You’ve been known to occasionally roll your eyes at fellow travelers who have a penchant for partaking in tourist activities. Don’t they know there’s more to life than photo booths and Ferris wheels? Although sometimes your attitude might be valid, in San Francisco, it’s a different story entirely. The City by the Bay’s main attractions really do live up to their hype. From the sandy shores of Baker Beach to the golden pagodas in Chinatown, here’s everything you can’t miss on your next trip to S.F.
What visitors see today at Fisherman’s Wharf is a gateway to San Francisco’s past. The Wharf today is what’s left from the 1906 earthquake (including major parts that were rebuilt) and served as a port for fishermen and materials alike. The Wharf’s early days saw many Italian and Chinese immigrants, who helped shape the city and its customs. Nowadays, you’re welcome to cruise around the docks and smile on as fishermen catch crabs and clams that will likely go into your evening chowder—bonus points if you get that bad boy in a bread bowl.
You could spend an entire day inside Golden Gate Park and still leave stones unturned. Covering over 1,000 acres of Northern California landscape, the park offers a green getaway from the city’s high-rises and multicolored houses. The park is home to attractions such as the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden, the California Academy of Sciences, and the de Young Museum, to name a few. Additionally, the park is praised across the nation for its diligent commitment to eco-friendly practices.
Visiting Baker Beach is like stepping inside a San Francisco postcard. Your toes will pad through soft sand down into the sweeping surf, and you’ll look up in awe at the Golden Gate Bridge behind you. If this sounds a bit too idyllic for your liking, never fear—San Francisco wouldn’t be the same without a little bit of strangeness. Part of the beach is set aside for nude sunbathing, so you might spot a nudist or two lying out in the California sunshine.
The Exploratorium is a must-see attraction for visitors of all ages. Located near Pier 15, the museum offers a look inside the worlds of science, art, and how we as humans interact with the world around us. With tons of hands-on exhibitions and an ever-changing list of things to see, it’ll be hard to exit the building at the end of the day without feeling like there’s more to explore.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest one outside of Asia. So yes, you need to see it. This particular neighborhood was created due to the large number of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco during the 1800s. With cultural elements such as the Bank of Canton and the Sing Chong Building, as well as authentic culinary wonders like dim sum, the day will pass by quickly while meandering through Chinatown’s streets.
Inspired by early Roman architecture, the Palace of Fine Arts is a symbol of San Francisco’s cultured roots. The structure was initially built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and was supposed to be torn down after the event. However, residents thought it was too beautiful to tear down, so it still stands today. Stop by during your stay in the city and snap a quick picture, or attend a live concert under the building’s historic dome.
One-and-a-quarter miles off the San Francisco shoreline sits Alcatraz Island. Tour what was once a federal penitentiary that held some of the nation’s most dubious criminals, and enjoy a scenic boat ride off the coast to travel there and back.
For those travelers looking for quality seafood, kitschy buskers, and sea lions galore, Pier 39 is a must on your San Francisco itinerary. The seaside area is best known for its abundance of dining and shopping options, and, of course, its whiskered sea lion residents.
If you think that San Francisco is all high-rises and gray skyline, think again. The Presidio is the city’s hidden gem, tucked between the Richmond District and Lower Pacific Heights. The area was a military base for more than 200 years, and now it’s a wooded area with towering trees that’s full of hiking and biking paths for everyone to enjoy.
While Chinatown is amazing in its own right, there’s something special about Japantown that makes it essential for any S.F. visit. Feel as though you’ve been transported to Tokyo while you slurp noodles at one of the many delicious ramen restaurants and shop for Asian-inspired trinkets at Daiso, and if you happen to be in town for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, prepare to be wowed.
Regarded as some of the finest broads in the city, the famed Painted Ladies in San Francisco aren’t so much ladies as they are—houses. The Victorian-style homes can be found near Alamo Square and are probably one of the most photographed attractions in the city. If you stroll or drive by, don’t forget to sing the theme song from Full House, as the show’s opening sequence famously showed off the houses.
Whether or not you consider yourself a spiritual person, visiting Grace Cathedral is a unique opportunity to peer into some otherworldly architecture. The massive church traces its roots back to the late 1800s but still offers plenty up for contemporary travelers. Visit the cathedral to walk its labyrinths, attend a yoga class at the venue, or experience an Evensong service with musical accompaniment from the men and boy’s choir.
Crissy Field is one of the Bay’s most beloved conservation projects, and for good reason. Located inside the Presidio, the area is home to more than 100 different types of plants and over 130 local bird species. Take in the beauty of nature during a bundled up picnic, or stretch out on the adjoining beach and try your hand at spotting local crabs.
Haight-Ashbury began as little more than an inexpensive place to live and eat. However, the neighborhood transformed during the 1960s when musicians, artists, and dreamers found themselves in the community and turned it into a safe haven for counter-culture. The Grateful Dead are the cornerstone that launched the Summer of Love movement in the city, as the band originated in the neighborhood. Although you won’t find the Grateful Dead playing at any house parties nowadays, you will find funky thrift stores, delicious eateries, and colorful street art that will capture your attention.
Situated in the grassy knolls of Golden Gate Park is the California Academy of Sciences. Whether you’re traveling with a fellow pack of 20-somethings or with a gaggle of children in tow, you’ll find exhibits that will keep your entire group entertained for hours. The venue houses a planetarium, an aquarium, and a natural history museum; therefore, you can find facts and figures on many types of scientific exploration.
By now, you’re already expecting to encounter many steep hills in San Francisco. Andrew Smith Hallidie faced these hills firsthand, and in 1869, he watched in horror as a horse-drawn carriage slid backward down one of them. It was then that the idea of the cable car was born, and locals have been riding them ever since. Take a spin on one of the historic transit cars or stop and say “Cheese” when you pose for a picture with one.
Dolores Park, also known as Mission Dolores Park, is a wide grassy expanse that covers 16 acres of the city. If you’re in town during one of the city’s rare sunny days, you’ll find hundreds of people stretched out on the lawn picnicking, playing, and praying that the clouds don’t return.
The go-to destination for those looking to see and be seen is Union Square. Regarded as the biggest and best shopping district in the city, Union Square is home to an assortment of restaurants and shops. Wear some comfortable shoes and tote along your credit card for a trip to this part of the city. And if you happen to be visiting during the winter months, you’ll feel the spirit of the season come to life on the pop-up Union Square Ice Rink.
The city’s original city hall was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1906. However, it was rebuilt with a flair for the grandeur and stands today as a symbol of hope and due political processes. San Francisco City Hall is worth passing by to ogle over, and hour-long tours are offered to the public if you’d like to step inside the building.
No trip to San Francisco is complete without stopping by the de Young Museum. Renowned for its extensive collection of fine art, the museum sits inside Golden Gate Park and has been a cornerstone of culture in the city since 1895. Go wide-eyed over the diverse exhibits offered and “ooh” and “aah” over the building’s architectural marvels.