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.
Enjoy this San Francisco travel guide.
San Francisco for history lovers
Infamous Alcatraz sits on an island surrounded by swirling currents and freezing water in San Francisco Bay.
The former prison, which closed in 1963 after just 29 years of operation, is a fascinating time capsule and San Francisco’s most popular attraction. Book your tickets well in advance. You can even take an evening tour and gain an eerie insight into what prison life would have been like after dark on ‘The Rock’.
Learn how to use the panorama setting on your camera and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular photographs of the city and bay from Coit Tower, perched on top of Telegraph Hill. From there, work your calf muscles for seven blocks along Lombard, before reaching the street’s famous series of hairpin bends.
A visit to San Francisco is not complete without a ride on the historic cable car system. For over 140 years the cable cars have been a feature of Nob Hill as they grip 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!
Lose yourself in the pages of time with a good book from the City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue in North Beach. The much-loved store opened back in 1953. Browse the shelves at your leisure or get a recommendation from the helpful staff. History buffs will love the large body of reference works that focus on San Francisco’s past.
Top cultural experiences in San Francisco
San Francisco is at the forefront of lesbian and gay rights and incorporates the gay community into civic life with pride and conviction.
Rainbow flags line Market Street, which leads to The Castro — one of the city’s many characterful neighbourhoods. The Castro Theatre brings 1920s glamour back, with screenings of classic movies and accompanying sing-alongs (reminiscent of when organs used to warm up the crowd).
San Francisco is home to a host of cultural facilities and institutions. Take part in food and wine shows, marvel at modern dance, and form opinions about contemporary art at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, or navigate the 33,000-piece collection at SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco stage a range of exciting exhibitions throughout the year. Visit both the de Young (Golden Gate Park) and Legion of Honor (Lincoln Park) sites.
For live performance in all its many guises, head to the Palace of Fine Arts. The magnificent dome makes this is one of the most photographed buildings in the city.
Great places to eat in San Francisco
San Francisco has a fabulous and fun dining culture.
It’s not necessary to spend a fortune on food in this city. You’ll find plenty of great value dining experiences that won’t break the bank, along with opportunities to push the boat out on some posh nosh if you’re celebrating something special.
As the line snakes around the corner at Dottie’s True Blue Cafe in SOMA (South of Market), the lucky diners already seated inside enjoy strong coffee, huge muffins and eggs done every which way. This is a great spot to start the day.
On to Chinatown, where the Great Eastern Restaurant serves dim sum that’s also well worth the wait.
The cafes and eateries that open onto the footpaths of Little Italy in North Beach have been satisfying patrons with pasta and vino for years. Ideale is an intimate family-run affair with a well deserved reputation for delicious food. For coffee, join the locals off the main drag at Caffe Trieste. Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of the screenplay for The Godfather right here.
Happy hours in the USA rock, and E&O Kitchen and Bar does oysters for a buck washed down with cold beer or wine at a fraction of the regular price. Drop in to recharge while shopping around Union Square.
Jump off the tram at Zuni Cafe on Market Street and you’ll be rewarded with the best roast chicken in town. They also do fresh oysters — which go perfectly with a Ketel One martini (shaken, not stirred).
Where to shop in San Francisco
The streets radiating out from Union Square house every retail brand you can think of, including one of the largest Macy’s outside of New York City.
For souvenirs, head to the Marina area near iconic Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Continue walking along the water’s edge towards the Golden Gate Bridge and sit mesmerized at Crissy Field as kite surfers snatch the winds that howl in from the Pacific.
If you’re in the market for a tie dyed t-shirt or pair of bell-bottoms, the district of Haight-Ashbury clings to the 60s and is the place to shop for vintage wear.
Ways to relax in San Francisco
Boating allows easy access to the beautiful towns scattered around San Francisco Bay.
A fun option is to take the ferry from the city to Tiburon and enjoy lunch by the water. Alternatively, you can hoist the sails and glide under the soaring Golden Gate Bridge. The San Francisco Sailing Company will take care of the hard work as you sip chilled champagne.
Bike riding is an exhilarating way to get up close and personal with the Golden Gate Bridge. Cross the bridge and head down the hill on the other side to lovely Sausalito. If you leave in the morning, you’ll arrive in the village just in time for lunch. Then hitch a ride back to town on the ferry. Blazing Saddles will kit you out.
For a city tour with a difference, put on a helmet and drive yourself in the yellow three-wheeled GoCar Tours vehicles. The commentary is guided by GPS. Those without a licence can hit the pavement on two wheels on a Segway with the Electric Tour Company.
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 redwoods. The forest offers tranquil respite from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Head to the forest early, then do the 90-minute drive to the Napa Valley for lunch and a wine tasting. There are more than 400 wineries to choose from.
Do you have any tips to add to our San Francisco travel guide? 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.