Travel & Day Trips

The Los Angeleno’s Guide to Visiting the Bay Area

Los Angeles and San Francisco are very different cities, but a lot of things unite them. If you live in the Los Angeles area, you might be considering a quick jaunt up the 5 to visit the City By the Bay. Driving to San Francisco makes for an easy trip, and you can do your whole visit without leaving California!

Visiting San Francisco from Los Angeles can be an excellent way to experience a different California vibe, with its unique culture, food, and landmarks. The following is a Los Angeleno’s guide to the Bay Area:

1. The Drive

Traveling directly up the I-5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco will take you around 6 hours (more on holiday weekends or if LA traffic is really bad).

The 5

However, if you have the time and want to experience California’s vast, diverse landscape, consider the longer, more scenic routes. Highway 101 takes you through the fertile Central Coast wine country, historic missions, and picturesque towns like Solvang and San Luis Obispo.

On the other hand, Highway 1 (y’all call it the PCH) offers stunning coastal views, taking you through Malibu, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, and Monterey. It’s worth noting that this journey can take 9-10 hours or more but will provide unforgettable vistas and chances to stop at iconic landmarks like Hearst Castle or the elephant seal rookery near San Simeon.

2. Weather

The Bay Area’s weather can be quite a change from sunny LA. San Francisco is infamous for its fog (affectionately called “Karl the Fog”) and cooler temperatures, especially in the summer. This contrasts with LA’s more predictable sunshine and heat.

Dress in layers to adapt to the fluctuating temperatures and always have a jacket on hand.

3. Sightseeing

San Francisco is home to many iconic landmarks that draw tourists from around the world. The Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see. For a unique perspective, hike up to Battery Spencer, an old military site with fantastic views of the bridge and the city.

Fisherman’s Wharf, while touristy, offers a glimpse of San Francisco’s maritime history. Visit Pier 39 to see the famous sea lions and enjoy views of Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Don’t forget to try some local Dungeness crab or clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

Alcatraz Island is another popular attraction. Take a ferry and tour the notorious federal prison that once housed criminals like Al Capone. Booking in advance is recommended.

Just like you might roam the Venice Canals in LA, explore the waterways of SF by paddleboarding or kayaking in the Bay or visiting the city’s numerous beaches.

4. Food Scene

San Francisco’s food scene is as diverse as Los Angeles’s. Head to the Ferry Building Marketplace to taste local delicacies from artisanal vendors.

Sample Mission-style burritos in the Mission District—an alternative to the LA-style burrito you may be accustomed to.

In North Beach, the city’s Little Italy, enjoy some of the best pizza and pasta outside Italy. In Chinatown, indulge in dim sum or other Cantonese favorites. Unlike LA’s scattered Chinese communities (Monterey Park, San Gabriel), SF’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and most compact in the U.S.

5. Outdoor Activities

Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to do. Hike in Muir Woods and marvel at the towering redwoods—an experience unlike LA’s Griffith Park. Take a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, a quaint town reminiscent of a Mediterranean village. Then, ferry back to the city while enjoying skyline views.

Sausalito is a beautiful city just outside San Francisco

Or head to Golden Gate Park, an urban park larger than NYC’s Central Park. Visit the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden, or the California Academy of Sciences housed within it.

6. Arts and Culture

San Francisco’s cultural scene, like Los Angeles’s, is vibrant and varied. SFMOMA houses tens of thousands of works of art, including pieces by Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock, while the de Young Museum features American art from the 17th through the 21st centuries, as well as art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

Bright red sign for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) in the South of Market or SoMA neighborhood of San Francisco, California, August 2, 2018.

The Castro District, a symbol of LGBTQ+ activism and culture, hosts the famous Castro Theatre, similar to how West Hollywood stands as a symbol in LA. Also, the Haight-Ashbury district, birthplace of the 1960s counterculture movement, and the Mission District each offer unique local flavor.

7. Getting Around

San Francisco is a compact city, and unlike Los Angeles, it’s very walkable, with unique neighborhoods worth exploring on foot. Traffic is just as bad in San Francisco as in LA at rush hour, but it’s more concentrated around the bridges, not, like everywhere!

View down tracks for MUNI streetcar alongside 3rd street in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco, California, December 5, 2019.

Don’t forget to hop on a cable car for a classic San Francisco experience. They’re cheap and iconic.

San Francisco’s culture may differ from Los Angeles’s in many ways, from its Victorian architecture contrasting LA’s modern and Spanish Revival style, to its artisan focused food scene compared to LA’s experimental culinary culture. But it’s these differences, along with some shared California spirit, that make exploring the Bay Area such an appealing adventure for a Los Angeleno.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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