There are so many San Francisco attractions it could make your head spin. I quickly discovered this fact when I started prepping for our 5-day stay in the Frisco Bay earlier this year. It took some time and careful planning to discover what my must-see San Francisco attractions were, and even more time to figure out how I would squeeze them all into our trip.
For as long as I could remember I'd been looking forward to seeing the many San Francisco attractions. When San Francisco crossed my mind I'd find myself daydreaming of snapping epic photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and the fog-covered Bay from Crissy Field. I'd definitely romanticized the city throughout the years, a phenomena aided by the endless string of Film Noirs we seem to watch.
You may already know this, but, at risk of sounding like a broken record, I'll say it again: I LOVE America's great cities! So, I suspected I would fall for San Francisco, too. Parts of my experience were jarring, but, despite the perils of this great American city that I witnessed, I ABSOLUTELY LOVED San Francisco. It didn't take long to discover why this city is a favorite for so many travelers.
There are so many wonderful things to see, do and experience in San Francisco. It's important to plan ahead and narrow down your list of must-see San Francisco attractions. There were several things I simply had to see, so I chose to plan those in advance, booking tickets online and scheduling my excursions according to the weather predictions. I found the Lonely Planet San Francisco pocket guide to be perfect for our 5 day trip. It was small enough to easily fit into my backpack and came with a pull-out map.
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In hopes it will help future San Francisco visitors, I've put together a list of my favorite San Francisco attractions. These were just a few of the many, many things that made it easy to love the City by the Bay in a big way! I bet you'll be surprised to find out what made #1! You'll have to read on to find out. 🙂
10 Epic San Francisco Attractions
a countdown of awesomeness
10. The Public Transportation
Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love public transportation. And although I don't use it as often as I should in LA, I try to use public transport as much as possible when traveling. San Francisco's public transportation is amazing in that it offers riders a variety of options: buses, subway, light rail, trolleys and street cars. The tricky part was figuring out which pass to buy. Lucky for you, I've got that covered.
If you are planning to use street cars and trolleys, in addition to the light rail and buses, you should buy the MUNI Passport. Good for 1, 3 or 7 days, these sweet little passes give you access to everything you need (except BART). Because most people use BART to get to/from the airport, the Clipper Card is a more popular option.
The Clipper Card gives you access to BART and all MUNI buses, lightrail and trolleys. You can reload the card easily, making it fairly economical (no wasted fair). Unfortunately, the Clipper Card does not include cable cars. If you want to use the cable cars you can pay per ride or purchase a day pass from the cable car conductor.
9. de Young Museum
No matter where we go, we always try to visit at least one great museum. If you read my Amsterdam post, then you know we've learned to make good use of museums when bad weather strikes while traveling. While in San Francisco we spent a rainy afternoon at the super sleek, super modern de Young Museum.
The star of the show was the Oceanic art collection which happens to be the bulk of the museum's permanent collection. We also really enjoyed the temporary shows which included a showcase of Hawaiian feather cloaks (ʻAhu ʻula). But the real star of the show is the museum's architecture.
Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the copper-clad modernist building blends beautifully into the serene Golden Gate Park. The unique color created by the oxidized metal exterior is only complimented by the lush green surroundings. The angles, light and atmosphere of the interior compete with the art in the best way possible.
8. Ocean Beach
The many San Francisco attractions sort of distract from the natural beauty of the city at times. But places like Ocean Beach deserve your attention, too. I know what you're thinking...there are plenty of beaches in Los Angeles, so why visit the beach in San Francisco. But this beach was different. There were no sunbathers, no beach volleyball, no roller bladers, no skate boarders...come to think of it, there really were no people there aside from a few local families.
At just over 3 miles, this stretch of beach offers peace and quiet for the over-stimulated city-dweller. No resorts, no high-rise condos, and no beach bodies. There was just s bitchin' breeze and a rainbow 🙂 We used the MUNI L line to get to the beach after our much-anticipated lunch at Kingdom of Dumpling. Nothing like soup dumplings to warm you for a brisk jaunt on a breezy beach.
7. Golden Gate Park
Y'all, Golden Gate Park is where it's at! I literally could have explored this place all day. I felt so connected to San Francisco while walking along the wooded paths past the drum circles and frisbee teams. The Park seemed to be the meeting place for folks from just about every walk of life and understandably so.
Golden Gate Park is home to multiple famous San Francisco attractions including the de Young, the Japanese Tea Garden and Stow Lake. It's the perfect place to bring kids, parents, pets or just about anyone. Like Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park is full of twists, turns and hidden paths. It's perfect for a picnic, romantic date or brisk run...whatever suits your fancy.
Confession: I have a thing for historic Chinese neighborhoods. I love NY, Philly and LA's Chinatowns. I've had amazing meals, explored new textures and tastes, and found one-of-a-kind treasures in each. People say that San Francisco's Chinatown is the best in the West, so I was eager to see what the fuss was all about.
I headed to Chinatown with my walking shoes and my trusty street map, searching for sweet shots and tasty treats. Not long after I found myself in Li Po, a historic haunt sipping on an amazing Chinese Mai Tai recommended by none other than Anthony Bourdain, my travel hero. The rest of my day was spent wandering the alleys of Chinatown in a fruity haze, enjoying the secrets and stories this historic quarter keeps just within reach.
5. Hidden Treasures
San Francisco is a secret city; it's full of little secrets that the lucky few who live there get to know well. With the help of my Lonely Planet guide and the helpful information on the San Francisco Travel website, I was able to experience a few of San Francisco's hidden treasures. I watched a sun set from the deck of one of the POPO (privately-owned public open spaces).
With the help of my trusty Lonely Planet guide I was also able to admire the WPA Murals in the Rincon Annex. I also found the sudden, breathtaking view of the Bay on the Filbert St Steps. I listened to the Language of the Birds after visiting Jack Kerouac Alley. There were so many special little moments on my trip to San Francisco, providing me with meaningful, lasting travel memories that will last a lifetime.
4. Fisherman's Wharf
You hear about the historic Fisherman's Wharf with it's sights, sounds and *ah* smells, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience. Somewhere between tourist trap and cultural treasure, the Fisherman's Wharf has a little bit of it all. I could have spent all day here, hopping from seafood shack to seafood shack nibbling on the sea's best.
I "settled" for a cozy (pricier) spot at the bar of Hog Island Oyster Co. at the Ferry Building, a renovated haven of artisan eats, crafts and over-sized strollers. After enjoying a local craft beer and the best clam chowder EVER, I was ready to hop on the trolley and head on to my next stop.
San Francisco CityPASS
3. Golden Gate Bridge
The pinnacle of San Francisco attractions might be The Golden Gate Bridge. It's what most people envision when they think of San Francicso. I'm here to tell you that stepping onto the Golden Gate Bridge was everything I imagined it would be: exhilarating, frightening, and fascinating all at once. Suspended in time and air, this iconic structure is as Americana as it gets. One can't help but feel connected somehow to the past when admiring this beauty.
The steel, the labor and the ingenuity combined to make the perfect specimen of function and design. The bright red surface is cheery, but the bridge has a dark side, a story so eloquently told by filmmaker Eric Steel in his 2006 documentary, The Bridge. After having seen the film, one can't help but give pause for the persons who have found themselves looking at the depths below and finding hope and solace in the murky water.
2. Graffiti in the Mission
In another post I highlighted why the Mission District is one of my favorite San Francisco attractions. It truly is a must-see for anyone who is interested in modern social culture. The Mission was heart-wrenching for the social worker in me, it's true. But it offered everything I had hoped to find in the Haight, plus some. I found the vintage shops I'd dreamed of, the urban grit I expected, and the growth I'd read about in the papers and on the faces of the less privileged. But the graffiti was something truly special.
I spent hours wandering the streets and alleys of The Mission, finding out more and more about one of my new favorite American cities. The art speaks for itself and for the people of The Mission. It says: "take notice". Marginalized and downtrodden, the artists took to the street to take back there city and their voice. The street art on display tells stories of pride, hope and personal tragedy. Travelers, tourists and locals alike should all explore the outdoor canvas that is The Mission.
Without further adieu, I bring you my #1 favorite of the many San Francisco attractions. You may be wondering what could possibly be the reason that Alcatraz tops my list. It's simple, though. I love history, and I'm a human behaviorist. It's fascinating to me to think about the people who once occupied the cells of Alcatraz, to consider their stories and the momentarily experience theirs.
The structure itself is fascinating, situated just a few short miles from the center of the city of San Francisco. Our tour guide noted that prisoners could here the laughter and merriment from the city on particularly quiet nights, driving even the most sane man to madness. Escape! It was next to impossible, yet you can almost understand why they momentarily thought it could be. The distance seems swimmable...
By far the most amazing part of our Alcatraz experience was the photography exhibit on display, Prisoners of Age. The show featured the amazing photography of Ron Levine, who carefully and thoughtfully composed portraits of aging prisoners throughout the nation's maximum security prisons.
The work was shown with the intent to challenge viewers (who had just seen first hand the interior of a prison) to consider whether prison is the appropriate place for aging prisoners, most of which have significant health problems that prisons are ill-equipped to address. The poignant photographs displayed in the decaying structure really resonated with many visitors, including me.
More #SF Fun to Come!
I've got plenty more to say about Alcatraz, so you'll have to stay tuned for my upcoming post on our Alcatraz experience (complete with some of my best ever travel photography)! This post was meant to show you a few of the Epic San Francisco Attractions that made me fall hard for #SanFran. If you like unique, multi-cultural cities, then you should book your flight to San Francisco today!
Have you been to San Francisco? What was your favorite of the many San Francisco attractions? Comment below or tweet a response to me using the tweet below!
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