1. Take in the beauty
San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the world. It’s surrounded on three sides by water, which makes its climate cool throughout the year. Mark Twain used to say that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco. So, even if you visit in the summer, bring a sweater and don’t expect to swim in the ocean. San Francisco is densely developed with many different neighborhoods, each with its own flavor, character (and characters!). The best way to see it is on foot, public transport or by bike.
2. Ride a cable car
My favorite ride is an evening run on the Powell-Hyde line. It has the most hills, travels through Nob Hill and Russian Hill, and drops you in San Francisco’s Maritime Park, steps away from the museum, historic ships, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square.
Cable-car fares are higher than normal Muni fares and transfers are not valid. Best to buy a several-day Muni tourist pass good for all Muni services, including the cable cars.
The Cable Car Museum is located at the corner of Mason and Washington Streets in the cable-car powerhouse, so you can watch the machinery pulling the cable through the streets. Hours vary so check the website!
3. Catch a historic tram
Historic trams are operated on Market Street from Castro to the Ferry Building and then along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf. The historic tram fleet comes from several cities and many of the President’s Conference Commission (PCC) cars are painted in the liveries of different US cities. Regular Muni fares apply, and transfers are valid. The Market Street Railway, a non-profit organization that spearheaded the historic tram project has a small museum and shop at the Ferry Plaza (First and Mission).
4. Take a ferry ride to Sausalito
A ferry ride on San Francisco Bay is great anytime, but especially at sunset. Golden Gate Transit operates ferries from the Ferry Building to Sausalito and Larkspur. Sausalito is a nice town to walk around, have a drink or a meal. There’s not very much to do in Larkspur. Fares are higher on weekends. Check the Golden Gate Transit website for more information.
5. Ferry Building – Northern Waterfront – Fisherman’s Wharf
The Ferry Building was once the heart of a vast ferry network. Today it has been converted to an urban marketplace – visit on a Tuesday or Saturday morning for an unbelievable farmers market or any day for great restaurant food and the highest quality produce.
Walking north on The Embarcadero from the Ferry Building you’ll see the Embarcadero Center on your left. Walk out on Pier 5 for great views of the Bay and city skyline. It’s hard to imagine the area was once blighted with a massive freeway separating the city from the Bay. The freeway was severely damaged in the Loma Prieta Earthquake (1989) and replaced with the boulevard in the late 1990s. Since then the area has been revitalized.
Continue walking north along the Bay, you’ll see Coit Tower on top of Telegraph Hill, the Exploratorium (a fantastic hands-on science museum) on Pier xx and eventually reach Fisherman’s Wharf. Alcatraz Island is worth experiencing, catch a ferry from Pier 39 to visit.
Continue on the Maritime Park where you can visit the historic ships and Maritime Museum. You can catch the Powell-Hyde cable car here or walk further through Fort Mason for great views over the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge.
6. Walk or ride over the Golden Gate Bridge
Walking or riding a bike over the Golden Gate Bridge is a wonderful experience, especially on a foggy day (dress warm) when your views of the bridge, towers, Bay and landscape change constantly. You can take a bus to the Golden Gate bridge toll plaza or walk through the Presidio to reach the bridge. Walking through the Presidio’s Crissy Field takes you along the Bay and through restored wetlands, a very nice experience.
7. Explore San Francisco’s ethnic neighborhoods
San Francisco is rapidly gentrifying but there are still neighborhoods that have a strong ethnic flavor including Clement Street in the Richmond (a mix of Asian, Russian and Irish), Japantown, the Mission (Mexico and Central America). Just walk around and stop in some shops and restaurants, you may feel like you’re in a different country. And, don’t forget Chinatown and North Beach (Italian), they are touristy but fun.
8. Eat Asian food
San Francisco’s always been a great place for Asian food. Check review websites for the latest greatest. Walk around the traditionally Asian neighborhoods: Chinatown, Clement Street and Japantown – stop into places that look interesting and filled with locals. My old favorites include Slanted Door (Ferry Building) for Vietnamese, Harry’s Hunan (multiple locations), and Toraya Sushi Bar and Grill (1914 Fillmore Street).
9. Union Square and Yerba Buena Gardens
Union Square and Yerba Buena Gardens are ground zero for San Francisco tourists. It’s an area filled with hotels, restaurants and shopping. Union Square itself is nice as a patch of sunshine (when there’s no fog) surrounded by department stores and hotels. Walk along Stockton to 4th Street, then on past Mission Street to Yerba Buena Gardens and the Moscone Convention Center. Yerba Buena Gardens is an urban oasis surrounded by several excellent museums well worth a visit including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Jewish Museum. Check out the San Francisco Historical Society and San Francisco Planning and Urban Research museums further east on Mission Street.
10. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
The GGNRA is a set of parks located throughout the Bay Area. Several are in San Francisco including the Maritime Park, Fort Mason, the Presidio, Ocean and Baker beaches. Beyond San Francisco GGNRA highlights include the Muir Woods redwood forest and Point Reyes National Seashore but all the GGNRA parks are wonderful to visit. Point Reyes is a great place to spend the day, stop in Point Reyes Station for a picnic or meal (Cowgirls Creamery is my favorite) and take a hike. The GGNRA’s website provides lots of excellent information.
11. North Beach
Walk down Grant Avenue through Chinatown, when you reach Columbus you are in the heart of North Beach. Check out City Lights Bookstore (Beat Poetry) with its great selection of books. Have a drink at the Vesuvio Café next door. Walk up Columbus and you’ll be surrounded by cafes and restaurants that make you think you are in Italy. My favorite cafes are Café Trieste (Grant/Vallejo), Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store (Columbus/Union), Puccini and Roma (both on Columbus).
Don’t miss a walk down Grant Avenue (lots of interesting shops and restaurants), Union Square (park) and the hike up to Coit Tower (walk east on Union Street). Go inside Coit tower to see the great WPA murals and ride the elevator to the top for great views.
12. Sunday in Golden Gate Park
On Sundays cars are banned from the eastern part of Golden Gate Park, it’s a great time to enjoy the park and its cultural institutions. You could start by walking west along Haight Street (ground zero for San Francisco’s Summer of Love) to Golden Gate Park. Don’t miss the deYoung Art Museum and the California Academy of Sciences in the Golden Gate Park Concourse. If you are in the mood for exercise, you can walk all the way to Ocean Beach.