Plan Your Trip to San Francisco
When to go
San Francisco is blessed with a mild climate, with temperatures rarely below 40 degrees or above 80. However, with its proximity to the cold Pacific Ocean the weather can be mercurial, and summer days can suddenly turn downright chilly.
High season is June–August, and the majority of visitors arrive then. Consequently, hotels, shops, restaurants and attractions are correspondingly crowded, so booking ahead will help you avoid disappointment on the ground. September and October bring a lovely Indian summer and fewer visitors, but beware that some large conventions roll into town this time of year, so hotel rooms can be scarce then, too.
From November to March, you’re likely to encounter cool days and scattered rain but also more room availability and better prices, and the weather is rarely inclement for long. San Francisco’s secret sweet season is April–May, when days are sunny, temperatures pleasant and crowds smaller.
Ways to save: For the best hotel rates, visit from December through February. If you want to sample some of the city’s finest restaurants at affordable prices, go during San Francisco Restaurant Week (usually during spring), when more than 100 of the city’s celebrated eateries offer prix-fixe meals at lunch and dinner.
Where to stay
San Francisco offers the full spectrum of hotels, from iconic institutions with hundreds of rooms, including cozy charmers such as the trendy and pet-friendly Kabuki Hotel in the heart of Japantown and the B&B-style White Swan Inn, where morning breakfast and evening wine are included in your stay. Budget places such as the Mosser, Casa Loma and Hotel Beresford are well-situated for exploration. For affordability, your best bet might be big-brand chains, such as Hilton, Courtyard by Marriott or Holiday Inn, all of which have several properties in town.
More ways to save: Short-term home rental agencies like HomeAway, VRBO and Airbnb may save you money over a hotel stay. Born and still headquartered in San Francisco, Airbnb offers a more affordable alternative. While city regulations have reduced the number of properties on offer, there are still more than 7,000 with prices that run the gamut, depending on size of rental and neighborhood.
How to get there
The most convenient airports are San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK), and both are connected to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system. Taxis are plentiful at both. If you want to arrive by train — well, you can’t, strictly speaking. Amtrak will take you as far as Emeryville Station, where you can catch a bus for the ride across the Bay Bridge.
Ways to save: Car-share services such as Uber and Lyft — both founded and headquartered in San Francisco — are often cheaper than taxis. Even cheaper are shared airport vans such as SuperShuttle and Lorrie’s. Cheapest of all is BART: A one-way ticket from SFO to downtown San Francisco is less than $10 per person, and just over that from OAK. BART offers those 65 and older a 62.5 percent discount with a Clipper Card, the all-in-one transit card for Bay Area transport, obtained in advance, which can also be used on San Francisco’s ferries.
Activities to arrange before you go
For San Franciscans, living well is a way of life, and attending the many cultural events available, a celebratory rite. Dining is San Francisco’s most popular pastime, and reservations at restaurants can book up months in advance. Blockbuster shows and performances sell out fast, too. If you have your heart set on a particular offering, plan and book! Typically, you would have better luck at smaller music venues and nonmainstream theaters at the last minute. San Francisco Theater offers ticket sales and TodayTix has discounts of up to 50 percent. Some museum websites sell tickets in advance. You’ll need reservations for the hottest restaurants, too — sometimes months ahead.
Ways to save: With CityPASS, save 45 percent on admission to the California Academy of Sciences, the Aquarium of the Bay, and the Blue & Gold Fleet bay cruise, as well as either the Exploratorium or the Walt Disney Family Museum. The pass is valid for nine consecutive days from first day of use. Download San Francisco’s official transportation app, MuniMobile, for advanced tickets to board cable cars, buses, trains and street cars.
The GoCity pass offers a variety of packages at savings of 20 percent to 55 percent on admission to more than 25 of the city’s top attractions. You can also build your own package for only the places you want to visit.
What to pack
In a word: layers! Whatever the season — and whatever the weather is like in the morning — always bring at least a light jacket or windbreaker with you. Even on a gloriously hot day, fog can slip through the Golden Gate and cool the air instantly, so be prepared.
San Francisco is superb for walking, its steep hills notwithstanding, so bring comfortable shoes. The city’s everyday sartorial style is “start-up chic” — that is, sneakers, blue jeans and T-shirts, or a collared shirt when the VCs (venture capitalists) are visiting the office. “Workout chic” is also a thing here, so you won’t feel out of place running around town in your favorite leggings and sweatshirt. If you’re going to the theater, opera, ballet or a splurge restaurant and want to dress up, by all means pack your fancy best. But don’t be surprised if the tech titan next to you is in sandals and a sweatshirt. The one exception is the San Francisco Symphony’s annual season-opening Black and White Ball in September, when sharp tuxedos and floor-length gowns show off the city’s razzle-dazzle personality.
Generally speaking, most of San Francisco's diverse neighborhoods are safe. Still, pack your street smarts. Crowded tourist areas like Union Square, the Mission and Fisherman’s Wharf attract pickpockets, so keep your wallets and valuables secure, and avoid hanging purses or handbags over the backs of chairs if you’re seated outside. If you’re driving, know that car break-ins in San Francisco aren’t infrequent, and trunks loaded with suitcases and computer bags are big targets. Plan to leave your luggage secured at your hotel or at a prepaid storage location, bookable via the Bounce website or smartphone app.
Let’s begin with the most important tip: Do not bring your car to San Francisco. It’s a hassle to have a car here, and you won’t need it. Use the money you would have spent on parking for a splurge dinner and a show. That’s San Francisco style!
Buses/Metro/Cable cars. Muni encompasses San Francisco’s bus, metro, street car and cable car lines that thread throughout the city. It offers discounted fares for older adults with the Clipper Card (the all-in-one transit card for the Bay Area) or the Muni mobile app. BART is the trans-bay rail system, which makes four stops downtown.
The world’s last manually operated system, San Francisco’s cable cars are one of the city's icons, carrying approximately 7 million passengers annually and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A system of 23 lines was established between 1873 and 1890, but only three lines remain. Make sure you take a ride from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf. You can also take the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines to the Cable Car Museum to explore the history of cable cars firsthand in the Nob Hill neighborhood.
Taxis/Ride sharing. Taxis are plentiful downtown, but less so in outlying neighborhoods. Uber and Lyft are better options there. For mobility-impaired travelers, Luxor Cabs has the largest paratransit fleet in the city.
Bike sharing/rentals. The city is proud of being bike friendly, with a growing number of dedicated bike lanes. A number of companies — including Blazing Saddles, Golden Gate Rides, and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals — offer rental packages, from one hour to all day to multiday. They typically include helmets, bike locks and maps. The best areas for biking are the Presidio and Crissy Field, away from traffic-jammed streets of downtown, and along JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, which is closed to cars on Sundays.
Given San Francisco’s notorious hills, e-bikes are becoming more popular, with spots such as SF Wheels and Bike The Bridge Rentals offering daily rates.
San Francisco is a city of hills, but there are also flat neighborhoods perfect for the mobility challenged, such as the Ferry Building/Embarcadero area, Chestnut Street, Haight-Ashbury and Fisherman’s Wharf. Sidewalks throughout the city are even and smooth, with curb cuts at all intersections. Wheelchair and walker users can easily access the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Most important, San Francisco’s signature sense of inclusion warmly embraces those with mobility challenges.
All BART trains and Muni buses and light rail are wheelchair accessible; cable cars are not. The historic F-Line streetcar accommodates wheelchairs at most stops. BART provides paratransit service to eligible individuals.
Check out Wheelchairtravel.org for more information on accessible San Francisco.