San Francisco is home to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, SF Giants and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! This blog will be talking about all the best things to do in San Francisco from cable cars, food and my experience of this vibrant city. Find out why I fell in love with San Francisco, the city by the bay!
San Francisco is a city like no other that I’ve visited in The United States. It’s a city of old meets new, full of charm and is a foodies’ paradise! Best of all there is a San Francisco Itinerary to suit everyone. Before we get started, one of my biggest regrets was not seeing Yosemite National Park during my time in San Francisco (it looks incredible!) There are so many reasons why you should book a Trek America Trip to Yosemite to escape the city and, it will be first on my list next time around! For those hiring a car, Yosemite is a great stop on a USA road trip to San Francisco.
I’ve shared more about San Francisco’s cool things to do below.
What to see in San Francisco
There are so many fun things to do in San Francisco and it is a city very different to anywhere else I’ve visited in the States. In some ways, it’s quaint and old-fashioned with cute cable cars reminiscent of the days of black and white films and in other ways, it’s a modern tech hub, home to corporate giants Facebook and Twitter.
The hotels and restaurants have a renowned charm and it’s easy to picture the setting for movies filmed in San Francisco such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The old buildings, which may not be old in comparison to the extensive history in London for example, are great to see with stunning architecture dotted around the city. The restaurants have a home away from home vibe with many restaurants and diners serving customers for decades, with home comfort foods being a big feature on many of the menus.
In contrast, San Francisco is also home to corporate giants such as Twitter, Google and Facebook giving the city a modern feel and the impact of the tech boom is noted to have caused some controversy with hiked rents impacting on the estimated 6,700 homeless, which the city is also home to.
Before arriving in San Francisco, I had read various blogs and guides to the city, though I did not come across any commenting on the homeless issue evident upon visiting. Local photographer Michael Victor effectively demonstrates the parallelism of San Francisco life through his Instagram page @the415guy; conveying the impact of technology and tourism on the less fortunate. These photographs are particularly poignant:
The ironic juxtaposition of the above photograph is a tourist taking a picture on her iPhone of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge standing above a homeless woman with a sign reading “I’m very hungry, please can you help?” This photograph conveys the stark contrasts of tourist culture opposed to real life, which Michael sums up in his Instagram blurb: “ I believe that so much of what makes San Francisco unique is captured in this one photo. The beauty, the tourism, the technology and the fact that there are many people here who are struggling mightily.”
The above photograph is entitled ‘Your Life is Precious’ and pictures a homeless man sleeping on a bench with the ferry building and Hyatt Embarcadero Hotel seen in the background. This is a controversial topic and understandably one city guides may not want to advertise to the millions of tourists visiting each year, but it is real and you will encounter the homeless community upon visiting San Francisco. This is perhaps attributed to the fact areas such as Tenderloin are designated homeless communities, therefore, being in one community magnifies the problem ten-fold and it is at times upsetting to see. Notwithstanding, with the hiked rent, pricey houses and stiff competition for high-flying jobs it is comprehensible that living in a main city such as San Francisco will have its difficulties and we did not encounter any problems when we were there, so don’t let this put you off visiting. We did, however, donate towards the soup kitchen feeding the homeless community.
Unlike some other cities I’ve visited San Francisco offers the best of both worlds, not just old vs new; it is a city break by the sea, which counteracts the intensity you feel from trying to cram in all the attractions into a few days visiting by still giving the typical holiday feel you get from a beach break. Although the weather is much cooler (read what to pack for San Francisco here) and unpredictable than anticipated! It is not unusual to see dense fog hanging over the bay area, including the Golden Gate Bridge, which if you’ve read my previous post you will know to head to Sausalito on a foggy day! On sunnier days, San Francisco is more the typical Californian city you would expect, with locals running, skating and cycling along the beachfront and soaking up the good weather walking their dogs on the beach.
San Francisco is a diverse city, home to one of the biggest Chinatown areas outside Asia, as well as, one of the oldest gay scenes in the States. It has something for everyone being a fun, eclectic and foodie dream destination. Once you visit, you will have no shortage of places to go in San Francisco. In fact, the hills should come with a health warning and can be very steep! Though, the San Francisco hills sure aid working off a meal at the end of the day! As for driving, I’m not keen on hill starts and, I don’t think I would want to drive up the hills in San Francisco, let alone park on the slopes! As mentioned in my Planning A San Francisco Trip blog, the main San Francisco attractions are fairly spread out, therefore some kind of bus tour may be the best option to ensure you are seeing everything without trying to race around and do everything on foot.
There is so much to do in San Francisco and I have detailed the most popular San Francisco attractions and highlights of my own trip below:
San Francisco To-Do-List
Golden Gate Bridge
Whether you have visited San Francisco or not, I bet you have seen pictures of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and pictures do not do it justice. If you are restricted for time, you cannot visit San Francisco without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge; the city’s most famous landmark.
Nearby Battery Park and Fort Mason have trails to enable different angled photographs of the bridge with one of the most amazing views coming from Kirby Cove, which has a swing allowing a fun way to capture a photo of the bridge.
A fun way to tour the bridge is to hire a bike from one of the many bike hire rentals, over the bridge down to Sausalito and to save the steep uphill climb back make sure you take your bike on the ferry from Sausalito back to the city. Please be mindful it does get very windy and chilly on the Golden Gate Bridge, therefore it is advisable to take a jacket to keep you warm.
Sausalito is located over the Golden Gate Bridge and is well worth a visit. Sausalito is a picturesque area adorned with wealthy houses, pretty seafood restaurants and boutiques, giving a tranquil Mediterranean feel away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is reportedly where Otis Redding wrote ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’ when he rented one of the floating houseboats. It was great to see the setting behind this iconic song and, this was something that stayed with me as I had the song going around my head for the duration of our stay! It’s no wonder I named this post San Francisco: The City by the Bay! As previously advised, don’t be put off by the foggy weather in the city as Sausalito is often unaffected by Karl the fog.
The Palace of Fine Arts
This San Francisco treasure is reportedly the inspiration for the character R2D2 in the George Lucas Star Wars films, which makes you see this stunning architecture in a completely different light. Within walking distance is the Walt Disney Family museum, which has a Yoda Fountain for any Star Wars fans visiting the city. I visited the Palace of Fine Arts twice during my stay to admire the Greco-Roman style structure and lagoon, which was particularly peaceful in the morning with great reflections of the building across the water. During your visit there may be an exhibition showing; we saw The Hunger Games and this gave us something different to do in the early evening.
Crissy Field is an area with a natural park along the beachfront, an ideal location for a morning stroll. On Saturday morning The Park Run is held here and is a great opportunity for runners to take part in the 5km race, which appears to be more popular with Europeans than those residing in the city. Adam enjoyed taking part during our visit and it was a good opportunity to meet others, including Brits also on their holiday. It was great to socialise with everyone tucking into a coffee and a doughnut after the race.
Golden Gate Park
Reportedly bigger than Central Park in New York and, if you are in San Francisco without a car like us, it may be worth allocating half a day to a day specifically to explore Golden Gate Park. It is approximately a 5km walk, with the attractions spaced out across the park, therefore quite a distance to walk particularly if you have kids in tow! The park is home to the Botanical Gardens, Japanese Tea Garden, Windmills and the De Young Museum with the majority of these requiring a charge for entry. The highlights for me included the pretty Dutch Windmill (my first before I visited Holland) and the Japanese Tea Garden, which was beautifully designed with the sculptured gardens making you believe for a moment that you are in Japan rather than San Francisco. Very few food trucks are allowed into Golden Gate Park, therefore it may be advisable to bring your own food or drink if planning a day here. Upon visiting we were keen to try the famous Twirl & Dip ice cream; we were not disappointed and went the whole hog ordering a honeycomb and toffee sundae. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I haven’t been craving another since returning to the U.K.
If like me, you are keen to explore an interesting attraction off the beaten track and away from the main tourist areas head to the Moraga Steps. The steps are located on 16th Avenue within walking distance of Golden Gate Park. At the end of 16th Avenue, you will reach The Hidden Steps, upon reaching the top continue along 16th Avenue and you will reach the Moraga Steps. The steps are amazing to see, created by over 300 local volunteers and, are a great photo for your holiday album. Truly, one of many unique things to do in San Francisco, I highly recommend visiting this area if your San Francisco itinerary allows. If you follow the road around at the top you will reach Grand View Park, which has breathtaking views over the city. Nearby 9th Avenue has a good selection of restaurants including Nopalito and Park Chow if you fancy a bite to eat or drink while in the vicinity.
At the height of 1967 The Summer of Love, Haight Ashbury was a beacon for hippies with the likes of Jimi Hendrix living here during this time and, young people travelling from all over in the search for peace and love. Whilst the flower-power and acid-popping days are over, vintage clothing and second-hand stores remain, with colourful tie-dye items and unusual purchases a-plenty. One of the coolest things to do in San Francisco is to visit hippie Haight Ashbury and explore the area’s many vintage shops. I even managed to pick up some unique items of my own; a Biba-esque billowed sleeve floral shift dress and a brightly coloured printed long skirt. We stopped at 1428 Haight Patio Cafe and this served a great selection of breakfasts, with further details provided in a food section below.
The Painted Ladies San Francisco
The famous Painted Ladies are a cluster of Victorian Houses painted in more than three colours, situated adjacent to Alamo Park and are some of the most photographed houses in the city. The Mrs Doubtfire house is reasonably close-by on Steiner Street and, whilst this has been painted since the film, many visitors to the area have paid homage to the late actor Robin Williams who starred in the film and lived in nearby Tiburon. If you walk down Fell Street, you will find a number of eateries located in Hayes Valley. We stopped for an iced tea at Papabubble, which if you haven’t tried one is actually very refreshing and a welcome change from mainstream drinks. The David Best Temple in Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley is a beautiful work of art and is a nice place to enjoy an ice-cream or a bite to eat from one of the takeaway restaurants.
Fishermans Wharf/Pier 39
This is one of the most touristy areas of the city, which may be ideal for those holidaying with young families as there are vast amounts of souvenir shops, pier rides and activities such as the San Francisco Aquarium. Many of the restaurants are chains, including In n Out Burger, Jack in the Box and McDonald’s. A popular dish is the clam chowder in sourdough bread bowl, which is certainly worth trying while visiting the city. Many City Guides recommend not to eat at Fishermans Wharf as the food can be underwhelming and overpriced compared to other foodie areas in the city. Notwithstanding, it is worth visiting this area just to see all the sea-lions sunbathing on Pier 39. The ferry to Alcatraz is located on nearby Pier 33.
Alcatraz Island and Federal Prison
One of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco is Alcatraz Island and prison. The former federal prison and island Alcatraz was once home to some of the most notorious criminals in America, including Al Capone. Since it was closed in 1963, Alcatraz Island is now a national landmark open to the public, though the ferry to get there is often booked weeks in advance. It is worth booking your tour tickets to Alcatraz prior to your visit to San Francisco. We met others on our trip who were unable to get tickets to Alcatraz and visiting Alcatraz Island is a must when visiting San Francisco for the first time.
The island itself is beautiful and you can read more details in my Alcatraz blog post (click here.)
Cable Car Ride in San Francisco
It’s not a visit to San Francisco without enjoying a cable car ride, a single journey costs as little as $7 and a full day ticket including the use of the Muni buses is $20 per day. They are a great way to tour the city, but they do get crowded and, if carrying a backpack you will need to remain inside the car (worth bearing in mind if you want a classic cable car picture.) If you get chance, get a sunset picture at the back of a tram climbing up California Street Nob Hill to see a great view of the city.
Looking for an alternative to San Francisco? Check out my guest post for icelolly.com: Lisbon: Europe’s Answer to San Francisco.
Known as ‘the most crooked street in the world’ and, having seen numerous pictures online before visiting, I have to admit the windy street wasn’t top of the list of things to do when visiting San Francisco. Though, I was wrong. Lombard Street is something else and, not just because of the chaos watching the cars trying to drive the notoriously crooked street. The views from the top of the street are amazing, with a clear view of the bay, the streets below, as well as, The Coit Tower and Bay Bridge. I absolutely fell in love with a blue house garnished with bougainvillaea flowers and, in all honesty, I took more photographs of the house than I did the street. We probably took about an hour and a half walking down the hill, as it really is breathtakingly beautiful. With Lombard Street in full bloom, it was difficult to get the desired shot of the cars winding down the crooked street but, nonetheless, we loved touring this iconic street and, it is a must when visiting San Francisco.
A fun way to tour the street would be to hire one of the GoCar motorised GPS tour cars as these open-topped cars appear to offer a unique driving experience, as well as information for touring the city. It was only a shame we didn’t see these sooner as those using GoCar to navigate the twisty street looked like they were having a great time.
Located above Telegraph Hill is the Coit Tower, a landmark building in San Francisco’s skyline which at around $8 per, you see the panoramic views from the top.
Conveniently located at the bottom of the road from our hotel (Orchard Hotel) is the gate to Chinatown, also nearby Lombard Street and Union Square. This is a great place to eat, as well as pick up souvenirs, as the prices are slightly cheaper than the souvenir shops located at Fishermans Wharf.
Where to Eat In San Francisco
San Francisco is the foodie dream destination, with this blog not even touching the surface of the vast eateries on offer. The Ferry Building is the number one foodie spot as this has food stalls and markets, as well as top-rated restaurants, including the Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door. Mission District is the best place to head for authentic Mexican food and Chinatown for Asian Oriental dishes. As I mentioned earlier in the blog, you can’t come to San Francisco without trying the Sourdough Bread Clam Chowder! Those searching for something sweet might want to check out The Cheesecake Factory located on the 8th floor of Macy’s or get baked at Mr Holmes Bakehouse. For food recommendations throughout the city, The Infatuation SF website is a fantastic guide to eat your way around the city.
This Greek restaurant caught my attention on Instagram prior to our trip to the Golden Gate City and, I was pleased to discover it whilst wandering down to Hayes Valley from the Painted Ladies. The location is off the tourist trail, though the restaurant was buzzing with many locals trying to get a table. Mary’s Free Range Chicken gyros had a unique array of flavours and, including fennel, orange, pickled red onion, cheese and a sweet dressing, which had an infusion of flavours that were delectable to the palate. The Greek fries were the perfect accompaniment. A second Souvla restaurant has recently opened in Divisadero.
Hops & Hominy
Hops & Hominy was recommended to me by a fellow Milton Keynes blogger Food In MK and I was keen to try it whilst we were in San Francisco. We booked a table via Opentable one evening and after seeing starters such as Mac n Cheese with house smoked bacon and Smoked Chicken Wings with sweet chilli on the menu, it was easy to see why this restaurant was highly recommended. Fancying something different, I ordered the grilled swordfish and pork belly, accompanied by braised corona beans, roasted tomatoes and house-made mustard. As unusual a combination as this dish sounds, I can tell you this meal was delicious and hands down the best I had tasted in San Francisco. The cocktail menu and various pages of craft beers also aided the fantastic dining experience we had in this Union Square restaurant.
Ceasario’s Italian Restaurant
After a busy day touring the city, we stumbled across this intimate Italian restaurant late one evening. The good-sized seafood paella and lasagne dishes we ordered were just what we needed to refuel following a day of excursions, with the reasonable prices making it that much more worthwhile. Definitely worth a visit when visiting Union Square.
Chinatown San Francisco
On our last day, we decided to visit Chinatown to stock up on souvenirs for home, with the gate to Chinatown conveniently located at the bottom of the road from our hotel. Chinatown has an abundance of tourist shops with the streets adorned with lanterns and on our visit, we could hear a choir of children singing in Chinese, which enhanced this pretty setting. We came across Cathay House Restaurant as we watched the cable car ascend up California Street and decided to stop for a bite to eat. This restaurant has big glass windows giving a great view of the streets below with a cute bar area included inside for those just wanting to stop for a drink. We shared Chicken with Snow Peas and Curried Chicken with Egg Fried Rice before heading to the airport and, given the limited choice available on our terminal it was a great call.
Breakfast In San Francisco
In England, my daily breakfast generally consists of porridge or yoghurt with fruit, eggs on toast or the occasional fry-up on the weekend. In San Francisco, it is much easier to see why people say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and, with that said, the possibilities are endless in terms of variety. There really are countless dishes on offer for the savoury or sweet-toothed eater. British tastes are more geared towards the savoury breakfasts, with the juice trend only taking hold within the last eighteen months. With this in mind, I was keen to try some of the sweet breakfasts popular in The States and during our trip, I enjoyed strawberry waffles with maple syrup as well as French toast filled with blueberries. The French toast, in particular, was amazing with this featuring on numerous menus across the city and, a wide range of fillings available to suit every taste. The 1428 in Haight Ashbury had a particularly delicious French toast dish, with their patio terrace the ideal place to dine on a bright day. Adam preferred to stick to his breakfast staples of meat filled omelettes and fried breakfast. During our hotel stay in Union Square, we dined a couple of times at Roxanne’s located next door to our hotel, which offered one of the best breakfast menus in terms of variety and has great tasting food and efficient service.
Sears Fine Foods, located on Powell Street is a classic diner opened by Ben Sears, a retired Circus clown in 1938. This restaurant has a quaint feel and also had a variety of dishes including traditional Swedish pancakes, which are still featured on the menu today. I opted for the Eggs Benedict, cooked to perfection, with the poached eggs oozing on to the muffin and Canadian bacon. The hash browns are much larger than those available in the U.K. and are a real comfort food; the perfect accompaniment to the eggs and to Adam’s choice of omelette.
Visit San Francisco
San Francisco is a good choice for those looking for a city break with a difference as this eclectic city offers the best of both worlds being a modern, technological hub with an old-world charm to suit most holiday needs. The city has a realness to it, unlike other typical tourist destinations and a home away from home vibe, which made it unique to other American cities I’ve visited.
This blog has given insight into my seven-night trip, though there is much more to see and I would love to visit again, perhaps as part of a Californian road-trip between other cities. First and foremost, I will be back to saving my flying miles!
I hope you agree there are so many cool things to do San Francisco, the city by the bay! San Francisco is a unique holiday destination and if anyone has any other recommendations for things to do to help me plan the next trip I look forward to hearing from you.
Hungry for more of San Francisco: The City By The Bay? Want to know the best places to stay in San Francisco? Read on below.
San Francisco Hotel Stay at The Orchard – Read here.
How to plan a trip to San Francisco – Read here.
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