Home to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, SAN FRANCISCO continues to reel in visitors with its history, Victorian architecture, the world’s last manually operated cable cars, beaches – and more!
San Francisco is best known for its scenic beauty, cultural attractions, diverse communities, and world-class cuisine. Measuring 127 square kilometres, this city includes attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz and the largest Chinatown in North America. A stroll of the city’s streets can lead from Union Square to North Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf, with intriguing neighbourhoods to explore. Views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay are often laced with fog, creating a romantic mood in this famous American city.
Read on to discover some of the city’s attractions that you should not miss.
WHERE TO GO
Fisherman’s Wharf is the city’s main attraction. You can easily spend the entire day at the wharf if you include visits to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, The Exploratorium and take a walk along the The Embarcadero.
The most famous among the piers at the wharf is Pier 39 where you can get amazing views of sea lions and with the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in the background. At Pier 39, you will also find many dining options, from cafes and bakeries to wine bars and seafood restaurants. The Exploratorium on Pier 15 attracts both adults and children with its hands-on exhibits that combine art and science.
Walk over to Pier 33 if you want to board a ferry to visit the historical Alcatraz Island, which used to be a federal penitentiary from 1934-1963, housing famous convicts such as Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. A visit to the island includes a tour of the cell house where visitors can see where the prisoners lived.
Golden Gate Bridge is the most recognisable icon of San Francisco. Opened in 1937 after a four-year battle against the harsh weather conditions, the art deco architecture was once called “the bridge that couldn’t be built”. Some of the good spots to take a picture of the bridge are at the Welcome Center, Fort Point and the Marin Headlands on the north side of the bridge. Spanning 2.7 kilometres from San Francisco to the Marin Headlands, the bridge’s sidewalks are open during the day to pedestrians including wheelchair users and bicyclists.
Located on the south side of Golden Gate bridge is The Presidio, formerly a military post and now a national park site featuring spectacular vistas, beautiful trails, and historic and architectural treasures. On a good day, you can go for a hike, a walking tour, a picnic or visit the Walt Disney Family Museum.
The Golden Gate Park is said to be the largest urban park in the world, stretching across 4.8 kilometres on the western edge of the city. Despite its name, it is not located near the famous bridge. Attractions located within the park are the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Koret Children’s Quarter.
The California Academy of Sciences is home to an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum while the de Young Museum showcases American art from the 17th through 21st centuries, modern and contemporary art, photography, international textiles and costumes, and art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. At the de Young Museum, you can get a 360-degree view of the city and the Pacific Ocean from the ninth-floor Observation Level.
Some of the other museums you might find interesting are the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the Asian Art Museum and the Legion of Honor.
SFMOMA was founded in 1935 and expanded in 2016 to display more than 32,000 modern and contemporary artworks and an entire floor dedicated solely to photography. The Asian Art Museum is home to one of the most complete collections of Asian art in the world, with a collection spanning cultures from Turkey to India and China to the Philippines through 6,000 years. The Legion of Honor displays a collection of more than 4,000 years of ancient and European art and houses the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts in a neoclassic building overlooking Lincoln Park and the Golden Gate Bridge.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is said to be the oldest in North America and covers 24 city blocks. You can easily spend half the day there exploring some of the old streets and alleys, savour Chinese cuisines or pop into the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (chsa.org) to find out more about the Chinese diaspora.
Another tourist attraction is the short stretch of Lombard Street between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street that has gained fame as the “crookedest” street in the world.
Shoppers would love Union Square (www.visitunionsquaresf.com) for its stylish boutiques and flagship stores such as Barney’s, Gump’s, Macy’s, Nieman Marcus and Sak’s, among others. The shopping district has grown in recent years into a lively entertainment hub with regular activities and a string of trendy cafes.
For visitors to San Francisco, one of the must-dos is to hop aboard the San Francisco Cable Car to get around town. The antique trams that run along tracks on a street take you to locations such as Chinatown, Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. If you are interested in the history of the cable car, visit the Cable Car Museum in Chinatown.
The San Francisco Zoo and Gardens are also famous tourist attractions featuring more than a thousand animals in a peaceful garden setting.
OUTSIDE THE CITY
While in San Francisco, don’t pass up the opportunity to visit the famous Yosemite National Park, located four hours’ drive west of the city. A hit with nature lovers and landscape photographers, the park is home to Yosemite’s largest redwood forest featuring giant sequoia trees.
If your goal is to see the biggest of the giant sequoia trees, you should visit Sequoia National Park, located four hours southeast of San Francisco. This park features 18 of the 30 largest specimens of giant sequoias in the world.
Wine lovers would love Napa Valley, located about an hour’s drive north of the city. Famous for its vineyards, visitors can indulge in wine tasting or check out one of the many events and festivals mostly centred around food and wine.
WHEN TO GO
The average temperature in San Francisco is around 14°C. The wettest month is January with the highest rainfall. The warmest months are July through September when it is comfortable enough to swim in the sea with water temperature around 15°C. Other months are usually cold with temperatures dipping to 7°C during winter but snowfalls are rare. San Francisco is famous for its fog, which is the heaviest in June and July. September through November are also good months for a visit when the weather is still warm.
WHERE TO STAY
For luxury stays, you can’t go wrong with either The Battery (www.thebatterysf.com/hotel) or The Westin St. Francis at Union Square (www.marriott.com).
A recommended boutique hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf is the elegant Argonaut San Francisco (www.argonauthotel.com). If you prefer to be near Union Square, Staypineapple San Francisco (www.staypineapple.com/union-square-san-francisco) will not disappoint.
On the budget end, there are many hostels you can consider including the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel San Francisco (www.san-francisco-hostel.com/hostels), which is just a five-minute walk from Chinatown.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is one of the busiest airports in the US with direct connections to major cities in Europe and Asia.
The journey from SFO to downtown San Francisco is 21 kilometres and you can take the taxi, rapid transit train or bus shuttle. Around the city, you can take the buses, cable cars, trolleys or taxis. You can also try e-hailing apps such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.
Around the city, you may come across beggars – locally known as “panhandlers”. It is advisable to avoid them and not give money directly. If you wish to help, contribute to some of the charities that help them.
There are also scam artists roaming the streets with clipboards asking for signatures or donations and their favourite targets are tourists. An easy way to avoid them is to duck into a store or restaurant.
Photos © iStock by Getty Images (unless specified otherwise)