Whether you love the beach or the hills, shopping or hiking, museums or live art, street food or fancy restaurants, San Francisco has it all. This culturally vibrant city, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay with wine country to the north and Silicon Valley to the south, offers something for everyone. With so many things to do and see (each neighborhood could have its own weekend guide!), we’ve done the legwork for you to round up the most essential spots to visit in the urban heart of northern California.
Here’s how we’ve broken it down for you…
WHERE TO STAY:
Budget Hotels (less than $150/night)
Mid-Range Hotels ($150-300 night)
Treat Yo’self Hotels ($300-500 night)
WHAT TO DO:
Relax and Indulge
WHERE TO EAT:
Best Eats Under $10
Best Dinner and Brunch Spots
Drinks with the Girls
Where to Stay
Budget Hotels (under $150/night)
This family-owned Victorian building is located between Nob Hill and Union Square (both great areas for eating and shopping). The Mayflower Hotel is an excellent choice if you’re planning on spending at least a weekend in the city, as there is a two-night minimum stay.
This affordable hotel is located in one of San Francisco’s must-see districts, the Castro—one of the first gay neighborhoods in the U.S. and the former home of Harvey Milk. Fresh flowers and original artwork add eclectic charm to each of the eight rooms.
Mid-Range Hotels ($150-300/night)
Also located in the Castro, the Parker Guest House is just on the edge of the Mission District, which means it is only a five-minute walk from Mission Dolores Park and several of the bars and restaurants recommended in this guide. In addition to its prime location, this bed and breakfast is especially known for its warm and welcoming staff.
This historic building in the Mission dates back to the early 1870s but has since been upgraded with modern conveniences for guests, including complimentary wifi and a hot tub in the garden. The rooftop deck offers visitors a 24-hour-a-day view of the city from Twin Peaks to the Bay Bridge.
For an affordable stay in downtown San Francisco, check out the rooms at Hotel G, located only one block from Union Square. This boutique hotel promises all the comforts of home, including a Nespresso coffee maker in each room.
Treat Yo’self Hotels ($300-500/night)
Situated off Fisherman’s Wharf midway between Ghiradelli Square and Pier 39, this luxury hotel is in the ideal location for first-time sightseers to San Francisco. Guests especially love the nautical theme of this hotel, including its Blue Mermaid Restaurant and the bay views.
The Fairmont San Francisco is located in Nob Hill, only a quick walk away from popular areas such as Chinatown, Union Square, and the Financial District. This hotel features three restaurants, including the popular Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar. Not looking to splurge on your hotel stay? Consider stopping by the Fairmont to treat yourself to afternoon tea instead.
What to Do
Hop on one of three cable car routes in the city for a classic, fun view of San Francisco’s hilly streets. The California Line will take you through the Financial District and Pacific Heights, more affluent areas of San Francisco, and both Powell lines will take you by Chinatown and down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Cable car rides cost $7 each way, so if you want to ride more than once, consider buying a one- or three-day muni pass.
Watch a Splash Hit at AT&T Park
The home of the San Francisco Giants is a great way to spend an afternoon or evening in San Francisco, whether or not you are a baseball fan. If you’re very lucky, you might even see a “splash hit”—a home run that lands outside the waterfront stadium in McCovey Cove. Be sure to order the stadium’s famous garlic fries, and don’t forget to bring a jacket for chilly bay breezes.
Touristy? Absolutely. But for a good reason! Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf is a favorite place for travelers to spend an afternoon in the city by the bay. Treat yourself to a traditional clam chowder bread bowl, stroll to the edge of the water to observe the sea lions, and window shop at the many unique stores along the pier.
Catch a Beach Blanket Babylon Show
This “over-the-top musical comedy show” features pop culture icons such as Kim Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner alongside the Golden State Warriors basketball team and U.S. presidential candidates. The Beach Blanket Babylon Show is part political satire, part outrageous costumes, and wholly hilarious.
This iconic island prison is a must-visit for any traveler (or resident) in San Francisco. Be sure to plan ahead, as same-day tickets are impossible to find and even next-day tickets can be quite sparse during certain times of the year. Don’t forget a jacket as the ferry ride can be quite cold, and be sure to enjoy the audio tour, which is narrated by actual former correctional officers and inmates.
No, this is not the park you visit to get great shots of the Golden Gate Bridge. (That would be Crissy Field or Baker Beach or a lot of other places that aren’t the confusingly named Golden Gate Park.) But, you can easily spend an entire day wandering this park and exploring all it has to offer, including the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and several botanical gardens.
San Francisco isn’t the only American city to boast a bustling Chinatown, but it is home to the largest Chinatown outside Asia. Enter through the stone Dragon’s Gate on Grant Street to explore the busy commercial and residential streets of Chinatown. Allow at least an hour or two to enjoy a dim sum meal and wander, or consider joining a food tour for a more structured yet still delicious visit.
Many of the places highlighted in this guide are concentrated in the northeastern quadrant of San Francisco, but we would be remiss to ignore the beauty of Lands End, a favorite outdoor spot on the northwestern coast for locals and tourists alike. Hike along the Coastal Trail to the Sutro Baths, the ruins of a large public bathhouse built in the late 1800s.
Alamo Square Park seems to steal the social media spotlight because it faces the iconic Painted Ladies, but Mission Dolores Park is really the best spot in the city to host a delicious picnic. Grab a coffee from Java Supreme on Guerrero Street or ice cream from nearby Bi-Rite Creamery to accompany your fantastic views of the city.
This national monument is technically located in Mill Valley, but it is considered part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and certainly deserves a spot on this list of San Francisco’s must-sees. Travel across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to spend a morning in awe of this majestic redwood forest to the north of the city.
Relax and Indulge
Looking for a zero gravity relaxation experience? This unique spa at the edge of the Marina District offers “float pods” (water tanks containing more than a thousand pounds of Epsom salt), which allows spa goers to float effortlessly as they listen to soothing music or guided meditations.
Suchada has three locations in San Francisco, including the Suchada Herbal Spa featuring organic treatments. The owner’s grandmother opened the first Suchada in Chiang Mai, Thailand in the 1940s, and the San Francisco locations are decorated with imported Thai furniture and decorations.
Silk Day Spa
Treat your feet after a day of walking up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets with a pedicure at Silk, located just one mile from Union Square. With express mani/pedi options available for just $15 and $23 respectively, you can still treat yourself to a drink afterward.
This small massage studio is located just north of Haight-Ashbury and only blocks away from the east end of Golden Gate Park. Services include facials, waxing, and massage therapy, and are by appointment only. Be sure to book in advance, as the studio only has two treatment rooms and can fill up quite fast.
This store will delight readers of all ages, whether you are looking to buy, browse, or just spend an hour soaking up the scent of new book spines. (You know what I’m talking about!) Also check to see if any of your favorite authors will be around for a special event during your stay.
If you happen to be in the city on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, stop by the Ferry Building Marketplace along the Embarcadero to enjoy the farmers market, operated by the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture. You can also grab lunch from one of the many street food vendors or local restaurants’ booths at the market.
Looking for a San Francisco souvenir a step above an overpriced magnet? Local Take has you covered! This store in the Castro is popular with locals and tourists alike because of its wide range of items showing off its quirky SF pride, including tote bags, tea towels, and even soap and candles featuring scents of the city’s neighborhoods.
This eccentric store for “curious collectors” is located on Valencia Street in the Mission, one of the single best streets for unique shopping in San Francisco. Much of the store’s inventory is inspired by the founders’ fascination with the natural world (including taxidermy specimens), but you can also find other items such as jewelry, books, and home decor.
Where to Eat
Best Eats Under $10
This bakery, located just a block away from Mission Dolores Park, is known for its savory and sweet breakfast pastries, as well as its fresh baked bread in the afternoons. Treat yourself to an espresso beverage and a scone for a decadent breakfast under $10. Sandwiches, wine, and beer are also available at a slightly higher price point.
With so many wonderful independent coffee shops in San Francisco, it seems odd to recommend a chain for your morning Joe, but the individually brewed coffee drinks at Philz are a must-have while in the city. Visit one of the 13 locations around the city (including the Philz Coffee truck!) for a hot drink and specialty bagel—we suggest the Philz Spice bagel—to jumpstart your day.
Delicious street food options can be found throughout the Bay Area, but food truck aficionados need look no farther than Off the Grid. Can’t decide whether you want Mexican, barbecue, Korean, Ethiopian or seafood? Stop by an Off the Grid location and see what’s cooking! Check the Off the Grid website for current schedules and vendors.
The Mission is one of the most popular neighborhoods to visit in San Francisco, and the delicious food has much to do with its notoriety. But if you aren’t looking to drop three dollar signs, La Taqueria is famous for its reasonably priced burritos and tacos (available via counter service) in a casual, unassuming atmosphere. Expect a long line, but it moves quickly! The nearby El Farolito (2779 Mission Street) and Taqueria Cancun (2288 Mission Street) can also satisfy your burrito craving for less than $10.
Boudin Bakery is best known for its sourdough bread bowls filled with clam chowder, but you can also order other soups, salads, and sandwiches from the cafe for under $10. The iconic waterfront location on Pier 39 also features a more upscale Bistro Boudin on the upper floor with an expanded menu for a sit-down dinner.
Best Dinners and Brunches
This small German gem is nestled in Hayes Valley, an up-and-coming area of San Francisco replete with shopping and dining choices. Be sure to get in line before the restaurant opens (dinner is at 5 p.m.) if you don’t have a reservation. Once inside, enjoy German beer and wine with Bavarian dishes like potato pancakes and spätzle. Suppenküche is also open for brunch on Sundays.
Nopalito serves delicious, organic Mexican fare for both lunch and dinner at two locations in the city: less than a block away from Golden Gate Park on 9th Avenue and near the Haight-Ashbury district on Broderick Street. Menus vary daily to reflect seasonal ingredients, but margaritas and sangria are always available!
For a classic San Francisco experience, enjoy a seafood dinner with views of the Bay along the Embarcadero. The oysters at Hog Island are harvested from Tomales Bay, located only about 50 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County. Cleverly named craft cocktails (like the “San Andreas’ Fault”) are also available.
This New American restaurant in the Outer Richmond neighborhood serves three meals a day during the week and brunch on weekends. Its California cuisine menu is inspired by the diversity of people living in northern California, which means culinary surprises like a Japanese breakfast are listed on the menu alongside meatballs in curry and a tuna melt.
This American tavern in North Beach offers something for everyone, from seafood to steak to soup, plus a full bar with a wide wine selection. Park Tavern is also open for lunch on Fridays and brunch on the weekend. (Psst … the Brussels sprout chips are a crowd favorite!)
Drinks with the Girls
Located just a few blocks from Union Square, Jones features a heated outdoor patio perfect for sipping drinks with the girls after a day of sightseeing. An assortment of classic and custom cocktails are available for $10 to $15 each at the indoor and outdoor bars, along with beer and wine.
This popular beer garden in The Mission features a casual outdoor patio and is a prime location to grab a drink (or three) before or after hitting up one of the delicious taquerias highlighted above. Liquor and a very simple food menu are also available.
Bourbon & Branch
This Prohibition Era-inspired bar really promotes the speakeasy experience, so don’t go if you’re looking to capture your next 100-like Instagram photo (no cell phones and no photography allowed). Do come here if you’re looking for delicious craft cocktails and a quiet yet fun experience. Reservations are required to get the password for the evening, so plan ahead!
This brewery in the Inner Sunset—a residential San Francisco neighborhood with a healthy concentration of great dining options—offers more than 10 local brews, alongside guest taps, wine, cocktails, and beer-tails, including the Belgian Sour: the brewery’s own belgian golden mixed with bourbon, ginger syrup, lemon, and orange bitters.
Stock in Trade
Groups looking for a casual night out will find a fun atmosphere and delicious twists on popular cocktails (such as margaritas and Moscow mules) at Stock in Trade in the Marina District. The restaurant also offers hearty sports bar fare for brunch, lunch and dinner.
We Spent 48 Hours in San Francisco… Here’s What We Did