When to visit
- Very Favourable
What to do
- Worth the detour
- Must see
San Francisco is the most European and the most tolerant of American cities. You simply cannot plan a Western USA trip without a visit here.
There are many neighborhoods to explore, each with its distinct character, where you will enjoy discovering an everyday life that is very different from your own.
The "City by the Bay" can sometimes feel like an urban roller coaster with its many hills, steep streets and surprising staircases.
The official entrance to Chinatown is marked by the Chinatown Gate (Dragon Gate), a large colourful gateway arch that was a gift from Taiwan in 1969. San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia.
If you really want to get a feel for Chinatown, it's best to go early in the morning when the local residents do their shopping. Grant Avenue is the neighbourhood's major thoroughfare with its many souvenir and gift shops. There is also Washington Street and Waverly Place , a quiet narrow street where you can find a wide variety of brightly painted balconies in a striking mix of colours and styles.
Portsmouth Square is known as the Heart of Chinatown. This small park is rich with history and contains many commemorative statues and plaques. It is a popular spot for local residents, and you will find Tai Chi adepts there early in the morning, children at the playground, and seniors playing cards and Chinese chess.
The famous fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco, and they are still made at Golden Gate Fortune Cookies, 56 Ross Alley.
North Beach is a charming and vibrant neighborhood packed with local history that stretches from Broadway and Columbus Avenue to around Washington Square. The neighbourhood is San Francisco's "Little Italy" and is very lively in the evenings, especially on Columbus Avenue which is lined with many coffee shops, bars and restaurants.
North Beach was also the birthplace of the “beat generation”, a literary movement that grew up in 1950s San Francisco.
Telegraph Hill is another of the city's many neighbourhoods. As it is located on the 86-meter-high and very steep hill of the same name, it is easily recognizable. The hill owes its name to a semaphore built in 1850 at its top, which was used to notify the population as to what type of ship was passing through the Golden Gate.
Coit Tower , a slender white concrete column rising from the top of Telegraph Hill, is an emblem of San Francisco’s skyline. It was built as a tribute to the city's firefighters by one of their great admirers and patron, Lillie Coit. The tower is 65 metres high and has an elevator to an observation deck, which offers spectacular views of San Francisco. Take some time to admire the magnificent fresco murals inside the tower's base.
Admission to the tower is free but there is a small fee to use the elevator.
On leaving the tower, we suggest that you head east and follow the signs for the Filbert Steps , an impressive series of brick and wooden stairs leading down the hill amidst gardens and trees. Once at the bottom, you will find the Fog City Diner at 1300 Battery Street, one of the many curiosities of San Francisco, where you can eat well at a good price.
The neighbourhood known as Fisherman's Wharf is actually a waterfront area and popular tourist attraction that encompasses several piers along with a wide array of restaurants, shops, museums and shopping centres.
As you pass by Fisherman's Wharf, you can't miss the stars of the neighbourhood: the famous colony of sea lions on Pier 39! Just a few meters from the pedestrian area, hundreds of sea lions have taken up residence on the wooden docks and like to bask in the sun.
Pier 39 is also home to more than 100 shops, a dozen restaurants with stunning bay views, and many street artists and musicians who perform here each day.
Admire the San Francisco hills and skyline from a different angle, sail under the Golden Gate Bridge and around legendary Alcatraz Prison, with a cruise of San Francisco Bay.
The famous “Painted Ladies of San Francisco", otherwise known as “Postcard Row" or the “Seven Sisters", are a row of 1860s Victorian houses painted vibrant pastel colours, located across from Alamo Square in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. You have probably seen them in movies or TV or in media photos of the city.
On a clear day, there is a superb view of the Financial District skyscrapers in the background.
This is a three-hour tour that you won't want to miss, but it's so popular that it may be hard to get tickets. Of course, we are talking about the most mysterious and famous prison in the world, so its popularity comes as no surprise!
Alcatraz is known for its terrible living conditions, its cramped cells, and its sinister isolation rooms from which escape was nigh impossible. The tour includes access to the island and its gardens, the penitentiary and also the screening of a short documentary film.
Five different tours are available, lasting between 2½ and 5½ hours. The night tour is the most impressive. Book online as early as possible (at least 3 months in advance).
Known as the “Crookedest Street in the World", Lombard Street in the Russian Hill neighbourhood is famous for its steep 1-block section with eight tight hairpin turns designed to reduce the hill's natural 27% grade. The view looking up from the bottom of the street is truly impressive.
Be warned: Lombard Street is quite an urban driving challenge… take it slowly and in low gear! Between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
San Francisco's history is filled with significant events, such as the gold rush in Sierra Nevada, which explains the name given to this famous red bridge. For many immigrants, San Francisco was a gateway into America and the bridge became a symbol of hope, a "golden gate" to new beginnings.
Inaugurated in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is 2.6 kilometres of roadway 67 metres above the water, 1 million tons of steel, 129,000 kilometres of cable, and 25 painters who maintain the bridge's paintwork on a continuous basis.
The bridge can be crossed on foot or by bike (there are several bike rental companies on the Piers) between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m., and you can even take the bus back into the city if you time it right. If you have the chance, walk across the bridge at sunset (bring a windbreaker and some warm clothing!)
*Note: if you drive south across the bridge, into San Francisco, you will have to pay a toll of about $8 (per car or RV). With a rental car, your best option is to prepay the toll before crossing, because cash payment is not accepted on the bridge. Payment can be made up to 30 days in advance or up to 48 hours later.
If you do not pay the toll, the rental company will charge the toll directly to your credit card, adding a hefty administration fee.
You can pay by phone or on the website. Just choose the "Pay future toll" or "Pay recent toll" option and enter the requested information (including the vehicle licence plate number and State).
If you have a car, don't miss driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, to the rocky promontory of Marin Headlands , which offers breathtaking views of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.
As this area is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (national parks network), you can stop at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center upon arrival for information and free maps.
Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., closed on Thanksgiving Day (4th Thursday in November) and Christmas Day. Admission is free.
The San Francisco cable car system is an icon of the city and has been transporting its inhabitants for more than a century (since 1870). You can't leave San Francisco without riding a cable car, and the best time to do it is early in the morning (before 8:30) to avoid the long lines (expect to wait at least 45 minutes). There are three different routes; you will find maps and schedules on the website.
Hop-on hop-off bus
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to tour the city is on board a double-decker bus. You will get to see the city's major sights and attractions, and you can get on and off the bus at your leisure. Several companies offer this service.
Where to eat
- $ Inexpensive
- $$ Moderate
- $$$ Upscale
- $$$$ Fine dining
ANCHOR BREWING COMPANY ($)
A San Francisco tradition since 1896, Anchor Brewing is California's oldest craft brewery. This small establishment offers an enjoyable craft beer experience. Guided tours are available: learn about the company's history, tour the brewery's facilities, discover Anchor's unique brewing process, and sample select beers on tap. Reservations recommended.
Open Monday to Wednesday from noon to 9 p.m., Thursday-Saturday from noon to 10 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 8 p.m.
House of Nanking ($-$$)
For authentic Chinese cuisine at a good price, go to House of Nanking, always crowded with students and tourists and for good reason! You won't be disappointed.
Open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 10 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 9:30 p.m.
This Mexican restaurant is so popular that it now has two locations in the city. Chef and co-owner Gonzalo Guzman got his start at Nopa before deciding to open his own restaurant, the Nopalito, serving wonderful traditional Mexican fare. The flavorful dough in the tamales and tortillas is homemade and the carnitas are considered by many to be the best in town. Don't forget to order a cocktail: the choice of tequilas and mezcals is impressive.
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (until 11 p.m. on Saturdays).
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana ($-$$)
Welcome to the best pizza restaurant in San Francisco, owned and run by 13-time World Pizza Champion Chef Tony Gemignani. All the ingredients are authentic and are imported directly from Napoli, pizza capital of the world. The menu is not limited to pizza and includes pasta and typical Italian dishes.
Open Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 11 p.m. and Mondays from noon to 10 p.m.
Cafe Zoetrope ($$)
This restaurant is owned by famous filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who is also a winemaker and a lover of fine food. Cafe Zoetrope serves authentic Italian cuisine including pasta, pizza and traditional dishes, in a decor that pays tribute to Coppola's long and celebrated film career.
Open Monday-Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 10 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 9 p.m.
Mission Chinese Food ($$)
The chef and his team have created a new kind of Chinese food using Sichuan peppercorns, quality ingredients and an abundance of bold flavours. The food is insanely affordable and insanely delicious. Don't miss the restaurant's signature dishes, which are sure to surprise and please.
Open for lunch Thursday-Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner daily from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
FOG CITY ($$-$$$)
Fog City, formerly known as Fog City Diner, is a San Francisco landmark. The restaurant has been a popular tourist attraction for years, as well as a film location for several American movies. The 1930's-nostalgia decor belies the modern, innovative cuisine. Don't hesitate to try one of the delicious cocktails for which the place is famous!
Open Monday-Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday until 10:30 p.m., and Sundays until 9:30 p.m.
State Bird Provisions ($$$)
Voted Best Restaurant in 2013, the food at State Bird Provisions is the product of passion and talent. Chef proprietors Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski have created their own style of Californian cuisine in a kitchen that serves as a culinary workshop. The concept is somewhat unusual: every evening, an array of creative and utterly unique dishes are served from table to table on trolley carts, dim sum style.
Open Sunday-Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
This small restaurant from Chef/owner Melissa Perello has been a hit from the get-go, and for one reason: no one knows how to cook like she does. Her intensely personal cuisine is successful on many levels: execution, taste, interest, value. Reservations are hard to come by, but if you queue outside the restaurant before it opens, you may succeed in getting a table.
Open Tuesday-Thursday and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
THE FRANCISCAN CRAB RESTAURANT ($$$)
Fisherman's Wharf is famous for its sea lions and excellent seafood restaurants. The Franciscan Crab Restaurant offers panoramic seafood dining featuring crab-based specialties such as Dungeness Pacific crab, the symbol of the Golden Gate fishing industry. The food is a bit expensive, but the magnificent view of San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Prison is worth it.
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Gary Danko ($$$$)
A designated member of Relais & Château since 2002, Restaurant Gary Danko is one of the finest in the city. The best seasonal ingredients are used in thoughtful inventive ways, using meticulous classic techniques to create well-balanced flavours. Everything is fresh, sophisticated and refined.
Open daily from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; reservations recommended.
*** Hours may vary ***
Where to sleep ?
Carnaval San Francisco
Dates: late May 2021
Two-day family festival. Discover global cuisine, international music, dancing, arts & crafts, and other fun activities and entertainment on every street corner for the whole family to enjoy.
San Francisco Pride
Dates: late June 2021
Celebrate the LGBT community with a large parade and musical performances. The festivities begin in Civic Center Plaza in downtown San Francisco on the last full weekend in June each year.
The parade on the Sunday morning starts from Beale Street and finishes at Market and 8th Street.
Stern Grove Festival
Dates: June 2021
A summer series of free concerts by world-class artists in a beautiful outdoor amphitheater.
Sigmund Stern Grove at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard in San Francisco.
Outside Lands Festival
Dates: August 6-8, 2021
3-day festival in Golden Gate Park. It's a celebration for all five senses, combining an eclectic lineup of musicians with world class art, food, beer, wine, and much more.
- Very Favourable