Published on: Oct 01, 2017, Last Edited: Feb 18, 2018
Ask anyone about visiting San Francisco, and the chances are they will mention the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz. Yet this city of 870,000 people set in 50 square miles around San Francisco Bay is so much more than that. This guide is an overview of tourism activities as well as provides information on if you will need a visa for San Francisco.
ESTA or a U.S. visa for San Francisco?
While for citizens of most countries, a valid visa is required to enter San Francisco, citizens of 'participating countries' are eligible to enter for a period not exceeding 90 days for the purposes of tourism or certain unpaid business activities without a visa under the 'Visa Waiver Program' (VWP). However, to enhance security, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also requires that any person wishing to enter the United States under the VWP must first have their eligibility confirmed by an online process known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). A full list of participating countries participating is published online by the DHS.
The difference between ESTA and a visa
ESTA is not a visa. It's a secure service that enables VWP applicants to complete and submit the required form online along with a processing fee. The system then checks if the applicant is indeed eligible, and if so, the ESTA (valid for two years or until the passport expires if sooner) will be granted. ESTA only confirms the holder's eligibility to enter the country under the Visa Waiver Program to engage in touristic activities or unpaid business activities such as attending a conference. All other activities including work, study, marriage or permanent residence require the appropriate visa issued by a United States embassy or consulate. Even for the purposes of tourism, the difference between ESTA and visa is significant. For example, a visitor visa can be extended beyond its stated duration, while that's not possible under the Visa Waiver Program. For visitors with a visa, it's not necessary to apply for an ESTA, and it's strongly recommend that any traveller who is eligible to enter the country under the VWP but isn't sure if what they intend to do there is allowed under that scheme should instead apply for the appropriate visa for San Francisco.
Much of San Francisco’s colourful history of hippies, flower power, free love, psychedelic rock music and its drug scene is documented around the city. While today, San Francisco is all about high tech digital start-ups, Silicon Valley, China Town, international cuisine, historic architecture, cable cars, and modern attractions.
Getting to San Francisco:
Being on America’s west coast, flying direct from the UK into San Francisco International Airport will take just over 11 hours. Many people choose to split a two-week holiday, adding stopovers of a couple of days at two or three different destinations on their way through.
The city is just 13 miles from the airport, and easily reached by hotel shuttle bus, taxi, or the city’s rapid rail system which runs from the international terminal.
Getting out in San Francisco:
Wherever you choose to stay in the city, getting around is simple and quick. For speed; taxi or rapid rail, and city buses are frequent and cheap. But when you’re visiting hilly San Francisco, riding the cable cars has to be a favourite mode of transport.
Where to visit in San Francisco:
As one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the Golden Gate Bridge has to be visited. While you can ride across in a cab, walking or cycling the 1.7 miles across the bridge will accent the enormity of this feat of civil engineering.
Take a guided tour of Alcatraz. For a little one-upmanship, they also arrange night tours of this eerie island and its ghosts of times past.
Unbelievably, this next one is the most visited of all the city’s attractions and it’s easy to see why. PIER 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf on Beach Street, offers two levels of stunning waterfront views, sea lions sunbathing on man-made islands, restaurants, cafe-bars, entertainment, shopping and the Aquarium of the Bay. Set aside an afternoon.
Other areas of interest include the 1,000 acre Crissy Field. Close to the bridge, this park has a beach, restaurants, and fishing piers, very popular with the locals for chilling, dog walking and jogging.
Visit China Town for its history, bustling atmosphere, architecture, and Chinese restaurants.
For those with an interest in graffiti art, take in the Mission Street Tour. Two blocks of brightly coloured walls and buildings, dedicated to the art of graffiti.
The California Academy of Sciences has something for all ages. With its natural history museum, aquarium, planetarium, and penguin colony the place is buzzing with interest.
There are so many other places to visit, but somewhere along the line we have to eat.
Lunch and dinner in San Francisco:
While the hotels might provide everything you need food wise, it’s always nice to get out and about and eat like a local. Enjoy a lunchtime snack on your travels. Ike’s Place in The Castro, makes sandwiches like you’ve never seen before. Sam’s Anchor Cafe in Tiburon, offers brunches and burgers, as well as great seafood. Mama’s in Washington Square, can provide you French toast in five different ways, omelettes, benedict’s and spicy Italian sausage. While the Ferry Building has restaurants and food stalls to satisfy the fussiest of palates.
In the evening, you can visit such places as Coqueta to enjoy traditional Spanish cuisine with a view across the bay.
Nob Hill Cafe specialises in traditional Italian fare, and starts to get busy around five in the afternoon.
The Gracias Madre offers vegetarian and vegan meals prepared in a Mexican style.
While the (very similar) theme parks of Florida still prove to be the magnet for so many tourists, visiting San Francisco has a uniqueness all its own. Its history, old and modern, its position on the Bay, its architecture, its culture, and its food, make it a favourite destination for those who want to explore a real American city.
If you hold a passport from a visa waiver country such as the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or other Western European Country, you may be eligible to obtain an ESTA for tourist, business, medical or transit purposes. Get started on your application, otherwise, visit the FAQ to learn more about the ESTA