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A Guide To San Francisco

San Francisco holds a special place in my heart. My boyfriend Tim, moved out there for a few months for a job so  I had a bit of anger towards the city because of that. It was until I visited Tim for the first time, that I realized that San Fran was the complete opposite of what I had built it up to be – it was amazing. I quickly realized how much the city and northern Cali had to offer. California in general has so much to it. The beauty there is never ending and there are so many drastic changes in scenery and people when you move from northern Cali to southern. There are just a multitude of amazing aspects to both, and everything in between. I learned this during my time visiting and I soon fell in love with what San Fran had to offer.

 

There is one specific moment that I will never forget, where it truly dawned on me what an amazing place San Fran was, was on my first day there. I was standing on top of Hawk Hill, looking out at all of it in front of me. That’s when I realized, San Fran had everything. Directly in front of me was an iconic bridge, The Golden Gate, connected to a massive city. I turned my head and looked around me and saw trees, mountains, green – nature. Lastly, to cocoon everything together, was the ocean. It was utterly breathtaking. San Fran truly had every great aspect of nature and scenery within it. It had everything that I love, a city, vast nature and the big ocean. Plus, in my opinion, perfect weather lol. 

 

Now, that’s not to say that San Francisco doesn’t have its downfalls – because it absolutely does – every place does. But there is just so much in San Fran to do, see, and experience that it still stands as an amazing trip to take and city to discover.

Weather

As you may have heard, San Francisco is known for the, “San Francisco Fog.” This is because the city is covered in fog basically 80% of the time. It is so cool to see the massive cloud of white fog hit at the most random times. But, do keep this in mind when traveling, planning things to do and taking pictures. We have had it where the day is sunny and 75 degrees, wanting to take pictures of a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge, all to pull up to the scenic spot and a massive cloud of fog rolls in that covers the entire Golden Gate. This has happened more times than I can count and been a bit frustrating in terms of taking pictures. The weather changes in a snap due to the fog.

San Fran is more norther so it is also a bit cooler there, even in the summer. I liked to pack a jean jacket or sweater to take with me everywhere in case the fog covered up the sun and the temperature changed to a cool high 60’s or low 70’s.

Must Have Food

If you’re in need of some amazing food spots in San Francisco, checkout my blog, “Must Try San Francisco Food Spots.

Things To Do In SF

Drive Down Highway 1

This is hands down, an absolute must. Going on this drive was the most incredible and jaw dropping experience. I just remember starting the drive and eventually seeing the hills, ocean, and massive drop off in between our car and the side of the road. I seriously was yelling in happiness at times, and fear too, when we came just a tad too close to the edge of the seaside cliff. This drive is so beautiful and something I will never forget. I thought I was in a different country the entire time. Soon, our “little drive” turned into a 2 hour trip going south. We didn’t regret a second of it and were bummed to have to turn back eventually

  • Big Sur: Big Sur is described as California’s central coast between Carmel and San Simeon and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west. As you’re driving through, you will see the Bixby Creek Bridge, a very popular bridge on HW 1. Pull over at the available dirt curbs and take pictures of this massive bridge. You will be able to keep taking photos throughout your drive, since there are multiple spots along the way to pull over and park. 

 

Bixby Bridge
Drive Through The City

Honestly, one of the first things you should do on your trip is just take a drive through the city. San Fran is such a fun city with so much to it. It’s surrounded by mountains, all the streets are made on crazy steep hills, the houses are squished next to each other and full of color. It has such an interesting layout and is far different from other cities. 

Lombard Street: During this drive, make a stop at Lombard Street. This is a very popular street known for its 8 tight turns that wind down one block in length. It’s normally very busy, but worth seeing once.

Fisherman’s Wharf

This is the hub for tourists! If you’re looking for shops with all things San Fran souvenirs, then head to Fisherman’s Wharf. Walk around, shop, check out the seafood at the open market and discover this busy little nook. 

Lunch: You MUST head to Boudin for lunch. More on this below.  

Walk the pier: Take a walk on the famous piers from Fisherman’s Wharf. There are multiple piers nearby, but some of the closest to Fisherman’s Wharf are pier 45 and 43. Enjoy a view of Alcatraz from these piers as well.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is the most iconic structure in San Fran. This is a must see on your trip. Bike, walk or run across the bridge! I first recommend a drive across, to take everything in and get a feel for your surroundings.

It’s very cool to see the difference once you leave the city, head over the bridge, and head to nature. The other side of the bridge is full of greenery, tall hills and trees. 

Head across the bridge and park at a few popular scenic spots to get the best view of San Francisco. Here are some beautiful Golden Gate scenic spots:

  • Hawk Hill
  • Marshall Beach
  • Baker Beach 
  • Crissy Field
  • Battery Spencer
  • Golden Gate View Point

Like I said earlier, this was the area (Hawk Hill) where I fully got a feel of how incredible San Francisco was. Take a few photos and then put your phone or camera down and take this feeling in.

Hawk Hill
Crissy Park
Hawk Hill
Pacifica Beach

This was one of my favorite beaches to just take a walk on, relax, tan, see the views, and grab a bite at the Taco Bell directly on the beach! (more on this below)

China Town

If you read my, “4 Day Guide to NYC for Your First Visit,” then you know how much I love China Towns. Well, San Fransiscos’ is a MUST see. The San Francisco China Town is actually one of the oldest and most established China Towns!

Getting Chinese food in San Fran is a must do since the food is so authentic there. For me, getting dumplings in San Fran and any China Town in general, is a no brainer on every visit. My friends and I were instantly hooked on soup dumplings, and we soon became obsessed. I think we got them for dinner more than 4 times during one of our trips!

Overall, I just really love the feel and vibe of China Towns. They are very fast paced, with beautiful decor of the Chinese culture everywhere. The buildings are normally very close together, they have a sort of grungy feel to them, and the Chinese advertisements plastered on every window always have me in awe. I love seeing other cultures like this and eating all the amazing food. I recommend a visit to a China Town to anyone who hasn’t been before!

Pretty Ladies

If you are a Full House fan or have heard of any of the popular spots in San Fran, then you had to have heard of the Painted Ladies! This row of homes are some of the most photographed sites in San Francisco. These are the homes that are shown in the intro to the Full House TV show. They leave a beautiful view of their Victorian architecture and different colors, displayed against the city of San Francisco in the backdrop. 

Take the best picture of these houses off the top of Alamo Square Park. 

Location: Steiner St &, Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94117

Bernal Heights Park Swing

This is a super cute and popular spot for pictures. This spot overlooks San Fran while you swing on a wooden swing. Very instagramable! 

Keep in mind that the walk up to the swing is pretty steep and the swing itself is relatively busy so you’ll have to wait your turn to get on and take pics. 

Take A Bike Ride

This. Was. Insane. Honestly, one of the hardest and most inclined bike rides I’ve ever done. I can’t even remember how many miles we biked but I know it was for sure over 15 miles, almost all at an incline. BUT, this was just our bike ride because we took a wrong turn and got a bit lost. This doesn’t have to be you! I highly suggest you take a bike ride all around San Fran and see the entire city, parks, the piers near Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate, all of it, because it will really put into perspective how much this city has to offer and the overall layout.

San Francisco is extremely biker friendly. They have bike lanes on almost every street in the city and an entire bike path that borders the coastline and multiple parks such as Crissy Park, that then leads up to the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s so motivating and uplifting at how many others you will see biking, running and walking. The city is very fitness friendly and accessible. You will also have many beautiful views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge throughout so you can definitely pull over and take pictures during your ride. 

Prep: If you want to do a bike ride like this, be more prepared than we were and bring water, snacks, check the map and take some breaks. Go to a local bike rental shop and they will give you a map with directions on where to go. Do your best to remember this, unlike us! It’ll save you a ton of miles.  

Treasure Fest

This was one of my favorite things to do in San Fran and I’m making it a tradition to go every time I visit the city! Treasure festival is literally located on an island called, Treasure Island and is a little outdoor festival with local makers and creators. There is great food and drink options along the way from multiple food trucks. It’s my favorite little festival I’ve ever been to. If you love handmade goods and “treasures” then this festival is for you. It’s the perfect place to shop and support small businesses and creators. 

ORG_DSC02287
Fort Funston Park

This was one of the most beautiful parks I have ever been to and of course, another moment I will never forget in my life. San Francisco truly carries a lot of these special moments for me. 

Fort Funston is a park that is lined with a loop trail, trees and a perfect view of Fort Funston Beach situated down below the park. You can either walk the loop trail for a bit, that will end with the concrete path meeting sand dunes. Or, you can catch some incredible views of the beach below and mountains beyond, from the lookout deck they have right in front of the parking lot. 

The best thing to do though, if you can physically make it, is to walk down the insanely steep sand dunes to get down to the beach. I had been there two times and didn’t see any other entrance than another steep sand dune lined with “steps” that seemed almost harder than just the straight drop off sand dune we were climbing up and down from (I’ll insert photos below so you can see what I’m talking about). But, once you make this trek, your feet will hit the sand and you’ll be on a seemingly deserted beach, surrounded by the cliff you just came down from, and of course, the ocean. Almost being completely alone out on the sand, and feeling somewhat closed off from the rest of the city, with just the waves to fill my ears, was an incredible, breathtaking experience. 

Pictures At Twin Peaks

This is a very popular vantage point to stop at and take pictures of the view which overlooks all of San Fran. Keep in mind that this spot can get VERY foggy (See image below). The view was completely white for me and I couldn’t see a single thing because of the fog. For me, it actually ended up being a pretty cool picture, but, I didn’t get to enjoy the view. So, just try to plan around the fog a bit so you can actually SEE the view lol.

DAY & HALF DAY TRIPS

Los Gatos

If you want a mini, evening trip, head to Los Gatos. It’s apparently an extremely wealthy area, and has such a cute little town. Take a walk through local shops and grab a bite to eat. The drive here was beautiful, full of nature and pine trees. The entire little town itself was cocooned by trees. It felt like a hidden, homey area, tucked away in the woods.

Time: About a 1 hr drive from San Fran depending on where you’re located in the city.

Best Italian food ever was from, “The Pastaria.” See more on this below. 

Wine Tasting in Sonoma or Napa Valley 

I did two wine tastings during both my trips. My favorite was the one in Sonoma, at Trentadue Winery. The winery was beautiful and looked like a perfect spot for a wedding venue. It was also surrounded by the vineyard that we could walk through, see the grapes growing, and take pictures.

Tip: You can find a lot of Groupons on wine tastings! 

The DRIVES here. Ugh. Just beautiful. The drive doesn’t feel long at all, and such a fun thing to do for a sundown wine tasting. Heading out of San Fran and deeper into Northern Cali is a beautiful change in scenery. You still have mountains in the distance, but also rolling hills, little towns, large fields, etc.

Time: Roughly a 1 ½ hr drive to Trentadue Winery if you’re interested in visiting there!

Location to Trentadue Winery: 19170 Geyserville Ave, Geyserville, CA 95441

Explore The Surf Town Of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a really fun, perfect day trip and a totally different vibe from San Fran. Suddenly you’re in more of a beachy town, colorful homes, young people, etc. I felt like in just an hour or so we drove to a completely different type of setting with different vibes of people.

Time: About 1 hr. and 20 minute drive from San Fran

Santa Cruz beach: This beach is known for its Santa Cruz Amusement park. This park straight up looked like it came out of a movie! It had a full on amusement park, roller coasters, ferris wheel and all, directly on the beach. 

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Walk across the boardwalk for a bite to eat and hopefully some seal watching if you’re lucky!

The drives in Northern Cali are my favorite. I’ll say it over and over again. This drive to Santa Cruz was covered in tall pine trees and nature. At times, you’d get a glimpse of the ocean as well. 

Hike In Yosemite

This is a bit of a longer drive from the city but not bad at all! You can honestly do this in one day – we did it twice – or take a weekend to settle in and discover the National Park. 

Time: About a 3 hour drive from the city.

Yosemite was absolutely incredible and filled with insane sites. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to in the U.S. Yosemite was also the first place I ever saw real, huge, mountains at in the U.S. and I will never forget it. 

The drive to Yosemite was almost as beautiful as the National Park itself. I remember it vividly, and wanted to pull over the car more times than I can count to take pictures. I will never forget what surrounded us as we embarked on our drive to Yosemite – rolling hills with tall, golden yellow fields that looked like cotton candy, cows grazing, large white windmills, and the sun setting. It was one of the most breathtaking scenes. 

Separate post with far more information on this coming soon!

Tunnel View

Glacier Point

San Fran will always be a special place to me, not only because of the long distance done between Tim and I there, but from how much I was able to experience and see in SF. Like I said, I loathed the city and state until I visited. Being there for two separate trips last summer made me realize how big California is and how much it has to offer. We even did a weekend trip to L.A. and San Diego when I was visiting. I saw so much of Cali and was able to grasp what the “hype” was all about. I don’t think it’s the place I’d ever live in one day, but it’s one I want to come back to so many times to continue discovering. Even then, I don’t think I’ll scratch the surface of seeing all Cali holds. If you’ve never been before, or only heard so many things about California and have this “image” of it, I urge you to just visit! See for yourself. Do this to all the places that cross your mind. Get your own mind and body there, your own opinion, and see what you think. 

Lastly, if you are visiting San Fran/Northern Cali, I will say it just one more time out of the 50 I’ve probably said in this blog post – take a drive. Please just hop in the car and drive around all of San Fran and Northern Cali. Driving through the two was the most amazing experience. The quick changes in scenery, all the small towns, the buildings, the mountains, the fields, I just couldn’t believe we were in the U.S. during all of our drives. Go out and experience this once you’re there! And of course, come back and tell me how it was. I would love to hear. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this guide as much as I enjoyed writing it!

– Kat

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Katerina Haros - Mindful Living Company - Professional Photography

ABOUT KAT

You can call me Kat! I'm a Milwaukee native, always looking for something new to check out, whether that be in MKE or across the world. Follow my blog and social for all things travel, inspiration, lifestyle and living mindfully.

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