Understand San Francisco

The Personality of San Francisco

Generally speaking, San Franciscans celebrate liberalism, open-mindedness, and good (local) food. They love their Giants, Warriors, and 49ers, and will forever fight for their freedoms.

Surprises and Scams of SF

Unpleasant experiences easily sour a trip. Although these experiences are oftentimes unavoidable, learning about the city’s most common scams and biggest surprises will provide you with an advantage. And remember, although not fun, unpleasant experiences inevitably lead to new life lessons.

  • Bike Theft: Not only do you have to worry about your bike frame, but also your handlebars, seats, wheels, and lights. When possible, always bring your bike inside, or at least lock it up in sight. Some people keep two bikes—one “junker” to lock up while doing errands around the city, and one nicer bike for further journeys that is never kept locked up outside. Whenever locking, only consider using a U-Lock, not a coil lock.
  • Car Break-Ins: Do not leave anything in a parked car, not even a plastic bag. Window smashing is common; just walk down any major street in the Mission or SoMa and to see the broken glass lining the streets as evidence of this crime.
  • Drugs: Sit at Dolores Park on a sunny day and within minutes, you could be offered not only three different types of drugs, but three different types of each drug.
  • Homelessness: Many first-time visitors to SF are shocked by the very apparent homeless population, mostly concentrated around Civic Center, the Tenderloin, and downtown BART stations (including Mission & 16th). Another concentration, and different sector of the of homeless population, is made up of mostly-young hippies that hang on Haight Street, the Panhandle, and the top of Golden Gate Park along Stanyan.
  • Nudity: As of February 1, 2013, public nudity in San Francisco is illegal, but don’t be shocked if you spot proud nudists out and about. The north end of Baker Beach is a favorite nudist hangout, as well as anywhere in the Castro. After all, it doesn’t have to be your birthday to wear your birthday suit.
  • Pickpocketing: Crowded bars and buses prove prime targets for pickpocketers, especially when almost every pocket or purse contains one of SF’s cell phone of choice, the iPhone.
  • Smells: Another apparent presence in SF is the aroma of marijuana—almost more common than the smell of cigarette smoke. Yet another startling smell is that of human urine, especially common in freeway underpasses and alleyways.

Tips From the Locals

  • Dress in layers, even if it appears to be beautiful outside.
  • Don’t call San Francisco “Frisco” or “San Fran,” do call it “S.F.” or “the City.”
  • Gough Street is pronounced “Goff,” rhymes with “cough.”
  • Skip the touristy cable cars, and take a ride on MUNI’s F-Market.
  • When parking on a hill, turn your wheels towards the curb to avoid a ticket. Look at the fellow cars on the hill so you know you’ve curbed your wheels the correct direction.

Helpful Vocab to Know

  • The Sharing Economy: Economic and social systems that enable shared access to goods, services, data, and talent. Examples, airbnb.com (rent a room or home), getaround.com (borrow a car), Lyft (get a ride), TaskRabbit (get help with a task), and Postmates (get goods delivered to your doorstep).
  • Startup: A company or organization designed to grow fast and are in a phase of development and research. Bonus vocab: startup incubators, angel investors, and venture round.
  • Rent Control: In SF, many tenants are protected by rent control, laws that control the raise of rent by certain amounts per year. Rent control is intended to keep the city affordable, but like many things, is not a perfect system.
  • Ride Share: AKA carpooling. The sharing of car journeys so that more than one person travels in a car. Example: Casual Carpool (organized daily carpooling from Oakland to SF).
  • The Wiggle: A well-known zig-zagging bike route from Market Street to Golden Gate Park that minimizes hilly inclines.
  • IT’S-IT: Find SF’s most popular ice cream sandwich since 1928 in almost any local convenience store.

Its It bar San Francisco

  • The San Francisco earthquake of 1906: the earthquake that struck SF at 5:12am on Wednesday, April 18, 1906. In combination with the resulting fires, 80% of the city was destroyed.
  • The San Francisco Earthquake of 1989: As the two Bay Area local baseball teams—Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants—were warming up to play each other in the third game of the World Series, a magnitude 6.9 quake rocked the San Francisco Bay region.
  • Painted Ladies: Sometimes referred to as “Postcard Row,” this famous cluster of brightly painted Victorian homes sits on Steiner Street across from Alamo Square. Painted Ladies can technically refer to any house painted with 3 or more different colors.
  • Victorian Architecture: An architectural style most popular between 1860 and 1900 that includes interpretations of historic styles mixed with influences from the Middle East and Asia. Curious to see for yourself? Head to Haight-Ashbury, Alamo Square, Noe Valley, Castro, Nob Hill, or Pacific Heights.
  • Beat Generation: A group of American post-WWII writers and their work. Central to beat (or beatnik) culture is the rejection of standard norms and materialism, innovations in style, and experimentation with drugs and alternative lifestyles. Go to City Lights Bookstore in North Beach to read more.
  • LGBTQ: A term standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.
  • Parklets: A parklet repurposes part of the street into a mini park-like space. Parklets can provide seating, planting, bike parking, and art. You’ll find about 2 dozen throughout SF, where people meet to chat, read, and people watch.
  • Kombucha: A popular fermented drink of sweetened tea produced by using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Find in most grocery stores and conner markets in the city.
  • Hella: A common term used by locals synonymous with “very,” “really,” or “many.”

Helpful Apps to Download

  • DetourGorgeous audio walking tours that reveal hidden stories, people, and places at every turn. Even locals (maybe even especially locals) can learn from and enjoy Detour.
  • Uber: A taxi alternative that you order and pay through your smart phone. After downloading the app, enter the code vc021 to get your first ride free! Choose between UberX (low-cost), UberBlack (high-end), and UberPool (carpool with riders traveling a similar route to you, also the cheapest option). If you have a large group, order an UberSUV.
  • Lyft: Similar to Uber, a taxi alternative that matches everyday people in their own car with passengers. When downloading Lyft, type in the code ALI127 to get your first ride free! If you’re not in a hurry, use LyftLine for the cheapest ride, where you will share the Lyft with other riders.
  • Yelp: Discover and find local business and services on the go.
  • Tinder: Dating app. Finds out who likes you nearby and connects you with them if you’re also interested.
  • Gametime: iPhone and Android app to buy last-minute cheap baseball tickets.
  • Postmates: Need something picked up and delivered to your front door—or your park picnic? With a big fleet of bikers and drivers waiting to help you out, Postmates is your answer!

Helpful Websites

  • sf.funcheap.com: Free and cheap events and (usually unique) things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • craiglist.org: Best resource to find an apartment, room, furniture, or odd jobs.
  • taskrabbit.com: Get just about anything done (from running errands to cleaning dishes) by friendly, trustworthy people.
  • The Bold Italic: Online publication about life in SF, from unique stories and events to restaurant reviews.
  • bart.gov: Plan a trip with BART.
  • nextmuni.com: Plan a trip with MUNI.
  • sfstation.com/music/calendar: Stay up-to-date with live music
  • Yelp: Discover and find local business and services on the go.

Instagram Accounts to Follow

Movie and Books to Better Understand San Francisco

  • Cool Gray City of Love by Gary Kamiya: A one-of-a-kind book for a one-of-a-kind city. It’s a love song in 49 chapters, taking 49 different sites around the city as points of entry and inspiration-from a seedy intersection in the Tenderloin to the soaring sea cliffs at Lands End. Encompassing the city’s Spanish missionary past, a gold rush, a couple of earthquakes, the Beats, the hippies, and the dot-com boom, this book is at once a rambling walking tour, a natural and human history, and a celebration of place itself-a guide to loving any place more faithfully and fully.
  • Full House: A popular sitcom filmed from 1987-1995 set in SF telling the tale of a widowed father raising his daughters with the help of his best friends.
  • Milk: a biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. Go to the Castro to learn more!
  • Piece by Piece: documentary on SF’s graffiti culture from the 1980s-2004.
  • The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: a documentary about an unemployed musician and a flock of feral parrots that he feeds.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: a beatnik classic.
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: A memoir of this local author’s life growing up in the Bay Area.
  • Season of the Witch by David Talbot: SF’s fascinating history from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.


Within SF, there are easy to see micro-climates—one part of the city can be sunny, and another part can be simultaneously blustering cold. Always dress in layers! The fog is also unique and iconic of SF (check out @KarlTheFog on Twitter to understand SF’s most infamous weatherman); neighborhoods like Twin Peaks and the Inner Sunset offer fantastic perches to watch the daily fog roll in and roll out among SF’s infinite hills.

Experience SF at its warmest during September and October, when the city experiences a phenomenon, “Indian summer.” It’s no surprise that several festivals and events take place during these warmer months.

Sport Seasons

There’s nothing like bonding with the locals over local sports teams and rivalries.

  • The Giants: Catch a home-run ball at AT&T Park March-October.
  • The 49ers: The 49ers just moved into their brand new stadium, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. September-early January.
  • The Oakland A’s: The Giants’ local rival and just across the bay. Catch a game March-October.
  • The Oakland Raiders: The 49ers local rival and just across the bay. September-early January.

Pro Tip: Looking for tickets? Download Gametime, an iPhone and Android app to buy last-minute cheap baseball tickets.