Privilege Blog

What To Pack For 5 Days In San Francisco In April

I’ve posted packing plans for several destinations here on Privilege, from the Carneros Inn in Napa Valley, to London and the Cotswolds, to Europe, Manhattan, and Hawaii. But I’ve never written one for my home city, and it’s time. At the request of a reader, here’s a guide for a 5-day April trip to San Francisco.

Rules Zero To Three: Packing For San Francisco In April

The first rule of packing for San Francisco is: you can wear jeans anywhere, except, perhaps, and I cannot say for certain, to opening night at the opera.

The second rule (for spring packing) is: read the weather reports. You may arrive either to 80-degrees, although that’s unlikely, or a downpour. Most likely temps will vary between 48F and 72F. I engage in specious precision as an attempt to show you how temperate our climate truly is.

The third rule? Don’t believe anything you read. In all seriousness, the San Francisco Bay Area is a place of microclimates, and I recommend you use a forecast site like Wunderground to differentiate between, say, the Mission District and Golden Gate Park.

Rule Zero, however, and I’m not the first to say it, is layers. Layers, layers, layers. You won’t want a big coat – it’s unlikely to be seriously cold outside or annoyingly overheated inside. On the other hand, 95% of the time you’ll want to tote some sort of jacket.

In April the layer probabilities shake out like this: 4 layer weather 4%, 3 layer 35%, 2 layer 50%, 1 layer 11%. (I completely made that up, but, based on several years of experience.) An aspirational (i.e. high-budget but can be recreated for much less with savvy shopping) 5-day packing list, with flex up or down depending on the size of your suitcase, might look like this.

  1. A *good-looking raincoat* (as my mother would say) to double as a coat for evening (1)
  2. Light jacket(s), weather/wind resistant. (1-2) These really are the key to San Francisco street life.
  3. High wattage cocktail dress(es) or skirts. In case of a party. Which we do know how to throw and where we may embrace the outrageous. (1-2)
  4. Excellent shoes for said dresses and skirts. Break out the sparkletoes. (1)
  5. Pants (probably jeans). Do make sure you bring shoes that suit each hemline/shape (2-3.) Top tip: bootleg and flares look less than their best with sneakers.
    1. If you bring fewer pants, add a street dress that can “dress up.” (1). And a pair of black tights to go with. (1)
  6. Sneakers/flat boots for walking the city. Good to bring more than one pair, if you have space, to diversify the wear and tear to your feet. (2)
  7. Pointed toe flats/heeled booties for jeans nights out or business casual soirees. (1)
  8. Lightweight scarves – one to knot around your neck for day, one large enough for nights (2)
  9. Jewelry – as much or as little as you like.
  10. Hat for sun, if you will be walking.
  11. Sunglasses – Aviators look cool on the Artsy. Grande Dames stick to Jackie O’s.

I do want to point out something kind of cute about my city. We’re provincial – despite our international inhabitants. For all our revolutionary businesses, we’re not cool. San Francisco is so pretty most of the time, our view of bay and sky so available, that we manage neither New York/Brooklyn’s dark edge, nor LA’s burnt-white heat. Color us robin’s egg blue, or gray with white trim.

Our inhabitants likewise.

Artsy Cousins don’t disguise themselves enough, either with clothing or facial hair, to carry off Eff You To The Man. Who can blame them? The weather’s awfully gentle. SF’s Grandes Dames are jaunty, not daunting. They even wear sneakers, on occasion, albeit by Ferragamo. You’ll note a distinct love for navy blue, nautical fripperies, and decorum. And Sturdy Gals? Well, we’re pretty much the same all over the world. That’s how we stay Sturdy.

So Let’s Look At Artsy Cousin By Day, Grande Dame By Night For A Few San Francisco “Use Cases”

Untitled #200

Mission District (where the portapotties at Dolores Park are a scene in and of themselves)

Untitled #201

Bike Ride, Maybe Out To Fort Point To See The Golden Gate Bridge From Underneath

True Religion Halle Distressed Mid-Rise Skinny Jeans
Mary Katrantzou Flamingo Print Shirt
Saint Laurent Patti Leather Lace-Up Boots
Ray-Ban Aviators
Rag & Bone Stretch Linen Cargo Jacket (sold out – similar)
Swash Locket Cotton and Silk Scarf
Michael Kors Pavé Triangle Stud Earrings (on sale)
Philip Lim 31 Hour Zip Backpack

Untitled #199

Soirées (of course, for restaurants and casual parties, we’re in jeans, booties, a blouse and a jacket)

Joie Calvina Silk Dotted Necktie Neck Blouse (for “business casual” when your business is anything but that)
Max Mara Sargano Camel Hair Pencil Skirt
SUNO Floral Print Stretch Silk Skirt (for when you can’t bear to give up your Artsy Cousin even at night)
Eli Tahari Alejandra Silk Tie-Dyed Blouse
Jimmy Choo Mimi Mesh Almond-Toe Pumps
LD Tuttle The Bow Open-Toed Ankle Boots
Escada Beaded Wool Dress (the big idea is to let your dress and shoes provide the embellishment. That way you don’t have to travel with big jewels.)
Meira T Diamond & 14K White Gold Triangle Earrings
Manolo Blahnik Metallic Leather Pumps
Christian Louboutin Pigalle Glitter Pumps
Oscar de la Renta Embroidered Tulle Illusion Gown (this dress makes me sigh with pleasure. But I’d make them lengthen the underskirt.)
IPPOLITA Rock Candy Dark Amethyst & 18K Yellow Gold Stud Earrings
Oscar de la Renta Alyssa Beaded-Applique and Leather Pumps (it’s ok, you can sit down until you kick off your shoes and dance barefoot)

And If You’ve Forgotten Something And Need To Shop in SF?

All The Big Names

  1. UNIQLO (always my fave for t-shirts and light jackets)
  2. Saks
  3. Neiman Marcus
  4. Barneys NY ( in SF, but fine, we’ll let them keep the geolocator)

Some Indie Cred

  1. M.A.C. Does the Belgians like mad
  2. Claudia Kussano Jewelry Local Mission District artisan
  3. Self Edge for very pricy but very cool denim

See You Around!

Our legendary fog is may be disappearing – sad for the planet but good for camaraderie on city streets. We’ll be out and about when you visit, unless it’s raining. And if it’s raining, given our drought, we’ll wander even so, grinning like happy silly fools.

San Francisco In 2016


Links may generate commissions. Corrected degrees from C to F, courtesy Nancy Friedman. Thank you!

35 Responses

  1. Great packing tips. Our microclimates do nail many tourists! And yes, I’ve sadly seen clods wearing jeans to opening night at the opera. California Casual at it’s extreme worse.

  2. I respectfully beg to differ. Even though you state “you can wear jeans anywhere”, does not necessarily mean you should.

    My husband and I always make a point to dress for dinner, especially so at some of the better restaurants around town, and that never means jeans. I think it is a matter of respect for the establishment (same goes for places of worship, the opera, the ballet etc.).

    Your other points are all excellent, and layering is certainly the key to a successful visit to our city by the Bay, no matter the month!

    1. @Chronica Domus, We will respectfully differ, then. I cannot think of – although I am by no means familiar with the majority of good restaurants, only several – of a place where jeans worn carefully would be an automatic sign of disrespect for the establishment. Dishevelment would be, or cheap shirts with slogans and the like, but the city is influenced more and more by Silicon Valley where Peter Thiel, one of our thought and venture leaders, wrote famously that he dismisses startup founders who come to him in suits. Now, I believe the controversial Mr. Thiel goes too far, but I do think part of the California ethos is to suspect that everyone we see might be brilliant something or others who were just too busy or distracted to put on a tie:).

      Of course, I think that those who do eschew jeans add to our city’s diversity and sparkle. I appreciate the elegant, enormously. But as one who, to this day, will call her sister to ask, “What are we wearing,” I can confirm that the answer is often, “Jeans. It’s California:).” With no disrespect intended.

  3. We visit SF as often as possible (we have a great excuse: our son lives there)and your choices suit me well. The Oscar de la Renta dress is gorgeous!

  4. Duly noted. Hoping to make another trip to your lovely city within the next year or two. Now I’ll know how to dress (quite honestly, not so much different than in mine, although we might tweak the layer-ratios)

  5. Noted. It has been a few years since I’ve visited San Francisco but hope to get back to traveling and back there in the foreseeable future. Oh, and as an artsy cousin with grand dame by night tendencies, I’d wear everything you’ve shown. (and it is not so different from what I do wear, although once the weather warms here we need far fewer layers.

    1. @Mardel, I hope you come out soon too. And I was thinking of my time back East in summer, and that is the difference, you don’t cool down at night the way we do.

  6. Former NorCal resident here, I remember being horrified way back when we went to the SF Opera (not opening night) and seeing people in jeans. Ay yi yi! We now live near Boise and the dress code is pretty similar, but not the weather.

    1. Ay yi yi is right. Opening night at the opera is a long-standing social event. Seems that if people want to attend, they ought to honor the occasion. I mean, they can go in jeans all kinds of other times:). I feel like at the opera jeans-wearers are wrecking the fun for others. At restaurants we’re all seated so it seems fairly harmless.

    1. The light jacket totally has to be a windbreaker. I should have made that clearer!

  7. You do that packing/capsule wardrobe thing so well, Lisa. Now…can you do that for Paris…. before, say, May 3??? Coz I’m severely stressing about what to wear in Paris. Still, once I haul all my “potentials” out and start to try stuff on…I’ll probably feel better. But it’s Paris!!! How come I never worried a bit about Sydney, London, New York, Dublin?? Probably because that was before I started reading fashion blogs and saw all the cool outfits everyone else was wearing. Sigh. I guess it’s a question of too much research.

    1. @Sue B, For Paris I have to point you to Sue at Une Femme – who you know already of course:). I always think hardest about Paris and New York, when I have traveled there, because they are the twin cities of fashion and who am I to swim against those currents:). It will of course not matter, just stride about in your fishing boots and you’ll start a new trend, oh gorgeous one.

  8. I’ve been cold every time I’ve been to San Francisco, I think I’d add a cotton sweater into those outfits.

    1. @RoseAG, I have gotten used to feeling cold when I head out the door, and warming up as I walk. 10 minutes into whatever foraging I’m doing and I’m good. If, that is, I’ve remembered to wear a scarf to keep my neck warm and my ears if it’s really windy.

  9. Okay, I am a San Francisco Bay Area resident for over 50 years and am still amazed and chuckle at all the clothing I carry in my car in order to be prepared for our microclimates (funny, my husband’s degree is in Meteorology).

    Lisa, I think you got it right! However, I have the ubiquitous down vest stashed in the trunk for when the fog rolls in…Burr :)

    1. @Renee, I have a down vest from UNIQLO:). I find I need it more in August than April though! And hello to a fellow SF Bay citizen!

  10. Wish I had an Oscar de la Renta size budget because that dress is gorgeous! It reminds me of your wedding gown with its tulle layers and silhouette.

    1. @Jane, Hehe. I noted the similarity but didn’t want to make it all about me:). Thank you for taking that burden off my shoulders…

  11. We get the fog here too but I found that I needed more layers than I packed the last time we visited SF…early mornings were especially chilly and my Pacific Northwest Gore Tex Pacific Trail jacket was not quite warm enough…next time I’d pack a cashmere cardigan…love SF!
    The city is perfect for walking and we walked about 6 or 7 hours each day so comfy walking shoes are most important…
    Oh and I loved to shop in Gumps.

  12. What do you mean the fog is disappearing? That’s one of my favorite things about the City. I love Mother Nature’s free air conditioning!

    I’ll be down at the end of the month for a garden tour in Marin and a museum visit in the City. In one day. I’ll definitely be thinking about microclimates. Marin is usually 5-10 degrees warmer than SF, especially the Presidio. I’ll definitely take a windbreaker. I have a Kuhl jacket that looks okay in town. My shoe choice is problematic. Comfort is important, but so is traction. I may have to go with my Salomon hikers. They are definitely 8 hour shoes.

  13. Good tips! But that temperature range should be expressed as F, not C. (72°C = 161°F)

    Oakland resident here (for almost 30 years). The best advice I’ve ever heard about dressing for our multiple climates is: “Always carry a sweater, and always carry sunglasses.”

    Now please tell me what to wear to a business meeting in St. Louis in May!

    1. @Nancy, Yikes! With a photographer and a copywriter I could maybe be an actual blogger! Thank you. And I have never been to St. Louis. I wonder if some readers here might know.

  14. I was wondering about that…… temps between 48C and 72C would really only be temperate in Hell and you’d have bigger things to worry about than your clothing in Hell.

  15. So true. I live in SF and have a lightweight jacket that packs small. I call it my “summer down.”

    If someone visits for work, the classic tech exec SF look: carefully distressed jeans + (is that ironed?) white T-shirt + finely tailored Italian wool blazer and some polished shoes (or sneakers, of course :)

  16. Yes the microclimates. In LA it can change 20 degrees between the shade and the sun. When people visit us from the east coast they’re always surprised at how cold it can get at night. Layers are key. Love the McQueen scarf.

    1. Oh yes, I forgot! The sunny side of the street is a completely different experience than the shady side. Thanks!

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