What It’s Like to Live in San Francisco
The birthplace of blue jeans and floppy discs and the pounding heart of the Beat Generation, San Francisco is a seismically creative, cultural epicenter of the West Coast. This Golden City may only be seven miles wide, but it has transformed the way the world thinks, works and plays.
Unlike its sprawling sibling to the south, the hilly City by the Bay has maintained its kinks and quirks despite the increased commercialization brought on by booming Silicon Valley. Lombard Street is still a serpentine adventure on asphalt (and that goes twice for snaky Vermont Ave.), mosaic staircases still carry you from one neighborhood perch to another and social proclamations emblazoned on flags, stickers, tee shirts and human bodies will meet your eye everywhere you look, whether in the stacks of City Lights or the murals on Mission.
And although the cost of living is making it harder by the minute for people to live in the Bay Area, there is simply no other place like San Francisco — in northern California or anywhere else. The fog rolling out across the Golden Gate Bridge, the colossal redwoods, ever reaching skyward, and the poppies and wild roses, coloring up the hillsides of chaparral.
If you’re thinking of moving to the Fog City, learn more about this extraordinary city below. If you’re still considering other cities in the Golden State, check out our Moving Guide to California.
8 Things You Need to Know About Living in San Francisco
1. It’s Foggy
It may be in one of the sunniest states in the union, but San Francisco’s charm is all in the clouds. That cool marine air drapes the city in its signature cloak of vapors and gives it a vibe like no other coastal town in the state.
2. It’s Expensive
By almost every estimation, San Francisco is a spendy place to live. The average home costs more than a million dollars, and rent could easily cost you $50,000 per year. But it’s worth it to live this close to Tartine Bakery, right? Fresh chocolate croissants make everything better.
3. It’s Crowded
Since 2010, the Golden City of 808,000 may have seen a net gain of just 3,000 people, but the population density has still intensified. There are now more 18,629 people per square mile in San Francisco. But, during the height of the pandemic, nearly 70,000 exited the city for good. Perhaps there’s a limit to the power of pain au chocolat, after all. More pastries for you!
4. It’s Iconic
With cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge and the famous Painted Ladies, San Francisco has an aesthetic all its own.
5. It’s Delicious
Whether you’re jonesing for barbeque pork buns, a steaming bowl of cioppino or Tijuana-style tacos, you’re in the right place. San Francisco has more than 4,000 dining establishments to tempt you with flavors from around the world.
6. It’s Fun
Packed to the brim with attractions high and low, hilly San Francisco crams more fun into 50 square miles than most cities twice its size. Zip down the twisty Seward Street slides. Marvel at the animatronic wonders of the Musée Méchanique. Or, take a ride the hand-carved animals of the LeRoy King Carousel at the Children’s Creativity Museum.
7. It’s Earthquake-Prone
In this seismically active region, it would be unusual to go more than a day without the earth move under your feet, but you likely won’t notice most of these smaller tremors. The last major quake to hit the area was in 2014, when the South Napa area was shaken by a magnitude 6.0 event, which caused significant damage. Scientists give a 72% probability that a magnitude 6.7 or higher quake will strike San Francisco within the next three decades.
8. It’s Inventive
As the birthplace of the iPhone, the Pride flag, and Levi’s, San Francisco has a well-rounded portfolio of genius ideas.
Cool and Foggy Weather
One of the best-loved attributes of this coastal city is the weather, which stays mild year-round. Temperatures range from the upper 40s to the low 70s, with an average in the 50s from November through May, and an average in the 60s F from June-October.
While the city’s cool temperatures may follow a predictable (and gentle) bell curve from winter to summer, precipitation in San Francisco follows an inverse logic — the warmest months are also the driest. San Francisco usually receives four inches of rain a month from December through February, but the precipitation plummets by an inch a month until summer arrives, when the only moisture you’re likely to see will be trapped in the sky as fog.
San Francisco’s fog is, in fact, so famous that it was given its own nickname, “Karl.” Thanks to the climatic idiosyncrasies of the San Francisco Bay, the fog is heaviest during the summer, when the cool marine air is drawn over the city. It can also be very windy in the warmer months, but that rarely stops anyone from enjoying their rooftop balconies.
One of the Most Expensive Cities to Live in
With a median home value of $1.2 million and an average rent of nearly $4,000 a month, San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the country. Although many believe San Fran tops the list, New York City (Manhattan) actually ranks #1 in cost of living, followed by Honolulu, so the Golden City only comes in third. Still, it costs nearly 70% more than the national average to call San Francisco home. The biggest culprit is the cost of real estate — San Francisco prices are three times the national average.
San Francisco’s prices veritably dwarf the cost of housing in other major cities in the state, too, most of which are still more than double the national average. Nearby San Jose offers only little relief from the housing crunch, with a median home value of $986,700 and an average rent of $3,539. In Los Angeles, the median home value is $705,900 and rent averages almost $3,000 per month. Farther south in San Diego, the median home value is an almost-affordable-sounding $664,000, and rent costs roughly $2,800 per month, on average. Homeownership rates are very low in all three cities, and at 38.2%, San Francisco’s rate comes in in the middle. With prices like these, it is not surprising how insurmountable a challenge homelessness seems to be for these West Coast hubs.
One bright spot for your bank account in the Golden City is the high median household income — at $126,187, San Franciscans have far more to spend on housing than their fellow Americans, and the poverty rate in the city — 10.3% — is surprisingly below the national average.
Note: We are not tax experts and are not offering tax advice, other than you should consider obtaining additional information and advice from your legal and/or financial advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances.
Strong Job Market
Anchored by Silicon Valley and bolstered by tech startups as far as the eye can see through the fog, San Francisco’s job market is booming. Top academic institutions like Stanford, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State and the University of San Francisco draw a diverse mix of students and researchers to support industries from design to biotech and to build businesses of their own from the ground up.
Not surprisingly, San Francisco’s biggest industry is Professional, Scientific & Technical Services, which employed more than 231,000 people as of August 2023 — more than a quarter of the city’s total population. Public Administration is a distant second, employing 137,400 people, and Health Care/Social Services and Information are tied for third place, each employing at least 126,000 individuals.
The city’s biggest employers reflect this industry breakdown, led by the City and County of San Francisco (36,822 employees), and followed by UCSF Health (29,475 employees), Salesforce (11,953 employees), United Airlines (10,000 employees) and the San Francisco Unified School District (9,047 employees). Other major companies in the Bay Area include Google (in Mountain View), Apple (in Cupertino) and Williams-Sonoma.
Robust Public Transportation System
With its iconic streetcars and cable cars, hybrid-power buses and a light rail system, the San Francisco Muni makes this city one of the easiest to traverse without a car. A monthly public transportation pass costs less than $100. The Muni also connects with the larger BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system, which has five lines that connect San Francisco to Oakland, Antioch, and San Jose. Regional travel is handled by CalTrain, which can connect you with farther-flung destinations like Palo Alto, Santa Clara and Gilroy.
For those wanting to commute by walking or biking, San Francisco has also made substantial investments to human-friendly infrastructure. You’ll find dedicated bike lines, enhanced safety measures around crosswalks and online trip planners for pedestrians and cyclists.
Fun fact: you can charter a historic streetcar for a private jaunt around the Golden City!
San Francisco Neighborhoods
From Haight Ashbury to Telegraph Hill, San Francisco packs nearly 20 distinct neighborhoods into its tiny footprint. You’ll find artsy enclaves, flashy commercial districts and lots of under-the-radar gems in the Golden City.
In the northeast corner of the city, you’ll find a diverse array of neighborhood vibes, from the hustle of the commercial hub to hotbeds of cultural activity. Along the waterfront, the city’s bustling Financial District — Embarcadero — offers staggering views of the Bay Bridge and one of the best markets in the city, located in the Ferry Building. This 1898 landmark is a five-star food hall, farmer’s market and artisan extravaganza all in one.
Head west from Embarcadero and you’ll be in the heart of Chinatown, bordered by landmarks like the Dragon Gate and the Transamerica Pyramid, a futurist architectural marvel designed by William Pereira in 1972. As the largest enclave of its kind on the continent, Chinatown has been a cultural epicenter for Asian Americans since the mid-19th century. Today, you’ll find contemporary, Michelin-star establishments and traditional tea rooms amongst the area’s notable buildings, like the Chinatown YWCA and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
Further south, Union Square is shopping central for San Franciscans. Popular, high-end department stores and posh hotels intermingle with tempting eateries and coffee shops, all of which surround the historic Curran Theatre, still going strong in its second century.
On the other side of Market Street — the south side — lies SoMa (South of Market Street), a sprawling cultural district encompassing parts of Central Market, Mission Bay, the museum-filled Yerba Buena, and South Beach, where the San Francisco Giants play at Oracle Park that overlooks the shimmering waters of the San Francisco Bay.
Made iconic by its vibrant murals, San Francisco’s Mission District is an artsy enclave on the eastern side of the city with indie boutiques and amazing eats. The Mission is also home to the city’s oldest intact building—the Missión Delores, which has survived every major quake in the city since its construction in the late 18th century. Residents enjoy picnicking on the grassy slopes of Delores Park, which has great views of the skyline.
On the tip of the northeast edge lies the tourist-heavy Fisherman’s Wharf, where the promises of sea lion sightings and fresh-from-the-bay seafood at Pier 29 reward streetcar riders with only-in-San-Francisco experiences.
San Francisco Lifestyle
In this airy city by the sea, just walking around the city can be an exciting way to spend the day. You can fulfill your Full House fantasies by strolling past the Victorian Painted Ladies — the charming Queen-Anne-style residences along Alamo Square Park. Or, see some of the city’s other architectural wonders, like Coit Tower and its WPA murals, the Flatiron-style Columbus Tower, with its copper patinaed facade, or the neo-Roman Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.
Whether you’ve just arrived or have lived in the city all your life, Golden Gate Park is hard to beat. There are so many destinations to explore at this one site, from the aquarium and planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences to the Bison Paddock, where a herd of urban buffalo still graze.
Fisherman’s Wharf is usually crowded with tourists, but that doesn’t dampen the appeal of riding the historic F-Line streetcar to the area for lunch at one of the famous seafood restaurants like Scoma’s and then taking the ferry out to Alcatraz. If you want to really get out on the water, you can rent a kayak to explore the Bay from South Beach Harbor or take a whale-watching cruise.
If hiking is more your speed, then Twin Peaks will be one of your favorite urban challenges. The short but steep journey to the top of the 922-foot mounds offers a panoramic vista of the city and shore, and you just might spy the elusive Mission Blue butterfly in the scrubby grasses of the hillsides.
New York City may have the Highline, but San Francisco has Salesforce Park. What this urban garden’s name lacks in cache its design makes up for in splendor. The four-block-long landscape incorporates trails, a playground, fountains and an amphitheater, all atop a major transit center.
Within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, visitors can explore points of interest on both sides of the Bay. What is now sadly in ruins are the remains of the magnificent Sutro Baths — a three-acre public bathhouse fed by the Pacific Ocean and built in 1894 by a local millionaire, who outfitted the seven pools with slides, diving boards and even trapezes for all residents to enjoy.
The allure of the forest is hard to resist in northern California, and the Muir Woods National Monument brings the awe of the towering Redwoods and the wildness of shore to all who visit. People aren’t the only visitors to Muir Beach, mind you. Monarch butterflies make a stop here during their annual migration, and bobcats, red-legged frogs and sea lions are just some of the permanent residents in the area. It’ll take less than an hour to reach this woodsy haven that’s worlds away from the city.
Rich Arts and Culture Experiences
The indoor scene in San Francisco is no less invigorating than a hike through the famous redwoods. World-renowned performing arts companies will dazzle you with performances. The San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet both perform at the stunning War Memorial Opera House, and the San Francisco Symphony plays at Davies Symphony Hall.
There are also more than 50 museums in the city to explore, starting with the Exploratorium, which has devised activities for every arena from the arts to data science to human perception. Art lovers have an embarrassment of riches in this creative city, from SFMOMA (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) to the de Young Museum, Cartoon Art Museum, MoAD (the Museum of the African Diaspora), Asian Art Museum and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
History buffs are no less spoiled in the golden city. At the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, you can walk the decks of historic ships, like the square-rigged Balclutha. Or, take a ride back in time at the Cable Car Museum. The Beat Museum, which celebrates the works of San Francisco’s legendary bards, had been “on the road” in an Airstream since 2003, but it’s finally found a permanent home — fittingly, just across from City Lights Books.
Incredible Food Scene
San Francisco is one of those culinary hotspots where you can hardly turn a corner without discovering a new edible temptation. The city is legendary for its dim sum in Chinatown and its seafood on Fisherman’s Wharf, but the city is also a powerhouse in Indian and Nepalese fare, like Yarsa in Telegraph Hill or Namaste, on the southern edge of the Marina District.
When you really want to indulge, there are 31 Michelin-star restaurants to choose from. State Bird Provisions is a longstanding favorite in the Fillmore District. There are many standouts on this menu that never stands still — the corn mochi with goat gouda and Fresno chile, the duck-pork meatballs with fig hoisin and the smokey vanilla ice cream sandwiches. Of course, the star of the menu is the state bird itself — the California quail — which is sourced from Wolfe Ranch in nearby Vacaville.
In a city where almost anything goes, one thing remains a crime: not knowing the best places to eat dumplings. One spot that is sure to make your best-of list is Dumpling Home, which specializes in long bao, better known as soup dumplings. An assortment of these plump little miracles is enough to make a meal, but don’t overlook the menu’s other delights — the dry shrimp, egg and chive pockets, the Brussels sprouts with truffle salt and the green onion pancakes.
When you want to keep things casual (but not too casual), head to Del Popolo pizza, where Neapolitan pies emerge charred and steaming from the wood-fired oven every 90 seconds. Bianca lovers will adore the earthy bliss of the King Trumpet Mushroom whit pizza, and those who prefer a spicier affair should go for the Salami Picante which is topped with crushed tomatoes and goathorn peppers. Get a side of the Summer Squash Arancini or the Serpent Cucumber Salad, which, with chickpeas, Castelvetrano olives and herbs, is almost a meal in itself.
Simplify Your Move to San Francisco
If you’ve decided San Francisco is your new home, your next step is finding the best professional moving company to help you relocate. As America’s #1 Mover®, United Van Lines can make your move a seamless experience. Get a moving quote for San Francisco from United Van Lines.
Are you moving cross-country to San Francisco? With our customized, full-service moving packages, United Van Lines can take care of everything for you: packing and unpacking, storage needs, debris removal, car shipping and more.
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Planning a DIY move to San Francisco? Tap into United Van Lines’ moving resources to simplify your move. We provide pro tips for packing, moving punch lists and even regional guides that can help anyone looking to streamline their move.
Unsure where you want to move in the Golden State? United Van Lines’ Guide to Moving to California has all the information and resources you need about the most popular cities in California.