Here's what its like to live in San Francisco, CA
San Francisco occupies the northern tip of a peninsula in Northern California and is nestled between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the San Francisco Bay to the east. The city covers 46 square miles and is its own county. Among the city's most iconic features are the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, rows of Victorian-style houses, and year-round fog. The city is shaped roughly like a square, and, despite the hilly terrain, its planners favored straight, grid-like streets to a fault — resulting in the precariously steep streets that made cable cars necessary.
If you're planning to move to San Francisco, you're sure to have some questions about life in the city — and we have answers. Keep reading to learn about what to expect in The Golden City.
A Little History
The city of San Francisco can trace its history back to 1769, when a group of Spanish explorers led by Gaspar de Portolá became the first Europeans to see the San Francisco Bay. Despite being one of the world's best natural harbors, San Francisco was initially reached by land. For over two centuries before its discovery, seafaring explorers such as Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Sir Francis Drake, and Sebastián Vizcaíno had sailed past the Bay's entrance without realizing what they were missing.
A few years later, in 1775, Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala dropped anchor in the Bay, and, in 1776, the beginnings of a settlement were laid down with the construction of a military outpost and the Mission San Francisco de Asis. In 1835, an Englishman founded a village nearby, which was renamed San Francisco when the United States claimed the area in 1847. California was officially annexed and paid for under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
San Francisco's development accelerated in 1849 with the discovery of gold. The small town with a population under 400 people exploded as nearly 80,000 gold hunters made their way to San Francisco. The cost of food, real estate, and basic amenities skyrocketed, and the city experienced financial upheaval and unchecked violence until the bubble burst in 1857. A couple years later, silver was discovered in Nevada, and several of the city's residents grew rich as bankers, speculators, and lawyers. By 1870, the population had grown to nearly 150,000 people.
The city has been thriving ever since, despite facing its share of challenges — including the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989.
San Francisco's Weather
Given the city's location in sunny California, many people moving to San Francisco expect clear skies and warm temperatures year-round. Fortunately, this stereotype isn't entirely wrong. On average, the city has 259 sunny days per year, with temperatures that rarely dip below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. However, its weather is better characterized as "mild" instead of "warm," with highs between the upper 50s and the low 70s.
Like most cities along the California coast, San Francisco has a Mediterranean climate, which is typically marked by wet, mild winters and warm, dry summers. For better or worse, however, San Francisco falls short of those idyllic summers. Although its winters are wet and mild compared to those in other parts of the country, its summers are cooler than you might expect, with average highs in the 60s.
Cool, Foggy Weather in the Summer
San Francisco lies between a hot valley and a cold ocean, and the resulting weather patterns function as a natural air conditioner for the city. As the hot air in California's Central Valley rises, cold air from the Pacific Ocean is pulled inland. This creates a steady flow of cool air over San Francisco, which keeps temperatures from reaching the sweltering heights often experienced in other parts of California.
This current also accounts for San Francisco's infamous fog, which can make the city feel even colder. The summer months tend to be the foggiest, especially in neighborhoods closer to the Bay. A typical summer day includes heavy fog in the morning with temperatures in the 50s. By 10 a.m., the sun has usually warmed the city and cleared the fog. However, in the mid- to late afternoon, cool winds from the ocean pull the fog back into the city for a chilly night.
You may hear these cool, overcast, foggy conditions referred to as "Gray May," "June Gloom," "No Sky July," and "Fogust."
Mild, Rainy Weather in the Winter
Long-time residents recommend dressing in layers to adapt to San Francisco's fluctuating temperatures throughout the day. However, on winter days, you may also want to have an umbrella or a raincoat. San Francisco averages 24 inches of rain each year, and most of it falls between November and March.
The winter months are among San Francisco's coldest, but, even in the dead of winter, the average low is only 46 degrees. The average highs stay in the high 50s and low 60s, so you don't have to worry about snow. Not all winters are equally wet, though. Sometimes the city will have an extended dry spell; at other times, the city can get a month's worth of rain in one or two days.
Spring and fall are San Francisco's most pleasant seasons. Fall offers some of the year's warmest temperatures, while spring is mild.
The People of San Francisco
San Francisco's population has been growing steadily since the mid-1800s. Recent estimates have more than 850,000 people living within the city limits. When you consider the larger metropolitan area, however, the population estimates jump to 4.6 million — and this number, in turn, nearly doubles when you include the entire San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland metro area.
Although San Francisco is only the 11th-most-populous city in the nation, it ranks second in population density, with 6,266 people per square kilometer. Only New York City is more packed. San Francisco is also diverse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, the city's population was 53.6 percent white, with 41 percent identifying as non-Hispanic white. African Americans make up 6.1 percent of the population, while Hispanic and Latino residents make up 15.3 percent.
At 35.3 percent, the city's Asian population is the largest ethnic minority. More specifically, slightly over 21 percent of the city's population is Chinese, and the second-largest Asian group is Filipino, at 4.5 percent. The city also has a significant number of Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Thai, Burmese, and Cambodian residents.
Even if you had a few misconceptions about San Francisco's weather, you've probably heard at least a few stereotypes about San Francisco that do hold up. The city is very liberal, with a large and thriving LGBT community. About 15 percent of the population identifies as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
The average age of a San Francisco resident is 38.8 years old, and children make up only 13 percent of the population. This is the lowest proportion of every major metropolitan area in the U.S. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of San Francisco residents are immigrants and transplants. Only about a third were born in California, while roughly 25 percent came from another state and more than one-third came from another country.
The San Francisco Lifestyle
San Francisco has been named both the happiest city and the snobbiest city in America, ahead of even Washington D.C. and Seattle. Even on lists where it hasn't placed No. 1, San Francisco consistently ranks near the top for happiness. And, since singles make up 39 percent of its population, it's a great place to meet someone. San Francisco also tends to be a very casual city. Its residents favor a laid-back, carefree lifestyle, and this attitude applies to everything from clothes to dinner plans.
Thanks to the city's diverse population, you can find a variety of niche cultures and alternative lifestyles. Whether you've felt isolated because of your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your faith, or your sense of style, you're likely to find an entire community of people here who share your experiences and preferences. Because the city actually has more dogs than kids, you can also find a stunning array of amenities for your loyal companion, from luxury dog hotels to a long list of dog parks.
San Francisco strives to stay healthy and eco-conscious. PETA considers it one of the most "veg-friendly" cities in the U.S., with a wide selection of vegan and vegetarian restaurants. Organic food is easy to come by, and the city boasts a long list of parks, recreational activities, and exercise options. The city diverts the vast majority of its waste away from landfills and aims to achieve zero waste by 2020. Already, residents and businesses must sort their trash into three different bins: landfill waste, recycling, and compost. The smaller your landfill bin, the more money you save.
San Fransisco's Neighborhoods
If there's one downside to living in San Francisco, it's the high cost of living, which is 62 percent higher than the national average. The average monthly rent for an apartment is nearly $3,500. In addition, the average house costs more than 9 times the city's median income, putting homeownership well beyond the reach of most residents. As a result, home sales in the city have slowed down as residents have begun to look elsewhere for homes. To afford a median-priced home in the city, you'd need to earn about $158,000 a year, and your mortgage would end up being over $3,600.
All of this means that price may be the deciding factor when you're deciding where to live in San Francisco. Although the city doesn't have any truly affordable neighborhoods, some are cheaper than others. In general, you'll find the lowest rental prices near the city's outer limits and in its suburbs. Start your search in Outer Mission, Outer Richmond, Bayview, Presidio Heights, and Inner or Outer Sunset. Young professionals favor trendy neighborhoods such as Dogpatch, Hayes Valley, Lower Pacific Heights, and The Marina. Pacific Heights, meanwhile, is home to some of the city's wealthiest residents.
Among the most affordable neighborhoods for families are Bernal Heights and Glen Park. The former boasts several parks and kid-friendly restaurants, while the latter offers a quiet community and a convenient location. Potrero Hill is a great fit for upper-middle-class families. The Castro has a large number of LGBT residents, and Excelsior is among the most ethnically diverse and affordable neighborhoods. Inner Richmond has a relatively large Chinese population as well as strong Irish and Russian roots. Dog owners will like Cole Valley, Duboce Triangle, and Noe Valley, which are all popular among families with kids as well.
San Francisco's Schools
With more than 57,000 students, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is the seventh-largest school district in California. The SFUSD includes the following:
- 64 elementary schools.
- 8 alternatively configured schools.
- 13 middle schools.
- 15 high schools.
- 12 early education schools.
- 14 active charter schools authorized by the district.
Most students attend elementary school between kindergarten and fifth grade, followed by middle school for sixth through eighth grade. However, some attend alternatively configured schools that combine elementary and middle school. High schools cover ninth through 12th grade. According to GreatSchools, the best schools are Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, Lawton Alternative Elementary School, Lowell High School, Ulloa Elementary School, and Sunset Elementary School. In general, the northern and western parts of the city seem to have better schools than the central, eastern, and southern parts.
In addition to public schools, San Francisco has a large number of private schools, which serve more than 27,000 students. Roughly half of these schools are religiously affiliated. The following private schools have an A+ rating on Niche: San Francisco University High School, Lick-Wilmerding High School, The Urban School of San Francisco, Convent & Stuart Hall, and French American International School - San Francisco. Several private schools outside the city limits have also earned A+ ratings.
San Francisco also boasts several colleges and universities. These include City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and the University of California - San Francisco. Stanford University and University of California - Berkeley are nearby.
The Job Market in San Francisco
The cost of living in San Francisco is notoriously high. A family of four can expect to pay about $91,785 a year for necessities, which translates to $7,649 per month. For a single person, that number is $43,581 a year (or $3,632 a month). Fortunately, the average annual salary in San Francisco is higher than the national average, at $69,110 compared to $49,630. And its median household income is nearly double the national median, at $96,677 compared to $57,617.
At 3.3 percent, the unemployment rate in San Francisco is about 1 percent lower than the national average. Encouragingly, the city's unemployment rate has been dropping more quickly than the national rate. U.S. News also gives San Francisco an 8.8/10 rating on its job market index, which means the city has a healthier job market than most similarly sized areas.
Many people assume that the tech industry dominates San Francisco's economy. Although tech companies and venture capital funding have certainly helped fuel the city's steady growth, the tourism and finance industries are also exceptionally strong. Among the city's top employers are Wells Fargo, Salesforce, PG&E, Deloitte, Amazon, and Uber. Jobs in the health care field are also plentiful thanks to employers such as Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, and California Pacific Medical Center. Other major employers include government entities and local schools, colleges, and universities.
Transportation in San Francisco
Given the city's population density, it's not surprising that San Francisco experiences its fair share of traffic problems. In 2017, the city was ranked the fifth worst in the world and the third worst in the nation for traffic congestion. With no room to expand, San Francisco's only option for alleviating traffic is to streamline its existing infrastructure. Its efforts have included pay-to-use express lanes, HOV and bus lanes, and bridge tolls to fund public transportation.
Fortunately, getting around San Francisco without a car is not only possible but, in many cases, preferable. Both Lyft and Uber, as well as several traditional taxi companies, operate in the city. In addition, San Francisco boasts an enviable bus and metro system, known as Muni. Bus and metro stops are scattered throughout the city, so public transportation is easily accessible wherever you are. Routes and times can be accessed by calling 511 or through the 511 SF Bay Transit Trip Planner, a smartphone app.
San Franciscans also have access to a system of cable cars and streetcars in the downtown area. The three cable car lines are Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason, and California Street. Fare can be paid on-board with exact change, or you can purchase tickets through the MuniMobile app or at various locations.
People looking for a healthy and inexpensive way to get around will be happy to learn that San Francisco is a very walkable city. It also consistently ranks as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. Over the last couple decades, the city has added traffic signals that give cyclists the right of way, several bike parking areas, and over 20 new miles of bike lanes. Bikes can be taken on public transit, and bike-share programs are available.
The San Francisco Food Scene
San Francisco is a foodie's paradise, with local artisan-quality restaurants throughout the city. If you're struggling to decide where to eat, head to one of the city's most popular food neighborhoods and stop by the first restaurant that catches your eye. North Beach is the premier destination for Italian food, and the Mission neighborhood boasts a few world-class taquerias. For the best Chinese cuisine, head to the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods, where you'll also find authentic Russian, Korean, and Japanese fare. The Tenderloin and Hayes Valley are other great foodie areas.
Below are a few local favorites:
- Pizza: Pizzetta 211, Pizzeria Delfina, Golden Boy, Delarosa, Tony's Pizza Napoletana, Za Pizza.
- Ice Cream: Bi-Rite Creamery, Swensen's Ice Cream, Mitchell's Ice Cream, Humphry Slocombe, Smitten Ice Cream.
- Sushi: Ryoko's Japanese Restaurant & Bar, Roka Akor, Akiko's Sushi Bar and Restaurant, Sakana, Ebisu.
- Mexican: Tato, La Taqueria, Nopalito, Tacorea, El Farolito, Matador.
- Bakeries: Bob's Donut & Pastry Shop, Yasukochi's Sweet Stop, Boudin Bakery, Tartine Bakery, Golden Gate Bakery, Liguria Bakery.
- Vegan: Gracias Madre (Mexican), Shizen (sushi), Mensho Tokyo (ramen), Vegan Picnic (deli), The Flying Falafel.
San Francisco also boasts a wide variety of food trucks. Many are conveniently grouped together in food truck parks such as SoMa StrEat Food Park (11th Street) and Truck Stop SF (First and Mission Streets). Off the Grid brings together food trucks and local vendors for events at various locations such as Fort Mason and the Presidio.
No matter what you're craving or what dietary restrictions you follow, you'll be able to find several great options in San Francisco. The city has 55 Michelin-starred restaurants. Farm-to-table restaurants with locally sourced ingredients are the norm, and vegan and vegetarian dishes are easy to come by. San Francisco is also famous for its craft beer, which you can find at pubs, bars, and breweries throughout the city. Fort Point Beer Company, ThirstyBear Brewing Company, 21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant, and Black Hammer Brewing are only a few of the many top-notch local breweries.
Annual Events in San Francisco
San Franciscans value community, and it shows in the city's lineup of annual events. Regardless of when you move to San Francisco, you'll be able to jump right in to the social scene. Free outdoor events are never difficult to find, which means that even those on a tight budget can have active social lives.
Here are some of the biggest annual events in San Francisco:
Every April, San Francisco's Japantown hosts the Cherry Blossom Festival, which has a Grand Parade and traditional Japanese activities. Attendees can enjoy a variety of food booths, cultural performances, live bands, and martial arts displays. The city also has the Craft Brew Festival in March, the San Francisco International Film Festival in April and May, and the International Beer Festival in May.
Given San Francisco's large LGBT community, it should be no surprise that the annual Pride Parade is one of the city's biggest events. The parade is always held in June, with the exact route and dates posted on the San Francisco Pride website. Another popular — and free — event is the two-day Fillmore Jazz Festival, which is held in Pacific Heights District on Fourth of July weekend.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated summer event is the Outside Lands Festival. Held in Golden Gate Park for three days in August, this outdoor music festival draws thousands of attendees and doubles as a food, wine, and beer festival. Local artists display their work, and dozens of restaurants and food trucks sign up as vendors.
Other summer events include the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Juneteenth, Eat Drink SF, Oysterfest, Fourth of July Fireworks on the Bay, and the Craft Spirits Carnival. Summer also brings neighborhood street fairs such as the North Beach Festival and Union Street Festival as well as races such as the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon and the San Francisco Marathon. Residents can enjoy free concerts throughout the summer on Sunday afternoons in Grove Park.
Every September, San Francisco's comedians thank their community for its support by performing at a free comedy festival. Held in Golden Gate Park, Comedy Day features dozens of local comedians in a PG/PG-13 show. The Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival and A Taste of Greece are also held in September, in addition to the Folsom Street Fair, a BDSM and leather subculture street fair that is among the city's most unique events and decidedly not kid-friendly.
October brings the Castro Street Fair, Fleet Week, Wharf Fest, the Treasure Island Music Festival, and the Fall Antiques Show, where more than 60 dealers display high-end antiques from the U.S. and Europe. Residents can enjoy free live music at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and choose from two weeks' worth of literary events during Litquake. In November, check out the fall edition of San Francisco's Craft Brew Festival, the Pinot Days wine festival, or the SF International Auto Show.
Winter brings an exciting list of holiday events, including the Union Square Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony, the SF Ballet's Nutcracker Performance, NYE Fireworks Over the Bay, and the Chinese New Year Parade held in Chinatown. Since Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, the exact timing of the parade varies, but it is typically held in early February. Other events in January or February include SF Sketchfest, the ZAP Wine Festival, the SF Giants Fan Fest, the Chronicle Wine Tasting Event, and the Pacific Orchid Expo.
Things to Do in San Francisco
In a city as large as San Francisco, you'll never have trouble finding something to do. Whether you want to shop 'til you drop, cheer on your favorite team, or explore the great outdoors, San Francisco has you covered.
If you're in the mood for a home interior or head-to-toe makeover, head over to Fillmore Street, where you'll find boutique clothing, decor, skincare products, and more. The Mission District is packed with vintage items, handcrafted products, and local art. For some brand-name retail therapy, visit Union Square, the city's largest shopping district, or head over to the Westfield San Francisco Centre. Other popular destinations include Chestnut Street in the Marina District and the shops in Hayes Valley, which span roughly three blocks.
San Francisco is a great place to be a sports fan. The Bay Area has at least one professional team in every major sport, as well as local collegiate and semi-professional teams.
Baseball fans can catch a San Francisco Giants or Oakland Athletics game between early April and early October. NBA games are played from October through April at Oracle Arena, where the locals root for Oakland's Golden State Warriors. During the football season, you can cheer on the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara or the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland Coliseum, which they share with the Oakland Athletics.
For hockey and soccer, Bay Area residents have the San Jose Sharks and the San Jose Earthquakes, which play in the NHL and MLS, respectively. Plus, six local universities play NCAA Division I sports. During the college football season, you can root for the California Golden Bears (University of California - Berkeley), the Stanford Cardinals, or the San Jose State Spartans. Stanford and Berkeley also have men's basketball teams. Locals also cheer for the Saint Mary's Gaels, the San Francisco Dons, and the Santa Clara Broncos — three Division I teams without football programs.
Art and History
Art lovers and history buffs will appreciate the wide variety of museums and historical sites in the Bay Area. Among them are the Asian Art Museum, the Legion of Honor, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the Cable Car Museum, the de Young Museum, and Fort Mason. You can also explore the history of Alcatraz Island, Fort Point, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores, and other landmarks.
The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is a particularly impressive attraction, with a whole fleet of historic ships docked on-site. This fleet includes a square rigger, a schooner, a steam ferryboat, and a scow schooner from the late 1800s.
For some hands-on fun with the kids, check out the Exploratorium, the Randall Museum, the Children's Creativity Museum, or the Bay Area Discovery Museum. Kids will also enjoy the Walt Disney Family Museum, the Presidio (a national park), the Julius Kahn Playground & Clubhouse, and Urban Putt indoor mini-golf. In addition to all of the exciting activities and attractions listed above, San Francisco has hundreds of miles of natural beauty for the whole family to explore, including numerous parks and beaches.
Regardless of what brings you to San Francisco, it won't take long for you to feel right at home. You'll join a bustling, diverse community of people who've made their way to the Golden City after a local, cross-country, or international move. Take advantage of the city's active social scene to meet new people, see the sights, sample the local brews, and explore your neighborhood.