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San Francisco: A Visitor's Survival Guide
San Francisco's Famous Golden Gate Bridge
The City By The Bay
San Francisco, California goes by many names. Locals in the greater Bay Area may simply refer to it as The City, as in, "I have to go into The City for that errand." Often, folks just use the initials, "SF."
You can call it Baghdad by the Bay, or The City of Seven Hills, The City That Knows How--but whatever you do, never, ever call it "Frisco." You'd be inviting getting decked by many natives for that egregious faux pas.
Below is a list of the famous "Seven Hills" of San Francisco. Originally, the "City of Seven Hills" referred to Rome, Italy. However, there are many cities around the world that claim to be built on the same number of hills.
Visitors may be confounded by the way the streets of San Francisco seem to climb straight up the sides of these hills, making for some risky driving conditions. The reason for this is strange, indeed, and is something I did not know until my California History class in college.
Most of us know that California was at first a part of Mexico, and then was taken over by the Spanish Conquistadors (a very simplified explanation of a complex history). At any rate, when the Spanish were in control, apparently, the streets of San Francisco were originally laid out on a grid by planners back in Spain, who had never been to the "New World," and were unfamiliar with the topography. The agents who were here were tasked with following those orders, and that is why our "...little cable cars climb halfway to the stars..."
The Seven Hills
Actually, there are some forty-four hills in town; but only seven of them are "famous" in one way or another.
- Telegraph Hill (location of famous Coit Tower)
- Nob Hill (location of historic mansions and upscale hotels)
- Russian Hill (more residential, with many high-rise apartments)
- Rincon Hill (more of a combination residential and mixed-use area with public buildings, restaurants, and so forth)
- Mount Sutro (now a park, remains of Sutro estate across highway from the Cliff House)
- Twin Peaks
- Mount Davidson (subject of a furious controversy in the late 1990s over the giant concrete cross atop the hill)
These are the main hills of note in The City. There are many other high points of land, with various names, but these are the well-known ones. At 927 feet in elevation, Mount Davidson is the highest point in the city.
(Unfortunately, there was not a good photo available of Nob Hill; being mainly streets on the way up, but nothing taken from any distance.)
A Tour of the City's Seven HillsClick thumbnail to view full-size
San Francisco sits at the tip of a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. To the west is the great Pacific Ocean; to the east is the San Francisco Bay, and to the north is the strait of the Golden Gate, the location of the most famous and most photographed bridge in the world.
Since San Francisco sits much farther north than the Hawaiian Islands, the climate is nothing at all similar, despite being surrounded by water. Hawaii is much nearer to the equator, and thus is warmer all year.
Sitting at the coordinates of, 37° 46' 30" N / 122° 25' 5" W, our "fair city" is ideally situated for those who do not like heat.
The Pacific Ocean flowing by the western boundary is more heavily influenced by the Alaskan currents than by the more southerly or westerly flows. This cold water traveling south along the coast is responsible for our famous (or infamous) fog.
How To Dress
I remember once when I was a child; we were out at Fisherman's Wharf, showing a visiting relative around town. We were dressed appropriately, as was our guest, since we had advised her what clothing to bring.
At one point, we noticed a group of folks, obviously tourists out on their own, dressed in shorts and tank tops, and shivering in the chilly breeze and incoming fog.
My father could not resist quipping, "I know, I'll bet you thought San Francisco was in 'sunny' California!" While the styles in the second photo below are dated, the point made is not.
Learn to Say, "Micro-Climate"
Yes, it is in California, but San Francisco and its immediately surrounding cities (the "bedroom communities) of Daly City, Brisbane, South San Francisco, Pacifica and San Bruno are a unique micro-climate, among many others within the Golden State.
Wear or Bring a Coat!
Summers in San Francisco are typically very chilly, damp and breezy. What would be suitable clothing for late fall/early winter in other parts of the country is exactly what you need to wear in San Francisco summers. The key word is: layers! Never go out and about in San Francisco without bringing or wearing a coat or jacket. You will need it at some point. And unless you're particularly hot-blooded, you don't ever need shorts--certainly not in the summer.
There can be pleasant shirt-sleeve weather days, and there are very occasional "heat waves," during which the daytime temperatures can soar as "high" as 75° or 80° Fahrenheit. This happens perhaps 2 or 3 times a year, tops.
It will be what the natives call hot for "just about exactly" 2.5 days, and on the afternoon of the third day, the fog comes rolling back in, returning the City to its normal 65° range. The photo of the jogger above was most likely taken during September or October.
Ironically, these heat waves tend to occur late in the year, around September and early October. It used to severely annoy me as a child that the nice, summery weather came after school was back in session.
"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco!"— Mark Twain
Snow? In San Francisco?
Wear comfortable, already broken-in walking shoes! Mincing about in high heels may be fine for workaday professionals in the financial district, but they are not what you want to wear to poke around Fisherman's Wharf, museums, parks and what have you. In fact, I'll tell you a secret: many of the women who must dress like that for work wear sneakers coming and going, and just put on their heels when they arrive at work!
How To Park and Drive in San Francisco
Parking on Hills
Built as it is on hills, parking can be a challenge. There is a parking law in The City that is strictly enforced, and that is, to curb your wheels when parking. This means, to turn your wheels toward the curb, so that they will stop the car from moving should the parking brake fail.
So, if you are facing down hill when parking, crank the steering wheel all the way over so the front of the curb-side front tire is in contact with the curb at a steep angle. Conversely, if you are facing up hill, crank the wheel so the back of the curb-side front tire touches the curb at the maximum angle. Police can and will ticket you for failure to comply with this regulation.
You must also park within 18 inches of the curb, and that means both ends of the car. Do not pull in at an angle with the front of the car against the curb, and the rear sticking out 2 feet or more! You'll get ticketed for that, as well. Many of the streets are narrow, and that obstructs traffic. It is infuriating that delivery trucks seem to get away with this tactic!!
Correct Parallel Parking Positions
Where You May Park
When looking for a parking spot, watch out for signs indicating "Area M (or other alphabet letter) permit parking only." Those streets are reserved parking for residents. You will get a ticket, and you could very likely also find your car towed away. You may park in these areas without penalty or the required permit only if you have an official handicapped placard or plates on your vehicle.
Parking meters are everywhere! Free parking in San Francisco is virtually unheard of, save in those permit-only residential areas. Parking time limits are strictly enforced; the meter-minders come around at regular intervals and chalk-mark your rear tire. If you are still there on their next round, whether or not you have returned and put extra money in the meter, you will get a ticket! There are some dodges around this--but they are not legal, so I won't bother to mention them. Again, the only legal exception are those handicapped plates/placards. They eliminate the time limits, allow free parking at meters (though that is at least a sate-wide law).
Basically, if you're in metered parking, you need to be doing a short errand, then leave, moving your car. If you want to park for a day to go sightseeing, I'm afraid you're stuck with using a parking garage, which is an expensive option. Many of them charge by the half-hour, often up to $1.50 or more per segment or fraction thereof.
The more popular the area, the higher the parking charge. The less expensive garages are downtown. That's not to say they are 'cheap,' just less outrageously priced than those out near the touristy areas such as Pier 39 or Fisherman's Wharf. I recommend, therefore, parking at the Fifth and Mission garage, the Downtown Center Garage, or the Stockton Street Garage, and taking public transit out to the Wharf.
Use the map and chart below to get a sense of the best options.
Map of More Reasonable Parking Garages
Convenient to shopping, restaurants, and theaters
Close to Moscone Center, the SOMA area, and the Powell and Market Cable Car turntable
Convenient to Chinatown
Close to Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House, as well as Veterans' Memorial Auditorium
Near shopping, Union Square, and theaters
Near Moscone Center and the SOMA attractions
Best Parking for Various Activities
The chart below shows the best parking garages and alternate suggestions for various tourist things you may want to do. For the cable cars, heading out from downtown (5th and Mission is the best parking bet), you catch the car at the turntable at the corner of Powell and Market, which intersection is just a slight dog-leg east from being directly across Market from 5th street.
Pair This Chart With Map Above
Garage(s) to Use
Stockton Street Garage
Corner of Stockton and Sutter
Pier 39/Aquatic Park/Ghirardelli Square/Fisherman's Wharf
5th and Mission Garage
Take a cable car to final destination
Zeum, Moscone Center, SOMA area
5th and Mission Garage
Mission between 4th and 5th
Moscone Center Garage
Howard St. between 3rd and 4th
Theater District, Union Square
Union Square Garage
Cable Car Barn and Museum
5th and Mission
Corner of Washington and Mason; take either the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason cable car line
Driving on Hills
The other challenge is driving up and down the steep hills. Some incompetent planner in years long gone thought it would be a good idea to place the arterial stop signs for the traffic coming up the hills, instead of for the traffic driving on the level cross streets terracing the hills. This makes many people very nervous, for obvious reasons.
Some of the hills are so steep, that when your car is at the intersection, your hood is at an angle effectively blocking your view of any cross traffic. (This was even worse back in the 1960's, with the much larger cars with long 'noses.')
The native's solution? "Crest the hill"--in other words, drift up just past the stop line in the road, so you can see, before coming to a stop. This is a bit of a catch-22 situation, however, because in doing so, you will be partially blocking the pedestrian crosswalk: a no-no. However, I'd personally rather risk the ticket for that than an accident....and, you could probably make a reasonable case in court anyway. They know what the streets are like!
Stop Signs Not Well-Thought-Through
Just How Steep Are These Streets?
Which Are The Steepest?
Hint: they are not in the touristy areas. Read this article for an excellent rundown of some of the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) steep streets in San Francisco.
It's a good read, with photos, but the writer has committed the awful sin of calling it "Frisco!" 50 lashes with a wet noodle for that!
Beware of one-way streets; there are many! In areas of town with lots of one-way streets, they will alternate directions from one block to the next, so if you need to go around the block to look for an address or a parking spot, you'll have to go an extra block past where you wanted to be in order to make the loop. In some areas, such as the financial district, all the streets are one-way, so you may have to go out of your way by a block in both directions. Just keep your wits about you, and you won't get lost.
Cable car tracks and streetcar tracks are slippery. Try to drive in the other lane, if possible, and if not, try to straddle one track so that it passes between your wheels.
On Market Street, it is forbidden to drive on the streetcar tracks; that is not a driving lane for cars! Cable car tracks are trickier to straddle, given the third set of metal rails encasing the cable slot.
Better idea: if possible, avoid the streets with the tracks and take a parallel route until the last block or so.
Best idea: park elsewhere and ride the cable car! ;-)
Cable Cars Were Made For Hills
If You'd Rather Not Drive...
San Francisco's public transit system, SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, or "Muni" for short) covers the city very well. You can get, "there from here" and back again! There are buses, streetcars, and metro/light rail (subway system).
Another option is B.A.R.T. (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which will enable you to leave the City and travel to destinations in the East Bay Cities without needing to drive. B.A.R.T. travels east as far as Pittsburg/Bay Point in Contra Costa County, south to Daly City from the western side of town, and from there southeast to the San Francisco International Airport in San Bruno from the eastern edge of town. It also travels as far south as Fremont in Alameda County across the San Francisco Bay.
Transit maps are sold for $3.00 and can be had at many kiosks near tourist attractions as well as at San Francisco International Airport (ironically located in the outlying city of San Bruno in San Mateo County). San Francisco is one of very few cities which is a self-contained city and county all in one, formally known as, "The City and County of San Francisco."
Some Spots To Buy Transit Maps
Bay at Taylor Streets
SFMTA Public Transit Kiosk
Maps, ride passes, parking cards
Geary Blvd. at Presidio Ave
SFMTA Presido Sales Kiosk
Maps, ride passes
Hyde at Beach Streets
SFMTA Public Transit Kiosk
Maps, ride passes
835 Kearny at Washington Streets
Cafe Good Earth
Maps, limited types of ride passes
Powell at Market Streets
SFMTA Public Transit Kiosk
Maps, ride passes, parking cards
SF International Airport at Bayshore Freeway
SFO Information Booth in Baggage Claim
Maps, limited types of ride passes
Map of B.A.R.T. System
Some Areas to Avoid, and Nearby Draws--Boundaries Defined
As with any major metropolitan city with three-quarters of a million residents, there are some areas of town that you should avoid. You won't find them in the tourist brochures, and for good reason: there's nothing there of particular interest to tourists. Conversely, neither do the slick brochures even bother to mention these areas as 'steer clear' safety precautions. The Chamber of Commerce probably wouldn't like it. But, I don't have a vested interest in what the C of C likes, so I'm going to point out the areas to avoid.
It can be a balancing act, because some of the places you might well be heading border right on areas to avoid. It can be a matter of straying just a block or two in one direction or another to find yourself in a rather sketchy neighborhood.
The main areas, then, to keep clear of are these:
- The Tenderloin (bounded on the West by Polk Street; on the East by Mason Street, and on the North and South by Geary and Turk Streets, respectively.
- The Sixth and Mission corridor, Mainly Sixth Street itself, from Market going south to Harrison Street. The little alleyway cross streets in this area, such as Minna are also best avoided. An unflattering term for this area is "Wino Alley." If you must drive through, be sure your car doors are locked and your windows closed.
- Parts of the "Western Addition" (also called 'The Fillmore' after its main drag) The main area to avoid is right outside of downtown, from about Gough to Steiner going west, and from about Golden Gate to Geary going north.
All of these areas are adjacent to or fairly near and easily accessed from the downtown area. Here is a breakdown of some proximities to be aware of, numerically keyed the same as the above.
- The San Francisco City Hall, U.N. and Civic Center Plazas and other public buildings such as the Main Library, the Opera House, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Building and some others are on the eastern side of the Tenderloin, and it would be quite easy to stray off track if you don't remain alert.
- The South of Market area, promoted as "SOMA" by the Chamber of Commerce holds such things of interest as the Sony Imax Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, the kid-friendly "Zeum" with its historic carousel, and the Moscone Center convention hall. The best and nearest parking for these is the previously mentioned 5th and Mission garage, occupying the block between 5th and 4th Streets and between Mission and Minna. The Moscone Center has its own parking, but I'm willing to lay odds it costs more than the 5th & Mission garage.
- Along Geary Boulevard, very near (actually in) part of the Western Addition is Japantown. This is mostly a shopping and dining complex, with an added movie theater. It was probably originally dreamed up to improve the area's image. It's not really a Japanese area, unlike Chinatown, which is predominantly populated with Chinese shops, dining and residents.
There are certain other neighborhood areas that the natives steer clear of unless they live there, but those are outlying residential areas with no tourist draws anyway, so not of concern for this list.
San Francisco--A Great Place To Visit
The above precautions notwithstanding, all in all, San Francisco is a great place to visit with something interesting to do for just about any age.
The climate is cool to mild, in general, and even in winter is not horribly cold--it does not snow in San Francisco. Oh, well, it has a couple of times...but very lightly, and did not stick. When that happens, it's about a once-in-thirty-year event that has the natives talking about it for years after!
The photo above, taken by my father in the backyard of our home, shows an event even more rare than our 2.5 day "heat waves."
So Much to See; You Must Visit Again!
There are certainly some 'must-see' things to see and do from the historical to the cultural, and there are plenty of opportunities for fine dining as well as casual snacking and fast food if that's your preference.
The City is a true melting pot of cultures and traditions, so come back at different times of the year to see things as different as the annual St. Patrick's Day parade celebrating the Irish community, or the Chinese New Year's festival with its dragon dancers and firecrackers.
Pack your cameras, sunscreen (yes, sunscreen--you can get quite a nasty burn through the fog!), pack your walking shoes and a warm jacket and hat, and I'll meet you at the cable car turntable down on Market Street! (Virtually--of course--you see, I don't live there anymore. I am one of those who does not care for the cool climate, so we "escaped" to the warm summers of the far East Bay several years ago!)
Photo and Art Credits
All black and white photos were taken by my late father. As sole heir, I own the copyrights.
The "artwork," such as it is, is my own. I must take responsibility for those amateurish bits...
© 2012 Liz Elias