San Francisco has every right to be considered one of the most popular tourist destinations in the USA. This charming and friendly city caters for everyone. It offers beautiful beaches and museums; it is rich in history and culture and the entertainment never stops. Whether you’re a foodie in search of the ultimate dish, an art or music lover, entertainment seeker or nature and outdoor lover, you are sure to find it in the city that never fails to please.
There are many ways to explore San Francisco. You can take your pick between cable-cars or quaint, historic streetcars, trains or ferries, rent a bike or be adventurous and tackle the hilly streets by foot.
The list of attractions is long, but there are a few that should be high up on every visitor’s list, starting with the Golden Gate Bridge which is said to be the most photographed bridge in the world.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
Crossing the famous orange structure into the city the views that greet you are magnificent: the city skyline, Sausalito, Angel Island, and Alcatraz, to name but a few. The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate strait, where San Francisco Bay merges with the Pacific Ocean. The construction of the bridge, which was completed in 1937, was the realization of a dream to connect the city of San Francisco with Marin County and its other neighbors, which were only accessible by ferry before.
At first, the proposal for building the bridge met with resistance from various sources. The Navy, for instance, feared that its boats might get trapped in case of a disaster, and the Southern Pacific Railroad opposed it because they viewed it as competition for its ferry fleet. Fortunately, sanity prevailed, and construction of the 1.7 mile-long bridge started in 1933 and took just over 4 years to complete. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world until 1964 and declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. There was much debate about what color the bridge should be painted, especially from the Navy and the Army Air Corps. The architect who was responsible for the design of the bridge towers, railings and lights, however, chose the orange shade for its visibility in dense fog and the way it blended in with the surroundings.
Sidewalks on both sides of the bridge allow for walking or cycling across it, which is very popular among visitors to the city but is only allowed during daylight hours. Bikes can be rented from any of the numerous bike rental shops in the city, some of which are conveniently located near bike paths and the entrance to the Bridge.
A leisurely walk either across the length of the Bridge can take up to an hour and a half depending on how much time you allow yourself, or you can take a shorter walk to one of the Bridge towers for the best photo opportunities. San Francisco is known for the fog that can roll in unexpectedly, so plan your walk during late morning or early afternoon when you will have the best chance not to be caught in fog which will mar your views.
Another way to enjoy the Golden Gate Bridge is to visit one of the viewpoints from where you will have the best view of the impressive structure. Of these the most recommended attractions are Fort Point National Historic site close to the Golden Gate Welcome Center, Baker Beach, Crissy Field, and Battery East Vista.
2. Fisherman’s Wharf
An absolute must on your sightseeing list is the always popular, exciting and vibrant waterfront area in San Francisco called Fisherman’s Wharf. It may be a typical tourist trap, but the area houses some of the most popular attractions in the city like Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum and a Wax Museum.
Add to that myriad restaurants covering dishes from all over the world, the Aquarium of the Bay and street musicians and performers to keep you entertained and you will understand why no visit to San Francisco will be complete without at least a few hours at the waterfront.
Fisherman’s Wharf, on the northern waterfront area of San Francisco, faces both the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge. It covers the area between Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39, from where you can take a cruise to Alcatraz, spend time with sea lions or take a ride on a two-story carousel.
The best seafood in the area can also be found at Pier 39. Seafood lovers will find clam chowder in a bread bowl, a dish which San Francisco became well known for, at the Chowder and Crab Stands. Treat yourself with a visit to the original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, where you can learn about and watch the chocolate-making process and even get a bite for free.
3. Alcatraz Island
Well-known movies about the prison, Alcatraz, and its notorious inmates probably contributed to the fact that the island is still world-famous more than 50 years after it was shut down in 1963 due to high operational costs. In 1972 Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and today it is one of San Francisco’s major tourist attractions, drawing more than one million visitors annually.
The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was established on Alcatraz Island in 1934 and is the one federal prison from which very few prisoners ever escaped. Only convicts that were considered too dangerous for the normal US prisons were sent to Alcatraz, and its list of inmates include infamous criminals such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud who became known as the Birdman of Alcatraz and Machine Gun Kelly.
During its almost 30-year-long operation, 1576 convicts were sent to Alcatraz, also known as The Rock. The prison could hold 450 inmates, but there were never more than 250 prisoners on the island at a time. They were housed in individual cells measuring a mere 3 x 1.5 meters.
To visit the island, you can take a hop-on-hop-off bus and stay and explore for as long as you like, or get on a boat from Fisherman’s Wharf and sail underneath the Golden Gate Bridge to the fascinating island.
Your ticket to Alcatraz includes a very interesting recording with fascinating stories and interviews with former inmates and guards, from which will gain insight into what life in Alcatraz was really like. Being a very popular tourist attraction, it is advisable to plan and book your trip well in advance.
Like most big cities San Francisco has its own Chinatown, and this one is said to be the oldest and most established in the United States. Packed with shops, restaurants, bars and beautiful buildings, it is certainly worth a visit. Once you enter Chinatown through the beautiful Dragon’s Gate from Grant Avenue, you will feel transported into a different, vibrant world.
The gate itself was designed in 1970 by a Chinese American architect, and it is the only genuine Chinatown gate in the country. Ornate and beautiful with stone pillars, green-tiled pagodas, and dragon sculptures, it is understandably one of the most photographed spots in the area.
Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco, but only minutes away from Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. It is a great place to shop, and of course, the best place to enjoy authentic Chinese food. Do some tea tasting and treat yourself to a visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where you can watch them make the cookies. You can either explore Chinatown on your own or join one of the numerous walking tours. The Big Bus Hop-On, Hop-Off tour includes a complimentary 1-hour walking tour through Chinatown with a qualified guide.
5. Take a Vintage Ride
There are many ways to explore San Francisco, but a ride on a cable car or streetcar must be on the top of every visitor’s list. It is a quintessential experience that cannot be compared to any other form of transport, and typical to the extremely hilly city.
It was because of the hills that cable cars were designed in the first place, as a means to get cars up the many hills. Cable cars have been around since 1873, streetcars since 1890 and they are still being used by both commuters and tourists alike.
There are only three cable car lines left, carrying passengers to the Financial District and popular tourist attractions namely Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and Union Square.
Being such a popular form of transport among tourists, be prepared to wait up to two hours to get on one of these beauties. The streetcars operate along the East Waterfront, on Market Street and Embarcadero.
6. Golden Gate Park
This much loved and visited park in San Francisco is not only a green haven in a built-up city but also home to a variety of tourist attractions. The Golden Gate Park covers an area of more than 1000 acres, which is 20% larger than Central Park in New York City and the third most visited park in the United States.
The land chosen for the development of the park was not ideal, consisting mostly of sand dunes which had to be stabilized before it could be turned into a green area. To this end development of the park started by planting trees, then grass seeds before other species of plants could be introduced.
Attractions in Golden Gate Park include the California Academy of Sciences, Botanical Garden, the fine arts De Young Museum and Japanese Tea Garden.
You can spend a day in the park without getting bored, and the best of all entry to the park is free. Art lovers can visit the De Young Museum, enjoy the outside art scattered all over the park and even join an art class. Rent a boat and go for a leisurely cruise on Stow Lake, or have a picnic near the pagoda on Strawberry Hill from where you have beautiful views of the city and the bay.
Explore the park on foot or rent a bike, but be sure to place a visit to the park on your to-do list. It is not only a place to go to get away from the busy city for a picnic but a major attraction which is also great for kids.
7. Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco boasts many architectural treasures, of which the Palace of Fine Arts is one that deserves a visit. The magnificent structure was erected for the Panama Pacific International Exhibition held in San Francisco in 1915 and was built to last only for the duration of the Exhibition. Fortunately, it withstood the elements and remained as one of the last surviving structures from the Exhibition.
Thanks to the powers that be the Palace of Fine Arts was saved from demolition in 1964 because of its unstable structure and reconstructed to its full glory. Its beauty, with the 43-stories tall Tower of Jewels at its center and manmade lagoon around it, attracted filmmakers who used it for scenes in movies from 1958. Today it is the ideal place for a picnic to enjoy the wildlife which made the area their home during the day, but also worth a visit at night when the buildings are lit up and reflected in the lagoon.
Take a break and watch the reflections of the glorious building in the man-made lagoon around it. By day there are great photo opportunities with ducks and swans floating by, and by night the view of the Palace with its Tower of Jewels in the center is breathtaking when it is lit up in all its glory.
8. Coit Tower
Coit Tower, an imposing part of San Francisco’s skyline, was completed in 1933 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. For the best panoramic views over San Francisco, a visit to the tall white, concrete column on Telegraph Hill is a must.
Buy a ticket from the gift shop to take an elevator to the observation deck from where you will have 360-degree views of the city and the bay, including the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.
Inside the tower, you can view murals depicting scenes from a bygone era. The Works Progress Administration commissioned 25 artists to paint fresco murals to show life in California during the Depression. Visitors to the Tower are warned that parking is limited, however, it can be reached by walking up or taking a bus from Fisherman’s Wharf.
9. Ghirardelli Square
Chocolate and ice cream, a winery and cheese school, jewelry shops and the San Francisco Brewery – these can all be found in the pleasant Ghirardelli Square at Fisherman’s Wharf. Home of the original chocolate factory, the buildings were repurposed into what became a stylish square housing a luxurious hotel, shops, a variety of restaurants and lots of entertainment.
Follow the passageways that wind through the square and plazas, but do not pass the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate and Ice Cream Shop. You can watch the chocolate-making process while waiting in line for your favorite sundae or milkshake.
10. California Academy of Sciences
Only in San Francisco: an aquarium, planetarium, and rainforest all in one – that is what you will find when you visit the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
It is an amazing place: the oldest museum in California and also one of the largest museums of natural history in the world. Set aside as much time as you can spare for this visit if you want to see the top five attractions inside: the Steinhart Aquarium, Osher Rainforest, African Penguin Colony, the Morrison Planetarium and the Living Roof.
Visit the Exploratorium close to Fisherman’s Wharf to see and experience for yourself that science can be fun. It is a museum of science, technology, and art, but do not let the word museum mislead you: you do not go there to walk around, listen and learn, you go to touch, feel, sense and play, a complete sensory adventure.
Visitors can actually take part in the more than 600 exhibits like the Tactile Dome; with only your sense of touch, you have to make your way through channels and mazes in a pitch-dark dome!
12. Oracle Park
Home to the famous San Francisco Giants baseball team, sports fans should make time to visit the ballpark in South Beach. Whether there’s a game on when you’re in the city or not, you can still visit the park and go on a 90-minute Behind-The-Scenes tour.
On this tour you will go to places only the players and staff get to go like the Giant’s Dugout, you will take a peek inside the Visitors’ Clubhouse, and see the Giant Vault which is a museum where you will learn about the history of the franchise.
13. Ferry Building Marketplace
You do not have to be a foodie to plan a visit to this delightful farmer’s market which is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 2 pm and Saturdays from 8 am to 2 pm. It is on the Embarcadero and, like so many other attractions in San Francisco, offers great views of the Bay Bridge.
You can either spoil yourself with something to eat from any of the food trucks that surround it, but save some money for the multitude of gourmet shops where you can buy anything from olives and cheese to meat and other artisan products inside the market itself.
14. Crissy Field
If a day at the beach and some outdoor fun is what you need, consider visiting Crissy Field in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
This is the place where people go jogging or cycling along the water’s edge, dog owners play catch with their furry friends, children play or fly kites and surfers go wave-riding under the Golden Gate Bridge. What was once an army airfield is now a popular playground in the Presidio of San Francisco for locals and visitors alike.
15. Alamo Square
Plan a visit to this hip, classical neighborhood and park which is known for its sprawling Victorian houses that San Francisco is so famous for. The postcard-pretty Painted ladies can be seen from the park in Alamo Square. It is a row of Victorian houses painted in pastel colors and became famous worldwide since it was seen in the well-known television series Full House.
Think twice before jumping into a car and take a self-guided tour to view the area and the historic district around it because one-way streets and lack of parking make it difficult. Private tour companies offer guided tours like the Victorian Home Walk which you can take from Union Square, or join one of the free walking tours offered by San Francisco City Guides.
16. Lombard Street
Filmmakers have definitely contributed to placing a number of places in San Francisco on the “must-see” list of attractions like Lombard Street, also known as “The crookedest street in the world“, which was used in various movie scenes throughout the years.
“Crookedest” refers to the eight sharp turns or hairpin bends you have to take to maneuver it. It is a downhill one-way, about 600 feet long and paved in red bricks. It forms part of the U.S. Route 101, and stretches from east to west from the Presidio to Embarcadero.
You will find the crooked part of Lombard Street in Russian Hill, and locals will tell you to take a walk down to best enjoy the area’s architecture and views of the city.
17. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
SFMOMA was the first museum in the country to show exclusively modern art, and is today one of the largest of its kind in the world. It houses a collection of over 33 000 works of art, including paintings, sculpture, photography, architecture, design and media arts from artists around the world.
View works of art by famous artists like Andy Warhol, Julie Mehretu and Frida Kahlo and visit the outdoor sculpture garden to see the thirty-foot living wall and incredible views over the city.
18. Union Square
Your typical big-city shopping, eating, drinking, people-watching district where you will find all the well-known brands and labels. Yup, Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue – name them and you will find them there. Go there to shop, wander around or just relax, enjoy the atmosphere or have something to eat in the plaza with free wi-fi provided by the city.
Theatre-lovers, look out for the TIX half-price ticket booth across the St Francis Hotel where you can pick up affordable tickets for plays and shows.
19. Twin Peaks
Almost In the geographical center of the city lie the two hills which rise almost 1000 meters above the city. Get active and take one of the hiking trails leading up to the peaks for a breathtaking 360-degree view over the city, bay and the ocean.
The top of Twin Peaks is home to a wide variety of wildlife like raccoons and skunks, but also one of only three places that provide a home to the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. You can rent a bike and cycle up, drive up by car or take a bus by one of the tour operators to reach the top.
20. Pier 39
Last but definitely not least, you have to spend some time at Pier 39. It is part of Fisherman’s Wharf, but it is the part where you will find the best seafood, enjoy watching sea lions up close, be entertained by musicians and jugglers and taste a real Mai Tai cocktail.
It is packed with fun things to do for the whole family and home to the Aquarium of the Bay. From the Pier, you can also board a boat for a cruise around the bay. Do yourself a favor and taste clam chowder in a bread bowl, a dish which San Francisco became well known for, at the Chowder and Crab Stands.