San Francisco is an incredible city that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. It has an unparalleled combination of natural beauty, arts and culture, and a thriving and constantly evolving food and drinks scene. Plus, the weather is fairly constant year-round, staying within a band of 50-70 degrees most days of the year.
The mild weather means that visiting San Francisco in the winter doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be heading into frigid temperatures and frost-covered streets. Instead, you’ll be able to enjoy most of the tourist attractions the city has to offer – like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Golden Gate Park – with far fewer crowds to compete with.
Why Visit San Francisco in the Winter?
The best reason to visit San Francisco in the winter is that, in terms of weather, it’s really not that different from other times of the year. The biggest difference? Far, far fewer tourists and lower prices. San Francisco is notoriously expensive both to live in and visit, but those prices drop when the number of tourists starts to dwindle.
You may have a few more days of rain in the wintertime, but the chances are good that you’re going to end up with a sunny day in the 50’s or 60’s. If you do run into rain, you’ll find a few rainy day activities in the list below.
Be warned, the weather in San Francisco changes constantly, so bring layers (in any season!). One minute, it might be 60 and sunny, the next it could end up being 45 and windy. You might think it’s like Southern California, but if you pack for a beach trip, you’re almost certainly going to end up buying one of the “I love SF” sweatshirts that so many tourists are walking around the city in. The number one tip for your trip is to bring a jacket everywhere you go, even if it looks like it’s clear and sunny at the moment.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
First, let’s talk about where NOT to stay in San Francisco. The answer to that question is Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Union Square is right downtown, sure, but it’s adjacent to (if not in the middle of) a sketchy part of the city – the Tenderloin – and it’s full of chain hotels. You won’t find much of the character that makes San Francisco special.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the Disneyland of San Francisco. San Francisco residents almost NEVER go to Fisherman’s Wharf unless they’re showing someone around. It’s worth a visit, sure, to check out the sea lions at Pier 39 and to grab a sourdough bread bowl filled with delicious clam chowder at Boudin’s, but you should look to stay elsewhere.
Now, onto where to stay in San Francisco.
The best areas to stay in San Francisco are going to be the Mission / Castro and Hayes Valley.
The Mission is full of the best restaurants, bars, and shopping in San Francisco, but is an area that is experiencing significant gentrification as housing prices rise. However, the diversity that makes the area special remains. You’ll find amazing mom and pop taco shops next door to the boggiest shops around. A picnic at Dolores Park, which is a beautiful park in the heart of the Mission with views of downtown, is a highlight of any San Francisco itinerary. Immediately adjacent to the Mission is the Castro, the world-famous LGBTQ+ heart of the city.
Hayes Valley is a great home base for exploring San Francisco for its central location. You’ll be right off of Market Street, which puts you within walking distance of the main transit hub connecting you to the rest of the city and beyond. It’s a small area, but it is packed with all sorts of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and more.
13 Best Things to Do in San Francisco in the Winter
San Francisco in the winter is not terribly different from any other season. But you will occasionally run into a stormy day when it’s not pleasant to be outside. In the list below, you’ll find a few perfect rainy day activities for your trip along with some things to do on a sunny day in San Francisco.
#1 Hit the Museums
San Francisco has a bunch of great museums that make for an excellent activity for a somewhat rare stormy winter day. Here are four that are worth your time whether it rains or not.
- The De Young + Academy of Sciences: Right in the middle of Golden Gate Park, these two museums are right across the way from each other. You can go up to the top of the De Young’s tower for free, which gives you sweeping views over the park and the surrounding area.
- The Asian Art Museum: San Francisco has a sizable Asian population and one of the best Chinatowns in the country, and this museum is worth a stop for its huge collection of Asian art – one of the biggest in the world.
- SFMOMA: Visiting MOMA – the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – is an experience. First of all, it’s enormous – among the biggest in North America. Second of all, it’s gorgeous, full of open spaces and terraces in addition to all sorts of exhibits showcasing everything from classical paintings by Matisse, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, to sculptures, and of course, the stunning architecture of the building itself. Don’t miss the rooftop terrace.
- The Exploratorium: This is a gem, particularly for kids. It’s right on the Embarcadero, full of all sorts of interactive science and technology exhibits and experiences. It’s a great way to spend a winter morning with kids. Or adults, no judgment here.
#2 Learn All About Chocolate (and Taste Some, Obviously)
Dandelion Chocolate makes single-origin chocolate right in the middle of San Francisco. If you’re curious how chocolate is made, they have a factory tour that takes you on the same journey that the chocolate goes through to transform from a fruit all the way to that delicious chocolate bar that you buy in the store. Along the way, you’ll even taste the fruit before it’s roasted, which is a unique experience that you won’t usually find anywhere else.
#3 Drinks and…Mini Golf?
Is there a better rainy day activity than an indoor mini-golf? Add in a full bar and you’ve got Urban Putt, an indoor mini-golf bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. You’ll go through 14 holes, all with a drink in your hand if you’re up for it. The holes range from traditional mini-golf setups all the way to high tech experiences that mostly have something to do with San Francisco, like navigating around the Painted Ladies, or through the Transamerica Pyramid. After you’re done on the course, they have a good onsite restaurant to refuel after a grueling 14 holes.
#4 Urban Hike to Land’s End
There isn’t a better urban hike in the world than the hike to Land’s End in San Francisco. On a clear day, this hike is spectacular. It’s a 4.5-mile hike that takes you from the western edge of the city all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Start at the edge of the Pacific at Ocean Beach and head over to Sutro Baths before starting the walk along the coast to Land’s End and Baker Beach.
Along the way, you’ll have sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, and about halfway through the hike the Golden Gate Bridge will be directly in front of you, offering a variety of different views that you can’t get anywhere else. Baker Beach will be your last stop. From the northeast end of the beach, you can get up close and personal with the Golden Gate, but you should know that this particular part of the beach is a well-known nude beach. From Baker Beach, finish the hike uphill to the Golden Gate Bridge itself, which may or may not be shrouded in fog.
#5 Time Travel to Prohibition at Bourbon and Branch
Bourbon and Branch is a reservations-only speakeasy straight out of the prohibition era located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. But don’t let that scare you away – it’s one of the coolest drinking experiences in San Francisco.
After you make a reservation, they give you a password, which you’ll have to repeat to the man at the unmarked door before they open it and guide you to your seat, where a menu full of inventive cocktails awaits you. It’s about as “speakeasy” as it gets. It’s dark, dim, and they ask you to speak quietly and refrain from using your phone.
The bar-within-a-bar, Wilson and Wilson, is even better. But you’ll need to investigate for yourself to find out why.
#6 Picnic at Dolores Park
The Mission is home to one of the warmest microclimates in San Francisco. At any given time, it’s usually around 5 degrees warmer than most other parts of the city, which makes it the perfect place for an afternoon picnic. And no trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Dolores Park, one of the best parks in San Francisco. The best part about Dolores is people watching. All sorts of characters show up here, from young families with adorable puppies to the guy selling weed brownies out of a cooler slung over his shoulder.
If you’re wondering where to grab supplies for a picnic, you have a bunch of options within a few blocks of the park.
Head to Tartine, the most famous bakery in San Francisco, and drool over the pastries before choosing a couple (or a dozen) to take with you to the park. Then stop by Bi-Rite Market for a bottle of wine or a beer, and head across the street to Bi-Rite Ice Cream (yes, they’re related) for some of the best ice cream in San Francisco.
Now that you’ve got your supplies, find a place to sit near the northwest corner of the park, which is up the hill, where you’ll have views all the way to downtown San Francisco.
#7 Get Festive and Celebrate the Holidays
If you find yourself in San Francisco in the month of December, you’re going to be surrounded by festive decorations around every corner. The holiday cheer is palpable, and you’ll run into it just about everywhere in the city. Union Square gets a giant tree, adorned with all sorts of lights and ornaments the size of your head. So does Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. Near the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero, an ice skating rink magically appears. You’ll also find one in Union Square and Civic Center Plaza most years.
#8 Visit the Ferry Building Farmers Market
The Ferry Building Farmers Market is the best farmers market in San Francisco, and should absolutely be on your San Francisco itinerary, rain or shine. Hundreds of vendors from food stalls to farms selling locally grown fruits and vegetables flock to the Ferry Building on Saturday mornings to showcase the best of the Bay Area. Browse the stalls at the farmers market along the outside of the building before you head inside to explore the permanent Ferry Building stalls, like Heath Ceramics, Cowgirl Creamery (local cheese), and Blue Bottle Coffee.
#9 Head Out to Alcatraz Island
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a trip out to Alcatraz, the infamous prison on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Well, a former prison. The prison closed in 1963 and today, it’s a museum where you can learn all about how the prison operated, who was incarcerated there, and more. Definitely get the audio guide, which has a surprisingly informative narrative that will guide you through the exhibits. The ferry ride to and from the island, and the views from the island itself back to the San Francisco skyline, are not to be missed.
Feeling adventurous? The best time to experience Alcatraz is at night. Be warned, it gets spookier. But the views of the skyline lit up at night are well worth it.
Book your tickets months in advance, because it always sells out.
#10 Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
If you want to get up close and personal with the Golden Gate Bridge, you want to walk across it. There’s only one issue. About half of the time, maybe more, it’s shrouded in fog. While the fog is worse during the summer months of June, July, and August, you’ll still find it there in December. And, like all weather in San Francisco, it changes constantly.
You can walk all the way to Sausalito, a town just on the other side of the bridge full of shops, restaurants, bars, and more. To get back, hop on a ferry from Sausalito to San Francisco, which is a super scenic ride with views of the San Francisco skyline.
You could also do this by renting bikes in San Francisco, riding them across the bridge, and returning via the ferry.
#11 Explore Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park, which runs through the middle of western San Francisco, is bigger than Central Park in New York City. It’s full of surprises around every corner, including a lake where you can rent pedal boats, a Buffalo Paddock with real life buffalo, a Japanese Tea Garden, and two museums – the De Young and the Academy of Sciences. You could spend weeks exploring Golden Gate Park and never discover everything it has to offer, but it’s a lovely place to spend a morning exploring, and the museums are a great rainy day activity.
#12 Catch a Show
San Francisco’s performing arts scene is one of the best in the US, but it often goes under the radar thanks to all the other activities that the city has to offer. Shows like Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Book of Mormon have all made stops in San Francisco, and at any given time there are generally three or four different big shows worth seeing. And that’s not even counting the smaller venues and companies that put on amazing productions around the city.
If you’re up for a concert, the Warfield and the Filmore are two of the city’s best music venues. Tainted Love, a local 80’s cover band that plays shows around the city, is also worth seeing if they’re playing while you’re in town.
If comedy is more your scene, San Francisco has you covered there too. Cobb’s in North Beach and the Punch Line in the Financial District host a range of acts – big and small.
#13 Take a Trip to Wine Country
While the winter is not the best time to visit wine country, it will certainly be the least crowded. Napa Valley, known for its big and bold Cabernet Sauvignons and oaky Chardonnays, is American wine’s crown jewel. For wine connoisseurs, it’s a bucket-list destination. Be warned – you’ll pay $20 to $30 for a tasting of a few wines. For a better value and a more laid-back atmosphere, head to Healdsburg in the Sonoma Valley, a cute little town with the Dry Creek Valley just outside the city limits.
Bella Vineyards, which has an underground cave where you’ll pay about $10 to try 5-6 different wines, is one of the best experiences in the area. In the town of Healdsburg itself, don’t miss a stop at Banshee Wines, the best tasting room in town.
However, if you really want to make your money worth it, we suggest you make it a 2 or 3 days trip and stay in one of the many charming Sonoma Valley AirBnbs.
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