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Blog 8 things NOT to do when visiting San Francisco
Date: 1 August 2019

8 things NOT to do when visiting San Francisco

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Golden Gate Bridge. Painted Ladies. Alcatraz. Lombard Street. San Francisco is packed with things to see and do. No wonder crooner Tony Bennett left his heart there.

There are loads of things you should do in the City by the Bay. But there are also some things you shouldn’t.

So to make sure you get the most out of your trip, below we give you a list of rookie mistakes to avoid when visiting San Francisco.

Before you begin, first things first: book your flights to San Francisco with Norwegian and earn CashPoints towards your next trip. That’s always a good start!

1. Don’t pack for LA weather

Woman wearing denim jacket and a backpack with back to the camera looks out onto the Golden Gate Bridge which is surrounded by fog.
Be prepared for all sorts of weather in San Francisco – layer up!

This is something to think about before boarding the plane. You’re heading to California, home to some of the sunniest places in the states. So, all you need to pack is shorts and sandals, right? Wrong.

San Francisco has a climate all of its own. It may be balmy in Los Angeles, but the famous Golden Gate fog (known locally as Karl) can send temperatures tumbling.

But don’t let this put you off. Pack shorts, layers, and a raincoat, so you’re ready for whatever the weather throws at you.

Tip: Head to the city during autumn for generally mild and clear weather, and less crowds.

2. Don’t underestimate the hills

Steep hill in San Francisco looking out towards Alcatraz
Pack your best walking shoes and get ready for a leg workout to remember

To call San Francisco ‘hilly’ is an understatement. Some of it is seriously mountain goat territory.

It’s the hilliest city in the USA and the second hilliest city in the world (after La Paz in Bolivia). The steepest hill, between Leavenworth and Hyde on Filbert Street, has a whopping 31.5% grade.

So when you’re packing for a visit to San Francisco, don’t forget to throw in some comfortable shoes – and be prepared to sweat!

Tip: If you want see the sights of San Francisco but avoid the hills altogether, a hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus is a great way to do it.

3. Don’t panic on a Tuesday at midday

Sirens mounted on a pole with various cables crossing the space around it
San Francisco’s sirens can be a bit startling if you don’t know they’re coming. Photo: Britta Gustafson – Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Every Tuesday at noon, emergency sirens go off around San Francisco. If you hear them, don’t panic, it’s not Armageddon, it’s just the weekly outdoor warning system test.

This is a drill that’s been taking place since 1942. Initially, the sirens warned people about air raids during the war. Today, they warn of impending hazards such as those which might occur in the aftermath of an earthquake like a fire, a gas-main break or even a tsunami.

Tip: The sirens sound for 15 seconds. In a real emergency, they’ll wail for five minutes.

4. Don’t try to take the perfect picture from the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate bridge against a pink and purple sky as seen from the shore
The Golden Gate Bridge makes for a beautiful holiday snap if you know where to find the good vantage points

One of the most iconic landmarks in the world, let alone San Francisco, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge defines the city. At almost three kilometres long, you can walk across it and back in just over an hour.

There are fabulous vistas from the bridge, but it’s not the best place to get your holiday snaps. For postcard-perfect views, take your camera to Land’s End trail, Crissy Field or Baker Beach. The views are well worth it.

Tip: Why not hire a bike, cycle across the bridge and have lunch in Sausalito? It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.

5. Don’t wait to buy tickets to Alcatraz

View of Alcatraz island from above
Visit one of the most famous sights in San Francisco, but be sure to book up in advance

Sitting on a small, rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz is a former federal prison that’s housed some of America’s most notorious criminals. Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’) and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly were all inmates there.

These days Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions. Hop on a ferry from Pier 33 and take the self-guided audio tour. Narrated by former inmates and guards, you’ll hear about the various escape plans, solitary confinement, prison riots and other chilling tales of prison life.

Tickets sell out weeks in advance. So if you turn up expecting to get right in, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Book in advance, or risk missing out.

Plus, if you’re a Norwegian Reward member and book your Alcatraz tickets via GetYourGuide, you’ll get 5% CashPoints towards your next Norwegian flight.

Tip: If you can’t get enough of Alcatraz, book a tour to see it by boat and take in the Golden Gate Bridge at the same time. 

6. Don’t catch a cable car at Powell & Market Turnaround

An old cable car on California Street surrounded by cars, lights and buildings
Avoid long lines and ride the California cable car. Photo: Alfonso Jimenez – Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

When San Francisco’s cable car network was at its peak, there were 23 routes. These days, there are quicker and easier ways to get around town, but riding on one of the three remaining lines is a unique experience.

That said, be warned: you can wait in long queues to get your turn. It can be an hour or more if you’re planning to hop aboard at the Powell/Market turnaround. If you’re heading to Fisherman’s Wharf, try to catch a car further along the line where the waiting times are generally much shorter.

Tip: If you just want the cable car experience, take the California line. It runs from the Financial District to Chinatown, which is a fascinating place to explore. Just stay away from touristy Gant Avenue. Head to Stockton Street to experience Chinatown like a local.

7. Don’t eat at Fisherman’s Wharf

Sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco with the city in the background
Head to Fisherman’s Wharf and see the sea lions, but avoid the tourist traps.

When it comes to things to avoid in San Francisco, this one might take some convincing. But hear us out. We’re not saying you should miss out on Fisherman’s Wharf entirely. The ocean views are fantastic, and you can spot sea lions off Pier 39 from the end of July to mid-May.

But the area is geared up for tourists. The food is overpriced, and not of the best quality. Spend your money elsewhere and you’ll not only get more bang for your buck, but a more delicious meal too.

Tip: If you want to fill your tummy with top-quality, no-frills seafood, the Swan Oyster Depot is your best bet. A popular hole-in-the-wall in Nob Hill, the oysters are hard to beat. Picked and shucked before your eyes, they’re the freshest you’ll taste.

8. Don’t call San Francisco ‘Frisco’

Part of the Golden Gate Bridge visible through a thick fog and a pink sky in the background as seen from a nearby mountain
How you refer to San Francisco can make you look more like a local or a tourist

Finally, this one is to be dodged at all costs. Do not, under any circumstances, call San Francisco ‘Frisco’. The laid-back locals may not say anything, but inside, they’ll be groaning. To be safe, call it ‘the City’ or just San Francisco.

Need a place to stay?

San Francisco is packed with fantastic places to stay. Check out these two fabulous hotels for starters:

Argonaut Hotel ****

Bedroom with two windows looking out onto the harbour, bed decorated with nautical-themed furnishings and a tray of food and drinks on top of the bed
Argonaut has a quirky design and is in the perfect location by Fisherman’s Wharf

With its prime waterfront location, this cool, nautical-themed boutique hotel is a short stroll from Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39. Based in the famous Haslett Warehouse, it’s also handy for cable cars and ferries.

With a friendly staff and free scooter and bicycle rentals, Argonaut is a great base for your San Francisco adventure.

Hilton San Francisco Union Square ****

Modern bedroom with two windows, featuring a double bed, sofa and wall-mounted TV
Stay close to all the action at Hilton Union Square

The Hilton San Francisco Union Square’s location means you’ve got some of the city’s top attractions, shops, restaurants, theatres and nightlife on your doorstep. It’s also one of the few Union Square hotels to have a pool. What more could you want?

Tip: The 46th-floor penthouse Cityscape Lounge is a great place to enjoy a cocktail before heading out to explore the city by night.

See more hotels

Visit San Francisco, earn CashPoints

Red Chinese lanterns hanging across a street in San Francisco's Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is just one of the many amazing places to visit

Get even more out of your San Francisco trip with Norwegian Reward. Every time you book a hotel or tour through our partners, you’ll earn CashPoints which can be used towards future trips.

Martin did it. He and his girlfriend pooled their CashPoints and jetted off for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the USA with Norwegian. San Francisco was one of the highlights. Read about Martin’s dream holiday here. Happy travels!

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