The complete guide to: San Francisco travel

May 27, 2018
Kristin O'Connell

The iconic City by the Bay has so much to offer visitors: friendly locals, fascinating counterculture history, top-notch dining, the world’s most famous prison, cutting-edge tech and some of the country’s most illustrious architecture — San Francisco Bridge, anyone Get the lowdown on all things SF from a local who lives there in this complete guide to San Francisco travel.

Getting to and from SFO and OAK

Whether you fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) or Oakland (OAK), you can take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) into the city in under 40 minutes. Simply buy your ticket online beforehand or at one of the kiosks located in the International Terminal (FYI the inter-terminal AirTrain goes directly to the airport BART station). Trains arrive every 15 minutes and cost approximately USD 8.95 one way for a trip downtown.

The other most popular option is to embrace the city’s tech side and order an Uber or Lyft from your phone and have your own personal car waiting for you at the departures level. For a standard car you can expect to pay USD 30 to 40. Or, you can choose to share a car with another rider heading in the same direction using the ‘pool’ option on the app. Your ride might take a little bit longer but it will cost half the price.

Taxis are an option but with San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley, the birthplace of two of the largest ride-sharing apps in the world, who offer cheaper rides in nicer cars, taxis are used less and less here.

Getting around San Francisco

Public transit options abound in San Francisco and thankfully most services run all day and most of the night; check the SFMTA website for schedule details. The MUNI (San Francisco Municipal Railway System) is a mix of metro lines and buses that visit every part of the city. The BART extends to the east and South Bay, allowing you to travel to Oakland or Silicon Valley quickly and efficiently via public transport. The MUNI is USD 2.75 one way while costs for the BART vary by destination.

Locals tend to use a Clipper card when using public transit but these have to be ordered in the mail, so if you’re visiting for a short period we’d recommend you download the MuniMobile app (of course there is an app, you’re in San Francisco now!). You can purchase and activate tickets straight from your smartphone without ever having to dig for change, or wait in line at a machine. BART passes can be purchased at all BART stations at ticket kiosks.

If you can’t download the app, make sure you carry cash with you to buy your ticket directly from the driver of the MUNI bus/train, if you happen to be boarding from a stop that doesn’t have a ticket dispenser. Drivers don’t give change, so you had better ensure that you (a) have the exact fare or (b) don’t mind donating to the public transit authority.

Walking is also a great option in San Francisco and it’ll give you a decent workout if you choose to climb some of our famous hills! Any destination that’s a mile or less away in distance will likely take less time to walk than it would to take an Uber, Lyft or public transit.

Where to stay in San Francisco

Our friends at Hostelling International are offering a 25% discount off Urban Adventures tours when you’re a HI member. If you need a place to stay while you’re in town, check out one of their locations:

HI SF – City Center

Set in a 1920s boutique hotel, San Francisco City Center Hostel has a vintage feel with bags of charm and character. Off the beaten tourist path but still close to it all, the hostel is between the edgy Tenderloin district and the clean marble columns of the Civic Center — a neighbourhood with some of the best cheap cuisine, great nightclubs and music venues. Enjoy en-suite bathrooms in all rooms, fill up on free breakfast at the hostel’s cafe or their $1 all-you-can-eat pancakes or eggs, and mingle with other travellers in one of their four stylish lounges.

Hang out in the HI City Center lounge | Photo by Hostelling International

HI SF – Downtown

San Francisco Downtown is housed in a renovated hotel, just one block from Union Square and steps from Chinatown and SOMA. Guests can start their days with the free continental breakfast, unwind in the evenings in the theatre-style media room with two movies shown nightly, and take full advantage of all the goodies within walking distance, including the SF MOMA, cable cars and vibrant nightlife.

HI SF – Fisherman’s Wharf

San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel is situated in historic Fort Mason buildings overlooking the San Francisco Bay with views of Alcatraz and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Not to be outdone by her sister hostels, HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf offers a daily free breakfast, and tops it all off with an outdoor deck where you can relax and take in the postcard-perfect views.

Things to do in San Francisco

From art to food to the great outdoors, there are endless ways to fill your days in San Francisco. The following tips should keep you pretty busy, with ideas for all kinds of interests.

For sports lovers…

If you love your ball games, cheer for the Giants at their new stadium overlooking the bay. Whether you’re on the lawn or in the stands, it’s a classic American pastime to cheer on your favourite team. Tuck into a brat and a beer while watching the eight-time World Series Champions do their thing. And the best part? The fans waiting patiently in kayaks in the bay for that elusive homerun ball. Purchase tickets online from USD 15 to 229. Baseball season runs from late April to early October.

For art lovers…

Art connoisseurs should definitely check out the newly re-opened SF MoMA. Four years in the making and it was definitely worth the wait, offering 45,000 square feet of free public art spaces and some of the most beautifully curated exhibitions in the US. There’s something for everyone here, even if you’re someone who thinks, “I just don’t get modern art.” Rotating exhibits mean there’s always something different and thought-provoking to see. Cost is USD 25 for adult admission, and anyone 18 or younger gets free entry.

For music lovers…

There are some fantastic music venues across San Francisco but the Fillmore is probably the most iconic of them all. Steeped in musical history, shows at this revered venue often include a specially designed poster unique to the artist and their performance here.

For food lovers…

If you like to get to know a city through its food then we definitely recommend that you peruse the delectable markets of the Ferry Building. With oysters, olive oil, pastries, ice cream, toffee, BBQ, burgers and lots more on offer, the Ferry Building has some of the best food options in the city, set in a beautifully restored historic building right on the bay. Visit on a Saturday for the full experience, when local farmers set up outside selling artisan goods and delicious fresh produce.

For nature lovers…

If you love nature, a stroll in Golden Gate Park is a must. A 1,000-acre rectangle of land in the middle of the city that runs from the ocean to the Haight district, within its bounds lies the de Young Art Museum, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the California Academy of Arts & Sciences and the Japanese Tea Garden, all exquisite destinations worthy of exploring.

For exercise lovers…

If you want to stretch your legs or work off some of the yummy food that you’ve been eating, rent a bike and cross the Golden Gate Bridge to the charming town of Sausalito for the afternoon.

Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay

The infamous Alcatraz | Photo by San Francisco Urban Adventures

For history lovers…

No trip to SF is complete without taking the special ferry out to Alcatraz, one of the world’s most notorious prisons. The evening tours provide a chilling atmosphere and spectacular views across the bay as the sun sets. Tickets are only available from Alcatraz Cruises, the official concessioner to the National Park Service.

San Francisco Day Tours

Looking for more things to do? Urban Adventures offers day tours in San Francisco, all led by local experts that will give you a taste for local life:

Bridge and the Beach
San Francisco is blessed with an abundance of girl-next-door good looks. On this San Francisco tour, see the natural beauty that all the other cities in America are jealous of by hiking the coastline past Golden Gate Bridge, Sutro baths, beaches, and the bay.

North Beach Pub Tour
From Beatniks to Blues masters, drunken sailors, hardened fishermen, and karaoke kings, North Beach is full of colourful, local identities and fanciful folk heroes. Find out about them over an Anchor Steam ale on this San Francisco tour that will get you talking.

Flavors and Murals of the Mission
The Mission might be San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood, but this district has turned into one of the trendiest parts of the city. Walk among the hippest locals in town on this San Francisco food tour that combines artisanal eats with some of the most beautiful murals and legendary street art in the city.

Teas, Temples, and Beatniks
Come explore where east meets west, fortunes are told with more sincerity than your average cookie, and the legends of masters live on. Between the Beatniks of North Beach and San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown, we’ll give you a taste of teas, temples, and culture, all with a local flare.

Create Your Own Private San Francisco Tour
Love the look of our San Francisco tours, but feel like customising them to make exactly the tour you’re looking for? Well, you’re in the right place. Put our team of local experts to work to build the perfect itinerary just for you.


What’s on in San Francisco

San Francisco seems like it’s always buzzing with awesome festivals and quirky events. Here’s our list of the best ones:

February: Celebrate Chinese New Year in the world’s biggest Chinatown with a series of traditional events plus a colourful parade.

May: The Bay to Breakers is a 12-kilometre run that is, in reality, a city-wide party. While there are people who run the 7+ mile route from the Embarcadero to Ocean Beach, the majority of San Franciscans simply like to hit the streets early in the morning decked out in outlandish group costumes and slowly make their way from Alamo Square to the panhandle, drinking, cheering on the runners and stopping at random houses for impromptu roof parties.

June: As the birthplace of the gay rights movement in the United States, San Francisco celebrates Pride unlike anywhere. Get up early for the parade and end the day in the rainbow filled neighbourhood of the Castro.

August: Outside Lands Festival is one of San Francisco’s most popular events. Aside from a stellar music line-up, there are also different lands to explore. The food and drink options are always top notch — think gourmet food trucks, pop-up cookery schools and cocktail demonstrations. And there’s a whole host of artists, performers and comedians on tap to keep you entertained throughout the weekend. Held in the glorious Golden Gate Park, the festival continues to evolve every year.

October: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a free music festival that takes place over a weekend in October, when SF’s Indian summer is usually still in full swing. Not solely bluegrass, Hardly Strictly boasts a variety of artists occupying numerous stages throughout Golden Gate Park. Bring a blanket and picnic supplies and enjoy a warm, sunny day full of live music.

#localsknow tip: Most San Franciscans are late risers so the crowds grow as the day goes on at most events. Plan accordingly.

For more local events, check out SFist, the dedicated website to covering news and events in the city. The Bold Italic provides witty stories and opinions about goings-on in San Francisco. It’s a great resource if you want to get a feel for the culture of specific neighbourhoods and/or current issues that locals are discussing.

San Francisco on the big screen

San Francisco has had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood, featuring in hundreds of movies over the past 100 years. Our pick for the best all round San Francisco movie is Mrs. Doubtfire. A film about a divorcee who cross dresses in order to spend time with his children might not sound like a movie to get you in the mood to visit San Francisco, but it has many elements of what makes San Francisco so great: fun for the whole family, stunning San Francisco scenery and Robin Williams, who lived in the area for the majority of his life and is somewhat of a local hero. Other top picks would be any Alcatraz movie ever — The Rock, Escape from Alcatraz and Birdman of Alcatraz to name a few. Milk explores the rise of the LGBT movement in the city, while Big Trouble in Little China is a brilliantly kitsch, classic ’80s romp set in Chinatown. Or if you’re in the mood for vintage Hollywood, try Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo or the Humphry Bogart noir, The Maltese Falcon.

“Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s a heart (there’s a heart), a hand to hold onto.” The title song to Full House, one of America’s most beloved sitcoms, brings to mind images of the famous painted ladies of San Francisco who feature proudly in the title sequence.

Row of houses in San Francisco

Anyone who watched TV in the ’90s knows this street | Photo by San Francisco Urban Adventures

San Francisco on record

The ’60s in San Francisco was all about free love and psychedelics and while the city is constantly changing, its countercultural roots still thrive here today, continually influencing the people and energy of this amazing city. Check out Janis Joplin (a former resident) and her album Pearl and have a listen to the American Beauty album by California legends, The Grateful Dead.

San Francisco in books

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a fun and somewhat mystical story where old San Francisco and new, techy San Francisco intersect. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is a glamourous and seedy detective noir tale set in 1920s San Francisco. Homeboy by Seth Morgan, the former fiancé of Janis Joplin, is a unique take on the dark underbelly of the city in the ’70s and ’80s — a torrid story of junkies, hookers, pimps and drag queens.

Get in touch with us

If you’d like to learn more about the city, you can email us at You can also follow us on Instagram and friend us on Facebook for live updates from San Francisco.