As promised in a previous post, I am now going to talk about San Francisco, the world capital of all things eccentric and unconventional. It is one of the most fascinating cities in the USA and it should not be overlooked if you’re planning to visit California.
San Francisco is at the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area, a vast metropolitan area of about 7 million inhabitants. Over the decades, this city has charmed millions of tourists due in no small part to its unique geography. Its many steep hills spill directly into the sea.
The city is not huge, but you need to plan out your visit well in order to fully enjoy it and not miss the most important attractions. The main landmarks are concentrated in a rather small area and if you organize your itinerary properly, you can visit San Francisco in 3 days seeing a lot. In this article, I would like to show you the top attractions in this city. Here are my suggestions for places to visit in San Francisco:
- The Ferry Building: The First Stop in San Francisco
- Coit Tower and Lombard Street
- Chinatown in San Francisco
- Golden Gate, Sausalito…
- All the Way to Muir Woods National Monument
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Union Square and the Financial District
- Alcatraz: Visit the Historic Prison
- San Francisco’s Historic Cable Cars
- Painted Ladies: Take a Souvenir Picture
- The Most Beautiful Neighborhoods in San Francisco
- Lesser-known San Francisco Attractions
- Surroundings of San Francisco
- So many things… How can you see everything in one trip?
- Tips for Flights and Overnight Stay
- San Francisco Attractions Map
- Other Useful Information to Know Before Visiting San Francisco
The Ferry Building: The First Stop in San Francisco
More useful information:
The Ferry Building is the perfect place to start. It used to be a very important transportation hub, but now it’s a gourmet market. There is an infinite variety and assortment of high-quality products. I recommend visiting the Ferry Building during the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, when the square is crowded with vendors.
The best way to start the day in San Francisco is to have breakfast on the pier while sitting at an outdoor table and look out at the foggy bay and hear background noises, a blend of the cawing of seagulls and the sax of a street artist. You can find more information about the Ferry Building here.
Coit Tower and Lombard Street
San Francisco is one of the most scenic cities in the world. Its rolling hills create breathtaking views and perspectives all around San Francisco. There are, however, some particularly picturesque viewpoints. One is Coit Tower, the observation tower on the top of Telegraph Hill. The other one is Lombard Street, the winding street covered in flowers on Russian Hill, another important hill in the city. For more details on how to reach these 2 viewpoints, please refer to our guides:
Chinatown in San Francisco
The San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and largest Chinese community in the US and looks exactly like the Chinatowns immortalized in many American detective movies, with picturesque arches (Chinatown Gate), red lanterns hanging in the middle of the street, decorated dragons, Buddhist temples, golden portals, and brightly colored balconies. You can read more about Chinatown in our detailed guide:
Golden Gate, Sausalito…
The Golden Gate Bridge, the big red bridge that connects San Francisco to Marin County, is the symbol of San Francisco, one of the most daring challenges to nature ever endeavored in the United States. It is 1.7 miles long and is supported by 2 gigantic pylons meant to withstand the strong winds and rushing currents of the bay. One of the best ways to visit the Golden Gate Bridge is to rent a bike and cross it. You will arrive in Sausalito, a pretty seaside resort also known as the “Portofino of America”.
Sausalito is a quiet coastal city where you can spend a pleasant and relaxing afternoon and perhaps dine in one of its fantastic restaurants (you can find all the information in our article about the things to do in Sausalito). If you wish to rent a bike in San Francisco, there are many bike shops and tours to choose from. Find out which ones by reading our article on how to rent a bike in San Francisco.
All the Way to Muir Woods National Monument
Across the Golden Gate, a short distance from San Francisco (about 20 minutes by car) you will find Muir Woods, a beautiful forest of giant redwoods that has also served as the setting for the film Apes Revolution – Planet of the Apes. When you visit this park, you will see the majestic trees that characterize the forests of Northern California (also present in Redwood National, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite National Park), as you walk on marked easy trails in a forest a stone’s throw from San Francisco.
You can go to Muir Woods either in a car (if you need it, rent a car from San Francisco) or by participating in an organized tour. You can find all the information about this in our article that describes the itinerary from San Francisco to Muir Woods.
The crazy side of the city that is fun and extravagant is here at Fisherman’s Wharf, one of San Francisco’s loudest and most festive landmarks. It’s still used as a dock for fishing boats and home to many sea lions, but now has also become an area full of shops, bars, and restaurants.
The most commercial area is Pier 39, where you can find the most eccentric shops, such as left-handed shops, specialized retailers of socks or magnets, toy stores where you can make and personalize a teddy bear, and much more. If you are looking for an itinerary of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, take a look at the article on Pier 39.
Union Square and the Financial District
The beating heart of San Francisco is Union Square, the main square and important transit point that is surrounded by luxury hotels, beautiful monuments, classy shops, and theaters. If you love cheesecake, go up to the top floor at Macy’s to the Cheesecake Factory (yes, it’s the one from the Big Bang Theory).
In a matter of 20 minutes walking, you can reach the Financial District, where you can admire the Transamerica Pyramid, another iconic landmark of San Francisco. This building looks like it came straight out of the movie Blade Runner.
Alcatraz: Visit the Historic Prison
In San Francisco Bay, there is also Alcatraz Island, home to the infamous prison that closed its doors in 1963. You can take a self-guided audio tour of the island that lasts about an hour and see reconstructions that demonstrate life inside the prison. If you want to have some more information on how to visit the prison, take a look at our article about Alcatraz in San Francisco, where you will also find all the references about the tours available for this attraction. Remember that this is a very popular attraction, so in order not to risk finding tours sold out, I suggest that you book well in advance.
San Francisco’s Historic Cable Cars
As you walk up and down the hills of San Francisco, you will notice crowded antique cable cars whizzing through the streets of the city. San Francisco’s famous cable cars have been operating since 1873. They are an actual means of transport but also an attraction. Those who visit San Francisco really ought to take at least one tour on a cable car and for those who want to know more, there is also a museum about cable cars.
All information on the history, routes, and schedules can be found in our guide to San Francisco Cable Cars.
Painted Ladies: Take a Souvenir Picture
After the Golden Gate and Lombard Street, the most photographed landmark of San Francisco is perhaps the Painted Ladies, a grouping of private houses near Alamo Square. These houses are famous for their colors and elegance and have fully earned the status of “attraction”. Actually, in San Francisco, there are several Victorian-style houses with these characteristics (you can have fun looking for them in Haight-Ashbury and Nob Hill, for example), but the Painted Ladies are definitely the most representative and photographed.
To get there, take bus 21, which stops at the intersection of Hayes Street and Steiner Street, just a short walk from the Painted Ladies. If you brought your kids along on your vacation, you can take advantage of the playground right in front of the colorful houses. In our article, we have described how to “find” the main Painted Ladies in San Francisco.
The Most Beautiful Neighborhoods in San Francisco
San Francisco boasts a number of neighborhoods and districts rich in history and personality. Here are the ones you should consider visiting:
- Haight-Ashbury: The hippie neighborhood of the Summer of Love
- Mission District: The Latino neighborhood that is famous for its many murals
- Fisherman’s Wharf: The old fishing district that has become one of the liveliest and most attractive areas in San Francisco
- North Beach: The traditionally Italian neighborhood where Kerouac and the Beat movement have left lasting traces
- Castro: The gay district and symbol of the LGBT community
- Chinatown: The neighborhood with the largest Chinese community in the United States
- Embarcadero: The port district where the Ferry Building is also located
Lesser-known San Francisco Attractions
San Francisco has a considerable number of attractions. Therefore, it is no surprise that some may be overlooked by those staying only 3 days. Nevertheless, these places of interest, while they are not among the top attractions, are in no way to be underestimated and may put you in a tough spot when planning your itinerary and may make you rethink going to the most popular attractions. Here is a summary list:
- Presidium: Many people don’t know this, but San Francisco is one of the few American cities that can boast a national park. This is where the Spanish military fort was originally built before San Francisco developed as a city. The area is located at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and offers many attractions including scenic spots, beaches, historic sites, and trails. Read more in our San Francisco Presidium guide.
- Palace of Fine Arts: Located at the eastern end of the Presidium, on the border with the Marina District, this monument was erected for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and was rebuilt in 1964. Today, besides presenting itself as one of the most beautiful monuments in San Francisco, it is also used as an exhibit space. Read our guide to the Palace of Fine Arts.
- Golden Gate Park: On the western edge of the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, there is a large park full of museums and gardens. Its best-known attractions include the California Academy of Sciences, Conservatory of Flowers and Japanese Tea Garden, but those who explore in more detail may discover other wonderful surprises, such as the Bison Paddock, which will give you the chance to see bison up close. Read more in our guide to Golden Gate Park.
- SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art): Many people are familiar with New York’s MoMA, but not many are aware of its counterpart in San Francisco, yet it is one of the largest museum complexes in the United States, with a collection of over 30,000 works, including those by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and Marcel Duchamp. Contemporary art lovers will find something for themselves! If you want to visit it you can read our article on the MoMA in San Francisco.
- Ghirardelli Square: In Fisherman’s Wharf, there is an entire block of red brick buildings dating back to the 19th century, where you’ll find a remarkable assortment of shops and restaurants. Many of the buildings are former factories that can boast a long history, and the most famous one is undoubtedly the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, founded in the mid-19th century and listed in the U.S. Historical Places Register. Here is our guide to Ghirardelli Square.
- Exploratorium: This is a unique and interactive museum. It will give you the opportunity to carry out scientific experiments and tests yourself and for this reason, it is also suitable for families with children. Read our guide to the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
- Walt Disney Family Museum: Those who want to learn more about Disney’s creative genius will find a museum inside the Presidium entirely dedicated to its history, with drawings, prototypes, machinery, and period films. Read more in our guide to the Disney Museum in San Francisco.
- Point Bonita Lighthouse: Once you cross the Golden Gate in Marin County, less than 12 miles from downtown San Francisco, you’ll find a beautiful vantage point that is often disregarded. It is an old lighthouse on a cliff overlooking the sea, joined to the mainland by a bridge. The view is beautiful and if you visit it at the right time, you can also enter the lighthouse. Here is our guide to Point Bonita and the Marin Headlands region.
Surroundings of San Francisco
We’ve already talked about Sausalito and Muir Woods, but there are many more things to do near San Francisco (that you can easily reach within a day). How about Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, California’s superb wine growing area? Or drive along the coast on Highway 1, one of the most beautiful scenic roads in the United States, through Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur? Or the natural wonders of Yosemite National Park one of the US’s most beloved national parks?
You can organize a day trip on your own (in which case I suggest you rent a car from San Francisco and read our in-depth information on the individual attractions), or book an organized trip. If you choose the second option, you can have a look at our article on tours in San Francisco and the surrounding area.
So many things… How can you see everything in one trip?
There are affordable solutions that allow you to see most of San Francisco’s attractions while saving and optimizing your time. The first possibility is to buy a San Francisco Pass, the second is to buy a cumulative package that may contain many activities, including a trip to Alcatraz, an open-top bus ride with a hop-on/hop-off option, an excursion to Sausalito, a bike tour on the Golden Gate, and guided tours of the most interesting neighborhoods of the city.
Tips for Flights and Overnight Stay
When searching for a hotel, remember that we have already written an article about the best neighborhoods and areas to stay in San Francisco, while for the flight to San Francisco, you can have a look at our tips on how to search for a low-cost flight to the USA. If you arrive in San Francisco by plane, my advice is to evaluate the flight + hotel packages that often allow you to save significantly compared to if you booked the hotel and flights separately. Go to this page to check out packages.
San Francisco Attractions Map
In this interactive map, you will find only the main points of interest of the city. For a more comprehensive map, take a look at our map of San Francisco.
Other Useful Information to Know Before Visiting San Francisco
Here are some final words of advice that may help you plan your trip and choose what to see in San Francisco.
The climate of San Francisco
San Francisco can still be chilly in summer. There’s a lot of wind and often fog. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. Here is an article about the weather in San Francisco that will help you pack the right clothes in your suitcase.
Getting around San Francisco
Renting a car in San Francisco is both expensive and not very practical in the city. Having a car will be more useful when you leave the city to start the West Coast drive, as you will read in our upcoming article dedicated to low-cost car rental in San Francisco. One of the best solutions is, as already mentioned, to rent a bike, or ride the famous historic cable cars. You could always also take the bus.
For more information, check out our article on how to get around San Francisco.
How many days should I spend in San Francisco? Tips for planning your itinerary
San Francisco is usually not the only destination on a trip; rather, it is usually included in much larger road trips to discover the West Coast. As a result, this can limit the days available to visit San Francisco. Considering the need to combine the visit of the city with that of other stops, dedicating 3 days to San Francisco is certainly a good compromise since it gives the opportunity to get to know the city without having to give up the other destinations on the trip.
If you are interested in a typical itinerary of San Francisco, read my article: what to see in San Francisco in 3 days, a detailed itinerary with map and movements. If you have more or fewer days available, you can start by looking at the itineraries proposed in this other article: how many days to visit San Francisco? Itineraries for 1, 2, 3 days up to 1 week.
The contradictions of San Francisco
When I visited San Francisco, my impression was that it is a beautiful city and yet I often felt unsafe. In the city, you can find many homeless people (not all of them are friendly) and some neighborhoods (Tenderloin above all) are absolutely to be avoided. In certain areas, you need to be especially mindful of your surroundings. To find out more, you can read our article about the most dangerous neighborhoods in San Francisco.