San Francisco Holiday Planning Guide
San Francisco features scenic beauty paired with ethnic and cultural diversity. Spanish colonists established the city in 1776, but 80 percent of it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and the fires that followed. Despite its reputation as a sprawling urban center, the city is physically quite compact, located on a relatively small section of land at the tip of a peninsula between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. This makes sightseeing tours of most of the city's neighborhoods easy to do on foot or by bicycle, and each district offers its own distinct character and microclimate. To get around town on public transportation, buy a visitor's pass, available for one, three, or seven days, for unlimited rides on MUNI buses, trains, streetcars, and cable cars. This top holiday destination contains more restaurants than any other city in the country per capita, providing dining options to suit every traveler's tastes.
Best Neighborhoods to Visit in San FranciscoFisherman's Wharf
: Jutting out from the city's northern waterfront, Fisherman's Wharf and its litany of restaurants, galleries, and shops represents one of the city's biggest tourist draws; keep an eye out for Alcatraz Island, the Boudin Bakery, and nearby Pier 39, which is home to a plethora of noisy sea lions.Twin Peaks
: Windy Twin Peaks stands as one of the best places to visit in San Francisco for sweeping views of the city; at a height of 281 m (922 ft), you can absorb panoramic sights of downtown and the surrounding Bay Area from this vantage point.Chinatown
: Established in the mid-1800s as Chinese railroad workers flocked to the region, Chinatown is a bustling community of densely packed apartments, oriental shops, and restaurants with a Chinese heritage; plus, the area is home to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia.Union Square
: Although situated within the bustling commercial heart of the city, Union Square provides an escape thanks to its open-air cafes, boutique shops and galleries, and numerous hotels, all centered around a tall monument.Haight-Ashbury
: Record shops and tie-dye gear abound in Haight-Ashbury, one of the epicenters of San Francisco's 1960s hippie movement, which features Victorian houses and trendy cafes that maintain its counterculture spirit.The Castro
: Much of the city's party scene lies in The Castro, a historic neighborhood full of shops, hip cafes, and raucous clubs that in the 1960s and 1970s became the heart and soul of the country's LGBT movement.Mission District
: One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, the Mission District has its origins in the Spanish colonial period of the late 1700s, so this historic area features a strong Latin influence visible in its churches, culture, and abundant Mexican food.
Things to Do in San Francisco
Popular San Francisco Tourist AttractionsAlcatraz Island
: Once a penitentiary home to infamous criminals like Al Capone and Mickey Cohen, Alcatraz is perhaps the world's best-known maximum-security prison, and today the jail-turned-national park offers tours of its imposing island facilities.Golden Gate Bridge
: The quintessential San Francisco attraction, and a real feat of engineering, the Golden Gate Bridge and its instantly recognizable red suspension towers connect the city peninsula with neighboring Marin County.
Cable Cars: A handy form of city transportation in and of themselves, the open-air cable car system also acts as a local icon--these 19th-century trolleys can carry you along scenic paths through San Francisco's most famous neighborhoods.Golden Gate Park
: At 412 hectares (1,017 acres), Golden Gate Park sits among the nation's most impressive urban green spaces, and you'll find that strolling past lakes, visiting museums, exploring botanical gardens, and making use of the picnic facilities in the shadow of the famous suspension bridge are all great options for your San Francisco trip.Ferry Building Marketplace
: Housed within an attractive retired transport terminal, the Ferry Building Marketplace draws countless visitors to its gourmet food stands, upscale restaurants, and local farmers markets, which featuring everything from crab cocktail to sourdough bread.AT&T Park
: Home to Major League Baseball's San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park sits at the edge of the water, making for a great addition to your San Francisco itinerary, as you can tour the stadium, catch a game, and, if you're lucky, see a home run fly out of the park into nearby McCovey Cove.San Francisco Bay
: The defining feature of the entire region, San Francisco Bay abuts the city's peninsula and connects to the Pacific Ocean via the narrow Golden Gate Strait; its shoreline hosts public beaches, hiking trails, and boarding spots for boat tours of the region.California Academy of Sciences
: One of the biggest natural history museums in the world, the California Academy of Sciences features several different sections, including the world's largest planetarium dome, a rainforest biosphere, an aquarium, and museum exhibits.Lombard Street
: San Francisco's many hills define Lombard Street, and this winding cutback road, one of the most popular in town for tourists, takes you past stately homes and planters bursting with flowers, plus an unmatched city view.
Planning a San Francisco Vacation with Kids
Things to do in San Francisco with Kids
As one of America's most popular destinations, San Francisco is kid-friendly and welcoming for families. No matter what the kids' interests, you'll likely find plenty to fill your San Francisco itinerary. The city is home to an array of top-notch educational institutions the kids can enjoy, including the Aquarium of the Bay
, the San Francisco Zoo
, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Children's Creativity Museum
. History-lovers can indulge in touring the USS Pampanito
, a World War II-era submarine, or the famous Fort Point
, now a park.
Taking the whole family to San Francisco does not mean breaking the bank, as the city is packed full of free attractions to keep the kids entertained. One can't-miss activity is heading down to Pier 39 by Fisherman's Wharf
to get a glimpse of the noisy mass of sea lions on the dock. While the city’s iconic cable cars make for a handy means of transportation, they also help to educate the little ones on the mechanics, history, and development of the system at the Cable Car Museum
, which offers free entry. Alternatively, try The Exploratorium
, which focuses on art and sensory perception and boasts a number of hands-on, interactive science exhibits. Of course, if you are simply searching for a place where the kids can stretch their legs while you kick back and relax, there are plenty of places to visit in San Francisco that fit the bill. Fantastic city green spaces abound, and the Yerba Buena Gardens
, Golden Gate Park, and Mission Dolores Park
are just a few favorite (and free) examples. San Francisco's many hills also mean that the public concrete slides scattered around town are a real blast, so keep an eye out.
Tips for a Family Vacation in San Francisco
San Francisco is a crowded, extremely busy big city, and while it's very family-friendly, keep in mind that there is plenty of activity at all times, particularly downtown. If you are traveling with very young children, be sure to use caution around busy streets and on San Francisco's many steep hills. Entry costs for attractions in San Francisco and public transportation can add up very quickly while traveling with your family, so be sure to inquire about family passes and group tickets when planning to visit museums, galleries, and historic paid-entry sites. These special rates can often net you huge savings compared to buying individual tickets.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in San Francisco
Cuisine of San Francisco
Thanks to its seaside location, San Francisco cuisine embraces seafood. Whether it's grabbing some fish and chips or fresh shrimp down on Fisherman's Wharf or indulging in some "cioppino," a dish created by Italian immigrants that combines a variety of seafood in a delicious wine-based sauce, San Francisco will not disappoint. The city's cultural diversity brings with it a plethora of ethnic restaurants and cuisines to choose from, and Chinatown
offers some of the best oriental shops, restaurants, and cafes anywhere in America. Of course, it’s hard to leave town without trying some of the native Ghirardelli chocolate from the The Original Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory, or visiting the Bistro Boudin to sample some iconic San Francisco sourdough bread.
Originating in the Mission District
, the mission burrito (sometimes known as a San Francisco-style burrito) is a can't-miss culinary treat on your San Francisco trip. These hefty wrapped delights come willed with rice, beans, and tons of Latin ingredients that make it a local specialty. You'll find the Mission District and other areas of San Francisco packed full of Latin eateries, from tiny taquerias to big-name fine-dining establishments.
San Francisco sets the trends for top-notch culinary innovations, as many of the nation's top chefs run restaurants in town. However, gourmet food isn't limited to sit-down places; upscale markets like the Ferry Building
, a repurposed terminal now home to an array of gourmet food stands and shops, makes fine dining more accessible.
Shopping in San Francisco
A huge selection of stores, shops, and markets have made their mark on San Francisco; you'll have no trouble shopping until you drop during you visit if you so choose. While moving around town, you'll find plenty of well-known brands and chains, along with a number of smaller, independent companies hawking a variety of interesting products. Antique stores, book shops, ceramics dealings, and Asian imports all have a place in San Francisco, and spending a day wandering the streets and popping into hole-in-the-wall places is one of the city's great pleasures. Though you can find souvenirs all over the city, Fisherman's Wharf and the Mission District often have some of the widest selections for picking up a memento of your trip to San Francisco. Of course, big-time shopping malls are also common, and the massive Westfield San Francisco Centre
and Stonestown Galleria
are some of the best-known.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to San Francisco
History of San Francisco
Established as a part of a Spanish colonial mission in 1776, San Francisco immediately became an important center of regional trade, frequented by explorers and traders from Russia, England, and elsewhere in Europe during its first few decades of existence. You can see the original site of the city by adding the Presidio, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
, or the Mission Dolores Academy
, to your San Francisco itinerary.
When Mexico won its independence from the Spanish Empire in 1821, San Francisco became a part of the new nation. As the Spanish system of missions was dissolved, private landowners and settlers flocked into the region, setting up homesteads and gradually building up city infrastructure. After its capture by American troops in 1846, modern-day San Francisco was ceded from Mexico to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Shortly thereafter, gold was discovered in central California, leading thousands upon thousands of fortune-seekers to exponentially increase San Francisco's population. The Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s brought widespread development, as entrepreneurs set up new ventures to make the most of the wealth and materials pouring into the city. During this time, now-famous names like Ghirardelli, Levi Strauss, and Wells Fargo were born, and the city swelled with an influx of Chinese immigrant workers tasked with helping to construct the region's railroad lines. By the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco had risen to become one of the United States' wealthiest and most important cities. Visit Wells Fargo History Museum
to learn more about the company's origins.
On the early morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco was struck by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which damaged more than 80 percent of the city. More than half of the approximately 400,000 people at the time were made homeless, and ruptured gas lines caused a fiery blaze that would consume much of what was left of San Francisco in the following days. By the time the fires were under control, more than 3,000 people had died, and San Francisco was rendered a wasteland. The city recovered and rebuilt relatively quickly, spawning historic homes and neighborhoods, including the Mission District and Nob Hill
. Post-quake reconstruction brought urban planning and rebirth on a massive scale, and saw the development of the Pacific Heights
neighborhood. Keep an eye out for the City Hall
, an example of a structure rebuilt in a new style after the earthquake.
The rest of the 20th century brought great change to San Francisco. Weathering the Great Depression relatively well, San Francisco saw the construction of many of its famous landmarks in the 1930s, including the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay Bridge
. Alcatraz was also initiated as a maximum-security prison during this period. After serving as a major base of naval operations during World War II, San Francisco in the 1950s grew into a bastion of the American counterculture movements, when famed Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac made their homes in the city. 1967's "Summer of Love" was a defining moment in the hippie movement, drawing more than 100,000 people to concerts and gatherings in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The 1970s witnessed the rise of the gay rights movement, as well as the tragic assassination of both Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, and the Mayor of San Francisco in 1978. Another large earthquake, the Loma Prieta, struck the Bay Area in 1989, severely damaging many areas of the city, one of which was reborn as The Embarcadero
, which you can see during your trip to San Francisco.
With the advent of computers and the tech industry, San Francisco became the epicenter of a new venture: the dot-com industry. Hundreds of start-up companies, including modern titans of the industry like Google, got started in the Bay Area during the 1990s, and the social media revolution of the early 2000s has since contributed to even more development.
Holidays & Festivals in San Francisco
San Francisco's massive Chinese New Year celebrations in February and March include numerous raucous street activities, gatherings, and performances, culminating in a number of huge parades featuring colorful Chinese dragons, floats, decorations, and food. On the last weekend in May, the Carnaval San Francisco, a huge, Mardi Gras-like celebration, features a street parade with energetic performers and fun outdoor activities. June marks the coming of one of the city's most famous happenings: the two-day Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Parade. The largest gay pride event on the planet, it's a wild affair of live entertainment centered around the Civic Center
that draws more than half a million people each year. The city also hosts countless other large street fairs and gatherings too numerous to name throughout the warmer months, each with their own theme and dedicated following, so keep an eye out during your stay for flyers and information regarding local events. Though hard to pinpoint by a specific date, the gradual return of migratory sea lions to Pier 39 in January can also be a fun event to watch if your San Francisco vacation overlaps with the season. Major American, Christian, and Western holidays like New Year’s, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas met with plenty of fanfare in San Francisco.
San Francisco Travel Tips
Climate of San Francisco
Weather in San Francisco can be deceptive and surprising for first-time visitors. While the region features a Mediterranean climate, the Pacific Ocean has a huge impact on temperature patterns. Keep in mind while on your San Francisco trip that for the months of June, July, and August, average temperatures are the lowest of any major American city, hovering around 13 C (55 F), so pack accordingly. Summer months are generally damp, bring plenty of foggy days, and feature cool evenings and nights. However, in September and October things dry out, making these some of the prime months for sightseeing in San Francisco. On the flip side, temperatures in winter and spring do not generally approach freezing, staying within a few degrees of the summer averages throughout much of the year.
Transportation in San Francisco
You'll find during your vacation in San Francisco that the city's transportation network is extensive and quite efficient. Using a combination of city buses, and the famed San Francisco Cable Cars, you can easily get just about anywhere in town. The "MUNI" (Municipal Railway) comprises these different methods of city transit, and you can take your pick of different lengths and obtain unlimited travel passes. To get to other cities around the Bay Area, hop aboard one of the many inter-city busses, take the water taxi across the Bay, or use the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to cross to Berkeley and Oakland.
Of course, as is the case nearly everywhere in the United States, cars are still king. Renting one for the duration of your trip is the surest way to allow for the ultimate flexibility in sightseeing. This way, you aren't bound by public transportation schedules and can pack quite a few San Francisco attractions into each day. However, keep in mind that Interstate-80, the main freeway servicing the Bay Area, is among America's busiest highways, and driving and parking in the center of the city can be a nightmare during the week.