the Embarcadero, two miles farther east than Valencia's start at Market Street. Local residents rely on cross streets.
Numbered streets and avenues. San Francisco has both numbered streets, in the Mission, the Castro, and SoMa, and numbered avenues in the largely residential Sunset and Richmond districts. Mixing numbered streets and avenues when asking directions may leave you miles from your destination. This can be confusing, as San Franciscans will not say "Street" or "Avenue" unless it is required to avoid ambiguity. Thus, they won't say "I live on Fifth Avenue," but will say "I live near Fifth and Geary." Street signs generally don't have "Street" or "Avenue" either; they just say "GEARY" or "MASONIC", although numbered streets and avenues do.
Multiple street grids. One of the most confusing aspects of driving in San Francisco is the presence of multiple street grids, particularly in the downtown area where two grids intersect at an angle along Market Street. Even more confusing are streets in the middle of the standard blocks, like New Montgomery Street.
No left turns. Several key San Francisco arterial streets, including 19th Avenue and Market Street, do not have space for dedicated left turn lanes and therefore bear NO LEFT TURN signs at most intersections. As a result, you will be frustrated when you drive for miles on these streets with no opportunity to turn left. The trick, of course, is to go around the block with multiple right turns after passing one's desired street, which requires you to stay in the right lane, not the left lane.
Walking can be an enticing option to get from one neighborhood to another, so long as you are aware of where you are and keep your street smarts. San Francisco is a city of friendly neighborhoods, but it is also a big city so be aware of your surroundings and keep in mind the dangers that commonly accompany a city of San Francisco's size.
However, streets that often go straight up and down hills may make walking challenging when attempting the uphill portions (but provide good exercise). Driving can be difficult up and down hills but have breathtaking views. There are many stairway walks scattered throughout the city when the streets are too steep. You can find maps that include hiking trails, bikeways, and the grade pitch of all streets marked in varying colors by how steep each segment is, that can help you orient to city walks suitable to your ability and temperament, such as the downloadable map issued by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition .
Note that locals rarely use the designations "street" or "avenue," even when differentiating the numbered streets and avenues. Numbered roads designated "Street" are located on the east side of the city, south of Market in Downtown, Castro, Noe Valley, and Mission. Numbered roads designated "Avenue" put you in the Richmond and Sunset districts on the west side.
San Francisco has one of the most comprehensive public transportation systems in the United States -- arguably the most comprehensive system west of Chicago -- and is expanding its network with a regional transportation hub in SOMA and a new subway (Muni) line going under downtown. Transport services within San Francisco are provided by several bodies, but transferring between them is easy now with a Clipper Card. Clipper is accepted on essentially every transit system you'll encounter:
Public Transit Payment
Planning your Public Transit Trip
Again, this is the main system you'll use when you're in the city. Muni consists of several types of trains and buses:
Other Public Transportation Options
These are mainly used for getting in and out of the city:
If you have strong legs and can tolerate traffic with intermittent bike lanes, bicycles can be a convenient form of transportation in San Francisco. Although it's dense, San Francisco is fairly small in land area -- just 7x7 miles from north to south and east to west -- so it's fairly quick to get from one end to the other. But much of the terrain is hilly and hard to pedal up. Do not be misled by maps depicting the city's strict, regular street grid, as even the straightest of San Francisco's streets might include steep hills or even staircases instead of a roadway. San Franciscans who bike frequently find ways to "wiggle" around the steepest hills in the city. You can also put your bike on the front of the MUNI buses if you get desperate.
A classic and relatively easy ride is from the tip of Golden Gate Park's panhandle in the Haight, along paths and JFK Drive through the park to Ocean Beach. JFK Drive is lightly trafficked, and closed to cars on Sundays.
Downtown, SoMa, and the Sunset, and Richmond districts are relatively flat. There are a number of bike paths and bike routes on city streets; the San Francisco Bike Coalition keeps a lot of information about them. There are a number of bike rental companies in town, including Dylan's Bike Rental,Bay City Bike, Bike and Roll and Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals with locations in Fisherman's Wharf, and the Bike Hut and Pacific Bicycle in SoMa.
The Golden Gate Bridge has sectioned off pathways on each side for pedestrians and bicyclists. If you choose to ride a bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, be aware that walkers always stay on the east side of the bridge and bikes are often to ride on the west (ocean) side of the bridge. When the Bridge is closed to pedestrians during nighttime, you may continue to bicycle across by stopping to press the buzzer at the automatically closed gates to be buzzed in and out. It is a pet peeve of many locals to have to dodge bicycles while jogging or strolling.
Taxis in San Francisco are, for a large city, surprisingly inefficient and expensive, starting at $3.10 just for getting in the door. You can get an idea of how much particular taxi trips cost in San Francisco using the San Francisco Taxicab Commission's webpage .
Except for near downtown business hotels, tourist destinations, and nightlife areas, taxis can be hard to find and hail -- and calling for a cab can mean a 30-45 minute wait, if the cab shows up at all. In recent years, there has been considerable controversy in San Francisco about increasing the number of taxis, but the situation is getting better. Before coming to San Francisco, you should download apps for some popular alternatives to hailing a taxi (e.g. Uber, Sidecar, Lyft, and the taxi hailing app).
If you are heading to the airport, your best bet is to call ahead with a specific pickup time to one of the many taxi companies. You will also want to schedule your cab ahead of time because if you are going beyond 15 miles, you will end up paying 50% extra.
You almost certainly don't want to rent a car. Perpetually-clogged traffic, steep hills, a confusing system of one-way streets downtown, expensive parking, and a fleet of parking control officers who enforce parking laws with zeal can make driving in San Francisco extremely frustrating; visitors to the city should seriously consider alternatives to driving when possible. Car rental is expensive, registration fees are the highest of any U.S. state, and because collisions are common, rates for liability insurance (legally required) are high as well. In addition, traffic from the Golden Gate Bridge uses surface streets either along CA-1, 19th Avenue or US-101 on Lombard and Van Ness. In short, a car is really only useful for visiting destinations outside of the city, and even then you may be better off using a taxi or other car sharing service.
The most difficult problem with your car in San Francisco will be parking. Parking throughout the city is extremely scarce. Garages, where they are available, are quite expensive ($20-30/day downtown), and San Francisco has recently begun a variable-pricing scheme which makes the most popular street parking more expensive. San Francisco has some of the strictest parking laws and enforcement in the country. For day trips into the city, consider a park-and-ride at a Peninsula Caltrain station, at a Peninsula BART station, or at an East Bay BART station.
When parking on a hill (and there are many of them in San Francisco), remember to always apply that parking brake and turn your wheels so that the car will roll into the sidewalk instead of the street if the brakes give out (i.e., when facing uphill, turn toward the street; when facing downhill, turn toward the curb). Failure to park properly doesn't just run the risk of having your car roll downhill, but it is also against the law and you may be ticketed.
Motorcycles and scooters are a common sight on San Francisco streets; in fact, San Francisco is known as one of the most motorcycle-friendly places in the U.S. Street parking for motorcycles is plentiful and relatively inexpensive ($0.40 to $0.70 an hour), but note that parking on sidewalks is usually illegal. There are several motorcycle rental shops, along with many dealers, service shops, and motorcyclist hangouts. As elsewhere in California, motorcyclists must wear helmets. Motorcycle theft is a problem; always use a disk lock or secure your bike to a stationary object using a cable or chain.
Segways are somewhat popular among tourists. If you'd like to blend in, you'll definitely avoid them. So far there is only one authorized Segway dealer that rents out Segways , though various tour operators (many of whom operate from Fisherman's Wharf) offer guided trips throughout the city.
As with many other major cities in the world, San Francisco has its share of problems. A search for "People Behaving Badly" on YouTube will reveal local KRON 4 reporter Stanley Roberts' varied and sometimes comical segments on aggressive panhandling, distracted drivers, fare evasion, and most famously "Elmo Shirt Guy" who became an internet-meme in his own right and was featured on Jimmy Kimmel. The good news is that as a visitor to San Francisco, though you may occasionally encounter people behaving badly, with a dash of common sense its unlikely you'll be the target of any crime or violence.
The areas that one should be most cautious are in the neighborhoods of Bayview-Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, Sunnydale, Ingleside, and Potrero Hill in Southeast San Francisco, as well as the Tenderloin, parts of Western Addition (including the Fillmore District), and parts of the Mission. San Francisco is still susceptible to violent crime, and most of these murders occur in the southeast, less economically fortunate, neighborhoods of the city. Gang violence touches even busy and thriving areas such as the Mission Street retail corridor, although most instances of violent crime are directed to specific targets and are not random acts. The SoMa district used to be somewhat dangerous; however, recent gentrification (something that has become fairly common and a social issue in SF) has transformed it into a rather hip and much safer neighborhood with plenty of art galleries and clubs. However, it is best to be careful even now.
San Francisco also has the largest homeless population per capita in the United States. If someone begs from you, you may either politely say you do not have any change or just keep walking, and he or she will generally leave you alone. The main homeless area is around 6th and Market, heading towards the Civic Center, and in the Tenderloin. Haight Ashbury also has lots of panhandlers, and the area near Golden Gate Park at the end of Haight Street near McDonalds is notorious for junkies and should be avoided at night.
Pickpocketing, purse snatching, and other forms of petty crime are common as with any other large city. Be especially cautious on crowded Muni trains and buses, in heavily touristed areas such as Fisherman's Wharf, and during the busy holiday shopping season.
Do not leave valuables in your vehicle, especially when parking on public streets. Car break-ins are very common in San Francisco, and any valuables in plain sight are in danger of being stolen. During your visit, you will probably see small piles of broken glass on sidewalks throughout the city, which are the result of such crimes. If you cannot carry all valuables with you, try to keep them in the trunk and park your vehicle in secure parking garages, which are slightly safer than street parking but are not completely free from crime either. Bicycle theft is extremely common so bikes should be securely locked to a sturdy surface, even if you're going to only be gone a minute.
Be careful to check for ticks after hiking in fields in the Bay Area. There is a high rate of lyme disease transmission in the Bay Area. If a bulls' eye rash develops at the tick bite site, immediately seek medical help and treatment with antibiotics.