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. While it didn't take much time to figure out my list of must-see San Francisco attractions, careful planning was required to squeeze them into our itinerary.
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If You're Going to San Francisco
For as long as I could remember, I'd looked forward to seeing the many San Francisco attractions. So, I suspected I would fall for San Francisco, too.
Anytime San Francisco crossed my mind, I'd find myself daydreaming of snapping photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and the fog-covered Bay from Crissy Field. I'd romanticized the city throughout the years, phenomena aided by the endless string of Film Noirs we seem to watch.
Parts of my San Francisco experience were jarring, but, despite the perils plaguing the great American city, I LOVED San Francisco. It didn't take long to discover why San Francisco is a favorite for so many travelers.
You'll Need More Than Flowers in Your Hair
San Francisco may not be a big city, but it's jam-packed with unique and beautiful things to see, do, and experience. That's why it's super important to plan ahead. You'll want to narrow down your list of must-see San Francisco attractions to ensure you get as much done as possible.
There were several things I simply had to see: Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge, and Chinatown. To make sure I had plenty of time for each, I chose to schedule those in advance by booking online and planning according to the weather.
To help make sense of it all, I used my Lonely Planet San Francisco pocket guide. It was perfect for our 5-day trip. Plus, it was small enough to fit into my backpack easily along with my camera. I highly recommend you grab one to help plan the perfect San Francisco adventure.
In the spirit of sharing, 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, so be sure to scroll down to find out.
#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 fantastic in that it offers riders a variety of options: buses, subway, light rail, trolleys and streetcars. The tricky part was figuring out which pass to buy. Lucky for you, I've got that covered.
If you are planning to use streetcars 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, light rail, and trolleys. You can reload the card easily, making it relatively economical (no wasted fare). Unfortunately, the Clipper Card doesn't include cable cars. So, if you want to use the cable cars, you'll have to pay per ride or purchase a day pass from the cable car conductor.
Pssst...did you know
The San Francisco City Pass comes with a 3-day MUNI pass! Get unlimited transportation on all Muni trolleys, buses and historic cable cars for three consecutive days included in the price of your City Pass!
#9 de Young Museum
No matter where we go, we always visit at least one great museum. If you read my Amsterdam travel guide, then you know we've learned to make good use of museums when inclement weather strikes during vacation. 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 lush green surroundings only compliment the unique color created by the oxidized metal exterior. The angles, light, and atmosphere of the interior compete with the art in the best way possible.
#8 Ocean Beach
Many of the more famous San Francisco attractions distract from the natural beauty of the city at times. But San Francisco is home to some of the most beautiful outdoor spots in California. And Ocean Beach is one that deserves your attention.
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. We found no sunbathers, beach volleyball, roller blades, or skateboarders. Come to think of it, there 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. The lack of resorts and high rises makes this beach extra special. The bitchin' breeze and impromptu rainbow made it all the more.
We used the MUNI L line to get to the beach after our much-anticipated lunch at the Kingdom of Dumpling. There's nothing quite 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 the city 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.
Golden Gate Park is home to various 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 hidden paths. It's perfect for a picnic, romantic date, or brisk run.
Confession: I have a thing for historic Chinese neighborhoods. I love NY, Philly and LA's Chinatowns. I've had fantastic 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 photos and tasty treats. Not long after I found myself in Li Po, a historic haunt sipping on a fantastic Chinese Mai Tai recommended by none other than Anthony Bourdain, my travel hero.
The rest of my day was a fruity haze. Aimlessly, I wandered the alleys of Chinatown enjoying the secrets and stories this historic quarter keeps just within reach.
#5 Hidden Treasures
San Francisco is a hidden 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, I was able to experience a few of San Francisco's hidden treasures:
-watching the sunset from the deck of one of the POPO (privately-owned public open spaces)
-admiring the WPA Murals in the Rincon Annex
-seeing the sudden and breathtaking view of the Bay Bridge from the Filbert St Steps
-listening to the Language of the Birds after visiting Jack Kerouac Alley.
There were so many special little moments on my trip to San Francisco. Taking the time to find these hidden gems resulted in travel memories that will last a lifetime.
view from one of the POPOs I visited
#4 Fisherman's Wharf
Long before I arrived in San Francisco, I'd heard about the sights, sounds, and *ah* smells of the historic Fisherman's Wharf. But nothing quite prepares you for the experience.
Somewhere between tourist trap and cultural treasure, the Fisherman's Wharf offers visitors a little bit of everything. 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 food, 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.
Um, did you know about the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Pass??
This 2-Day pass gives you access to five attractions and saves more than $35!
Visit the famous Aquarium of the Bay
Enjoy the Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum
Watch historical events reenacted on 360-degree sets at the San Francisco Dungeon
Fight zombies and play laser tag at the 7-D Experience
Cruise the bay on a Blue and Gold Fleet cruise
#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 Francisco.
True to form, 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 mid-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. Steel, labor, and 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 District
I've highlighted the Mission District's street art scene before on the blog. It's surely one of the main reasons why the Mission is one of my favorite San Francisco attractions.
The stunning collection of street art in the Mission District is a must-see for anyone 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 more. I found the vintage shops, the urban grit, and the gentrification I'd read about in the papers. But the graffiti was something truly unique.
I spent hours wandering the streets and alleys of The Mission, finding more and more to love. The art speaks for itself and the people of The Mission. It says: "take notice."
Marginalized and downtrodden, the artists took to the street to take back their 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. Now, you may be wondering why Alcatraz Island 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 hear the laughter and merriment from the city on particularly quiet nights, driving even the sanest 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.
Displayed with the intent to challenge viewers (who had just seen first hand the interior of a prison), the work asked the question: is prison the appropriate place for aging prisoners? The poignant photographs displayed in the decaying structure resonated with many visitors, including me.
Want More SF Inspo?
I've got plenty more to say about Alcatraz, so be sure to check out my detailed post on our Alcatraz experience. If you're looking for other great US cities to visit, don't miss my guide to great American cities. And don't miss my review of the street art in the Mission District. There's so much waiting for you in San Francisco!
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