Voted America's top city in numerous surveys, colorful and cosmopolitan San Francisco in northern California invariably charms visitors. The hilly multicultural "City by the Bay," offers everything from a cozy Italian neighborhood called North Beach to a large, well-known Chinatown, the oldest in North America.
There are beautiful green spaces for hiking and several beaches and spots with panoramic city and Bay Area views. Explore urban neighborhoods filled with historic Victorian homes, artsy cafes, street murals, and restaurants, as well as perfect places within an hour or so to take a day trip.
The 1.7 mile long Golden Gate Bridge is one of America's top 10 construction marvels and a must-see on any trip to San Francisco. Over 80 years old, this graceful and iconic span (which connects to Marin County) is an unforgettable spot to drive, walk or cycle across. You can even fly by on a seaplane.
Contemplate your adventure while in Golden Gate Park. Within its thousand-plus acres are gardens, lakes, bridal and walking paths, Strybing Arboretum at San Francisco Botanical Gardens, and the tranquil Japanese Tea House and Garden, originally part of the 1894 World's Fair Exhibit. Tea drinkers overlook a waterfall and pond framed by fragrant wisteria.
There's really nothing else like the California Academy of Sciences. Combining innovative architecture and exciting exhibitions, the Academy is home to Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium, the Kimball Natural History Museum, and a four-story rainforest under one green roof.
The city's most popular destination, Fisherman's Wharf overlooks San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The historic waterfront still serves as a working fishing dock, so expect fresh seafood at area restaurants.
Nearby San Francisco attractions like Pier 39, The Cannery, and Ghirardelli Square are touristy but prove irresistible to many visitors.
A short ferry ride on the Alcatraz Cruises, LLC deposits you on Alcatraz Island, and the self-guiding Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour is available in many languages. Evening tours, led by park guides, are also available on this island-of-no-escape in the San Francisco Bay (Ferry departs Pier 33).
Moving historic landmarks, the San Francisco cable cars operate seven days a week along century-old routes. For a unique tour of the city, take the California Street line, which runs from the Financial District through Chinatown and over Nob Hill. The Powell-Mason line terminates near Fisherman's Wharf and the Powell-Hyde line ends at Aquatic Park near Ghiradelli Square.
Board in San Francisco at any cable car turntable where you see a brown-and-white stop sign.
A dragon-draped archway at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue announces the entrance to Chinatown in San Francisco, known as the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Streets teem with fish and vegetable stalls, herbal shops, temples, and eateries. Hunan Home's, and R&G Lounge restaurants rate high with diners. Museums include the Chinese Historical Society of America and Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.
In between appointments, stroll over to North Beach, San Francisco's Little Italy neighborhood, for a snack. The espresso is strong and the cannoli pastries are sweet at beloved Caffe Trieste, and century-old Molinari's deli appeases the hungry.
Once fortified, pay a visit to City Lights Bookstore, a mecca for bohemians and serious book-lovers alike.
Postcard-worthy views include Alamo Square, where San Francisco's circa-1900 Victorian homes are juxtaposed against the towering backdrop of downtown's skyscrapers. The area is bounded by Broderick Street and Webster Street to the east and west and Oak street and Golden Gate Avenue to the north and south. Lombard Street, the world's most crooked, is also a sight to behold. Its vertiginous path winds past ornate houses and descends steeply (between Hyde and Leavenworth streets).
The beautifully scenic Presidio was a military post for over 200 years until 1994, when it became part of the National Park Service. Visitors will enjoy walkways, quiet green spaces, and recreational areas, along with cafes, restaurants, and other businesses.
Don't miss the bike ride through Crissy Field to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Mission District has a rich multicultural heritage: Immigrants from Europe, and later people from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean arrived here. This primarily Latino district is a festive place to visit. You'll come upon classic taquerias, Mexican bakeries, and specialty shops, as well as various colorful public murals alongside a more gentrified contingent of trendy restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and cafes.
Peruse the Castro District
In the heart of San Francisco, you'll find the lively Castro, the historic hub of the gay community where artists hang out and tourists and locals alike enjoy a variety of restaurants, boutiques, and bars, along with a free children’s museum.
The Castro Theatre stands out as an area landmark; the area is also known as where political activist Harvey Milk had his headquarters in the gay pride movement of the 60s and 70s.
A wonderful way to explore this dynamic and vibrant city is with an expert guiding you along as you travel by foot, learning about the history and culture of local neighborhoods. Several companies offer tours—whether you want to journey through urban Chinatown, the Castro District, or other neighborhoods, or check out rural landscapes on a free green walk or hike—there is truly something for everyone.
If you want to experience where all things hippie took place in the 60s, head to where Haight and Ashbury streets meet. It's hard not to imagine the incense-filled days past as you walk around in the heart of where the 1967 Summer of Love took place—100,000 people converged in the Haight and the famous Grateful Dead band made the neighborhood home.
You'll find restaurants, vintage clothing shops, smoke shops, artistic stores, cafes, lovely Victorian homes, and beyond.
If you take a pretty drive north about 30 minutes across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, you'll come upon the small town of Sausalito, a great spot to spend a day in the Bay Area. Another fun option for transportation to Sausalito is taking a ferry from Fisherman's Wharf. Once you arrive, enjoy a houseboat-filled, cute town and some winning views of San Francisco, along with galleries, shops, and restaurants.
Victorian homes and hilly streets come to mind for many people when dreaming of a trip to San Francisco; however, some prefer not to walk the famously steep hills. Victorian Home Walk will guide you around the Pacific Heights neighborhood, avoiding hills and giving a tour accessible to people at all abilities. With their expertise, you'll see more than 200 restored homes, the filming location of the movie "Mrs. Doubtfire," and where celebrities like Robin Williams and Don Johnson lived.
Public tours are given Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; private tours are at a time you choose. In both cases, reservations are needed.
For some great Bay Area and city views from above, head to Twin Peaks near the city's geographical center, also one of the stops along San Francisco's Scenic 49-Mile Drive. The two adjacent peaks stand at 922 feet each.
This internationally-known attraction is part of the nearly 65-acre Twin Peaks Natural Area where you can hopefully get a glimpse of the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly, rabbits, coyotes, native plants, and coastal scrub, among other flora and fauna.
Visited by five U.S. presidents and other famous people, the beloved Cliff House restaurant just north of Ocean Beach—which has been through fires, earthquakes, and a dynamite explosion—has been restored and houses the Bistro Restaurant, the fifth of its major incarnations since it all began in 1858.
Other restaurants, cafes, bars, and attractions are nearby. To learn more about the fascinating history of this area, stop at The Lands End Lookout visitor center above the Cliff House. Just north of the Cliff House, explore the remains of the Sutro Baths which opened in 1896: The building held former seawater pools, ice skating rink, restaurants, and an amphitheater.
Union Square is a big shopping area and beloved tourist attraction, where you can sip on a coffee and people-watch in an outdoor setting, head inside nice restaurants with everything from sushi to Mexican or French cuisine, or experience art galleries and shops galore. For a little taste of history, check out the Walk of Fame, featuring signatures and handprints of some of the celebrity guests from Hotel Diva on Geary Street. Or get your theater on at The American Conservatory Theater, also on Geary.
This museum filled with science, art, and other engaging experiences is highly interactive and educational—and for 50 years, it has been a great place to take the whole family.
Located at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero and featuring over 650 hands-on exhibits, a seasonal and sustainable restaurant and cafe, and two stores, the museum offers enjoyment for people of all ages. Check out their reduced rates and community days (pay what you wish).
Another one of San Francisco's lovely spots to take in the views is Coit Tower, a 210-foot structure atop Telegraph Hill, dating back to 1933. Once you take an elevator to the top of the tower, you'll find a deck with panoramic views of the city and the surrounding bay, including the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. At the base of the tower are murals created in 1934 displaying California life during the Depression.
Tickets can be purchased from the nearby ticket shop; the site is open all year except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
San Francisco is delightfully filled with colorful, creative streets, and part of that charm is in its multitude of diverse murals, some of the country's best. This street art can be found on everything from churches to home to public and private businesses.
Fog City is home to more than 1,000 street murals you can explore in any type of weather. Most of them are in the Mission District, followed by South of Market and the downtown/Tenderloin area.
Explore the East Bay
If you don't mind the probable traffic, you can drive, bike, or walk across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, usually called the Bay Bridge, to explore the East Bay and its many neighborhoods.
By car, Berkeley is about an hour from San Francisco, and home to the famous University of California, Berkeley, hippies who have been around since the 60s, and plenty of ethnic restaurants, shops, cafes, parks, and other ways to have fun.
Oakland is about a 20-minute car ride south from Berkeley. It has a variety of areas offering everything from outdoor concerts to thrift shops and trendy cafes.
While it's not the safest swimming beach, the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and surrounding landscape are unforgettable at Baker Beach, so take a stroll at this spot with no entrance or parking fees. Others like to fish or soak up the sun when it's not a foggy summer day (the end closest to the bridge is a popular clothing-optional area). The beach is on the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge, just below the Presidio.
The San Francisco Ferry Building—where Market Street runs into the Embarcadero by the Bay Bridge—is a buzzing place for food lovers in search of local and fresh delicacies and wine at specialty shops and restaurants. Also, the San Francisco Ferry Building hosts an outdoors organic farmer's market several days a week all year; the biggest market is on Saturday mornings, so don't miss it if you love seasonal, fresh produce.
History lovers will enjoy the building's 240-foot clock tower, a landmark by the water for over 100 years.