San Francisco, famed for its Golden Gate Bridge, Union Square, and Fisherman's Wharf, is one of America’s most liberal, liveable and cosmopolitan cities. The city has a distinctly international flavour, with some 39% of its population foreign born.
San Francisco’s vibrant, colourful history really kicked off in the 1950’s with the arrival of the Beat Generation writers and artists, who made the city an epicentre for liberal activism, paving the way for its thriving LBGT community.
The city is now renowned for its culturally vibrant streetscapes and ‘mixed-use’ neighbourhoods that blend residential areas with small businesses, boutiques, restaurants, bars and clubs. Its enormous urban appeal is evident in its property values and household incomes, which are now among the nation’s highest.
You’ll be hard pushed to find fast food in San Francisco. The city prides itself on having everything from slow food, farm-to-table, stir-fried, simmered, hip or haute; but the greasy spoons and burger restaurants rank very, very low on the radar here. Fashionistas will revel in the plethora of small, chic and way out boutiques. Meanwhile, the city’s arts scene is second-to-none, guaranteed to satisfy the most rapacious cultural appetite.
What is special or unique about your city?
In addition to its people, San Francisco's surroundings make it a unique city. Few others in the world are surrounded by so much natural beauty, and even fewer incorporate that beauty into the city's core.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a walk along the waterfront, a bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, a trip to Alcatraz (a former maximum-security federal penitentiary) or a wander through Golden Gate Park. And that's just the beginning. Besides Golden Gate Park there are other large ones in San Francisco plus dozens of smaller neighbourhood parks, and countless hiking, biking, and walking trails, most of which afford stunning views of the city or the bay.
As in all major cities, there's always something to do and see in San Francisco. In addition to the numerous cultural outlets, San Francisco offers a surprising number of outdoor and indoor activities, and as a result of the city's diverse population, there is a variety of festivals and celebrations throughout the year.
San Francisco has a reputation as a city for the arts and for good reason: Four major art museums, a handful of smaller ones and dozens of galleries present a dizzying schedule of exhibits ranging from world-famous stars like Matthew Barney at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to up-and-coming local artists at the tiny but amazing Jack Hanley Gallery, in the Mission. In addition to museums and galleries, San Francisco has a world renowned ballet (San Francisco Ballet), opera (San Francisco Opera) and Symphony (San Francisco Symphony).
What are a newcomer's first impressions of your city?
At first, most people think San Francisco is difficult to navigate with three major airports serving the area (San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose International Airports), but the City and Bay Area boasts an excellent public transportation system that makes it easier than expected to get where you need to go. Whether you rent a car at the airport or drive in to San Francisco on your own, make sure you have a map of both the region and a detailed map of the city. The motorways crisscross over each other and there will be construction on them for another couple of years, so exits appear and disappear and bridges are shut down some nights. Most tourist attractions and neighbourhoods are well marked by signs throughout San Francisco. Locals, cab drivers, and bus drivers are usually happy to help with directions if you get lost, as are the employees and owners of most stores. Driving a car is a hassle in this town, and everyone knows it, so don't be timid about asking for directions.
Aside from traffic and parking problems, San Francisco is a relaxing city. People take it easy here, as evidenced by the abundance of restaurants and spas, bike paths, parks, cafes, and lounges. Weekends are about taking it slow, enjoying good food, catching up with friends, and appreciating the beauty of the area. One of the best ways to relax San Francisco-style is to spend the afternoon at one of the city's hundred-or-more cafes. Every neighbourhood has at least a dozen, usually with good coffee and food, free Wi-Fi, and free reading material. When night falls, treat yourself to a variety of healthy meals in the city that birthed the "Slow Food Movement," then take in a movie at one of the city's historic theatres.
For great people-watching, do your best Otis Redding impression and sit on the dock of the Bay. You can watch the tide roll away from any one of a dozen great eateries in the recently renovated Ferry Building Marketplace. A historical building that has been beautifully restored, the Ferry Building today is a miniature of the Bay Area, occupied by the retail outlets of some of the area's best-known restaurants, creameries, vineyards, and specialty foods suppliers. There is an emphasis on locally produced, organic fare, and the Marketplace hosts a Farmer's Market four days a week--Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Most of the eateries have outdoor tables on the waterfront side -a great spot to stop for lunch or early dinner. On the Embarcadero side, the Ferry Building Wine Merchant is a popular happy hour spot for the nearby Financial District. If you would prefer to have a guide show you around San Francisco rather than navigate it on your own, we will be glad to provide an overview of organised tours and ideas for all.
The climate is characteristic of California’s Mediterranean climate with mild, wet winters and dry summers. Because it is surrounded on three sides by water, the climate is strongly influenced by the cool currents of the Pacific Ocean which tends to moderate temperature swings and produce a remarkably mild climate with little seasonal variation. You will find that neighbourhoods near the water are more susceptible to fog and cool weather while those farther inland are more prone to sunny days and higher temperatures. Within a distance of seven miles, temperatures can vary significantly by as much as 10 degrees Celsius.
Are these impressions likely to change?
It does not take long to discover that the city is relatively easy to navigate, as it operates on a grid system and public transportation here is better than in most major US cities. Driving around San Francisco presents challenges because of heavy road construction projects, rush hour traffic, the city's unconventional outlay of streets and, legendary parking difficulties. Chances are if you're spending a long time here, you'll use public transportation at some time.
What is the local language?
English is the local language; however, other languages such as Spanish and Chinese are spoken in some neighbourhoods. Like many larger U.S. cities, San Francisco is a minority majority city, as non-Hispanic whites comprise less than half (45 %) of the population. Asian Americans make up 33 % of the population; Chinese Americans constitute the largest single ethnic group in San Francisco at about a fifth of the population. Hispanics of any race make up 14 % of the population. San Francisco's African American population is now 7.3 % of the population.
How easily could I live in this city without knowing this language?
The international character San Francisco has fostered since its founding is continued today by large numbers of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. With 39 % of its residents born overseas, San Francisco has numerous neighbourhoods filled with businesses and civic institutions catering to new arrivals. In particular, the arrival of many ethnic Chinese, which accelerated beginning in the 1970s, has complemented the long-established community historically based in Chinatown throughout the city and has transformed the annual Chinese New Year Parade into the largest event of its kind outside China.
What are good things to remember in order to avoid offending the other residents of this city?
San Francisco became an epicentre of liberal activism, with Democrats and Greens dominating city politics. Indeed, San Franciscans have not provided a Republican presidential candidate more than 20 per cent of the vote since the 1988 election. The city's large gay and lesbian population has created and sustained a politically and culturally active community over many decades, developing a powerful presence in San Francisco's civic life. Additionally, never call San Francisco "Frisco," and never block a resident's driveway with your car. Additionally, keep in mind the city’s diverse nature; it is very important to respect all the cultural differences that you will find locally.
How might the local weather affect my daily life?
San Francisco winters can be cool and rainy, with temperatures dipping into the mid -thirties. Spring is normally cool, but with less rain. Around the end of May the dry season starts, and that lasts until October. Because of the inland heat, it can be quite cold in summer. The cold air is pulled in by the hot inland weather. This also causes San Francisco's legendary fog to blanket parts of the city. The dry period of May to October is mild to warm, with average high temperatures of 17-21°C and lows of 10-13°C. The rainy period of November to April is cool with high temperatures of 13-17°C and lows of 7-10°C. On average, temperatures exceed 24°C 28 days a year.
The best months to be in San Francisco are September and October: There is usually clear weather and warm temperatures.
Is there anything else I should know about the overall character of your city or its people?
San Francisco is the quintessential melting pot, with young and old from all over the world setting up homes, shops, and communities in the city's various neighbourhoods. San Francisco's beauty lies in the sum of its parts, with each neighbourhood displaying a unique personality and charm that combined, make this city one of the best places on Earth.
Locals tend to avoid most tourist traps but they give in to the best views of the bay from Fisherman's Wharf, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge. If you skip the overpriced restaurants, you can snag yourself a heaping plate of fresh steamed crab from one of a dozen or so street vendors; then grab a bench anywhere along the piers, enjoy your crab, then rent a bike and take it all in.
As in any big city, visitors must be aware of their surroundings in San Francisco, especially at night. Though most of the city is safe during the day, the Tenderloin, Lower Haight, Fillmore, and South of Market (SoMa) areas should be avoided at night, unless you know exactly where you're going or are with people who do.
Although never really extreme, you can easily experience several different types of weather in one day: mild and sunny in the morning, rain in the late morning, more sun in the early afternoon, overcast by later afternoon, then a big gust of chilly wind for a clear, cold evening, and finally a fog attack for a cold and misty night. So, be sure to layer appropriately for these changes, especially with children.