Things To Know Before You Go To San Francisco

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Are you planning to visit San Francisco for the first time and not sure what to expect? Then you’ve come to the right place.

San Francisco is the thirteenth largest city in the USA and is well known for its iconic attractions like The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, but because of its size and plethora of things to do, it can often be overwhelming knowing how to plan a vacation here.

In this guide, we share everything you need to know before you go to San Francisco so you can make the most of your trip, save money, stay safe, and travel around with ease.

family posing in front of bay bridge san francisco
Bay Bridge, San Francisco

Things To Know Before Visiting San Francisco

We spent one week in San Francisco and had a great time exploring the city. It reminded us a lot of our hometown in Australia, Sydney.

Here are some of the things we wish we knew before we went…

1. Walk, Walk, Walk

girls jumping next to statues

Whilst San Francisco is quite hilly, but we found it a great city to explore by foot.

It’s quite a compact place with lot’s of things to discover on every corner, and it’s a good way to get your exercise for the day.

Just be sure to take appropriate clothing as the weather can change pretty quickly. Pack a jacket and wear comfortable shoes. It can feel like a bit of a hike getting around San Fran.

I recommend you choose a district and explore one per day, from the Mission District to Haight Ashbury. Downtown is pretty cool too, and we found many great places to eat near Union Square.

2. Go Biking in San Francisco

man with bike on golden gate bridge
Biking in San Francisco is cheap

One of our favorite things to do was bike the Golden Gate Bridge, continue through Sausalito and finish at the charming seaside town of Tiburon. Here you can dine in one of the fine restaurants with spectacular views, or get take out fish and chips and sit in the park.

When you’re ready to call it a day, return on the Tiburon ferry and as you’re cruising back, scan the horizon to reflect on the incredible journey you have just experienced.

When we visited with San Francisco with kids, we biked around Golden Gate Park, which was a lovely way to see it, as it’s quite big.

Check out Blazing Saddles for your biking needs. You can book bikes in advance from here, which also include ferry tickets back. There is also the option to join a bike tour.

3. Ride a Cable Car in San Francisco

cable car going down the street

A fun and historic way to get around San Francisco is by cable car. There are three cable car routes in operation and they cover the most important landmarks and destinations.

There is nothing like riding a cable car down one of the steep hills with awesome views over to Alcatraz.

Public transportation is not just a way to get around San Fran, but an experience.

Aside from walking and the cable car, use Uber or Lyft to get around – it’s very safe, affordable, and convenient. It’s definitely a top attraction in San Francisco.

4. Don’t Miss Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco

seals on fisherman's wharf san francisco

Yes, it’s touristy, but places are popular for a reason.

It’s here where you can take the ferry to visit Alcatraz (be sure to do the tour with headsets), chow down on some clam chowder whilst over looking the Golden Gate, see the famed sea lions, and just people watch.

Go to Boudin Bakery & Cafe for the best clam chowder and sourdough bread!

For seafood, eat at Scoma’s Restaurant.

Pier 39 is the best place to go for sea lion watching. They had a live webcam there, so you could call your family and wave to them (with slight delay).

5. Chinatown is Huge in San Francisco

family jumping in streets of Chinatown in San Francisco

Probably the best Chinatown and the largest Chinese community outside of China.

Lot’s of great eating options, activities going on, and tea tasting experiences. Whether you visit in the morning or evening, Chinatown comes alive.

Eat at Sam Wo, City View or the Great Eastern.

Relevant Reading: Neighborhood Guide: 12 Places to Go in San Francisco (plus where to eat & stay)

6. Take Day Trips

trail running through muir woods

We love visiting college towns on our travels, and the University of California at Berkeley is an easy train ride from the city and makes for a great day trip.

You can wonder around the beautiful campus, and Telegraph road is full of cafes, bars, shops, and characters.

We recommend a meal at Smart Alec’s for great healthy food at great prices. The salads are to die for, and almost all items are made on location including gourmet burger sauces.

Another easy day trip from San Fran is Muir Woods, it was one of our family’s favorite day trips from San Francisco.

This tour can take you there if you have no other way to get there. We had our own vehicle. You can rent a car here if need be.

7. Explore the Presidio

View of the Alcatraz from the Presidio
View of homes from Presidio Park

There are some fantastic places to explore at the Presidio Park, a former military post, and a national historic landmark.

The Presidio San Francisco is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is a major outdoor recreation hub. It’s one of our favorite places to visit in San Francisco.

8. Visit in the Fall

coit tower rising above san francisco homes

If you can time your visit for the Fall season, this is the best time to visit San Francisco.

The months of September to November is when the fall colors are in full swing and San Fran has plenty of urban parks and outdoor places where the foliage is awash in color this time of year.

9. San Fran is often Cold

golden gate bridge san francisco
A chilly San Francisco Day!

The high elevation and the fog means that San Fran can feel cold all year round. Especially around the San Francisco Bay Area where the ocean breeze comes in.

Pack warm clothes no matter what time of year you visit.

10. Go to a Viewpoint

San FRancisco views from Coit Tower
Views from Coit Tower

Because San Fran is so hilly, it makes for a great place to climb to new heights for incredible views.

Some of my favorite spots for a scenic view of the city are Coit Tower, which has some of the highest views of the city.

If you want to walk, go for a hike up to the top of Telegraph Hill, or if you prefer something relaxing, head to the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel for a cocktail with a view.

One of the best photo opp spots is in the Marin Headlands, right across the bay on the Golden Gate AND you get THE view of the bridge from high up.

Go over to the Air Force Marina (you don’t have to have a military ID to get there) on the Marin Country side and get AWESOME pictures with the bridge in the background.

Read more in my post sharing San Francisco in a Day: A Solo Mother’s Relaxed Adventures

11. San Fran Is Not Short of Entertainment

townhouses and a city skyline

If you want a cheap day out, check out the free days at the DeYoung.

One Friday per month the CA Academy of Natural Sciences has great parties with food, music, and a lively crowd.

The SF MOMA has some great shows, too, but whatever is happening in Golden Gate Park is usually worth it.

Another unique things to do is Opera in the Park, which is held on the Sunday after opening night at the opera, and has all the stars performing and everyone drinking and having picnic lunch.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an amazing three-day concert for free the first weekend in October.

12. Visit Clarion Alley For Street Murals

Mission District  murals
Murals in Mission District

Visit Clarion Alley to see some amazing street art. The alley stinks of piss but the artwork is worth it. We also love the murals in Jack Kerouac Alley. Don’t miss the City of Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café while here. I reveal more on my one day in San Francisco adventure.

13. Places Close Early

family eating Lunch at an Italian Restaurant in North Beach, San Francisco
Lunch at an Italian Restaurant in North Beach, San Francisco

We found a lot of restaurants and shops will close early in San Francisco. Unlike other big cities where shops stay open until late, you can expect things to close up by 6pm or 7pm here.

14. CA sales tax is high

family smiling at twin peaks view san francisco
View from Twin Peaks

San Francisco is subjected to the huge sales tax associated with the state of California. Most items will have an 8% sales tax added to the price at the end, so be mindful of this when out shopping.

15. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is easy to get to and from

san francisco city skyeline from above

The airport is located around 15 miles away from downtown, which takes about 30 minutes driving or over an hour on public transport.

The good news is you can get the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system from pretty much anywhere in the city to the airport, making it easy and convenient. Just be sure to allow plenty of time.

16. Save Money on San Francisco Attractions with a Tourist Pass

mother and daughter in a Go Car San Francisco

If you plan on visiting a few top attractions in San Francisco, it’s best to get a discount tourist pass to save you money.

The City Pass saves travelers 46% or more on combined admission to San Francisco’s top attractions.

Pricing $86 adults and $64 children age 5-11. It’s valid for nine consecutive days and includes:

  • California Academy of Science
  • Non our bay cruise
  • Aquarium on the Bay
  • Exploratorium or SF Museum of Modern Art
  • and 3 unlimited MUNI bus and cable cars.

But, I much prefer the San Francisco Sightseeing Pass as it includes more diversity in their attractions and more local tours.

We only used the MUNI from the city pass. We’re not big museum people so it wasn’t a win for us. And I don’t like how the bay area attractions are chosen for you.

17. Explore San Francisco Hidden Gems

lady on stairs covered in mosaic tiles in san francisco

You obviously don’t want to miss Golden Gate Bridge, riding a cable car, and driving down Lombard St, but San Francisco has many hidden gems worth exploring too.

We loved hiking along the coastline to find spectacular views and beaches, exploring old Taoist temples in Chinatown, and finding the best chocolate croissants in the city. Read all about it in this post on hidden gems in San Francisco and these San Francisco neighborhoods worth exploring.

Before you go, here are some tips on where to stay in San Francisco and if you join our free email community below, you can get our free 3 Day San Francisco itinerary PDF!.

San Francisco Itinerary
Save TIME planning your San Francisco trip + personal updates and insider tips! 

Final Thoughts

people sitting in front of a heart statue

So there you have it, those are some important things to know about visiting San Francisco if it’s your first time.

The city is pretty easy to get around and navigate, and it’s much like visiting any other city in the USA.

We hope this guide gave you some food for thought and helped you figure out what to do in SF and also helped you know what to expect from a trip there.

Traveling to San Francisco with Kids

Need some specific information about visiting San Francisco with kids? Here are some other helpful guides…

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Do you have any San Fransisco travel tips? Share your ideas in the comments.

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