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San Francisco Do’s and Don’ts: 10 Unwritten Rules That Every San Franciscan Knows

San Francisco welcomes visitors with open arms. Follow these tips to endear the locals even more—and make your trip a great success.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Hi, I'm Gianmaria!

Gianmaria Franchini is a writer based in Oakland, CA who makes his life between California and Italy. He’s a Senior Writer with Viator, and the in-house San Francisco expert.

Don’t call it “San Fran”

Picnickers enjoy the view in San Francisco from a park.
Picnickers enjoy the view in San Francisco.Foto: Stephen Lam / Viator

Please, just don’t.

San Francisco has many names. Yerba Buena. The Cool Grey City of Love. Baghdad by the Bay. Calling San Francisco “San Fran” is famously faux pas, and “Frisco” could be confused for Frisco, Texas—at least that’s how the thinking goes. Using either nickname marks you a tourist, which could work to your disadvantage and, in a place with few rigid social conventions, a dash of politeness goes a long way.

Insider tip: Do, however, keep it simple and call the city, “The City.” It’s practical and signals that you’re not somewhere nearby, such as the East Bay, Daly City, or Marin, for example. Otherwise, “San Francisco” is just fine.

Do visit the parrots

Look out for parrots in the city of San Francisco.
Look out for parrots in the city.Foto: Hofmann Holger / Shutterstock

But please don’t feed them.

A flock of parrots—mostly cherry-headed conures—make their home in the trees atop Telegraph Hill. How they got there is a local mystery, but by all accounts, they've nested there since at least 1911. Climbing the Filbert Stairs or Greenwich Steps to Coit Tower and Pioneer Park, where the birds live, is one of the great pleasures of walkable San Francisco. When saying hello to the squawking flocks, remember that it's illegal to feed them. The rule is intended to keep the birds wild by encouraging them to find food on their own and stop people from capturing them.

Do go out early.

Sunset in the city of San Francisco.
Sunset in the city.Foto: Hannah Gart / Viator

San Francisco isn’t a 24-hour town.

Out-of-towners sometimes grumble that the city nightlife cuts short too early. Isn’t San Francisco a rowdy party town? Well, the visitors are right to protest. Last calls and last dances are rarely made here after 2am. Even more challenging, the metro system stops running between 1am and 5am. Here’s a local tip: Orphan Andy’s is one of the few city diners open until sunrise—but only during weekends, Thursday through Sunday. If it’s any consolation, calling an early night leaves more time to get outside and explore in the morning.

Don’t plan on taking the night train

The muni tram in San Francisco.
Take the Muni to get around.Foto: Robert Szymanski / Shutterstock

You might end up stranded.

It’s helpful to know your local public transit systems. MUNI runs the city metro, buses, and cable cars. You’ll likely need to take a MUNI bus or streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf or Golden Gate Park. The metro runs underground along Market Street in the same stations as BART, just closer to street level. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a faster rail line connecting the greater Bay Area. A rule of thumb: use MUNI to travel within the city and BART to get to the East Bay or the airport. Sadly, neither train runs through the night.

Do prepare for fog and wind

Visitors enjoy the view at Golden Gate in San Francisco.
Visitors enjoy the view at Golden Gate.Foto: Maridav / Shutterstock

Dress in layers; trust us on this one.

There’s no way around it: San Francisco can turn chilly at the drop of a hat. Locals speak of microclimates like proud parents of unruly children. And they’re rightly pleased: one side of the city can be drenched in sunshine, while a few square blocks away are cloaked in blinding fog. When visiting, remember that dressing in layers is an absolute must. Count on weather conditions to change throughout the day, no matter how the morning begins, and don’t get caught without something warm to wear.

Insider tip: The morning fog usually burns out until it doesn’t! Bring a base layer, windbreaker, and rain jacket—always.

Don’t skip the burritos

A burrito for sale in San Francisco.
Burritos are a must while in town.Foto: Brittany Hosea-Small / Viator

Are you in the Mission? You must try one.

The San Francisco food scene is a kaleidoscope of fine-dining experiments, fusion cuisine, high-end pizzerias, dumpling houses, bread bowl chowder bars, and much more. First-time visitors can find it disorienting. Our advice? Head straight for the staples, one of the best being the “Mission-style” burrito, a Mexican-American concoction served up and down Mission Street. San Francisco, after all, is a West Coast burrito hotspot. When in the Mission District, do as the locals do, and visit a taqueria, too: El Farolito and Cancún are steadfast favorites, and La Taqueria serves some of the best tacos in the city.

Do ride a cable car

Riders enjoy the cable car in San Francisco.
The cable car is just fun.Foto: Lexi Castillo / Viator

But tip at your own risk.

Some travelers avoid tourist attractions, favoring less-trodden paths instead. Cable cars, however, should be an exception to this rule. There’s nothing like hopping on a vintage car and gliding up and down the city’s steepest hills, steampunk-style. When you ride, keep a few things in mind.

First, you can board using the Bay Area–wide Clipper Card or purchase tickets online or from turnaround station booths. (However, to board along routes or outside station hours of operation, pay your conductor in cash with exact change.) Second, most people board at either end of the lines, but you can board at any stop, though you may have to flag down your conductor. Third, tips are out of bounds, but operators may appreciate them nonetheless.

Don’t miss hidden neighborhoods

Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
In Golden Gate Park.Foto: Stephen Lam / Viator

Explore the Sunset and Richmond, out in “the avenues.”

The Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods are hidden gems. Straddling the north and south sides of Golden Gate Park, they comprise the city’s west side toward the Pacific Ocean. The outer Richmond is home to the city’s best bookstore, Green Apple Books, and the top dim sum and dumpling spots outside Chinatown. Northern Sunset skirts the area from Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach, near surf cafés and windmills. The best part of these out-of-the-way neighborhoods is their proximity to the Presidio, Land’s End, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and, of course, the green swathe of Golden Gate Park.

Do bring your walking shoes

Experience the hilly landscape of San Francisco.Foto: Stephen Lam / Viator

San Francisco is walkable but hilly.

You should expect to walk around San Francisco. How much? Let us count the ways. Start by turning down the crookedest street in the world, a 1-block brick-lined beauty. Slip between Chinatown's historic back alleys. Climb the Filbert Steps, Greenwich Steps, and 16th Avenue tiled steps. Scale the famous hills called Russian, Telegraph, and Nob. Skirt waterfronts along Crissy Field, the Embarcadero, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Cross the Golden Gate. Ramble through a public rooftop park. Loiter next to Painted Ladies. I think you get the point. When you visit, prepare to walk a lot—and to be amazed.

Don’t stay in the city

Sausalito near San Francisco is on the water.
Beautiful Sausalito.Foto: vichie81 / Shutterstock

Head out of town, at least for a day or two.

Northern California overflows with natural beauty, but experiencing it requires venturing outside San Francisco. Sausalito and the rugged Marin Headlands, for example, are a bike and ferry ride away. Angel Island has overnight camping in the middle of San Francisco Bay. You can tour wine country in Napa and Sonoma counties in one day or less. Visiting Yosemite National Park requires just a little more preparation. Long story short: when visiting, plan on exploring farther afield, and you’ll better understand why the City by the Bay is one of the planet's top travel destinations.

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