Whether you are squeezed for time or on an epic vacation, the tiny 49 square miles of a city of ours has plenty of things to keep you fascinated and busy on your visit. Inspired by a few bloggers who’ve listed their favorite activities in their cities, here is my very own San Francisco sightseeing list of the 20 things that are absolute must dos and are guaranteed to make your stay in San Francisco super enjoyable. The list is based on my personal preference and might not include all generic, touristy things such as the holy quadruple of Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghiradelli Square, Chinta town and Lombard street that tops every TripAdviser list. Regardless, here are my top 20 suggestions for how to have a good time in fog city, in no definite order or pattern or rhyme or reason. San Francisco is the ultimate food city (read here to believe) and so dining favorites will have to wait for their own list. For everything else, read on! For more fun, cheap, free attractions, read my visiting SF on a budget guide here.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #1: Cable-cars
Despite being staunchly against anything remotely reeking of tourists, I am starting off the list with something on top of every visitors list; hypocrisy much? I think not. This is a must do for everyone setting foot in the city because its unadulterated fun and very iconic San Francisco. You will have a true appreciation of the city as you chug up Powell street to Fisherman’s Wharf via the quintessential neighborhoods of Nob Hill, Russian Hill and China Town plus the ringing of the cable car bell and the mechanics of maneuvering the vehicle are a real treat, not discounting the jolly conductor and driver. There are three cable car routes and more information can be found on their website.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #2: Coit Tower
For those of you who do not mind a good hike, climb to Coit Tower,looming over North Beach, via the steps on Filbert Street are an ideal exercise. Once you huff and puff your way up to the base of the tower, be prepared to be greeted by beautiful murals depicting the city life from decades ago. The murals are free and a small fee is needed to go the very top of the tower (via elevator), from where you can get sweeping views of the city. For more information, visit the website here.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #3: Golden Gate bridge
This one tops every to do list for San Francisco, and thus had to be included here as well. No trip to San Francisco can be complete without a glimpse of the iconic orange bridge that connects us to Marin county. Although chock full of tourists, its best to bike or walk across the bridge or simply drive up to the other side for an even more breathtaking view. Read here for visitors’ information.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #4: Murals of Mission
The neighborhood of mission is the largest, most diverse and the most happening in the city and legend has it that even if you dine out every single night in a year, you will still not be able to exhaust yourself of options. A neighborhood in the eye of the storm due to rapid gentrification, a neighborhood which is ephemeral and a neighborhood which is the hotbed of a changing city, Mission is dotted with old-school mom and pop taquerias, hipster cafes, small businesses and tons of good places to eat ranging from hole in the walls to upscale dining. But the one thing that you must set eyes on is the famous mural alley of Mission which is a political and social canvas for artists in the city and is plastered with some fantastic street art. Although almost all neighborhoods of San Francisco have their fair share of guerrilla street art, the Mission takes the cake, unquestionably! More information on Clarion aka mural alley here.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #5: Palace of Fine Arts
Built during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, to showcase the burgeoning economic power of the city recovering from 1906′s devastating earthquake and to celebrate the completion of the Panama canal, the Palace of Fine Arts is an architectural beauty and a sight to behold. The central mezzanine is gorgeous and hosts cultural events and the fountains and greenery form a beautiful place for respite from the city’s hum drum. Although another tourist favorite, this one should not be missed either. The POFA also nests a small exhibit on the exposition. More information on the palace here.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #6: Japan Town
San Francisco’s Japan town is one of the only three remaining in California (the other two being in San Jose and Los Angeles) and is not to be missed. Spread along a few blocks on Webster and Buchanan street (in the neighborhood of Western Addition), the “town” comprises of a peace plaza, a neat mall selling everything Japanese via its different vendors (food, cafes, boutiques, famous Kinokuniya bookstore and other businesses), a nearby Japanese grocery store (Nijiya Market) and many other cafes, gift shops and restaurants around the mall. It is a great place to pick up some of your Nippon favorites, get your Origami, Anime or Manga fill and stop by to sample a sweet potato latte (YakiniQ cafe) or the mouthwatering, belly satisfying Geisha Float (green tea slush with sweet red bean and ice-cream from Cafe Hana) or mouthwatering sweet crepes from Belly Good Cafe & Crepes. Better still, get a table for two for afternoon tea at the charming tea shop at the eclectic store that is New People.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #7: Alcatraz
Again, one more touristy thing but admit it, you will be hard pressed to find a penitentiary as cool as this and that too right in the middle of the ocean. Tickets sell out early, so please book online and line up for a memorable visit to one of the most notorious federal correction centers ever, now no longer functional and hosts a beautiful botanical garden full of native shrubbery. Also, no eating or drinking on the island beyond the landing. A complete review here in a former post.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #8: Golden Gate Park
Our very own Shangri-La in the city, the Golden Gate Park is a greenery abound as well as home to the California Academy of Sciences, the Shakespeare garden, the Arboretum, the Hagiwara tea garden and the beautiful de Young Museum. All of these are must visits, but you can skip all of these and simply stroll, jog or run through the park to attain a blissful Nirvana, a far cry from city’s humdrum. More information on the park to be found here.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #9: Haight
The neighborhood of Haight is the last hippie bastion in California and perhaps one of its kind in North America. A very quirky neighborhood filled with even more colorful characters, it is definitely not to be missed. Stroll along Haight street and stop by many of its local boutiques for unique offerings, my favorites being Merch, the world famous Amoeba Music and the 2nd Acts Market place, a coalition of food and drinks vendors bringing you everything from smoothies to Burmese food to crepes to Russian Piroshkis. Do not forget to snap that obligatory photo beneath the hugh fishnet stocking dangling legs above the Piedmont boutique!
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #10: Museums
Starting off with SF MOMA with the largest collection of modern art in North America and also an amazing restaurant In-situ that you totally need to check out. There two awesome fine arts museums as well, aka Legion of Honor and Asian Arts Museum, the former being a tad bit more favored owing to its breath taking location. Both museums are must visits for the art lover in you and have a very impressive collection of art, namely renaissance and baroque period at LOH (plus the largest collection of Auguste Rodin’s works outside of Paris) and South Asian art at the Asian Art Musuem. Plus as is customary with any museum worth its salt, there are special exhibits as well. Here is a former blog post on LOH plus more information here on the Asian Art Museum. Those curious at heart and with a scientific bend of mind will love the California Academy of Sciences and the The Exploratorium, a must visit for folks of all ages! If you feel that both are overcrowded with kids sapping you off your sanity, you would be better off attending these at night when they open their gates for adults only hours, termed “museum nightlife”.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #11: Ferry Building
The Ferry Building or Pier 1 was the erstwhile port of San Francisco and at present is the home to many local merchants, shops and restaurants. In addition, there is a humongous farmers’ market (the larger open air market in North America) year round that is not to be missed, especially on Saturdays. A must, must, must visit for a bite to eat or a gift to buy or for strolling through the din and bustle of the market to take in all of California’s rich bounty. Also, spectacular view of the Bay Bridge that is hard to pass up.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #12: Russian Hill
Russian Hill, one of my favorite neighborhoods, is sandwiched between North Beach and Telegraph hill and is quintessentially San Francisco. It is a quiet neighborhood at an elevation and thus provides beautiful vantage points of the bay and has beautiful homes with secret lanes, stairs winding up and hidden gardens. A must visit for fantastic views and for some zen moments.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #13: Sutro Bathhouse Ruins
The bathhouse ruins, are at the northwestern most point of the city, right next to the Cliff House (a fantastic spot for brunch) and in the Land’s End area which marks the end of Continental USA landmass. Developed by Adolph Sutro in 1894 as a swimming and recreational facility that did not translate into commercial success, the ruins are accessed via steep decent of stairs and rocky trail, but are totally worth the hike. Dress warmly (cause it gets really chilly and windy) and get a pair of sturdy boots/shoes and you are golden! More information available here, and do not forget to peep into the museum next door for history of the batch and other fun stuff. There is also an adjacent cafe should you feel the need to grab a bite.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #14: Painted Ladies, Alamo Square
The Painted ladies are a set of pretty Victorian style houses lined flanking one end of Alamo Square Park. Grab a basket and pick a sunny spot for picnic at the park, all the while marveling at another San Francisco icon, featured in several movies. Another must see, plus the park is majorly dog friendly! Since these houses are actually residential (i.e. people do inhabit them), several measures have been taken to respect their privacy including restricting access of tourist buses in that area. Your best bet is take public transportation and you can get all the relevant information here.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #15: The Presidio
The Presidio of San Francisco, once a military outpostfor three nations over 218 years, is now simply acres of green space abound with natural beauty and erstwhile army residences, the prestigious Presidio clubhouse, the Walt Disney Museum and a few restaurants such as a Commissary and Arguello, by famous SF chef Traci Des Jardins.The main attractions are the views, including a splendid one of the Golden Gate Bridge, summer night outdoor movie events and Picnic on the Presidio with food trucks. It has lots of hiking trails leading to the ocean (all dog friendly) , is home to Inspiration point, the famous look out spot and has the Lyon street steps near one of its entrances. For more information on this must visit part of the city, see here.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #16: Baker Beach
You cannot come to San Francisco and skip Baker Beach, the locals favorite beach with sweeping views of the bridge! Located next to the Presidio, it is well protected from touristy eyes (unlike Ocean beach) and is miles of sand with very clear, uninterrupted views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin. Do not venture far out into the rocky parts, cause you may find nudists enjoying their share of the sun. Beaches in San Francisco are notoriously windy with chilly, cold water so its best to dress in layers and go. The beach is dog friendly. For more information,here is the website.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #17: Look out points
I have compiled a list of San Francisco spots that offer spectacular views of the city and you can read all about them in this post here. These are all local favorites and will not appear in your run of the mill tourist guides or TripAdvisor forums. The hikes and climbs are great for your limbs, but even if you are not a health nut but simply want to soak all of the city in or need a resting place,far away from the maddening crowd of the tourists, with a great view or are a photography junkie or are simply trying to make social media envious with your shots, a few of these look out points (all free of cost) should be on your list, especially Tank Hill Park and Kite Hill Open Space Reserve. Our other favorites are Mt. Davidson Park (with gorgeous views of the city), Corona Heights and Bernal Heights Park/Bernal Hill (if you can climb all the way up the hill). The other safer option is near Twin Peaks (which is what most people go to and what was our quick photo shoot spot during our wedding) but these parks and open reserves are a better way of marveling at our beautiful city, from afar. All parks mentioned here are dog friendly.
(This photo courtesy: Anna Kuperberg)
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #18: Shopping/Books/Art
Skip the two cookie cutter malls (Westfield in downtown and Stonestown Galleria near Daly City), the chaos and glitz of Union Square (a poor replica of NYC and the least un-San Franciscan sight to behold) and shop in local boutiques and support small businesses that thrive in this city which is a huge patron of all things local. Visit the bustling strees of Union, Chestnut (Cow Hollow, Marina )and Fillmore (Pacific Heights) for shop till your drop beyond Market Street, the corridor of Valencia between 24-13th steet (Mission neighborhood) with local boutiques, he neighborhood of Haight for all things very funky and very San Francisco and very hippie-dippy, the trendy spots of Dogpatch for all things SFMade, a San Francisco based coalition of merchants making things in the city and many other small businesses and gift stores scattered all over.
Albert Einstein quipped once “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library”.Amen to that! Bibliophiles, if you are in search for a quiet spot to read or check out some SF based literature, Dog Eared books in the Mission or City Lights Books in North Beach or Browser books on Fillmore are small businesses doing great with the written word. Books, Inc. with its vast selection boasts to be the West Coats’s oldest independent book seller and is a treat for book lovers. Finally, you always have the public libraries in San Francisco to slake your thirst for knowledge, the complete list being here.
San Francisco is for art lovers and renegade artists, mavericks and those with adventures in their soul. The city is a muralist’s paradise but also caters to the status quo of art via museums and through several small,independent galleries showcasing local artists. My favorite are the galleries in Mission and SOMA, namely the City Art Gallery (co-op owned by artists) and SOMArts Cultural Center respectively. For a full list of SF art galleries, see here and here. If you are a visiting art lover when the SF open studio events happen (Oct-Nov), do not give the event a miss. In its 40th year, the SF open studio events show case hundreds of local artists and the studios are thrown open to general public for direct purchase from the artists. A great initiative to support local talent and artists, more information here on how to keep the art community thriving in this tech city of ours.
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #19: Castro and Dolores Park
No matter what your religious beliefs may be, borrow yourself some open minded progressiveness and visit Castro, one of the friendliest neighborhoods of the city, which is iconic San Francisco for the being the hub of the Gay Rights movement. The Harvey Milk museum (HM was the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco) aside, this place is also full of great eateries and the Castro theater, one of the very remaining single screen theaters in the city. The theater showcases awesome film festivals of different genres (Noir, silent etc) and there is also an organ player who rises to the stage from below and entertains you for sometime before the show starts.
The Castro weaves into the Mission via Dolores Park in the way, which is the largest patch of green in the two neighborhoods. A great spot to hang out and witness SF yuppie/hipster life, Dolores Park is again very quintessentially San Francisco. Get an ice-cream from the world famous BiRite creamery nearby and don’t forget your picnic baskets to the park!
San Francisco sightseeing attraction #20: Marina and Fort Mason
SF Marina is our northern most neighborhood with fantastic views of the bay, the orange bridge, wisps of white clouds above and dove tailed white boats sailing below on the azure blue water. Nothing beats this view, plus the green lawn flanked by candy colored, slightly slanted homes on one side and a walkway on the other is great for pooches and some kite flying. Walk, rest, jog-take your pick, but do visit the marina. The adjacent fort Mason is home to Greens, a vegetarian restaurants, Sunday farmers’ market and many exhibit halls hosting arts&crafts fairs as well as SF library book sales. Its biggest draw lies in the food truck fiesta (boasting of dozens of trucks, live music and a beer garden) every year from Spring-October end.
Hopefully this list has given you enough fodder to spice up your itinerary and include some never before venues in the traditional to-do list. Have fun visiting San Francisco and let me know of your favorite SF memories!
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