Top San Francisco Attractions
San Francisco is so packed with interesting activities, beautiful scenery, and a variety of people that you will come away with vacation photos that your friends will actually want to see. All of this is found in a tiny radius: the whole of the city is only seven miles wide by seven miles long and easily accessible via bus and trains. Included here are the must-see places on your first San Francisco vacation presented by a local resident and containing (mostly) original photography.
Ride a Cable Car
Since 1873, Cable Cars have served San Francisco, and they are the last manually operated system of its kind in the world. Along with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, they are the most significant tourist attraction and symbol of San Francisco.
There are two different lines in operation. The best one to ride if you are doing this on your first trip to San Francisco is the Powell-Hyde Street line. This line runs from Market @ Powell Streets just south of Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf via Nob Hill and Russian Hill. It passes Lombard Street along the way (more on that below).
As of April 2012, the cost to ride the cable car is $6 one way. You can pay when you board the car. I recommend boarding in Union Square where there is no line and no need to purchase the advance ticket required at the Market Street and Powell starting point.
Take the Ferry to Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island, a.k.a "The Rock," was originally built as a military fortifications early as 1846. However, it is most famous as a Federal Prison which was in operation from 1934 to 1963.
To visit, book your ferry tickets in advance from Alcatraz Cruises. They are the only ferry service to the Island, and the only official ticket seller. It's best to buy your ferry tickets in advance as the ferries often sell out several days in advance.
Once on Alcatraz, you can wonder around the complex on your own. I highly recommend taking the audio tour of the prison building. It's fantastic and well worth the $28 (adult). I also recommend the National Park Service video (free of charge) that is offered very near the ferry landing. It's a great brief on the history of Alcatraz Island.
See the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point
The Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937, spans the Golden Gate, the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. Before crossing the bridge, stop at The Fort Point National Historic Site just under the San Francisco side of the bridge.
Fort Point is a military fort that was completed just prior to the start of the American Civil War to protect the San Francisco Bay from warships. Although Fort Point never saw battle, it remains a historically significant military structure and the National Park Service has excellent exhibits here on Pacific Coast and military history.
Visit Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39
Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 (along with Ghirardelli Square next door) are the most visited tourist destinations in San Francisco. Fisherman's Wharf is famous for its historic waterfront with spectacular views of the Bay. Visit the shops of Pier 39 at one end and the shops and chocolate store at Ghirardelli Square at the other.
Don't spend more than a few hours here on your vacation. Aside from the spectacular views of the Bay, it's largely a tourist destination packed with tourist shops. Spending more than a couple of hours is time lost to really get a feel for San Francisco which has plenty more to offer.
Walk Through San Francisco Chinatown
San Francisco's Chinatown is not only the oldest Chinatown in North America, it is part of the largest Chinese community outside of China. The Dragon Gate at its entrance on Grant Street at Bush Street is the only authentic Chinatown gate in North America built head to toe from stone.
The present day Chinatown was rebuilt from the rubble of the original Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake and fire. There is too much to explore in Chinatown than I can relay here. The San Francisco Chinatown site is a fantastic resource, and I recommend spending time exploring here as this is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in San Francisco and a large cultural influence on the present day city.
Go to the Top of Coit Tower
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Coit tower stands 210 feet atop Telegraph Hill. Built in 1933 by funds bequeathed by Lillie Hitchcock Coit for "...adding to the beauty of the city...," it features panoramic views of the Bay and fresco murals by 27 different artists.
Walk Lombard Street: The Crookedest Street
The block of Lombard between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets is known as the crookedest street in the world. Since 1922 its series of eight switchback turns has descended this 27% grade.
Eat at The Ferry Building
The Ferry Building is a fantastic marketplace that showcases purveyors of the world class local food scene. In addition to the permanent shops, the Ferry Building hosts one of the largest farmers markets in the area on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. As the name implies, the Ferry Building (in addition to Fisherman's Wharf) is the landing and launching point for Ferry service to Sausalito, Larkspur, and the East Bay.
Explore Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is 1,017 acres of public park rich in things to do. In the shape of a rectangle on the western side of the city, it runs from the Pacific Ocean to city center over three miles inland. It is 20% larger than New York's Central Park.
You can easily take a day of your vacation just to explore the park, itself, and I highly recommend it. The park is mostly flat with only gentle hills. Although walking around it is possible, it's better left to the super fit. Bicycles can be rented in the park near the DeYoung museum, and this is a great way to explore. Highlights to visit in Golden Gate Park include:
- The Conversatory of Flowers
- Stowe Lake and Strawberry Hill
- The DeYoung Museum
- The California Academy of Sciences
- Japanese Tea Garden
- The San Francisco Botanical Garden (formerly known as Strybing Arboretum)
- The Bison Paddock (yes, the city of San Francisco owns a herd of Bison)
- The Polo Fields,
- Two authentic Dutch Windmills
- Enjoy a break over food at the Beach or Park Chalet restaurants on the Ocean
Visit The Palace of Fine Arts and The Exploratorium
The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed to house art for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It's one of the last few structures left from the Exposition, and the only one still in its original place on the site of Exposition. This beautiful structure and accompanying lagoon are a peaceful respite from the hectic city.
See the Views From the Cliff House and Ocean Beach
The Cliff House is a restaurant complex perched on the headland just above Ocean Beach. The Cliff House became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1977 and houses the room-sized camera obscura, two restaurants, and a gift shop.
Ocean Beach is a 3 mile stretch of beach on the Pacific Ocean. Be warned fair tourists, that this is not a beach of southern California like you see in TV and movies. Although the beach, itself, makes for wonderful walks in good weather, the frigid water and dangerous surf are best left to the most experienced and wet-suit clad surfers.
Pictured above is the view of San Francisco at sunset taken from downtown Sausalito. It is a lovely ferry ride from the Ferry Building, a quick drive across the Golden Gate bridge, or an easy bike ride across the bridge to visit this artist enclave on the Bay.
Hike Muir Woods National Monument
There is no photo that can do justice to colossal nature and sheer impressiveness of the Redwoods of Muir Woods. Named in honor of John Muir in 1908, this 554 acre National Monument protects one of the last remaining old growth forests of California Coastal Redwoods. The trees in this ancient grove average 500-800 years old and over 250 feet tall.
Parking at Muir Woods is extremely limited—even with a small overflow lot. During the summer from May to September, there is a shuttle that runs from the Stinson Beach exit of Highway 101 in Mill Valley to Muir Woods. I recommend either taking the shuttle if you are to visit on a weekend, or planning a trip for the morning during the week. The latter also offers an experience with fewer people and great opportunity to enjoy the peace and tranquility of this majestic forest.