Dear reader: Print this out, fill in the blank with the name of a friend, relative, or other visitor who is planning a trip here, and send it to them before their trip.
Listen, ______________. I know that after your neighbors’ visit to San Francisco they bragged about riding a cable car and eating clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf, and showed you hilarious photos of themselves as prisoners on Alcatraz. And yes, I can’t believe I live here and don’t do any of those things regularly. Wait, yes, I can. And I wish you wouldn’t do them either, but if you must, here are some insider tips to get the most out of San Francisco’s tourist spots.
Think you’re done packing? Wrong. Put another light jacket in your bag. Trust me. While you’ve got that suitcase open, remove your high heels and fancy shoes. Break out the good old sneaks because you’re going to be hoofin’ it up some no-nonsense hills. San Francisco is where good shoes come to die.
The bus doors open three ways – when you step down on the step, touch the door handles, or push and hold down the circle button with arrows on the outside of the bus. The best way to get a whole bus full of people to yell at you is to fail to remember how to open the doors.
If you must ride Muni during rush hour (8 a.m.–10 a.m. or 5 p.m.–7 p.m.), count the number of stops you need to stay on because sometimes it’s difficult to see or hear the next stop announcements. If the bus is really crowded, it could be difficult to even see out the windows. Now that I think of it, just avoid Muni during those times, especially if you have giant luggage.
Muni costs $2 in exact change (but for youth, seniors, the disabled, and Medicare riders, it’s $0.75, with ID required). You’ll probably get an eye roll or two if you have to rummage for change and hold up the bus. To make it easier, just get a one-, three-, or seven-day visitor’s pass. Whatever you do, make sure that you do pay the fare; otherwise, you may be pulled off the bus and saddled with a fine of up to $110.
On escalators, especially in Muni and BART stations, make sure to stand on the right and walk up the stairs on the left. So if you don’t want to hike, stay on the right and let the pros get by you.
People with clipboards
They want you to make a charity donation, sometimes in exchange for a smiley-face sticker. Just know that when they tell you that you are under arrest for being too happy.
Nearly every morning I walk by the Powell Street cable-car turnaround and see a huge line. That line is for suckers. Catch the cable car at another stop – basically, any other stop. If you want an equally charming public-transit experience and a trip up Market Street, ride the F train. It’s a great way to get to the Castro and see the city on the way. And riding the F train is something locals actually do.
Also, for the love of your limbs, please don’t hang off the side of the cable car!
Most of San Francisco’s best places to eat and drink aren’t anywhere near the touristy areas. The Lower Haight has Rickybobby. Inner Richmond has Burma Superstar. The Marina has Betelnut. And literally any restaurant in the Mission will be better than the regular tourist spots. Check out Eater SF for the latest and greatest, or just look for places off the beaten path with long lines out the door. Those are the places you want to go, and the wait is worth it.
When you pick up the bill, please do not obnoxiously protest about the Healthy SF fees. We know, we know. Remember that San Francisco is a crazy-expensive city to live in, so a 20% tip is the bare minimum.
As a local,unless you work at Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll find that there’s absolutely no reason to go there – OK, besides In-N-Out Burger, but that’s what Postmates is for, right? If you just absolutely have to go to Fisherman’s Wharf, skip the clam chowder in a bread bowl and watch the Giants game at Pier 23 instead. If you must do the chowder thing before you leave San Francisco, go to the Boudin Bakery on Market and New Montgomery Streets instead. As long as dolls don’t give you night terrors, visit the Musée Mécanique. Take a load off after hiking the hills all day to grab an ice cream (or an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe, if it’s chilly), and watch crazy people swim at Aquatic Park. If you want to see the sea lions, walk along the Embarcadero and try to spot some from another pier before throwing yourself into the crowds at Pier 39.
To see the most crooked street in San Francisco, you’ll have to go to Vermont Street in Potrero Hill, but Lombard Street comes in at a close second and offers some pretty badass views of North Beach. One popular thing to do is stand in the middle of Hyde Street to get a photo. If you have to get that selfie, try to do it during low traffic hours, unless you love the sound of car horns honking at you. Also, if you had dreams of giving the steering wheel of that Dodge Neon rental car a workout, you might be out of luck, as San Francisco is flirting with the idea of closing the street permanently.
Golden Gate Park
The best way to hit all the important sites in the park is by bike. (You can rent one at many places located right around the park or even inside the park.) Visit the bison, but please remain fully clothed and behind the fence when you do. Rent a rowboat or a pedal boat on Stow Lake. Check out the windmill and tulips. And of course, the de Young and California Academy of Sciences are just incredible. If you go to the Academy of Sciences on a Thursday night, you can sip wine while you view butterflies, aquatic life, and couples on awkward third dates.
Doesn’t it look like a fire hose? Nope. No, it doesn’t. It was not made to look like a fire hose. We’re actually not sure what it was made to look like, but the view from the top on a clear day is pretty amazing. And the tower and the colorful murals inside were recently renovated, so yeah, it’s worth checking out. Nearby you’ll see a local favorite: the parrots of Telegraph Hill. There’s a really interesting documentary about them on Netflix you might want to check out before your trip.
This neighborhood, however touristy, has some amazing gems you shouldn’t miss. And just the fact that it’s where Jack Kerouac used to hang makes you feel cool by proxy. Catch some local music at Grant Avenue and Green Street, have late-night pizza at Golden Boy, and browse City Lights Bookstore. If you’re a dive-bar fan – really, who isn’t – there is no better place than Specs.
Before you go to Chinatown, read up on the history of the neighborhood and remember that real people, not entertainers pretending to be Chinatown residents, live there. Go beyond taking photos at the Gateway Arch on Grant Avenue and Bush Street, and stroll through the alleyways. If you look a little closer than the average tourist, you’ll see a unique and intriguing neighborhood with so much to offer.
The night tour of Alcatraz is infinitely better than the day tour, especially if you’re into spooky ghost stories. Make sure you buy your tickets online several weeks ahead of time, and wear comfy shoes because there are a few big hills on that rock.
Golden Gate Bridge
The bridge attracts walkers, runners, and bikers. Check the signs to make sure you are on the correct side for walking or biking. Once you’ve established that you’re in the right place, be sure to watch out for people coming around corners to avoid an accidental face-to-face collision. Awkward.
The Bay Bridge
This bridge isn’t as talked about as its Golden sister, but it’s worth checking out. There’s a pedestrian walkway/bikeway on the new eastern span, although you can’t walk the entire bridge yet (you’ll have to wait until 2015 for that). At night you can see the pretty Bay Lights installation flickering on the western span from the Embarcadero.
Danny, Michelle, D. J., and Uncle Jesse! We know. We’ll wait until after your third rendition of “Everywhere You Look” to break it to you that Full House was actually filmed in a studio somewhere in Los Angeles, and that the supposed Tanner house is not one of those Painted Ladies, but rather a Victorian on Broderick Street.
Hidden San Francisco Treasures
There are several hidden sites that aren’t in the guidebooks. Check out the secret slides on Seward Street in the Castro, Mt. Sutro Open Space Reserve, Lands End, and the Wave Organ.
One of the best tourist activities in San Francisco is people watching. Dolores Park, the Ferry Building, Fort Mason: these are all great places to watch San Franciscans in action.