San Francisco is renowned for its iconic landmarks. It’s a city instantly recognizable to most people in the western world, and beyond. But for all its well know landmarks most people know very little in terms of practical information. With over 18 million yearly visitors that is something, we hope to change. Our San Francisco Tourist guide will help you understand all the Basic San Francisco tourist information, so you can better plan your Trip.
Of course, this one post can never be exhaustive, its intention is to just guide you through the basics to help you on your way.
San Francisco is a remarkably small city, especially by USA Standards. Most of the City itself is nestled on the San Francisco peninsula. The total area is a tiny 7 by 7 miles. This makes it a very convenient place to visit as most places of interest are fairly close to each other.
As you can see from the image above which shows nearly all the city’s main locations all from one vantage point, the Coit Tower. The View shows the Pier and Dock Areas, Downtown, Alcatraz, the Oakland Bay Bridge and you can just about make out in the distance the Golden Gate Bridge.
Click the image to the right to expand >>>
Furthermore, of the 7×7 miles square, not a lot of it is of vast interest to tourists. Really the Tourist area of San Francisco is very small. Mainly concentrated Between Fisherman’s wharf and Union Square. The upper right-hand corner of the City.
This is just a very quick rundown of the different districts see our Guide to the Districts here
The Heart of the City. This is where all the action happens. Shopping, Restaurants, Hotels Its all here. Union Square is actually the small City plaza, but it commonly refers to the surrounding few blocks, full of hotels and shopping centers. Many Transport links pass through or terminate here.
This Tourist hotspot is located at the north end of the Peninsular. Crammed full of amazing food and great attractions here is where all the fun happens. Although considered as a tourist trap, and that is kind of true, for the visitor to the city it still holds a lot of charm.
Also Called “Little Italy” is the area just behind Fisherman’s wharf. Home to a host of Italian restaurants and Most of San Francisco’s Nightlife. A young vibrant district. Great for slightly cheaper hotels that are still close to most things.
Russian Hill / Nob Hill
Home of San Francisco’s Famous near-vertical streets. Lombard Street is the most famous for its Wiggly Nature but all surrounding streets are STEEP. Hotels are well priced Mainly as walking anywhere could be hard work!
One of the main tram lines runs right through Russian and Nob hill which makes for a very interesting ride!
Or “South Of Market” is mainly a business district. But also home to several Museums which may be of interest. We mainly included it as you will hear it mentioned often, and it helps to have an idea where it is! Located on the other side of Market Street from Union Square. Hence the Name.
San Francisco has the Largest Chinatown District anywhere outside of Asia. It’s also the oldest Chinatown in America. A testament to San Francisco’s, and America’s, multiculturalism. Its frantic bustling busyness is something to behold and a Trip to San Francisco would not be complete without a trip to Chinatown. Oh, and the Food is pretty good too!
Situated mainly along Grant Avenue Stockton Street and Kearny Street. Its array of Junk Shops, Markets, and Restaurants is a blast to walk around.
The Birth location of Hippy Culture! Although there is little evidence remaining of its past. The area is now a very young, cool, area. Still a hotbed for new emerging musical talent. The main reason for tourists to visit is to simply visit the place where Hippism (is that a word?) was born.
The are many many more districts in San Francisco but the above are the most of interest to visitors certainly with an eye on hotels and entertainment. Most of the other districts mainly cater to the Residents and businesses of the area.
You can read a full list here and see why we can only mention so many …
Where to Stay
Most hotels are concentrated in the Financial / civic districts at the heart of the City. There is a smattering of hotels spread out from there all in differing Districts.
Our favorite places to stay are either one of the many hotels close to Union Square right in the heart of things or close to fisherman’s wharf. An evening stroll with a sourdough bowl of clam chowder is one of our favorite things to do in San Francisco.
San Francisco is served by one Major Airport. San Francisco International Airport is a very busy international Airport with all the amenities you would expect. Car Hire, Eateries, and great transport links Right into the City.
Read here for our guide on getting To and From San Francisco International Airport.
Transport / Getting about
Due to the relatively small size of the City getting about is not too much of a chore. Walking is the best way to get around most places. We tend to set off walking and switch to powered transport when we want to get back or change location. From fisherman’s wharf to Union Square for example.
The Classic Cable Cars of San Francisco are fantastic fun, but they are not overly practical. Unfortunately other than at very quiet times, they are just too busy. Expect over an hour’s wait at peak times! However, you absolutely must have at least one ride on this Iconic mode of transportation, but treat it as an attraction, not transport, Of course, at times you can kill two birds with one stone and get to where you are going while enjoying the ride on the Cable Car!
Buses are the Primary option for transport in San Francisco. The bus network is extensive and convenient and cheap. You will find many locals all utilizing the Bus network, Fares are $2.50 – 3.00 for a one-way trip, but we recommend getting the MUNI Passport for unlimited rides on all MUNI Bus and unlimited rides on the Cable Cars and Historic Street Cars from as low as $13.00 a day!
As is usual in most US city’s Taxis are regular, convenient, and only modestly expensive.
Uber / Lyft
The 21st century’s Rival to Taxis. Uber, Like most tech firms, originated from the Bay area so it’s unsurprising to see a large presence here. Cheaper than Taxis and arguably more convenient you should definitely consider them if you are an Uber/Lyft user. We use Uber more and more both at home and abroad and really have completely replaced our taxi usage with them.
Having a Hire car is not necessary if you are only staying in the City. In fact, the limited and expensive parking makes it a bit of a pain. The Transport links are perfect for getting around anywhere you want to go. However, the surrounding area has so much to see and do, It’s great to have a car so you can get out exploring! We find it best to Just hire a car for a few days for exploring.
This is just a very brief overview, Read our full guide to getting about in San Francisco
Getting to and from the Airport is very simple without a Car. The BART transit system will deliver you right into the heart of the city for around $9. Then use the Bus/taxi/uber to your hotel if you are not staying in Union Square.
OF course Taxis or Uber is also an option as are Shuttle Services which are cheap. However, they can be a little slow if you are the last to be dropped off.
Food in San Francisco is Incredible. Being such a blend of cultures the Food really represents this. Almost any whim is catered for but a few San Francisco Delicacies really Stand Out.
Clam Chowder (in Sour Dough Bowl) – You haven’t really been to San Francisco unless you have eaten Clam Chowder from a Sour Dough Bread Bowl. All Restaurants claim to have the best. Some are little more than canned. But find a good one and it’s incredible.]
Also, be Amazed at the size the seagulls grow to, feasting on the leftovers.
Chinese – In a City with the oldest and largest Chinatown in America it’s no surprise to find an abundance of fantastic Chinese restaurants. From incredible Dim Sum to more conventional fare and fantastic Salt and Pepper Crab. You must have at least one Chinese during your stay.
Cioppino – This Delicious Fish Stew is a San Francisco invention. And like Clam Chowder every restaurant has the best! Created for Italian Immigrant sailors it’s a tomato-based Fish Stew using local seafood like Crab, Clams Shrimp, and Scallops. Served with a Big hunk of Sourdough Bread.
Sour Dough Bread – While not really from San Francisco it’s part of the Culture and has been made here since the Goldrush. You will be served this hearty bread with most things and we can’t get enough.
Dungeness Crab – San Francisco Fishery’s catches ALOT of Dungeness Crab and piles of them are regularly served down on Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. It can be messy to eat and it’s mesmerizing watching locals pulling one apart to eat!
These are just a few of the local delicacies, the Food options are extensive and varied. It’s a great place to find food, especially seafood. The City also has a good selection of high-end restraints including Michelin Starred establishments, Read our full guide to Food in San Francisco
Attractions – Things to Do
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s most iconic landmark. The impressive engineering feat straddles the Golden gate entry to the bay. Whether you Cruise under it, drive ride or walk over it or just find one of the great viewing points it’s got to be on everyone’s list. You can’t leave San Francisco without a Golden Gate Bridge photo.
The infamous, inescapable, Federal Penitentiary now stands Dormant in the bay as nothing more than a tourist hotspot. A fantastic place to have a tour. Despite being disused for decades it’s still quite foreboding and intimidating, and the boat trip out provides fantastic views of the bay
Apart from the host of restaurants and shops, the Pier is renowned for its resident colony of California sea lions. While noisy and actually really smelly. They are great fun to watch.
Union Square – Shopping
Union Square is the shopping epicenter of San Francisco. Filled with high-end stores and top Department stores it’s easy to spend a day just looking around the shops and emptying the contents of your wallet/purse. Or you could head to one of San Francisco’s Discount Outlet villages for some bargain discount shopping.
Ride the Cable Cars
We mentioned before that Cable Cars are not the most useful transport system anymore. But they are really super fun. Hanging off the rail as they clang up and down incredibly steep hills is actually quite exhilarating. A real highlight. Check out our full guide here.
San Francisco is not renowned for its Museums but there is a good selection of good museums available. The California Academy of Science is a fabulous day out. The De Young Museum and the Exploratorium are also both well worth checking out. Full Guide to San Francisco’s Museums here
There is so much more to see in San Francisco this is only a quick run down see our San Francisco Attraction Page for more info or if you are looking for some money-saving ideas we have a full list of all the best FREE things to do in San Francisco
Visiting San Francisco On A Budget
If all the above sounds great but you wonder how you can afford it then we have put together a fantastic guide to saving money on your San Francisco Adventures. Even if money is no Object, saving money is always good though so the guide is really for everyone. We have some great tips on where to stay, what to eat, and how to save on attractions and things to do in the City.
One of the best ways to save money if you are planning on visiting a few Paid attractions is with one of San Francisco’s Attractions Passes. These PAsses allow you to visit a number of great attractions for a set fee and can save you 40%+ on ticket prices. We think they are a great deal and have put together a full guide on San Francisco Attractions Passes, which is best and which would suit YOU.
We always use Attractions passes whenever visiting a City that offers them.
Have Your Say
Do you have any information to share about San Francisco? A favorite Hotel? A Must-see attraction? Favorite restaurant? Feel free to share your experiences below. We would love to hear from you.