San Francisco sits on a beautiful bay, surrounded by water almost in every direction. Tall modern buildings fill the skyline at the center while Victorian buildings of every size and shape adorn the surrounding neighborhoods.
To connect everything and keep the city moving, San Francisco has one of the best transportation systems in the US. You can take an electric bus to your destination, ride one of the famous Cable Cars, take a taxi, ride a ferry boat or if you insist you can drive. Whenever I visit San Francisco I ditch the car. Parking is difficult to find and expensive. Also, if you are not used to it, driving up and down the hills could be challenging. If your destination is a neighboring city or the airport, you can take the BART train.
Connecting San Francisco to Marin County is the most famous bridge in the world: The Golden Gate Bridge. On the other side, if you are going to Oakland you will cross over another beautiful bridge: The Bay Bridge.
San Francisco is also a haven for active people. You can walk to many destinations or ride the bike. Walking and biking are the best ways to explore the city when you are not in a hurry. Obviously, you have to avoid the big hills - unless you are a professional cyclist. You can always rent an electric bike to help with those hills.
There is so much to see and do in San Francisco and surrounding areas. It is just not possible to do it all in one visit.
One of the best ways to experience San Franciso is by getting a CityPASS that includes many SF attractions.
You can start by doing the touristy thing: Go the Fisherman’s Warf and have a bowl of clam chowder; Visit Pier-39 with all the shops and restaurants; Walk and shop through Chinatown; Take a bus tour; Go to the Golden Gate Bridge; or take a cruise to Alcatraz.
Then you can really start exploring the area: Go to Golden Gate Park; Hike through the Muir Woods; Go on a wine tasting tour of Napa Valley; Take the ferry to a neighboring city; Join a guided bike ride over the Golden bridge and into Sausalito; Hike through Angel Island; Visit the Museum of Modern Art; or take the kids to The Exploratorium.
Getting there and around
I highly recommend flying into San Francisco then taking a shuttle or the BART train to your hotel. If you fly in you will not have to worry about parking or driving the crazy hills. BART is cheaper, but you will have to disembark at a station close to your hotel then take a bus or taxi. Go here for details.
If you drive, try to find a hotel that offers parking, or find one close to large parking structures. Ask the hotel for parking information. Here are some tips on driving in S.F.
Finally, if you are going to drive from LA to S.F. then consider taking the Pacific Coast Highway for a most amazing road trip. More details in another article, but watch this video for a taste of this amazing trip.
Must see and do
Here is a list of main attractions that most tourists will visit when they come to San Francisco. Although those places are very touristy and commercialized, you will still enjoy your visit. The only drawback is the large crowds. You can avoid most of the crowds by going during the weekdays.
Deeper into the pier, you can get the “7D Experience”. A roller-coaster, 3D movie and laser tag experience.
While at the pier, don’t forget to try the Musical Stairs where you can make music by going up and down the stairs.
For the young and young at heart try the Carousel or catch a puppet show.
One of the biggest attractions at the pier is the large population of Sea Lions that made the docks their home. Just walk to the edge or sides of the pier and enjoy the boisterous Pinnipeds and their antics.
Also close to the pier you can rent a bike for a whole day or go on a guided bike tour. I suggest doing both a cruise and bike tour to see the Golden Gate Bridge from all angles. More details later about both tours.
Pier-39 has a lot of dining options including restaurants with amazing views of the bay. My favorite at the pier is Neptune’s Waterfront Grill & Bar. It has good food and the best view.
But for a more authentic San Francisco experience start walking towards Fisherman’s Wharf.
As you walk west from Pier-39 you will start seeing bike rental shops, gift shops and several fleets of cruise ships. Keep going until you see the famous seafood street vendors where you can get your fill of fresh crab sandwiches or clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. If you like your dining a little fancier, check out the restaurants right on the docks.
At the wharf, you can also visit the SS. Jeremiah O'Brien – a fully functional Liberty class warship. Also near the wharf, you can experience the strange and unusual at the “Ripley's Believe It or Not!” museum.
After your lunch or dinner, continue to head west on Beach or Jefferson. Along the way, you will encounter a lot of street performers and arts and crafts vendors. Some of them will show off their steel drum rhythms, others will play the guitar and sing.
At Beach and Hyde you will come across Aquatic Park and one of the main Cable Car stations. You can end your walk here and take the Cable Car to another destination, or you can continue on to Ghirardelli Square home of the famous chocolates. Ghirardelli Square is also home to “Kara's Cupcakes” with a large variety of the scrumptious little treats.
The cable cars in San Francisco are the most recognizable icon of the city. They were started by a new arrival from England who witnessed a bad accident with a horse pulling a carriage uphill (see more about the history here). In 1873 the first cable car line started public service on Clay street.
The cable cars are a functional mode of transportation and a tourist attraction at the same time. Locals use them to get from place to place and tourists jump on them just for the thrilling experience.
Tip: Be warned that during peak times many cable cars will pass you by before you can find an empty spot. Your best bet is to start at one of the stations. See rider’s guide here.
You can hop off at any stop along the way, but don’t expect a guaranteed spot if you decide to continue the route later.
The Hide & Beach station is right at Aquatic Park which is a nice walking distance from Fisherman’s Warf and Pier 39.
While waiting for your turn to ride the cable car you are usually entertained by street performers – some are very good and others are plain annoying.
The ride from this station will take you all the way to Powel and Market station passing by Lombard Street, Cable Car Museum, Nob Hill, Chinatown and Union Square. Along the way, you will also enjoy great views of both bridges.
A short walk from Pier-39 or Embarcadero is a street you must see to believe. After walking for a few blocks on a normal looking residential street you will start noticing the twists and turns going up the hill.
The climb up the last few blocks of the street is very steep with hairpin turns. Those sharp turns earn it the title of the “crookest street in the world”.
If you don’t want to walk up Lombard Street, you can still enjoy this unique sight from the Powell-Hyde Cable Car Line.
Chinatown is a delight for shoppers and Asian food connoisseurs. You will find everything Chinese you can imagine. Gift shops, Jewelry, Dim Sum restaurants, Vegetable markets, Tea Rooms and a fortune cookie factory.
The best way to enter Chinatown is at the intersection of Grant Ave. and Bush St. This is where the famous dragon gate is located.
Tip: Unlike most stores in America, haggling about the price is acceptable – especially in gift and souvenir shops. If you find an item you like don’t be afraid to ask for a discount.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most recognizable and visited San Francisco landmarks. It is also considered the most photographed bridge in the world. You really have to visit this engineering marvel at least once in your life.
The bridge officially opened in 1937 and connected San Francisco and Marin County for the first time. The Golden Gate Bridge held the record for the longest span - 4200 feet - for a long time.
There are two visitor centers - one on each end of the bridge. Both have amazing views of the bay and the city and the long span of the bridge itself, but the south Plaza was recently renovated.
Tip: Parking is very limited at the plazas. It is highly recommended to use public transportation or biking.
If you are up to it, you can walk the length of the bridge to the other end – stopping frequently at the vista points. The hike along the bridge is about 1.7 miles long. If you don’t feel like hiking the whole distance, go up to the middle for a great view.
While you are looking down and across the bay, you will see a lot of cruise ships passing under the bridge. You will also have a good view of Alcatraz Island.
You can go with your typical cruise ship, a sailboat or a rocket boat depending on the pace you want to set.
A typical bay and bridge cruise takes from 1 to 2 hours. Some cruises include a visit to Alcatraz and may take half a day.
If you want a thrill ride, try the Rocket Boat operated by the Blue and Gold fleet. This speed boat can get up to 50 miles per hour and will take around 30 minutes to complete the cruise. Be ready to get drenched – especially if you are sitting in the back seats.
For a more relaxed and leisurely pace take a Catamaran Sail Ship around the bay.
During my last visit, I went on a Golden Gate Bay cruise with the Red and White Fleet. The boat was large with seats and tables on the lower deck and benches on the open upper deck. They also had a bar and snacks.
The tour itself was excellent. We got to see the Golden Gate Bridge and go under it, we got very close to Alcatraz and we always had great views of the San Francisco skyline. All throughout the cruise, we had headsets to listen to some useful information. The only drawback is that the headsets sometimes stopped working and gave out an annoying noise.
Tip: No matter how nice the weather is in San Francisco, you will probably need a sweater or jacket during the cruise. The strong wind and sea water make the temperatures feel much cooler than they really were.
You can use a ferry to get to many cities around the bay like Tuberon, Sausalito or Vallejo. The ferry building is the main port for all ferries and it is also a marketplace with many shops and restaurants.
From this area, you also have a great view of the Bay Bridge. The bridge lights up at night with 25,000 individually programmed lights for a dazzling show.
Out of the Ordinary
One of the most enjoyable ways to experience parts of San Francisco is biking. There are a lot of bike rental and tour operators in S.F. You can rent a bike for the whole day or you can join a guided tour.
I booked my tour with Blazing Saddles. They have several locations throughout the city, but I started my trip at the Hyde street location. This tour passes through many S.F. points of interest like Fort Mason; Palace of Fine Arts; Presidio National Park.
The highlight of the tour is biking from the Fort Point to the Golden Gate Bridge and continuing over the bridge for 1.7 miles.
Tip: The climb from the bottom of the bridge (at Bay level) to the top is very steep. If you don’t think you can make it, you can rent one of the electric bikes. They have a small motor that will assist you on the difficult climbs.
Once you arrive at Sausalito you can ride the ferry back to San Francisco or you can go exploring the great bike trails in Marin County. The ferry ticket is included in your tour price.
A short bike ride takes you to the neighboring town of Tiburon. You can take the Tiburon ferry back to San Francisco.
Tip: During peak season and weekends the places set aside for bikes on a ferry get filled up quickly. You may have to get in line and wait for the next ferry.
You can get to places like Sausalito, Angel Island, AT&T Park, Oakland and Vallejo.
At Sausalito downtown, you can enjoy the shops and restaurants close to the ferry terminal or you can take a bike ride to the Redwoods, Mill Valley or Tiburon.
On Angel Island you can go hiking, biking or just enjoy a picnic on the beach. The island also has a cafe offering unique sandwiches and wraps.
AT&T Park is home to the SF Giants Baseball major league team but it also hosts other major events like Cirque Du Soleil.
The city of Vallejo is a ferry ride away and is host to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – an amusement and water park.
Angel Island State Park
To get to the island you will need to take a ferry or use a private boat. Ferries run multiple times a day but are limited during winter months.
You can start your visit by taking a tram tour of the island to familiarize yourself with the park. You can also take Segway or Diggler (a kind of scooter) tour.
Tip: The last tram tour is at 2 PM. so make sure to get there early enough to catch the tram.
You can also enjoy the long and winding hiking trails which take you from the sea level to an elevation of 788 ft. Those trails provide an amazing view of San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge.
Finally, you can bike on the main roads which circle the island. You can bring your own bike or rent one at the park.
You are welcome to bring your own snacks or picnic, but you can also dine at the Cafe, which offers unique sandwiches and wraps.
But is really worth a visit or two. At the lower level, you can enjoy huge murals covering all walls. After a short elevator ride, you will reach the observation deck with a great 360-degree view of the city and the bay.
You can reach the tower by car, but for best experience try to hike to the top from Embarcadero.
Start near Lombard street and find the Greenwich steps. Going up the steps might be intimidating but you will find a lot of places along the way to rest and take some photos of the gardens and the bay.
The Marin Headlands
The winding road from the bridge level to the top commands amazing views of the bridge below and the city skyline across the bay. Many vista points are available along the way where you can park and get out to enjoy the view and take pictures.
At the highest point, there is a large parking lot and hiking trails that take you to the top of the hill.
During our last visit, this hilltop was in the middle of the clouds. Where we stood, we could see clouds passing above us and clouds passing below. It was an awe-inspiring feeling.
Muir Woods is the last remaining grove of Giant Red Wood trees in the bay area and it is located right outside of the city of San Francisco. In 1908 it was declared a national monument and named after the naturist John Muir in recognition of his conservation efforts. It is a must-see spot for nature lovers and hikers. This also was the filming location for the 2011 movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)”. See the full article here
Golden Gate Park
It is one of the largest urban parks in the US. It rivals New York’s central park in size – around 1,017 acres of multi-use lush land. The park is full of fun and activities for residents and visitors.
The park is home to the famous Conservatory of Flowers and Japanese Tea Garden, lots of playgrounds, lakes, picnic areas and sports venues.
At the west end of the park you can find an authentic windmill that was actually used to irrigate the parklands. Next to the windmill, you will find Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden – a perfect match to the windmill.
Park visitors can enjoy music events at the Music Concourse or visit the Academy of Sciences museum. The Academy of Sciences offers a lot of fixed and visiting exhibits. Some of the most interesting exhibits are Planetarium; Aquarium; Rain Forests of the World. The building itself is an exhibit on how to build green and sustainable habitats.
A great way to experience this vast park is to bike through the long walkways and trails. You can actually bike from Fisherman’s Warf to the middle of the park in about 50 minutes (6 miles).
The lakes (or ponds) are stocked with fish so you can go fishing – or you can have a leisurely ride on the paddle boats.
More information go to the official website.
Some of the photos in this article were downloaded from Wikipedia under the Wikimedia Commons license.