California is such a big place with so many things to see, it can be hard to choose where to go first for your vacation. It’s logical to start with one of its largest cities either Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Since both cities have so much to see and they are not located very close to each other, it’s best to choose one when you only have a few days. At the same time, it’s not an easy choice.
It’s going to depend on your personal preferences and what you want to get out of the vacation. Let’s compare Los Angeles and San Francisco so that you can figure out which one is best for you to visit.
If you’re planning a trip, be sure to grab my printable travel planning checklist here.
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Los Angeles vs. San Francisco
Both are big cities with diverse cultures and lots to do, but there are many differences. Let’s take a methodical approach and look at different factors individually to help choose between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Note: In this post, when I talk about Los Angeles, I am talking about the whole area, not just the city of Los Angeles or even LA county. I am including Orange County as it is part of “Greater Los Angeles.”
Things to Do
Both LA and San Francisco have a long list of interesting tourist attractions, so you won’t run out of things to do. You can visit world-class art museums, enjoy California’s lovely scenery, go to the beach, and learn more about history in either place.
The top attractions in San Francisco include Alcatraz, Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, and the famous Cable Cars. There are also many interesting museums like the Walt Disney Family Museum, the de Young, and SFMOMA. That’s only scratching the surface of things to do in San Francisco!
When you are in LA, there are many museums, beaches, and theme parks to visit. You could even see a taping of a live tv show. Some of the top attractions are the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Getty Center, the Broad Museum, Griffith Observatory, and of course the Disneyland Resort. There is definitely something for everyone in Los Angeles.
For such large cities, the public transportation systems are disappointing. LA only started developing the infrastructure in 1990, so it’s relatively new and probably won’t take you everywhere you want to go. You may need to rent a car to be able to do all the things on your list in Los Angeles.
San Francisco, on the other hand, has an older system that is not very efficient. You will need a clipper card to take advantage of the best fares. I do like taking the BART from SFO to the city, but the Muni and buses are a bit confusing and slow. The famous trolley is fun to ride on, but not the fastest mode of transportation either.
Winner: San Francisco
You won’t have any issues finding family-friendly attractions in either San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Kids will love riding the cable cars in San Francisco. They can watch the sea lions at Pier 39, take a San Francisco Bay boat tour, or enjoy interactive museums like the Exploratorium or California Academy of Sciences. If you were open to a day trip, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is about 30 miles away.
It’s hard to beat Disneyland though! It’s a kid’s dream come true. There is also Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Knott’s Berry Farm. The Getty Observatory and La Brea Tar Pits are good for children, too. Also, don’t forget all of the beaches.
Both cities have iconic skylines and landmarks. Downtown LA may not be as striking as San Francisco, but it still has plenty of skyscrapers. When you visit either LA or San Francisco, you will want to take advantage of multiple viewpoints.
San Francisco has two iconic bridges – the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge – plus the beautiful skyline next to the San Francisco Bay. The best way to see it all at one time may be a boat cruise.
If you do a bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, you will get some picturesque views of the bridge on your approach. Plus, from the bridge you have a good view of Alcatraz and the skyline. Another iconic viewpoint to see the skyline is from the top of Coit Tower. Other popular places to take in the views in San Francisco include the 16th St Steps, Dolores Park, the Twin Peaks, and Corona Heights Park.
In LA, the most iconic view is the Hollywood Sign. There are many different hiking trails that will give you a close up view. If you don’t have the time to hike to the sign, take in the view from Lake Hollywood Park or a little further away at Griffith Observatory. If you go to the shopping center at Hollywood and Highland, you can also spot it in the distance from the rear balcony.
For some of the best views in the city, check out the highest skyscraper observation deck in California, OUE Skyspace. It has mesmerizing 360° views and you can see downtown LA’s skyscrapers, Dodger Stadium, and the Hollywood Hills. Further in the distance there is the Pacific Ocean and San Gabriel Mountains. If you want to make your visit a bit more exciting you can try the 42-foot long Skyslide made from crystal clear glass between the 70th and 69th floors.
LA is home to Hollywood and the epicenter of celebrity culture. While you do have a better chance of spotting a celebrity in LA than San Francisco, it is by no means guaranteed. You need to be in the right places and the right time and keep your eyes open.
Even if you don’t spot any celebrities, you can still see the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, watch a TV show taping, or do celebrity-themed tours like this one in LA . There isn’t anything similar in San Francisco (or many other cities for that matter).
Like many other big cities in the US, both Los Angeles and San Francisco have a vibrant and diverse nightlife scene. That is until 2 am when the state of California has mandated that venues stop serving alcohol.
In general, San Francisco is a more casual city. Still, you can find some fun bars, pubs, cocktail lounges, wine bars, and dance bars. Some of the best neighborhoods for nightlife are the Mission, the Marina, North Beach, and Hayes Valley. Just remember BART stop running at midnight.
LA probably has more of the high-end exclusive clubs that cater to the celebrity scene especially in Hollywood. West Hollywood has lots of gay-friendly options. For a more laid-back atmosphere, try Hermosa Beach or Redondo Beach.
If you plan on checking out the top clubs, it’s best to get on the guest list. Be sure to dress to impress if you want to get past the velvet rope. While these clubs close at 2 am, afterparties at residential locations are common.
When you think of California, you think of sunshine and warmth. For the most part that is true, but San Francisco can definitely be an exception to this rule. I always forget how cold it can get (especially in the evenings) even in the summer. Los Angeles has more consistent warm weather.
While there are some beaches in (and around) San Francisco, the best beaches in California are in the south. The weather is also more favorable for relaxing at the beach in LA. Although the water will be chilly no matter what part of the state you choose.
There are many beaches in the LA area. You could spend your whole trip checking them out. Some of my favorite beaches in LA are Santa Monica, Redondo, and Venice. I had fun biking by the beach in the South Bay. Don’t forget the sunscreen.
In addition to all the things to do in these two amazing cities, you also have plenty of day trip options. Keep in mind, for some of these options, you will need a car.
Some of the most popular day trips from LA are:
- Joshua Tree – This national park has quite the unique landscape. It’s perfect for hiking.
- Catalina Island – Take a short ferry ride from Long Beach to Catalina Island. It’s a pretty place, famous for its scuba and snorkeling.
From San Francisco, these are some of the best day trips:
- Napa – The most famous wine area in the USA is just a short distance away. While most people visit for the wine, there are also plenty of things to do in Napa besides wine tasting.
- Angel Island – Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Angel Island is the perfect place to escape for a day. Some of the things to do on Angel Island include visiting the Immigration Museum, hiking, and picnicking.
- Monterrey – This is such a cute town to visit. It is best known for it’s Aquarium and whale-watching.
Winner: San Francisco
Both cities have their fair share of excellent restaurants. While California cuisine is known for having healthy options and using fresh ingredients, you will also find many other authentic international options especially in the ethnic neighborhoods. For example, you will want to try the Mexican food in the Mission in San Francisco and the Korean food in Koreatown in Los Angeles. I think there are also more vegan restaurant options than in many other areas.
While San Francisco may have a slight edge in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants. You will find delicious options at all price ranges in both places. The clam chowder served in a bread bowl from one of the vendors in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is one of my favorite things to eat.
In general, California is one of the more expensive states in the USA, so neither San Francisco nor Los Angeles are cheap cities to visit. How much you spend on your trip will depend on what you decide to do and where you decide to stay.
If you decide to go to Disneyland while you are in LA, that could easily blow your budget, but there are also plenty of cheap or free things to do too (i.e. go to the beach). In LA, you are also more likely to need to rent a car.
In San Francisco, you don’t have any attractions that are as expensive as Disneyland, but hotels especially near the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area can be pricey.
If you do plan on doing a lot of sightseeing, a tourist card can be a good way to save money. Both cities have several options. For San Francisco, there is the Go San Francisco Card, San Francisco Sightseeing Pass, San Francisco CityPass, San Francisco Flex Pass, and San Francisco Explorer Pass. For LA, there is the Go Los Angeles Card, Hollywood CityPass, and Los Angeles Explorer Pass.
Both San Francisco and LA are large cities, so while they are not crime-free they are safe to visit. You need to watch out for pickpockets in areas that are popular with tourists. It’s best to blend in and not walk around with flashy watches, expensive jewelry, designer handbags, etc.
(Quick Tip: A money belt like this one is a great way to keep your id, credit cards, and cash safe.)
When you compare the crime rates, LA looks better than San Francisco. Of course, both cities have areas that are best avoided. In Los Angeles, it’s best if you can stay away from West Adams and the Wholesale District/Skid Row. In San Francisco, try to steer clear of the Tenderloin area.
Homelessness rates in California are increasing and are some of the highest in the country. It is especially noticeable in San Francisco.
In addition to crime, when you travel to California, there is also the risk of natural disasters. Wildfires are becoming more common. You could also experience an earthquake, although most are minor.
Anytime you travel it is important to have travel insurance to minimize your exposure if something bad were to happen.
Overall Winner: Los Angeles or San Francisco?
If you were keeping score for the different categories, LA looks like the clear winner, but I wouldn’t say that would be the case for all travelers. It is going to depend on the type of things that you want to see.
Personally, I prefer San Francisco. I like that it is a more compact city and that it is easier to get around by walking and using public transportation. We always enjoy exploring more of the Bay Area, checking out the museums, and trying new (to us) restaurants and bars. I have been many times and I never get bored. (I don’t get bored in LA either, for that matter!)
Whatever city you end up choosing, I am sure you will have a wonderful time, so don’t worry. Hopefully at some point you will be able to visit the other city too.
Have you been to San Francisco and Los Angeles? Which one is your favorite?
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