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What to do in San Francisco

Updated on March 7, 2013

Welcome to San Francisco

Will you leave your heart in San Francisco as Tony Bennett did? Quite possibly, because this is a city heaven-made for a vacation – congenial, compact, walkable, with rewarding historical and cultural sights, a knock-out restaurant scene and all the theatre, nightlife and sport you’d expect of a major American city.

The views of San Francisco Bay from its panoramic hills are terrific, the weather is dramatic, there are vast, mature parks and long, romantic sands. San Francisco is not so much a city as a phenomenon, a collective wish born in a gold rush, built on a fault line and framed by the bright blue Bay. This is the city that gave us the Beats, the hippy revolution, gay militancy and yuppies. It doesn’t matter too much whether you like raves or Ravel, ballet or beach volleyball, this is America’s most tolerant city…and one of the greatest in the world.

Getting to San Francisco

By Air

Most visitors arrive at San Francisco International Airport, 14 miles south of the city centre. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit – operates a fast rail service from the airport to northern San Mateo County, San Francisco and the East Bay. The station is located on Level 3 (Departures and Ticketing) of the International Terminal.

The BART station is also easily accessible from any terminal by riding the free Airtrain.

SamTrans ( provides a 24-hour bus service connecting the airport with San Mateo County and parts of San Francisco and Palo Alto. Pre-arranged vans shuttle between the airport and passenger-specified locations in shared ride vehicles.

Depending on the number of passengers, these may make multiple stops. Vans pick up in Courtyards 1 and 4 of the Domestic Terminals and Courtyards A and G of the International Terminal. Reservations must be made in advance. Taxis depart from the designated taxi zones located at the roadway Center Islands, on the Arrivals/Baggage Claim Level of all terminals. Downtown costs about $37, Fisherman’s Wharf about $44.

By Train

Amtrak rail services ( connect San Francisco with Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. A bus service from the Transbay Terminal connects at Oakland with the main coastline. There’s a ticket office at the Transbay Terminal, 425 Mission Street. The city’s railway station is at Fourth and Townsend streets and is the terminus for services operated by CalTrain to San Jose.

By Road

The famous Greyhound Bus ( runs services between San Francisco and numerous destinations. If you’re travelling by car from the south, Highway 1 is the most scenic route from Los Angeles, with the parallel US 101 a faster inland alternative. From the north, US 101 runs south from the Canadian border to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and Interstate 80 runs south-west from Sacramento over the Bay Bridge.

San Francisco Travel Tips


American, with a West Coast accent. But on the streets of San Francisco, you’ll also hear everything from Hispanic to Chinese.

Currency And Tipping

The American dollar or greenback, made up of 100 cents. And just in case you need to know, a nickel is 5 cents, a dime is 10 and a quarter 25. The customary tipping rate is 15-20% for taxi drivers and waiters; bellhops are usually given $2 a bag in luxury hotels and $1 elsewhere; hotel maids should be tipped $2 a day. A doorman who hails or helps you into a cab can be tipped $1 or $2. You should also tip your hotel concierge for services rendered.

Dress Code

Take clothes for spring-like weather, and bear in mind that it can be cold on the ferries and on the Golden Gate Bridge and even colder when the fogs of summer roll in. San Francisco benefits from a constant breeze that can create a wind-chill factor in lower temperatures. Most Californians like to dress smart but casual – a few top restaurants expect men to wear a jacket and tie.


Major earthquakes in 1906 and 1989 are a reminder that San Francisco is built on a fault line. Many new buildings have been constructed to withstand tremors while older ones carry solemn warnings. If the earth moves, the official advice is to take cover, move away from windows, don’t use lifts and don’t run outside.

As in all large American cities, crime and potentially hostile street characters are a problem. Avoid all parks and deserted or poorly-lit streets at night, carry no obvious valuables and leave nothing you care about in the car. Panhandlers (beggars) are obvious and sometimes aggressive, particularly near Union Square and along Market Street. Most San Franciscans decline politely and continue on their way.


Cable cars are a city trademark. The two most popular lines of the three routes, Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason, start from a turntable by Hallidie Plaza, at the junction of Powell and Market Streets. At peak times there can be long queues – better to ride the cars early in the morning, in the evening or taking the less-crowded California Street line.

MUNI (San Francisco Municipal Railway) operates a complex but comprehensive public transport network reaching all corners of the city. It’s a cheap and reliable way to enjoy San Francisco.

The most economical way is to buy a MUNI Passport, valid for 1, 3 or 7 days, which allows unlimited travel on buses, metro lines and cable cars, as well as discounted admission to some museums and sights. These can be bought from the Visitor Centre in Hallidie Plaza and other outlets, along with the useful MUNI street and transit map.


What to do in San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge

One of the world’s finest, with its tremendous towers, sweeping cables and great span. A must-see.

Golden Gate Park

More than a thousand acres of gardens, lakes, walking paths, an arboretum and botanical gardens. Rest awhile in the Japanese Tea Garden.

Fisherman’s Wharf

A long, coastal road of seafood restaurants, street vendors and souvenir stores is combined with a major fishing pier. Pier 39 is the ‘in’ place.


The infamous prison on an island, a ten-minute ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf.

Cable Cars

Try the California Street line, which runs from the Financial District through Chinatown and over Nob Hill.

China Town

A dragon-draped archway at the intersection of Bush and Grant streets announces the entrance. Streets teem with fish and vegetable stalls, restaurants, herbal shops and temples.

Alamo Square

Where Victorian homes are juxtaposed against the towering backdrop of downtown’s skyscrapers. With Lombard Street – the world’s most crooked.

North Beach

San Francisco’s Italian neighbourhood – with delis and coffee houses aplenty.


A fun and quirky museum of science, art and human perception. 650 hands-on exhibits.

AT & T Park

Home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team.

Eating and Drinking

Ditch the diet, load the wallet and summon the taste buds. You’re in San Francisco, ambassador of Californian and diverse ethnic cuisines, where eating out is a passion and restaurants attract a level of client fanaticism normally reserved for the world of high fashion.

The possibilities of where to eat and when are dazzling – even the theoretically simple task of ordering a sandwich turns into a multiple-choice interrogation. If you want to do the thing the San Franciscan way, breakfast should be taken in a diner with an all-American fry-up of eggs, bacon, and hash browns or in a Mediterranean-style café with croissants and coffee. Sunday means brunch, with the double-sized San Francisco Chronicle. And Frisco’s grander hotels have acquired a taste for afternoon tea, served the English way with Earl Grey, scones and bone china.

This city really does offer the world on a plate. Few tourists leave without a meal in its two busiest dining venues, Chinatown and Italian North Beach, but the possibilities are endless – Russian, Japanese, Cambodian, Korean, Moroccan, Indian, Mexican, Greek … and there’s a relentless supply of take-aways and 24-hour delis to fill the gaps. And don’t leave the city without trying the local speciality: Dungeness crab and sourdough bread.


San Francisco’s shopping heart is Union Square and its neighbouring blocks. Here you’ll find department stores such as Macy’s and designer shops like Armani, Tiffany and Saks Fifth Avenue.

A big retail complex is the Embarcadero Center, which is linked by above-street walkways incorporating the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Another is the San Francisco Shopping Center – over a hundred outlets on nine floors and worth a visit just for a ride on its unique spiral escalators.

Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown have everything a tourist needs (and plenty he doesn’t), but the most rewarding shopping might result from casual finds made while visiting neighbourhoods such as North Beach, Union Street, Hayes Valley and the Haight-Ashbury. These areas all have small shops with individual style.

Most shops are open at least Monday to Saturday 10-6, with extended hours some evenings and Sunday opening depending on their location and merchandise.

Good San Franciscan buys include books, particularly as so many quality authors have written about the city, CDs, casual wear and decorative goods for the home. Many visitors like the idea of buying a pair of Levis in the city that gave them to the world.

Jackson Square is the centre of San Francisco’s antiques trade with more than 25 shops grouped together, while City Lights on Columbus Avenue is a famous independent bookstore and publisher and has been a literary meeting place since 1953. There are two farmers’ markets: one in United Nations Plaza on Wednesday and Sunday and the other by the Ferry Building, the Embarcadero, Saturday and Tuesday.

Night Life

From the Gold Rush days of saloons, whorehouses and gambling dens to the high-tech concert halls and hip dance clubs of today, San Francisco has always been a good-time city.

For electronic music clubs, hip-hop and chill art lounges, try San Francisco's SoMa district. For bar-hopping with hipsters and rockers, Mission District rules. More elegant bars can be found in the Marina district. Gay-friendly bars and clubs exist all over San Francisco and are not necessarily quarantined in the Castro.

North Beach is open until the wee hours with neon strip joints and cool hideaway bars. For featured venues, see

San Francisco Travel Video


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