After living in the city for nearly ten years, I’m excited to share a local’s travel guide to San Francisco. San Francisco is a vibrant city and often I refer to it as the city with a “thousand views.” Each neighborhood unique in its own way, with plenty of dining, and beautiful outdoor spaces, which makes it my favorite city in the U.S.
I’ve yet to really share a comprehensive travel guide to San Francisco. We’ve since moved out of the city up to Sacramento and figured it was time. We still pop down at least once a month to hang out for the day, grab a few bites and explore our go-to’s.
San Francisco is one of those cities you can spend weeks in and still not see it all. There are so many wonderful restaurants and cafes, plus pockets of neighborhoods to explore. So my suggestion is always to save something for another trip. Instead of doing it all, do a few parts really well. I think you’ll find the experience that much better.
In the travel guide to San Francisco below, you’ll find several suggestions. From where to eat to things to do, they are all places I truly love. Depending on where you’re staying or if you’re in for the day, you can easily put together an itinerary for your time. One thing I always do is star my favorites on Google Maps and see where everything is to help plan out a trip.
So here’s to exploring one of the most beautiful and diverse cities in California, it will always be home for us.
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The Ultimate Local’s Travel Guide to San Francisco
What to Know Before Traveling to San Francisco
Amount of time: If it’s your first trip to SF, my recommendation is three nights in the city. I think this sets you up for a wonderful experience and an opportunity to see a few highlights and indulge in great meals. You could definitely pair it with a trip to other nearby destinations like Yosemite or Napa Valley as well.
Time of year: Summers in SF are incredibly windy and foggy — you may have heard the famous Mark Twain quote? “The coldest winter was a summer in San Francisco.” So I would recommend the shoulder months of April-June and September-November. Year-round is definitely still great but just plan to wear a lot of layers.
Flying into San Francisco: SFO is the main airport and BART runs right to it. Alternatively, you could fly into Oakland and take BART.
Transportation: You don’t necessarily need a car in SF and I would avoid it if possible. You can use public transportation and Uber and avoid having to park. If you are driving in SF for the day, it’s good to note most street parking is 2 hours, and anything more than that you’ll need a garage.
Reservations: I’ll make a quick note now — if you can reserve it, book it. With dining and museum restrictions, you will need reservations ahead of time. Plus, the more highly booked places will often book out 2-3 weeks in advance.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
When it comes to location, you really can’t go too wrong as long as you’re within earshot of the center of the city. Everything is a 15-20 minutes drive, so you will find a few things in your area and eventually have to cross the city. There are several Airbnbs as well to choose from which is great for a longer stay. Though personally, I find the ease of a hotel great for SF since I know I’ll be out all day anyway (things to consider: luggage storage if you have to check out early before a flight, etc.).
My top picks for hotels in San Francisco include:
The Proper San Francisco — the best design (downtown)
The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco — the best for luxury and location (Nob Hill)
The Fairmont San Francisco — the best for classic luxury and location (Nob Hill)
The Four Seasons San Francisco — the best luxury for Embarcadero
Kimpton Alton — newest hotel to open (Fisherman’s wharf)
Hotel G — best boutique hotel downtown
Hotel Drisco — best boutique hotel Pacific Heights
Hotel Kabuki — best boutique + design hotel Japantown
Where to Eat in San Francisco
I could write several guides just on food in San Francisco, so I’m going to try to keep it short and concise for the best spots that we love. I wrote an entire blog post on our secret list of SF restaurants which goes into more detail on some of the restaurants in the first section below. I am also placing an asterisk next to the spots you absolutely need reservations for. If you ask anyone who has lived in SF, we all have different favorites in the city, so trust me there are many more restaurants than what is on this list.
Wouldn’t Miss San Francisco Restaurants (our tried & true)
Saru — incredible sushi, best known for omakase in Noe Valley. Hands down our favorite restaurant in SF. Show up early to get a table.
*Izakaya Sozai — our favorite ramen in SF, closest to anything we’ve had in Japan.
*Nopa — tried and true for just great food overall, highly recommend their brunch.
*Rintaro — fantastic Japanese izakaya and the latest addition to our SF restaurants.
Kingdom of Dumpling — best soup dumplings out on Taraval street, adore this place.
Yamo — our favorite Burmese restaurant, cash-only spot in the Mission.
El Farolito — our favorite burrito spot in the Mission.
San Francisco Restaurants We Always Love
Tacolicious — always a win, love their tostadas, passionfruit margarita, and queso.
Souvla — a great casual spot for Greek-inspired food.
Blue Barn — favorite salads in the city.
*Absinthe Brasserie & Bar — Corner spot in Hayes Valley for great French food.
Bread n’Chu — delicious katsu sandwiches on Japanese milk bread.
Lucca Delicatessen — SF classic for killer old-school Italian-American sandwiches.
Brenda’s French Soul Food — Creole-inspired menu and one amazing brunch.
San Francisco Elevated Restaurants That Are Wonderful
*State Bird Provisions — this has been one of our favorites for elevated cuisine, it’s an urban rustic menu that is served dim sum style. It’s hard to get a reservation but definitely take it if you can score one.
*Foreign Cinema — we’ve celebrated many birthdays over the years here and adore their outdoor courtyard that plays a foreign film. Don’t miss the fried chicken on the menu.
*MICHAEL MINA SF — still my top choice for fine dining in the city, it never disappoints.
*Cotogna — my favorite Italian restaurant in the city and the space is beautiful. Every pasta dish here is wonderful.
Where to Get Coffee in San Francisco
I do have this San Francisco coffee shop guide and not much has changed since. These are my favorite coffee shops:
Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (Marina) — Our absolute favorite for coffee and friendly service.
Ritual Coffee Roasters (Mission) — Still one of our go-to’s in the city, Travis always brings a bag of beans home.
Lady Falcon Coffee Club (NOPA) — Love this coffee and you can find the vintage truck near Alamo Square most days.
The Mill (NOPA) – This is our go-to for toast and coffee, it’s a San Francisco staple.
Top Things to Do in San Francisco
Visit the Museums
One of my favorite experiences is to pick one of the many great museums in San Francisco. Our favorites include the MOMA, the de Young Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences. If you’re into modern art, the MOMA will be your favorite and its right in the heart of downtown. The de Young Museum is our favorite for more classic art and incredible exhibitions — recently they had Calder and Picasso. The California Academy of Sciences is for those who love animals and nature. I used to volunteer there and adored watching the penguins.
Explore the Neighborhoods
San Francisco has many neighborhoods and each with its own personality. A few make for a great hour or two of walking and exploring, with shops and cafes. Here are a few of my favorites and their respective cross-streets:
The Mission District: Valencia Street between 22nd and 15th.
Hayes Valley: Hayes Street between Franklin and Laguna Street. Some small streets that offshoot as well.
Fillmore District: Fillmore Street between Jackson Street and Bush Street.
Embarcadero: Embarcadero Street along the water.
Jackson Square Area: Broadway Street to Davis Street along Pacific, Washington, and Jackson Street.
Chinatown: Sacramento Street to Broadway along Kearny, Grant, and Stockton Street.
North Beach: Area from Washington Square to Coit Tower
The Marina: Chestnut Street from Divisadero to Fillmore Street.
NOPA: Divisadero Street from Golden Gate to Oak Street.
Castro District: 18th Street from Diamon to Noe Street.
See the Sights
San Francisco has a few famous sights you’re not going to want to miss. In no particular order, here are a few of them: The Painted Ladies, Views from Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge from either Marin or SF side, Palace of Fine Arts, Sutro Baths out on the Pacific Ocean, and views from Twin Peaks.
Enjoy the Gardens and Parks
If you’re looking to get outdoors, there are a few gardens and parks that are very enjoyable on a sunny day. I would do a combination of the ticketed experiences like the stunning Conservatory and enjoy a picnic at one of the other public parks. Each of the parks has very unique views of the city as well.
Ticketed: The Botanical Gardens (love this one), The Japanese Botanical Gardens, and the Conservatory of Flowers.
Free: Dolores Park, Golden Gate Park, Tank Hill, Lafayette, or Corona Heights Park for epic views, and the Presidio.
Catch an Epic Sunset
There are a few good spots to catch sunset over San Francisco, but one that tops it all. Twin Peaks offers 360 degree views over SF, and I am biased because we lived right there for ten years. I would arrive a little early as parking can be tricky but well worth the wait for the views.
A few other spots to catch the sunset are at the Golden Gate Bridge near the entrance on either side, out at Sutro Baths if it’s not windy, or even from Coit Tower.
Shop at One of The Many Amazing Boutiques
There are a few standout stores that if you have time to pop into, I’d highly recommend going to. You’ll have your range of big box stores but there are some small shops that are well curated and ones we love to support.
Hugomento — storied art & objects for the home. Truly incredible collection of local artists
Paxton Gate — oddities and plants, this store is a trip and worth it just to see.
Ampersand — for all your floral needs.
General Store — home goods, ceramics, books.
MARCH — beautiful home goods from decor to tabletop.
The Perish Trust — rustic and vintage home goods.
The House by Tracy Simmons Design — curated elevated pieces for the home.
Heath Ceramics — ceramics for everyday living.
Take a Guided Tour
We have done a few in the city and loved them. The most recent one we did was with Get Your Guide and it was a Chinatown Walking Food Tour. This tour showed us around an incredible neighborhood all while eating at some hidden gems. One of the benefits of a guided tour is that you will get a much deeper knowledge of a place or experience. I would recommend a tour if you’re looking to learn more about history or even taste more food.
Take a Day Trip
If you’re making San Francisco your base while exploring the area, there are a few opportunities for day trips that are within a few hours. You will need a car, so keep this in mind for planning.
Favorite nearby day trips:
Point Reyes — coastal town, great for fresh seafood, hikes, and scenery.
Yosemite National Park — the most popular day trip from San Francisco, it’s around 3.5 hours drive each way and totally doable (we did this all the time.
Napa Valley — incredible wine tasting and scenery.
Stinson Beach + Mount Tamalpais + Muir Woods — a really popular area for hiking and seeing the redwoods. *Reservations required for Muir Woods