San Francisco is one of those iconic cities that you need to visit once in your life. But chances are, once you’ve visited once, you’ll want to keep on coming back for more! San Francisco has this special draw to it and has so many different personalities, making anyone who visits feel instantly at home. For ages, San Francisco was the number one place on my USA bucket list. Then this past September, I was finally able to tick it off! I have a good friend who lives in SF, and four more of us went out to visit where we had an awesome week full of adventures! At the end of the week, I was sad to leave, and I could definitely see myself living in San Francisco someday.
Whether you’re visiting for a weekend, a week, or a month, San Francisco is full of things to do, so it would be impossible to get bored. Here are some San Francisco must-dos to get you started on your adventure around the City by the Bay.
Ride a Cable Car
The cable cars of San Francisco are super touristy, but you can’t visit SF and not ride one! There are several cable car routes throughout the city, and lots of spots where you can get on. The most popular spot to get on is at the corner of Powell Street and Market Street. Another good spot is by Ghiradelli Square up towards Lombard Street. Tickets are $7 and you can either get them in advance or onboard if you have cash. There are seats, but the best way to experience the cable car is to stand along the sides! Hanging off the side while the cable car speeds up and down hills is such a cool experience and feels like being on a roller coaster!
Golden Gate Bridge
The city’s biggest icon is one that you can’t miss! The Golden Gate is the beautiful red bridge that connects San Francisco with Marin County across the bay. There are several spots along the waterfront where you can get great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and some even better ones on the Marin side of the bridge. Make sure you take the time to cross the mile-long bridge as well, whether that be in a car, on foot, or on a bicycle.
Local tip: If you don’t want to stand out as a tourist, don’t refer to San Francisco as “San Fran.” Locals instead opt for the cooler “SF” or simply “The City.”
Painted Ladies in Alamo Square
You probably know these famous houses from the opening to Full House. Just like the Tanner family does, this is a great spot to relax in the sun with a picnic. The Painted Ladies are a row of colourful, photogenic Victorian houses that almost look like doll houses. Like much of San Francisco, the park is also located on a hill, so you get a great view of the city from there.
The Mission District
Every city needs a good hipster area! Lots of people would agree that San Francisco’s trendiest neighbourhood is the Mission District. This area has a big Latin influence and is known for having some of the best Mexican food in the city. The Mission is also full of great consignment stores. I went into a few, and my favourite is called Community Thrift. They have a great selection of clothes, shoes, jewellery, homeware, and books. One thing to note though is that they don’t have dressing rooms. So I would recommend wearing a thin dress while thrift shopping, so you can easily try on jeans underneath it, and shirts on top.
The Mission also has some great street art to check out. Just wandering around, you are bound to come across some beautiful murals. A couple of the best spots are Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley. And right in the heart of the Mission, there is a beautiful park called Mission Dolores Park. The park is lined with palm trees and has a beautiful view of the city. It’s the perfect spot for a relaxing afternoon with friends and a bottle of wine!
The Castro District is full of history and culture. San Francisco in general has been one of the world’s most popular LGBT hubs for decades, nowhere more so than the Castro. The Castro was one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the United States, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it transformed into the LGBT mecca it’s known as today. It has been a part of several major events in history, such as the Summer of Love in 1967 and the political movements started by Harvey Milk. The Castro Theatre is another major landmark of the neighbourhood. The theatre was built in a beautiful baroque style and has got to be the prettiest place to see a movie in San Francisco!
Lombard Street and the view from Russian Hill
Nicknamed San Francisco’s “crookedest street”, Lombard Street twists and turns its way up Russian Hill. Since Russian Hill is so steep, in order for it to be functional, the street had to be made winding back and forth. You can drive down the hill, but for the best experience I would recommend visiting on foot. The walk up is pretty tiring, but there are some really cool houses to see and a beautiful view of the city once you reach the top!
Local tip: While Lombard Street is thought of as the most crooked street, it is actually the second. First is Vermont Street, which is in Potrero Hill near the Mission District.
Explore the Waterfront
As the “City on the Bay,” San Francisco is surrounded by beautiful waterfront areas to explore. By far the most popular spot for tourists (but also the busiest) is Fisherman’s Wharf. Here, you’ll find lots of restaurants, shops, and the city’s aquarium. For a similar experience that’s a bit less crazy, head to Pier 39 close by. Pier 39 also has great spots to eat and drink, and you can watch SF’s resident sea lion colony! They like to sun themselves off the side of the pier and are so funny to watch playing. A bit further down the waterfront is the Ferry Building. It is full of shops and places to eat and reminds me a lot of Chelsea Market in NYC. And it goes without saying that all along the San Francisco waterfront has incredible views!
San Francisco’s Chinatown has a couple things that make it special. It’s the oldest Chinatown in North America, established in 1848. It’s also the largest Chinese neighbourhood outside of China itself. Chinatown spans 24 blocks, so it’s quite big. It’s full of great and authentic Chinese food as well as some pretty Chinese temples. The neighbourhood regularly hosts events, including the famous Chinese New Year and Moon Festival. Chinatown is right in the heart of downtown San Francisco, so it’s the perfect spot to visit for lunch in between sightseeing.
Land’s End Beach and Sutro Baths
The centre of San Francisco is on the Bay, but head to the far western neighbourhoods of the city, and you’ll be right on the Pacific Ocean. Outer Richmond and the Sunset District are full of beautiful coastal spots and are some of the best places in SF to see the sunset. At the top of Outer Richmond, there is a beautiful spot called Land’s End. Land’s End has a beautiful beach, nice hikes, and beautiful views of the ocean on one side and the Golden Gate Bridge on the other. Land’s End is also home to some ruins from the early 20th century called the Sutro Baths. The Baths were a popular swimming spot that opened in 1896 and closed in 1965. The baths aren’t swimmable anymore, but are cool to see. Just next to the baths, there are also some cool caves to explore as well.
Located within San Francisco Bay is Alcatraz Island—one of the most famous prisons in history. Alcatraz was home to some of the country’s worst criminals and was considered to be inescapable due to the strong currents in San Francisco Bay. The prison was in operation from 1934 to 1963 and is now managed by the National Park Service. The prison faced a lot of criticism during its operating years for the poor treatment of inmates as well as several riots and escape attempts. The largest was The Battle of Alcatraz in which two corrections officers and three inmates were killed. In 1962, three inmates carried out an intricate escape plan and disappeared in the Bay. They were presumed drowned, but some people claimed they had escaped to Mexico. It wasn’t long after that the prison shut down.
A visit to Alcatraz is so interesting. Although the prison only operated for 29 years, it is so full of history and stories. You can walk through the prison and see the cells, dining area, and living quarters for the correctional officers’ families. Unexpectedly, there are some beautiful gardens on the island, and unsurprisingly, you get an amazing view of the city. It’s crazy to walk through and imagine what life must have been like on Alcatraz Island back in its day. So close to lively San Francisco, yet a world away.
I don’t often use the audio guides when I visit somewhere, but I would highly recommend getting the (free) audio guide at Alcatraz. It will teach you so much of the prison’s history. Tickets for Alcatraz book up fast, so as soon as you know the dates you’ll be in San Francisco, get it booked. Try to book at least a week in advance (or sooner if you are visiting during a peak vacation time) to avoid disappointment. Your ticket includes a ferry over to Alcatraz, which is a great experience in itself. There are a variety of ways you can visit Alcatraz, which you can read about here. Tickets start from $38 for a standard day visit.
If you’re visiting San Francisco for more than a couple days, rent a car and head outside of the city. The area around SF is one of the most beautiful in the country. A great (and affordable) car sharing site I would recommend is GetAround. They have lots of great cars available around San Francisco. My friends and I rented an Audi convertible and felt so cool and Californian for the day driving the winding roads and hills of the Bay Area.
Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley
If you consider yourself a bit of a wine connoisseur (or you’re like me, and you just really like wine!) you can’t come to San Francisco without visiting the country’s most famous wine regions. There are lots of different wine tours you can join, or you can rent a car and hit up some of the top vineyards. The different vineyards across the neighbouring Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley will have a bar where you can taste wines. Then, you can kick back and enjoy the scenery with an extra glass or bottle. Some of the top vineyards I would recommend visiting are Menage A Trois, Chandon (I’ve also been to their location in Australia’s Yarra Valley!), Buena Vista Winery, Cline Cellars, Piazza Del Dotto, and Liana Estates.
For a less boozy and more active day out of San Francisco, head up to the Muir Woods to see some of California’s incredible redwood trees. Redwoods are the tallest species of tree in the world and really amazing to see in person. The Muir Woods is full of easy walking trails that give you great views of the redwoods. The tallest tree in the park is a staggering 258 feet tall. To put that into perspective, the Coit Tower which you can see from many points around SF is only 210 feet. The Muir Woods are a beautiful, natural side of San Francisco that you won’t get in the city.
Santa Cruz and Monterey
Drive an hour south of San Francisco and you will find yourself in the cool seaside town of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is to Northern California what Santa Monica is to Southern California. It has a small amusement park on the ocean, a beautiful beach, and an exciting boardwalk. Santa Cruz is located on the top end of Monterey Bay, and 45 minutes away at the other end is the town of Monterey. If Santa Cruz is Northern Cali’s answer to Santa Monica, Monterey is the Northern Malibu. Monterey has beautiful beaches, cliffs, walking and biking trails, and some incredible views of the Pacific. Water sports are big in Monterey, and it’s the ideal spot for surfing, paddle boarding, and kayaking.
If you want to extend your trip past San Francisco, there are so many other great places to visit in California. After you’ve spent some time in San Francisco, hop in the car and visit one of these great spots to see another side to California.
Pacific Coast Highway down to LA
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#crescentbay @pokedexed 🚩 📍Exploring and sharing incredible scenic, hiking, foodie, and road trip destinations along the Pacific Coast Highway. 📍Have a great suggestion? Comment down below ☺️ 📍Tag your friends and plan your next trip! 📍 Follow us, tag us, lets explore the #PCH together!🗺 • • • • • • • #California #SoCal #NorCal #SouthernCalifornia #NorthernCalifornia #Pacificcoasthighway #ThePacificCoastHighway #Highway1 #Highwayone #WestCoast #PacificOcean #bestcoast #daytripper #neverstopexploring #roadtrip #wanderer #wanderlust
This drive is possibly the most famous and most scenic in the world! Highway 101 is 1,550 miles in total and goes all the way from Los Angeles to northern Washington along the West Coast. But by far the most popular stretch of the highway is between the Bay and LA. Plan a few days to do this drive so you can take your time and make lots of stops. The view along the PCH is beautiful and there are lots of times you’ll want to stop and take in the view. Some of the best stops along the way are Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Big Sur, Santa Barbara, Malibu, and of course Los Angeles.
Yosemite National Park
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The Valley Loop is a walking meditation. Away from the crowds, taking in the forest, the river, and the solemn granite walls at the pace of your own feet, the world slows and quiets. Listen to the gentle chatter of the birds, watch the tops of the pine trees sway in the breeze, and breathe in the smell of sun-baked pine needles underfoot. To one side, Bridalveil Fall tumbles into a cloud of mist. To the other, El Capitan stands proudly, watching over all. This is serenity. #Yosemite #NationalPark
Three hours inland from San Francisco is one of the world’s most loved National Parks. Yosemite is full of incredible scenery and hikes. It’s best seen in a few days since it’s so big and has so much to do. Yosemite is full of different trails, mountains including the well-known Capitan, and waterfalls. Words don’t do this place justice, so be sure to visit for yourself to see how amazing it really is.
Sequoia National Park
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Happy Great Outdoors Month! Explore your Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks this June to celebrate! Walk among giants, hike in the wilderness and camp out under the dark skies! Go to yourpassnow.com to pay for your entrance fee in advance. You'll get through the entrance station and into the great outdoors even faster! NPS/ Emily Fedorko #findyourpark #SequoiaKingsNPS
Up near San Francisco, you can see the Redwoods. But head to the Sierra Nevada mountain range and you can see California’s other famous trees—the Giant Sequoias. While redwoods are tall, sequoias are wide. They can grow to be 30 feet in diameter. That’s pretty massive! There are lots of hikes you can take through sequoia groves to see just how monstrous these trees are.
Head east into the Sierra Nevadas and right before you hit the state border, you’ll come to Lake Tahoe. Although it’s beautiful all year round, it is especially known as a winter playground for Northern Californians. In the winter, Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular ski spots in the whole country. And in summer, the lake is just as exciting! There are some gorgeous hikes, lots of water sports, and some local breweries and wineries for tastings at the end of the day.
San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities I have been to so far. And I’ve been to quite a few, so that’s saying something! The people are some of the friendliest you’ll meet, there is an amazing food and nightlife scene, and a great outdoor lifestyle. Once you’ve had a taste of San Francisco, you’ll fall in love and keep on wanting more. I adored this city and can’t wait to be back there again.
“One day if I die… I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.'”
What are some of your favourite things about San Francisco? Let me know in a comment!
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Hi I’m Christie, a 26 year old girl originally from Boston who has spent time living in New York City, North Carolina, France, Australia, and New Zealand. I love moving to new places and exploring them as a local, and I can’t see my nomadic expat life stopping any time soon! I have no bigger passion than travel, and when I’m not exploring I spend my free time reminiscing on past trips and daydreaming about future travel.