With its countless hills, spectacular bay and gorgeous Victorian architecture, you’d be hard-pressed to find another American city as naturally beautiful as San Francisco. It’s also one of the country’s most diverse cities, with every neighbourhood revealing a different layer to the city. If you’re dreaming about visiting this beautiful city by the bay, there are definitely some things you should know first. From budgeting to parking, hills to weather, here’s your beginner’s guide to San Francisco.
A beginner’s guide to San Francisco: 10 things to know before you go
1. Parking is a nightmare
I’ll be honest. Parking in San Francisco is a total nightmare. Not only is there a severe shortage of parking spots available but garages and valets are painfully expensive too. Don’t expect your hotel to offer free parking either – most charge upwards of $50 per day to park on site! Rather than deal with this headache, drop your rental car off on arrival into the city and either walk, take public transport or Ubers instead.
2. The culture is very open and accepting
San Francisco has long been one of the world’s most progressive and tolerant cities. From the hippie movement of the 1960s to the gay rights movement, the city has been the epicentre of it all. It’s also one of the most diverse cities in the United States and it’s very proud of its alternative culture. Here, you can be unashamedly yourself and you’ll be accepted without judgement. There aren’t a whole lot of places in the world like that.
3. Plan your budget carefully
San Francisco is notoriously expensive (it’s the second most expensive city in the USA). It’s all too easy to burn through your cash here and it takes a little bit of planning to stay within your budget. Some easy ways to cut back on costs are to take the affordable BART public transport system to get around instead of cabs or ride-sharing services, take a free walking tour to see the city’s main sites and stay in a cheap Airbnb or hostel instead of a hotel.
4. It’s hilly
San Francisco is famous for its steep, hilly terrain. With more than 50 hills, it’s actually considered the second most hilly city in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia)! Some of the beautiful Victorian homes are built upon crazy steep inclines – it’s amazing to see. Make sure you pack a pair of comfortable shoes as even though distances might appear short on a map, the hills can make getting from point A to point B quite the workout!
5. The food scene is out of control
Foodies will be in heaven in San Francisco. The city has long held the reputation for having one of the most exciting dining scenes in the country and is home to the most restaurants per capita out of any city in the States. Famous for its culinary innovation, it’s almost impossible to eat badly here. Be sure to explore the stalls of the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, head to the Mission for one of the best burritos you’ll find outside Mexico and don’t leave without sampling the city’s famous sourdough. Pack your stretchy pants!
6. The locals are effortlessly stylish
Just like Copenhagen, San Francisco is one of those cities where everyone just looks effortlessly cool. If you want to blend in, keep in casual, layer up and always, always bring a jacket with you. Ladies, leave the heels at home and pack comfy ankle boots instead.
7. There are a lot of homeless people
San Francisco has a very visible homeless population, due to its steep cost of living and lack of accessible public housing. Sadly, a lot of the homeless are also dealing with mental health illnesses and don’t have access to treatment or medication. Seeing a lot of people on the streets can be confronting, especially to those who aren’t used to it. Just remember that the vast majority of San Francisco’s homeless are harmless. If you want to help, do something that shows you care. It can be as easy as buying someone a cup of coffee.
8. The weather isn’t like the rest of California
Despite being in California, San Francisco’s weather is notoriously windy, chilly and foggy. Even in the summertime when the rest of the state is warm, don’t expect it to be the same here. The hills also mean that San Francisco is home to microclimates where the weather can be different from one neighbourhood to the next! Stay comfortable by layering up and checking the weather forecast before heading out for the day.
9. Don’t miss the neighbourhoods
For a relatively compact city, San Francisco is home to a surprisingly diverse host of neighbourhoods, each with its own unique character and charm. Get out of Downtown and explore at least a few of them while you’re there. Experience hispanic culture and admire colourful murals in the Mission district, visit the lively and legendary gay district of the Castro or explore the unpretentious and artsy Lower Haight neighbourhood. Each neighbourhood reveals a different layer to the city.
10. See the tourist sites but experience local life too
It would be a shame to come to San Francisco and miss Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge or the cable cars, but make sure you get a taste of local life too. Explore one of the many farmer’s markets dotted across town, catch a movie at the historic Castro Theatre or hike up Twin Peaks.
Looking for more USA city guides? Read these next:
- See the Best of San Francisco in 24 Hours
- The Best of San Diego: A First Timer’s Guide
- How to Spend One Perfect Day in Washington DC
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What would you add to our beginner’s guide to San Francisco? Tell us in the comments!