When I booked my trip to San Francisco, I mostly chose it because I had a great voucher from Alaska Airlines (can we say Midwest to West Coast for $30 rt?!) I'd never really thought much about going to San Francisco, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Growing up, I saw San Francisco as the home of Full House, but more recently, it seems that San Francisco is on the news more for its growing homeless population. So after exploring the city (and the surrounding area) for a few days here is my take and some recommendations.
Best Day Trips from SF:
Napa: With wine country only about an hour away from the city, it's well worth a short drive up to experience the beauty of the area and try some of the delicious wine. I was a bit afraid that a wine tasting at a vineyard would break the bank, or that I'd be surrounded by nothing but middle-aged tour groups, but I was pleasantly surprised that many vineyards offer wine tastings for as low as $20-30 (for about 6 wines).
The views were astounding, and the wineries were filled with people of all ages (and most are dog friendly). TIP: Book early to get a seat outside or ensure a spot at the wine tastings. I went to the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, which is one of the only places I found that welcomed walk-ins.
A1 Roadtrip: If you have a few extra days, I highly recommend taking a road trip down the coast highway. Book a hotel or Airbnb in Monterrey and enjoy the beautiful coast town. If you don't mind some winding roads to get to some beautiful views, keep driving south towards Carmel-by-the-sea and Big Sur.
Best Area to Stay:
In all honesty, there is a huge homeless problem in SF, and certain areas are a bit more dicey and just plain dirty. When booking a place to stay, do your research. I'd recommend staying closer to Union Square or the Water, which seems to be much cleaner. The first night I stayed in a hostel in "The Tenderloin" where I honestly didn't feel comfortable leaving after dark. I moved to a hostel just a few blocks away the next night: The HI hostel Downtown, which felt a lot cleaner and safer (especially since they had a security guard posted outside for most of the night).
Free Things to Do:
One of my favorite parts of SF was that there are tons of things to do and see that cost nothing, which is great because food is crazy expensive in the city. TIP: If you want to get your workout in and don't mind some walking, you can save tons of money on transportation by just walking from place to place.
Day 1: Start in Union Square. This is mostly just an area with lots of fancy shops, so take your time window shopping or just people watch as you walk through it. Then make your way up to Chinatown. Once you walk through the gate, you'll feel like you've been transported to a Chinese market. Small shops and restaurants line the streets, and even the street signs start being translated into Chinese characters. If you just keep walking, you'll soon jump from China to Italy (in only a few blocks!). Head up towards North Beach for some delicious Italian restaurants.
After about 2.5 miles total of walking straight, you'll arrive at Fisherman's Wharf. Take in some street performers, then head to Pier 39 for some sea lions, shopping and a bite to eat. Finish your self-guided walking tour by walking down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building. If you're not tired at this point, then keep going, but my feet could only take so much, and I decided to call it quits for the day.
Day 2: I was feeling pretty ambitious (and a bit guilty for all the food I'd been eating), so I decided to walk all the way from Union Square to the Golden Gate Bridge. BEWARE: This is about 5-6 miles of walking and includes some pretty steep hills (let me tell you - my legs hate me today). If you head up to the water, you can enjoy some beautiful views as you walk. Take a pit stop in Ghiradelli Square for some ice cream or chocolate and make your way down the street to the Hyde Street Pier. Catch an Uber to Alamo Square and check out the iconic Painted Ladies from Full House.
Even though San Francisco wasn't my absolute favorite city, the surrounding areas are beautiful, and San Francisco has its own kind of charm that's definitely worth checking out. Pack your hiking shoes and get ready to walk.