I have to warn you that I try to steer friends away from doing touristy stuff that is too cheesy (e.g. going to Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf) and towards stuff that a typical SF resident would do. Of course, I hope my biases don’t prevent you from doing things that you want to do.
Are you going to rent a car? I would suggest that you don’t except for the days that you leave the City (btw, people from SF call this “The City” never Cisco or San Fran). The City is walkable and parking is sometimes tough. However, you should expect hills, and you definitely should get a car to visit Wine Country and places outside the City. Moreover, Services like Uber and Lyft also make it easy to get around without a car.
As for hotels, I really don’t know much since I never stay at them, and most visitors seem to know more than I do. Having said that, there are a few in Fisherman’s Wharf. I particularly don’t love Fisherman’s Wharf since it is very touristy (think t-shirt shops, chain restaurants, wax museum, etc.), but it is walkable to things like the bay, Chinatown, the Ferry Building, North Beach (aka Little Italy). There are also hotels closer to Downtown/Union Square that are central to other things that are less touristy (e.g. Union Square (think shopping), SF Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Theater District). This location is also pretty central and has easy access to the Cable Car (aka trolley). The only real tips I have around hotels are:
- Try using services like Kayak to find a good deal on a hotel within the SF city limits;
- Avoid motels that are along Van Ness and Lombard;
- Avoid staying outside the City (unless you are staying in Wine Country);
- Try to AirBnb a place; and/or
- Generally, try to stay in the northeastern part of SF (i.e. roughly north of Mission Street and east of Divisadero). This is not about price or safety. It just more about being able to get around.
SF has a lot of great and diverse restaurants. I suggest that you avoid eating at any chain restaurants while in SF. There is always something better and cheaper (except for maybe In-NOut). This is especially dangerous if you stay in Fisherman’s Wharf that has Hard Rock and the like. Restaurants change so often that it is tough to keep up, and there are many choices. It really depends on cuisine types, budget, atmosphere, and how much planning you want to do (since places often require reservations). Off the top of my head, this is what I suggest in terms of good atmosphere, good food, and not too pricey:
- AVOID Fisherman’s Wharf (too many chain restaurants and pricey, fried food)
- AVOID Italian restaurants along Columbus Avenue in North Beach (too touristy)
- AVOID places around Union Square (too pricey)
- Do dim sum in Chinatown
- Capital Restaurant (Chinatown)
- Picaro (Spanish) (Mission)
- Park Tavern (North Beach)
- Wayfare Tavern (Financial District)
- Slanted Door (Embarcadero)
- Kokkari (Financial District)
- A16 (Marina District)
- Delarosa (Marina District)
- Limon (Mission District)
- Any taqueria in the Mission
- The House (North Beach)
- Dosa on Fillmore (Fillmore District/Japantown)
- Food trucks (check Off The Grid for days and locations)
- Domo (Hayes Valley)
- Cotogna (Jackson Square)
- Colibri (Union Square)
- Delfina (Mission)
- Flour + Water
- La Mar (Peruvian) (Embarcadero)
- Mama’s (Brunch) (North Beach)
- Nopa (Nopa)
- Nopalito (Mexican) (Nopa)
- Spruce (Laurel Heights)
I am sure that I have left several off. Check out: Eater: Hottest Restaurants in SF Right Now .
PLACES TO VISIT
In any case, the following are my suggestions on where to go while in SF (in no particular order). I’ve tried to indicate how long it would take to visit.
- Alcatraz (1/2 day) – You will need to prebook this!! Book this before you come. It gets sold out.
- Ferry Building (a few hours) – This is walkable from Fisherman’s Wharf along the Embarcadero (main road along the west-side of SF). This has several food places and restaurants
- Lombard Street (~30 min)- The crooked street
- Chinatown & North Beach (1/2 day+ depending on how much you want to do)
- Union Square and the mall. This is the shopping area. Fancy shops like Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, etc. are here. There are also 2 “malls” here along Market Street.
- Golden Gate Bridge and surrounding area (you probably need to rent a bike or car for this) (1/2 day+)
- The Presidio – This is a former army base that overlooks the water and has some great walks
- Crissy Field – This is a park/beach area in the Presidio. Lots of walkers/runners/bikers.
- Marin Headlands – this is the hilly area on the other side of the GG Bridge. If anything, drive over and take a photo of the bridge and the City from there.
- Palace of Fine Arts – This is the dome-like structure that you drive past on the way to the bridge.
- Lands End, Ocean Beach, Seacliff (again, you may need a car for this) (1/2 day)
- Ocean Beach is the main beach on the ocean side of SF. It is near Lands End (nice woodsy area overlooking the ocean) and Seacliff (the neighborhood where some of the wealthiest people live)
- Museums. I am not sure how interested your group will be going to museums, but if interested, these are the ones that I suggest:
- California Academy of Sciences (great aquarium, planetarium, rain forest, etc.) and De Young (across from CA Academy of Sciences and has a great view of the city that is free). This is in GG Park, so you may need a car or take a long bus ride to get here.
- Legion of Honor (near Lands End) has great Rodin collection. Very picturesque.
- GG Park – This is SF’s version of Central Park. However, it is on the west end of the city, so if you are staying near Union Square or in Fisherman’s Wharf, you need to take a long bus ride (45 min) or drive in a rental car. This park is huge. It has as lakes, buffalo, De Young and CA Academy of sciences museums.
- Visit Wine Country (could be an all-day thing) (1-2 hour drive depending on where you go). There are several “pockets” of wineries. Napa seems to be more touristy and Sonoma seems to be more for locals. However, there are tons of wineries and each area seems to have a different personality. You can go to bigger wineries that have beautiful grounds (e.g. Coppola in Sonoma, Robert Mondavi in Napa, etc.) or go to smaller ones that have small tasting rooms …or a combination of both. Buy a wine map so you can see what area you’d like to target. Let me know if you need suggestions on where to go. You really can’t go wrong. Most wineries stop serving tastings about 4-5pm, and it takes about an hour to get there from SF, so take that into account when planning this. Typically, you can hit about 2-4 wineries in a day without feeling too rushed. Note that some places require reservations if you have more than 4-5 people, so plan accordingly. Also, there are limo services that will drive you around. This is something you may consider if you are renting a car only for this and may want a designated driver that is somewhat knowledgeable.
- Visit Marin (take about ½ to full day)
- You can go hiking in Muir Woods (easy hike among Redwoods) and then have lunch in Sausalito or Tiburon (2 scenic towns by the weather north of SF). (15-30 minute drive). You can also take the ferry to Tiburon or Sausalito from SF and walk around those towns.
- Visit Monterey / Carmel (all-day trip) (~2-3 hour drive south of SF). These are beautiful towns along the coast. There is wine tasting here too and quaint towns.
- Angel Island (Could be an all-day thing). This is another island of the coast of SF (in the Bay, not the Ocean). You can take the ferry over and go hiking or picnic. You can also combine this with taking the ferry to Tiburon/Sausalito. Most people go to Angel Island and follow it up with a visit to Tiburon/Sausalito for food/drinks.
This is just some of my recommendations that I give friends when they are visiting SF. If you want to see my latest recommendations, download the Cool Cousin app (iOS / Android)and follow my profile. In the app, I provide my latest recommendations. Please provide your comments / feedback below on what you thought of my recommendations.