Check out our new editable packing checklist template --> GET YOUR COPY NOW

A Succinct San Francisco Travel & Packing Guide

San Francisco Travel Guide

This post may contain affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, we will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase.

San Francisco, California is an essential trip for those visiting the United States. It was once site to one of the country’s largest gold rushes, which is how it became so culturally diverse. It’s also a culinary and cultural capital of the state, with art museums and award-winning restaurants within every neighborhood. The Haight-Ashbury area was home to the 1960s counterculture movement and the modern world of Silicon Valley. But don’t be afraid to get outside of the city, where you’ll find national parks and coastal towns.

Here is just a start to planning your own adventure to the city by the bay. If we’ve left anything out or you’d like to add to the conversation, please leave comments below!

San Francisco Travel Expenses Tips

Dress in layers- You don’t want to have to make a last minute shopping stop at H&M to stock up on scarves and pants if you don’t need to! Microclimates are real in San Francisco, so be prepared for the temperature to drop depending on what neighborhood you’re in. Expect heavy breezes the closer you get to the water.

Take public transportation and rideshares over cabs- Public transportation is easy to use, so don’t fret too much about getting around. Caltrain takes you south of town to Silicon Valley, while MUNI runs above ground as a streetcar. BART is the underground, akin to New York’s subway. You can get cards that will allow you to ride them all. Taxis can be overpriced, which is why apps like Uber and Lyft were created. You’ll find highly professional drivers in the city that made it possible. Certain neighborhoods are also very walkable, so you may not even need to take cars.

Sightseeing in San Francisco
Sightseeing in San Francisco

Use apps like Scoutmob to find deals on eating out- It’s easy to spend your entire budget just on eating out in San Francisco, as meals will run you no less than $15 at a restaurant. But if you use deal sites and apps as well as look for ethnic neighborhoods, you should be able to keep your budget under control. But then again, don’t be afraid to splurge at least once or twice during your trip.

Take advantage of the free experiences- Some of the best things to see in San Francisco will cost you absolutely nothing. They include the fantastic public parks, like Golden Gate Park and Fort Point, as well as Musee Mechanique, the Randall Museum and the Cable Car Museum. Other attractions offer free admission on one day per month, so do your research in advance. Photo ops at landmarks like Pier 39 and the “Full House” houses (also known as the Painted Ladies) is also free!

Get Out of Town- There’s much more to the Bay Area than downtown. The East Bay is home to Oakland and Berkeley, while the north is where you’ll find Napa Valley and Sausalito. Southwards lies Silicon Valley, Monterey and scenic Carmel-by-the-Sea. And don’t forget about Muir Woods, one of the most well known national parks in California.

Save some cash by searching for budget accommodation options in San Francisco using Booking.com.

Essential Gear to Bring

We’ve covered what to pack for San Francisco a fair bit in previous posts, but here’s a quick run down. Don’t think that it’s always warm like in other parts of California and pack accordingly!

Rain jacketDon’t get caught in a rainstorm. A portable rain jacket, preferably one that folds up, can also protect you from chilly wind gusts.

Smartphone So many things in San Francisco are now done by smartphone, whether it’s calling a cab or checking into your hotel room. Be ahead of the curve with your electronic device. You also may learn about new apps that haven’t arrived in your home yet!

Comfortable shoes Expect to do a lot of walking, especially up San Francisco’s infamous hills. If they’re going to give you blisters, it’s best to leave them at home.

Reusable shopping bag Some stores have started charging for plastic bags, so bring your own reusable bag to throw in your purse. It will save you money and trouble.

Pants– You could have the “should I pack jeans” argument all day, but whatever you decide, I recommend bringing at least one pair of pants to San Francisco. I had capri pants that I wore at Alcatraz and wished I’d brought knee socks or full length jeans because I got so cold.

Muir Woods
Think about all activities before packing.

Books to Read Before Visiting

The Fog City has long served as inspiration for writers, from the beat writers like Jack Kerouac to modern writers like Dave Eggers. Cozy up to one of these books to learn more about the history and picture yourself roaming the streets before your trip or just to reminisce.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin- Set in 1976, a young secretary first experiences the color and chaos of San Francisco in the hippie movement. The book is the first in a series of six. Grab on Amazon.

The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts- Milk was the first openly gay person elected to public office in California. He served on the Board of Supervisors and became an icon. Grab on Amazon.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon- This novel is about best friends who own a struggling record store. A former football player announces plans to open his own record store on the same block, throwing them for a loop. Grab on Amazon.

Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit- Far from a traditional book, this one interweaves stories about the city with maps and landmarks you might otherwise walk past. Grab on Amazon.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers- Based on Eggers’ life, he takes in his brother after both of his parents die within a short amount of time. They live in poverty in San Francisco and Eggers is unprepared for what it means to raise a child while he’s in his twenties. Grab on Amazon.

Movies to Watch Before Visiting

San Francisco acts as both a backdrop and as a source of inspiration in these films. Not all were filmed there, but a few have locations you can visit for yourself. It’s hard to choose just a few!

The Maltese Falcon- The film noir based on the novel of the same name stars Humphrey Bogart as a private investigator going after a woman’s missing sister. Grab on Amazon.

Escape from Alcatraz- Clint Eastwood stars in the film that describes the only known successful outbreak from the famous prison in 1960. Definitely watch it before you visit, as it will become that much more mysterious as to how it occurred. Grab on Amazon.

Mrs. Doubtfire- The family favorite that made Robin Williams a household name was set in San Francisco, where a father impersonates a female nanny in order to see his children. You can even see the outside of the house where it was filmed! Grab on Amazon.

Vertigo- In the Alfred Hitchcock classic, a former detective develops a fear of heights and vertigo, forcing him to retire. He is hired to check up on a friend’s wife, who is acting strangely. Grab on Amazon.

The Princess Diaries- Another family favorite stars Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews about an awkward high school girl who discovers that she is the heir to the throne of a small European nation. I especially loved that they lived in a converted fire station. Grab on Amazon.

Top Things to Do in San Francisco

There is an endless supply of things to do in San Francisco. Some are marked “tourist traps,” but are worth seeing, especially if it’s your first visit.

Alcatraz
Alcatraz

Fisherman’s Wharf This is the hub for all tourist activity in San Francisco, as it’s where Boudin bakery is located, with a line down the block, and a number of seafood restaurants on the water. It first opened in 1946.

Ferry Building The San Francisco Ferry Building is a restored building on the pier that is now full of vendors and restaurants, including bakeries, seafood, meat and cheese shops and a weekly farmer’s market.

Cable Cars Skip the long line for the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market and instead catch it on the way back. There’s also a museum devoted to the historic cable cars, which operate on 3 lines in the city, along with historic streetcars and modern trams.

Ghiradelli Square– Chocolate has one home and that’s Ghiradelli. This is where you can buy the sweet any way you want and bring some bars home. There are a number of shops and restaurants here, as the company’s operations have moved out of town.

Alcatraz Book your ticket in advance or risk literally missing the boat. Lines form at the pier just to purchase them if you decide to wait. Get an audioguide to learn about the history of the facility from its inception to closure.

Golden Gate Bridge Admire the historic 1937 orange bridge from Golden Gate Park or cross it by foot, bicycle or car to Marin County. Just remember that if you’re driving, you’ll need to pay the toll!

Chinatown San Francisco has one of the largest and oldest Chinatowns in the world. Today it’s one of the top tourist attractions, but still retains some authenticity. Go for a traditional tea or tour the fortune cookie factory.

Muir Woods Further out of town, this redwood forest that naturalist John Muir fell in love with first became a protected area in 1908. It has been a national park for over 100 years. Spend some time feeling small amongst the ancient trees.

Coit Tower This viewing platform offers unrivaled views of the city, as well as its own history. The murals inside were created in 1934 as a precursor to the Works Progress Administration projects.

Victorian Houses from "Full House"
Victorian Houses from “Full House”

Painted Ladies– You might recognize these Victorian homes from the opening credits of Full House, but they are actual residences. They’re best admired, and photographed, from Alamo Square park across the street.

Haight-Ashbury– This neighborhood was ground zero for the counterculture movement and was home to musicians like Janis Joplin and Grateful Dead. Today you’ll find offbeat shops selling clothing, wares and “herbs.”

Lombard Street– Billed as the “crookedest street in the world,” the street with constant switchbacks is best experienced by car.

Napa Valley Get out of town to experience some of the country’s best wineries. Drive your own car or take one of the many tours that leave from the city daily.

San Fran TourSmall-Group Craft Brews and Bike Tour in San Francisco – $69.00
Combine wonderful scenery with local food culture on this bike tour through San Francisco. Stop at three popular local breweries or bars to relax and try some great craft beer (first beer included).

Napa Valley Food TourNapa Valley’s Premier Food Tour – $190.00
Gourmet guided food tour of the Napa Valley by a food-obsessed local. Tours are limited to 8 people to insure an intimate experience and include a farm-to-table lunch with wine.

Food and Drink in San Francisco

Whichever cuisine is your favorite, you’ll find it in San Francisco. It’s easy to get caught up in the sourdough bread and seafood craze of Fisherman’s Wharf, but this is a true foodie city, from Berkeley to Oakland to downtown. Don’t be afraid to try new things like Mission burritos, Korean, Persian and Vietnamese cuisines, and all the food trucks at Off the Grid. Don’t leave without eating some form of seafood!

For more advice, follow our San Francisco Travel and Packing board on Pinterest!

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

Add your voice & leave a comment!

Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Leave A Reply