The Best of San Francisco: What to Know Before You Go

When you imagine a vacation in San Francisco, what comes to mind? It could be an artistically positioned selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge, sampling chocolates at the Ghirardelli Square, or even toasting the Pacific Coast with a glass of Sonoma’s finest wine at sunset.

All of these things are what make San Francisco magical and exciting. But in order to live it up in the Golden State, you must be prepared to tackle the twists and turns of the city — and I’m not just talking about the steep, windy roads.

I grew accustomed to the Bay Area when I was earning my MBA at Stanford University. And by “accustomed,” I mean it was a serious culture shock. Nobody tells you the truth about the Bay Area before you move, and that’s why I’m here to share how you can navigate and experience San Francisco like a true native.

Travel details in the city

San Francisco downtown

San Francisco | Source: iStock

A journey to San Francisco requires some pretty unique planning, particularly in the areas of weather and transportation. My weather app has become my best friend since living in the Bay Area. San Francisco has an affinity for fog, so it’s best to dress the part whenever you walk out your door. You won’t look out of place wearing a jacket in June. In fact, it’s better to look like a rain man than dressing in a bikini and flip flops — a surefire way to spot the tourists in a crowd.

Once you’ve got the fog situation covered, it’s time to consider how you’ll be getting around. Driving is manageable within city limits, and the two public transportation systems — Muni and Bay Area Rapid Transit (more fondly known as “BART”) — are pretty easy to navigate. But when exploring outside the city, personal transportation works best.

Keep in mind that distances are deceitful in the Bay Area. When I first arrived here, I soon realized 30 miles from San Francisco to Stanford took close to two hours one way. Keep a practical mindset when planning your route, but don’t lose your eagerness to explore.

San Francisco scoops

San Francisco at sunset

San Francisco | Source: iStock

Every city has its own unique culture, with unspoken rules and guidelines to follow — San Francisco is no exception. The lingo, transportation, and navigation are just a few unique selling points. As you board your plane or pack your car for a vacation in the “city by the bay,” keep these five tips in mind to garner extra respect from the locals.

The best views

Instead of driving aimlessly looking for the highest points to see the skyline, head over to the Marin Headlands for excellent views of The Marina, Presidio, Richmond, and Sea Cliff neighborhoods. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge will be in plain view, too. For different skyline scenery, check out Angel Island. Once a World War II installation, the state park offers breathtaking views of the Marina, the Financial District skyline, and Alcatraz Island.

But if you really want to feel like a local, travel to the mountain peaks in Oakland. On a road called Grizzly Peak, you can take in the entirety of the San Francisco skyline, including views of the Easy Bay and San Jose.

The traffic deal

Thanks to Los Angeles traffic, all California freeways get a bad rap. The reality is that San Francisco driving is nothing like L.A. driving culture. You’ll seldom find yourself sitting motionless on the freeway for hours — in fact, you’ll crawl at a fair pace most of the time. But where the traffic is frustration-free, the parking nightmare more than makes up for it.

Owning a car in the city is manageable, but depending on where you live or stay, street parking can be virtually nonexistent. Be prepared to shell out some money for a parking lot or garage.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco | Source: iStock

Whether you’re a tourist or a native, there is no denying that the Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see. Just don’t stop at the tollbooth. A few years ago, transit authority outlawed stopping on the Golden Gate Bridge for safety purposes. Despite this law, the outdated tollbooth has not been taken down. Whatever you do, keep driving and enjoy the splendor from a moving vehicle rather than a stopped one.

The food

San Francisco may rival Boston for its hearty clam chowder, but there is so much more San Franciscan cuisine to explore. Restaurant entrepreneurs pride themselves on blending humbly rooted cuisine with their own local twist. Each dish is fresh, vibrant, and unique.

San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere, and North Beach is San Francisco’s own Little Italy. Eateries of all shapes and sizes draw international inspiration from the farthest reaches of the globe. Although San Francisco is home to Michelin-rated and five-star restaurants, some of the best food comes straight off of food trucks.

The lingo

Whatever you do, refrain from labeling the city as “San Fran” or “Frisco.” Nothing detrimental will happen to you, but you’ll instantly be dubbed a tourist — natives have not shortened San Francisco’s name since the late 90s.

San Francisco can be an amazing city to explore for both first-time travelers and those looking to settle in. But if you employ even some of these tricks, you can come in under the radar and experience the city like a true San Franciscan.

David Adams is the founder of HomeSuite, an online marketplace for temporary furnished housing that uses technology, data, and customer service to provide the best possible experience for tenants and landlords. Connect with David on Twitter.