Skip to main content

Welcome to San Francisco, APEC visitors! Here are some quirks you should know about our city

Large, metal planters sit on a sidewalk.
First-time visitors to San Francisco who arrive for APEC may not realize that sidewalk planters are what everyone is fighting about it. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

San Francisco, it’s fair to say, has a lot of quirks. First-time visitors arriving for next week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference may be left scratching their heads that Golden Gate Park is more than two miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. Or that North Beach doesn’t have a beach. Or that Mission Dolores isn’t really in the Mission District.

In a city whose namesake football team plays an hour away and where 69 Uranus St. is a real-life, actual address, The Standard has some helpful pointers for navigating around town—both geographically and culturally.

The Street Grid Is Weird

This is not Manhattan, where the predictable numbered streets and avenues run north-south, east-west and make for easy navigation even for the first-time visitor. San Francisco has a curious pivot point in the armpit of SoMa—that’s what we call the neighborhood south of Market Street—in the vicinity of the city’s only Costco, where the numbered streets go from a northwest-southeast orientation Downtown to running east-west in the Mission.

Also, Third Street somehow intersects with 16th Street near the fancy new basketball arena. Just roll with it. Adding to the confusion, there’s a whole other set of numbered avenues on the West Side—and you should eat there, if you have the chance (although a beautiful sunset is not always guaranteed in the foggy Sunset District). 

Our Big Fight Is About Planters Right Now

More often than not, San Francisco is in the middle of a citywide, existentially pitched battle over something that will likely strike outsiders as relatively inconsequential. A few years back, it was $4 toast. Later, it was honeybear murals. Right now, it’s about galvanized metal sidewalk planters from Nebraska. You can see them on Van Ness Avenue, in SoMa and around other parts of town.

The admitted reason people install them is to deter unhoused people from pitching tents. Critics refer to them as “hostile architecture.” Defenders reply that both those words are inaccurate. Critics fire back that they’re inevitably going to become de facto garbage cans, and it’s uncertain whether anyone will actually water the plants. Defenders insist that having flowers on their street is a good thing, full stop.

Please excuse us, as we’re all fighting right now. If the whole meshugas feels tedious and you’d rather skip ahead to San Francisco’s next civil war, the topic is quite likely to be No Right Turn on Red

A pedestrian crosses a city street near a "Slow Streets" sign.
San Francisco's disconnected network of Slow Streets is one element of our quirky city that may leave first-time visitors confused. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Also, We Have ‘Slow Streets.’ You Can Probably Ignore Them

During the pandemic, San Francisco transit authorities implemented a patchy network of “safe, comfortable, low-vehicle traffic” Slow Streets to give a Covid-weary city a bit of space to breathe and safely congregate outdoors. You might see their signs around town, but the thing is, Slow Streets don’t actually have lower speed limits. 

In contrast to cities like Barcelona and Paris, which reclaimed central thoroughfares and pedestrianized them to great success, San Francisco quasi-converted a disconnected set of residential streets, occasionally installing some flimsy traffic bollards that are almost as thin as a butterfly proboscis or laboratory pipette. 

Some Slow Streets are loved, while others are hated—but confusingly, you can still drive on them. Which means you can mostly ignore the signs—everyone else does!

We Don’t Really Have an Accent, But…

Does San Francisco have a distinct accent? It’s true we butcher Spanish words and place names daily—San Rafael is “san ruff-FELL,” and locals will tell you Arguello is “arr-GWELL-oh.” But beyond that, the answer is debatable.

What we do have are peculiar definitions for a few common terms that outsiders could have trouble deciphering. In Northern California vernacular English, “Yeah, no” means no and “No, yeah” means yes. “Yeah, no, yeah” means “don’t worry, it’s OK,” while “No, yeah, no” means “absolutely out of the question.” 

More importantly during this party-filled week, visitors should know that when a San Francisco resident RSVPs with a “maybe,” that means they’re not coming.

Lastly, This Is Not a Late-Night Town

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then San Francisco gets a solid eight hours then goes to SoulCycle. You may have heard of the Barbary Coast, the Summer of Love, the topless dancer who descended from the ceiling on a grand piano—all that is true San Francisco history. But these days, San Francisco is a resolutely responsible place where fewer people than ever seem to be going out.

Visitors from a cosmopolitan city where any meal before 8 p.m. is considered lunch will need to make an adjustment. Or consider The Standard’s guide to late-night eating. Because 9:30 p.m. practically qualifies as after-hours around here these days.

Astrid Kane can be reached at

Filed Under