Top Tips for Your First Visit to San Francisco, CA

First visit to San Francisco

Welcome to San Francisco! You’re about to fall in love with this beautiful city! But first, let’s cover some simple tips for your first visit to San Francisco. I don’t know about you, but I love visiting new cities. However, as much as I love it, I also get a little bit of anxiety before a trip to a new place. I get overwhelmed by research and intense itineraries when all I want to know are some simple “ground rules” so I have a great first trip and avoid any glaring tourist mistakes.

After reading San Francisco travel guide, you’ll have all of the basic information you need to have an epic first visit to San Francisco. If you want a detailed itinerary, head here a 24 hour San Francisco itinerary.

Let’s get started with my top San Francisco travel tips.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a tiny bit of income if you decide to make a purchase or booking. For more, check out my disclosure

San Francisco Travel Resources

Lombard St. at Sunrise in San Francisco

Take BART into the City and Use Uber/Lyft in the City

When you land at the San Francisco International Airport your first impulse might be to take an Uber or Lyft into the city to start your trip. While this is certainly convenient as it will get you directly to your accommodation, traffic could make the trip longer and more expensive than expected. A more budget-friendly alternative is to take BART to Powell St station, which is in Union Square near many popular hotels. Once you’re in the city, then hop in an Uber/Lyft to get you to your hotel.  

Of course, if you travel with multiple suitcases or being on BART amidst a pandemic makes you nervous, then take Uber/Lyft.

Don’t Give it a Nickname

There are three acceptable names to call San Francisco and they are: San Francisco, The City, and SF. If you start calling it by anything else, especially Frisco or San Fran, be ready for some serious side-eye. I mean no one will actually get mad at you for calling it that, but it may lead to some light joking about the fact that you’re clearly new here! 

So please, stick to the locally approved list of names for the city and all will be well.

Wear Comfortable Shoes

View of swimming bath ruin and Pacific Ocean at sunset - Sutro Baths San Francisco

San Francisco is a small city, roughly 49 square miles, and one neighborhood runs into the next. This makes it a very walkable city. You could easily walk from the Embarcadero into North Beach then head into Chinatown. Or you could go from the Haight into the Castro, then the Mission, and eventually end up in Hayes Valley. It would be a pretty full-on day of walking and contending with steep hills. This is why you need comfortable shoes on your San Francisco packing list!

On these walks, you’ll also be introduced to San Francisco hills. These hills are killer on the booty, thighs, and feet. I can’t imagine walking them in anything but sneakers or comfortable boots! When you’re packing for San Francisco, leave the heels at home.

Limit Time Fisherman’s Wharf & Union Square

As you do your pre-trip research, you’ll see many blog posts telling you to skip Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. They do have a good reason for this advice: they are a tourist “trap”, you’ll find better food, shopping, and views elsewhere in the city. 

That being said, I always think if it’s your first time in any city, you’ve got to see the tourist hot spots. Just don’t spend too much time or money there!

You can walk through these locations on your Embarcadero walk, say hi to the sea lions, stop at In-N-Out for lunch or Buena Vista Cafe for an Irish coffee. Hell, have yourself some clam chowder in a bread bowl!

A few of the best things to do in San Francisco, that are touristy – but fun!

Instead of Fisherman’s Wharf, here are a few of the best places to see in San Francisco. They’re tourist attractions, sure. But definitely worth the visit.

  • Alcatraz Island: Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions and for good reason! There is quite a bit of history on this island as it once housed the most notorious criminals, like Al Capone. I recommend spending a few hours visiting Alcatraz in the morning.
  • Palace of Fine Arts: The Palace of Fine Arts is an iconic landmark in San Francisco and is a great place for picnics or a photoshoot! Plus it’s one of my favorite free things to do in San Francisco.
  • Japanese Tea Garden: The Japanese Tea Garden located in Golden Gate Park is a quiet section of the city. I love visiting in the Spring when the Cherry Blossoms are in full bloom!
  • Coit Tower: Head up Telegraph Hill to see the famous Coit Tower. You can enjoy the grounds for free or pay a little bit of an extra cost to climb to the top of the tower for the views.

Explore the Neighborhoods

Victorian homes in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, CA

Once you’ve seen Union Square it’s time to hop in an Uber and explore the variety of neighborhoods in San Francisco. While new neighborhoods keep popping up (or being renamed) there are a few that will connect you to the past and present of San Francisco.

An Overview of San Francisco’s Neighborhoods

  • Haight-Ashbury: To connect with the storied past of San Francisco, head to the Haight Ashbury neighborhood where the summer of love in 1967 took place. Even though Whole Foods is there now, it still maintains its hippy allure. Spend the day thrifting in Haight’s vintage stores.
  • The Mission: In the Mission district you’ll see awesome street art and eat fantastic Mexican food. Spend the day hanging out at Mission Dolores park.
  • The Castro: The LGBTQ+ neighborhood of San Francisco should definitely be on your neighborhood list. It’s home to the famous Castro theatre, the rainbow crosswalks, and delicious restaurants.
  • The Richmond/Sunset: The Richmond and Sunset are the neighborhoods surrounding Golden Gate Park. Here you’ll find awesome asian restaurants, beautiful San Francisco beaches, and great urban walks like the Lands End Trail.
  • North Beach: North Beach is one of my favorite San Francisco neighborhoods. After winding down Lombard Street, head into North Beach for dinner and drinks!

Above is, of course, only brushing the surface of the variety of neighborhoods in San Francisco. I’m working on posts that will dive deeper into each of them, stay tuned for those!

Eat Well!

Part of the reason people say to skip Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 is that there are better places to eat in the city. I 100% agree with this. San Francisco is filled with cuisines from all over the world and each neighborhood is filled with international treats. Eat pizza from Tony’s in North Beach, enjoy a Turkish breakfast from Lokma in the Richmond, and fight over the best taqueria in the Mission. 

I recently found a blogger who specializes in finding the best food in San Francisco, so if you want to eat delicious food from hidden gems, then check out Eat This SF’s blog.

Walk or Ride a Bike Across the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge above Fort Point.

There are iconic things to do in every city and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic things to do in San Francisco. Yes, there are many places throughout the city to view the Golden Gate Bridge from afar. However, walking or even biking across the Golden Gate Bridge, will get you up close and personal with the bridge while providing you with awesome views of the San Francisco Bay and the Marin Headlands. Plus it’s just a fun activity on a beautiful San Francisco Day. Extra plus, except for parking, it’s free.

There’s no need to walk across the entire bridge, even walking to the first tower will increase the awe of this bridge.

Follow the Fog’s IG Account

Foggy sunrise over San Francisco skyline

If you’ve read anything about San Francisco, on this blog or elsewhere, you will come to know two terms about the weather here: microclimates and the fog. The fog is with us during the summer months and there are days it rolls in like a heavy winter blanket. And you’ll need one when it does.

The fog visits us so frequently that we’ve named it. Its name is Karl. But it doesn’t end there. Some clever person created an Instagram account for Karl the fog and it is a must follow.

If you’re a photographer, don’t let the fog discourage you from getting out and snapping photos of the city. The fog is as much a part of the city’s landscape as the hills, so embrace it. Head to the Marin Headlands to photograph Karl lying low and the bridge popping out from the top or go to Twin Peaks to photograph the fog intertwining with the city’s skyline.

And if you’re not a photographer and your visit coincides with Karl’s visit, embrace it too! Don’t let it stop you from exploring San Francisco. Just make sure you dress appropriately, which brings us to our next tip. 

Dress Warmer than You Think You’ll Need To

Since we’re talking about the weather in San Francisco, the biggest thing you should know about visiting San Francisco for the first time is to dress in layers. Most people visit San Francisco during the summer which is when Karl is out in full force and it is cold here! I know you’ve heard that quote that no one knows who actually said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Whoever said it was 100% correct.

I’ve got a handy San Francisco packing list for you to consult when you’re planning your trip, but please leave the flip flops, shorts, and tanks at home. If by chance you happen to be here during our week-long heatwave of the year, you can purchase those things!

Have a Picnic in a Park on a Sunny Day

People having picnics at Alamo Square with the Painted Ladies.

One thing I love about San Francisco is that every neighborhood has its own park and they usually come with an awesome view of the city. While Golden Gate Park should definitely be on your San Francisco bucket list, any park is a great place to relax on a sunny day. Grab some to-go food, currently the only option during COVID, find a park bench, and enjoy the SF sunshine!

Not sure where to go? Here are some of my favorites:

  • A Pizza from Tony’s enjoyed in Washington Square Park in North Beach.
  • A burrito from the Mission (La Taqueria or any of them) enjoyed in Dolores Park.
  • Snacks from BiRite enjoyed while looking at the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square.
  • A burrito bowl from Bonita Taqueria enjoyed at Tank Hill or Corona Heights Park
  • Breakfast from Sweet Maple eaten on a bench at Alta Plaza Park while everyone else works out on the steps!

Alternatively, Head to the Beach on a Sunny Day

Crissy Beach on a sunny day.

Another great way to spend a beautiful day in San Francisco is to head to one of the city’s beautiful beaches. The beaches in San Francisco are incredibly popular amongst locals and what I love about them is they each have a unique vibe.

Ocean Beach is popular amongst surfers, fitness enthusiasts, and bonfire lovers. Baker Beach is popular amongst just about everyone because it’s stunning. And Marshall’s Beach is where you can leave your worries, and clothes, behind!

Watch the Sunset from Twin Peaks

Tank hill sunset over San Francisco.

One thing we love is finding awesome sunsets in San Francisco. Twin Peaks is perhaps the most popular destination for this, especially at sunset. As such, it is incredibly difficult to find parking and often very crowded at the top. 

Recently, I found two alternatives to Twin Peaks that I prefer. The first is Tank Hill which is just below Twin Peaks and offers the same sweeping vista from the Golden Gate to the Downtown Skyline. The second is Corona Heights park, which doesn’t offer views of the Golden Gate but offers great city views and views to the south.

View of San Francisco from Corona Heights Park.

Any of these 3 parks are perfect for sunset. If you want the quintessential San Francisco experience, then yes go to Twin Peaks. But get there early so you have time to find parking and walk to the top. If you want to go “off the beaten path” a bit, then check out either Tank Hill or Corona Heights. 

Tips for Having a Car in San Francisco

If you plan on driving in San Francisco there are a few things you should consider first. 

Parking in San Francisco

Parking in San Francisco can be challenging. Most street parking only offers two free hours before you have to move the vehicle. Additionally, street cleaning happens throughout the week, so be sure your car is not parked during the posted street cleaning time. They will ticket you.

I recommend checking with your accommodation to find out if they offer parking. If they do make sure you know how much it costs and factor that into your San Francisco budget. 

Car driving on a street in North Beach with the Transamerica building in the background.

Don’t Leave Anything in the Car

No matter what, don’t leave anything in your car. Within my first month of living in the city, I witnessed multiple cars with their windows smashed in and glass covering the ground. I was surprised, but also not. This happened mostly in popular tourist spots such as Twin Peaks and the Haight.

But I’ve also seen it on random side streets so while tourist spots may be targeted when thieves see an opportunity, they take it!

Don’t leave any valuables in your car. A backpack in the backseat, shoes, hell even your phone charger. Make sure everything is out of sight before walking away from your car!

Use Public Transportation in the City & Rent a Car for Day Trips

Instead of renting a car for the entirety of your trip and having to worry about parking. Use public transportation, ridesharing apps, or simply walk when you’re exploring the city. Then rent a car when you want to take a day trip to Napa Valley, Sonoma, or Half Moon Bay. This way you only have to worry about the car for the day. It will likely save you time and money. 

Ride the Cable Cars

Cable car tram in San Francisco.
c/o Deposit Photos

While the majority of locals no longer utilize the cable cars to commute, I bet you many of them have ridden them at one point in their lives. And you should too! They are a part of San Francisco’s history and a good way to avoid climbing up some of the hills!

My biggest tip for you when riding the cable cars is to get on it at any stop beside the first and the last. The first and last stops will always have an incredibly long line. But if you can pick it up somewhere in the middle, then you won’t have to wait as long! Here’s more information on the routes and where you can buy tickets

A Note on Homeless People

San Francisco has one of the highest populations of homeless residents in the country, so this could be a bit shocking on your first trip. Homelessness in the city is a multifaceted problem that can not be easily explained in a few short sentences here. But I do believe that it is important to mention. Because you will see homeless people sleeping on the streets, using the streets as their bathroom, among other things.

Yes, many of the homeless population are mentally ill. However, many are just like you and me. Perhaps they lost their jobs in a city where rent prices are exorbitant. I highly suggest researching the homeless in San Francisco and when you cross their paths. This article is a great place to start.

Have an Open Mind

Castro District Rainbow Crosswalk Intersection - San Francisco,
c/o Deposit Photos

On that note, it’s important to come to San Francisco with an open mind. This is an incredibly diverse and also accepting city. You will see LGBTQ people expressing their love in public, you will see interracial couples, you will see many less fortunate than you or I and you will most certainly have your own experience here.

Leave the judgments behind and come to this beautiful city with an open mind. Be open to witnessing the different experiences of life we all have. This will almost guarantee that you have an excellent time on your first trip to San Francisco.

I’d love to hear about your first trip to San Francisco! Did you leave a piece of your heart here?

Is there anything else you wish you would’ve known before visiting?

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