If you’re dreaming of convertibles, Frisbee on the beach, and tank-topped evenings, change your reservations and head to Los Angeles. Contrary to California’s sunshine-and-bikini image, San Francisco’s weather is “mild” (to put it nicely) and can often be downright bone-chilling because of the wet, foggy air and cool winds. Summer, the most popular time to visit, is often the coldest time of year, with damp, foggy days; cold, windy nights; and crowded tourist destinations. A good bet is to visit in spring or, better yet, autumn. Just about every September, right about the time San Franciscans mourn being cheated (or fogged) out of another summer, something wonderful happens: The thermometer rises, the skies clear, and the locals call in sick to work and head for the beach. It’s what residents call “Indian summer.” The city is also delightful during winter: the opera and ballet seasons are in full swing, hotel prices dip because there are fewer tourists, and downtown bustles with holiday cheer.
San Francisco’s temperate, marine climate usually means relatively mild weather year-round. In summer, chilling fog rolls in most mornings and evenings, and if temperatures top 70F (21C), the city is ready to throw a celebration. Even when autumn’s heat occasionally stretches into the 80s (upper 20s Celsius) and 90s (lower 30s Celsius), you should still dress in layers, or by early evening you’ll learn firsthand why sweatshirt sales are a great business at Fisherman’s Wharf. In winter, the mercury seldom falls below freezing and snow is almost unheard of, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be whimpering if you forget your coat. Still, compared to most of the state’s weather conditions, San Francisco’s are consistently pleasant, and even if it’s damp and chilly, head north, east, or south 15 minutes and you can usually find sun again.
If you’re heading up to the wine country, you’ll find that summertime is ludicrously busy, with endless traffic on the counties’ two-lane roads. Still, the scenery is gorgeous then, with grapes hanging heavy on the vine, and it’s also the season for garden tours. Grapes are harvested and squeezed in the fall and, alas, this time can also be maddening, because people flock here to witness the action involved in harvest and the resulting winemaking. I’m a fan of visiting in winter: Tourists tend to stay away then, so you’ll get much more attention and education from the vintners, hotel prices (notoriously expensive) are way down, and it’s easier to get restaurant reservations. Plus it’s extremely romantic then, with the nip of winter, the dormant grapevines, and twinkle lights illuminating various nooks and crannies. Spring is a close second, when the area bursts with the green and yellow of mustard flowers. It’s never terribly cold—wine country everywhere, by definition, has mostly enviable weather, because that’s what makes it good for grape growing.
In a Fog
San Francisco’s infamous coastal fog is caused by a rare combination of water, wind, and topography. The fog lies in wait off the coast; rising air currents pull it in when the land heats up. Held back by coastal mountains along a 600-mile front, the low clouds seek out any passage they can find. And where’s the easiest access? It’s the slot where the Pacific Ocean penetrates the continental wall—also known as the Golden Gate.
Even if it’s sunny out, don’t forget to bring a jacket and dress in layers; the weather can change almost instantly from sunny and warm to windy and cold—especially as you move between microclimates. Also bring comfortable walking shoes or your feet will pay the price.
Banks, government offices, post offices, and many stores, restaurants, and museums are closed on the following legal national holidays: January 1 (New Year’s Day), the third Monday in January (Martin Luther King, Jr., Day), the third Monday in February (Presidents’ Day), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), July 4 (Independence Day), the first Monday in September (Labor Day), the second Monday in October (Columbus Day), November 11 (Veterans Day/Armistice Day), the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day), and December 25 (Christmas). The Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Election Day, a federal government holiday in presidential-election years (held every 4 years).