San Francisco is a big city with lots to offer tourists. There is no way to give you total information on the things to do, so I am going to highlight some of the most popular attractions, and places to go and see and do. I will break it down into 5 basic sections and share my top suggestions for sightseeing, food, and fun in each area:
Fisherman’s Wharf and The Embarcadero
You could spend several days doing and seeing in this area. There are tons of dining options, shopping options, and tours.
Take a Cruise: One of the things you can do from this area is take a cruise. There are several offered. My suggestion is to only take one, as they all will give you a brief overview of the whole city, both bridges, and Alcatraz.Try the Red and White Fleet at (415) 673-2900 or the Blue and Gold Ticket Booth at (415) 705-200.
- Escape From the Rock- This cruise take you out to the Golden Gate, then circles Alcatraz (The Rock), where you will hear stories about inmates, escape attempts and the like. It is informative, and entertaining. However, it does not stop at Alcatraz. If you want to visit the prison, you have to book a separate tour.
- Bridge 2 Bridge- This is a 90 minute cruise that takes you along the water’s edge, giving you history of the city, to the Golden Gate, and then to the Bay Bridge. It offers a lot of historical facts, and info about the history, architecture, politics, and more in regards to the historic bridges.
- Golden Gate Bay- This is a one hour cruise that takes you around the bay and all it has to offer, from Alcatraz to the bridges, to Sausalito.
Shop: If you want to pick up souvenirs, do it here. There are tons of stalls and shops offering plenty of fun items to take home.
Bike rental: You can rent a bike from the wharf and bike the city, doing your own self-guided tour, or upgrade to a guided tour, or even an electric bike. You can ride over the bridge. There are lots of great trails and areas for biking! I recommend Bay City Bike, it can be reached at (415) 346-BIKE (2453)
Museums: There are some fun museums in the area. For example, Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, a video game museum, and more. Walk around and see what there is to offer. You won’t be disappointed.
S.S. Jeremiah O Brien: A National Historic Landmark worth visiting. It is an actual working Liberty ship from WWII. It is really neat, as you can walk through and see it as it was, and as it is now. It is run by volunteers and they are very friendly! Call first to make sure they are open (415) 544-0100, but they usually are 9:00-4:00!
Dine: Some of the top restaurants are found in this area. Boudin Bakery is famous for it’s sourdough bread. You can watch them make it. And there are a lot of great seafood options such as Pier Market Seafood Restaurant, Bubba Gump’s, and so many more. Check Yelp for reviews, or follow your nose!
Aquarium: The Aquarium of the Bay located on Pier 39, is a great place to see, touch, and enjoy the marine life of San Francisco Bay and surrounding waters. The tunnels are awesome, and worth the visit. You can also touch sharks, rays, sea stars, and other creatures. Or watch the otters play! Call 1-888-SEA-DIVE to make sure they are open.
Sea Lions: When in the area, don’t forget to walk to Pier 39 and visit the Sea Lions. You can’t miss the barking noise these playful creatures make. And it is so fun to watch them fight, sun bathe, and swim in the marina.
Ghirardelli– Who doesn’t love chocolate? Visit the square for shopping, a look at the old chocolate factory, and a taste of something delicious.
One last tip: Visit the California Visitor’s Center on Pier 39 and ask for a Savings Fun Pack. It is a booklet full of discounts, coupons, and freebies (like free parking, drinks, etc.) for many local places. For example, you can get a free drink if you buy a chowder in a bread bowl at Boudin Bakery Cafe, get discounts for the aquarium, harbor cruises, and more. Check it out!
Yerba Buena or South of Market Attractions
If you love museums, art, and history, this is the area of San Francisco you do not want to miss.
SFMOMA– The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a must see. It is one of the world’s most innovative museums of modern and contemporary art. It offers paintings, sculptures, photographs, and multi-media installations. Unfortunately, from June 3, 2013 it will be closed for a two-year renovation!
Cartoon Art Museum– This is a museum full of fun. Cartoon art is pretty cool, and you can see lots of it here. This is one of the only museums in the nation that is dedicated to cartoons in all forms. It is open Tuesday to Sunday.
California Historical Society– This is a gallery that has over 500,000 images that show the history, art, and culture of the Golden State.
Children’s Creativity Museum– If you are traveling with kids, this is a must do stop. It offers hands-on, multimedia arts, and technology fun for kids of all ages. They will love it, and get to keep a project that shows their unique style and creativity. This might be a clay animation, a music video or something. Call (415) 20-3320 to make sure they are open!
AT&T Park: This is the home of the Giants, you can go visit it, tour it, and enjoy the ambiance of this great stadium! Call (415) 972-2400.
Golden Gate Park and Lincoln Park Attractions
California Academy of Science: This was my favorite place we visited in San Francisco. It is a must see place. In fact, is is considered one of the modern 7-wonders of the world. It has an aquarium, the world’s largest all-digital planetarium, a natural history museum, a rain forest that is AWESOME, an earth quake simulator, a living roof, and more. You can see an albino alligator, hold a snake, have butterflies land on you, and eat some amazing food in their café. Totally worth a day trip!
Conservatory of Flowers: This is not just a beautiful building, but a living museum of rare and lovely tropical plants. It was opened in 1879 and is the oldest existing conservatory in North America.
de Young Museum: This is an art museum with an amazing observation deck you can visit free of charge. It has American art, from the 17th to the 21st centuries. There are also exhibits that change regularly. When we visited the Bulgari jewels were on exhibit. Pretty cool!
Japanese Tea Gardens: These are located right by the deYoung Museum and Academy of Sciences. They are lovely and a photographer’s paradise. Go when the trees are blossoming!
Neighborhoods of San Francisco
The neighborhoods of San Francisco are very diverse. This is where you will find China town, Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights, Marina, North Beach. Each have their own unique flavor and offerings.
Telegraph Hill: a great place to visit and see the city from. It has beautiful artwork all up the tower, and a view you won’t want to miss. In fact, every tour guide we talked to said this is their #1 recommendation to visitors.
Chinatown– I highly recommend a morning visit to Chinatown, around 9-10am. You will see the shops open, and thousands of people milling the streets, shopping at the little stands, and markets. There are great places to get Dim Sum on just about every corner, and for the more adventurous, you can try chicken feet, any kind of fish you can think of, and plenty of other interesting foods.
Museums and Tours– There are museums to be had all over the neighborhoods of San Francisco including the GLBT History Museum, The Beat Museum, Chinese Historical Society of America, and the Haas-Lilienthal House. There are also a number of walking tours that can take you through the neighborhoods. You can do the Pacific Heights Walking Tour or the All About Chinatown Walking Tour, or maybe try the Urban Trek.
Haight and Ashbury– This is kind of known as Hippie Town. You will see lots of dreads and drugs in this area. Just learn to say, “No Thank You” and you should be fine. We ate at Off the Grid SF while there, it is a food truck market, and it is amazing!
Union Square and Civic Center
This is the area you want to visit if you want to shop. There are all kinds of great high end places to shop, fancy hotels, a nice square that has ice skating and a huge tree at Christmas.
Asian Art Museum– for the art lover, this is a great stop. It features more than 18,000 works of art over 6,000 years of history. And it is all Asian art.
Westfield San Francisco Centre– This is a 9-story upscale urban shopping destination. It has the largest Bloomingdale’s outside of Manhattan, and a flagship Nordstrom.
City Hall- City hall, pictured above, is a lovely building, and a popular wedding (and funeral)site. It is more than half a million square feet, and its dome is the fifth largest in the world. The original city hall was destroyed in the 1906 earthquakes.
Sausalito and East Bay
Cross the bridge and head over to Sausalito. It is a charming town with shops, great ice cream, and more.
Golden Gate: You can stop at the park, look at the military barracks, and forts. Enjoy the view and architecture of this great bridge.
USS Hornet– The USS Hornet survived 59 enemy attacks, and recovered the Apollo 11 and 12 astronauts. The exhibit includes an F14 Tomcat, and a large display of Apollo artifacts.
Of course there is a lot more to offer in San Francisco and surrounding areas, from art galleries to wine tastings to waterfront tours. Go, walk, and enjoy. Just remember, with all those steep hills you will want a nice pair of walking shoes and to be in decent shape!
What is your favorite thing to do in San Francisco? Join the conversation here in the comments section or on Facebook.