The Best Things To Do In San Francisco, California
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San Francisco is a unique place and one of the most interesting cities in the US. It has a rich history from the Gold Rush times, world-known landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, and interesting stories about the escape from Alcatraz. San Francisco is the place of the rich with the highest salaries, disposable income, and median house pricing in the world. However, walking in the streets around downtown will show you more homeless people than you probably have ever seen. The famous Cable car gives you the feeling that you are somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century. The skyscrapers of downtown will remind you how modern the city is. It’s a city for sightseeing, learning history, eating well and having lots of fun. Here are the best things to do in San Francisco:
Visit Union Square
Union Square is the heart of downtown San Francisco, located in the center of the neighborhood with the same name. This is the place for shopping, dining, and going out at night. The hotels around the square are fancy (and pretty expensive), and one to notice is The Westin St. Francis on the west side. The building is impressive, and, in the lobby, you can see some very old artifacts from 100 years ago.
The square is the place to start your visit to the city and get the vibes of San Francisco. This city is special and even when it’s full of people it is relatively chilled and easy-going. Enjoy a coffee on the square, stroll in the streets around, explore the stores around you, find a place for lunch in the wide variety of restaurants, and plan the rest of your visit from here.
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
Constructed in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is the most iconic symbol of San Francisco and the US West Coast. When it was built, it was the longest – 4200 ft (1280 m) – and tallest – 746 ft (227m) suspension bridge in the world. It was designed specifically for this area, taking into consideration the strong winds and earthquakes that the bay is known for.
The bridge is beautiful and impressive, and it’s one of the most photographed bridges in the world. Your eyes will be constantly looking for it and the best place for pictures is from the north shore. The closer you get, the better your pictures will be.
Crossing the bridge towards the other side of the bay is one of the coolest things to do when visiting San Francisco, and it gives you a spectacular view of the city from the north. Another fascinating way to experience the bridge is by taking a cruise in the bay and seeing it from below.
Tip: I recommend planning a full bridge and bay experience on a bicycle. Renting a bicycle is common here, and I had a good experience with Blazing Saddles on 2715 Hyde street. This is their closest store to the bridge and they allow you to return the bike whenever you want, even after closing hours. Take the bike and ride towards the bridge, get on it, and cross to the other side. Once there, make your way to the fancy little town of Sausalito. From here you can take a ferry back to the city (it stops at the Ferry Building), with your bicycle. This is a 3-4 hours super fun activity, but prepare yourself for some high uphill roads.
Visit Fisherman’s wharf
Fisherman’s wharf is the touristic side of San Francisco, located on the northern waterfront of the city. According to its name, this is is the place for seafood restaurants. Jefferson St. is the place for some indoor activities that your kids (but not only) will love, like the Madame-Tussauds and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museums. My favorite attraction is the San Francisco Dungeon, where you get a taste of the history of the city from a different and scary perspective. It is one of the fun things to do in San Francisco – don’t miss it.
San Francisco Dungeon
Address: 145 Jefferson St Suite 600, San Francisco
Book your tickets in advance here.
Watch the sea lions at Pier 39
On the east side of Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 is one of the most popular sites in the city. This is where you can find street performances, colorful souvenir shops, restaurants, and sea lions. Yes, the sea lions!
The first sea lions came here in 1989. Since then pier 39 is the home of a large community of these beautiful, vocal, and massive creatures that reached over 1000 at its peak. Come here to watch them enjoying the sun and making their famous barking and growling sounds.
Stroll in the streets of Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest one Chinatown in North American and the biggest one outside of Asia. A visit here is a real cultural experience, much more authentic and colorful than other Chinatowns I have been to. The “main” entrance is through the Dragon’s gate on Grant Ave. and Bush St. From here you walk up the hill between restaurants, bakeries, tea shops, and more. If you are a fan of Chinese food, this is your paradise. If you are not in the mood for a full meal, get some dim sum to take away and eat in Portsmouth square, with the Transamerica Pyramid in front of you.
Tip: If you want to see how they make Chinese fortune cookies, go to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on 56 Ross Alley and get yourself some fortune.
Take a ride on the Cable Car
The cable car is one of the most famous icons of San Francisco. Opened in 1873, it became a popular means of transportation in the city, especially up and beyond the hills. At its peak, there were 23 lines crossing the city. However, the invention of the electric streetcars in 1892 made manual cars less attractive. Today, the three lines of San Francisco operate with the last manual cable cars in the world. Isn’t that an excellent reason to take a ride?
Most people who use the cars today are tourists. The best place to take your ride is from the turnaround at Powell and Market St. and to go up the hill towards Chinatown, Lombard St. and Fisherman’s Wharf. There will probably be a line, so come early, preferably on a weekday, or come with patience.
Tips 1: Download the Muni Mobile app for the time tables, route maps, and purchasing your ticket.
Tip 2: If you want to know more about the history of cable cars, and see antique cars, visit the Cable Car Museum at 1201 Mason street.
Climb up Lombard street
This is another unique and famous icon of San Francisco, also known as the “crookedest street in the world”.
Lombard Street is a long street, going from The Presidio on the west side to The Embarcadero on the east. The Crooked part is a one block in Russian Hill between Hyde St. and Leavenworth St. You can get here with the Cable Car – there is a stop at the upper side, on Hyde St. If you come with your own car, drive slowly on your way down, while enjoying the amazing views of the city and the bay in front of you.
Enjoy the views behind the Painted ladies
Painted Ladies is an American architecture style, started in the 1960s, of old Victorian and Edwardian houses that were repainted in three or more colors. The famous Painted Ladies of San Francisco at Alamo Square look as if they were taken from a postcard. If this view looks familiar, it’s because it is shown in the theme song of the TV series “full house” and other movies, TV programs, and ads.
Alamo Square is an uphill park, with an amazing view of the city. This can be just an Instagram spot or you can come for a breakfast picnic. In any case, you will enjoy the sight of downtown San Francisco with a cool breeze from the bay.
Sail to Alcatraz Island
The infamous Alcatraz prison in the middle of the San Francisco bay is now an open museum that tells the story of one of the most horrifying places of the last century.
The way to the island is by boat that you need to book in advance for a specific hour. The return is on any of the boats that make their way back. The tour inside the prison is with a personal audio-guide so each person can take the tour at their own pace. During the tour, you will learn about the prisoners that were held here, the daily routines of prison life, and also about the life of the guards who worked here. The highlight is the escape attempts, which will astound you. Once outside of the main building, you see the beautiful view of the city in the distance. There’s a big contrast between this view and the depressing place you are at, and it’s a shocking experience.
Tip: If you haven’t watched The Escape from Alcatraz yet, try to do it before you visit.
Climb up the Coit Tower
Built in 1933 in honor of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the Coit Tower on the top of Telegraph hill offers a beautiful panoramic view of San Francisco and the surrounding bay. You can get beautiful pictures of the city from the top of the tower, and the tower itself is a famous Instagram spot in San Francisco.
The way up is by elevator and tickets are purchased on the spot. The walls of the lower level are painted with murals, which are free to look at. The Murals were painted in 1934 by 25 local painters, describing the aspects of life in California at that time – industrial workers, newsgathering, stockbroker, etc.
Westfield shopping center On Market St., in front of the Cable car first stop, is the place for upscale shopping. It has 9 floors with the biggest brands and department stores, including Nordstrom and Bloomingdales.
Tonga Room is an impressive Polynesian restaurant and Tiki bar. Located in the Fairmont Hotel (950 Mason St.), this place is open since 1945. The tables are set around the pool – “the lagoon” – and a band is playing live music on a floating stage.
Castro District is one of the first neighborhoods in the US that are recognized with the LGBTQ community. Today it is still one of the most prominent symbols of LGBTQ activism. During the day it a place to stroll between clothing stores and cafés or hanging out at Mission Dolores Park, and during the night it’s the place to get a drink and party.
A great trip out of San Francisco will be to Yosemite National Park, which is one of the best national parks in the USA. It’s a 3 hours drive, so it’s better to make it a 2 or even 3 days trip, but if you are looking for some great outdoor adventure – this is the place for you.
I have visited San Francisco a few times and every time I enjoyed it as if it was the first. I love hanging around Union Square or Pier 39, and easy-going vibes of the city just make me smile. Even though it is a big city, it is very different then New York, and I enjoy this contrast every time I visit.
First-time visitors can spend 5-6 days here, enjoy the sightseeing, spend time at the Golden Gate Park and take it slowly.
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