San Francisco is one of the most eclectic cities in the United States. It’s home to liberals, hippies, hipsters, techies, immigrants, yuppies, one of the oldest gay scenes in the States, that big red bridge, Alcatraz, delicious Chinese food, seafood, and, well, food in general (this is a great city to be hungry in). To me, it’s a magical place. While it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would convince me to pack my bags and live there, I look forward to each visit with excitement (and hunger). There’s always something new and exciting going on.
The first time I was in the city, I found myself racing around and barely getting anything in. I only had three full days to see everything, and that just wasn’t enough. San Francisco’s attractions are spread out and aren’t always convenient to reach — there’s a lot of travel time involved. But last month, I went back and saw more sites, ate a lot more food, and figured out the best way to get an overview of the city’s highlights during a brief visit. Here’s what I came up with:
Walk the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks as well as a piece of engineering art. You can walk across the bridge if you want (recommended), drop in at the visitor’s center to be briefed on the history of the park, or just stare at it from every angle and take a stupid amount of pictures like I did. Don’t forget to make your way to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which offers a waterfront promenade, views of the bridge, and a number of hiking trails. There’s a Walt Disney museum in the park too.
Visit Crissy Field
Also near the bridge as you walk along the harbor toward the center of town is this park, which features a beautiful beach, restaurants, piers for fishing, and parks for Frisbee. You’ll find a lot of locals running, walking their dogs, or lying on the beach. It offers sweeping views of the entire harbor.
Visit The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a Roman-style remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The outdoor rotunda and its lagoon are one of the city’s most photographed sights. Take a leisurely stroll around the lagoon, relax under the rotunda, or enjoy a picnic on the grass.
This former federal prison on Alcatraz Island was home to some of the worst criminals in the US. It was shut down in the 1970s and has since become a national landmark people can explore. There’s no charge to visit the island, but you’ll have to pay for the boat there. I’d suggest taking a tour during your visit so the rangers can provide you with some historical context. Be sure to book the ferry to the island early if you’re going in the summer, as it gets very full!
Visit Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square
This area covers numerous blocks along the waterfront and is one of the most popular (touristy) things to do in the city. There are street performers, souvenir shops, and tons of spendy restaurants. This is a good place to wander and explore for people watching, but don’t eat here. The food is overpriced and, to be honest, not that good. If you want to try some of the mouthwatering seafood that San Francisco is famous for, I really liked Waterbar and the Anchor Oyster Bar.
Hang out in the Mission
The Mission District is a fabulous place to spend your night. After your busy day, go relax in Dolores Park for great views of the city, and then check out the Mission’s amazing Mexican food (and overall food scene), bars, and clubs. Watch out for hipsters!
Ride the Cable Cars
Riding the cable cars is an excellent way to tour the city and experience various neighborhoods in San Francisco. Catch the cable cars from Market Street. They’re fun to ride and will save you lots of time walking up and down those hills.
Visit Lombard Street
While riding the cable cars, make sure to get off at Lombard Street and see one of the world’s windiest streets. Watch the cars and bikers navigate the sharp turns as tourists gawk at them.
Head up Coit Tower
Another major city landmark is Coit Tower, perched atop Telegraph Hill. It was built in 1933 to help beautify the city and features 27 fresco murals by different artists. From the top, you’ll get panoramic views of the city (it’s $7 to go to the top). Otherwise, you can explore the monument and murals at ground level.
Head to Chinatown
Next to NYC, this is the most famous Chinatown in the United States (it’s also the biggest). Chinese immigrants first came to the West Coast and set up shop in San Francisco. Due to racial segregation, this neighborhood became predominantly Chinese and has remained so, though the segregation is over. Chinatown here has some of the best places to eat Chinese food (dim sum) in the country, teahouses, bars, souvenir stalls, and fortune cookie makers. Eat your heart out here. I do.
Go on a Harbor Tour
Take an afternoon cruise of San Francisco Bay to see the city from the water. You’ll get some good photos, learn about the bay, see some wildlife, and enjoy life on the water. There are many tour companies, but a cheap way to see the bay is to take the public ferries for $6.25. Same views, cheaper price. You can find prices and routes on the ferry’s website.
Hang out in the Castro
The Castro is San Francisco’s gay neighborhood and features a number of ethnic and modern restaurants, as well as a bunch that serve the locally sourced organic food the Bay Area is known for. Moreover, there’s a plethora of wild and fun clubs that cater to both gay and straight people. It’s an awesome place to go out at night.
The birthplace of America’s counterculture, the Haight was ground zero during the summer of 1967, a.k.a. The Summer of Love. Hippies used to live here, but yuppies have since moved in, buying up all the colorful Victorian homes throughout Haight-Ashbury and replacing head shops with high-end boutiques, chic restaurants, and hip cafés. It’s still a fun place to visit, and Flower Power Walking Tours runs in-depth and informative tours through the neighborhood.
Take a walking tour
San Francisco has a number of interesting walking tours that can teach you about the history of the eclectic neighborhoods or show you all the scrumptious food the city has to offer. Two of the best companies to use are:
Eat at the ferry building
My top place to eat in San Francisco, this place is a foodie dream. Outside the building on weekdays are a lot of food stands and on the weekends, there’s also a big farmers market. Inside, you’ll find restaurants and food vendors selling specialty food items as well as butchers, cheesemongers, wine bars, and more.
Visit the city’s many museums
San Francisco has numerous museums that are worth seeing. Here are my favorites:
Explore Golden Gate Park
This gigantic park features a Japanese garden (skip it), a museum, an arboretum, and tons of hiking and walking trails. Three miles long and stretching about 30 blocks to the sea, it’s 20 percent bigger than New York’s Central Park. Walking from end to end will take half a day. If that’s too much for you, spend at least a few hours here exploring the park, especially if it’s an unusually warm and beautiful day in the city.
Relax with a drink
After all that traveling, you should probably explore some of the city’s amazing brewhouses. The Mission and Castro are two of the best spots for nightlife, but you’ll find amazing bars and clubs throughout the city. Here’s a quick video that features five:
Special thanks to Stuart for taking me around! Be sure to check out his website too, as it’s filled with some amazing travel tips.
Got more time? Here are other things to do:
- Explore Japantown – Come here for amazing sushi, Japanese food, Korean food, and kitchen ingredients. Shabu Sen has amazing ramen.
- Catch a game – San Francisco locals love their sports teams, especially the Giants, their really good baseball team. If you’re in town during a game, be sure to head to the stadium and cheer on the local team. Even if you don’t like the sport (whatever the sport), the locals will happily take you in, explain the game, and drink a beer with you.
- Visit wine country – Near the city are the world-famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions. If you love wine and have time to leave the city, you obviously need to come here. Some companies run day trips to Napa Valley since it’s closer, but you’ll be a bit rushed. It’s far better to spend at least a night.
- Visit Muir Woods — Muir Woods is the closest place to the Bay Area where you can see giant redwood trees. You don’t get to encounter the huge, huge iconic redwoods (which are sequoias and farther away, at Sequoia National Park), but if you’re looking to see something close to the city, this is as good as it gets.
- Explore Berkeley – Across the bay is the interesting city of Berkley, home to music, hippies, students, and the very left-leaning University of California, Berkeley.
- Explore Oakland – Oakland is an upcoming area in the city and is filling up with hipsters, bars, and specialty restaurants.
For food suggestions, Jodi from Legal Nomads has this incredible list of restaurants. Every place on that list is delicious.
San Francisco has a lot of things to do, attractions to see, and places to eat. There’s so much to see and do here that three days just isn’t enough. I think a four- or five-day visit would give you a more complete picture and allow you to spend some quality time soaking up the city.