Set along the ocean, with rolling hills and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States and the jewel of Northern California. The city is full of history, great neighborhoods, parks, beaches, museums, and a whole host of entertainment options. Some of the most notable attractions, beyond the famous bridge, are historic Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf. In the city center is Golden Gate Park, a huge green space with all kinds of things to do. San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest of its kind in North America, is definitely worth visiting. For an interesting tour of the city, hop on one of the historic cable cars, which stop at many of the city’s top sites.
1 Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is a California icon gracing San Francisco Bay. It is the most photographed site in the city, with the orange structure backed by blue water, or in many cases, peaking through low lying cloud. At night, the flood-lit structure is equally striking.
Connecting San Francisco with Marin County and other districts further north, the Golden Gate Bridge was, at one time, designated the greatest man-made sight in the United States by the U.S. Travel Service. Opened on May 28th, 1937, the bridge took four years to build and at the time of its completion, was the longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring approximately two miles in length.
If you want to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, the road is US Hwy 101, or SR 1, and walkways on either side of the bridge are open to pedestrians and cyclists. The walk begins at the start of the bridge (accessible from the Presidio shuttle) and ends with a viewpoint in Marin County. Many locals enjoy biking across the bridge to the nearby waterfront town of Sausalito. Pedestrian access is on the East Sidewalk; bicycle access is on the East and West Sidewalks. The bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists during daylight hours.
For a great view of the bridge, or for anyone interested in photographing the bridge, there are a number of ideal vantage points. From the San Francisco side, Nob Hill, an area known for its posh old mansions, offers some beautiful views over the bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge, in Marin County, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is another good spot. Also, if you are planning on taking a tour to Alcatraz, there are completely open views from the boat and island.
2 Alcatraz Island
The historic and notorious Alcatraz penitentiary, located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, is one of America’s most infamous prisons. It operated for almost thirty years, closing in 1963 and re-opening as a tourist attraction in 1973. Some of America’s most well-known criminals were inmates here, including Al Capone and the “Birdman,” who would later form the basis for the fictional movie The Birdman of Alcatraz.
You can take a ferry over to the island and tour the site while listening to an exceptional audio recording that offers a glimpse into life in the prison, rather than just a historical list of the facts. The narration is even voiced by former inmates and guards of Alcatraz.
In the course of its 30-year existence, the penitentiary received a total of 1,576 convicts. There were never more than 250 at any one time, even though there were 450 cells measuring about 10ft x 4ft. At times the number of guards and staff was greater than the number of convicts.
While most people come for the history or the novelty of seeing a former prison, the island is now a prominent area for nesting seabirds.
An easy, convenient, and time-saving way to see Alcatraz and some of the other highlights of San Francisco, like Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and the Golden Gate Bridge, is to take a combined Alcatraz and San Francisco City Tour. If you have only one day to explore the city, and Alcatraz is on your must-see list, this guided tour is the best option. Alcatraz regularly sells out, so booking in advance is strongly advised.
3 Fisherman’s Wharf
One of San Francisco’s most popular tourist areas is Fisherman’s Wharf. If this is your first visit to the city and you only have a day or two to see the sights, Fisherman’s Wharf is a good place to start. This old section, once the Little Italy of San Francisco, is an area known for its shops, restaurants, and beautiful setting along the waterfront. It’s a fun place to stroll around and get a taste for the city. From here, you can also take a sightseeing cruise for spectacular views of the city, or organize a fishing charter.
Some of the main attractions in the area are Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Ghirardelli Square. Restored 19th- and 20th-century ships line the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier, which is now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The USS Pampanito, a national historic landmark, is a WWII submarine and part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Pier 39, located in this general area, is home to more than 130 stores and unique places to eat. It also offers great views looking back onto the city.
4 Cable Cars
Cable Cars were introduced in 1873 to help locals contend with the many hills the city is built on. Today, the few remaining cable cars offer tourists a great way to explore the city in historic fashion. Since 1964, these tram-like vehicles have had the unique distinction of being the only public transport system to be declared a historic monument. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde are the most scenic routes. The cable cars will also get you to the major attractions such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, the Ferry Building, Nob Hill, and Lombard Street. If you are planning on more than a couple of rides or are going to be sightseeing for a few days, you should consider buying a pass.
5 Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park, home to gardens and museums, is a fabulous green space in the heart of San Francisco, often considered the “lungs” of the city. Before development began in 1871, this was an area of arid dunes. Today, the park has a network of walking trails and cycling paths, more than 5,000 different kinds of plants and dozens of species of trees, several lakes, bridle paths, and a buffalo paddock. The main attractions include the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences Museum with Steinhart Aquarium, the Japanese Tea Garden, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Golden Gate Park is one of those places that can just as easily take up a couple of hours as a couple of days. Bike rentals are available, and this can be a good way to explore the park, rather than trying to do everything on foot. Alternatively, try an organized Segway Tour with a local guide and hit all the major highlights.
You may have been to Chinatown in other cities, but San Francisco’s Chinatown is a whole other realm. It is both the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest of its kind in North America. Almost completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown was rebuilt entirely in the Chinese style and was soon even more attractive than before the disaster. Now with its temples, theaters, workshops, small businesses, stores, antique and souvenir shops, teahouses, and traditional pharmacies, Chinatown has become one of the major sites of San Francisco. If you are traveling through San Francisco during an important Chinese holiday or event, you can expect to see an elaborate celebration. Chinese New Year celebrations are often considered the best in North America. The main street in Chinatown for tourists is Grant Avenue, with the Chinatown Gateway at Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
7 Legion of Honor
An impressive Neoclassical Beaux-Arts building in an amazing setting, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is San Francisco’s most exquisite museum. The Legion of Honor was the gift of the socialite, philanthropist, and patron of the arts Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Because of her love for all things Parisian, the museum was designed as a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The Legion of Honor museum has a superb collection of European decorative arts, sculpture, and paintings, along with antiquities from the Mediterranean and Near East.
The museum is in Lincoln Park, a gorgeous green space with a golf course and coastal woodlands and a wonderful place for a leisurely walk. Just outside the museum, visitors may follow the path along Lincoln Highway, which boasts spectacular ocean vistas and perfect outlooks onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Those seeking a more adventurous hike can head to the Land’s End Trail. This winding cliffside trail in a wild, rugged terrain offers sweeping Pacific Ocean views and panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge.
8 California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park, is an architectural marvel as well as a multifaceted museum. This state-of-the-art “green” building with a sustainable design has a 2.5-acre Living Roof, covered with native plants and even rolling hills to match the natural surroundings. The roof also has solar panels to generate electricity, and the soil acts as natural insulation. The walls are largely made of glass allowing for natural light.
Inside is an incredible natural history museum, planetarium, aquarium, rainforest, and more. The Steinhart Aquarium includes some 38,000 live specimens and a 25-feet-deep coral reef. The rainforest is four stories high, with all kinds of animals and amphibians in a fantastic layout. You can descend in a glass elevator to the deepest depths and look up through an acrylic tunnel to see fish swimming overhead. The Kimball Natural History Museum has skeletons of a T-Rex and blue whale, along with an array of interesting exhibits.
Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
9 de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
In Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is a fine arts museum, and one of the largest public art institutions in San Francisco. Exhibits cover a variety of time frames and geographical locations. While art and period interiors from North America feature strongly in the collection, there are also many exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East. British art and folk art from Africa, America, and the Pacific Islands, are also well represented.
10 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
After an extensive renovation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened in the spring of 2016, with 170,000 square feet of exhibition space; nearly three times its previous size. The museum now has 10 floors, with 45,000 feet of ground floor gallery space open to the public free of charge. In addition to the new space, the museum has also acquired thousands of new pieces. The museum features a full range of exhibitions, some from the museum’s permanent collection and others specially commissioned for the opening.
Address: 151 Third Street, San Francisco