San Francisco is a beautiful, diverse and fascinating city to explore. I have been living in the area for over four years now, and I am still exploring new areas and seeing new things. But most visitors don’t have weeks or months (or even years!) to spend here. So if you’re only stopping by San Francisco for a quick visit, there are certain things you need to see, or at least attempt to see. And for the love of all that is dear, PLEASE BRING A JACKET! No matter how lovely the day looks, you will be cold. Trust me on this one.
Here’s my idea of the top 11 things you need to see to say you’ve “done” San Francisco:
1. The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is an icon. When you see a photo of the ‘International Orange’ coloured bridge, you know instantly where in the world you can find it. The Golden Gate Bridge IS San Francisco.
Connecting San Francisco with Marin County, the Golden Gate Bridge was officially opened in 1937 and celebrated its 75th birthday in May of 2012. Should you be visiting San Francisco in summer, you probably won’t get to see much of it due to the fog. But on a clear day, the sky turns a beautiful graded mid-blue, and the bridge glows red. It’s as breathtaking in the flesh as it looks in photos.
When to go: I love visiting the structure mid-to-late afternoon, as the colour start to change and the bridge turns more red. If it is shrouded in fog, go see it anyway and take a picture of the towers peeking out of the fog at the top.
Local tips: To gage when the weather is best, I like to check the online traffic cams on the bridge. One of the best ways to experience the bridge is to hire a bike and ride it across the Bridge and over to Sausalito. Enjoy a well-deserved ice cream in Sausalito and ride the ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Alcatraz is a fascinating place and is worth visiting for its history, wildlife and for the stunning views. It was the site of the first lighthouse on the west coast, and has had a long history as a prison and a military settlement. Some of the United States’ most violent criminals were housed there, including Al Capone, and Robert Stroud (known as the Birdman of Alcatraz). This is one attraction definitely worth the long wait for tickets.
When to go: Book your ticket online through one of the reputable ferry companies, such as Alcatraz Cruises at Pier 33. These cruises can sell out a weeks (sometimes even months) in advance, so you’ll need to book ahead — particularly if you are visiting during the high season. Tickets are available for purchase up to 60 days out. The price includes the ferry ride to and from the island as well as the cellhouse audio tour, which is available in English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Dutch.
Local tip: The National Parks Service is serious when it says ‘no food': you can’t eat on the island and there’s no food for sale, so make sure you have a hearty meal before you go. The weather can be strange and unpredictable on the island, so dress as the locals do: in layers!
3. Telegraph Hill & Coit Tower
At the summit of Telegraph Hill you’ll find Coit Tower, a monument funded by the bequest of a wealthy eccentric woman, Lillie Hitchcock Coit. It has some phenomenal fresco murals lining the halls and a great view from the open rooftop. Hike the numerous stairways around the hill to see some interesting architecture and secluded spots. Watch the colourful parrots feed on the Greenwich Stairs between 4-5pm.
When to go: Daytime, before the fog rolls in. Take the elevator ($7 for adults) to the roof for some fantastic, unobstructed views of the city, and spend some time in the hallways below reading about the public furor over the subject of some of the murals.
Local tip: Don’t drive up there– you’ll spend half the day waiting in line for a parking spot. The hike up to Coit Tower can be steep in parts, but it’s good exercise. On the East-facing side of the Telegraph Hill, there are a number of stairways leading back down towards the Embarcadero. Take the Fillmore stairs for an unexpected oasis in the middle of a big city. It’s one of my favourite spots.
4. TransAmerica Pyramid
The most iconic building on the San Francisco skyline. Whilst you can’t go up to the observation deck (it was closed following the September 11 attacks), you can walk around the base of the building (and the streets surrounding it) to take some great photos. In the lobby, you can see a model of the building and control the cameras on the virtual observation deck.
When to go: The morning hours reflect best on the white crushed quartz exterior of the pyramid. Regular business hours for entry to the lobby.
Local tip: During regular business hours, take a seat on one of the benches in the Redwood forest behind the tower. It’s amazing how calm you can feel in the middle of the city, surrounded by gigantic trees. And photos looking up at the TransAmerica Pyramid looking up never get old. It’s a stunning building.
5. Alamo Square
If you were a fan of the late 80s/early 90s sitcom called Full House, then a visit to Alamo Square is a must. From the park, you get iconic shot of the Painted Ladies (a row of well-preserved Victorian terrace houses) with the buildings downtown in the background.
When to go: My favourite time of day to visit is mid-afternoon.
Local tip: Stop by Safeway supermarket on Geary (about ten blocks away) to pick up some supplies for a picnic in the park.
6. Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is an enormous parcel of greenery in the city. There’s tonnes to do in the park: hire a bike, visit the de Young art museum or the California Academy of Sciences, rent a paddle boat at Stow lake, watch a game of polo or soccer, enjoy the conservatory of flowers or botanical gardens, see the refurbished windmills and Beach Chalet. It’s amazing how the noise and stress of the city just evaporates as soon as you walk through those gates.
When to go: Daytime is best. Nighttime can be a little sketchy with the weirdos who live in the park. Museums usually don’t open before 9:30am.
Local tip: I love walking the trails around the park, taking a different one each time I visit. Remember to dress in layers — the park is just steps from the beach, and right in the heart of the fog bank. Also check out the viewing deck from at the de Young Museum. It is not in the paid section of the museum, so you can go peek even if you don’t want to see the collections. Win!
7. Sutro Baths
The Sutro Baths was an opulent public bathhouse built 1896 by eccentric businessman and San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro. Fire gutted the complex as it was being bulldozed in 1966, and all that remains are ruins. But I think it’s really cool spot to sit and let your mind wander.
When to go: Try for a sunset experience, to see the sun reflected in what is left of the baths.
Local tip: Bring a cup of coffee and watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. Take a walk around to the Cliff House to see photos of how the area used to look, or hike to Land’s End to see some peculiar trees shaped by the brutal winds that buffet the coast.
8. Ferry Building
Located right at the end of Market Street near the Bay Bridge, the Ferry Building used to be the only link into and out of San Francisco. It survived both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, and still has the original clock from 1898 – the largest wind-up mechanical clock in the world. The recently refurbished Ferry Building is a foodie heaven: enjoy gourmet local produce at the Farmers Markets held here on Tuesday and Saturdays, dine at some top-notch restaurants, and grab some amazing coffee.
When to go: Daytime is best. The restaurants are open at night, but the place loses the hustle-and-bustle feel once the ferries have taken their passengers home.
Local tip: Bring your money! You can do a lot of damage here, and it will be amazing. Don’t forget to check out the cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, as well as treats from my favourite patisserie, Miette.
9. Union Square
There’s nothing terribly special about Union Square as a destination in itself, it’s far more interesting as a site for people-watching. You get some crazy characters here and there’s always something interesting happening like a hippie drum circle, free movie screenings or outdoor salsa dancing classes. The square is the heart of the shopping district in San Francisco, with shops such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Tiffany, YSL and Dior lining the square. If you can’t afford those, there’s H&M only a block away!
When to go: Day or night. Higher end stores tend to close earlier, but many shops are open to 9pm most nights.
Local tips: Grab a hotdog from the vendor outside Levi’s or quick snack from a local Walgreens and enjoy the view. In the holiday season, they have an ice skating rink for that nostalgic ‘white Christmas’ vibe.
10. Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39
The area of Fisherman’s Wharf is a well-known tourist-magnet, and there’s always plenty going on here. It’s the place to pick up nic-nacs to take home for family and friends, and for last-minute sweaters/jumpers when you haven’t heeded my advice to bring a jacket! Pier 39 is famous for the sea lions that have taken up residence there, and is a great place to stop for photos of Alcatraz.
When to go: Anytime — there’s always something happening down at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Local tips: Beware the Bush man who leaps out from behind a bin to scare tourists: he can give you quite a fright! Fisherman’s Wharf is a great place to try some of San Francisco’s specialty dishes: Dungeness crab, and chowder in a sourdough breadbowl. For those with a sweet tooth, you need to try two things: sample the salt water taffy in one of the numerous sweets shops. It’s what says ‘San Francisco’ to me. And try the sundaes at Ghiarardelli Square. To die for!
11. Twin Peaks
If you haven’t already got your fill of San Francisco up high from Coit Tower, then you should head up to Twin Peaks.
When to go: Whenever it’s not foggy!
Local tip: I love watching life happen from up here, and the crazy photos that people enjoy taking (jumping, floating etc). It’s usually too cold to stay up here for long, so head back down into the Castro to warm up at one of the many cafes and restaurants.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if I only have a day in San Francisco? Can I see all of these things in one day?
Yes, you potentially could. Most of these attractions can be reached on the various hop-on-hop-off tourist buses that operate in the city, so this helps if you’re really pushed for time. Remember to book your trip to Alcatraz before hand if you’re visiting during high season.
San Francisco has many other great drawcards, and we’ll explore more of those soon. This is just a short list to get you started.
Tell me more about Downtown San Francisco. What is there to see in the heart of the city?
Here’s a short film the American and I made called ‘The Skyscrapers of San Francisco’ that introduces you to the fascinating structures of the CBD:
When is the best time to visit San Francisco?
The best time to visit San Francisco is in either April/May or September/October. Those are our warmer months, with the usual summer period of June through August being remarkably cold, save for a few hours of t-shirt weather in the middle of the day if the sun is out.
So… when are you coming to visit?
Let me know what you think — are these the most important tourist attractions in San Francisco, in your opinion?