There are few cities as recognizable as San Francisco—rumbling cable cars, Painted Lady Victorians, precipitous hills, the best museums and of course, the soaring red-orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. From a Mission murals tour to the best restaurants in San Francisco, spend a day combing through the seven square miles of the “Paris of the Pacific” and its world-class sightseeing attractions. See them for the first-time or the forty-first—they’re still as spectacular as you remember.
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San Francisco points of interest
The world’s most photographed bridge and its iconic 746-foot tall orange towers have stood sentinel over the San Francisco Bay since 1937. Even when shrouded in fog, the 4,200 foot bridge never fails to impress whether you get a glimpse from the city (try Crissy Field, Fort Point and Baker Beach for spectacular vistas), the Marin Headlands or passing over its span - bikes and cars are permitted access across the bridge 24-hours a day, walkers can cross using the east sidewalk between 5am-6:30pm (5am-9pm during Daylight Savings Time). Come prepared wearing extra layers; Karl the Fog doesn’t mess around when it comes to the Golden Gate.
Converted from a lighthouse station to a military prison in the 1870s, this formidable fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay became notorious when it was upgraded to a maximum security prison in 1934 holding some of the most infamous criminals of the early 20th century including Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. Today you’ll only make it to “The Rock” via ferry from Pier 33. Once there, the self-guided audio cellhouse tour narrated by former inmates and guards will fill you in on harrowing escape attempts, prison riots and the 19-month long occupation of the site by Native Americans demanding reparation for broken treaties in 1969. To get more creepy bang for your buck, try a night tour. Plan to spend about three-hours round trip and bring a jacket to protect you from the island’s heavy year-round fog.
A food mecca that rivals Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market, the Ferry Building hosts both the city’s largest tri-weekly farmer’s market and provides a permanent home for some of the region’s most beloved artisan producers. Indoors, you’ll find merchants ranging from Cowgirl Creamery, Dandelion Chocolate and Fort Point Beer Company. Behind the Ferry Building on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am-2pm and Saturdays from 8am-2pm, regional farmers and ranchers sell vegetables, flowers, meats and other edible and small-batch products. When your shopping is done, grab a bite at one of the itinerant food stalls on market days or brick-and-mortar restaurants like Charles Phan’s beloved Vietnamese juggernaut the Slanted Door or the popular Hog Island Oyster Company. San Francisco City Guides offer regular free tours of the plaza.
Twenty percent larger than New York’s Central Park and just as iconic, Golden Gate Park is 1000+ acres of rolling hills, groves of trees, gardens and hidden treasures. Stretching from the “Panhandle”—the long, skinny section of the park that once served as an experimental planting area—to the edge of Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park contains a number of San Francisco’s best landmarks including the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers (a Victorian-era glass greenhouse) and the ultra-green, ultra-brainy Academy of Science. Recreational options in the park include hiking trails, a disk golf course and bocce ball courts. Kids will go crazy for the enchanting playground at Koret Children’s Quarter and its century-old carousel.
San Francisco boasts hundreds of “Painted Ladies,” colorful Victorian and Edwardian houses featuring three or more colors that enhance elements of their architecture; the most famous can be found in NoPa, the Lower Haight, Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley neighborhoods. But there’s one row, in particular, so iconic that it’s simply referred to as “the Painted Ladies” (or sometimes “Postcard Row”): the houses of 710-720 Steiner street at the corner of Hayes St. These gals have appeared in an estimated 70 movies, ads and television shows including the 90s juggernaut Full House. You, unfortunately, can’t enter the Painted Ladies (real people live there) but you can get a great view and your own iconic photo from the east-facing hillside of Alamo Square across the street.
In the late 1800s, San Francisco’s cable cars ran 23 routes moving people around the city’s seven square miles. Today, most locals have switched to more efficient modes of public transportation to get around, but a ride on one of the three remaining cable car lines is still a classic San Francisco treat and a National Historic Landmark. Hop aboard for views of Nob Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill and the SF Bay seen, if you’ve chosen your spot well, while hanging off the running boards Doris-Day–style. Make a stop-over at the Cable Car Museum at Mason and Washington streets to learn more about the cable cars’ history and get a glimpse of the giant wheels turning the underground cables that power the cars.
Yes, Fisherman’s Wharf caters almost entirely to the city’s visitors but there are good reasons for even the most hardened San Francisco resident to visit including the charming vintage arcade Musée Mécanique, the National Maritime Historical Park’s fleet of restored vintage sailing ships and the USS Pampanito submarine. At Pier 39, ride visit the raucous California Sea Lions at K Dock, shop or ride the merry-go-round. When you’ve had enough harbor excitement, grab a meal of local seafood and sourdough bread at Pier 45’s simple stalls and historic restaurants just feet from where commercial fishermen bring in their daily catch. Afterwards, indulge in a decadent dessert at Ghiradelli Square, home of the famed chocolatier.
Once the land of the lawless where gambling, vigilante justice and prostitution reigned, today’s Barbary Coast, though considerably less raucous, still bears scars from its early days. Overlapping the neighborhoods of Jackson Square, North Beach and Chinatown, a meander down the Barbary Coast trail places you at the doorstep of a number of historical sites including beat-era hangouts like City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Cafe, Saints Peter and Paul Church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were photographed in 1954 after getting hitched at City Hall and Jackson Square’s gold rush-era architecture. If you’re on the lookout for something more raunchy, a number of strip clubs and other mature entertainments continue to carry the torch for the often sexually transgressive entertainments that dominated the neighborhood in the first half of the 20th century.
San Francisco’s Chinatown (the one centered on Grant and Stockton avenues; there are actually four distinct Chinese neighborhoods in the city) is both the oldest and largest enclave of Chinese immigrants outside of Asia. Chinatown has a storied, and often tragic, history in San Francisco and there’s no better way to explore its historic buildings, pocket parks and shops than by passing through the Dragon Gate at the corner of Bush St. and Grant Ave. Considered the birthplace of American Chinese food like Chop Suey and credited with introducing dim sum to the Western palate and inventing the fortune cookie, you’d be remiss not to stop for a bite at an eatery like Hunan Home’s Restaurant or Good Mong Kok Bakery.
Added to the San Francisco skyline in 1933, this monumental love letter to the city remains an iconic welcome for travelers westbound across the Bay Bridge. Named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric whose $118,000 bequest to the city resulted in the tower’s construction, the tapered, fluted tower stands 180 feet tall at the crest of Telegraph Hill. At the top is the tower’s observation deck with 360 degree views of San Francisco and the SF Bay. A rotunda at its base is covered in Depression-era WPA murals depicting not-so-subtle socialist images in scenes of California agriculture and industry painted by over two dozen artists, some of whom studied under famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.