I’ll never forget the first time I visited San Francisco, way back in 2004. It was more beautiful than I could’ve possibly imagined, to say nothing of how culturally open it was compared to the Midwestern suburb where I’d spend almost my entire life up until that point. I won’t go so far as to say it was paradise, though it certainly had a mythical quality to it.
Unsurprisingly, I made a point of returning to the city often. Each subsequent time, however, it seemed less and less like the place I’d fallen in love with as a fresh-out-of-the-closet teenager—and not just because of how much better-traveled I became as the years passed. Nor was it simply the now well-documented issues of homelessness and public degeneracy, though those didn’t help.
By the time the 2020s rolled around, I’d nearly written the city off, only going back earlier this year (it’s 2023 as I write this) because my in-laws were in the country and insisted upon stopping there. What I concluded after returning for the first time in almost a decade shocks me: Maybe San Francisco isn’t so bad after all?
Why I Used to Hate San Francisco
For many years, I’ve had a post up on this site titled “I hate San Francisco,” or some variation on that theme. I never hated the city if I’m honest; this was mostly an SEO ploy. Still, it is accurate to say that I loved San Francisco less every time I returned. And it wasn’t simply because of how impossible it became to go anywhere in the city without stepping in human shit, although that didn’t help matters.
Indeed, over the years, I began to question how genuine my love for San Francisco had been in the first place. Had it stolen my heart because it was truly the best city in America, or simply because I was a repressed teenager with ~zero travel experience the first time I touched down there? Certainly, the broader my travel horizons got, the less worthwhile it seemed to waste another dollar or day of my life in a city that had constantly disappointed me.
How to Enjoy San Francisco (Despite Its Faults)
The destination, not the journey
While it’s true that San Francisco is depressing along certain streets and in particular neighborhoods, the highlights are still…well, highlights. Seeing the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, having a drink with friends in Dolores Park—things like that. Where you get into trouble in San Francisco is if you wander too far off the beaten path. Sorry, Tolkien: Sometimes it’s better to ignore the journey, and focus on the destination.
Put beauty at the forefront
If you think San Francisco sucks, it’s probably because you’ve encountered too much ugly, whether that’s a homeless person taking a dump on the sidewalk in front of you while you eat, or someone’s campsite set up in the middle of a residential neighborhood. If you’re conscious about seeking out beauty during your trip—I’m thinking the view from Coit Tower or across the bay at Marin Headlands—you’re much less likely to get bogged down.
Eat your way to happiness
When I say I don’t like San Francisco, I’m definitely not talking about the food. On my most recent trip, I particularly enjoyed a trip to the city’s most authentic Thai restaurant, which my in-laws sought out because it serves “Thai food for Thai people.” Just make sure to avoid restaurants where strung-out drug addicts are either shitting at your table (see above) or camping out in the dining room.
Be a little paranoid
Another thing that makes the phrase “I hate San Francisco” swirl through my head? Walking around the city and feeling like I have to watch my back because some aggressive panhandler is heading straight toward me. A few days into my last trip, I realize that I could avoid the stress—ironically—by staying vigilant all the time. Letting your guard down in San Francisco is what allows situates that make you dislike the city to arise.
See the bigger picture
Rather than focusing on why San Francisco sucks, why not think of all the reasons it’s amazing? From great weather year-round, to tons of amazing viewpoints (Twin Peaks is another one), to outstanding food, to the timeless Golden Gate Bridge and even the city’s proximity to Napa Valley, there are so many reasons that San Francisco is extraordinarily good, even if it’s also extraordinarily bad in some ways.
Is San Francisco Still Worth Visiting?
If I can go from basically hating San Francisco—and hating it for over a decade—to giving it another chance and having second thoughts, I’d say the city is probably worth visiting. Certainly, if you haven’t been back in a while (and have stayed away, even in part, because of media reports), I’d suggest going back, even if you only come for a day or two on your way to or back from somewhere in Asia.
Now, even if you don’t end up vulnerable to the same “San Francisco shithole” line of thinking I got stuck in during most of the 2010s, I can’t guarantee you’ll find the city to be paradise, as I did when I first went way back in 2004. San Francisco has real problems, and leadership that prefers to let them fester. Still, I’d rather you see it with your own eyes—though I hope you don’t smell it with your own nose—rather than taking my word for it.
Other FAQ About Visiting San Francisco in the 2020s
Does San Francisco have a homeless problem?
San Francisco has the largest homeless population per-capita in the US. Worse, many of these people are aggressive and sometimes violent drug addicts, rather than individuals who have simply fallen on hard times. The good news is that most are concentrated in particular areas of San Francisco, such as the notorious Tenderloin district. The bad news is that formerly prosperous areas of the city, such as the area south of Market Street (SOMA) are increasingly no-go zones.
Is it OK to travel to San Francisco right now?
It’s OK to travel to San Francisco right now if you’re intentional about what you plan to do when you’re there, aware of areas to avoid and mindful about your surroundings as you explore the city. On the other hand, if you’re expecting a carefree trip to a city full of hippies and peace, you’re a few decades too late.
Is it safe to walk at night in San Francisco?
Some areas of San Francisco are perfectly safe at night, from residential neighborhoods like Russian Hill, to Castro, the city’s long-time gay hub. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t walk (especially not alone) anywhere along Market Street near the city center, and certainly not in the Tenderloin.
The Bottom Line
Is San Francisco really that bad? No, as shocked as I am to write this. Having witnessed the city’s decline first-hand throughout the 2010s, I had a difficult time rebutting most of the narrative the American media spat out as more and more people accepted the sad reality of America’s city by the bay. Yet a return to San Francisco after the end of covid-19 (which, according to many news reports, was the final nail in the city’s coffin) surprised me: Much of the city’s essence remained intact, at least in key neighborhoods and locations. While I do believe San Francisco needs major changes to avoid permanent damage and reverse what’s already been done, it’s honestly not as bad as some report. Need help planning your next trip? Consider hiring me as your Travel Coach!