San Francisco’s Must-See Sites And Top Things To Do
San Francisco, the city by the bay hosts more than 15 million visitors each year. There are famous landmarks, romantic neighborhood eateries, hills, more hills, world-class museums, is famously inclusive and is also the tech capital of the world.
Mild year round temperatures make San Francisco a great place to visit anytime. The city is well-known to be chilly and foggy so bring a jacket no matter what time of year. Temperatures stay between 59-68 degrees most months of the year, However, the very best time to come to the Bay Area is between the end of September and until the end of October. The fall months are warmer than the summer, with clear skies, very little rain and you will be right in time for “crush” season in wine country.
Golden Gate Bridge
Completed in 1937 this world-famous landmark bridge blends perfectly with the Marin headlands and is painted “International Orange”. This beautiful bridge can be best photographed from the entrance to the bridge, Baker Beach, or from below at Crissy Field. Walking or biking across the bridge offers breath-taking views of Marin, the city, and surrounding area. Take note of the unique art deco columns up close. Also, the bridge is not in Golden Gate Park as one might assume, it is located at the northern tip of Park Presidio. There is a toll fee to drive from Marin (north) to the City. Driving South to North (toward Marin) is free & biking/walking is free.
The Golden Gate Park
The 1,000 acre park contains many museums, culturally significant destinations and is host to annual festivals like Outside Lands, Strictly Blue Grass and Wanderlust. Some of the best sites are the De Young Museum, The Japanese Tea Garden, The Botanical Garden, Academy Of Sciences, and Stow Lake where pedal boats are for rent. Biking is a great way to get around the park, or there is free bus on weekends. The far west end of the park will bring you to Ocean Beach, where views of the Cliff House will be to your right. The far east end is also the beginning of Haight street. If 60’s nostalgia is of interest, walk along Haight street where time stands still, you will still find smoke shops, records shops and off-beat hippy shops.
Palace Of Fine Arts
Erected in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition this structure has become one of the most visited and recognized landmarks in the city. Late morning and early afternoon will grant the best lighting for photography. This is an extremely popular place for wedding, engagement and Quinceñera photo shoots because of the monumental European architecture. Also, a top picnic and people watching spot along the grassy slopes. This is an easy add-on stop if you do the bike ride to Sausalito.
Home to perhaps the best shot of the Golden Gate Bridge and a terrific sunset spot. Located in the Park Presidio near the bay’s outlet. Look for whales, sharks (I’ve seen two here), seals, and the far end are… errrr…naked people, mostly older men. Steer clear unless you want and eye-full, even on cold days. Above Baker Beach and walking toward GG bridge there are trails that curve through the cliffs of Fort Scott, these trails will pass several fortified emplacements from the 1800’s. Walking this trail brings you to the parking lot and entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bike to Sausalito
This is a must-do bike ride and if you have the energy and the weather agrees. Rentals can be obtained near Fisherman’s Wharf at Blazing Saddles or at Sports Basement near Crissy Field, these guys will even pick your bike up in Sausalito so you can walk on the Ferry and walk off at The Ferry Building in downtown.
Riding west along the bike paths and along the bay front you will approach the Golden Gate Bridge. Be sure stop to take pictures at Crissy Field, and continue up to the bridge. Several signs will lead the way.
Crossing the bridge will grant you stunning views on a clear day. The path then curves along to the right, you will follow the signs to Sausalito.
This seaside town is a small one but offers a few good restaurants for lunch. Seafood is famous at Spinnaker, Scoma’s and The Trident. Most bikers will Ferry back to the city, buy a ticket online and be sure to get the latest schedule.
If you miss lunch in Sausalito, the Ferry Building is a great place to grab some food and has many local eateries.
Try: Slanted Door, Hog Island Oyster Co., Cowgirl Creamery, Gott’s Roadside & Blue Bottle Coffee.
If you rented a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf, return your bike rental and grab a hot chocolate at nearby Ghirardelli Square. Then take the trolley back to union square if you’re staying downtown.
Lands End Trail
This coastal walk is a beautiful wind-swept trail that takes you from the Eagles Point Trailhead in Sea Cliff to the Sutro Baths Ruins at the beginning of Ocean Beach. The trail is around 2 miles each way and is mostly flat with one steep section of stairs. While your there don’t miss the hidden Labyrinth, Mile Rock Beach, and the furthest western viewpoint, Point Lobos. Whales are seen frequently in March/April & Nov/Dec. Consider stopping at the Cliff House for lunch, drinks and killer views.
If time permits the nearby Legion of Honor is a major museum showing European art, and international exhibits from world-renowned artist. The cafe has a lovely outdoor terrace.
Home of the famous trolley car routes, crooked Lombard Street and lovely eateries. Take a trolley ride from downtown or even better, walk the hills. The best view is at the very top, at Jones and Union Street.
Wine tasting: Union Larder, Bacchus Wine Bar or nearby Park Tavern in Little Italy
For dinner: Milano, Frascati, Seven Hills, or Gary Danko.
Not usually a place I would recommend but how can 1.4 million visitors each year be wrong. Maybe it’s the fascination with the mafia & Al Capone, or the epic escape tales. I eventually did make it to Alcatraz for a special exhibition buy Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a hugely popular exhibition commenting on freedom and human rights. The island can be accessed from Pier 33, buy tickets online and go early to be sure you have enough time to see the sites. My favorite area is the Prisoner Garden which has great views of the city and bridge.
Pacific Heights and the Marina District
These fashionable and up-scale neighborhoods that are always bustling.
Check out the landscaped Lyon Street Steps, which offer a dynamite view of the bay, GG bridge, The Palace of Fine Arts and Alcatraz. Broadway at Presidio Avenue is the summit of the steps and also the beginning of “billionaire’s row” where picturesque mansions line the steep hills of the bay.
It’s a friendly walking district so feel free to stroll around the shops and find a spot to perch for the evening.
Drinks & Happy Hour: Belga, Tipsy pig, Sessions at the presidio, and Brixton
Wine tasting: California Wine Merchant, West Coast Wine, Cultivar and Bar Crenn.
Dinner: A16, Blackwood, Pacific Catch, Ace Wasabi, Causwells, Delarosa and Baker Street Bistro.
If you only have a half day and want to see some of the California coast, try Gray Whale Cove. This dreamy beach-cove is 30 minutes from San Francisco and on a warm sunny day is great place to relax the day away. The water is very cold and dangerous here. I don’t recommend swimming, although people do. A rental car would be needed or Uber possible with the ride back being ..tricky?
Not enough time? Try Baker or Ocean Beach.
Last but not least… well sort of. This district is what some try to pan off as “up and coming”. If you go here, go early by Uber or cab. This neighborhood is popular with locals who think it’s hip. Ok, so now why do I write about it? Because locals insist this is a must-see place and it contains an important place. The best bakery: Tartine. Seriously, it worth the trek to come here. The cafe is divine and it’s also crowded, just wait in line and order a lot. Don’t miss the Lemon Tart, coquette, croissants, cappuccino and a full country loaf to take home. Walk off the massive calorie consumption at nearby park Mission Dolores Park, a favorite Sunday afternoon hang out.
More time to explore?
See: Coit Tower & Little Italy, Union Square, China Town, Fillmore District, Sunset District restaurants, Japan Town, The Castro, and Grace Cathedral.
Sadly recent policy changes coupled with a housing crisis have helped create a very large homeless population. There have been violent occurrences and a lot of petty theft. Stay north of Market Street in the main area around Union Square, avoid the Tenderloin neighborhood or SOMA. Take a taxi or Uber to your destination and never leave valuables in your vehicle. Best to take them with you. Sorry to bring this up, but I want you to be safe and have a good time.