Set along the ocean, with rolling hills and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States and the jewel of Northern California. The city is full of history, great neighborhoods, parks, beaches, museums, and a whole host of entertainment options and things to do.
Some of the most famous attractions are Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf, but the sightseeing possibilities here are extensive. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest of its kind in North America and definitely worth visiting. For an interesting experience, hop on one of the historic cable cars and tour the city.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is a California icon gracing San Francisco Bay. It is the most photographed site in the city, with the orange structure backed by blue water, or in many cases, peaking through low lying cloud. At night, the flood-lit structure is equally striking.
Connecting San Francisco with Marin County and other districts further north, the Golden Gate Bridge was, at one time, designated the greatest man-made sight in the United States by the U.S. Travel Service. Opened on May 28th, 1937, the bridge took four years to build and at the time of its completion, was the longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring approximately two miles in length.
Many locals enjoy biking across the bridge to the nearby waterfront town of Sausalito. Pedestrian access is on the East Sidewalk; bicycle access is on the East and West Sidewalks. The bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists during daylight hours.
On the opposite side of the bridge, in Marin County, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is another good spot. Also, if you are planning on taking a tour to Alcatraz, there are completely open views from the boat and island.
The historic and notorious Alcatraz penitentiary, located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, is one of America’s most infamous prisons. It operated for almost thirty years, closing in 1963 and re-opening as a tourist attraction in 1973. Some of America’s most well-known criminals were inmates here, including Al Capone and the “Birdman,” who would later form the basis for the fictional movie The Birdman of Alcatraz.
You can take a ferry over to the island and tour the site while listening to an exceptional audio recording that offers a glimpse into life in the prison, rather than just a historical list of the facts. The narration is even voiced by former inmates and guards of Alcatraz.
In the course of its 30-year existence, the penitentiary received a total of 1,576 convicts. There were never more than 250 at any one time, even though there were 450 cells measuring about 10ft by 4ft. At times the number of guards and staff was greater than the number of convicts.
While most people come for the history or the novelty of seeing a former prison, the island is now a prominent area for nesting seabirds.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist areas. If this is your first visit to the city and you only have a day or two to see the sights, Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the best places to visit. This old section, once the Little Italy of San Francisco, is known for its shops, restaurants, and beautiful setting along the waterfront. The views from Pier 39 back towards the city are exceptional.
It’s a fun place to stroll around and get a taste for the city. From here, you can also take a sightseeing cruise for spectacular views of the city, or organize a fishing charter. The docks by pier 39 are some of the best areas in the city to see sea lions.
Some of the main attractions in the area are Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, Musée Mécanique, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, and Ghirardelli Square. Restored 19th- and 20th-century ships line the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier, which is now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
Cable Cars were introduced in 1873 to help locals contend with the many hills the city is built on. Today, the few remaining cable cars offer tourists a great way to explore the city in historic fashion. Since 1964, these tram-like vehicles have had the unique distinction of being the only public transport system to be declared a historic monument.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park, home to gardens and museums, is a fabulous green space in the heart of San Francisco, often considered the “lungs” of the city. Before development began in 1871, this was an area of arid dunes.
Today, the park has a network of walking trails and cycling paths, more than 5,000 different kinds of plants and dozens of species of trees, several lakes, bridle paths, and a buffalo paddock. The main attractions include the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences Museum with Steinhart Aquarium, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Golden Gate Park is one of those places that can just as easily take up a couple of hours as a couple of days. Bike rentals are available, and this can be a good way to explore the park, rather than trying to do everything on foot. Alternatively, try an organized 2.5-hour Segway Tour with a local guide, and hit all the major highlights.
You may have been to Chinatown in other cities, but San Francisco’s Chinatown is a whole other realm. It is both the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest of its kind in North America. Almost completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown was rebuilt entirely in the Chinese style and was soon even more attractive than before the disaster.
Now with its temples, theaters, workshops, small businesses, stores, antique and souvenir shops, teahouses, and traditional pharmacies, visiting Chinatown has become one of the top things to do in San Francisco.
If you are traveling through San Francisco during an important Chinese holiday or event, you can expect to see an elaborate celebration. Chinese New Year celebrations are often considered the best in North America. The main street in Chinatown for tourists is Grant Avenue, with the Chinatown Gateway at Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
Legion of Honor
An impressive Neoclassical Beaux-Arts building in an amazing setting, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is San Francisco’s most exquisite museum. The Legion of Honor was the gift of the socialite, philanthropist, and patron of the arts Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Because of her love for all things Parisian, the museum was designed as a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris.
The Legion of Honor museum has a superb collection of European decorative arts, sculpture, and paintings, along with antiquities from the Mediterranean and Near East. Admission to this museum also gives you same-day admission to the de Young Museum.
The museum is in Lincoln Park, a gorgeous green space with a golf course and coastal woodlands and a wonderful place for a leisurely walk. Just outside the museum, visitors may follow the path along Lincoln Highway, which boasts spectacular ocean vistas and perfect outlooks onto the Golden Gate Bridge.
Those seeking a more adventurous hike can head to the Land’s End Trail. This winding cliffside trail in a wild, rugged terrain offers sweeping Pacific Ocean views and panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is the last remaining structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this classical looking building is beautifully situated on a lagoon that reflects the mirror image on the surface of the calm water, while ducks and geese drift by.
The palace has been restored, along with the grounds, and today hosts art exhibitions and performances. The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre seats approximately 1,000 patrons.
Roof of the California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park, is an architectural marvel as well as a multifaceted museum. This state-of-the-art “green” building with a sustainable design has a 2.5-acre Living Roof, covered with native plants and even rolling hills to match the natural surroundings. The roof also has solar panels to generate electricity, and the soil acts as natural insulation. The walls are largely made of glass allowing for natural light.
Inside is an incredible natural history museum, planetarium, aquarium, rainforest, and more. The Steinhart Aquarium includes some 38,000 live specimens and a 25-feet-deep coral reef. The Osher Rainforest is four stories high and houses animals and amphibians in a fantastic layout.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is one of the city’s top museums, with 170,000 square feet of exhibition space spread across 10 floors. The museum focuses on 20th-century art, in all forms, and the innovative and interesting exhibits are constantly changing. The permanent collection consists of 33,000 pieces, and one of the more interesting collections are contained within the Fisher Collection.
The museum is housed in a modern, architecturally stunning building that was extensively renovated and expanded in 2016. The light and airy building is a pleasure to wander about.
Should you work up an appetite, grab a bite at Café 5 in the museum’s Jean and James Douglas Family Sculpture Garden. For a more refined dining experience, try and secure a table at the Michelin-starred In Situ restaurant.
de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
In Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is a fine arts museum, and one of the largest public art institutions in San Francisco. Exhibits cover a variety of time frames and geographical locations. While art and period interiors from North America feature strongly in the collection, many other exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East are of note. British art and folk art from Africa, America, and the Pacific Islands, are also well represented.
The view from Twin Peaks at sunrise
These two uninhabited hills, more than 900 feet high, have one of the finest views out over the city and bay. Access is easy – you can drive to the north peak parking area, park your car, and soak up the amazing vista.
For those looking for a bit of activity, take a hike along trails over the north and south peaks. This is some of the best hiking in San Francisco. While up here, you may be forgiven for thinking these are the highest of San Francisco’s 43 hills; however, that lofty distinction belongs to Mount Davidson, which is 33 feet higher.
The Twin Peaks are the only hills in San Francisco not to have been built over and remain in their original state. The Spaniards called them “Los pechos de la Chola” or the Breasts of the Indian Maiden. Even on warm days, strong, cool breezes blow in from the Pacific, especially in the late afternoon.
Asian Art Museum
The Asian Art Museum is unquestionably one of the most important museums in San Francisco. The museum opened in 1966, with the basis of the collection coming from art collector Avery Brundage.
Brundage built up a private collection, which in 1959 he offered to the city of San Francisco “to bridge the gap between East and West.” The museum building was constructed, and on his death in 1975 at the age of 88, the museum also received the rest of his collection of works of art in the form of a legacy.
Building on this, the museum has continued to amass various pieces and now contains an extensive collection of sculptures, paintings, bronzes, ceramics, jade carvings, and architectural fragments from Japan, Korea, China, India, Iran, and other Asiatic cultures. The works span more than 6,000 years. Plans are afoot for a substantial expansion, with the creation of a new pavilion.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, not to be confused with Golden Gate Park, is a huge natural area located across the Golden Gate Bridge from downtown San Francisco. This 600-square-mile park in Marin County is a designated Biosphere Reserve and home to a myriad of attractions. It is also simply a beautiful place to enjoy nature and relax.
The park has walking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and beautiful beach areas. Some of the beaches have fabulous views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is also a place of history and home to the historic Fort Baker, a former US Army post from the early 20th century.
Hot air balloons over the Napa Valley
Less than 1.5 hours from San Francisco, Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are the two best-known and largest grape-growing areas in California. Many people day trip to this area to enjoy the scenery and stop in at some of the sites along the way.
Situated at the southern end of the valley of the same name, some 52 miles from San Francisco, Napa is one of the largest Californian towns north of San Francisco. This is an incredibly scenic area with a drier climate than the coastal regions. It was founded in 1848 and bears the name of the long extinct Napa Indians. The western boundary is formed by the Napa Mountains. The Howell Mountains form the eastern boundary of Napa County and they also protect the valley from storms.