Understanding San Francisco

13 min to read

Understanding San Francisco

California, USA, and Citytrip

While it's not as impressive as New York, not as famous as Los Angeles, etc., I would recommend it over any other US city I've been to so far! It is unique in many ways, it has a monotonous good weather you can rely on, a ton of those charming Victorian houses and a long list of attractions, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz. But above all it's a vibrant and diverse city and I would move there in a heartbeat, if only that didn't also mean leaving my loved ones behind.

This is an recollection of how I've experienced San Francisco so far, an account of a frequent visitor who's fallen in love with the city.

San Francisco's climate

As I said before, San Francisco has a very monotonous climate. Temperatures range between 10-20°C (50-70°F) all year. Rain is almost non-existent for most of the year except for winter, when you could expect about 10 rainy days a month. But even then I'd hesitate to call it rain: drizzle more accurately describes it. This basically means that San Francisco has a very mild winter and a dry but not crazy warm summer.

You might expect San Francisco to be very warm because of the amount of sunshine it gets, and because that's what you could reasonably expect from anything in California. I made that mistake! But I soon learnt to dress in layers. You can probably get by wearing only a T-shirt for most of the day, but you'll need that jacket in mornings and evenings as it cools of rapidly (which also means that late night BBQ will be rather chilly.) And San Francisco is a hilly city where you may experience differences in weather in between those hills.

And then there's the omnipresent fog the western half of the city is often covered in. The fog is so frequent that it's affectionately being called Karl the Fog now (since someone started tweeting by that name a few years ago) and the most stereotypical San Francisco photograph is the Golden Gate Bridge covered in fog. The eastern half of the city is usually fog-free because of the hills in the center of the city.

The people

San Francisco is where the hippie movement started in the 1960s, but nowadays it's what a lot of hipsters call home.

Measuring only 11x11 km (7x7 mi), San Francisco is a small city. But it's pretty dense in population - only to be outdone by New York City - and it would probably be even worse if it were not for its very strict zoning regulations banning high rise and obstructing new housing developments in most areas. Now combine that with the recent influx of relatively well-off people in the tech industry (Google, Apple, Facebook, et al. have their headquarters in or near San Francisco) and you get a housing crisis with exorbitant house & rent prices.

So a lot of San Franciscans are in the tech industry. You'll have a hard time going to Starbucks (or another coffee shop - everyone has an opinion on coffee in San Francisco) without overhearing people pitching their new app that's going to change the world.

Unfortunately, the homeless are equally prevalent. I suspect the mild winters play their part, but I'm sure there are other, more tragic reasons why there are so many homeless people. They will usually hang out in the doorway of shops or in public transport stations, which also means you may be greeted to the smell of urine or feces as you get off the BART. You should not be worried about them, though: they may beg for a dollar, but they're harmless and won't harass you, whether you decide to give them something or not.

About a century ago, San Francisco was made up mostly of people from Caucasian descent. Nowadays, they make up about 42% of the population, with another 33% of Asian descent (it's pretty close to the Asian continent after all.) The remaining 25% is mostly made up of Hispanics and African Americans.

Where to go

Well, what do you want to do? San Francisco's main tourist hubs are Fisherman's Wharf & the Embarcadero on the north-east coast, and the general area around Union Square, San Francisco's main shopping district.

Scenic views

San Francisco is stunning and because it's hilly, great views can be found all over the city. The #1 vista point is definitely on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, where you'll look down on the bridge with the city's skyline right behind it. This view can not be beat!

If you want to see San Francisco from another angle, you can not go wrong with any of these parks: Bernal Heights, Corona Heights, Mission Dolores Park or the Buena Vista Park. But my favorite is definitely the top of the Twin Peaks, just about the highest point of San Francisco:

San Francisco as seen from Twin Peaks

Another famous spot is Alamo Square, with the lovely Painted Ladies (Victorian houses) in the foreground and a backdrop of San Francisco's skyline. Or take the elevator ($8 fee) to the top of Coit Tower to see the city from yet another angle. Just don't forget to check that it's not foggy - when I got up there, all I could see was white!

Shopping spree

Want to upgrade your wardrobe? Head over to Union Square! Just about any brand or designer has a boutique on or around Union Square, there are hundreds of them. Macy's, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and the Westfield shopping center are also all in this general area.

If you're not necessarily after the big brands and luxury, you should try Chestnut Street, Fillmore Street or Union Street. Or Haight-Ashbury for your alternative inner hippie.

And if it's souvenirs you're after, Fisherman's Wharf is where you'll want to be.

Museums

There's no shortage of museums in San Francisco, they are literally scattered all around the city. First and foremost: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SFMOMA, one of the largest museums for contemporary art in the world. And very conveniently located in downtown San Francisco, just south of Market Street. If it isn't contemporary art you're interested in, then maybe the M.H. de Young fine arts museum may be what you're looking for?

And while you're in the Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences, both a museum and a research facility, is just a stone's throw away. The Academy is a natural history museum with a planetarium and an aquarium, and a 4-story dome with a rainforest inside. More science can be found in the Exploratorium - on the Embarcadero - with its interactive exhibits designed to teach you about physics and your senses.

If you're after something that is typical to San Francisco, head over to the Cable Car Museum in Nob Hill, conveniently located at the cable car depot and the motors that power the cable cars! Or relive your childhood at Musée Mécanique and play the old coin-operated arcade machines.

There are a lot more museums I haven't listed here - that's up to you to find out!

Parks

San Francisco's home to many parks, but the Golden Gate Park definitely dominates. It's similar to New York City's Central Park in a lot of ways, though it's slightly larger. The most notable attractions in the Golden Gate Park are probably the 2 museums, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the Bison paddock.

North of the Golden Gate Park, just below the Golden Gate Bridge sits the Presidio, a former military fort that is now a sizable park with great views of the coast and home to the Walt Disney Family Museum & Lucasfilm's headquarters. In the north-west corner of the city is Lands End, with a few hiking trails and a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It also contains the ruins of the Suthro Baths, once the world's largest indoor swimming pool. Lake Merced Park in the south-west is another big park within the city, though I regret to say I've yet to go check it out.

And there are the many other, smaller parks all over the city. There's always at least one within walking distance that you can go to whenever you want to unwind.

Food

Even though this is America's food mecca, the first thing I usually look forward to is a quality bacon cheeseburger cooked to perfection (a good burger is hard to find in Belgium!) But that's probably not what you were looking for?

San Francisco has about 4.5k restaurants, 54 of which have Michelin stars. As you would expect, most of the restaurants are found in tourist hotspots like Fisherman's Wharf, and around Union Square and the Financial District. But you should definitely check out restaurants off the beaten tourist track, e.g. in Castro, the Mission, or Hayes Street. Trust the locals, they've been around the city and they'll know best.

Food from all over the world can be found in SF, but it seems to me that Asian food is particularly popular around here, and you can find a good restaurant anywhere in the city. Good Italian food requires a little more research, though: although there's no shortage of Italian restaurants, I've always had a hard time finding good pizza and pasta in the US. I find that North Beach consistently delivers!

Good street food - from any cuisine - can be found in one of the several hundred food trucks that roam San Francisco. You can try to track them down, or look for an Off the Grid gathering.

As for San Francisco's signature dish: that would probably have to be clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, which you can find all over Fisherman's Wharf. But I don't like it.

Getting around

Since San Francisco is such a small city, walking is usually a pretty good option - but keep in mind that you may have to climb some decent hills! The city is pretty easy to navigate, although 2 different street grids intersect at Market Street downtown. And even though San Francisco is a pretty safe city, it goes without saying that you should always be aware of your surroundings and use common sense. The Tenderloin in particular - also in the downtown area, right next to Union Square - can be intimidating. While I've never had issues, I wouldn't recommend (female) tourists come here (alone), especially since I've had locals there warn us white folks not to come here at night.

Coming into San Francisco by plane, you can take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from the airport to take you downtown. BART is the regional train/subway system connecting most of the Bay Area, with 8 stops in San Francisco. Unfortunately, this network is fairly limited and all of the San Francisco stops are on the same line, 4 of which are downtown on Market Street.

If you need to travel elsewhere in the city, you'll need to either take the bus, a cable car, or one of the heritage streetcars, all of which are operated by SF Muni. Most of these stop frequently, so while it's always easy to find one, this also means that it's going to be pretty slow: don't be surprised if it takes an hour to get you from one side of the city to the other.

A faster, albeit more expensive, alternative is a taxi. Or you can opt for an Uber or Lyft, for which there is no shortage of drivers in San Francisco - this is where both of these companies's headquarters are located after all.

Cable Car

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