San Francisco is easily one of the most unique cities I’ve ever visited. It would take months to explore all that the city has to offer, but what if you only have a few days? That’s why I put together my top 10 things to do and see in San Francisco!
Number 1: Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf
The entire Fisherman’s Wharf area, and especially Pier 39, are probably some of the most touristy sites you can visit in San Francisco, but don’t let that stop you. It has everything, from delicious restaurants to live performers to a multi-level aquarium. If that isn’t enough to get you interested, you MUST visit the Pier for the sea lions! These fun creatures are loud, smelly, and probably the most entertaining thing you’ll see all day. I went back many times during my time in the city to visit the hundreds of sea lions relaxing near the edge of the Pier.
Number 2: Alcatraz
The Alcatraz tour is one of the highest recommended attractions in San Francisco, and for good reason. The experience starts with a short ferry ride to the island, where you are given an audio guide that walks you step by step through the old prison. With eyewitness accounts from guards and prisoners who lived on “The Rock” and eerie sound effects, you are instantly transported to the days when the prison was still running and full of some of the most infamous criminals in the US. The guide tells you stories of Alcatraz’s most notorious tenants, such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stround, best known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, and provides detailed accounts of the failed escape attempts made by the prisoners.
Pro Tip 1: The ramps on the island are extremely steep, so be sure to wear shoes with good traction. Also, I would absolutely recommend bringing a windbreaker. When I visited, it was so incredibly windy, a couple of times I thought I would blow away!
Pro Tip 2: Buy your tickets online early! There are only a limited number of tickets available each day, so be sure to buy your tickets at least a couple of weeks in advance to ensure your spot. Don’t think you can just walk up the day of without a reservation, this attraction is incredibly popular and always busy!
Pro Tip 3: As always, be extremely cautious when buying tickets online. Many sites advertise boat rides to Alcatraz but don’t actually stop on the island. Make sure to buy tickets from sellers approved by the National Parks Service to stop at Alcatraz. I bought my tickets from Alcatraz Cruises.
Number 3: Golden Gate Bridge
What San Francisco list wouldn’t be complete without the Golden Gate Bridge? This iconic landmark is even more breathtaking in person than in photographs, and is an essential must-see for any SF visitor. There are numerous locations to get the best shot of the rust-colored bridge, including Fort Point, Baker Beach, and Crissy Field, but when I toured the city, I went to Vista Point on the far side of the bridge and was amazed by the gorgeous view of the bridge! Also, if you get the chance, you should walk/bike across the bridge for more stunning views. Just keep in mind that it is extremely windy, so I recommend bringing a windbreaker if you plan to cross.
Number 4: Ride Cable Cars
This is another classic tourist activity, but a fun one! You probably won’t find many locals riding the tracks, but when used correctly, these nostalgic cars are a unique and easy way to get across the city. There are 3 cable car routes, the Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde, and California lines. Both the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde tracks run North-South from the Fisherman’s Wharf area to the intersection of Market and Powell, and California runs East-West from the intersection of California and Van Ness streets to the Embarcadero area. Map here.
Pro Tip: Most tourists wait at the turntables to hop on the cars, but if the lines are long, walk a block to the next stop and get on with little or no wait!
Number 5: Painted Ladies
Any fans of Full House? If so, you can’t miss these iconic Victorian houses across the street from Alamo Square Park. While still a main SF attraction, this area usually isn’t as crowded as some of the other places on this list, so if you want a beautiful place to relax or enjoy a picnic, this spot is for you!
Number 6: Ghirardelli Square
This had to be included on this list specifically for the incredible ice cream sundaes served at the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. I have the biggest sweet tooth, and this incredibly decadent sundae was the perfect ending to the day. Ghirardelli square is a little over half a mile from Lombard Street and only 0.4 miles from Fisherman’s Wharf, so if you are in that area and in need of a sweet treat, be sure to visit this incredibly chocolaty paradise!
Number 7: Lombard Street
Another classic, this unique twisty-turvy street is famous for being the world’s most crooked street with eight turns from top to bottom. While you’re walking or driving along this curvy street, pay attention to the beautiful and meticulously kept homes and gardens lining the street.
Pro Tip: Don’t be fooled, Lombard street actually extends East-West through most of SF, so you could be on Lombard Street without being anywhere near the famous curves. The part you want to visit is in the Russian Hill neighborhood near George Sterling Park!
Number 8: Explore the Neighborhoods
If you’re someone who just wants to get lost and wander a new city, SF is the perfect place to visit! Each one of the numerous neighborhoods in San Francisco has its own distinctive charm and unique character. My favorites that I visited were Chinatown and North Beach. The San Francisco Chinatown is actually the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and is filled with incredible culture and history. Just walking around the neighborhood, you will see the stunning Dragon Gate Arch on Grant Avenue and countless hanging lanterns. My favorite part of my exploration of the area was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. It may seem hidden between the narrow streets, but you will be pulled in by the delicious smell and the free flat cookie samples handed out to every visitor! Not only does San Francisco have its own Chinatown, but it also has its own Little Italy! This neighborhood is overflowing with history and culture with gorgeous landmarks such as Washington Square Park, Saints Peter and Paul Church, and the whimsical City Lights Bookstore.
Number 9: Coit Tower
While you’re exploring North Beach, head east down Lombard Street to Telegraph Hill Blvd to visit the famous Coit Tower! Ride the elevator up to the observation deck at the top of the tower to view the breathtaking, 360-degree view of the entire city. You can see everything from Lombard Street to the Golden Gate Bridge all at once!
Pro Tip: If you’re walking to the Tower, the hills to reach the landmark have the steepest incline of any sidewalks I encountered while touring San Francisco. At certain points, the streets are so steep that the sidewalks turn into carved-out stair steps for a part of the way up. If you’re going to walk, be prepared for a trek up the impressively steep hills of the city.
Number 10: Eat
San Francisco has hundreds of incredible restaurants, cafes, and bakeries scattered around the city. While it is impossible to try everything (as much as I wanted to) my top bakery recommendation is Mr. Holmes’ Bakehouse, a quirky bakery that displays the famous “I got baked in San Francisco” neon sign. It proudly serves delicious donuts, croissants, and their famous cruffin (a hybrid croissant/muffin, trust me, it’s incredible). If you want to make this breakfast stop, be sure to go early to make sure you get what you want. They run out fast! Also, Boudin, which serves that original San Franciscan sourdough, is another classic SF gem with a convenient location in Fisherman’s Wharf!
Well, there you have it, my top 10 things you must do on your next trip to San Francisco! If there’s something you think I missed or somewhere you’re excited to visit next, let me know in the comments!