What makes a great vacation? Variety, great weather, good food, and new experiences. And when you go to San Francisco you get all of these!
San Francisco can also be expensive! You can spend a lot of time and money hitting all the touristy areas, spending lots of time in lines and not really enjoying your vacation or the beauty of this area. But if you know where to go and when, it can be a whole lot cheaper and an amazing experience for all.
But timing of your trip matters, you don’t want to go when everyone else is, and you want the best weather. In our experience you don’t want to go to San Francisco in the summer months! Way too many tourists and it because miserable for everyone. Especially around holidays or holiday weekends.
Our favorite time of year we visited San Francisco was in March or Spring Break timeframe. Warmer weather than July – yes, you read that right – and much easier to get around and actually have time to see what you came to San Francisco to see.
As the saying goes, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco!” Believe me when I tell you this is 100% true!
From our experience here are the top 10 places in San Francisco not to be missed (that won’t break the bank)!
1. Muir Woods
This gem on the outskirts of San Francisco just north of the the bay is incredible and an area that anyone who loves the outdoors will want to stop. You will want to take some time to spend in the woods and just sit and breath the clean air, feel the quiet, and take in the beautiful surroundings.
BUT, timing is important on this one. Don’t try to go on a holiday, and be sure you go earlier in the day rather than mid-day. If you can’t make it in the morning go late afternoon but again, NEVER on a holiday weekend!
Coming here is all about peace, take your time, slow down and enjoy the outdoors.
This is also a great outdoor place if you aren’t much of a hiker, are in a wheelchair, or with little kids who have a hard time walking long distances. There are places you could hike more, but for the most part it is a well laid out path that anyone can walk less than .5 mile and be in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Cost: Last I checked was $15/person over 16.
On your way back from Muir Woods, stop in Sausalito – such a quaint town with tons of great food, views and a little more laid back atmosphere than San Francisco.
2. Golden Gate Bridge
Iconic, architectural marvel, you can’t come to San Francisco and not go see this bridge. But one of the best places to truly see it and take photographs is on the North West side across the bay. Look for Conzelman Road on the West side after you have driven over the bridge to the Sausalito side of the bay or before you go back into town if you are coming from Muir Woods. Don’t go to the East side and get stuck in one of the touristy parking lots! I promise the views (and company) is better from the West Side old Battery Viewpoints.
2. Palace of Fine Arts
This is a place not to be missed – especially if you are interested in the history of a place you visit. Built over a swampy area of San Francisco for the Worlds Fair, it was a construction project to beautify the city. Now it is just a beautiful area, with amazing architecture, that again is calm and peaceful and right on the north side of the bay so you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the ocean not far away.
And while you are here, be sure you visit Pluto’s for lunch or dinner, still some of the best food I ever remember eating! It is on Scott’s street just a short walk away from the Palace of Fine Arts.
Cost: Totally Free
3. Golden Gate Park
You could spend all day in this area. There are museums if you are into that such as the de Young art museum or there is the science center. And not to be missed is the Japanese Tea Gardens and the botanical garden within. These do cost to go in to but there are tons of other places around the park that are totally free. And Japanese Tea Garden and the Botanical Garden have free days (or did!) that you can check your schedule to see if those fit to help you keep your costs down.
Go to the East end of the park to read under the cherry blossom trees.
Or go see the buffalo and Dutch windmill and flower garden on the East end.
In between, visit strawberry hill and feed the ducks, see the lily’s and take a little hike up the hill or go paddle boating around Strawberry hill.
If you want to sit by the beach on the far west end of the park you can cross the street and enjoy the view and the sound of the ocean.
Cost: Free to cheap
4. Coit Tower
This area is really cool to view the bay out the windows that you shouldn’t miss it! Go early, don’t wait too long or you will get stuck in lines. You can then walk down the 440 steps around the southeast side of Coit tower and Telegraph Hill and go through a beautiful residential area of San Francisco. Just don’t make the mistake we did our first trip and start at the bottom of the steps and have to walk UP all the stairs.
5. Fisherman’s Wharf
Very touristy depending on the time of year you go but this is a place that is worth going to in my opinion. You will see the seals sunning themselves, you can go over to the aquarium. You can go visit submarines and Navy ships. Or you can enjoy shopping around and seeing the street performers.
There are so many great things to see over here that you can see for free and spend your money on the delicious food instead!
6. Boudin’s Tour
While you are by Fisherman’s Wharf, go on a Boudin’s tour – it is touristy but very cool to see the process they go through to make amazing sourdough bread. Plus tons of cool designs for your kids to see from alligators to turtles and everything in between. Grab some lunch or breakfast after and enjoy the area.
And when you are done – stop in at Ghirardelli Square for a little sweet treat!
7. Kayaking on the Bay
This is something that will cost you but it was totally worth it. We went with a guide and learned so much about the Bay area because of it. We had seals swimming right by us and the morning was absolutely beautiful. We did this in late March and the weather was fantastic, not too hot, not too cool. Plus most of these start out on the East side of San Francisco over by the Ballpark.
8. The Ferry Building
Near the ferry building you will find street vendors, BART stops, and shopping. This is near the Embarcadero area of San Francisco and more of the downtown business areas. What I love about this area is the unique shopping inside of the Ferry Building converted to shopping center. You will find all things San Francisco here plus some great food options – honestly it’s all about the unique food when we are on vacation!
9. Walk/Drive down Lombard Street and Ride the Cable Cars around town.
There is nothing more uniquely San Francisco than Lombard Street! Full of twists and turns, you can take your car down it if you are brave enough but we like to just walk down the stairs from the cable car stops and enjoy the beautiful flowers and unique homes lining the street.
And cable car stops are all along this area of San Francisco! Ride all around one day and just see what San Francisco has to offer. And when you find something you want to explore more, just hop off for a bit! Rides are pretty inexpensive at just a few dollars one way.
10. China Town
A stop in San Francisco would not be complete without walking around China Town! Tons of food vendors, get up early and you can even do Thai Chi in the park to the East of the main China Town area. Plus be around at lunch time and you’ll likely see a dragon parade down the street. It is very cool to see the detail put into the building of China town from bank signs to shops and everything in between. Plus, the food!
Other tips for traveling in San Francisco:
Be prepared to walk and bring good shoes! We’ve done San Francisco a few ways, one trip we just caught Uber’s and taxi’s but mostly walked EVERYWHERE and had a great time. The second time we took a road trip down Highway 1 and had a car with us but we actually decided we would rather walk around everywhere rather than trying to find parking which is a nightmare in SF! Walking is your easiest way to get around in SF and in my opinion everything is close so it isn’t hard to find things to do no matter what direction you take.
Budget for food! Eating out in SF is expensive but worth it! Don’t eat at chain restaurants though, try the local stops and you won’t regret it. Some of our favorite restaurants in SF are Pluto’s, Daily Grill, Boudin’s, and anything with the term bakery in it generally has great breakfast, lunch and dinners at affordable rates. Definitely have Yelp installed to check and see what is around you when you go.
Go during the spring or fall outside of summer tourist season. Summer is cold and crowded in SF. You will enjoy the trip if you go at a different time. Ferry rides in the summer were so cold we were huddled together trying to keep warm and not really able to enjoy the scenery anyway, granted we are AZ locals but still – it was like 50 degrees most days we were there in July!
Whatever you do in San Francisco, take time to slow down and take it all in, it is a beautiful city with tons of history and heritage that anyone can appreciate.
Enjoy your trip to one of our favorite cities!