My Top 20 Things to Do in San Francisco
I know, I know, I owe you this one. As I'm based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I've spent a chunk of my youth here, I've been meaning to write down a San Francisco guide for my families and friends for quite some time now.
The hardest part? The more you know a place, the harder it is to come up with a guide, because the list just keeps growing every time I sit down to write. The list of places I'd recommend to see in San Francisco is just never-ending. Maybe one day I'd write an entire book about it!
But for now, I've listed my personal top 20 things to do in San Francisco. It's a list, although not in a particular order. I believe that you'll have a good sample of what San Francisco has to offer by doing these activities, and hopefully you'll leave your heart in San Francisco and come back for more!
PS. That brave lady in the picture? Not me! I'm just the photographer.
1. See Golden Gate Bridge
The quintessential San Francisco landmark. How you experience it is your choice. You can walk, bike, bus, drive, ferry, sail, or even take a helicopter ride to see the bridge. I know some great spots from which to take pictures of this iconic bridge, will share with you in a future post.
2. Take the Cable Car
You really can't come to San Francisco and not take the cable car. It's the world's last manually-operated cable car system, and it's over a century old. Take the Powell-Hyde line and you'll see some major sights in San Francisco. Tip: if the line is too long at the end stations, walk up a station or two and "hitchhike" to get on the cable cars (you'd still need to show a ticket).
3. Cruise to Alcatraz Island
This tiny island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay used to be an inescapable prison (unless you can out swim sharks), now everyone can visit and safely return. Other than the historical prison, the island offers wonderful panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay and the City. The only legitimate tour operator is Alcatraz Cruises, make sure you book the tickets in advance!
4. Stroll around Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts is a dedication to the Greco-Roman architectural ideals. It was built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco back in 1915. You may be tempted to don your toga and recite Plato when you visit, but stay on track and wear your windbreakers instead. This beautiful garden has many exotic visitors year-round, including ducks, swans, seagulls, and even egrets!
5. Feel the City's Pulse on Market Street
There's no better way to experience a city than by walking through its downtown. Market Street is the major artery of the city that cuts diagonally through San Francisco. Walk down Market Street through the swank Financial District, and then take the BART to the eclectic and colorful Mission and Castro districts, you'll experience the many faces of San Francisco along this street.
6. Eat Gourmet Local Food at the Ferry Building
You could take the ferries to Sausalito or Angel Island from the Ferry Building, but you should definitely eat through the many gourmet food shops inside the building. Eat like a local gourmet: get local, seasonal, and organic produce, buy pasture-raised free range meat, try artisan cheeses made at local dairy farms, and have fresher than fresh seafood all under one roof in the Ferry Building.
7. Shop Around Union Square
Union Square is surrounded by upscale department stores and chic boutiques. You can find everything under the sun in the stores around Union Square. Tired from too much shopping? Grab a sandwich or Chinese-to-go and head to Union Square for people-watching.
8. Have Dim Sum in China Town
San Francisco is home to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Chinatown preserves aspects of traditional Chinese culture that seem quaint and old-fashioned compared to what you'd see in China today. This busy district definitely has a life of its own. Make sure you try some dim sum here!
9. Visit the Painted Ladies
Visit the Painted Ladies and take that iconic picture of San Francisco: head to Alamo Square Park. These Victorian and Edwardian houses are just so classically San Franciscan!
10. Zig Zag Up Lombard Street
Lombard Street makes perfect sense in San Francisco. In a city built on hills, you build a road by making it do a little zig-zag dance down the hill, and you plant lots and lots of flowers all around it to give it that dashing sense of style.
11. Hike Up to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill
Walk up the many stairs of Telegraph Hill, and then you'll be rewarded with a panoramic view of San Francisco at the foot of Coit Tower. Come here not only for the view, but also for the retro murals inside the tower. It's all worth the climb.
12. Relax at the Maritime National Historical Park
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is a harbor with tall boats, open park space, aquatic park, and a maritime museum. Sounds like heaven to me. What's better is that you can walk over to have ice cream at Ghiradelli Square or have Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista. If I have to choose one place to spend a whole day in San Francisco, this will be it.
13. Eat Seafood at Fisherman's Wharf
Since the mid 1800s and even to this day, Fisherman's Wharf is home to some of San Francisco's active fishing fleets. Anytime of the year, you can have clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at Boudin's; if you come during Dungeness crab season, head to Scoma's for some pier-to-plate cioppino, it's San Francisco's answer to Marseille's bouillabaisse.
14. Hear the Sea Lions at Pier 39
These playful and slippery creatures have found a refuge at Pier 39, where they get plenty of food and hide away from the sharks in the bay. In return, they contribute to San Francisco's local economy by singing their siren songs and lure people over to the many shops at Pier 39. It's a very cooperative environment.
15. Amuse Your Inner Flower Child at Haight-Ashbury
At the Haight-Ashbury district you'll find some other Painted Ladies, but instead of exuding Victorian charm, here they are edgy and hippie. Welcome to San Francisco of the 1960s. This is the place to get in the hippie groove, buy some incense and tie-dye t-shirts, and weave in-and-out the many bookshops and cafés. Peace and love indeed.
16. Play with Art at the SFMOMA
17. Find Peace at the Legion of Honor
This fine art museum housed in a French neo-classical structure is like the Louvre of Paris in miniature but perched on a hill with a breath-taking view of the Pacific Ocean. Dedicated to Californian soldiers who lost their lives during World War I, Legion of Honor has an impressive collection of art from ancient civilizations to modern days. After seeing works by Fra Angelico, Monet, Rodin, and Picasso, head out and admire the Golden Gate Bridge in the serene Pacific. The best of all worlds.
18. Get Lost in Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is not a park, it's a little city within a city. It's San Francisco's answer to New York's Central Park, only bigger. It houses world-class museums California Academy of Sciences and De Young Museum, lakes, golf and tennis courses, playgrounds, botanical gardens and conservatory of flowers, a Dutch windmill, and a Japanese Tea Garden. It's one amazing urban park.
19. Walk in the Ruins of Sutro Baths
At sunset, walk into the magical ruins of Sutro Baths at Lands End. You'll find yourself in a limbo between the sky and the ocean, between the past and the present. The ruins are not ancient, they only date from the late 19th century. This jagged coast line also happens to be a graveyard of shipwrecks. Does all this make your mood a little somber? Don't gloom, cheer up with some good food, nice wine from the adjacent Napa Valley, all with a fantastic view at Cliff House.
20. Sail the San Francisco Bay in a Catamaran
My favorite way to end a visit to San Francisco is to board a catamaran (Adventure Cat Sailing is great) and sail out to the ocean passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Sit in the catamaran's hammock and you'd feel like you're riding on waves. Allow yourself to be soaked by ocean spray while you sail through the San Francisco Bay. Oh, just watch out for the sharks!
I'm joking of course, it's perfectly safe, even with babies.
Wish you a pleasant and memorable stay in the Fog City by the Bay. Stay tuned on TravelChicMom.com for more San Francisco travel tips for travelers of all ages!
Here's my map with all the places mentioned in this post. Don't hesitate to save to your Google Maps.