A Couchsurfer’s Guide to San Francisco

San Francisco is a city known for many great things. Rice-a-roni, cable cars, The San Francisco Giants, and the Golden Gate Bridge, just to name a few. It’s a city that draws upwards of 16 million visitors each year. When visiting a tourist destination of that magnitude, it can often become difficult to sift through all the tourist clutter and hone in on the true San Francisco experience. But alas, we are here to help by giving you the best local advice on this beautiful city that we at Couchsurfing HQ call ‘home’.

Quick Tips from Hosts and CS Staff

  • “It’s not Southern California, wear layers and bring long pants for when it gets cold. Summertime will often be the coldest time in San Francisco” – Robin, San Francisco host since 2004
  • “Favorite things about SF: The city’s diversity and proximity to some of the most beautiful places on the planet” – David, San Francisco host
  • San Francisco has amazing food. Hands down the best burger in San Francisco can be found at Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers on Post, just a short walk from Union Square.” – Zareen, Community Manager at CS HQ and host in San Francisco
  • “The Bayshore Roundhouse is a great spot for urban exploration in nearby Brisbane. Once the center of the Bay Area steam-powered freight train network, today it lies abandoned and forgotten, except for those adventurous enough to find and enter it through one of the many edges of its chained linked, barbed wire perimeter.” – Andrew, Couchsurfing Engineer
  • “Be a traveler, not a tourist.” – David, San Francisco host

Getting Around

When arriving in a new city for the first time, the most common question often involves how to get from Point A to Point B. You may be surprised to learn that the city of San Francisco is only 7×7 miles, which is why you may notice many people walking and biking. While those infamous hills do make the 7 miles feel a touch longer, San Francisco is in fact a pedestrian’s paradise. For longer distances, you might consider one of many options:

Biking

“Biking is the best way to get around San Francisco. It’s fast, convenient and a great way to see the city”  -Robin

There are many options for renting a bike in the city. The Bay Area Bike-Share (soon to be Ford GoBike) could be a good choice if you are just trying to get from one place to another quickly. These bikes are meant for shorter rides and not recommended for a full day of biking or riding over the Golden Gate bridge. Pick-up/drop-off points are limited to select neighborhoods so be sure to plan ahead. This is a great option if you are looking for a no hassle way to get to where you need to go.

If you would like to see the sights from the seat of a bike, there is no shortage of bike rental places for you to choose from. Many of these are located in Fisherman’s Wharf and there are a few location in or around Golden Gate Park and Union Square. Blazing Saddles and Bike and Roll have two of the largest bike fleets. Park Wide is your best option if you are looking to ride through Golden Gate Park. Bike rentals for the whole day typically start around $32 and most of these companies offer weekly rates. Insider tip: Make sure you have a lock and know how to use it. Don’t even think about leaving your bike outside after dark. While the streets are safe, the unattended bike is not!

Public Transportation

Thinking of driving around the city? Think again.

“You don’t want or need a car. It’s more of a risk to have it around and very difficult to find parking. If you have a rental car, drop it off before you get into the city.” – Robin

Understanding the difference between BART, Muni and Caltrain can often leave newcomers spinning. Here’s what you need to know:

  • BART: You may recognize BART from it’s 15 minutes of fame in The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith. It is also known for its revolutionary methods used to build the Transbay Tube. BART runs up and down Market St., through the bay to the East Bay, and also South to the airport. This is the best option for getting to and from the airport and will make stops in the Mission, Union Square and Financial district, to name a few.
  • MUNI: Muni is actually the company that controls both the bus and the Muni Metro. Muni Metro (which locals simply refer to as ‘Muni’) is a light-rail that runs both above and below ground, depending on where you are. The F line is an above ground route which uses old fashioned style cars from around the world. It’s not the fastest option, but it will give you a fun and scenic route from the Wharf to the Castro. If you hop aboard a Muni train at an above-ground stop, you will need to have exact change to pay your fair. At below ground stops you will enter through a station and purchase your fare via a ticket machine.
  • The Bus: Just like any other major city, we have a very complex web of buses that can get you just about anywhere. One great thing about riding the bus is that you will always be above ground and able to enjoy the scenery. Bus drivers are usually kind enough to answer basic questions about where the bus is going and will even alert you of your stop if you ask nicely. Exact change is also required here.
  • Caltrain: Caltrain is the commuter train which runs from San Francisco (near the ballpark) all the way to South Bay. You would only really use this if you are heading to an event in the Peninsula or South Bay, or staying with a host outside of the city. Be sure to purchase your tickets before boarding, they often check for proof of purchase.
  • Cable Car: See that huge line of people waiting for the cable car at Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf? That line is for tourists, not travelers! Follow the tracks up the street a few blocks to the next stop, or the one after that. It usually stops every two blocks and the conductors do not fill the car to capacity, in order to be able to pick up passengers at each stop. Be ready to hop aboard when the cable car approaches! It will stop in the middle of the street and you’ll hear the conductor call out how many more people they can take. It’s definitely not the cheapest option for getting around, most people do it for the experience.
  • Lyft/Uber: San Francisco’s small size makes ride-sharing a great option. You can easily get from one side of the city to the other for a very reasonable price. Just be sure to look out for cyclists when opening your doors, and encourage your driver to not block the bike lane when stopping for drop-off/pick-up.

Things to do

You will have no trouble finding plenty of ways to fill your time. If you are trying to have a more authentic experience, the best advice we can give you is to steer clear of Fisherman’s Wharf. Union Square can also wind up feeling like a bit of a tourist trap.

Pick a neighborhood and stick to it for the night. Just have a walk around, see what catches your eye. Each neighborhood offers a unique flare with endless opportunities to find exactly what you’re looking for. The number of good places to eat in this city cannot be measured; it’s a foodie’s paradise. Looking for authentic Mexican food and dive bars? Make your way to the Mission. Italian food, great coffee and some of the city’s oldest bars? North Beach is the spot. Rainbows, gay bars and upscale shops will light your way to the Castro.

Favorite Bars

  • Trad’r Sam: A Tiki bar in the Outer Richmond. It’s worth the trek.
  • Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in the Tenderloin hits its stride on Thursdays.
  • El Rio in the Mission. With plenty of weekly and monthly events, there’s a little something for everyone.
  • Hotel Utah Saloon: Just your average old bar, but you are pretty much guaranteed to make friends with some locals over some very strong drinks. They also have a very small and intimate performance space downstairs. (Insider tip: Any place called a Saloon is a little glimpse into San Francisco’s past).

Brunch

Brunch has become a very popular weekend activity, you may even hear it referred to as the official sport of San Francisco. What draws the crowds are the bottomless mimosas. Yes, you read that right– restaurants typically give you a 2 hour window to drink all the mimosas you can, but you must order an entree to unlock this deal. Some favorite and noteworthy brunch spots include The Vestry in the Mission, A Kitchen Story in the Castro and Sweet Maple in Lower Pacific Heights.

Museums

San Francisco boasts many wonderful museums; there’s something here for everyone. Along with the well-known attractions such as de Young, SF MOMA, The Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium, San Francisco also contains numerous less well-known but equally awesome museums and galleries. Many of these, including the big ones, offer a free visit day once per month. Click here for a complete list of Bay Area museums plus when to visit for free.

If you’re in town on a Thursday night, be sure to check out the Academy of Science’s NightLife; a 21+ up event in which you can tour the museum while sipping on cocktails for a reduced ticket price.

Outdoor Adventures

Another thing that locals love about living here is the balance of city and nature. It won’t take long for you to notice the abundance of greenery around the city. Take one step further and enjoy the beautiful parks that San Francisco has to offer.

Dolores Park: We’ll start with Dolores. It’s not so much of a nature walk, but more of a place to take a load off and sip on some beverages (which you can pick up at a bodega on the way). With it’s proximity to the fun and action in the Mission District, this park is full of life anytime the sun comes out. On a sunny weekend day head here for some of the best vibes and friendliest faces in the city. Remember the backpacker’s motto: Pack it in, pack it out and do you part to keep the park clean.

Golden Gate Park: While there are still plenty of places to relax with a picnic, Golden Gate Park’s expansiveness takes many by surprise. There is so much to do within the park that you could easily spend days there. It houses several museums, plus the Japanese Tea House and Botanical gardens are definitely worth a visit. There are also plenty of trails, open meadows and secret gardens for you to discover on your own. If you keep walking all the way through, you will eventually reach Ocean Beach on the West side of the city.

Beaches: Ocean Beach is a large, expansive beach on the West of San Francisco. Popular with joggers, dog-walkers, surfers and beach-strollers, you will rarely find people laying out here for a suntan. We are lucky to get a handful of days that would justify stripping down to our swim wear. However, that doesn’t stop the nudists at Baker Beach. With some of the most spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker beach is a popular spot with photographers and locals. This beach is a little more difficult to access and therefore typically not as busy. On a sunny weekend day, however, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with half of the city’s population. A handful of nudists can usually be found at the far end, neaer the beach. Crissy Field Beach is on the bay side and therefore doesn’t get those riptides and crashing waves that we see at the Pacific beaches, which has made it a very popular spot for dogs to take a dip in the calm waters. Visit between 12 and 3 on any weekday for a dog to human ratio of about 8:1.

Twin Peaks: Looking for the best views of the city, Ocean AND the bay? Look no further. You will have to get yourself up to the highest point in the city, but it’s worth it.

Urban Hiking: Urban hiking is just a fancy way to say walking up and down all these hills and exploring the city. It’s a great way to see a lot while experiencing city life and the beautiful parks from ground zero. Pick a neighborhood and shoot for somewhere on the opposite side of the city and make a day of it!

Before you go

As is true while visiting any city, it is important to be respectful of the residents and cultures of that city that may be different than your own. San Francisco has seen many changes over the past decade and therefore some tensions have arisen over issues like gentrification, homelessness and the skyrocketing cost of living. While you visit, keep these things in mind. If you can, contribute and support local businesses, acknowledge the cultural epicenters by respecting the people that make up those neighborhoods. Be sensitive to people trying to earn a buck on the street and always remember to clean up after yourself.

Above all, enjoy the city. And try to leave with your heart still intact.

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