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13 San Francisco Vacation Mistakes to Avoid

Have you always wanted to travel to San Francisco? The charm of the city entices travelers from across the globe, gaining a place at the top of many vacation wish lists. However, visiting the Bay Area can easily go awry if you don’t know what you’re doing. Think throngs of tourists. Chilly adventures. And meals that are way too expensive. In order to ensure those hassles and misadventures don’t happen to you, be sure to follow our guide to how to avoid San Francisco vacation mistakes.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Don’t overstuff your suitcase with items you don’t need!

1) Don’t Pack for the Wrong Trip

You might think since you’re traveling to California you should pack your beach gear. But you’d be wrong. Even though San Francisco is a coastal city, it’s northern proximity means you’re better off bring scarves and jackets than boardshorts and bikinis. Even during the summer season, the city tends to stay cool and foggy. With that in mind, skip the flip-flops and tank tops and pack clothes that can be layered instead. Need more suggestions? Use our San Francisco packing list for inspiration.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Catching a ride on a cable car is an iconic San Francisco experience!

2) Don’t Hop on the Wrong Cable Car

For first time visitors, navigating San Francisco Cable Cars can be a bit tricky. However, you can easily make your cable car experience better by following our advice on how to avoid one of the biggest San Francisco vacation mistakes.

For one, don’t take the Powell Cable Car lines. These lines are super touristy and always overcrowded. To enjoy a much better trip aboard a cable car, take the California line. Hop on near the Ferry Building, then ride to the top of Nob Hill. This way, you can get a true cable car experience without waiting in line. Plus, you can explore the unique Nob Hill area without having to hike up that hill. Total bonus!

If you do need to take the Powell lines, know where to board to avoid the touristy lines. Do not, I repeat do not try boarding at Powell-Market unless you enjoy waiting in 45-minute-long lines. Instead, walk one block up from the turnarounds for less of a wait and maybe even a seat!

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Alcatraz Island is a legendary part of San Francisco’s history.

3) Don’t Take the Wrong Alcatraz Tour

There’s plenty of Alcatraz tours offered in San Francisco. However, only one actually stops at The Rock. And that’s Alcatraz Cruises, operated by the National Parks commission. Others just sail right past it. Granted, they still provide a great narrative of the legendary island but if you want to tour this infamous facility don’t let this be one of your San Francisco vacation mistakes.

Here’s another tip: book your reservations in advance. If you wait to reserve your tickets the day of you’ll most likely be faced with full boats and no ticket availability.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist hotspot.

4) Don’t Eat at Fisherman’s Wharf

When it comes to San Francisco vacation mistakes to avoid, this one might take some convincing. But hear me out! I’m not advocating missing the scene at Fisherman’s Wharf entirely. It does have its worthwhile vistas and attractions. It’s just that the place is super touristy, generally overcrowded, and always overpriced. Food in San Francisco is pricey enough. Spend your money elsewhere and you’ll not only get more bang for your buck but a more delicious meal too.

If you simply have to eat at Fisherman’s Wharf, though, there are a few exceptions. The Boudin Bakery is a great spot for a sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder. In addition, the Carmel Pizza Company has excellent brick oven pizza at an affordable price. Keep in mind it’s technically a block or two from the main Fisherman’s Wharf thoroughfare. They also close at 8 pm so if you’re having dinner, make it an early one.

 

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Haight-Ashbury still revels in the good vibes but the Summer of Love is over.

5) Don’t Go to Haight-Ashbury Expecting the Summer of Love

If you’re expecting to travel back in time to 1967 and experience the Summer of Love vibe in Haight-Ashbury, prepare to be disappointed. Trust me, this was one of the San Francisco vacation mistakes I committed on my first visit to the city. It’s not that there’s nothing to see in this San Francisco neighborhood. There’s plenty of hippie-esque, tie-dyed out establishments still holding strong to their free spirit notions. Just don’t expect anyone to be putting flowers in your hair. You might, however, smell the scent of pot smoke wafting through the air. Actually, that’s a pretty solid bet.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
By BrokenSphere (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

6) Don’t Shop at Union Square

Yes, Union Square is the shopping mecca in San Francisco. It’s bursting with name brand stores and shops…that you can find in any urban city in America. I’m not saying skip visiting Union Square altogether. There are highlights like the spiral escalators and stained glass ceiling inside Neiman Marcus. In addition, their Macy’s is the biggest of the outfitter’s stores on the West Coast. But for unique San Francisco shopping head out to Hayes Valley or the Fillmore neighborhood.

Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar, flickr

7) Don’t Drive Down Lombard Street

This zig-zag of a street is certainly something to be seen. Just not driven. Plus, when you’re driving the street it loses some of its appeal as you’re concentrating on steering the wheel right to left rather than the scenery. Instead, simply walk down it. Take a cable car to the intersection of Hyde Street and Lombard, then enjoy the twists and turns at your leisure.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Trek off-the-beaten path to see the real Chinatown.

8) Don’t Skip Over the Real Chinatown

San Francisco boasts the oldest Chinatown in the United States. With that in mind, it’s definitely worth visiting. However, one of the classic San Francisco vacation mistakes is not seeing the real Chinatown. First-time visitors get stuck on Grant Street, which is teeming with touristy shops and total kitsch. So not worth it. Instead, skip those streets and opt for Ross Alley and Stockton Street for a more off-the-beaten path look at this cultural gem.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Get out of the city and explore Muir Woods during your vacation.

 9) Don’t Forget to Get Out of the City

Sure, San Francisco has a lot offer. You can easily fill a vacation hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood. As a result, many travelers make the mistake of missing nearby gems like Muir Woods, Napa Valley, Sausalito and even Berkley. These nearby attractions are easily accessible and definitely worth your time. In fact, on my last trip to San Francisco, I day-tripped it out to Yosemite Valley. Did it make for a long day? Yes. Was it one of the best days of my entire vacation? Totally.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
High-rise hotels and high rates go hand-in-hand in San Francisco.

10) Don’t Forget to Look at Hotel Parking Fees

Getting a great deal on a hotel in San Francisco can be hard, but possible! That said, behind every seemingly solid deal there might be fees lurking. Parking fees, for instance, can be outrageous in San Francisco. Soaring upwards of $50 a day, you may rethink that hotel deal or even having a car altogether thanks to these high rates. And truly, you don’t really need a car to navigate San Francisco so plan your vacation accordingly.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Don’t stand out from the crowd by calling San Francisco “Frisco”.

11) Don’t Use the Wrong Lingo

Want to really stand out as a tourist? Refer to San Francisco as “San Fran” or “Frisco.” These nicknames for the city are generally despised by locals. As a result, we recommend not using them unless you want to stick out like a sore thumb.

San Francisco Vacation Mistakes
Beautiful days like this are perfect for exploring the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

12) Don’t Miss the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

It would be a true travesty to visit San Francisco and not witness the Golden Gate Bridge in all of its glory. Don’t let this be one of your San Francisco vacation mistakes! This international orange-painted bridge is a remarkable modern marvel and one worth viewing from multiple locations. One of the best is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Crissy Field is the highlight but Fort Point and Fort Mason are worth seeing as well.

Only a city as quirky as San Francisco could name its fog.

13) Don’t Hate on Karl the Fog

Yes, San Francisco’s famous fog has a name: Karl. It’s actually a quite beloved part of the city. The fog, you see, adds to the charm of the coastal city. In fact, you haven’t really experienced San Francisco unless you’ve watched the fog roll in over the bay. All things considered, if you’re gonna hate on Karl this might not be the vacation destination for you. Embrace it with open arms! (And maybe a light jacket.)

How to Avoid Making San Francisco Vacation Mistakes

With our guide, you can easily escape the things you shouldn’t do on vacation. At this point, though, you might need tips on what you should do on a San Francisco trip. Luckily, we can help you there as well. From how to spend three days in San Francisco to the best tours of San Francisco, we’ve got you covered. For even more guidance on planning your trip, check out Reserve San Francisco. It’s the one place you can go for all your travel needs.


Ashley is Reserve Direct’s travel expert, visiting San Francisco to find the best travel tips, money-saving deals and insider information. With over 10 years of experience in first-hand-travel adventures, she shares her stories, advice, and current events to help you stay in the know.
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