The Gold Rush. The Summer of Love. Silicon Valley. San Francisco is a like a chameleon: every few decades, it changes. This city means something different to everyone, it seems. It’s a city of promise, of hope. It’s also a city of WTF.
There are so many weird, totally unique things about San Francisco that totally threw me when I moved to this odd little microcosm from the Midwest, expecting to find some kind of cross between New York and Los Angeles (lol, no). I could not have been more unprepared for the culture shock I was about to experience: San Francisco is a city unlike any other city in the United States.
Jeremy and I have called the San Francisco Bay Area our home for years. For Jeremy, it’s been 10 years; for me, 8. Today, we live in Oakland, just a few minutes away from San Francisco with tons to do. But we have lived and worked and played in San Francisco, gotten to know this city intimately, and fallen deeply in love with it.
We said goodbye to San Francisco when we left for a year-long honeymoon, but we knew we wanted to come back to this quirky, awesomely unique city. And now, we’re back! Like, officially! We’ve been reacquainting ourselves with this wonderfully weird city and remembering everything that made us fall in love with it in the first place.
And you guys: San Francisco is so weird. It’s what we love about it, and we embrace its weirdness entirely.
But like, it’s really weird.
I find myself trying to explain what to expect in San Francisco to people all the time, whether it’s our friends and family, or our readers, eagerly downloading their self-guided San Francisco walking tours and probably packing shorts and flip flops in their suitcases (hint: you won’t need those). “Wear layers” never quite covers it somehow. So I thought I’d take a stab at depicting this amazing city in the only way I know how: with a mildly helpful guide to stuff nobody tells you about San Francisco.
So here’s a bunch of relatively useless information about this amazing, unique, totally weird city. I hope you enjoy it.
Psst: Visiting San Francisco and the Bay Area? We have several posts about our home that will be helpful for your trip!
- Where to Stay in San Francisco (& Where NOT to)
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco
- 29 Things Nobody Tells You About Oakland, California
We also have a Podcast episode about San Francisco! Find out what to eat, where to drink, & the best things to do, plus answers to questions you never knew you had… like whether there is weed everywhere (yes) and if you’ll accidentally see nudity (double yes). We’re also spilling the fair-trade, organic, ethically sourced tea on our lesser-known life of crime.
1. San Francisco has their own little eco-system.
We exist in a unique micro-climate. Er, I should say, we exist in 7 unique micro-climates. Go from one street to another and the temperature may rise by 10 degrees. Enter the no-man’s-land of the Sunset on most days of the year and you’ll swear there is no such thing as sun and when did the world turn into Silent Hill? Keep venturing to Ocean Beach and you’ll end up in wind-whipped Antarctica. Bring thermal underwear.
On one hill, it’s freezing cold and foggy. On another, it’s bright and clear and sunny. Some days the Golden Gate Bridge is viewable a short distance away from the Bay Bridge, and other days you have no idea it actually exists due to the thick layer of fog blanketing most of the city.
It’s all part of the San Francisco charm. And it’s why everyone will tell you to wear at least 3 seasonal layers daily. We’re not joking. Wear layers.
2. Not only does each San Francisco neighborhood have its own climate, it also has its own personality.
You can actually accurately stereotype people based on where they live in our tiny little city. Like if I say to another San Franciscan, “they’re one of those Marina types,” we both instantly picture a dude wearing flip flops or Sperrys, a popped collar Polo shirt, cargo shorts, and still talking about the epic pranks his Fraternity pulled in college.
And if I say “he lives in SoMa” we just assume he’s a wiry billionaire techie who owns about 2 pairs of pants, 1 hoodie, and 16 t-shirts featuring the names of the various start-ups he’s been involved with. You get the picture. I find this adorable.
Meanwhile, back home in Louisville if you say “she lives in Germantown” I just say “that’s cool, how much did she buy her house for” because I enjoy torturing myself with housing prices in other parts of the country. It’s like when someone on a strict diet asks you to explain in graphic detail the dessert you ate last night. Spoilers: they always paid around the same amount for their house that I pay in rent each year. *cries*
3. Everything here is insanely expensive.
Everything. Drinks. Food. Rent. Ohhhh, rent.
The rent in San Francisco is the most expensive in the country. YES, even more than NYC. It is perfectly normal here, as a grown up adult, to share a tiny apartment with 4 other people. Possibly your apartment is actually a studio and 4 other people is actually 6 other people because 2 of them found significant others.
My husband once shared a studio with 7 people. He had a corner. Like, that’s it. The golden rule of renting an apartment in San Francisco is that the more people you share with, the dirtier each of those individual people will be and the more likely you will find yourself angrily refusing to do dishes or take out the trash yourself because you’re the only person ever doing it and fucking Steve hasn’t even left his room for the past 4 months because of his f***ing app which was supposed to launch last week and you aren’t sure if he’s even alive anymore but if he is maybe you can Tweet at him and make a passive aggressive comment about the trash or something.
4. We named our fog.
The fog in San Francisco is called Karl. Karl the Fog has his own Twitter account. We’re all very fond of him. Sometimes we’ll be traveling to other cities and the fog will roll in and we’ll say, “oh, hello, Karl! So kind of you to visit us here, we’ve missed you” and everyone will look at us like we’re insane.
5. San Francisco is geographically tiny.
It’s 7 miles by 7 miles. You can, actually, walk from one end to the other in a day. We wrote up a fantastic self-guided San Francisco walking tour that will take you through 8 neighborhoods in 6 miles which is a great way to see exactly what I mean.
6. There’s a race every year called Bay to Breakers where people run from the Bay to the ocean.
And then directly afterwards, the rest of the city follows right behind in a kind of walking marathon/party because we were all too cheap to pay for entry and too lazy to wake up early. And also everyone is wearing a ridiculous costume (or half of a ridiculous costume. Or nothing at all). And also everyone is wildly drunk.
It’s the oldest consecutively run annual footrace in the world, and also the most un-race-like party you’ll ever get a chance to attend. And it’s one of my favorite annual events every year! If anything is going to give you a taste of the “real” San Francisco, it’s going to Bay to Breakers.
7. It is legal to be naked in San Francisco.
And yes, people exercise this right. You’ll find naked people in the parks. Naked people casually doing their shopping in the Haight (yes, this has happened to me. Also, it was at a costume shop, so the most San Francisco of San Franciscan things). Naked people basking in the sun at Baker Beach (which is a nude beach – fair warning).
But don’t worry: they’re required by law to place something underneath them if they sit down. If you feel like letting it all hang out in San Francisco, please make sure you understand the law, because wow, that would be a REALLY embare-assing mug shot. Ba-dum-ssh.
Here’s a bunch of great places where you can freely frolic in the nude in San Francisco. Enjoy!
8. If you’re here in September, make sure you know about Folsom Street Fair.
If you happen to stumble upon Folsom Street Fair, a leather fetish/kink festival, you might see some things that are typically reserved for the dark recesses of the Internet in the privacy of your own home. Except on stage, in public.
If you see a lot of people wearing nothing but a few well-places scraps of leather and you’re a PG-13 kinda tourist, head in the opposite direction. If you’re an NC-17 type of tourist, follow them – and familiarize yourself with the rules of consent!
9. Everyone in San Francisco loves dressing up.
We all have a dedicated “costume” box or section of our closet. Whether it’s Burning Man, Halloween, a themed bar crawl, or just a random Saturday Night, San Francisco LOVES to dress up!
Don’t be alarmed if you hop on BART and everyone is in costume. Or walk down the street and everyone’s in costume. Or show up at a bar and everyone is in costume.
If blending in with the locals is a concern of yours, bring a sparkly feather boa or a pair of these in your day-bag just in case.
10. San Franciscans also love themed things.
We have themed bar crawls at themed bars. Themed parties. Themed festivals. Themed balls. The more themed, the better. I once hosted a monthly theme party group for my friends. We ended up with so many photo-booth props we had to get rid of them all to clear space for new ones. #SanFranciscoProblems.
Thankfully, there’s a Theme Party start-up to solve all of your San Francisco Theme Party needs, because of course there is.
11. Treasure Island is a real place and not just something straight out of a Muppets movie.
The island is halfway between Oakland and San Francisco, and the Bay Bridge passes right through it. Disappointingly, there is not much to do there. There’s a music festival once a year, a bomb flea market, and it’s a great place to catch the 4th of July Fireworks.
Jeremy once lived on Treasure Island. He had to go into the city for groceries. That’s …. that’s all he has to say about that.
That said, you can get some pretty sweet photos of San Francisco from Treasure Island, particularly if you happen to get lost because you missed your exit and suddenly find yourself crossing the Bay Bridge, which has only happened to me 2982768276 times.
12. There is a vicious rivalry here between California Mexican food and Tex-Mex.
Or as Jeremy likes to say: there is no rivalry, because there is no comparison. Californians will get extremely defensive if you happen to enjoy, say, queso with your chips, or if you’re more of a taco/fajita person than a burrito person. If you walk into a Taqueria and ask for queso, chances are you will get some angry looks and possibly escorted out.
This is a bitter debate between my husband and I (because Tex-Mex is DELICIOUS and my husband takes this fact personally).
Then again, my husband is actually Mexican and I grew up eating Qdoba in Kentucky, so.
13. San Franciscans take their burritos very seriously.
Ask any San Franciscan where the best Mission style burrito is, and you’ll get a zillion different answers and highly opinionated lectures on things that nobody else actually cares about, like whether lettuce or fries or rice belongs in a burrito, whether it should be grilled or not, and the length of the line you’ll stand in vs. the cost.
For the record: Jeremy swears by Taqueria Cancun. And I like Qdoba, so I don’t get to have an opinion.
14. Never, ever, ever, EVER call it San Fran or Frisco. EVER!
There are 2 acceptable affectionate nicknames for San Francisco: “SF” and “The City.” That’s it. Those are the 2.
If you call us San Fran or Frisco, we will get very irritable and might glare at you over our avocado toast and single-origin cortado, because it makes our ears bleed.
Look, it’s not pronounced “San Fran….cisco” it’s pronounced “San franCISco.” Emphasis on the CIS, and it’s not really a “Fran” at all, it’s like a “frun.” If you have trouble remembering to emphasize the CIS, just look around you and think “wow, look at all these cis white dudes in tech hoodies.”
Allowing “San Fran” or “Frisco” to pass your lips is a great way to out yourself as an out-of-towner, which has the added benefit of causing everyone near you to take a few steps back. Another good way to make it incredibly obvious to everyone that you’re not from around these parts is to wear shorts and flip flops anywhere in San Francisco. Want the locals to steer clear? You got it!
15. There is a vicious rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but it’s totally one-sided.
LA loves us. San Francisco can’t stand LA. We’re super snobby about it and we love to complain about everything in LA. It’s the traffic. It’s the weather. It’s the inferior burritos. It’s the rich people that aren’t in tech and are therefore must be way more materialistic. It’s the way they always say things like “Oh, I LOVE Frisco!” or “San Fran is AWESOME.” *shudder*
But despite all the hate, most of us are in LA multiple times per year, and nobody seems bothered enough to not go to Coachella.
16. The public transit systems, MUNI & BART, are SUPER easy to use, and also always inexplicably delayed.
They’re so much easier than the complicated system of scribbled lines that is the New York Subway or whatever that hot mess was that we couldn’t figure out in Bogota.
And yet, we all have a love/hate relationship with MUNI & BART. They’re pretty much always late or delayed or just slow, especially in the rain, or when you’re already running late. They’re often smelly and dirty. And we have a lot of feelings about the salaries being paid to people who, in our mind, do little other than push buttons that are probably labelled “go” and “stop.”
But we all rely on MUNI & BART, and honestly, every time I go somewhere else and try to figure out their transit system, I’m grateful for how wonderfully simplistic ours is. Even if half the time, nothing shows up or everything gets delayed and I end up having to take a LYFT instead.
17. There are a bunch of unspoken rules about transit.
Here they are:
- Stand on the right, walk on the left.
- Always, always, always line up in 2 lines on either side of the door to the BART, even if your train isn’t the next one coming.
- Make room for everyone, even people with bikes, until you cannot physically move anymore, and then start quietly panicking.
- Give up your seat for the elderly, pregnant women, or anyone with a child, or you will be silently shamed for the entire train ride.
- Avoid unnecessary eye contact and listen to your headphones during your ride.
- Try not to touch anything with your actual hands.
18. San Franciscans don’t handle conflict very well.
We would rather politely accept whatever is happening to us and live-Tweet our complaints instead. Like, if we see someone standing on the wrong side of the escalator backing up the entire line of traffic behind them, we will hate them quietly from afar. If someone does not follow the unspoken rules of standing in line, we will angrily mumble about it to ourselves and do nothing.
One time I watched a guy from NYC get on a bus and start screaming at the driver about how he was SO LATE and he was going to SUE MUNI. Everyone from San Francisco interrupted their own angry rant about the perpetual lateness MUNI on Facebook to speak up in support of the driver and remind the angry dude to just “stop and smell the roses, man, relax” because “we’re all going to the same place eventually, buddy.”
We just don’t do conflict. It’s not our thing. We’re like, hella chill. Can you feel the love?
19. San Francisco has their own inside jokes and nicknames and memes.
But like, the entire city. How did the entire city pick up on the same inside jokes!? What is this, reddit?
You’ll know a joke isn’t relevant anymore when you see it referenced on a billboard paid for by some tech start-up. That’s also around the time I usually hear about them.
20. San Francisco loves disrupting things and re-inventing things.
These are usually things that do not need to be disrupted or re-invented. Like the $700 juice machine that just squeezed packets of pre-made juice. Or the vending machine start-up that referred to its services as “unmanned pantry boxes” and explained, wide-eyed, exactly how a vending machine works.
These start-ups generally cater to their own employees and other extremely busy tech employees while the rest of us who don’t mind being mildly inconvenienced on occasion stand by and watch in awe and wonder.
21. San Francisco has its own cultural references that nobody else has ever heard of.
Like, for example, rappers. There’s a bunch of rappers in San Francisco that never made it out of Northern California, and everyone here references them all the time like it’s just common knowledge. Like the way everyone quotes Mean Girls. Only it isn’t Mean Girls, it’s some dude who makes a weird noise in 1 song that was only popular in San Francisco in like, the 90’s.
Another weird shared San Franciscan passion? Music! There are a few songs that just mean everything to San Franciscans. Sure, most of them are about San Francisco. But it’s not enough to just be a song about San Francisco (lookin’ at you, Train).
If I wanted to make a playlist of “Songs San Franciscans love,” it would start with this:
- San Francisco by Foxygen
- San Francisco by the Mowgli's
- When the Lights Go Down by Journey
- (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding
- (If You’re Going to) San Francisco by Scott McKenzie
22. San Franciscans are chronically late, and totally OK with it.
San Francisco time is not like regular time. The people are chronically late, the transit is never on time, and time estimates mean nothing. Driving a mile in San Francisco can take an hour for no reason, plus another hour to try to find parking. This is also why you should never drive in the city: the traffic, the parking, and the LYFT/Uber/food delivery/Amazon package delivery drivers who treat congested streets like their personal parking lots make it absolute hell.
But even though nothing is ever on time in San Francisco, it's OK, because EVERYONE is chronically late. Which means you have a grace period of up to like, 2 hours before you start to actually piss anyone off. Everyone is REALLY chill about time. This also explains why we're all cool with waiting for 2 hours in line for brunch or dinner or whatever.
This means that your friends will never show up to anything on time, and when they do, it will actually feel rude because you weren't ready for them. It means that you'll never make it to work on time, and instead show up up 30 minutes later than you meant to every day with a latte in your hand mumbling "BART delays."
And as a tourist, it means you'll make dinner reservations (mistake #1, no good restaurant in SF takes reservations) and then spend several hours trying to make it across the city to get there on time, growing more and more irritated as you're inexplicably delayed on foot, by transit, and in a car, only to finally show up full of apologies an hour later than you meant to (the restaurant won't care).
This anecdote was taken directly from the last time my East Coast family visited, by the way. The stress nearly killed them. Mentally prepare yourself: you will NEVER be on time in San Francisco.
23. We love watching the city get destroyed in movies.
San Francisco generally loves watching itself in movies and TV shows (The Room! Full House!), but we especially love watching our beloved city get totally wrecked on the big screen.
Whether it’s Godzilla or San Andreas, if it involves the Golden Gate Bridge folding like a paperclip or watching the Salesforce Tower topple (that one hasn’t happened yet - the building is super new. But like, can someone make that movie already?) the entire city of San Francisco will turn out to watch it and cheer along in the theatre, possibly dressed in costume as their favorite San Francisco icon. We've all got a Karl the Fog costume tucked away in our closet somewhere, just in case.
24. San Francisco has one of the highest rates of homeless residents per capita in the United States.
This can definitely be a bit of a culture shock if you aren’t used to seeing a LOT of homeless people. Remember that the people experiencing homelessness here are also our neighbors and residents, and not a blight or an eyesore. Many of the folks that you will see are also struggling with mental illnesses and cannot afford to pay for regular medication and treatment.
As a result, you may see people who appear to be talking to themselves or to thin air. Although this can be startling, remember that these people are in far more danger than you are, and are unlikely to harm you in any way.
Homelessness is traumatic, particularly for the mentally ill, whose conditions can be exacerbated by the stress of homelessness. Please have compassion for these individuals. There’s a fantastic resource for how to respond to the homeless in San Francisco on SF Gate.
25. There are far too few public restrooms in San Francisco.
This might suck as a tourist, but it sucks far more for the many folks suffering from homelessness. So let me be frank: you will see some unpleasant things if you happen to peer into alleyways or around corners. Don't make a habit of doing so.
You will also smell some unpleasant things. Hold your breath and remember: you get to go home and use a bathroom or take a shower whenever you want. They don’t. Have compassion.
26. Golden Gate Park is freaking enormous.
Think of Golden Gate Park like Central Park, except a lot bigger and without the invasive tall buildings peeking out on either side.
On a given day in Golden Gate Park, you’re likely to stumble upon a festival, a bunch of hippies trying to sell you acid, some redwoods, a herd of bison (yes, that’s a thing), or an after-hours party in a science museum (which you should definitely go to, it’s called Nightlife and it’s the best).
Wander for long enough and you’ll find yourself at the beach in the freezing cold fog wondering how the hell you got lost and ended up in the damn Arctic.
27. The beach, Ocean Beach, is freezing cold. Like, sooooo cold.
If you’ve got this sunny, palm-tree-studded image in your mind of a San Francisco that’s kind of like Los Angeles but smaller and without the traffic, you’re going to be really disappointed.
The last time we went to Ocean Beach, we wore thermal underwear, winter coats, wool scarves, gloves, and warm hats, and were still cold. And we were there for a bonfire. The best thing to do at Ocean Beach is huddle up by a fire pit and try to stay warm as the wind whips sand into your face.
And don’t even think about venturing the mile or so across the beach to the ocean: you’ll probably never make it back and the journey will not be worth the effort. The primary exception to this rule is late-night freezing cold skinny dipping, which I can happily say I have done and highly recommend. Because if you’ve never been naked in public in San Francisco, are you really a San Franciscan?
28. Within a day’s drive of San Francisco, you’ll find everything you could ever want.
Sunny beach (like, an ACTUAL beach, not the frozen tundra that we call Ocean Beach). Snowy mountains. Alpine lakes. Wine country. Desert. Dense forest. Rugged coastline. And a zillion adorable towns to explore.
Most San Franciscans take weekend trips 1-2 times a month, which is awesome but also makes it difficult to coordinate schedules for our next themed costumed bar crawl or whatever. We’re no exception: we explore California all the time. Check out our favorite weekend trips from San Francisco!
29. The best of San Francisco isn’t found in the typical tourist destinations.
No self-respecting local would be caught dead at Pier 39, or the “visitor’s center” at the Golden Gate Bridge, or Alcatraz (most of us have never bothered to tour Alcatraz).
Instead, you’ll find us sipping a single-origin latte at the Ferry Building, or taking crowd-free selfies in front of the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach (just watch for nudists in the background), or hanging out with the bisons that inexplicably live in Golden Gate Park. The one notable exception to this rule is Fisherman’s Wharf, which has an In-N-Out, and is therefore acceptable for locals to visit.
Instead, you’ll get to know the real San Francisco on foot, walking through its streets, climbing up its hills, exploring its neighborhoods, and sharing friendly conversation with its residents (I promise we’re all actually really nice if you can get us to take off our headphones and make eye contact).
My favorite recommendations to really experience San Francisco are to take a self-guided walking tour of the city, or to play a laser tag Spy Adventure game that uses San Francisco as its course. Yes, really. The game is called Jericho and it’s our favorite thing ever.
30. There's no place in the world quite like San Francisco ... but in 10 years, San Francisco will be completely different.
San Francisco has always been a place defined by constant change. Actually, it's always been a pioneer of change. Whatever the Next Big Thing is, it usually pops up in San Francisco, shortly followed by a crowd of optimistic and highly motivated people who want to participate in the Next Big Thing. This makes San Francisco a very exciting place to be for a while, and then the Next Big Thing becomes a thing everywhere, and people leave San Francisco again ... until the Next Next Big Thing arrives and bring all new people with it.
This has been happening in waves since the birth of the city. My dad lived here during the 60's, when peace & love were the Next Big Thing. My husband moved here to go to art school during that quiet, affordable lull between Tech Bubble #1 and Tech Bubble #2. And I arrived right at the beginning of Tech Bubble #2.
San Francisco means something completely different to me than it does to my dad or to my husband. My dad pictures San Francisco as a haven for hippies; my husband pictures it as a haven for artists, creative types, and broke but passionate young people; and I picture it as a futuristic tech city with drones flying overhead and self-driving cars careening through the streets.
All of these visions of San Francisco are totally accurate; but in a few years, San Francisco is going to change yet again. And the San Francisco of 10 years from now will look completely different from the San Francisco of today.
It's what makes this city so magical, so tantalizing, and so exciting to explore: its history, its present ... and its future, too.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
The hardest part of deciding where to stay in San Francisco is choosing which neighborhood to base yourself in! We recommend staying in Haight-Ashbury, Hayes Valley, The Castro, or North Beach. Each neighborhood is beautiful, historic, walkable (aka: minimal hills and plenty of cute places to see), conveniently located near some of San Francisco's best attractions, and easily accessible via transit on MUNI.
- The Best Mid-Range Hotels in San Francisco: We recommend staying at a quirky little independently owned boutique hotel, inn, or guest house in one of our recommend neighborhoods! Our top choices are The Stanyan Park Hotel in charming and historic Haight-Ashbury, The Hayes Valley Inn in adorable Hayes Valley, The Washington Square Inn in excellently located North Beach, or the charming Parker Guest House in the historic LGBTQ+ Castro neighborhood. Pick any one of those options and you’re golden!
- The Best Budget-Friendly Hostels in San Francisco: These are a great deal if you're on a tight budget! You’ll get free breakfast, kitchens for cooking, communal areas for meeting other travelers, organized activities, and more. Hostelling International has 2 San Francisco Locations, one in historic Fort Mason (next the Golden Gate Bridge) and one in downtown near Civic Center. We make an exception to our "neighborhoods to avoid rule" for these hostels both because their location is what makes them affordable, and because Hostelling International is a fantastic non-profit organization which does a lot of pro-active community work and support. We love them!
Want more options? We've got an entire guide to where to stay in San Francisco (and where NOT to). Check it out!
- Travel Tip: Checked out early or taking advantage of a long layover and not sure where to store your bags? Check out LuggageHero, a service that helps you find a safe place to keep your luggage while you're running around! Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.
Psst: Visiting San Francisco and the Bay Area? We have several posts about our home that will be helpful for your trip!
- Where to Stay in San Francisco (& Where NOT to)
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco
- The 10 Best Coffee Shops in San Francisco: A Local Barista's Guide
- 26 Hella Awesome Things to Do in Oakland, California
We also have a Podcast episode about San Francisco! Find out what to eat, where to drink, & the best things to do, plus answers to questions you never knew you had... like whether there is weed everywhere (yes) and if you'll accidentally see nudity (double yes). We're also spilling the fair-trade, organic, ethically sourced tea on our lesser-known life of crime.
Which of these things nobody tells you about San Francisco surprised you? Leave us a comment below!
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