This past weekend marked my fourth year of living in San Francisco. Before moving here, I never visited the city or the West Coast, and I didn't know anyone here. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, lived in Philadelphia for five years, and decided to leap across the United States to the West Coast after a company recruited me to work for their design team.
I had no expectations. I did minimal research besides finding an apartment with a new housemate. Besides that, I only knew a few things: that I had a job here, that the Golden Gate Bridge existed (but not the Bay Bridge, which is much larger), that the city was in Northern California, and that my cost of living had tripled from living in Philadelphia.
An Uber driver picked me up from the airport and dropped me off a few blocks from my apartment so I could grab dinner. I remember gazing at all of the old Victorians in Cole Valley. I never saw anything like them. As I was observing their intricacy, I heard a man screaming unknown words on the other side of the street, with his pants hung at his knees, shouting at the sky. That was the moment I started viewing the San Francisco Bay Area as a constant juxtaposition: beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, utopian and dystopian, full of love and ignorance — a place I both want to stay and to leave.
This article is my attempt to explain all of my feelings, observations, and insights about San Francisco.
San Francisco is a beautiful city.
Known as "The City by the Bay," San Francisco features the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands to the north, the Bay Bridge to the east, and the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay around it. You can find incredible scenery everywhere you look. Cape Town, South Africa is the only city in the world that I've visited that comes close to this incredible mix of hills, water, and mountains.
You can escape the city by walking — or in some cases, taking cable cars — to the top of any of its 50+ hills, including Twin Peaks or Corona Heights, where you can see the contrast between the old homes and modern skyscrapers. Golden Gate Park, a man-made park covering 1,000+ acres that used to be dunes, is an oasis in itself. I still find new biking and running trails there, and the view of the Pacific Ocean as you run west never gets old. If you're looking for the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, head to the Presidio.
The city is dirty.
San Francisco is dirtier than cities I've visited in third-world countries. You can find human feces, used syringes, and trash everywhere downtown, especially in SOMA (South of Market) and Tenderloin. Open drug use exploded in the past several years, and the San Francisco syringe pick-up team collected 90,879 syringes in its first six months of operation. While lots of people hang out at Dolores Park, they end up creating huge messes. People point fingers at lots of different issues causing the dirtiness, from the increased homelessness caused by the tech revolution and weak city governments.
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge never gets old.
I'm still amazed each time I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, even when the fog covers it. I feel like I'm in a movie every time. Everything is grand: the contrast of industrial orange bridge against the sky, the view of Alcatraz and the city, the massive ships, the glimmering bay.
Rush hour isn't an hour. It spans 3+ hours, twice a day, and it's brutal.
If you're commuting from East Bay (e.g. Oakland, Berkeley, etc.) by car, you're going to get slammed with traffic. I had several co-workers who would come into work at 6:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. to avoid the morning rush hour, and they'd leave at 3:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. to avoid the evening rush hour. And if you're commuting within the city, avoid downtown areas, especially around Chinatown and Eddy Street.
There's so much to do here, especially outdoors.
San Franciscans love hiking, and it's hard not to. I went to Yosemite for the first time when my boyfriend drove us there for the popular Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point hike. I couldn't believe my eyes; it genuinely looked just like those Mac desktop wallpapers. While urban hikes (more like urban walks) in San Francisco exist, I prefer to get outside city boundaries to one of the 50 state parks in the Bay Area. During the winter, Squaw Valley and Heavenly in Lake Tahoe attract San Franciscan skiers and snowboarders. You're bound to know someone who leases a ski lodge and buys a season pass, and it's worth tagging along once to see the views and try skiing if you haven't already.
If heading to the mountains isn't enticing, you can go for a light walk on Ocean Beach, but don't plan on swimming in the Pacific Ocean because the average 56º F water temperature requires a wetsuit. Alternatively, you can volunteer, join a protest, head to the theater, attend live music events, join an intramural sports team, go to a comedy show, or chill out and eat at Off the Grid.
San Francisco is a sleepy town.
I remember trying out the nightlife in San Francisco — going out to bars and clubs and staying out 'til sunrise. Well, maybe not that late. I found out that very few clubs exist here, and the bars close between 12-2 a.m., a big difference compared to NYC hours. And it's not only the bars that shut down early; it's the people too. I had lots of friends head home from nights out by 10:30 p.m., but perhaps they went home to binge Netflix since San Franciscans get an average of 6 hours and 34 minutes of sleep each night, the least amount compared to other major U.S. cities. Maybe everyone here is trying to be more like Elon Musk. (Note: it's not healthy. You need more sleep.)
The general vibe is easy-going and liberal.
I arrived for my first day of work promptly at 8:45 a.m. I was the third person in an office of 50 people. I soon found out that West Coasters often come into work anywhere between 9:30-11:00 a.m. (Note: This could also be related to tech, not necessarily or not only West Coast culture.) It seemed like nobody cared what time you came in.
People also didn't seem to care about anyone's sexuality, gender, how much pot you smoke, how many tattoos show, what your primary language is, or what country you're from. They don't care about Prada bags or Louboutins; lots of people wear athleisure and sport a backpack every day. San Franciscans don't care because to them, status doesn't mean anything, and being different isn't bad; it's good.
Transient communities and California flakiness make it hard to maintain friendships.
No one is from San Francisco, or at least that's what people tell you. While some people obviously were born and raised here, the population is fairly transient, with 34% of residents coming from another country. With all of the tech and startup jobs, people move in and out fairly often. Since people don't stay here for many years, creating communities of close-knit people in your neighborhood becomes difficult, and maintaining friendships is tough when you or your friends move to another city.
Beyond the transient nature, I've noticed the "California flake" stereotype, which applies to a lot more people in San Francisco than it did in Philadelphia. Events like house parties, dinners, drinks often fall apart as the other person cancels an hour before meeting. I'm sure it's a combination of not wanting to go but not wanting to say "no", deciding it's easier to stay in, or finding better plans. Ultimately, I narrowed down my friend group by finding other people who commit to plans and make an effort in the friendship. Coincidentally, they're all from the East Coast or another country.
Due to year-round "average" weather, the seasons roll together, which eliminates the concept of time.
I'm used to the Pennsylvania weather of 20º and slush in the winter, high-50s and blooming flowers in the spring, 85º and 1000% humidity in the summer, and beautiful colors and 50s in the fall. San Francisco doesn't have any of that. Also, note that the climate of Northern California is much different than Southern California — the temperature in San Francisco is not hot like in Los Angeles, San Diego, or even nearby San Jose.
The average high temperature only fluctuates 13º from its coldest month (December) to its warmest month (September). This means that most trees keep their leaves throughout the year, there's never snow, and some flowers are always blooming. When the environment around you isn't changing, you feel like you're constantly stopped in time. But don't get me wrong — I love the lack of snow, cold weather, and humidity.
It's dry ~8 months out of the year, and it's weird. Also very brown.
I was thirsty during my first summer here. Not thirsty for a beer, but for rain. From April through October, sun shines through perfectly blue skies every day, thanks to our dry summer climate caused by our position on the continent along the ocean within the Mediterranean Zone. On a related note, thunderstorms rarely strike San Francisco or anywhere along the West Coast due to low dew points and the cold temperature of the Pacific Ocean. I have experienced one thunderstorm in the past four years, and it was epic.
People care about recycling and composting.
In 2009, San Francisco passed the country's first mandatory composting law, meaning that the city requires all businesses and residences to have composting bins (and therefore hopefully compost). And residents do take it seriously. Companies bring in experts to educate their employees about what to put in the trash vs. recycling vs. composting to reduce garbage waste and contaminations.
Wildfire season spans at least July through October.
The fires strike during the dry season when there are lots of small twigs and underbrush (kindling) and low humidity. While the fires never reach San Francisco proper, California fires like the Kincade Fire in Sonoma Country (2019), Mendocino Complex in Mendocino (2018), Camp Fire in Paradise (2018), and Tubbs Fire in Napa (2017) caused more than 100 fatalities, required thousands of people to evacuate their homes, destroyed thousands of structures, and burned hundreds of thousands of acres. Depending on the direction of the wind, the smoke can blow to San Francisco, requiring everyone to wear masks. The New York Times gives four key reasons why California has so many wildfires: climate change, people igniting sparks, suppressing fires and not letting them burn, and in Southern California, The Santa Ana winds.
The fog exists, and it is like a blanket — a big, cold blanket.
On my Uber trip to my apartment from the SFO airport that very first night, I remember seeing a wall of clouds and asked the Uber driver, "Wow, is there a really bad storm?" He said, "No, it's just the fog." (I will never live this down.) The fog is so famous that it has a name and an Instagram account: Karl the Fog. The fog rarely passes Divisadero Street, which roughly divides the city in half and runs north to south. This means that the west side (near the ocean) is much foggier and therefore chillier than the east side.
Apartments get chilly, so choose the right neighborhood.
During most months of the year, the temperature drops to ~50º F by 5-6 p.m. due to the fog and proximity to the ocean. But since it never gets too cold or too hot, many older apartments (read: the Victorians) don't include a heating or cooling system. When choosing an apartment and/or neighborhood, it's important to keep the weather in mind. I moved from gray skies and endless clothing layers in Cole Valley to sunny, blue skies and warmth in Potrero Hill.
Related to choosing the right neighborhood: There are certain stereotypes associated with each neighborhood and its vibe. This blunt Quora post provides the gist, but I do know people who break those neighborhood stereotypes.
Along with Silicon Valley, San Francisco is the center of tech, innovation, and start-ups.
When you think about the services you use on your phone each day, most of those companies have headquarters or huge offices in San Francisco or the Bay Area. It's crazy to pass by office buildings for companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Uber, Lyft, Pinterest, Apple, Airbnb, Dropbox, etc. Most people you meet work for a tech company or a company related to tech, and lots of these people sport the tech uniform, often complemented by a company-branded Patagonia jacket. All around the city, you see the newest technology everywhere — from Waymo self-driving cars to billboards for startup credit cards to hundreds of Teslas to restaurants serving scientifically-made plant-based burgers.
While the tech revolution does worsen the gentrification problem, this culture brings a spirit of innovation and a belief that no problem is too hard to be solved. I would have never considered starting my own company before moving to the Bay Area. Meeting lots of people working at startups and founding their own companies made it seem like anyone could do it — like I could do it. And I did.
The gentrification and homelessness problems are gut-wrenching and systemic.
The tech revolution contributed to, and some say is the main cause of, homelessness and gentrification problems. Small startups turned into successful companies, creating lots of high-paying jobs that brought tech workers to the city, driving up housing costs and creating high rents, which forced lots of lower-income (er, "normal-income?") folks on the streets or out of the city.
In 2019, San Francisco counted over 9,000 homeless individuals, and this number is likely low since the city workers are manually counting people on the streets. Tents line blocks of San Francisco streets, and 42% of homeless people struggle with drug or alcohol addiction. Not surprisingly, the city seems unsure of how to solve this widespread problem, but they've added funding, programs, and in one case, unsuccessfully added boulders to an area to prevent people from setting up their tents.
It's a foodie's heaven.
Yes, as the home of the Mission burrito, you can always find a good burrito. Beyond the flour tortilla stuffed with meat, cheese, and beans, San Francisco is a great city for restaurants and cuisines from around the world. My favorites are:
- Ryoko's Japanese Restaurant & Bar for sushi (Union Square)
- Nojo for ramen (Hayes Valley)
- Flour + Water Pizzeria for thin-crust pizza (Mission)
- Farmhouse Kitchen for Hat Yai Fried Chicken (Mission)
- Molinari Deli for sandwiches (North Beach)
- Just for You for brunch (Dogpatch)
- Chloe's for brunch (Noe Valley)
- Swensen's for ice cream (Russian Hill)
- Giants Ballpark for garlic fries (SOMA / South Beach)
You'll spend a lot at restaurants .... also on housing, gas, and childcare.
San Francisco's high quality of life comes with a high cost of living, with many items costing higher than the national average. An average sandwich costs $15. An average dinner costs $25 per person. A latte costs $5. And the real estate — yikes. The median rent for an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment is $3,400, so most renters live with roommates. I've concluded that I will probably never own a home in San Francisco since the average cost is $1.3 million for a single-family home or condo.
Compared with Philadelphia or even NYC, I noticed that few children roam the streets of San Francisco, likely correlated to the median cost of childcare: $2,000 per month per child. While the lottery for public schools challenges lots of parents, the average cost of private school tuition for primary and secondary education in San Francisco is $23,186. That number ranks San Francisco as the ninth most expensive city for private primary and secondary education in the United States.
Public transportation exists, but it's not great.
The N Judah MUNI line stopped one block away from my first San Francisco apartment. It was perfect because all I had to do was take the train three stops and get on the 22 bus to go to work in Potrero Hill. During my first week of work, I found out that San Francisco's MUNI and overall public transportation disaster, built on an 80-year-old infrastructure — shocking for a city known for tech and innovation.
To compound problems that first week, the 2016 El Niño and its rains made everything (including my mood) worse. The N Judah was scheduled to run every 15 minutes or so, but that never happened. It rarely came on-time, and when it did show up, people nearly fell out of the doors because it was so packed.
When I was able to get on the N Judah, the train inevitably got stuck in the Sunset Tunnel. I'd finally make it to the "bus stop," which in this case, was an uncovered part of a sidewalk. I'd get on the humid bus, get trapped in traffic, and in total, would end up at work ~55 minutes after beginning my journey with public transit.
Biking is the easiest way to get around in the city.
After a month or two of trying to commute with MUNI, I gave up hope and hopped on my bike to go to work. I couldn't believe the difference; the commute took 25 minutes — 30 minutes less than taking MUNI. Plus, it relieved stress rather than creating it, and biking meant I exercised at least 50 minutes each day. Plus, it's better for the environment.
The San Francisco Bike Coalition constantly pushes for more bike lanes, and every week, I do see more and more being added. Whenever I'm biking on the Embarcadero during rush hour, I feel victorious and rewarded as I zoom by all the gridlocked cars.
Biking tests your character. Bike tires, unfortunately, fit perfectly within the trolley tracks throughout the city, and even as a cyclist, MUNI spited me once again when I caught my back tire in its tracks, which thankfully did not result in any injuries but did result in a flat tire. I've always worn a helmet while riding amongst the terrible San Francisco drivers, and my helmet-wearing habit was reinforced when I was hit by a car on 4/20 (and yes, I'm pretty sure the driver was high) and then again a few months later. Cars hit cyclists more than you think, so a helmet, lights, and reflective gear help prevent some accidents.
Having a car can be a blessing.
San Francisco's popular online listicle publication 7x7 is named after the size of the city: 7 miles wide by 7 miles tall (AKA 49 square miles), making San Francisco over twice the size of Manhattan. With that size and a subpar public transportation system, having a car saves you time and money as long as you're not paying for parking. If you have friends across the city, maintaining some of those friendships will cost $20-40 per Uber or Lyft ride depending on the time of day. Plus, driving on Highway 1 is pretty incredible.
Parking is a nightmare in most areas.
Unless you have a permit for your neighborhood, finding street parking can take 30+ minutes of driving around the streets, hoping to find a spot. (This just happened to my boyfriend and me when we visited our friend in Nob Hill.) If you're okay with slightly annoying other drivers, stopping with your four-way flashers on and waiting for any cars to leave tends to be more efficient than driving around the blocks. Once you do find a parking spot, beware of the meter maids. They give you tickets for everything: not turning your tires correctly, being one minute over your allotted time, being one inch into someone's driveway. We've seen it all. If you find an apartment with a garage, never leave.
The city feels safe.
More women than men fear everyday scenarios, like walking home at night or jogging in the early morning. I, like most women, am always on edge. But in San Francisco, I generally feel safe. While I'm still naturally checking over my shoulder, I can walk or bike through the worst areas of Tenderloin, Mission, or south Potrero Hill without too much worry. I'll put that in comparison to living in West Philadelphia, where I nearly ran home from my subway stop to my apartment each day. With that said, I understand all cities are dangerous in some regard; there are more people and more inequality. Even though San Francisco feels safer than other cities, I stay away from the questionable city blocks and I limit the times I walk around by myself at night.
Hide your iPhone cords, take your belongings, and lock up your bike because people are stealing everything out there.
I learned all about San Francisco's petty theft after someone stole my bike light, which was attached to my locked bike outside my gym. I ended up replacing my bike light six more times. (It took me a while to learn that lesson.)
According to the FBI, San Francisco ranks as the highest per-capita rate of property crimes. I've had friends whose bikes were stolen and have seen plenty of bikes attached to bike racks without their tires or seats. My phone was snatched out of my zipped pocket. I've seen men shining their flashlights in several cars, looking for anything they could steal along the Embarcadero. I've seen at least 100 smashed car windows and the glass remains on the street. If you leave absolutely anything in your car, chances are, your windows and whatever you left — even if it's just a phone charging cable — will vacate your vehicle from a "smash and grab."
If you stay here 5 years, you'll stay forever.
Multiple people mentioned this to me throughout the years, and the first time was from a squash player who moved here 20 years ago and never left. People constantly move in and out of the city, but once you get the hang of living here and used to the high cost of living, leaving becomes difficult. I don't know if it's true, but I'll keep you posted.
A few months ago, I watched "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" (2019). In one scene, the main character Jimmie listens to two girls on a MUNI bus talking about how they despise San Francisco and how the city is dead. “Do you love it?” he asks them. “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
So, maybe it's okay to both love and hate San Francisco. Maybe it's okay to be unsure if I'll stay or if I'll leave. Maybe it's okay to recognize that San Francisco is a great city but has some things to work on. Maybe it's all one great big balancing act.