As prospectors flocked to California to find their fortunes in the late 1840s, San Francisco’s journey to become one of the most picturesque and diverse cities in the world began.
These days fortunes are made in Silicon Valley to the south, whilst the city is joined to the greater Bay Area by the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Originally a Spanish settlement and rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1906, modern San Francisco is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines from all corners of the globe. It offers fabulous shopping experiences and easy access to stunning natural landscapes. Give yourself at least four or five days to cover all the must-see sights.
Here are ten top things to in San Francisco on a first visit. Trust us: it won’t be your last!
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Alcatraz Island sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay and served various purposes over the years. However, it’s best known as the site of a maximum security federal prison, which hosted the who’s who of notorious civilian miscreants from the mid 20th century. The prison closed in 1963 after just 29 years of operation; today, it’s an eerie-but-fascinating time capsule and San Francisco’s most popular attraction. The standard day tour includes your return ferry tickets, an excellent audio tour of the Cellhouse, and the opportunity to explore the prison and its surroundings more widely. It’s quite the experience, and you’ll leave feeling very thankful that you’re a law abiding citizen!
2. Ride a cable car up or down Nob Hill
You’ve seen them referenced in popular culture umpteen times; now it’s your turn to ride! For 150 years, the city’s historic cable cars have been a feature of Nob Hill — gripping the cables that drag them up the steep inclines and ease them down the other side. You can board at any turntable or designated stop — providing there’s room!
3. Explore the colourful Castro
San Francisco is at the forefront of lesbian and gay rights, and incorporates the LGBTQ community into civic life with pride. Rainbow flags line Market Street, which leads to The Castro — one of the city’s most characterful neighbourhoods. Gay or straight, you’ll enjoy exploring this colourful precinct — home to amazing architecture and a plethora of bars, cafes, and eateries. The ornate Castro Theatre hosts screenings of classic movies and accompanying sing-alongs.
4. Take in the view from Coit Tower
Learn how to use the panorama setting on your smart phone and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular photographs of the city and bay from the summit of Coit Tower, which sits on top of Telegraph Hill. From there, work your calf muscles for seven blocks along Lombard to reach the street’s famous series of hairpin bends.
5. Go to a museum or gallery
San Francisco boasts a swag of world-class cultural facilities and institutions, and deciding which ones to see and, unfortunately, miss, is a difficult task. The Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture welcomes more than a million visitor every year with its diverse programme of cultural events, while at SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) a 33,000-piece collection of contemporary art awaits you. Fans of live performance should find out what’s playing at the Palace of Fine Arts. The magnificent dome makes this is one of the most photographed buildings in the city.
6. Pick up a good book at City Lights
If you’re in the market for a good holiday read, you’ll find it at the longstanding and much-loved-by-locals City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. Browse the shelves at your leisure or get a recommendation from the helpful staff. History buffs will revel in the large body of reference works devoted to San Francisco’s past.
7. Shop up a storm
Books aside, there are endless opportunities to get some retail therapy during your stay. The streets radiating out from busy Union Square boast every brand you can think of, including one of the largest Macy’s outside of New York City. For souvenirs and trinkets, swing by Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Tie dyed t-shirts and bell-bottoms are the dress code in Haight-Ashbury, which clings to the 1960s and is the place to shop for vintage.
8. Enjoy cheap eats
San Francisco has a terrific dining scene, and the good news is that it’s not necessary to spend a fortune to get amongst it. Get the day off to a great start at one of the city’s classic diners. Enjoy strong coffee and eggs done every which way at 1950s throwback Lori’s Diner in Union Square. Popular Mama’s on Washington Square is best known for its heavenly French toast — and yes, you may have to queue!
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The cafes and eateries that open onto the footpaths of Little Italy in North Beach have been satiating patrons with well priced pasta and vino for years. Ideale is an intimate family-run affair with a well deserved reputation for delicious tucker. Join the locals for coffee at Caffe Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of The Godfather screenplay.
Happy hours in the USA rock, and E & O Kitchen and Bar does a range of bites and bevvys at great prices every afternoon from from 3 till 6. Drop in to recharge while shopping around Union Square.
9. Cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge
Just under three kilometres from end to end, riding a bike across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is an exhilarating experience (and a great way to work off some of those extra calories!). Pedal over this engineering marvel and down the hill on the other side to lovely Sausalito; if you set off in the morning, you’ll arrive in the village just in time for lunch. Blazing Saddles will kit you out with wheels at their outlet near Fisherman’s Wharf. From there, skirt around the Bay and up onto the Bridge! Tip: Spare your quads and return to town on the ferry!
10. Meet the mighty Redwoods and try some top drops
Muir Woods in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area — 18 kilometres north of the Golden Gate Bridge — is home to towering 500 to 800-year-old redwood trees. Walk among giants and soak up the serenity of this incredible environment, which was officially designated a National Monument in 1908. You can make a day of it by continuing on to the Napa Valley for lunch and a wine tasting.
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Do you have any tips for top things to do in San Francisco on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.