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Travel Tips

Why is San Francisco So Cold?

The weather in San Francisco is a tricky topic. Virtually nobody thinks it’s cold here. After all, this is California, the land of hot rods, Baywatch and beach babes. Why would you need a jacket? After only a few days in the city, however, you’ll learn the necessity of being prepared. You can pack warm clothes, buy a hoodie in a gift shop or spend your travel hours inside. But one thing is for certain: San Francisco is a chilly town, and you need to be ready.

San Francisco is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. The fog, created when the cool, calm air of the Pacific Ocean meets the dry desert air of California, seems to linger most mornings. But around 1 p.m., a strange thing happens. The fog typically clears and the sun comes out. All of a sudden, you open the window and the weather looks perfect. Time for a T-shirt and shorts!

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, at times San Francisco has good weather. And yeah, the sun, especially in the non-summer months, likes to come out and greet us. But there’s a reason why locals never wear shorts, and why they always dress in layers.

San Francisco is a city filled with hills and microclimates. At one point you can be warm; two hours later shivering.

At one moment you’re in The Mission enjoying an outside coffee in sunshine; the next you’re near Ocean Beach and you’re so cold you want to hang yourself by your scarf.

And what do locals see almost every day of their lives? A tourist who’s freezing.

Now don’t get us wrong. San Francisco isn’t the coldest city around. In fact, in wintertime, the weather is quite mild compared to the rest of the country. But just as in normal life, you need to think of San Francisco as different. Winter is summer and summer is winter. In other words, during the summer months, S.F. is the coldest major city in the USA.

And when you have a metropolis with 17 million visitors per year, it means droves of people are unprepared for the cold.

The cold, of course, is relative.

Here are a few tips to be ready for San Francisco weather:

  • Dress in layers is the battle cry for locals, whom you almost always see with a jacket, hat or scarf. When the sun goes down, especially, the weather can change in an instant. To save yourself discomfort, dress in layers.
  • Watch the fog. Nothing changes the temperature faster than fog. And after a long afternoon of touring the city, it only takes a few minutes to be engulfed in a wet pocket of mist. The fog usually re-enters the city around dusk, but in all honestly, it’s unpredictable, so be ready for anything.
  • Have a backup plan. For instance, let’s say you finish a bike ride and need to warm up, pronto. Do you know a good restaurant nearby? Or maybe a spot to grab an Irish coffee to drink your chills away?
  • Tour during the nicer months of the year. Typically April/May in spring and Sept/Oct in fall are the months with the best weather. Summer is typically cold, and winter is usually (but not always) wet. For the best time to visit, pick fall or spring. It’s also when the most S.F. festivals happen.
  • Don’t wear shorts. Locals are going to treat you differently when you wear shorts. After all, it’s the tourist uniform.
  • The weather forecast is usually wrong. Yes, if a big storm is coming, you want to check the weather. But more often than not, the weather forecast is the same every day: party cloudy with a chance of sun.

The biggest shock for travelers besides, perhaps, the number of homeless people in San Francisco, is the chilly weather. You might be lucky and arrive in S.F. during a nice week, but you should always prepare for the cold. It’s just the norm of San Francisco.

Besides, why do you think the city has virtually no air conditioners?