Portrait of a Place: Is San Francisco Worth Visiting? (2024)

is san francisco a bad place to live california travel

San Francisco, the hippie capital of the sunshine state, is said to be going downhill. When you ask some people about San Francisco, they say that the city has gone berserk. Their descriptions bring forth images of anarchy— of stolen goods and open drug use. But when you ask other people, they merely describe a city of white collar tech workers who pay a ridiculous amount of money in rent. Then there are other people, like myself, who have maintained an idyllic view of the city and dreamt of moving there. Upon my third trip to the city, however, I now hold a more nuanced view of San Francisco. 

Related: Read Portrait of a Place: Is Las Vegas Worth Visiting?

What are the city’s major problems? 

San Francisco is known as an expensive city that has a large homeless population. The city is also known to have a major drug abuse issue and shoplifting problem. While visiting, I saw more unhoused people than I ever have before. San Francisco is a small city with a total area of 7 miles by 7 miles. As of 2023, there are 7,582 unhoused residents

While in the Tenderloin neighborhood, I saw someone passed out on the ground next to used heroin needles. This is not unusual in this area as police usually do not step in to stop the situation. I also saw someone selling stolen merchandise from a pet store. Shoplifting is a major problem in SF because they usually do not charge people who steal under $950 worth of merchandise. 

The affordability issue affects residents’ ability to pay for basic needs. One of my Uber drivers told me that he worked 12 hours per day at $20 per hour and still couldn’t afford to pay rent. 

What is the most dangerous area of SF? 

The most dangerous part of San Francisco is the “Tenderloin” neighborhood. The Tenderloin encompasses the area beneath Nob Hill; it is between the shopping district in Union Square and the Civic Center. 

The SF neighborhood got its name from a similar area in New York City. A policeman in NYC who patrolled an area much like the SF neighborhood supposedly said that with bribes he was able to afford beef tenderloin. 

I’m not sure if the police in SF are currently accepting bribes. But currently, the city’s law is flexible enough for them to not interfere with a lot of crime. The Tenderloin feels like a lawless place because of this. Since shoplifting isn’t prosecuted, there are people openly selling stolen goods on the sidewalk. There are people camping alongside the street who openly use drugs. I would not suggest going there unless you are going straight into a building. There are a couple of cool places such as the Black Cat Jazz Supper Club or The Pawn Shop speakeasy. 

So… is San Francisco really as bad as they say?

In our most recent trip to SF in March of 2024, we stayed with a friend who was living near Nob Hill. We were contemplating moving to the city and saw this as an opportunity to scope things out.

We had an amazing time, but between the extreme wealth inequality, the high cost of living, and the general feeling of decline, we both felt like this was not the time to move to this city. We talked to many people about what they thought about the current state of the city including Uber drivers and people who lived there. The overwhelming consensus is that the city is in a rough spot and has not yet began to come back. Some people even doubted that it ever would return to its former glory.

Despite all of this, San Francisco remains one of my favorite cities. While I am there, I feel completely safe most of the time. Although the city isn’t what it once was, there are still many reasons to visit SF. There is still so much culture, so much history, and so much amazing food to be enjoyed.

What we Love About San Francisco

San Francisco

San Francisco has an extremely rare landscape, especially for the US. The walkability of the city and its well-preserved architecture is unmet by most cities in the US. The city looks as though it was built to be a cake topper; the historic houses seem glued to the hills with icing. As someone from a suburb in Texas, I always imagined San Francisco as a place out of a story book with its Painted Ladies and rolling hills. The hexagon “bay windows” are adorned with boxes of overflowing, flourishing flowers— nourished by the incessant rain that we humans find annoying. Miraculously, my trips to SF have been free of rain which has given me a rosy view of the climate. 

The landscape of the city is itself an attraction with the iconic bridge and cable car system. San Francisco also has a perfect balance between its urban area and greenspace thanks to the many gorgeous parks. 

San Francisco is incredibly diverse from the Chinatown neighborhood to museums honoring Jewish and African cultures. In comparison to Texas, there are many restaurants that have non-American food. While I was there, I ate at a Cuban restaurant and a Middle Eastern restaurant. 

Things to do in SF 

Visit Parks in San Francisco 

San Francisco has over 5,000 acres of parkland and was recently ranked number 3 in a park quality report on US cities. Notable parks include Alamo Square Park (with a view of the home from the tv show Full House), Golden Gate Park, and Dolores Park.

Golden Gate Park, which offers a 7.3 mile walking loop and several points of interest– including the Conservatory of Flowers, a Japanese Tea Garden, and the de Young art museum. While venturing through this park, we encountered an orchestra performance at the Music Concourse, roller skaters, salsa dancers, and a Hare Krishna parade. 

Dolores Park has a large hill that provides a breathtaking view of the city. It is the perfect place to have a picnic. 

The Palace of Fine Arts is also a great place to walk around. It is a theater with a beautiful lake and walking trail. The walking trail leads to a grand rotunda. The structure is similar to something you may find in ancient Rome— it has a round ceiling up and in the air held up by extremely tall columns. 

Get a View of the Golden Gate Bridge 

You can’t visit San Francisco without seeing the famous Golden Gate Bridge! Even though I’ve visited the bridge many times, I still find it shockingly magnificent. There are two viewpoints to see the bridge: Fort Point and Golden Gate Viewpoint. If you have half a day to spare, I would absolutely go to both.

Fort Point

Fort Point is on the south side of the Golden Gate Bridge. This area was originally used during the Civil War by soldiers seeking to protect the San Francisco harbor from foreign attack. While wandering around this area, you are able to get views such as the ones pictured below.

Views at Fort Point

Golden Gate View Point

Golden Gate View Point is on the north side of the bridge. This spectacular viewpoint places you at a higher angle, which gives a very different view from Fort Point. Be aware that getting to the top is a bit of a hike. Also, the view can be obstructed by clouds (as seen below). This can be disappointing, so try to visit on a clear day. After the Golden Gate View Point, I would suggest visiting Sausalito. It is only ten minutes away from the Golden Gate View Point. Sausalito has a ton of nice restaurants, art galleries, and shops. We enjoyed dinner a steak dinner at Barrel House Tavern, a water-front restaurant inside of a giant barrel.

View from Golden Gate Viewpoint

Boat Tours from Fisherman’s Wharf

If you prefer to get up close-and-personal with the bridge, I would suggest a boat tour!

The third way to see the Golden Gate Bridge is by taking a boat tour from Fisherman’s Wharf. This was actually the first way I’d ever visited the bridge. Not only do these tours give you a unique view of the bridge, but they also give you the chance to get a closer look at Alcatraz on the way. Here’s a photo I snapped in 2016, early in my travel photography days:

The San Francisco Bay is also extremely famous for whale watching and it’s common to see whales as you look out onto the bay. On the boat tour however, you may get a chance to see one up close!

If you’re interested in taking a boat tour, here’s a link to learn more:

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Take a walk through Chinatown 

Chinatown in San Francisco

When visiting San Francisco, going to Chinatown is an absolute must. The neighborhood is densely populated by immigrants from Asia, many of whom migrated to the city in the 1850s. Despite their long presence in San Francisco, the population has retained its rich culture and language. As of 2014, only 14% of households in Chinatown were headed by someone who spoke English fluently. Chinatown is home to many immigrant-run businesses that sell goods that can’t be found in other places. From beautiful oriental paintings and silk goods to specialty Asian food shops– there are plenty of gems to find.  

My favorite place to visit is the Vital Tea Leaf shop on Grant Street. When someone tells me they’re going to SF— this is my number one recommendation. Vital Tea Leaf offers free tea samples at a bar that is long enough to seat several customers at once. Visitors get a full tea tasting experience led by an employee who tells you about the tea strain and what health benefits it may have. They make the tea in a theatrical way, using proper teaware while explaining the delicate brewing process. I enjoyed several types of delicious tea that I never knew existed before. 

I bought the Jasmine Pearl white tea, a low caffeine option with an indescribably delicious taste. I also bought the Blue People Ginseng Oolong with a honey-like aftertaste. 

While shopping in Chinatown, I also found two beautiful kimonos! My favorite is a turquoise one covered with peacocks. It was only $20. I don’t recall which shop that it is from but I saw several stores selling similar kimonos. 

Go to an Art Museum 

While in San Francisco, I got the chance to visit the following museums: 

The de Young  Museum

The de Young museum is in Golden Gate Park. It offers a wide collection of classic American art from the 17th to 21st century. There is an overlook at the top of the museum with a 360 view of the city. 

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

SFMOMA - Art Museums in San Francisco

The SFMOMA was super cool. We got to see a photography exhibit that was centered around transwomen of color. The museum has a lot of photography, paintings as well as interesting sculptures. On its balcony, the museum has a Living Wall which is the nation’s largest wall of native plants hosting 37 different plant species. 

Legion of Honor

Legion of Honor Art Museum San Francisco

The Legion of Honor museum has a lot of European paintings and ancient art. The museum itself is a work of art that is reminiscent of French neoclassical architecture. It was built in Lincoln Park to commemorate soldiers who died during WW1 and has beautiful views of both the city on one side, and the Golden Gate Bridge on the other.

There are many other museums in SF that I hope to visit one day. Including the Asian Art Museum, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD). 

Live Music in San Francisco 

Bottom of the Hill

Bottom of the Hill San Francisco Music Venues

My favorite music venue in SF is called Bottom of the Hill. Bottom of the Hill was voted the best live-music venue in SF by The Rolling Stone. They have had shows by many notable artists including Green Day, The Strokes, and The White Stripes. 

While I was there in March of 2023, I saw the indie bands Pure Hex and Treasvre. In March of 2024, I saw Electric Machine Gun Tits which was a Japanese punk band with Irish influence. 

Bottom of the Hill is a small venue with a bar and food. The shows feel intimate but the venue also has space to get away from the crowd with its backroom that has booth seating and a fireplace. There is also an outdoor patio with a window that provides a direct-rear view of the stage. 

Tip: Make sure that when you are navigating to the music venue that you don’t accidentally route to The Bottom of the Hill neighborhood.

The Black Cat

The Black Cat Jazz Supper Club is a hub for some of the best Jazz musicians in the Bay Area. The underground venue, established in 1934, is a white-tablecloth restaurant. I devoured a hardy steak as i swayed to the lush sounds of the jazz quartet.

Ethan’s stepdad, a jazz singer, also made a cameo. “Play some Duke” he said to the musicians as he took the mic. He then performed “In A Sentimental Mood,” Ellington’s famous song from 1963.

The Black Cat Jazz Club - San Francisco Tenderloin

Dancing in San Francisco

Dancing is a popular activity in San Francisco. There are a variety of types offered that I haven’t seen as an option anywhere else. I got the chance to take a swing dancing class and go salsa dancing while I was there. 

Swing Dancing in Golden Gate Park 

Every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. there is free swing dancing. The event is put on by Lindy in the Park, which has been putting on the event for over 25 years. 

Salsa dancing at Cigar Bar and Grill

Cigar Bar is a cocktail bar and restaurant that offers a rotating selection of pan-Latin dishes. It is owned by Eden Rodriguez who immigrated to SF from Michoacán, Mexico. Cigar Bar usually has salsa dancing lessons and music Thursday through Saturday. For updates, check their online calendar. The ticket for the salsa dancing is between $10-$15. There is a coat check so that you can check your coat before going too hard on the dance floor! 

Would I move to San Francisco? 

If I could transport back to the 70s, when the city was at the peak of the artistic hippie era— I would move to San Francisco. I love the walkability of the city, its beautiful architecture and diverse activities. But due to its current issues, I wouldn’t move there now. It is too expensive to live there, especially if you are in a nice area of the city. But I hope to continue to visit and enjoy everything that the city has to offer. 

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