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10 San Francisco tourist traps that are totally worth it

10 San Francisco tourist traps that are totally worth it
Photograph: Flickr/Todd Lappin

Many San Franciscans don't dare indulge in the city's iconic tourist attractions because most of those experiences have (wrongly) been labeled tacky, expensive traps that bear no resemblance to the "real" San Francisco. Sure, this sometimes feels true. But most of those postcard-perfect San Francisco cliches actually are worth the time, effort, money and maneuvering around families on vacation who walk down the sidewalk in a horizontal group.

Whether you're entertaining visiting relatives or stay-cationing in your hometown, these classic San Francisco tourist spots live up to the hotel concierge hype. And since you've heard that hype before, we'll save you the synopsis of what each one is (you know about cable cars, right?) and instead offer a handy tip for enjoying each "trap."

1. Cable cars: Hop aboard one or two stops past the official turn-arounds. You'll avoid the massive lines, and most tourists hop off after a couple of stops anyway—so you can avoid them too, without missing much. Make sure you've got cash on hand. 

2. Alcatraz: Book early, as a same-day Alcatraz reservation is a real rarity. And do not miss the audio tour. The Alcatraz guided audio tour is perhaps the greatest guided audio tour in the world.

3. Top of the Mark: Sunset is lovely, but it can get crowded and includes a substantial cover charge. Sunday brunch at Top of the Mark (in the Hopkins Hotel) is a touristy treat, but a big treat nonetheless. 

4. Ghirardelli Square: Work up a sundae-sized appetite by strolling down to the grass and beach just beneath the Square. The street vendors this far west of Fisherman's Wharf have slightly cheaper prices—and slightly happier attitudes. 

5. Forbes Island: You don't need to book a table of mediocre food to enjoy this awesomely quirky restaurant. A drink at the bar and trip to the top of the lighthouse is all that's needed to celebrate this bizarre island establishment. 

6. Golden Gate Bridge: Walk it! Park in Crissy Field and hike up to the Bridge. You'll avoid the tour bus madness and bask in a gorgeous (uphill) hike with photo opportunities galore and stunning views of SF's most famous icon. 

7. RocketBoat: We have no pro tip to pair with this super cheesy speedboat ride around the Bay. It's simply invigorating and fun, and requires that locals suffer in line along with everyone else. Still, a 30-minute RocketBoat ride is worth it. 

8. Ferry Building Farmers' Market: The experts advise folks to arrive at Saturday morning's insanely popular farmers' market first thing in the morning to get the best produce. But unless you're a sous chef at a 4-star restaurant, do you really care about scoring the best carrots? Sleep in, show up at noon and you'll enjoy the last two hours of the dwindling market. 

9. Union Square: Union Square might be the shopping center of San Francisco, but the true gem here is a ride on the St. Francis Hotel's glass elevators overlooking the Square, FiDi, Bay Bridge and out to the East Bay. 

10. Fisherman's Wharf: We've got a whole guide to the best finds at the Wharf, but when you need to really unwind and avoid the masses, we know of a secret oasis. The Hotel Zephyr, right there in the heart of the Wharf, has a serene, spacious and totally enclosed courtyard filled with modern art, fire pits and drink service. But shhh, this underrated bar experience is one of our favorite San Francisco secrets. 


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