San Francisco is a huge, multicultural city in Northern California, frequently cited as one of the best places to live in the U.S. and almost always voted # 1 city destination in the U.S in recent years. Despite this, aside from the Golden Gate Bridge, no one tourist attraction leaps out to represent San Francisco. This has left a few friends and family asking what exactly there is to do in San Francisco aside from eating and drinking (Dan and my favorite thing to do when traveling!) Well, don’t worry. There is a lot to see and do in San Francisco, and even more in the surrounding area. Here are our must-see tourist sights for first time visitors to San Francisco, in no particular order.
Fisherman’s Wharf – Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most well-known areas of San Francisco; it is typically loved by tourists and despised by locals. Fisherman’s Wharf is THE place to get views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the San Francisco Bay. The area is (not surprisingly) super touristy and commercial, with numerous stores selling any and everything branded “San Fran,” a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, chain restaurants and all of those other big box attractions. While super touristy, Fisherman’s Wharf is also home to the adorable sea lions, ferries to Alcatraz and Sausalito and the famous streetcars. As such, Fisherman’s Wharf is a must-see for all first-time visitors to San Francisco. Here are some pictures from Fisherman’s Wharf…the picture on the bottom right is the view looking down on Fisherman’s Wharf with Alcatraz in the background! If you have time, I highly recommend walking down the hills to Fisherman’s Wharf. Stunning views when the weather is nice!
Our favorite highlights were the lovely views of the Golden Gate Bridge, eating at In N Out Burger (a California fast food institution!) and stopping for an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Social Club – the alleged birthplace of the Irish Coffee! Other favorites may include viewing the sea lions (pier 39), taking a ferry to Alcatraz Island, eating seafood chowder from a bread bowl (although I recommend doing this elsewhere not catered solely to tourists, such as Swan Oyster Depot!) and catching a streetcar (there is a tourist-friendly stop here!). Below are some pictures of the Irish Coffee, which is made with such precision!
Ghirardelli Square – Literally right next door to Fisherman’s Wharf (and technically part of Fisherman Wharf) is Ghirardelli Square – the old Ghirardelli factory with the well-known GHIRARDELLI on the roof (you’ve seen it in pictures). I see it as the newer, cleaner, grown-up commercial tourist attraction. Ghirardelli Square contains a number of upscale gift shops (compared to Fisherman’s Wharf) and casual eateries, including several branches of Ghirardelli! Ghirardelli Square is also home to the Waddle Creek Winery‘s tasting room, where you can do a tasting of California wines if you do not make it to wine country!
Depending on how much you like to shop (the stores in Ghirardelli Square do have some interesting, nontraditional souvenirs…I made several purchases…), I would allow some time for shopping and snacking. There are usually free chocolate samples available! Here is me in front of one of the Ghirardelli shops!
Lombard Street – Lombard Street is famously known as the “most crooked street in the world.” Located very close to Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, Lombard Street is an actual street and frequently used. At the bottom and top of Lombard Street, tourists line up to snap pictures of it, which seems really annoying to those actually driving! Lombard Street is pretty cool; go for a picture but remember it’s a real street. You can drive down it (one way) if you have a car! Since Lombard Street is a quick stop and super close to Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, I recommend combining these sites into one sightseeing experience!
Golden Gate Bridge – The highlight of San Francisco. Of course we went here, and so should you! There are a number of ways to tour the Golden Gate Bridge, from simply viewing it from afar, taking a guided tour, walking, biking or driving across the bridge, or walking/hiking around on your own in the (very expansive) national park that surrounds it – the Presidio. We rode over the bridge on our Napa tour, so we spent our “Golden Gate sightseeing morning” taking pictures of the bridge from the visitors center and wandering around the Presidio on our own. Even though it was foggy, we got some beautiful pictures of the Bridge and the Bay! Be sure to look out for surfers in the cold water near the Bridge! Here is the Bridge from the visitor’s center, and me walking through a passageway in the Presidio:
We got to the Golden Gate Bridge by taking a cab to the visitor center, where there is a small café, gift shop, information center and restrooms. There is parking available, but it was incredibly backed up when we visited. I recommend taking a cab or an Uber if you are not familiar with the area. After exploring the Golden Gate Bridge and park, we walked to our next destination, just an enjoyable stroll away, the Palace of Fine Arts!
Palace of Fine Arts – More under the radar than the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts is also a San Francisco landmark. The Palace of Fine Arts is a structure that was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to showcase art. The structure is a charming spot to visit and an excellent photo opportunity. The Palace of Fine Arts now hosts exhibitions and is quite popular for professional photography (think lots of weddings!). Go early to avoid the crowds in your pictures (see below)!
The Painted Ladies – THE Full House houses! I loved Full House growing up and always dreamed of seeing these San Francisco row houses in person (dream big, right?) I made Dan go visit them with me one morning; he was not nearly as excited. The Painted Ladies are located right off Alamo Square. The location is not exactly close to any other big tourist sites, but it’s a very safe, upscale area, complete with lots of coffee shops and cafes. Note – the Ms. Doubtfire house is in the vicinity, too! Go here for photos, a stroll and a coffee.
The Mission – We stayed in a lovely AirBnB apartment in the Mission, so it became our temporary home rather than a destination for us! However, if you are not staying in the Mission, you should certainly spend some time in this multicultural neighborhood. The Mission has played home to a number of subcultures in San Francisco, and is most recently known as a young, hipster neighborhood with lots of shops, restaurants and activities. For sightseeing purposes, the neighborhood itself warrants a stroll, popping into a restaurant for lunch or coffee. In terms of actual sites, Dolores Park and Mission Dolores and its basilica warrant stops! I recommend combining this stop with lunch or an early dinner in the Mission. Seriously, there are so many good, inexpensive restaurants here. We enjoyed Four Barrel Coffee, Tacqueria Cancun, Mission Chinese, Ritual Coffee and Aster (for a more formal meal). Here are some pictures from the hip Mission District; as you can see, its quite diverse. Top – Giants mural in Spanish, fancy coffee from Ritual, pretty trees in front of colorful houses, a delicious taco shop and our fancy dessert at Aster!
Chinatown – San Francisco’s Chinatown is North America’s oldest and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Established in the mid-1800s, this neighborhood has been, and remains, extremely influential in the Chinese-American community. San Francisco’s primary Chinatown begins at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Stockton Street (not too far from Union Square), at the well-known Dragon Gate. Dan and I took a tour of Chinatown with Local Tastes of the City, but you could easily walk though Chinatown on your own. It’s very pretty, with loads of Chinese influences. There is shopping, eating and the infamous Chinese Mai Tai at the Li Po bar (the cocktail of Anthony Bourdain fame). Chinatown is worth spending some time visiting if you have free time, and its not too far from Union Square (where a lot of hotels are located!) Pictures: Dragon’s Gate, view of a main street in Chinatown, a very Chinese-influenced building, a woman making fortune cookies and the infamous Chinese Mai Tai!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Fisherman’s Wharf – The entire area is pedestrian friendly. I recommend walking or taking a cab. If you drive, you will have to find a place to park and pay. Walking around Fisherman’s Wharf is totally free.
Ghirardelli Square – Walking around Ghirardelli Square is free. Again, I recommend taking a cab, public transportation or driving.
Lombard Street – Visiting Lombardy Street is free.
Golden Gate Bridge – The Golden Gate Bridge and Presidio are free to enter and explore. However, there is a toll to drive over the bridge.
Palace of Fine Arts – The Palace of Fine Arts is free when there is no exhibition. Exhibitions and performances usually charge a fee.
Painted Ladies – Alamo Park is free to explore and photograph the Painted Ladies. Note – you cannot enter the actual houses.
The Mission – The Mission is free to walk around.
ON A BUDGET
Most all of the listed sties are free! Eating delicious food at a casual eatery in the Mission is a good way to save money…don’t let the unimpressive store fronts turn you away!