In this guide:
how to get there
see & do
why I love it
Fairmont San Francisco
InterContinental San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge
Presidio National Park
Golden Gate Park
In Part 1 of the travel guide, I talked about my favorite places to eat. Here in Part 2, you’ll find my recommendations for where to stay, along with a number of my favorite things to see and do that make you feel more like a local than a tourist.
How to get there:
San Francisco International airport (SFO) is about 30 minutes south of the city. Taxis into the city can cost as much as $60 one way, and Uber or Lyft is more like $35 (less if you can utilize Uber pool). The BART trains offer a much more economical route to the city at $9.65 one way to downtown and take about 30 minutes. BART stations in the city are limited, but a car from one of the train stations to your hotel could still save you money compared to a car the whole way.
Across the Bay to the east of the city is Oakland International airport (OAK), which is another good option for getting to SF. Once again, BART trains are the most economical way into the city, and they are much quicker during traffic times.
Side note: SFO Airport has a fabulous yoga room between Terminals 1 and 2. They supply mats, blocks, bolsters, and straps. It’s a great place to unwind and collect yourself if you have time before your flight.
Most of the 3* or nicer hotels are in a few areas: Nob Hill, Union Square, SOMA (South of Market), and the Financial District. The Nob Hill areas is central and has sweeping views of the city and Bay, but they a come with a price: sidewalks so steep they require stairs. Union Square and SOMA have hordes of tourists and convention goers, but their proximity to public transportation (BART) offsets some of hassle of the foot traffic. The FiDi is bustling with business travelers during the week, but some good deals can be found when it empties out on the weekends.
There are certainly other options, such as boutique hotels and Airbnb rentals, but here are a few large hotels that I’ve stayed in and recommend:
This historic hotel at the top of Nob Hill is where to stay for a luxurious trip to San Francisco. The 2014 renovation preserved the historic elegance while adding fresh, contemporary touches. The hotel offers meals and afternoon tea service in the Laurel Court restaurant. An attached health club provides guests with gym equipment, fitness classes, and spa treatments. The hotel also houses the famed Tonga Room bar in the basement.
Just steps from the iconic Transamerica building is where you’ll find this sleek, 32-story Financial District hotel. The area clears out on the weekends, making it easy to walk to Chinatown or the Ferry Building. East-facing rooms boast stunning Bay Bridge views. The hotel offers a bar, restaurant, and gym. It’s part of the Starwood hotel group, so it’s bookable with SPG/Marriott points.
An adjacent convention hall fills many of the rooms in this contemporary SOMA hotel, but the relatively new building isn’t a snooze fest. Downstairs you’ll find a lively bar and the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Luce. Guests can access a gym, indoor pool, and terraces usable for events. A BART station and the Powell Street cable car line are conveniently just two blocks away. Typically the foot traffic isn’t bad outside the hotel and the Ubers are easier to come by than in nearby Union Square. As part of the InterContinental Hotels Group, this hotel is bookable on IHG points. Its historic sister property, The InterContinental Mark Hopkins, is nearby in Nob Hill (across the street from the Fairmont), though the stunning city views and history there are somewhat outweighed by its need for a renovation, in my opinion.
See & Do:
It’s not a trip to San Francisco without a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge! For excellent views, walk through the Marina to Crissy Field, and perhaps keep going to Fort Point if you have time. Another route is to wind your way through the verdant Presidio National Park to one of the overlooks for a photo op. Even though it’s packed with tourists, it’s worth walking or biking the bridge at least once. It’s about 1.5 miles across, and you’re rewarded with beautiful city views if the fog isn’t obscuring everything. And while you’re by the bridge, check out the intriguing rotunda at the Palace of the Fine Arts, a remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
If you like hiking, but you don’t want to go far, you can trek the Marin Headlands just across the Golden Gate Bridge, or you can stay in the city and explore Land’s End. Make your way south from Land’s End to the Sutro Baths, the giant Camera Obscura, and Ocean Beach for views of surfers, kite boarders, and the Seal Rocks.
Just inland from Ocean Beach is Golden Gate Park, which holds a diversity of experiences, including the Dutch windmill, the bison paddock, the de Young art museum, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and no shortage of interesting people watching.
If the restaurant list in Part 1 was any clue, I love the Ferry Building! The historic, but still functional, ferry depot is lined with permanent vendors that range from olive oil shops to restaurants and bakeries. On Saturdays, the plaza around the Ferry Building is filled with a huge farmers market (my favorite!!).
I prefer experiencing a city as much like a local as possible, and Fisherman’s Wharf is pretty much the opposite of that philosophy. However, I still think it’s worth visiting at least once! Seeing (and hearing!) the sea lions piled up at Pier 39 is certainly a unique experience. I recommend going early in the morning before the piers are packed with people. The light on the water is magnificent in the morning, and the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz are picture perfect.
Talk a walk through Chinatown to see the shops, stalls, and restaurants. Continue on to North Beach, where you might see the locals practicing Tai Chi in Washington Square Park and you’ll find the opulent Saints Peter and Paul Church.
Other landmarks worth seeking out include the Castro Theater, Lombard Street, the Painted Ladies, and Coit Tower.
Tips & Local Customs:
San Francisco doesn’t really have seasons, so it’s mild most of the year. However, the weather can change on a dime, so I recommend packing lots of layers. You’ll definitely want some sort of wind breaker if you’ll be near the water because the sea breeze can be quite cold.
Pack comfortable walking shoes because the hills are no joke. The city is generally pretty casual, so don’t worry about packing fancy shoes unless you really want to (or if you’re balling out at fine dining establishments).
Whatever you do, don’t call it Frisco or San Fran. The locals won’t like it.
Why I love it:
I’m pretty sure San Francisco is my spirit city. Locally sourced food is at its finest there. You don’t have to leave the city to go on a hike (and hiking of the more traditional variety is aplenty nearby). The scenery is inspiring, and the weather is rarely too hot or too cold. It’s a city filled with intentionality. And it’s a city that I hope to return to time and again.