Voted America’s top city in numerous surveys, colorful and cosmopolitan San Francisco invariably charms visitors.
Ever since the Gold Rush, hill-sloped and breezy San Francisco has attracted those free-spirited types who have an eye for edgy art, a taste for imaginative cuisine and a zeal for adventure. Here, you’ll discover a mish-mash of culture — from Hispanic to LGBT — flourishing throughout San Francisco’s many colorful quarters. Yes, follow the crowds to the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area (which offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz), but don’t forget to save time for districts like Mission and The Castro, where much of the city’s history and culture can be explored.
It’s really not surprising that songwriter Tony Bennett left his heart here: The city is home to jaw-dropping sights, world-class cuisine, cozy cafés and plenty of booming nightlife venues — there are no shortage of ways to stay busy here. Spend an hour or two sunning yourself alongside sea lions on the bay or engaging in conversation with one of the many art aficionados who call the Golden Gate City home. For an authentic tour, enjoy a ride on a cable car.
Despite the opinions of some locals, there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist. Especially in a city like San Francisco, where there’s so much to see and do. So how to pare down what’s worth your time in this vibrant city that’s so full of icons worth seeing? Just refer to our list below.
An Interactive Map of Top Ten Sights in San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge
Its 1.7-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge — one of America’s top ten construction marvels — is a must-see. Celebrating its 65th anniversary, this graceful span (which connects to Marin county) is an unforgettable icon to drive, walk, or cycle across. In 1937, it cost $0.50 to cross this globally recognizable landmark by car. The toll has since changed, but the bridge’s awe-inspiring architecture has not. Experience it for free by walking or biking its 1.7-mile length.
San Francisco, CA 94901 goldengatebridge.org
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf
Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf satisfy tourists in search of food, shops, entertainment, and maritime views. Savor clam chowder in a bread bowl or watch as street performers of all kinds entertain. The real stars of the show, though, are the hundreds of lively sea lions on the marina’s western docks. The city’s most popular destination, Fisherman’s Wharf overlooks San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Nearby San Francisco attractions Pier 39, The Cannery, and Ghirardelli Square are touristy, but prove irresistible to many visitors.
Moving historic landmarks, the Cable Cars of San Francisco operate seven days a week along century-old routes. The trolleys operate today as more as a tourist attraction — and they’re worth the experience. 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 and Powell-Hyde lines both terminate near Fisherman’s Wharf. Board in San Francisco wherever you see a brown-and-white stop sign. Sit outside and hang on tight.
Alcatraz prison wasn’t always a place people wanted to go, but today it’s one of the city’s most popular sights. Do some time on “The Rock:” where you’ll stand in the prison cells of notorious criminals like Al Capone. Reach the island by ferry from Pier 33 (the fee includes an audio tour) and visit daytime if you prefer a self-guided experience, or in the evening for a more formal guided tour.
Situated north of SoMa and south of Chinatown, the Union Square neighborhood is a fun and funky rest stop for travelers and locals alike. And at its epicenter is the eclectic Union Square Park, an open space decorated with palm trees. The park is also home to loads of art installations, like the heart-shaped sculptures created by local artists for the Hearts in San Francisco project. Union Square is also popular spot with Broadway babies thanks to the nearby theater district. If this is you, recent travelers recommend you visit the Tix Booth — it’s a great resource for half-price tickets to performances, not to mention free area maps, transit passes and even foodie tips.
Union Square is also a shop-a-holic’s delight: Nearby are high-end shops like Prada and Tiffany & Co. among others. And when you’ve shopped until you’ve just about dropped, take a break at the park’s Emporio Rulli Café, which features plenty of open-air seating.
You can find parking in the garage directly underneath the park as well as throughout the neighborhood, but recent Yelp.com travelers advise against driving altogether. The roads around the Union Square area can be quite congested. Luckily, the BART rail system and the Muni-run buses and cable cars all have stops in the area.
Alamo Square and Lombard Street
Picture-postcard-worthy views include Alamo Square, where San Francisco’s circa-1900 Victorian homes are juxtaposed against the towering backdrop of downtown’s skyscrapers (Webster, Broderick, Oak, and Golden Gate streets).
Lombard Street: The block-long “Crookedest Street in the World” makes eight switchbacks down the east face of Russian Hill between Hyde and Leavenworth streets. The brick-lined street zigzags around the residences’ bright flower gardens, which explode with color during warmer months. This short stretch of Lombard Street is one-way, downhill, and fun to drive with super views of North Beach and Coit Tower. Save your film for the bottom where, if you’re lucky, you can find a parking space and take a few snapshots of the silly spectacle. You can also take staircases (without curves) up or down on either side of the street. FYI: Vermont Street, between 20th and 22nd streets in Potrero Hill, is even more crooked, but not nearly as picturesque. Can’t stand the throngs? Thrill seekers of a different stripe may want to head two blocks south of Lombard to Filbert Street. At a gradient of 31.5%, the hair-raising descent between Hyde and Leavenworth streets is the city’s steepest. Go slowly!
Coit Tower and North Beach
North Beach: In between appointments, stroll over to North Beach, San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood, for a snack. The espresso is strong and the cannoli sweet at Caffe Trieste, and century-old Molinari’s deli appeases the hungry. Once fortified, pay a visit to City Lights Bookstore, Mecca for bohemians and serious book-lovers alike. In the morning practice tai chi with the regulars in Washington Square and from here, catch the No. 39 bus to the top of Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill offers amazing views. Thirty local artists painted murals on its ground floor walls in 1933. This hill is also home to a flock of wild parrots and is laced with stairways off Filbert and Greenwich streets as well as lush gardens.
Coit Tower, piercing the skyline from the top of Telegraph Hill, is where to get a bird’s-eye view of the city. Built in 1933 at the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, some say the 210-foot tower resembles a fire-hose nozzle that stands in tribute to firefighters. The lobby’s vibrant murals depict scenes from the 1930s, and an elevator goes all the way up. If you’re feeling hearty, take the nearly 400 steep steps up and down — and look for the green parrots chirping along the way.
Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94133; 415-362-0808
A dragon-draped archway at the intersection of Bush and Grant streets announces the entrance to Chinatown in San Francisco. Chinatown’s 24 blocks are San Francisco’s most crowded; they’re densely packed with fish and vegetable stalls, herbal shops, temples, and eateries. (Lichee Garden, Hunan Home’s, and R&G restaurants all rate high with diners.) Don’t miss the Golden Gate Cookie Factory (on Ross Alley), where every day, two women make 20,000 fortune cookies by hand. Museums include the Chinese Historical Society of America and Chinese Culture Center.
Golden Gate Park
Contemplate your next move in Golden Gate Park. Three miles long by a half mile wide and larger than New York City’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park is the city’s largest outdoor spot. Within its thousand-plus acres are gardens, lakes, bridal, museums and walking paths, California Academy of Science, de Young Museum, Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and the tranquil Japanese Tea Garden, originally part of the 1894 World’s Fair Exhibit. Tea drinkers overlook a waterfall and pond framed by fragrant wisteria. Be sure to visit the Conservatory of Flowers (closed Monday), which is the oldest Victorian greenhouse this side of the Thames, and the carousel on Kezar Drive, both on the eastern edge of the park.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA 94122 nps.gov/goga
Conservatory of Flowers,San Francisco, CA 94122; 415-666-7001 conservatoryofflowers.org
Golden Gate Park Carousel, Kezar Drive & MLK Jr. Drive, San Francisco, CA 94122 parks.sfgov.org
Rated the Exploratorium “the best science museum in the world” by Scientific American magazine, the Exploratorium (in the Palace of Fine Arts) is a fun, quirky museum of science, art, and human perception that features some 650 “please touch” exhibits. Its pitch-black Tactile Dome may inspire you to approach challenges in a whole new way.
The museum is in the Marina District at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, the only building left standing from the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. The adjoining park with lagoon — the perfect place for an afternoon picnic — is home to ducks, swans, sea gulls, and grouchy geese, so bring bread.
3601 Lyon Street, San Francisco, CA 94123; 415-397-5673 exploratorium.edu
Getting Around San Francisco
The best ways to get around San Francisco are on foot or by public transportation. Most of the popular attractions are within walking distance of the city center, and the large municipal transportation system — called the Muni — operates bus and streetcar lines, leaving little need for your own set of wheels. You can also travel by cable car (also operated by Muni), which is a more entertaining — albeit slower — way to see the city. To get into the city from the San Francisco International Airport (SFO), you can use the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter rail or you can take a taxi for around $40 one way.