Travel Planner: San Francisco, California, USA

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San Francisco has huge appeal as a travel destination on many levels, from its stunning geography to its fascinating history and cultural diversity. The city, which was founded in June 1776, is the 14th most populous city in the USA; it has a population in excess of 880,0000, with the greater San Francisco Bay Area home to over seven million people. San Francisco is located at the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula with significant stretches of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay within its boundaries. The Pacific Ocean nestles on the west, San Francisco Bay on the east and The Golden Gate lies to the north. The city is a popular international destination for many tourists, drawn by famous landmarks including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Chinatown and Coit Tower, as well as its incredibly steep hills and historic cable cars.

Need to Know

Location: The west coast of the USA in central-north California.

Language: English.

Money: US Dollar. ATM’s are practically on every corner of the city, and currency exchange bureaus are safe to change money.

Time Difference: GMT -7 hours.

Getting Around: San Francisco is one of the better cities in the U.S. for getting around without a car, but its public transportation system can seem very confusing and complicated at times. If you are staying for just a few days, the most practical and economical way of getting around is getting a pass that allows unlimited travel on all the buses, streetcars and cable cars (but not BART) in the city. Another option is buying a pass for one of the Hop On Hop Off bus tours, which combines transportation with a city tour covering most of the city and the major points of interest. There’s also the BART, aka the Bay Area Rapid Transit, which is a train system covering San Francisco and other nearby cities in the East Bay and the Peninsula. Taxis are also plentiful in San Francisco, and of course it’s where the Uber phenomenon began.

When To Go: San Francisco is arguably a year-round destination, but the best time to visit is between September and November, as the autumn offers some of the city's warmest temperatures and fewer crowds than summer. Spring is also worth considering; the city enjoys mild temperatures and lack of rain compared to other parts of California, and in May the days are long. June, July and August are the foggiest months in the city with the fog rolling in during the morning, and giving way to some sun in the afternoon, before returning again in the early evening. These months are also much cooler than the rest of the US.

Tipping: As a general rule follow the rules which apply to the majority of the USA, and remember tipping isn’t optional. That means you should leave wait staff 18–20 per cent of the total bill unless a gratuity has already been added, and leave bartenders 15–20 per cent per round, or around $1 for a beer or wine increasing to $2 for a cocktail. For taxi drivers, leave 10–15 of the fare rounded up to the next dollar, for hotel and airport porters leave $2 per bag, and hotel maids should have $2–4 per night left in envelope on the bed.

Where To Stay

So many hotels, so little time. San Francisco is blessed with a diverse mix of hotel styles, light years away from the few which dominated a decade or so ago. How much you’ll pay is dependant on when you travel, as holidays and peak travel times are always expensive, and the city is also popular with business travellers and conferences. Today, there is high demand for hotel rooms in San Francisco, thanks to growth in several industries there, with plenty of new options to consider. The same goes for the “City by the Bay” as it does in most US cities. Do your research well in advance to secure a good rate, bearing in mind there are hundreds of properties to choose from, especially at the luxury and boutique end of the scale. The location of your hotel is also relevant in San Francisco, depending on whether you are in town for sightseeing or joining a cruise. In terms of some of the best of new and established to put on your list, check out the Hotel Kabuki a Joie de Vivre Hotel in Japantown, which is new, cozy but super cool, the Fairmont San Francisco, a city institution sitting atop Nob Hill, the Axiom Hotel San Francisco where Union Square meets SoMa, The San Francisco Proper Hotel, which is new and incredibly hip right now, and the Palace Hotel a Luxury Collection Hotel, which fuses history with art. 

Sightseeing Essentials

*Fisherman’s Wharf: You’ll either love or hate this touristy district which has lovely views across the bay to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and a lineup of seafood and fish restaurants and souvenir shops. There’s also famous sea lions in the harbour which make for an unusual photo-op.

*Alcatraz:  A trip to this notorious former prison on a rock is a must for every first-timer, but book well in advance, especially during the busy season, as tickets are always in demand. If you go, however, you will experience a pleasant ferry ride with views, as well as an important slice of San Francisco history close up, with the opportunity to explore what was once home of some of America's most notorious criminals.

*Chinatown: San Francisco claims to have the world's oldest Chinatown, as well as the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. It all began in 1848 with arrival of three Chinese immigrants on the American brig, the Eagle, and today the Chinese are an integral part of the city with Chinatown one of its top tourist attractions. Chinatown is a fun area to spend some time buying cheesy souvenirs or tee-shirts, but it’s also a great place to enjoy cheap Chinese cuisine including yum cha, and enjoy watching local life.

*Golden Gate Park: Larger than New York's Central Park, and home of a Botanical Gardens boasting more than 6,000 plant species, an aquarium and a planetarium, this impressive outdoor space is great for a long walk, as well as to explore. 

*Lombard Street: Located in Russian Hill, stretching between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, Lombard Street is dubbed the crookedest street in the world thanks to a 27 per cent grade which made it too steep for most vehicles to climb. Either way, the view from top or bottom is spectacular and it’s almost always busy with tourists grabbing a Kodak moment.

*Cable Cars: This is a combination of a tour, a must-do, and a way to get around parts of the city; however touristy it may seem, every visitor should do it at least once. However, one of the first things many visitors notice are the long lines to get on board. But there are ways to avoid them, which include getting on a couple of blocks away from the starting point-turnaround spots, riding the cable car in the evening when its less crowded, and riding the California Line through Chinatown and up and over Nob Hill, which is not only less busy but is also very steep and offers great views. 


  • If you are new to San Francisco, a city tour will not only take the strain off your legs but also take in most of the popular and famous sights, even if some, like Alcatraz, are viewed from afar.
  • Lovers of all things food can explore the city on a Local Tastes of the City walking tour. There are two to choose from - Little Italy and North Beach, or Chinatown - with local knowledge and all the food included in the price.
  • If you staying in the city for more than a few days and fancy getting into the countryside, consider taking a wine country tour to the Napa Valley, or an excursion to the picturesque enclave of Sausalito across the bay which offers the bonus of photo ops of the San Francisco skyline.

Best Happy Snap

San Francisco is incredibly photogenic, whether the sun is blazing or the fog is rolling in across the bay. It’s not always easy fitting them all into a tight schedule, but there are plenty of ways to capture the best of the city. Out top picks include the view from the top of the Coit Tower, which is close to the Embarcadero, and a fascinating structure to visit in its own right with panoramic views of the entire city and the coastline on offer. If you just have to have that photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, head to the wide open space of Chrissy Field to capture the iconic structure in all its glory.

Shopping And Souvenirs

Like any other major US city, San Francisco ticks all the boxes when it comes to shopping, boasting a lineup of world-renowned department stores, boutique shops, high-fashion and even a few outlet centres. For most visitors, however, it’s hard to get past the malls and shops on Union Square and lower Market Street. The social hub of the city, Union Square is also where you'll find top hotels, as well as wall-to-wall department stores including Macy’s and Saks, art galleries and fashion boutiques from high street to high end. Meanwhile the Westfield Centre on Market Street is a huge indoor mall, home to the prestigious Nordstrom department store and many boutiques.

Eating And Drinking

San Francisco is a city blessed with fine cuisine and plenty of diversity, with good food on virtually every street corner. Top areas to explore include North Beach, the city's Italian Quarter which is packed with cafes ideal for a caffeine hit or for just for hanging out. Chinatown’s Asian restaurants are hard to beat, especially dim sum which you can buy at a bargain price from the kitchen outlets which supply the city's restaurants. Just a few to put on your “must try” list include Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown, with an east meets west decor and traditional Cantonese food, the Liholiho Yacht Club, a polished bistro is part Hawaiian, part Californian, and part Chinese, the Mexican restaurant Cala, and California cuisine at the elegant Spruce.

Hot Tip

San Francisco is famous for its microclimates, so you will need to wear layers and be prepared to shed the layers throughout the day. The fog and sea breezes can see temperatures drop quickly, even in the height of summer, and the sun can come out at any moment taking them back up again. Light layers will ensure that you’re comfortable; also pack great walking shoes which can cope with the hilly terrain, and an umbrella.

Got An Emergency?

San Francisco Police: 911

Australian Consulate: +415-644-3620

Joanna Hall


  • 4
    Love It

    Posted by Sonia R on 9th Jan 2020

    My favourite city in America by far. But its expensive to stay there these days.

  • 5
    Best US City

    Posted by Neal Perry on 9th Jan 2020

    San Fran really has it all, from the trams and the hills to a vibrancy which is hard to match. And one of the things I love the most is how close it is to a variety of other cool places for Aussie tourists to hit up....Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and the Pacific coast down to LA......if you go to one city in 2020 make it the city by the bay

  • 4
    Great City

    Posted by Linda K on 9th Dec 2019

    I was there in October and I reckon the bad news was beat up. Like any US city you have to watch yourself expecially as a tourist. We had a fab time, saw all the sights and took Ubers everywhere. Highly recommend it.

  • 3
    Not So Great

    Posted by Charlie on 9th Dec 2019

    I was reading recently where there is a terrible problem with homeless people, the city being dirty and it not being safe. Not sure I would visit right now

  • 5
    Can't Wait To Return

    Posted by CliffHanger 99 on 9th Dec 2019

    I went here years ago, got off a cruise ship with my mother....would love to return and check out all the neighbourhoods and see the sights properly. Maybe for 2020?