San Francisco Travel Guide
Things to do in San Francisco
San Francisco has endless opportunities to get out doors which is one the many reasons it is my favorite city. When I would travel solo to the city for work, Crissy Field was usually my first stop because I knew I could easily find free parking by the marina and walk to the beach. Once there I would take in the views of the sailboats and iconic Golden Gate Bridge. You can buy a snack, coffee, or even ice cream on a warmer day from the nearby shop and walk along the water all the way to the bridge. There is a biking and walking path along the water as well making for a stunning trail.
I have always loved exploring the Marina District, checking out all of the beautiful homes that I could only dream of living in, and enjoying the peaceful Palace of Fine Arts. This monumental structure is worth a visit for the beautiful architecture alone. It used to host art exhibitions, but now it is used as an event space where you can catch a show in the theatre or host a private event like a wedding or gala.
Do I need to sing the song for you, or do you already know which television show made this area famous? The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square were the opening scene for Full House and now attract tons of visitors looking to take a picture in front of the iconic townhouses against the San Francisco skyline. I definitely recommend a visit.
The park space is also a popular spot to hang out with friends (furry and human). Some other great park spaces that the locals love include Fort Mason which lies between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina, Dolores Park in the Mission neighborhood, and of course the expansive Golden Gate Park.
If it is your first time to San Francisco, then no doubt someone has told you that you can’t miss Fisherman’s Wharf. This famous port area is now quite commercial, to be honest, but definitely worth a short visit. Check out the sea lions hanging out on the docks, eat lunch at the Boudin Bakery and take a loaf of sourdough bread with you for a picnic later, take the ferry to the notorious Alcatraz Island prison (or go at night for a spooky tour), then shop the farmer’s market stalls at the Ferry Building for the rest of your picnic goods. You can also visit the San Francisco Railway Museum and catch a cable car tour of the city. Finally head over to Ghirardelli Square for dinner options and, of course, a free Ghirardelli chocolate sample. I also highly recommend getting a brownie a la mode and a hot chocolate from the ice cream shop, seriously the best ever.
Whether you’re here for the instagram photo or you actually have an interest in the area, you’ll find so many treasures in Chinatown. Did you know that San Francisco has the largest Chinatown outside of Asia? You’ll find plenty of shopping and places to eat, as well as, a few photo opportunities. I found this local’s guide really helpful.
Kirby Cove is definitely worth the adventure across the Golden Gate Bridge. Here you’ll find endless views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay. I share more in my post here.
Mount Tamalpais is north of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge. This popular hiking spot affectionately called “Mt. Tam” is easy to get to by car and offers several trails along the rolling Marin Headlands. You’ll find stunning green hills and wildflowers in Spring and Summer, and gorgeous ocean views year round. I can’t wait to get back here. See more in my post here.
Where to Eat in San Francisco
Brunch at Blackwood is absolutely mandatory in San Francisco. Get a bloody mary for yourself, and bottomless mimosas and the Millionare’s Bacon for the table. You can thank me later. This restaurant can be found on the cutest shopping street in the Marina District and around the corner from the Palace of Fine Arts.
The San Francisco foodie scene is so intense and ever-changing, so I’m only going to reference the places I know. One place I love recommending is El Techo, because local friends took me there first. This is one of the few rooftop restaurants in San Francisco and a great place to go with friends. The Latin American menu is full of delicious small plates that you can share across the picnic tables or keep all to yourself. I won’t blame you if you don’t want to share the street corn and empanadas.
For date night or serious foodies, make a reservation (up to sixty days in advance) at State Bird Provisions. This Michelin star restaurant was named the Best New Restaurant in America in 2012 by Bon Appetite and still lives up to the hype today.
Coffee Shops and Other Instagrammable Restaurants
This is list of spots to visit if you’re looking for a coffee shop or just an Instagram photo:
Beacon Coffee: I had a chai latte so good here, I’m still thinking about it.
Media Noche: this cute cuban lunch spot is decorated from the inside out with a giant flamingo graffiti wall on the outside, banana wall paper in the bathrooms, and colorful tile floors. The turquoise and pink color scheme is IG gold, and the food is good too.
The Riddler Champagne Bar: I honestly haven’t been here, but I’d like to because champagne and IG photos are the perfect pair. The European cafe front decor and the giant popped champagne bottle graffiti can’t be missed.
Leo’s Oyster Bar: reportedly the seafood here is quite good, but I know you’re just here for the pretty wall paper and critically acclaimed, swanky interiors. Enjoy!
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Monte Cristo Bed and Breakfast (Presidio Heights)
If you’re looking for a cozy stay in a non-touristy part of the city, check in to the Monte Cristo Bed and Breakfast. I share more in my post here.
Hotel Kabuki, a Joie Vivre Boutique Hotel (Japantown)
Hotel Kabuki is the perfect boutique hotel for business travelers who are tired of the corporate hotel scene. Located in Japantown and walking distance to some of San Francisco’s most popular neighborhoods, there is something for everyone here. Read more in my post here.
If you’re looking to be closer to work or to some of the more touristy parts of the city like Fisherman’s Wharf, then you may want to look into staying in the Financial District or Union Square. You can find plenty of corporate and boutique hotel options for this area here.
Weekend Trips from San Francisco
Napa Valley is about two hours north of the San Francisco and offers a nice reprieve from the city’s chillier and more variable weather. In the summer, the valley temperatures rise into the 100s, which is nice when San Francisco summers often feel colder than its winters.
Of course, the main reason we go to Napa Valley is for the wine! I share some of my favorite wineries and recommendations in this post.
Healdsburg is north of Sonoma and west of Napa Valley, and is really just an extension of California wine country. The downtown area draws visitors with great restaurants and shopping, while the surrounding vineyards offer wine tastings. I loved visiting this area in the fall when the leaves change colors. See more in my post here.
Big Sur was one of my first bucket list items that I checked when I started traveling more after college. We made a day trip out to the beautiful McWay Falls and surrounding state parks. The entire drive is absolutely gorgeous and can easily be done in a day, but I’d love to go back and stay in an ocean view cabin or camp in one of the state parks. Be sure to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium!
Yosemite National Park
Last, but definitely not least, Yosemite National Park is my number one favorite weekend trip from San Francisco. It’s a four hour drive each way, so you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time. We visited for four days and it honestly wasn’t enough time.
I’d like to do a full post on our visit even though it was years ago. For now, I’ll just share the basics. You can see all of the options for where to stay here. We stayed in Tenaya Lodge which is just outside the park gates. While we loved our stay (the food was so good), I would prefer to stay inside the park next time because it is an hour drive from the park gates to valley floor. You’ll need to make reservations in advance or keep checking the website for availability, because the accommodations inside the park book up quickly.
The best time to go is anytime honestly the park is just so gorgeous in every season. If you’re concerned about waterfall flow, then you’ll want to visit in May or June when the ice melt is at it’s peak. You can check the conditions on the park website and on the live camera.
We hiked the Four Mile Trail which was pretty difficult. We had hoped to do the full Panoramic trail which would have taken us down Vernal Falls, but we didn’t start earlier enough. Instead we had to to turn around after we reached the absolutely stunning Glacier Point which offers incredible views of the whole park. You can drive to this Glacier Point overlook as long as the roads are open, which is usually sometime between May and October.
We also hiked the Mirror Lake Trail which is mostly flat, but still completely beautiful. Finally, if all you do is drive into the park, be sure to stop for these stunning views.