Tourist Traps To Avoid In San Francisco

Fisherman’s Wharf & F Line © Mike Roqué/Flickr
Fisherman’s Wharf & F Line © Mike Roqué/Flickr
Photo of Michael Glasmacher
9 February 2017

There are so many beautiful amazing things that San Francisco has to offer. Here is a list of some tourist traps that are worth avoiding.

Fisherman’s Wharf

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Pier 39
Pier 39 | © Douglas Nelner/Flickr
While San Francisco is known for its amazing seafood and top-notch dining experiences, none of that can be easily found here on Fisherman’s Wharf. Filled to the brim with themed restaurants and San Francisco merchandise stores, the Wharf and piers associated with it are a tourist free-for-all; most of the attractions and restaurants cater to the out-of-towner. San Francisco prides itself on artisanal experiences, and Fisherman’s Wharf is closer to other large cities that focus on mass consumerism rather than the quality product. That isn’t to say it is impossible to find good places to dine; check out another Culture Trip article, Top Places To Eat And Drink In SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, to be pointed in the right direction. If you happen to find yourself down there amongst the madness, one place that is of interest is the Musée Mécanique, a wistful and eerie antique arcade museum.


The criminals who got imprisoned in Alcatraz didn’t have to wait as long to get there as the tourists of today do. There is a comically long waiting list to visit the island of imprisonment that, at some times of the year, can be a month or two. Ride on a boat with groups of other families to the island. When you do finally get to the Rock, you are treated with a jail and a view of the city. There is a tour of the different cells and facilities in the prison, so if you are into the criminal history of San Francisco or have an affinity for jails, you maybe enjoy your time on the island. However, if all you want is a good view of the city and bridge, take one of the Golden Gate Ferries that depart from the ferry building once every few hours and cost less than $20 round trip.

Alcatraz Interior | © Dustin Gaffke/Flickr

Union Square

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Union Square © Benson Kua/Flickr
Union Square | © Benson Kua/Flickr
While there are great options for shopping along the perimeter of Union Square, the little rectangle of concrete and grass is not worth stopping for. This tourist-ridden area is a good place to see tired fathers holding copious shopping bags of different sizes, kids screaming and running in circles, and homeless people trying to get some shut eye. The views are only of buildings, and yet for some reason you may experience many people with cameras, and bad physical awareness, stopping in the middle of the busy sidewalk to take a picture. If you want to experience Union Square without all the senses that it engages, one might consider going to the top floor of Macy’s and eating at the Cheesecake Factory. While the restaurant is still full of tourists year-round, there are beautiful views from the 8th floor of the square and surrounding buildings, as well as partitions separating you from the screaming kids.

Golden Gate Bridge

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The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge | ©jseff/Flickr
Do you like walking on a narrow pathway in constant fear of being run over by one of the thirty bikers you will experience when walking on across the bridge? Since the Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most notable and recognized feature, sometimes being a symbol of all of California, it really is a sight to behold and one that inspires picture-taking. The views of the city from the bridge are also beautiful, but these can also be experienced from many spots along the Marin Headlands without constant fear of being sideswiped, and without the notorious cold wind often blowing across the bridge accompanied by the city’s famous fog. It can also be hard to enjoy the views of the city with each end of the bridge leading to rest areas typically full of tourist families.

Cable Car – Trolley

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Cable car
Cable car | © Shaun Versey/Flickr
Yes, there are countless movies where the main character, amidst a color-rich joyful episode, jumps onto one of the illustrious San Francisco cable cars, but like most movies, that is hardly how it really happens. What really happens is you wait in line for however long, and then fork over five dollars each way and (depending on the time of year) are usually crowded in with the masses not knowing whether falling off or suffocation would be worse in that moment. If you do want to ride a vintage trolley car for half the price and half the wait, the Muni F line that goes up and down Market Street is a wonderful alternative. If you have already purchased a Muni pass, then you already have all you need to ride the colorful restored historical trolleys; if you haven’t, it is still half the price of the cable car.

Lombard Street

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Lombard Street © Daniel Cukier/Flickr
Lombard Street | © Daniel Cukier/Flickr
Traversing along the well-known winding road called Lombard Street is a vastly different experience whether you are driving down it or walking, each with its own pluses and minuses. The views of the Bay and North Beach from atop the cascading street might be worth the trip up there; however, there is usually no time to stop and enjoy the view during the descent, walking or driving. Driving down the sidewinding brick road takes a lead foot on the brake pedal and calm nerves, and that is when there isn’t a line of cars waiting behind you to complete their descent. This leaves no time to enjoy the view for fear of running into one of the planters, or being honked at to move. The other way to experience the street is by foot, and yet it seems to somehow be the same. There is only a tiny set of stone steps sandwiched between the street and the occupied houses. This means there is no place to stop and be out of the way of fanny packs and selfie sticks to enjoy the view, making this a place that should be avoided.

Painted Ladies

Building, Park
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Painted Ladies
Painted Ladies | © Ayolt de Roos/Flickr
Alamo Square is a quant park and allows stunning views of downtown, but arguably most of the traffic is because of the infamous Painted Ladies. This row of Victorian houses gets its name due to the fact that the houses are painted many different colors with intricate accents. If you only have one day in San Francisco, the Painted Ladies might be nice to get a good sample of the architectural artistry that this city has to offer, but relative to some of the more beautiful houses that can be accidentally seen during an adventure in the city, the ladies’ paint starts to crack and fade. Take a walk around Pacific Heights, Twin Peaks, or Noe Valley to see examples of some of the beautiful houses that can be just stumbled upon, instead of the ones that have been photographed to death throughout their long lives.

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