Travel & Day Trips

Chicago vs San Francisco; The Key Differences

Chicago and San Francisco are two iconic American cities. Chicago is in the heart of Midwest, epitomizing America’s strength in farming and commerce. San Francisco captures America’s innovative side, and also its artistic and progressive streak.

As a professional food and travel photographer, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have visited Chicago many times. Here’s a breakdown of some of the key differences.

1. Geography and Climate

Chicago is located in the middle of the United States. Some people affectionately refer to the region as “flyover country,” since people often pass over the Midwest when flying between the coasts.

Chicago’s summers are warm, but its winters are very, very cold! I traveled to Chicago in the winter, and it was -40 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill. I’ve never experienced cold like that.

photo of buildings
Photo by Chait Goli on

In contrast, San Francisco is located on the West Coast of America. Its coastal location and Mediterranean climate mean that San Francisco is a fairly consistent 60-75 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Keep in mind that San Francisco does get fog, which can mean lower temperatures.

Salesforce tower on a foggy day
San Francisco can be very foggy

Chicago is also known for its wind. Its nickname, the “Windy City”, is accurate. Parts of the San Francisco Bay Area get lots of wind, too. Livermore and San Ramon are known for this.


  • Location: Situated in the Midwest, on the shores of Lake Michigan.
  • Climate: Experiences all four seasons, including cold winters with snow and hot summers. Known for its unpredictable weather and the ‘Windy City’ moniker.

San Francisco:

  • Location: Located on the West Coast of the United States, bordered by the Pacific Ocean.
  • Climate: Mild, temperate climate year-round with cool summers due to the Pacific Ocean influence. Famous for its microclimates and fog.

2. Culture and Lifestyle

Chicago is known for its laid-back, friendly Midwestern culture. Although Chicago feels like more of a big city than many places in Michigan and Iowa, for example, it still has that laid-back Midwest feel.

Chicago also has strong blue-collar roots in manufacturing and agriculture, and that’s a big part of the city’s identity.

man posing by street art
Photo by Chait Goli on

Sports are a huge deal in Chicago, and the city has several world-renowned arts venues.

San Francisco, on the other hand, is laid back but in a different way. It’s got the mello vibes of its hippie roots, blended with today’s progressive food scene, and an inclusive, diverse culture.

San Francisco is also a global tech hub, with the headquarters of big companies like Google, Facebook and more in the Bay Area.


  • Rich in arts, with globally recognized institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Renowned for its music scene, especially blues and jazz.
  • Passionate sports city, with teams like the Chicago Bulls, Bears, and Cubs.

San Francisco:

  • Hub for tech and innovation due to its proximity to Silicon Valley.
  • Known for its progressive culture and historic events like the Summer of Love.
  • Embraces diversity with neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Castro.

3. Economy and Job Market

Chicago retains much of its manufacturing background, but is also a financial hub, as one of the main places for trading derivatives and futures. It’s also the home to many big companies.

Google sign
Big tech dominates in San Francisco

San Francisco generally has higher wages, but also a higher cost of living. The city and region are dominated, economically, by big tech.


  • Diverse economy with strengths in finance, manufacturing, and publishing.
  • Houses the Chicago Stock Exchange and numerous Fortune 500 companies.

San Francisco:

  • Dominated by the tech industry; headquarters of giants like Twitter, Uber, and Salesforce.
  • Thriving startup ecosystem backed by venture capital.

4. Cost of Living

On paper, San Francisco seems way pricier than Chicago! The reality is a bit different. Chicago has some areas that are extremely wealthy, and others that experience high levels of poverty. That results in a lower median home price.

San Francisco, on the other hand, is more uniformly wealthy–at least in the city itself. Food and other basics are also often cheaper in Chicago. Partly, that’s because the city is known for things like deep dish pizza and hot dogs, whereas San Francisco is all about the pricey farm-to-table and New American food movements.

Farm to table food
Fancy farm to table food makes SF pricey
ExpenseChicagoSan Francisco
Median Home Price$280,000 (approx.)$1.4 million (approx.)
Average Rent for a 1-bedroom Apartment$1,500/month$3,500/month
TransportationCheaper public transportation system, Metra and CTA.Expensive due to high demand, BART and MUNI.
Dining OutA wide variety at moderate prices.Generally more expensive with a focus on organic and upscale options.

5. Attractions and Landmarks

Chicago is known as an architectural wonderland. Many of its buildings were designed by major architects and are stunning creations. Millenium Park is a major attraction that’s newer.

cloud gate
Photo by Bhargava Marripati on

San Francisco is known for architectural and engineering marvels like the Golden Gate Bridge, but many of those are now almost a century old. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is also a major landmark in the city.


  • Architecture: Famous for its skyscrapers, including Willis Tower.
  • Waterfront: Navy Pier and Lake Michigan beaches.
  • Parks: Millennium Park, home to the iconic Cloud Gate (‘The Bean’).

San Francisco:

  • Natural Beauty: Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island.
  • Neighborhoods: Fisherman’s Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, and Lombard Street.
  • Parks: Golden Gate Park, larger than NYC’s Central Park.


Both Chicago and San Francisco offer distinct experiences. Chicago provides a taste of the Midwest with its robust arts scene, while San Francisco stands as a beacon for tech enthusiasts and those looking for a progressive environment. When deciding between the two, personal preferences regarding climate, job opportunities, and cost of living will undoubtedly play a significant role.

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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