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San Francisco

On my first visit to San Francisco in 1986, I knew right away that it was the place where I wanted to live. If you love music and are considering a visit to the City by the Bay, cue up the San Francisco Tunes playlist below and read this Travel Guide for a local music lover’s perspective.

Spotify subscribers can click the Spotify logo to access the playlist through their accounts. Non-subscribers can hear a 30-second preview by clicking the play button or signing up for a free account with commercials.

San Francisco Travel Guide

Music Scene

San Francisco deserves a place among the great music cities in the United States. In the heyday of bebop and cool jazz, San Francisco became known as Harlem of the West, with many great clubs and after-hour joints. In the ’60s, the rock scene became one of the most important anywhere in its role as an integral part of the counterculture movement. By the ’70s, Bill Graham promoted epic full-day stadium concert events like no other, while the City’s clubs rocked on.

Today, The City honors its legacy with excellent live music events and venues. San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, held in Golden Gate Park, is one of the top live music events in the U.S. Check out my Hardly Strictly Bluegrass travel guide for tips on how to get the most out of your Hardly Strictly weekend in San Francisco.

The Stern Grove Festival is also exceptional, a free summer concert series ever since 1938, with first-class acts in a stunning coastal grove of eucalyptus, redwood, and pine trees.

The operative word in these descriptions is free. San Francisco is all about freedom. And, for an expensive place to live or visit, we still do free very well. Of course, there are also other festivals in the City and surrounding area including Outside Lands and Bottlerock in Napa Valley.

Besides historic venues such as the Fillmore Auditorium, there is an abundance of excellent venues of all sizes from small clubs to large theatres where you can take in shows standing or seated.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood exudes a unique vibe, like being in an entirely different city. Click the links below for a travel guide to some favorite San Francisco neighborhoods.

Vacation Rentals

To get a local experience, consider staying in a vacation rental in your neighborhood of choice. Unfortunately for visitors these days, stricter regulations imposed on vacation rentals have resulted in fewer options. Before booking a hotel, I suggest considering the options available on VRBO. At least, you will get a point of reference for comparison to the many great hotels in San Francisco.

Hotels

If you cannot find a vacation rental, there are many excellent hotel options both major hotel chains and boutiques. Given the variety of accommodations, price points, and personal preferences, I will refrain from making specific recommendations with one exception below. Here is a quick rundown of the neighborhoods where hotels are concentrated.

Union Square is the shopping district, a great holiday location if you enjoy the holiday spirit and bustling crowds. There are also a few nearby spots for live music.

Nob Hill, above Union Square, offers hotels with stunning views and a clean, residential feel. North Beach and Chinatown are a short downhill walk away. The walk uphill will provide some cardio to help work off your indulgences. Alternatively, you can easily grab a rideshare or ride a cable car up the hill. This location is excellent if rideshare is your preferred transportation.

Financial District and SoMa (South of Market) have many outstanding hotels if you don’t mind business travelers and conventioneers on the weekdays.

The Marina District, along Lombard Street (the flat straight part) features several clean, inexpensive motels to consider for budget-minded travelers. These motels offer easy access to walking or jogging trails along the bay on a busy street in an upscale neighborhood.

Fisherman’s Wharf is an area I would generally avoid. Tourist shops dominate the landscape. On the plus side, the Wharf is a short walk from North Beach, and there are some good hotels in the area.

Once you select a neighborhood, search Hotels.com to identify options within your price preference. Filter your selections for those with a guest rating of 8+ (Very Good). Beware of the distance of properties from the neighborhood of choice by referencing a map as Nob Hill, Union Square, and the Financial District are very close to each other.

The Phoenix Hotel

The Phoenix Hotel has been a San Francisco home over the years to many a rock star. Legend has it that Neil Young stayed here (the Caravan Lodge at the time) while recording the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classic album Deja Vu. Following an owner change and renovation in the late 1980s, this mid-century Palm Springs-style hotel became the lodging of choice for touring bands. From legends like Robert Plant and David Bowie to rising stars such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, it seemed that everyone stayed here and parked their tour buses on the lot back in the 90s.

The Phoenix oozes cool but is not a luxury hotel. It’s also located in the heart of the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood. Despite the detractions, the Phoenix is worth considering on a trip to San Francisco if you like the rock ‘n’ roll vibe. Rooms are generally available, except during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.

When to Visit San Francisco

San Francisco is truly a year-round destination. The weather is generally mild, but it can be volatile. Within its 49 square-mile geography you will find a surprisingly wide range of microclimates. Prepare by dressing in layers.

Weather

You will find San Francisco’s best weather during the Indian summer months of September and October. Average daytime temperatures reach the low 70s, yet manage to feel 10 degrees warmer in the City.

Summer days are usually beautiful until around 3 pm when the wind picks up and the fog rolls in. By sunset, the wind will usually die down and the fog will lift. The chill of summer evenings likely led Mark Twain to write the famous line “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

Most of San Francisco’s rainfall occurs between November through March with January and February being the rainiest. With daily highs in the upper 50’s/low 60’s and overnight lows from the mid 40’s to the mid 50’s, the rain is tolerable. And, even these months offer far more good days than bad. San Francisco is not quite Paris in the rain, but to me it’s close.

Getting Around

Despite its famous hills, The City is best experienced on foot. It’s a walker’s paradise with plenty of flat routes and great rewards for climbing steep streets and staircases.

You do not need to rent a car in San Francisco. For destinations beyond walking distance, take a ride share (both Uber and Lyft are headquartered here) or public transportation. Bikes and scooters can also be fun if you keep to designated paths. If you want to venture outside the City for a day trip, downtown rental car locations offer convenient pickup and drop-off.

Experience San Francisco by immersing yourself for at least a full day or two in a neighborhood. Take it slow. Give yourself plenty of time to sit in a café or bar and soak it in. Walk the streets and notice the architecture, climb the hills, and appreciate the spectacular views.

Neighborhood Travel Guide to San Francisco

Explore these San Francisco neighborhoods with a travel guide featuring music venues, restaurants with live music, record stores, and more.