San Francisco Travel Tips and Ideas: Eating, Getting Around, and the Best Kept Tour Secret

The Rest / Monday, July 23rd, 2012

This is Part 3 – the final installment – of San Francisco travel tips and ideas, based on my family’s recent visit.

The first two posts covered visiting Alcatraz and the best places to find views in San Francisco.

San Francisco City Hall


Every visitor to San Francisco needs to know two things: where to eating and how to get around. These are our family’s experiences with those. And at the end I’ll throw in our nomination for San Francisco’s best kept travel secret.

Eating in San Francisco

Eating in San Francisco is a real treat. I’ve given the topic some serious thought, and have decided that it comes down to the following:

  1. Wonderful,fresh seafood everywhere you look.
  2. The many bakeries.
  3. The ethnic neighborhoods offering authentic fare: most notably Chinatown and Little Italy (North Beach).
  4. Extensive wine lists featuring wines from California’s nearby wine country.

All of that means you would have to work really hard to visit San Francisco to not come away with some memorable food experiences.

What eating is San Francisco is not, however, is cheap.  We did not have a plan for keeping food costs down, and by day four or five of our vacation, our wallets were really feeling it.

Here’s what I can offer up to help you avoid that mistake:

  • The standard vacation advice to eat one big meal a day at lunch (when prices are cheaper) and fill in with smaller meals before and after really applies here.
  • San Francisco has a lot of street food that can easily be part of those smaller meals. Some of the options we saw were sidewalk fruit stands, Farmer’s Markets (The Ferry Building in a has an especially good one), and food trucks.
  • Bring some of your own food. Even in a standard hotel, it’s easy to stock some breakfast-on-the go items and snacks in your room. You can bring some with you (I always bring bagged nuts and protein bars in my suitcase) or you can find a drugstore or convenience store when you get there. If you happen to be staying someplace with a kitchen, you’re in an even better position to save. That was the case for Sara at Go Gingham. You can read her San Francisco food money-saving tips here.)

Getting Around San Francisco

While San Francisco is a major city, it doesn’t cover a lot of ground. That fact, combined with a good public transportation system, makes getting around in San Francisco fairly easy. Once you learn the ropes that is.

Here are our experiences with several forms of transportation on our trip.

Cable Cars

Let’s start with the most famous: the San Francisco Cable Car.

While you might envision yourself hanging off the back of a cable car while going from place to place, the iconic Cable Car is probably the least tourist-friendly form of transportation.

First of all, it’s expensive: $6 per person for a one-way trip. That makes it affordable for a one-time, “let’s do it to say we did it” ride, but not very practical for getting around each and every day.

Even if you’re willing to pay those prices, you’ll run into another problem: riding the cable car is time consuming.

The lines to get on cable cars are long and it’s an understatement to say that the whole process doesn’t move terribly quickly.

Here’s a tip, however: while we were waiting in a long line to board the cable car at it’s downtown turnaround point, a helpful local told us to walk up to the next stop and get on there where the line was much shorter. We did that and probably shaved at least a half an hour off of our wait time. This tip doesn’t seem to work as well in reverse, however. At the other end of the line in Fisherman’s Wharf they packed cars much fuller with people, with no room for later hopper on-ers. We waited 45 minutes to an hour to get on there.

Bottom line: If riding a cable car is important to you as part of the San Francisco experience, do it early in the day when lines are shorter, and take advantage of other forms of transportation the rest of the trip.

Street Cars

If the cable cars were a big disappointment to us, the street cars were a wonderful surprise.

The San Francisco street cars are known as the F Line and riding them is much cheaper: $2 per person with a free return trip within four hours. In fact, several times we rode the street cars for free because, when they were full, the driver would wave us on back, apparently too busy to deal with taking the cash that tourists carry and driving the car at the same time.

The street cars come often and move quickly through the city, making them the fastest form of transportation we used while we were there.

And, like the cable cars, the F Line street cars have their own charm; San Francisco buys old, vintage cars from other cities and restores them. If you look carefully in the car you are riding in, it should tell you what city it came from and the  years it ran there.

Bus System

The bus system has many of the same advantages of the street cars.

My daughter and I didn’t ride a SF bus on this trip, but my husband and son took one back from Coit Tower. As it filled up at a stop in Chinatown, a woman with a bag holding a live chicken took a seat next to my son. That’s not an experience he gets to have, living in suburbia as he does.

The Best Kept Secret of San Francisco Tours

One of the most enjoyable experiences we had in San Francisco came at the suggestion of our first-time visitors: my son and daughter.

After catching site of the San Francisco City Hall on our open top bus tour, they wanted to go back and see inside it.

San Francisco’s City Hall looks more like a statehouse than a local building. And just as we arrived, there happened to be a small tour departing from the visitors’ desk so we jumped in to take part.

The tour was free (donations are requested at the end) and was led by a local who told us at least as much about the city as he did about building. I can’t vouch for all City Hall tour guides, but ours took such time with us and gave us such interesting information, that it added to almost every other experience we we had in the city.

And as a bonus: we saw several weddings taking place while we were there.

So there you have almost all that I can tell you about our visit to San Francisco without turning this into a travel blog.

Do you have a favorite San Francisco food or tour memory? Let’s talk about it in the comments. 


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