How to do San Francisco if you’re over 40

Exploring the popular sights of #San Francisco can still be exciting but more challenging for #travelersover40, given the city’s topography and diverse #popculture. Here are some tips to make it easier to get around the city and find the right mix of fun and #adventure for your particular interests and fitness level.

I first visited San Francisco when I was in my early 20’s, and it has since been one of my favorite cities.  I love the architecture, the parks, the diverse cultures and ultra-liberal vibe of the city.  I love to wander up and down its steep streets and take in its sweeping views of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.  I love to explore the outdoor venues, sample ethnic foods, and fantasize about living in Haight-Ashbury in the ‘60s. I saw homeless people for the first time here, and witnessed same-sex couples openly embracing, flaunting their lifestyles.  For me, visiting San Francisco was always a journey to discovering new ideas, and I was ready and willing to go with its flow.

After a twenty-year hiatus, I returned to San Francisco for the first time in 2012.  I was thrilled that my son had landed a job with a start-up in the Silicon Valley, and saw this as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the city-by-the-bay. My daughter followed, moving here for art school, thus I have routinely returned about every six months.  Now, as a seasoned (older) traveler, my relationship with the city has changed.

Young people are everywhere, and I know why.  Even more liberal attitudes and open policies prevail here today. There are more bars and eateries per capita than anywhere in the country, and medical marijuana is legal, with wafts of weed following wherever you go. There are major league sports teams, shows, water activities, live music performances, and a booming art scene.  For those who love the outdoors, San Francisco and its East Bay suburbs abound with beautiful hikes, plus skiing, Big Sur and Yosemite National Park are within a few hours drive. Napa Valley and Sonoma County, known for their vineyards and tasting rooms, are strategically located just over an hour’s drive from the city.  In short, there is a plethora of fun in and around San Francisco for the millennial population to thrive on.

Youthful antics associated with psychedelic drugs and reminiscent of the ‘60s and ‘70s have now evolved, with public intoxication and nudity a common theme at events like SF Pride, Bay to Breakers footrace, and SantaCon, all widely attended costume parties and pub-crawls that have become seasonal rituals. Revelers from near and far participate in these shenanigans, but I no longer feel comfortable going with the flow. I do not wish to expose my derrière and frolic inebriated in Union Square. Nor do I want to drink myself into oblivion and sleep half-naked in Dolores Park.  I am, after all, a grown adult, with a deeper appreciation for more sophisticated things in life. Although young at heart, I am over 40.

Seeing the Sights

Depending on your interests, and your stamina, walking tours can be a great way to kick-start or supplement your holiday. Free walking tours have been a staple of the San Francisco community since 1978, thanks to San Francisco City Guides, an organization of local volunteers. The group offers a variety of tours of different neighborhoods and points of interest which are open to the public and do not require reservations. A few tours, like the one I took of the Diego Rivera Mural at the Stock Exchange Tower, require advance booking. Others, such as the tour I joined from the Ferry building, up the Filbert Steps to the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, down to North Beach and ending at Fisherman’s Wharf, only necessitate meeting up at the right place and time and keeping up with the group (my tour had 80+ sightseers, some who were locals). The quality of the tours, unfortunately, varies depending upon who is leading them, as well as how many participants show up. Try to stay away from holidays to avoid the throngs and maximize your experience.

On a clear day, a Segway tour of Golden Gate Park is a great introduction to this 1,000 + acre urban retreat. A bit intimidating at first, I found the Segway a fun, safe and easy way to navigate the main pedestrian sites of the park, including the Shakespeare Garden, the Rose Garden, the National Aids Memorial and the Redwood grove. You’ll also get your bearings for further exploration of the park’s important museums and landmarks like the California Academy of Sciences, DeYoung Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. While you can’t see everything in one day, you may want to return on one of the free museum admission days held each month.

Street fairs and festivals are another fun, inexpensive way to experience a district.  From April to October, parties are scheduled almost weekly, including Carnaval San Francisco in the Mission; Fillmore Jazz Festival; Union Street Festival; North Beach Festival, San Francisco’s Centennial Celebration and the kinky Folsom Street Fair.

Doing the Unconventional

Since I had more time to spend on my most recent visit, I explored options beyond routine sightseeing. I found a phenomenal class on knife skills at Jordan’s Kitchen, a culinary school offering a variety of classes for novice and aspiring chefs. Classes are small, no more than 14 participants, and chef Jordan Schachter did a great job keeping us engaged and well-fed, interspersing hands-on demonstrations and a full-course meal service throughout our four-hour session.

Another favorite pastime of mine while traveling is a visit to the local markets.  Chefs like Schachter tout local farm-to-table products, which can be found at Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market on the Embarcadero every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Even if you’re not preparing a gourmet meal while playing tourist, an excursion to the market is a sensory experience no foodie should miss. In addition to regular cooking demonstrations, seasonal cooking and mixology class are offered via in partnership with CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) the market’s parent organization.

I was delighted to stumble upon the Treasure Island Flea, which takes place the last weekend of every month, although I wished I had arrived at the market earlier. By 4 p.m., when the market closes, I was scrambling to finalize my choices amongst the treasures of vintage clothing, antiques, Persian rugs and household bric-a-brac, along with more contemporary arts and crafts. If you go, plan to arrive early (the market opens at 10 a.m.) and check sites like or for free admission offers (only $3 per person).

For a great date-night venue, try the Sundance Kabuki Theater, where dedicated over 21 shows are offered, and adult beverages and food may be consumed in the auditoriums. I also noticed many couples dining and drinking prior to film time in the playhouse’s Balcony and Bistro Bars. While some popular blockbusters were being shown, I was happy to sit through a screening of an indie film more in line with the Sundance genre.  Seats are pre-assigned, and are very comfy, while the sound system is excellent, making this an overall great experience.

Broadway shows can also be affordable in San Francisco.  The Orpheum Theatre on Market and Hyde Streets offers a “lottery” for deeply discounted tickets two hours before show time.  Instead of paying $110+ per ticket, I entered a lottery for front- row or orchestra level seats for only $29 each. Only one entry per person, and only two tickets per winner are allowed, but I witnessed dozens of seats being sold at this unbelievable rate.  While I did not win a lottery slot, I was able to score two discounted orchestra seats to see “Book of Mormon” for only $50 a piece (regularly $110 each) by waiting until the end of the lottery.  For the best shot at winning lottery seats, come with a friend to double your chances.  Weekdays (Tuesdays & Wednesdays) are better bets than more popular weekend performances if you wish to take a chance.

America’s favorite pastime is a big draw for all ages here in San Francisco. With the Giants having won three World Series championships in five years, baseball is a beloved sport here, and games are usually sold out in advance, depending on the opposing team. To get good seats at a reasonable price, try to plan ahead as much as possible.  Tickets are sold like airline seats—the greater the demand, the higher the price.  Waiting until a day or two before game day could impact your wallet.  Once inside the AT&T Park, expect to shell out some cash at stadium concessions for signature crab sandwiches, garlic fries and Sheboygan Bratwurst, favorites among fans.  After the game, watch as flocks of seagulls menacingly descend to gobble all the scraps and leftovers fans leave behind.  It is quite a sight, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “The Birds”.

Where to Stay

Speaking of Hitchcock, the movie “Vertigo” was filmed in San Francisco, and is often shown on the Embarcadero for free.  Hotel Vertigo, which was featured in the film, has been redesigned as a stylish boutique hotel, and is an excellent choice for stays near trendy Nob Hill, within walking distance to Union Square, and easy access to San Francisco’s Civic Center, Asian Art Museum, War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall.

Getting Around

Having a car can be a liability if you’re exploring San Francisco.  Parking is limited and expensive, if not challenging to find. Instead, download applications from Uber or Lyft and take advantage of hassle-free private cars and shared ride services to save money. Alternately, public transportation is cheap and extensive. Purchase a Clipper Card with pre-loaded funds for use on all Muni buses and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) versus rifling through your wallet for exact change.

What to Wear

Dress here is very casual, and I never feel under-dressed wearing yoga pants and sneakers. With few exceptions, people don’t generally dress up. High heels are not practical with so many hills to climb, and good walking shoes allow for maximum distance coverage. The weather here is cooler than most people imagine California to be, particularly in summer. Layering for warmth is requisite, especially when setting out early for a full day of exploration.

Final Tips

  • Know your level of fitness, and plan accordingly.  The proximity of sights can be deceiving, and walking can be more challenging than expected, given San Francisco’s topography.  Beware if you have knee injuries: a week traversing the city’s hills and steps could prove detrimental.

Determine your budget, and look for accommodations and activities to match.  As the heart of Silicon Valley, the young tech community has turned San Francisco into one of the most expensive markets for housing.

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