San Francisco vs. Boston: Musing on the Differences

After living in San Francisco for just about a year, I feel that I have gained enough experience with this city to compare it to my hometown, Boston. This blog is very photography-centric, but this post will be a departure from the norm, only touching on photography where appropriate. The idea here is to document my feelings on these wonderful cities, and to create a useful comparison for individuals deciding whether to visit or move to either place. Of course, this is not meant to be an all-encompassing comparison; I intend to point out only the differences that were most apparent and striking to me. It's also worth mentioning that my views on these two cities are continually evolving. I have an inherent bias towards Boston, since I grew up in the area, and a slight skepticism of the more relaxed West Coast culture, probably because I can be a bit uptight. However, these opinions have been slowly changing since I've moved to the Bay Area.


Boston was founded in 1630, making it one of the oldest urban areas in North America. The oldest building downtown is from around 1680, and neighborhoods all over the city are filled with famous old architecture. But it's not just the famous buildings like Trinity Church, Faneuil Hall, or the old Boston Public Library that give the city its notable character. Numerous neighborhoods are completely filled with charming old brownstones. Beacon Hill and the North End both have buildings that date back to the 1600s, and their little streets are slightly reminiscent of old European neighborhoods. Back Bay and the South End are filled with solidly-built brick buildings, each one unique and different from the next. The mature architecture and the old, sometimes confusing street layout make Boston a fantastic city to wander around in.

Beacon Hill, Boston

The city of San Francisco dates back to the late 1700s, but sadly most of the old buildings were destroyed by the massive 1906 earthquake, and the fires that resulted because of it. This means that the vast majority of the city's architecture is newer than 1906, and much of it is unremarkable wooden construction from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. This adolescent architecture makes San Francisco a less-pretty city to walk around in compared with Boston. The most notable construction here is found in its infrastructure: the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges are both grand feats of engineering. These colossal veins feed the city with commuters and tourists every day, and somehow manage to look elegant and graceful while doing it. When viewed from afar this massive infrastructure and the city's hilly topography combine to create an enchanting view. This, I believe, is what San Francisco is most famous for. Boston is nowhere near as pretty when viewed in its entirety.

Golden Gate Fog, San Francisco


Both San Francisco and Boston are in the top 10 most educated cities in the US, so they have very educated residents. One might think that this would give the cities a similar character, but that is certainly not the case. San Francisco has a cutting-edge, techy feel to it. Most people that I meet under age 40 are somehow involved with a start-up or tech company. Almost everyone has an iPhone, and people use services like Uber and Lyft to get around. Seemingly everything is venture-funded. Stable, established companies are seen as non-innovative dinosaurs, and are old news.

Around Boston, the 128 tech corridor is full of older, more conservative tech companies and defense contractors. Boston and the surrounding suburbs have quite a lot of older residents with "old money", leading to a surprising number of financial and private wealth management companies in the area. The city's younger population is more transient. Students come to be educated at the nation's top universities (Harvard, MIT, BU, or Northeastern) during the school year, and then all the undergraduates disappear for the summer. Graduate students and researchers that stay year-round give the city its very academic feel. I prefer this old-world atmosphere, at peace with its up-and-coming academic populace, over the less-interesting, monothematic startup frenzy that overwhelms the Bay Area.


Tourists and recent transplants like myself are often surprised by San Francisco's particularly mild weather. It certainly isn't as warm and sunny as one might expect from a California city. Temperatures rarely exceed 75° F (24° C) year round. Summers are particularly interesting in that they tend to be even cooler than spring or fall (65° F / 18° C). Real summer weather doesn't really hit San Francisco until September and October, when it becomes more likely to see temperatures that exceed 80° F (27° C). Winters tend to be fairly mild as well, with temperatures rarely dipping below 45° F (7° C). December, January, and February tend to be quite rainy.

Take a look at this temperature map of the US on July 16th, 2013:

San Francisco's high temperature of the day is 62° F (17° C), the coolest temperature on the map, while the rest of the nation sits in the high 80s and low 90s (~32° C). I've seen more extreme examples of this, with even hotter temperatures across the rest of the US, but I was unable to track down those maps.

Boston, on the other hand, has comparatively more extreme weather: summers are hot and humid, and winters are cold. New England is no stranger to massive snowstorms, and winter can drag on for months and months, with snow occasionally falling as late as April. Summer weather typically lasts from mid-May through mid-September, just four months (sometimes it's more like three). Autumn is beautiful, with stunning foliage and beautifully brisk days. Spring can be quite rainy, and the warm, sunny spring weather typically lasts just a few weeks before the humidity and temperatures rise to uncomfortable levels.

Commonwealth Avenue Snow, Boston

Which do I prefer? There are certain aspects of Boston (and New England) weather that I really miss. In San Francisco the year just seems to blend together, with more nuanced divisions between the seasons. There is no apple picking in the autumn, or hunkering down inside by the fire during a major snowstorm. No drinking hot apple cider before going out to shovel snow. No foliage in the autumn, nor beautifully snow covered trees in the winter. No frosty breath or creaking snow beneath your boots on those really cold winter days. To experience winter in San Francisco, you've got to drive a few hours to Tahoe, and to experience summer, you must drive inland to Napa Valley, or South to Santa Barbara.

Despite all this, I think I'll give the weather edge to San Francisco, just barely. On a day-to-day basis, the weather is easier to deal with in San Francisco than it is in Boston. Some of the aspects of New England weather that I really love, like heat in the summer and snow in the winter, can get very taxing after months of such extremes.


Great food and restaurants exist pretty much everywhere in the US. The average quality of food, however, varies drastically from city to city. California's Central Valley is one of the world's most productive agricultural regions, and is the primary source of numerous crops for the entire US. The avocado is one of those crops, so let's use that as an example (I love avocados). An avocado grown in California and going to Boston has to be picked from the tree well before ripening. It gets to Boston still hard, and is sold in the store before ever being close to ripe (I've never been able to buy a properly ripe avocado in Massachusetts). After buying, there is about a 24 hour window of moderate ripeness, and you're out of luck if you miss that short little window. Avocados destined for San Francisco are picked just when they start to ripen, are delivered to the store nearly ripe, and have a much longer window of edible ripeness. In short, produce is far more fresh and tasty in San Francisco than in Boston; it barely travels a day to get to the store, whereas produce going to Boston travels for days (thousands of miles).

The fresh produce, when combined with San Francisco's foodie culture make for a winning combination. The value here is excellent as well; hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food trucks often serve absolutely incredible fare for really low prices. All it takes is a glance at Yelp to find a 4 or 5-star meal for under $15. Boston has some excellent restaurants, but they tend to be rather expensive, since many of their ingredients have to be flown in fresh every day. On average, the quality and value of food in San Francisco (both at restaurants and in supermarkets) is much higher than in Boston. 

Public Transit

Public transit in San Francisco is lacking, both in quantity and in quality. The BART subway system is promoted as a useful transit system, but it's really only useful for getting in and out of the city. Its coverage area inside San Francisco is linear; not spidering out across the entire city like Boston's or New York's subway systems. This lack of useful coverage means that residents are forced to use the Muni bus system to get around the city. Muni buses are subject to the poor surface traffic conditions, making them a very slow transit option. For example, my bike ride to work each morning is between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on how hard I want to pedal and how I hit each traffic light. However, when I take the Muni bus to my office it takes me over 45 minutes to get in, making it a much slower option that I rarely consider.

Boston's MBTA system is by no means perfect (I've certainly been frustrated by delays in the past), but it's much more useful and usable than San Francisco's combination of the shoddy BART subway and slow Muni buses. If you examine the two maps below, you'll see that they both cover the same approximate surface area in each city (about 7x7 miles). The map on the left is of Boston's subway system, which spiders out across the whole city area. The map on the right is of San Francisco's BART subway system which effectively has one line and just nine stops in the same coverage area: utterly useless to most city residents. It's disappointing to see such poor public transit options in such an environmentally-minded city.

The Little Things

San Francisco drivers are slow. Scratch that - Californian drivers are slow. Traffic is awful. Drivers regularly block intersections, getting stuck in the middle when their signal turns red. Police are useless and don't ticket the intersection blockers. Traffic engineering is awful, with many incredibly busy downtown intersections having just two light cycles instead of three (direction A, direction B, and pedestrians) or more (for turning cars). This causes cars turning left or right to wait for opposing traffic to pass and pedestrians to cross, which causes backups behind them. Countless times I've seen merely one or two cars make it through an intersection's green light cycle due to this problem. Boston may have a confusing layout, with lots of one-way streets, but all those one-way streets make it easier and faster to get around once you've learned the layout. When was the last time that you had to wait for opposing traffic to pass when making a left turn off of a one-way street? Never. San Francisco, dare I say, doesn't have enough one-way streets.

Then there's the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. It's the worst part of the city, right in the center of everything. The Tenderloin is full of homeless people, druggies, dealers, and criminals. It also happens to be full of some great restaurants and interesting night life, but the high crime rate eclipses the good parts. I regularly read about random, unprovoked assaults, stabbings, and even things like homeless people throwing their feces at tourists. It's a complete slum, and SFPD appears to be doing nothing about it. Whenever I go through the Tenderloin on my bike ride home, I rarely see any police presence.

Much of the Tenderloin's terribleness comes from San Francisco's poor treatment of the homeless and lack of good homeless programs. Even the mayor of San Francisco rates the city low on its care for homeless people. Boston has some of the best homeless shelters and homeless care programs in the nation. St. Francis House got its start in Boston, and is recognized as a national model program for homeless shelters by numerous US agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services. Perhaps San Francisco's extreme tech culture lures too many young graduates away from pursuing altruistic endeavors, creating a void in those fields. Another serious problem is that some cities and states are allegedly sending their mentally-ill populations to San Francisco using one-way bus tickets, creating an unnatural concentration of homeless and mentally-ill people in the city. Whatever the reasons, it's clear that homelessness is much more of a problem in San Francisco than it is in Boston, and it's something that's worth noting here.

In health care and education, Massachusetts and California don't even compare. The New York Times did a great piece on education in MA: "If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore." ... and sixth in Mathematics. Massachusetts was the first state to require residents to carry health insurance leading to the lowest percentage of uninsured residents in the US. This article sums up very nicely how Massachusetts trounces every other state in the union in numerous important education, health-care, and quality-of-life metrics.


Boston has a fair amount of natural beauty and recreation possibilities within a three or four hour drive of the city: the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Berkshires, Cape Cod, and even New York if you're really looking for a big city experience. If Boston is pretty good, then San Francisco is spectacular. The High Sierra mountain range is over twice as high as the White Mountains, and much longer. Lake Tahoe offers world-class powder skiing in the winter, and serene hiking and recreation during the summer. The SCUBA diving in Monterey is top-notch. Napa Valley is just an hour and a half away. Yosemite National Park is four hours away. Sequoia National Forest is about five hours away. Santa Barbara, which is called the American Riviera for good reason, is five hours away. The natural world of the West Coast is a feast for the eyes that's on a scale unlike anything available near Boston; it's truly grand. As a photographer, moving out here has done wonders for my work. I've been able to put the most spectacular scenery in front of my lens. It's no wonder that the most celebrated American landscape photographers all hail from this coast.

Twilight, Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe


I love both of these cities, but for very different reasons. After moving from Boston, the things I miss most about it are the old feel, the architecture, and its academic character. San Francisco just doesn't have the same atmosphere to it. However, if I ever move away from San Francisco, I'll miss the spectacular food and the amazing natural surroundings most of all. The wilderness out in California is glorious. No other place that I've encountered offers such a diverse amount of outdoor activities at such world-class levels, within such short driving distances. To me, that is the magic of California.