What to Pack for San Francisco (& what NOT to)

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What to pack for San Francisco - and what to leave at home!

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Ahh, the City by the Bay: barking sea lions, clanging MUNI buses, steaming clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls, freezing cold Marine Layer… *marinates in nostalgia* We spent over 10 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and y’all, let me tell you: figuring out what to pack for San Francisco is a CHALLENGE.

It’s not your typical sort of packing for a city, or a season. It’s more like packing for a series of weather-related challenges. Freezing cold! Blazing sun! Hiking up hills! Tiny, 7×7 square mile San Francisco consists of a minefield of micro-climates, which means traversing from the warm, sunny Mission to the arctic chill of the Outer Sunset is like taking a long haul flight between two totally different climates and seasons – all within the same city. Plus hills.

So, let’s dive into how to pack for the unique challenges of San Francisco, our beloved adopted home city for over a decade. Because “bring layers” doesn’t quite cover it (although if we had to summarize this post in two words…) Here’s your complete San Francisco packing list – including what to leave at home.

Psst: Planning to visit the Bay Area? We’ve got a ton of blog posts about our adopted home city of over a decade! Here are a few of our favorites to help you prepare for your trip.

Looking for more San Francisco inspiration? We have a self-guided walking tour of San Francisco which visits 6 of our favorite local neighborhoods. Click the link below to subscribe and we’ll send a printable version right to your inbox!

We also have a Podcast episode about San Francisco! Find out what to eat, where to drink, & the best things to do, plus answers to questions you never knew you had… like whether there is weed everywhere (yes) and if you’ll accidentally see nudity (double yes). We’re also spilling the fair-trade, organic, ethically sourced tea on our lesser-known life of crime.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset in San Francisco California
Welcome to the most beautiful city in the world, y’all! Psst: see that fog rolling in from the left? That’s the marine layer, and it’s the reason you’ll want to stay bundled up in the mornings and evenings!

San Francisco Travel Tips

Before we dive into our San Francisco packing list, here are a few quick tips that you’ll need to know before you start planning your trip.

  • Don’t rent a car. Don’t do it! You do NOT want the hassle or expense of parking a car during your trip to San Francisco. It is awful. I NEVER drive in San Francisco if I can help it, and I highly encourage you to do the same. Instead, use public transit (BART and Muni) and rideshares (Lyft & Uber) to get around. Anything you want to access outside of the city can be arranged via tour or at most, a one-day car rental.
  • Get a Clipper card when you arrive for transit. Clipper cards are reusable plastic cards that you load money onto for transit (like a scannable transit credit card) and will work on ALL Bay Area transit, including BART and Muni to get your around the city. You can even load it on your phone virtually. Order online before your trip or pick one up at Walgreens or lots of other places for a $3 fee – here’s where and how to get one.
  • Use Google Maps for transit. BART (essentially the underground subway) only has a few lines and is pretty simple to use, but it doesn’t get you to most of the city. Enter MUNI, which has both buses and electric trams that go above and underground – you’ll see them everywhere. There are a ton of lines and they’ll get you everywhere you need! To figure out how to get from place to place, just enter your destination into Google Maps and select transit to get instructions on which buses or trains to take in real time.
Nob Hill Hilly Homes on a steep street in San Francisco
When we say San Francisco is hilly, we MEAN IT. But here’s a tip: the top of a hill in the city always, ALWAYS has stunning views. So they’re always worth the climb!
  • Walk as much as you can. San Francisco is a city best explored on foot. Yes, you can take transit to get around, if you can stand the hills, walking is the best way to see all the quirks and charm that make up San Francisco! Spend at least a day wandering through the city and walk as much as you can. To help, we’ve got a self-guided San Francisco walking tour – and we’ve also got suggestions for the best walking shoes for travel. Here are our favorite travel shoes for men and for women.
  • Don’t call it “San Fran” or “Frisco.” Please. There are 2 acceptable affectionate nicknames for San Francisco: “SF” and “The City.” That’s it. Those are the 2. Allowing “San Fran” or “Frisco” to pass your lips is a great way to out yourself as an out-of-towner, which has the added benefit of causing everyone near you to take a few steps back and internally seethe.
  • San Francisco has a LOT of homeless residents. This can definitely be a bit of a culture shock. Please keep in mind that the folks experiencing homelessness are our neighbors, and not a blight or an eyesore. Many of the folks that you will see are also struggling with mental illnesses, and you may see people who appear to be talking to themselves or to thin air. Although this can be startling, remember that these people are in far more danger than you are, and are unlikely to harm you in any way. Homelessness is traumatic, particularly for the mentally ill, whose conditions can be exacerbated by the stress of homelessness. Also, because there are too few public restrooms in San Francisco, you will smell some unpleasant things during your stay. Hold your breath and remember: you get to go home and use a bathroom or take a shower whenever you want. They don’t. Have compassion. There’s a fantastic resource for how to respond to the homeless in San Francisco on SF Gate.
  • Don’t stay in a short-term rental. Despite Airbnb being headquartered in the city, short term rentals in San Francisco have historically contributed to the housing crisis, which in turn affects homelessness. Over the years, strict laws have been established, limiting the number and type of AirBnBs found in the city. While you can still find a few private rooms for rent in SF, in order to be a more responsible traveler, we recommend that you choose to stay in hotels instead. We’ve got a complete guide to where to stay in San Francisco – and where not to.
  • Take advantage of luggage storage. If your check-in and check-out times don’t sync up with your need to roam the streets and you need a place to store your bags check out LuggageHero, a service that helps you find a safe place to keep your luggage while you’re running around! Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.

We’ve got some more helpful – and some only mildly helpful – tips for visiting San Francisco in our guide to things nobody tells you about San Francisco!

What to Wear in San Francisco

One common piece of advice you’ll always hear about packing for San Francisco is to always, always, always bring a jacket. Y’all – THIS IS ESSENTIAL ADVICE.

The key to packing for San Francisco is to construct a carefully thought-out system of layers, starting with something you can strip down to when the blazing sun feels about 80 degrees (which is how it feels in San Francisco when it’s about 60) and layered up to withstand arctic windchill levels of 30 degrees, which is how San Francisco feels at 6pm on the dot when the sun suddenly vanishes and takes all the warmth of your very bones along with it.

Lia and Jeremy admiring murals in an alley in San Francisco California
Even in the warm and sunny micro-climate of the Mission, we stay layered – we each have a lighter layer on underneath Jeremys’ button-down and my sweater! (Psst: note the Hydroflask – essential when climbing hills all day long!)

You see, San Francisco is not a warm city. And it’s especially not warm in the summer, which is actually the coldest season of the year. We love to quote Mark Twain, who supposedly said “the coldest winter I ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco.” Of course, he never actually said that, but it’s stuck in the San Francisco lexicon and we’re sticking to it, revisionist history be damned.

San Francisco is typically warmest during the month of October, during Indian summer, which is also fire season, so … you might get lovely hot sunny weather during your trip, but you also might get choking smoke. It’s a tossup.

The only thing you can count on – other than smoke between August and November, and rain between December and February – is that you’ll need to pack layers. Every single day, there is a somewhat predictable pattern: it’s freezing cold until 10am, then you’ll have a few glorious hours of warm and possibly even sunny weather, and then 6pm will hit and it will be immediately freezing again.

So. Fear not. You can do this. All you need is some smart planning (and a day bag for the extra layers). Here are the specific items of clothing we recommend packing for your trip to San Francisco:

  • The Perfect Walking Shoes: San Francisco is a walking city – and a city full of hills, so it’s like, walking plus climbing, too. And while you wouldn’t look too out of place in the Bay Area in a pair of hiking boots, chances are you kinda want to be cute, right? Well, we gotcha covered: the perfect pair of shoes for San Francisco is a pair of Allbirds Tree Skippers (his, hers): they’re breathable, lightweight, sustainable, go with everything, and comfortable enough to walk in for miles. The mesh upper keeps your feet from getting hot and sweaty, but thanks to the wool insole, your feet won’t get cold, either. Read more about our favorite travel shoes for women & men.
  • The Best Travel Jeans: If we had to pick one item that you’ll likely be wearing every single day of your trip, it would be a pair of these. Why? For starters, they’re comfy as hell, lightweight, and really cute. But more importantly, there SEVEN. GIANT POCKETS. Including not one but two zippered/hidden back pockets and a “coin” pocket so big I can fit my phone in it – essential in a place like San Francisco, where pickpocketing and phone snatchers are definitely a concern. We bring a pair of stretchy, cozy, pockety Aviator jeans with us on every single trip! Read more about why we love them and our other favorite pairs of pants for travel for women & also for men.
  • Cozy Leggings: For days when you don’t feel like wearing jeans, these also function as pants. As a curvy girl, this Amazon brand is my favorite – they don’t slip down while you walk, don’t snag easily or stretch out over time, and have a nice thick waistband and TWO pockets. They also make fleece-lined leggings that I wear when it’s cold! FWIW, I wear a size XXL.
  • Wool T-Shirts: In a place like San Francisco where the climate and temperature shifts wildly throughout the day, it’s fantastic to have clothing that is naturally temperature regulating. Merino wool is a miracle fabric. It keeps you cool when it’s hot AND warm when it’s cold. When it gets wet (say, in a particularly gnarly fog cloud) you’ll stay comfortable while your clothing dries. It naturally resists the growth of fungus and bacteria, so it never smells – meaning no mid-trip laundry to do! Performance wool isn’t like the itchy wool of the past – it’s thin, stretchy, and super soft to the touch. We wear wool on every trip whether we’re going somewhere cold or warm! For San Francisco, we recommend packing wool t-shirts (hers and his). They’re the perfect base layer – they’ll keep you cool during the heat of the day and warm you back up again underneath your jacket when the temps drop. We also really love hemp, which is similarly anti-microbial and temperature-regulating. Our favorite hemp travel clothing is made by prAna – browse their collection for women and men. Their entire “Cozy Up” line is fantastic and we’ve got a whole bunch of stuff from it.
  • Middle Layer: Sometime between the heat of the day, when you’ll strip down to your t-shirt, and the freeze of 6pm when you’ll throw on your down jacket, you’ll want something that’s in between. Like a light jacket, a sweater or cardigan, a sweatshirt, or a button-down shirt. Grab something from your closet – this is probably what you’ll be wearing for most of the day (and therefore in most of your photos).
Lia enjoying the regularly scheduled 6pm cold/fog.
Watching the regularly scheduled 6pm cold/fog roll in. Consider yourself duly prepared: the fog is ever present in San Francisco.
  • Warm, Packable Jacket: Ah, here it is: the jacket of “always bring a jacket” fame. The one we recommend is a packable down jacket. They’re incredibly lightweight and pack down into almost nothing, which is perfect because you’ll be carrying it around in your day bag for most of the day. But the insulating properties of down are incredible – they will keep you warm below freezing! And they are definitely up to the task of the 6pm fog chill. Make sure you get REAL down, not polyester – it’s heavier and less insulating. Here are the most affordable and lightweight ones we’ve found: women’s, men’s. They’re cheaper and lighter because they’re made without hoods (you don’t need a hood – it probably won’t rain during your trip unless you’re visiting in the dead of winter).
  • Gloves, Hat, and Scarf: A warm jacket designed for the dead of winter is great and all, but trust me, the cold in San Francisco is really cold. Sure, sure – you’re coming from the midwest and your house is regularly covered in 6 feet of snow and you think you know cold. I hear you. But also? When the wind is blowing at 25mph and it’s filled with moisture because the entire city is shrouded in a thick layer of fog, 50 degrees feels a lot closer to -50. So pull out a pair of gloves (lightweight cotton is fine, just something to cover your hands) and a hat and a scarf, and throw them in your day bag. At some point, you’ll be really glad you have them.
  • Lounge Pants: You’ll want to wear these on the plane and as PJs pants. Before I discovered the Outdoor Voices CloudKnit pants, I thought all stretchy lounge pants were the. same. I was wrong. These lightweight, super-stretchy pants look awesome and feel amazing. They have 3 roomy pockets and they’re perfect for everything from wearing on 20-hour flights to sleeping to hiking through the jungle (true story). We each have a pair that comes with us on every trip, and we wear them on every flight. Read more about our survival tips for long-haul flights!

And there you have it. Your perfect outfit formula for every day in San Francisco: travel jeans, insulating t-shirt, middle layer for cuteness, warm down jacket for the morning and evening cold, and a comfy pair of walking shoes that goes with every outfit. Easy, right? 😉

READ THIS POST

The 5 Best Travel Pants for Women: Functional, Cute, and Field-Tested

Travel Essentials for San Francisco

There are a few essential items I’d make sure to pack for your trip to San Francisco that will make your all-day adventuring more comfortable, and a few things to reduce the ever-present risk of theft (which, frankly, is something we think about in every major city we visit – not just San Francisco).

  • Day Bag: If there’s one thing I’ve probably mentioned 10x already, it’s a good day bag. You NEED to bring a day bag while you’re out exploring the city because it holds your down jacket and your hat/gloves/scarf. It’s also a handy place to store an external battery for your phone, sunglasses, and whatever souvenirs you might pick up on the course of your adventuring! I like this cute day bag because if it’s going to be in every picture, it might as well look good.
  • External Phone Battery: Your phone is essential for getting from place to place in San Francisco, whether it’s using Google Maps or a digital Clipper card or calling Lyfts to get you around. You need it to stay charged! This small but powerful external battery will keep your phone charged all day long.
  • Hand Sanitizer: We strongly recommend taking public transit rather than renting a car, and we also strongly recommend sanitizing your hands afterwards. Because BART and Muni trains are gross. I mean, they’re cleaned regularly all, but still. We’ve seen enough. Stick some in your day bag and use it regularly!
  • Travel Umbrella: You probably won’t need one during your trip unless you’re visiting between November and February, but this one is so small and lightweight it just lives in my day bag for every trip. These teeny tiny travel umbrellas pack down into a palm-size case and weigh hardly anything. We keep them permanently in our day bag, which means that whenever it starts raining, we always have an umbrella ready to go! They’re the perfect set-it-and-forget-it day bag essential.
  • Popsocket for your phone: These phone accessories were all the rage at some point a few years ago, and I now consider them an essential theft-deterrent device for your phone – which is a major theft target. Phones are probably the most commonly stolen items in San Francisco (other than literally anything left in the backseat of a car) and it’s pretty much all opportunity theft – namely someone snatching your phone right out of your and while you’re in the middle of using it, because they’re easy to grab and hard to hold onto. I can’t tell you how many friends have had their phones stolen while using them on public transit – someone nabs it right as the doors are closing, and bam, no more phone and no way to get it back. But the popsocket makes your phone really, really difficult to grab from your hands (which also means you’re less likely to drop the dang thing on the ground and break it!) I find them incredibly convenient – and cute, too!
Lia in San Francisco, California in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
As a bonus, a scarf makes a great photo accessory when posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge! (Psst: this spot is Battery Spencer and it’s a phenomenal photo op.)
  • Toiletry Case: We keep all of our toiletries organized into this handy dandy hanging toiletry case. It fits into all of our bags easily and hangs on any available hook in the bathroom. It’s so convenient that we never bother to unpack it; we leave it hanging up in our bathroom at home in between trips!
  • Sunscreen: Sun protection is essential when you’ll be out exploring all day long. We recommend Mineral Sunscreen, which is better for the environment and protects your skin with a physical zinc oxide barrier rather than chemicals that soak into your skin. My favorite face sunscreen is this one.
  • Packing Cubes: To keep our hotel room looking somewhat organized, we roll up our clothing and organize them in packing cubes.
  • Reusable Water Bottle: Don’t go looking for water bottles in San Francsco. Much like public restrooms, there aren’t many, and the ones that do exist, are gross. Bring your own reusable water bottles instead – it’s not only an environmentally friendly choice, but they have a major advantage over cheap, clear plastic water bottles: they actually keep your water COLD.
  • Away Carry-On Suitcase: You don’t want big heavy suitcases in San Francisco – there are way too many hills to navigate! This beautiful carry-on suitcase is not only stunning, but it’s incredibly high-tech. It’s got two compartments: one for soft clothing, and one for hard stuff, like shoes and toiletries and 18 hair tools even though you swore you were going to try not to be extra this trip. It includes a built-in portable charger, which means no more fighting over outlets or digging around for your charger. It’s got a built-in laundry bag, with a built-in compressor, so that you can ditch the wadded-up plastic bag and actually have room in your suitcase after you’ve put off doing laundry for a solid 2 weeks. It’s incredibly damage resistant and won’t crack under the pressure of everyone else’s stuff, keeping whatever’s inside safe too. And of course, it does lock things and wheel things and all the other stuff that grown-up suitcases do.
  • PacSafe Carry-On Backpack: If you’ll be taking public transit and walking to your hotel, it’s frankly a lot easier to be carrying a backpack rather than a rolly bag. This PacSafe bag ticks all of my boxes: plenty of space, extremely theft resistant (that’s like, the whole PacSafe thing), incredibly comfortable to carry (it’s got all the comfort and ease of a bigger pack, with loads of adjustable straps) and with enough pockets and sections to keep you well organized on your trip. I bring this on most trips, and it’s one of the most comfortable backpacks I’ve ever carried!
  • Knack Carry-On Backpack: This nifty bag carries like a backpack but opens like a suitcase, making it the perfect in-between for when you’re not quite a backpacker, not quite a suitcase….er? The bag is basically like a big rectangle that opens exactly the way a suitcase does, allowing for A TON of space.
Lia and Jeremy in front of Pagoda in San Francisco California-2
Lookin’ all cute and stuff in Golden Gate Park.

What NOT to Pack for San Francisco

Locals in San Francisco have a running joke: how do you identify a tourist in San Francisco? They’re easy to spot in a crowd – they’ll be wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a big, oversized San Francisco graphic hoodie that they bought in an overpriced tourist shop because all they packed was shorts and flip-flops. Now, I know you’re not going to be one of those tourists because you’re reading this post and following our advice, so instead you can join us in identifying them around Union Square and Pier 39 and chuckling to yourself.

So, first things first: you don’t need shorts. Don’t pack shorts, you’ll never wear shorts in San Francisco. In the decade I spent living there, I think I wore shorts maybe twice. And I mostly lived across the Bay in Oakland. Where it’s much warmer.

You also don’t need tank tops or sandals. Because 55 degrees in San Francisco feels like -55 when the marine layer hits.

I wouldn’t bother bringing a swimsuit. Your hotel won’t have a pool and the Pacific Ocean is the coldest body of water in the entire world (OK, no, not really – but it might as well be when you’re trying to swim or surf in it). If you do end up going in the ocean, for like … scuba diving with great white sharks or whatever, you’ll be wearing a wetsuit and your face will be numb. So you don’t need a swimsuit.

Leave behind bug repellant, too. We don’t have mosquitos! They just aren’t a thing here. Maybe it’s too cold. Maybe they don’t like the marine layer. Most of California doesn’t have biting bugs, but there are absolutely none in San Francisco.

Oh, one more tip: I asked Jeremy – native Californian and longtime San Francisco resident – for his tips, and he wanted me to include this: don’t bring anything with a Dodger’s logo on it. You’re in Giants territory now 😉 For real though, wearing a Dodgers hat means inviting dirty looks and poor service, so … at your own risk, I guess.


Ready to pack your down jacket and favorite sweater and dive into some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl? What questions can we answer to help you prepare for your trip to San Francisco? Drop us a comment below!

Psst: Planning to visit the Bay Area? We’ve got a ton of blog posts about our adopted home city of over a decade! Here are a few of our favorites to help you prepare for your trip.

If you’ll be visiting San Francisco as part of a longer trip to California, take a look at some of our other posts or browse our California travel guide:

Looking for more San Francisco inspiration? We have a self-guided walking tour of San Francisco which visits 6 of our favorite local neighborhoods. Click the link below to subscribe and we’ll send a printable version right to your inbox!

We also have a Podcast episode about San Francisco! Find out what to eat, where to drink, & the best things to do, plus answers to questions you never knew you had… like whether there is weed everywhere (yes) and if you’ll accidentally see nudity (double yes). We’re also spilling the fair-trade, organic, ethically sourced tea on our lesser-known life of crime.

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What to pack for San Francisco (& what to leave at home) by a local.

Our Top Travel Tips & Resources

Here are our favorite travel tips & resources for saving money and planning travel logistics! For more tips, check out our travel tips resource page or our guide to planning a trip.

  • Booking Flights: To score flight deals, search on Google Flights or Kayak. Money-saving tips: fly mid-week or on the weekend; fly carry-on only on a budget airline; and take red-eyes or early morning flights.
  • Accommodations: We usually stay in budget-friendly vacation rentals, boutique hotels or private rooms in hostels. We use Booking.com to book hotels (we love their flexible cancellation policy) and Hostelworld to book hostels (low deposit, easy change/cancellation, and excellent reviews). For vacation rentals, we prefer to book using VRBO because they’ve got lower fees and better support than Airbnb, and we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record. You can also book vacation rentals on Expedia and Hotels.com. We also use TrustedHousesitters as both hosts (for our home and our fur-child) and travelers!
  • Travel Insurance: We always, always, ALWAYS buy travel insurance for international trips, and we STRONGLY suggest it – visit our Travel Insurance Guide to find out why. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing for international travel insurance. SafetyWing is one of the few policies that covers Covid-19, and they have excellent monthly policies that are perfect for Digital Nomads and long term travelers!
  • Travel Credit Card: We book all of our trips on our favorite travel credit card. Not only do we earn cash back that we can spend on more travel, but the card offers fantastic travel perks like travel insurance, trip delay and cancellation coverage, lost baggage reimbursement, and rental car coverage, which helps protect us on our travels. Learn more here.
  • Vaccines & Meds: We use the travel guides on the CDC website to research recommended medications and vaccines for international trips. We always recommend getting every vaccine recommended by the CDC! You can get them at your primary care doctor’s office or a walk-in pharmacy.
  • Tours: We love booking guided tours, especially food tours and walking tours, to get a local’s perspective and a history lesson while sight-seeing! We book our tours using Viator and GetYourGuide.
  • Transportation: We use Rome2Rio to figure out how to get from place to place, and book local transportation online using Bookaway wherever we can. When we book a rental car, we use DiscoverCars to compare rental companies and find the best deal.
  • Luggage Storage: Whenever we’re checking out early or taking advantage of a long layover, we use LuggageHero to safely store our luggage while we’re running around. Use the code PRACTICALW for 2 hours of free luggage storage on us.
  • VPN Service: A VPN keeps your digital information (like website login details, bank info, etc) safe, even when you’re connected to an unsecured network while traveling. Plus, it lets you use Netflix & other streaming sites abroad! We use NordVPN. Use the code WANDERLUSTPROMO when you sign up!
  • What to Pack: Here are the travel essentials that we bring on every trip. We also have packing lists for hot weather, cold weather, and many more. Take a look at all of our packing guides!

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