Updated: May 21, 2015
Top 10 Things to See and Do in San FranciscoSan Francisco, the city by the Bay. Dating back to the time of the California Gold Rush, San Francisco came to define California in those early days. After the disastrous 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire, San Francisco had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Today, San Francisco attracts millions of tourists each year from the world. Beautifully perched on a peninsula sticking out into San Francisco Bay, the ciy has much to offer. From boating trips to parks to dining to shopping to cable cars, San Francisco has something for everyone. If you are planning a San Francisco vacation, take a look at our suggested Top 10 highlights -- if you include these things in your SF itinerary, you're sure to have a memorable trip.
San Francisco Sightseeing: What to see in San Francisco1. Golden Gate Bridge/Sausalito - Let's start with this iconic SF landmark. Looking at it from the city is one thing, but walking across this mighty structure is another. Fortunately, there are parking areas as you approach the bridge from either the north or south side, making it easy to pull over, park the car, and get out and walk at least to the middle and back (how long is the golden gate bridge? it is 1.7 miles long from end to end). The Golden Gate Bridge was built between 1933-1937 at a cost of less than $35M -- today you'll pay $6 to drive across it (southbound only), but it is free to walk across. If you want even more dramatic views of the bridge and the city, drive across the bridge heading north and take the 2nd exit, Alexander Ave., and follow it back under the bridge and up the hill -- you'll end up in the Marin Headlands with outstanding views (assuming there is no fog!). Right next to the north end of the Bridge is the little waterfront town of Sausalito, often basking in sun when SF is fogged in. Consider driving or taking a ferry over and enjoying lunch here, and spend an hour wandering the shops and streets.
2. Cable Cars - Apart from the Bridge, SF wouldn't be SF without cable cars. In this city of steep hills, cable cars were a reliable means of transportation (since 1873). Today they are mainly ridden by tourists, but they still offer a feeling of traveling back in time. They cost $5 per one way trip, though you usually only see people buying tickets and having tickets collected at the main cable car turnaround points where most of the tourists get on -- if you board at a stop along the way, you rarely see anyone pay and you rarely see a conductor ask for a ticket or money. The cable cars really only operate in a small section of the city (there used to be more than 20 lines, back in the days before the big earthquake) - it really is a tourist thing, these days. One line runs along California Street from the Embarcadero area to Van Ness. The other 2 lines both have one endpoint near Union Square near Powell and Market -- the Hyde Street line ends up close to Ghirardelli Square (Hyde and Beach) and the other (Powell-Mason line) terminates at Bay and Taylor, 3 blocks from Fisherman's Wharf (see www.sfcablecar.com/routes.html for animated cable car map). Still, it's a fun ride going up and down those hills, especially if you get one of the outside standing spots and hang off the side (BE VERY CAREFUL -- you can easily get smacked by a cable car coming the other way if you lean out too far!).
3. Golden Gate Park - At more than 3 miles long, this is a pretty big city park! Apart from providing ample space to walk, run, or bike, Golden Gate Park is also home to the Conservatory of Flowers (amazing tropical flowers), the de Young Museum (three centuries of American art), the Japanese Tea Garden, the Calif Academy of Sciences, Morrison Planetarium, Steinhart Aquarium, boat rentals on Stow Lake, and a few windmills -- heck, even a herd of bison. The park is a nice break from the more hectic city atmosphere -- you can easily spend a day exploring the various museums and gardens. If you've only got a day or two in SF, maybe just a drive through the park will suffice, but if you have more time, spend some of it here.
View San Francisco Sightseeing - Top 10 in a larger map
4. Alcatraz Prison Tour/Bay Cruise - We're working our way down the list of big hitters, and sitting smack in the middle of San Francisco Bay is the famous Alcatraz prison, The Rock (see AlcatrazCruises.com for tour and tickets). Alcatraz operated as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963, and yes, Al Capone did some time here. Today it is part of the national park system and is open to the public. Ferries from Pier 33 will take you there (see link above), and you can opt for a self-guided audio tour or join up with a ranger leading a walk. The views from the island are terrific -- too bad they were wasted on convicts, at the taxpayers expense! Anyways, walking through the old cell-blocks is pretty cool, especially if you have seen Escape From Alcatraz or The Rock or other films that have had this prison in the starring role. Also, talking about being on the water, consider other options for cruising around SF Bay. There are a number of boat tours that take you around or across the bay: RedandWhite.com is the website for the Red and White Fleet (located right next to Fisherman's Wharf, at Pier 43 1/2), with Golden Gate and Sunset Cruises, while BlueAndGoldFleet.com is the website for the Blue and Gold Fleet which sails out of at Pier 39, offering ferry service to Sausalito, Angel Island, and Tiburon, along with sightseeing tours like the SF Bay Cruise which is pretty much the same as the Red and White trip we describe below. We did the Golden Gate Bay Cruise (Red and White Fleet) in May of 2010, which is a 1 hour cruise out under the Golden Gate Bridge and then back around Alcatraz, accompanied by a recorded audio tour you listen to via a headset in language of your choice. Very informative audio portion, great scenery -- a recommended way to see the city and Bay from the water. Cost -- $24 for adults, $16 for kids.
5. Chinatown - San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown outside of, well, China! Chinatown is generally the area bounded by Powell and Kearny (west and east) and Bush (south) and Columbus (north). Wander the busy streets of this area (wedged between the downtown financial district and the North Beach italian district) and explore stores, markets, and restaurants -- you're sure to see things you've never seen before (Stockton Street is where most the locals shop, if you are looking for authenticity)! Fun for kids and adults -- one good way to get here is to take the cable cars from the Fisherman's Wharf area (they run along Powell street as you get into Chinatown), get off in Chinatown, then walk back north through Chinatown, and finally along Columbus Ave. once you reach the end of Chinatown (the main Chinatown gate/entrance is at Bush and Grant, but the heart of Chinatown is further north..). Keep an eye out for the Transamerica Pyramid building, which is just a few blocks away -- it's the tallest building in SF at over 850 feet.
6. Fisherman's Wharf/Pier 39/Ghirardelli Square - This area of the city is really the tourist epicenter. You'll find all kinds of great seafood restaurants here, along with touristy stuff like the Wax Museum and Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Plus check out the seals hanging out by the wharf. Pier 39 (Pier39.com) is home to restaurants and shops of all kinds - Wipeout, Bubba Gumps, Crab House, Hard Rock Cafe, Aquarium on the Bay, Players Sports Grill, Carousel, TurboRide 4D, street performers, Magic Shop, Chocolate Heaven, etc. Great fun for kids and adults. You can easily walk the 5 minutes between Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square is just a few minutes further. There is plenty of paid public parking right across the street from Pier 39.
7. Union Square - OK, let's face it, some of us come to the big city for the shopping -- so head for Union Square. Flanked by fine hotels like the Westin, Sir Francis Drake, and Grand Hyatt, Union Square offers shopping and dining at the likes of Macy's, Tiffany's, Neiman Marcus, Cartier, Levi's, Cheesecake Factory, DeBeers, Niketown, etc. You can again take a cable car from the Fisherman's Wharf area -- the end of the line is just 2 blocks away from Union Square. Excellent map of Union Square at: http://www.baycityguide.com/images/maps_pdf/ggpark_Union_Square_map.pdf
8. Exploratorium/Palace of Fine Arts - The San Francisco Exploratorium (Exploratorium.edu) is a terrific science museum, with all kinds of hands-on exhibits to thrill and delight children of all ages. It's located by the Marina in the Palace of Fine Arts building, as you approach the Golden Gate Bridge (about 2 miles from Fisherman's Wharf). It's open Tues-Sun, 10-5. Admission is $15 for adults, $10-$12 for kids depending on age (free parking). Great way to entertain kids while in the city.
8. Lombard Street and Coit Tower - Just about everyone has heard of Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world. The curvy section begins where Lombard climbs the hill to meet Hyde -- you can walk or drive down it, gawking at the tiny driveways of the houses that actually line this VERY STEEP hill! Chances are you won't come across a street like this again during your lifetime. Continue east down Lombard and you eventually climb Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The 210' art-deco tower was built in 1933 and is said to resemble the nozzle of a fire hose. Regardless, it offers stunning views of the city and Bay. There is limited parking at the top of the hill - you may have to wait for a spot to open. Once there, buy your ticket and take the elevator to the top. It's open 10-5 daily, and costs $4.50 for adults. Be sure to check out the murals inside for a look at early life in SF.
9. Fort Funston Hang Gliders - The sea cliffs a few miles south of San Francisco along the Pacific Ocean offer one of the greatest hang gliding locations in the world (usually active late March through October, depending on weather). Located off Hwy 35 (Skyline Blvd) just south of the San Francisco Zoo, you get there by following the Great Hwy along the coast as you head south from Golden Gate Park (www.parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/fort-funston.html). It's really something incredible to see with your own eyes (no, you don't have to fly yourself, just watch others!).
10. North Beach/Columbus - North Beach occupies a convenient chunk of land between Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown. Known as San Francisco's Little Italy, Columbus Ave is kind of the main drag here, but venture off into side streets to find a variety of restaurants and bars, or just wander. Kerouac and Ginsberg used to hang out here - the City Lights bookstore is still here, they published "Howl". Hike the Filbert Steps up Telegraph Hill (Coit Tower is here), go to The Beat Museum, visit Washington Square Park, or grab a pizza at North Beach Tavern. Great place for a late afternoon and evening visit.