If you’re planning a trip to Northern California, you’ll see San Francisco. It’s right up there with Los Angelos and New York City in iconic American landmarks.
However, San Francisco can have some unusual weather patterns that most of the US doesn’t. The weather tends to change fast, from the infamous “Karl the Fog” to cold summer evenings.
This is why a little planning can go a long way when you’re looking for the most ideal time to visit San Francisco.
San Francisco can be fun to visit any time of the year. It all depends on what you’re looking to get out of your trip, whether that’s sightseeing, hiking, street festivals, holiday celebrations, or something else.
Why You Should Visit San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the most iconic American cities of all time. The Golden Gate Bridge is a landmark well-engraved in the American consciousness, and anyone visiting the city for the first time should check it out.
However, there’s so much more to the city than this landmark. Famous festivals like Burning Man and the International Film Festival, a thriving Asian subculture, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, and a buzzing foodie scene attract visitors from far and wide.
And there’s plenty more to explore, from shopping at Pier 39 and Macy’s, touring classic Victorian homes and Alcatraz, and even hiking the many urban trails and hills in San Francisco. There’s always something happening, no matter when you choose to visit.
Overall Best Time to Visit San Francisco
Now, you might think the best time to visit San Francisco weather-wise is summer, right? After all, summer is the time when it’s warm and sunny.
San Francisco’s seasons are a little wonky compared to the rest of the continental US. Summer tends to be damp and cold, thanks to Karl. And by Karl, I’m referring to the fog that rolls in so often the locals have given it a name.
So, if summers tend to be damp and cold, what’s the best time to visit San Francisco? Easy, you should visit during the Indian Summer.
For those who don’t understand this rare and obscure term, Indian Summer refers to bouts of warm fall weather right after summer has passed. San Francisco typically has warmer weather and clearer skies from September to October.
These two months are when you’re likely to get the best weather, and as a bonus, tourism drops off because it’s shoulder season, so there are fewer crowds and better prices.
While you still won’t be swimming on the beach (It’s still pretty cold compared to Southern California), you can walk the streets of San Francisco without worrying about a sudden downpour or chill from the fog.
However, that’s the best time to visit if you only look at the weather. San Francisco has tons of festivals and events happening year-long, so look at the schedule to see if something catches your eye.
For example, the International Film Festival is a huge event that draws thousands from across the globe every year and is a perfect time to visit movie buffs.
You can watch the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring, the beauty of the city lights in the rain, watch Karl roll in from the Fisherman’s Wharf, or celebrate the holidays with Christmas lights. This city always has something happening, so pick a time that suits you the best.
Cheapest Time to Visit San Francisco
While you’ll want to avoid visiting during the holidays to save money, winter is undoubtedly the cheapest time to visit since it’s the city’s rainy season. January and February, in particular, tend to be wet, cold, and affordable.
However, that doesn’t mean visiting during this time can’t be fun. San Francisco’s best festivals are held during these months, like the Bay Area Brew Festival, Chinese New Year, and IndieFest (San Francisco Independent Film Festival).
However, if you want to save money, try to avoid visiting during these events, as they cause the price of flights and hotels to go up. Early November is also an excellent time to visit.
It’s the beginning of the rainy season, and the balmy fall weather is over, so those in the know stop visiting. Hotels lower their prices for the first few weeks of November before Thanksgiving picks things up again.
However, there are still things to enjoy this time of year.
Dia de Los Muertos is a big holiday in San Francisco if you want to visit at the very beginning of the month, or go to the Another Hole in the Head Genre Film Festival, which focuses on sci-fi, horror, dark fantasy, and exploitation films.
If you visit the weekend before Thanksgiving, you can enjoy the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, which has an Old English Christmas theme, perfect for kids. In a way, this just shows there are things to do and attractions to see no matter when you choose to visit San Francisco.
While winter is the cheapest time, there’s always something to do, from holidays to parades and festivals. So, if you want to save money, pack your umbrella and dress in layers for the unpredictable temperatures between November and March.
Least Busy Time to Visit San Francisco
The tourism season in San Francisco is the same as anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, with summer being the most popular and winter being the least popular.
So, by that logic, the best time to visit San Francisco would be over the winter, probably January or February, when no events are happening. However, since winter was discussed in the section above, I’ll talk about the second least busy time of year-spring.
Spring is a beautiful time to visit San Francisco, but if you’re looking for the least amount of people, you should stay in March. March is when the rainy season is beginning to wind down, so there are more sunny days but fewer tourists.
While the weather can be unpredictable (however, when isn’t the weather unpredictable in San Francisco?), with some luck, you can tour the streets with sunny skies.
You should still pack some extra sweaters and an umbrella, but don’t forget your camera as March is when flowers start to bloom.
There are also a ton of festivals for you to enjoy, like the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon, St. Patrick’s Day, and CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival).
April is also a great time to visit, but this is when tourism starts to pick up, so expect more crowds. However, the Cherry Blossom Festival and Japanese Tea Garden are incredible in the spring and well worth the extra people.
You can also enjoy some of the best festivals around this time, like the International Film Festival, the Union Street Easter Parade, and the San Francisco Salsa Festival (the dance, not the food).
So, while spring may have more people, there’s still tons to experience and enjoy during these months.
However, tourism shoots off in May, so keep to March and April if you can. If avoiding crowds is crucial for you, you’ll want to find a couple of weekdays where no events are happening.
Worst Time to Visit San Francisco
There’s never really a wrong time to visit San Francisco — just advantages and disadvantages to every month. However, if there is one season where the disadvantages certainly outweigh the benefits, it would be summer.
June through August is crowded, expensive, cold, and unpredictable. Parts of the city experience their micro-climates as it could be sunny and fair in the Mission district and cold and foggy in the next neighborhood.
However, summer can be an excellent time to visit since this is when most street festivals and parades happen. The Fourth of July is usually fabulous (it’s a unique experience to see fireworks through fog), and it’s not rainy or wet so you can leave your umbrella at home.
But you may not have a choice but to visit during the summer due to time off or vacation time for children.
The fall season from September to October has its downsides. If you’re planning any outdoor activities outside the city, like a road trip down Highway 1 or a National Park, you may want to schedule a different time.
At the same time, the weather may also be bad when Northern California experiences the most wildfires. And if you’re in the city for this season, don’t be surprised by an apocalyptic orange sky.
Wildfires are a significant problem and have only been getting worse due to climate change in this area. Winter is the rainy season. It is toned down due to the fewer tourists during this time.
In addition, there tend to be more periodic large celebrations and festivals outside of holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. At the same time, there are more local events and festivals over the winter — plan for cold, wet weather as a trade-off for the great prices this season.
Spring is a mixture of winter and summer problems. The weather is unpredictable. Karl can ruin photos and tours. It still rains quite a bit.
However, it also comes with the benefits of both seasons, with better prices and less rain. Several important festivals during this time, like the Cherry Blossom Festival and the International Film Festival, kick off the celebrations again.
Spring is also the best time for exploring the natural beauty surrounding San Francisco with hiking, outdoor activities, or driving Highway 1.
The extra rain means no wildfires, so there is no danger of delays or obstructions when exploring the area around the city. Just plan for wetter weather, and you can have a fantastic time in the Northern California coastal regions.
As you can see, there are ups and downs to each season in San Francisco, winter has excellent prices but terrible weather, spring is a little of both winter and summer, summer is crowded, and the weather is unpredictable.
Fall has good weather, but wildfires accompany it.
It all depends on what you want from your trip to San Francisco, if you wish to attend a particular festival, if you’re going to explore the parks and forests of Northern California, or if you want the fewest people possible on your tour of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.
Things to Consider
No matter when you visit San Francisco, there are some things you should keep in mind, like dressing like the locals, getting off the beaten path, or where the best festivals take place:
- If you want sunny beaches and warm weather, head to Los Angelos and Southern California. San Francisco tends to be cold and wet, not good beach weather.
- Dress in layers for the changing weather.
- Bike the Golden Gate Bridge, don’t walk. It’s longer than expected, so bike it to say you went over it. There are tons of bike rentals in the area for this exact reason.
- You need your umbrella in the winter and spring. You don’t need your umbrella in the summer and fall.
- Don’t visit during the Salesforce Dreamforce conference, which is in September. There are tons of people, and the city deals with enormous crowds with equally sized prices.
Frequently Asked Questions
San Francisco is a beautiful city to tour and enjoy, with endless celebrations and festivals:
What is the rainy season in San Francisco?
November through April is the rainy season, but the rain is lighter in November and March, making them good months to visit.
How many days do you need in San Francisco?
You need at least three if you just want to tour the city, and five days if you want to go to a festival or special event. Make sure you take the time to rest and recuperate, so you don’t wear yourself out.
What is the warmest month in San Francisco?
San Francisco tends to have balmy weather year-round thanks to its location, but the warmest month is September, which has highs in the upper sixties and lower seventies.
What is the sunniest month in San Francisco?
The lowest precipitation is in July when there’s quite literally no rainfall. However, in terms of sunny weather, October has the most cloudless days.
What should you not miss in San Francisco?
The Golden Gate Bridge is the most important landmark, with Alcatraz and streetcars being close seconds. You should also take a cable car for great views over the city. Also, many people miss the fantastic foodie scene, so visit the famous food trucks of San Francisco to sample some truly unique cuisine.
So, When’s the Best Time to Visit San Francisco?
The best time to visit San Francisco is during the spring. If you want to enjoy the outdoors, visit during the spring.
If you want no crowds and low prices, visit during the winter. But most importantly, visit when a festival or event is taking place that interests you.