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.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in San Francisco.
Infamous Alcatraz sits surrounded by swirling currents and freezing water in San Francisco Bay. Book well in advance and take an evening tour to hear the ghosts of prisoners past as you gain an eerie insight into prison life 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 join at any turntable or stop along the routes — providing there’s room!
Lose yourself in the pages of time with a good book from City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue in North Beach. A meeting place since 1953, feel free to browse or get a recommendation for your next great read. For history buffs, there are plenty of references to San Francisco’s heritage.
San Francisco is at the forefront of LGBT rights and incorporates the gay community into the wider community with pride and conviction. Rainbow flags line Market Street which leads to The Castro, one of the city’s many diverse 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).
The city is home to a host of cultural facilities and institutions. At the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture take part in food and wine shows, marvel at dance, and form opinions about contemporary art.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco host exciting exhibitions; visit both de Young (Golden Gate Park) and Legion of Honor (Lincoln Park).
The magnificent dome of the Palace of Fine Arts plays host to a variety of live performances, and is one of the most photographed locations in the city.
The streets radiating from Union Square house every retail brand you can think of. They’re all within easy walking distance, close to Market Street and one of the largest Macy’s outside of New York City.
For souvenirs, head to the Marina area near 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.
The district of Haight-Ashbury clings to the ‘60s and is the place to shop for vintage-wear amongst cool cafes.
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. With small and shared tables, this is the spot to start the day.
Brunch is as American as apple pie, and crispy bacon and spicy Bloody Marys are the order of the day. However the chefs at Belga combine Belgian, French and German cuisine to deliver a weekend brunch with a delicious and refreshing twist.
On to Chinatown, where the Great Eastern Restaurant serves dim sum that’s 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 States rock and at E&O Kitchen and Bar oysters for a buck are 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 and you’ll be rewarded with the best roast chicken in town as well as an impressive selection of fresh oysters — the perfect match for your Ketel One martini, shaken not stirred.
Boating is one of the most relaxing things to do in San Francisco, and allows easy access to the beautiful retreats scattered around the bay. Take the ferry to Tiburon and enjoy lunch on the beach.
There is nothing quite like hoisting the sails under the 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 head over the Golden Gate Bridge and down the hill on the other side into Sausalito. Leave in the morning, arriving in Sausalito in time for lunch — before popping your bike on the ferry past Alcatraz back to the city. Blazing Saddles will kit you out, and offers suggested itineraries and guided tours.
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 for top things to do in San Francisco? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
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 cover his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore and London. Currently living in Bangkok, Neil splits his time between Thailand and London. He would be in heaven joining the Bizarre Foods team, having tried horse meat tartare in Tokyo, lobster sashimi in Manila and the perfect ceviche in Havana. More a traveller than a tourist, he prefers to mix it with the locals, learn their history and culture and walk the back streets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise on the global stage or quiet moments of private reflection.