Many of us who’ve landed in this enclave known as the Bay Area instantly recognize the good fortune of living on a landscape so diverse and beautiful. Even then, it’s possible to get mired in the pragmatic aspects of life -- and forget just how spectacular even the most common, overly-photographed, and touristy destinations appear to those who arrive on our shores for the first time. So, in an effort to recap some of my best "firsts," and the things which continue to awe visitors, here’s a bullet list of the "musts" every first-time house guest or repeat visitor should experience in our fair land.
Golden Gate Bridge
It’s a San Francisco no-brainer, but some people don’t actually walk the Golden Gate Bridge during their visit. Walk or bike, no matter the weather. Karl the Fog affords its own mystical trip from the Fort Point end, to Fort Baker on the north side of the bridge.
San Francisco Ferry Building
Eat oysters, chowder, chocolate and cheese at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Check out the food wares from local vendors throughout the Marketplace.
Cable Car Museum
Ride one of San Francisco's iconic cable cars (or learn more about them in the city's free Cable Car Museum). Hop off at the Mark Hopkin's Hotel atop Nob Hill and make your way to its rooftop Top of the Mark for a sunset cocktail. Then hop on again to the Buena Vista Cafe for an Irish coffee -- the first Irish coffee ever stirred in the United States.
Take a San Francisco Bay cruise and a trip to Alcatraz. We recommend its night tour for an especially enticing experience. Another great bay excursion? Angel Island, a now-state park that served as the West Coast's "Ellis Island" for one million U.S. immigrants
Take an organized walking tour (free or paid) highlighting everything from gourmet eats to architecture, or opt for a self-guided tour of the old Barbary Coast Trail which takes you through many neighborhoods of the city, including up to Coit Tower. The base of the tower has a panorama of WPA murals, while its top of the tower offers an incredible view across San Francisco and the Bay, especially at sunset.
Visit the San Francisco Presidio and see what becomes of a former military base-turned-National Park, combining elements of historic preservation with stunning natural scenery. Also in the Presidio, if you haven't done the bike ride through Crissy Field to the Golden Gate Bridge it's an absolute must, or set out on a walk from Crissy Field to Fort Point while watching for passing container ships.
Legion of Honor
Visit one of San Francisco's most beloved museums, the Legion of Honor, known for its impressive Rodin collection. Then drop down to the Coastal Trail toward Lands End, planning to arrive near sunset for amazing photo opportunities. At certain times of the year, brown pelicans fly over the Lands End lookout just as the sun goes down. It's an awesome vision—their pterodactyl shadows swooping just overhead. On a calm night, the lights of the Cliff House reflect in the still waters of the Sutro Baths.
If you happen to reach the Cliff House earlier in the day, be sure to pay the small fee to see the Camera Obscura. It’s one of about 20 such cameras remaining in the world—an example early photographic technology. You’ll see a gorgeous, dynamic panorama of neighboring Ocean Beach inside.
Check out Fisherman’s Wharf, and say hello to the sea lions at Pier 39. The neighborhood is worth a visit to the Wharf see some of San Francisco’s recognizable icons, including the Buena Vista Cafe and Ghirardelli Square. One disclaimer: Anyone who’s been land-bound may enjoy the waterfront ambiance of Fisherman’s Wharf. Just be aware that it's definitely a tourist destination with a seaside resort atmosphere.
Golden Gate Park
Visit the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum and use them as a launching point for a walk through Golden Gate Park. While at the west end of Golden Gate Park, stop in at the Beach Chalet for a beer. Check out the WPA murals covering the walls of the entryway.
Visit the not-so-secret alleyways in the Mission that house the district’s vivid murals. Walk the neighborhood to see a wealth of color on the walls, and enjoy some of the best food in the city at favorite Mission District eateries.
SoMa & Yerba Buena Gardens
Take a stroll South of Market (SoMa) and through Yerba Buena Gardens. Stop in at the Contemporary Jewish Museum to see its dramatic Daniel Libeskind-designed exterior and an endless rotating of poignant exhibits. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a hop and a skip from there, as are several smaller museums in the area. While at Yerba Buena Gardens, have afternoon tea at the Samovar Tea Lounge on the terrace, with a view of the gardens. Or sip at another of San Francisco’s favorite tea rooms when you’re roaming the neighborhoods.
Walk through the Haight Ashbury district and marvel at the stunning Victorian buildings you’ll find there. While things have undoubtedly changed since the Summer of Love, you can join in on the Flower Power walking tour for a bit more insight into the neighborhood’s counter-culture roots.
Explore San Francisco's Financial District during the height of the business day when it's at its most vibrant—and when all of the dining establishments of the area are open. While in the Financial District, experience quintessential San Francisco by dropping in at the Tadich Grill at 240 California (near Battery). Enjoy a cup of chowder and a drink while savoring the fact that you're in San Francisco's oldest eating establishment.
If you're a baseball fan, Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park) is one of the great retro ballparks in the U.S.—worth a visit for the ambiance alone. If you’re here for an extended time, take advantage of the city's beautiful parks and green spaces (San Francisco’s Best Parks). If it's winter and you have access to a car, visit some of the Bay Area’s wetlands for unique nature-viewing. We even have a bounty of migrating birds who make San Francisco Bay their winter home.
Looking to venture a bit further afield? Don’t miss the Marin Headlands and its bounty of hiking and biking trails, as well as the towering redwood trees of nearby Muir Woods. Throughout the Bay Area, you’ll find former military installations like Hill 88 and Battery Townsley—both accessible from the Wolf Ridge Trail and Rodeo Beach.