I am regularly asked by friends, personally and on social media sites, for advice on what are the best things to see and do on their upcoming, and invariably first, trip to San Francisco. Rather than continue to respond on a one to one basis, I have listed below my current recommendations so that anyone can refer to them when they need to.
I should stress that the selections below reflect my personal views, though I have still included other celebrated attractions that would not necessarily be on my list if I only had a few days in the city. But the focus is on the first time visitor.
I must put my prejudices aside for this exercise! They are arranged in no particular order.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
- Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point, but much more spectacularly, the Marin Headlands (below), which you access by going under the road just after the end of the bridge;
- Note that you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
- While you’re there, pop into Sausalito only a few miles away for lunch or coffee and fine views of the city;
- Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities;
- If you can, approach it by walking along the Marina, past Fort Mason, from Fisherman’s Wharf – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz.
2. Golden Gate Park
- Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences and the modern art de Young Museum;
- Japanese Tea Garden (it may be twee but it is set in lovely grounds and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café);
- Stow Lake (lovely to walk round, grab a hot dog at the boat house or book a pedal boat);
- Visit the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and the steamy Conservatory of Flowers;
- The buffalo paddock (the creatures are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill are also worth exploring at the other end of the park.
3. Ferry Building
- Fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, and the sixth best Farmers’ Market in the world (according to a recent survey) outside on certain days;
- Nice bookshop and great wine bar.
4. Cliff House
- Drive or take the 38 bus from downtown to cean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
- Stroll along the beach for miles;
- explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the sea birds on Seal Rock;
- Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park.
- Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about their daily business;
- Grant Avenue is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;
- You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the Obamas eat there, and the R & G Lounge;
- Don’t forget the side streets too with their views of the Bay Bridge and Financial District – and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory!
6. North Beach
- Traditionally the Italian quarter adjacent to Chinatown;
- Plenty of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste the most famous but Tosca, Greco and Puccini are really good too;
- We have enjoyed meals at the North Beach restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Firenze at Night and others;
- Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the shadow of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul;
- Have a glass or two at the Vesuvio Café, our favourite bar – historic haunt of the Beats, e.g. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
- Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, opposite Vesuvio;
- On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is the home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots;
- Reserve seats in advance for Beach Blanket Babylon, another thing you really should do – but best to book in advance
7. Palace of Fine Arts
- The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;
- Beautiful classical structure with a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;
- Whether you’re an old hippie (like me) or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
- Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.
- It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without a visit to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
- It is very popular so you should book in advance, preferably before you travel;
- The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better!
10. Bay Cruise
- Enjoy an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, as much for the wind as the sun;
- Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, or even go on to Angel Island and Tuburon;
- The Rocket Boat is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!
- Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
- Good shops and bars;
- It boasts a great movie house, the Castro Theatre, with its own wurlitzer; if you can, book tickets for a film. You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz.
12. Alamo Square
- Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.
- Boisterous, funky, and, at night, edgy Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood;
- Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
- Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church where it all started;
- But a picnic for Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!).
14. Coit Tower
- Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
- Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
- See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though they do frequent other parts of the city too now);
- Climb up at least one set of steps – there are several to choose from, including those that run past beautiful urban gardens.
15. Twin Peaks
- The most visited spot for panoramic views of the city, though there are others e.g. Bernal Heights just as good in my opinion.
16. Civic Center
- Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
- Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.
17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
- The most popular tourist spots on the bay, not my favourite but you cannot deny that it is a place of fun and energy;
- See, listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39;
- Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
- Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;
- The Hard Rock is here too if that is more your scene;
- The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
- The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city;
- Beware the World Famous Bushman!
18. Union Square
- San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, though I use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;
- There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Tadich Grill and Daily Grill;
- It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of which may approach you for money.
19. Bay Bridge
- Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;
- The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
- It is spectacularly lit up at night.
- San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated at the same time by both locals and visitors;
- The cable cars are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;
- The lines may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill is a thrilling experience;
- The historic F Streetcar that runs along Market and the Embarcadero from the Castro is charming if uncomfortable. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;
- All human life is there on the buses!
- Candlestick Park, home of the 49ers, is one of the most famous football stadia in America, and the 49ers won’t be there much longer, so get there quick!
- Even if it is baseball close season, take the tour of the Giant’s home, AT & T Park, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in America with wonderful views over the bay;
- You can get your (ice) hockey fix too by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.
This is not an exhaustive list and I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to Napa, Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!
I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.