San Francisco Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Surrounded by water, steeped in history, brimming with creativity and energy, and situated on Northern California’s beautiful west coast, San Francisco makes for a one-of-a-kind travel destination. Often called “the most beautiful city in the world,” San Francisco boasts gorgeous year-round weather, a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean and a modern, cosmopolitan vibe.
San Francisco Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Famous for its steep, hilly streets, San Francisco is best seen via cable car. This is one of the popular ways to see the city and its magnificent surrounding areas. Take a cable car ride on the last manually operated cable cars in the world, over to Fisherman’s Wharf – a San Francisco landmark – on a journey that will take you past lovely residential areas with cafés and shops.

From Fisherman’s Wharf, take the Red and White Ferry to Sausalito. This half-hour journey offers panoramic views of San Francisco Bay, so be sure to bring your camera along. Once at Sausalito, you can indulge in the sassy outdoor cafes and trendy boutiques.

The cable car can also take you up to Lombard Street, which is one of the windiest roads in the world. As you make your way down this remarkable road, you will enjoy riding past homes that are beautifully constructed. Also visit the picture perfect Alamo Square Park where you can take some great photos.

A brilliant explosion of culture and color, Chinatown is a district in San Francisco that’s famous for its lively marketplace. Visit here to sample tasty Chinese cuisine, and peruse the herbal shops, temples and museums for an interesting look at the Chinese way of life.

Another neighborhood worth visiting is North Beach, the Italian quarter of San Francisco. Not really a beach, North beach is an area with romantic European-style sidewalk cafes, restaurants and shops. Some of the popular landmarks here include the beautiful church and a vantage point for taking photos of San Francisco Bay and the city bridges.

No visit to San Francisco is complete without a tour of the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge, one of America’s most cherished landmarks. Listed as one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, the bridge is a marvel of human ingenuity and design. The bridge is flanked on both sides by the Golden Gate Park, which offers plenty to enjoy from numerous museums, a carousel, gardens and an arboretum.

Voted America’s top city in numerous surveys, cosmopolitan and colorful San Francisco never fails to charm its visitors. Go here to discover what makes San Francisco so remarkable and why so many visit this gem on the California coast. Every year, San Francisco welcomes thousands of tourists, none of whom leave disappointed – and neither will you.

1. Golden Gate Bridge & Golden Gate Park

An American icon, a work of art and an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most beautiful spans in the world. A symbol of San Francisco and the subject of numerous photos, the bridge span the entrance of the San Francisco Bay.

When it was built in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was the world’s longest span until 1964 when New York’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built. Today it still boasts the world’s 9th longest suspension span.

Before the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, the only means of getting across the Bay of San Francisco was via ferry, and by the early 20th century, the Bay was clogged with ferries. It was during the 1920s that engineer and bridge builder Joseph Strauss decided that a bridge had to be built across the Golden Gate.

For a most memorable trip to San Francisco, you have to hit the Golden Gate Bridge and see it from every possible angle. Go over, under and onto the Bridge if you can. Also go to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge which will give you a view of the bridge’s underside. Do not pass up on the chance of walking onto the Golden Gate Bridge.

It’s impossible to really appreciate its height and size without walking on it, even a little way. At mid-span, you will be standing 220 feet above the surface of the water, which makes the ships that pass below look like small toys. You simply have to walk on the bridge to get the most out of it and fully appreciate the magnitude of this engineering achievement.

An iconic sight in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen from numerous vantage points in the city. However, for a closer look you will need to head over to two of the most popular spots for tourists to San Francisco.

The first is the South Vista Point/ San Francisco Side and the other is the North Vista Point/ Marin Side. The San Francisco side offers the best “postcard” views. You can access this point from Lincoln Avenue or from the Last SF Exit off the approach road. Try taking your bridge photo from the bus stop above the parking lot. For the best shots, go in the morning.

The distance from one vista point to the other is 1.7 miles, which makes for a fun round trip if you’re up to it, although even a brief walk will be interesting.

Another great spot to take a long, low Golden Gate Bridge photo is at Fort Point with the historic fort at the base of the bridge’s south end. This will get you a lovely shot of the bridge receding into the distance.

The Golden Gate Bridge is flanked on both ends by the natural beauty of the Golden Gate National Parks. The largest park in San Francisco and one of the most beautiful urban parks in California, the Golden Gate Park offers a pleasant respite from the crowded city.

Previously no more than barren sand dunes, the Golden Gate Park owes its existence to John McLaren who during the late 1800s created the landscape we see today.

The park is today home to a variety of attractions, including the De Young art museum which is one of the premiere museums in the city. Other highlights of the park are a garden, a flower conservatory, a botanical garden, plenty of open spaces, and even its own resident herd of buffalo.

Visitors will enjoy a tour of the DeYoung Museum, the main art museum in San Francisco. Another attraction worth visiting is the Japanese Tea Garden, a rustic-style garden designed to complement its surroundings. This makes for a great spot for a cup of tea and a quiet stroll. At the Shakespeare Garden, you will find a green space inspired by the works and characters of William Shakespeare.

At the San Francisco botanical gardens, you can admire over 7,000 plant varieties. Nature lovers will be delighted even more by the Conservatory of Flowers. Situated in a white building that resembles a jewel box, the conservatory boasts a water lily garden, a tropical area, and a rotating collection of potted plants.

Turn onto John F. Kennedy Drive where you will see Wilhelmina’s Windmill, one of two Dutch windmills which has tulips blooming around the base in spring. Next, head east on Kennedy Drive where you will end up at Buffalo Paddock, which houses the Park’s small herd of American bison.

2. Fisherman’s Wharf

Situated on Jefferson Street, between Powell and Hyde, Fisherman’s Wharf is another iconic San Francisco landmark. Fisherman’s Wharf supplies the fish that is served in numerous restaurants in Francisco. If you go there early enough, you can even watch the fishermen as they bring in their catch.

Popular with visitors of all interests, many tourists feel they haven’t really seen San Francisco unless they go to Fisherman’s Wharf. The Wharf is also home to sidewalk seafood vendors, souvenir shops and many other attractions. You can easily spend about an hour here walking, seeing the attractions, souvenir shopping and eating at a restaurant.

There’s plenty to see and do at the Wharf. To begin with your exploration, head over to the Wax Museum which features wax sculptures of presidents, celebrities and more. Ripley’s Believe It or Not also has a home here with two floors of its famous oddities. Musee Mecanique enables you to enjoy a collection of coin-operated musical instruments, as well as antique arcade machines.

Take a stroll and watch egrets and herons jockeying to steal fish from the local bait shop. There are also two World War II submarines here – the USS Pampanito restored to late 1945 vintage and the fully-restored, operational SS Jeremiah O’Brian. There’s a quiet pier behind The Franciscan restaurant across from the ships which has nice benches where you can take a rest after a busy day of sightseeing.

Visit Boudin Bakery for the best San Francisco sourdough bread. You can also take a self-guided bakery tour or have a coffee at the café upstairs. Most tourists visiting the Wharf are attracted to Jefferson at Taylor where a couple of fishing boats are berthed and a cluster of seafood stands abound at the corner.

History buffs can visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park which offers insights into the maritime history of this great city. Exhibits include the Eureka, which is possibly the largest floating wooden vessel in the western world.

The best way to get around San Francisco and see its landmarks is via the iconic cable car, which offers both a fun means and unique experience of transportation. So be sure to take the cute, old-fashioned cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf, and ride on the outside where you can see everything and feel the wind in your hair.

3. Lombard Street & Alamo Square

Situated a couple of blocks uphill from Ghirardelli Square, Lombard Street is one of the most crooked streets in San Francisco, Lombard Street has 8 zigzag turns in a single block, as well as a slope. The best time to visit Lombard Street is during spring and summer when the flowers are nicest. The best spot to take a photo of Lombard Street is from Leavenworth, while looking up the street.

The 600-foot long street has a red brick road that visitors flock daily. Hundreds of tourists visit the street every day with passing cars clocked every 10 seconds, and a total of 350 vehicles each hour. This constant stream of vehicles winds down the hill with passengers squealing in mock fear at every turn. If you’re on foot, you can watch the show from the sidewalk.

If you’re up for seeing Victorian architecture in San Francisco, you won’t have to stray too far away from Lombard Street. Close by is the Alamo Square Historic District, which is home to the city’s “Painted Ladies”, as well as the world-famous Postcard Row.

Situated on Steiner Street, Postcard Row is the most iconic image of San Francisco’s Victorian-style houses. Viewed from Alamo Square Park, this little row of pastel houses – with the modern city skyline behind them, makes for one of the most photographed scenes in San Francisco.

The exuberant, charming and sometimes quirky structures were built between the years 1840 and 1900 when building was popular and so was the use of local redwood for architectural ornamentation.

Some of the Victorian houses that are open to the public include the Haas-Lilienthal House, an exuberant, Queen Anne-style Victorian that was built in 1886. This is the only private home of the period that is today regularly open to the public.

Octagon House is also open to the public and features an 8-sided, 2-story house that was built in 1861. This is not a typical Victorian-style house but one with a rare style and the only one of 5 such houses built in early San Francisco.

In addition to seeing some of the most opulent and carefully restored “Painted Ladies”, visitors to the Alamo Square Historic District will also be treated to breathtaking panoramic views of San Francisco.

4. Chinatown

Home to the largest Chinese community on the West Coast, and the second largest in the United States, surpassed only by New York City, San Francisco’s Chinatown has been named one of America’s “Great Neighborhoods” for its architecture, cultural identity and unique sense of place.

North America’s oldest Chinatown and one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco, Chinatown traces its roots to an enclave for Chinese who faced discrimination following their arrival to work on the transcontinental railroad, during the 1849 Gold Rush.

San Francisco’s Chinatown was rebuilt after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and today features architecture that is a mix of Chinese details with Edwardian fundamentals. Visitors to Chinatown go there to engage all their senses. Crammed into its 24 blocks are fish and produce markets, historic temples, restaurants, bakeries, trinket shops, community centers and plenty of bustle.

Entrance to Chinatown is via the Chinatown Gate. Walk uphill from the entrance past dragon-adorned lampposts, bilingual street signs, souvenirs, Chinese-style clothing, jewelry, accessories and herbs. Buy a kite at the Chinatown Kite Shop and some woks at the Wok Shop.

Head over to Grant Avenue, a great spot for souvenir shopping with several shops that offer trinkets and other items from Asia. During your walk in Grant Avenue, stop and look up at the ornate street lights dating from 1925 and which are supported by golden dragons.

Indulge your palate and sate your cravings for noodles, dim sum or even rice porridge at the numerous Chinese cuisine restaurants found in Chinatown. Visit Eastern Bakery, the oldest Chinese bakery in the United States, whose specialty is moon cakes filled with rich lotus-seed paste or light melon.

Visit the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum which houses artifacts and photos covering the immigration, history of labor and the Chinese Exclusion Act, all of which document the history of Chinese-Americans and Chinatowns.

Next, head over to Stockton Street for fresh fish, seafood, meat, produce, turtles, toads and dried goods that overflow onto the sidewalks. Sample Chinese vegetables, as well as tropical and Asian fruits.

Take a break at Portsmouth Square where you can watch men play Chinese chess and women practice tai qi. Complete your tour with a visit to the Tin How Temple with its colorful lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Step out onto its balcony for a nice view of the neighborhood.

Try to visit Chinatown during its 3 famous annual festivals that honor the Chinese heritage of the city: the Chinese New Year, the Autumn Moon Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival. The Chinese New Year is a lunar festival and big street fair that takes place between late January and early February.

The Autumn Moon Festival is celebrated with plenty of food, in particular moon cakes which are circular-shaped pastries filled with sweet filling of lotus seed paste, melon or red bean. The Dragon Boat Festival is a 2-millenum old tradition that features over 100 teams of paddlers competing in colorfully-decorated dragon-themed boats in races.

Chinatown is best visited at mid-day when all the streets are busy and all the shops are open. A leisurely stroll in Chinatown should take you about 2 hours, inclusive of a stop for lunch. The best way to get around in Chinatown is on foot, going off the main streets into alleys and other areas that have some unique attractions. You can get to Chinatown via San Francisco’s iconic cable cars.

5. California Academy of Sciences

Science is natural and in abundance at the California Academy of Sciences, and spectacular is perhaps the best possible description of the Academy’s building. Literally breathing vitality, the building features a “Living Roof”, as well as automated ventilation and glass conduits for sunlight. This living green roof is covered in local plants and features a nice observation deck.

When viewed from the deck, surrounded by 2.5 acres of planted hills, the Academy’s Living Roof truly feels like a genuine sanctuary. Home to 1.7 million native plants tucked into the slopes via planting trays made of biodegradable coconut fiber, the species were carefully selected to attract native butterflies and birds, including the endangered Bay checker spot butterfly. Even hawks swoop overhead.

The Living Roof and its skylights were designed to integrate the building with the environment of the Grand View Park. Standing on the deck of the Living Roof, visitors can enjoy a clear view of the park in the sunset, which is one of the hills that inspired the 7 slopes of San Francisco that were incorporated as green undulations on the rooftop of the building.

The design of the California Academy of Sciences building places emphasis on transparency, fluidity and light, with a thematic focus on the origins and future of the planet, in addition to the mechanics of our own survival as a species.

Everything about the Academy speaks to a modern view of the world. It offers a visual and integrated illustration of our intimate connection to the plants, animals and life forces of the earth, as much as their existence is tied to the choices we make in terms of energy, ecology and viability of all species.

The massive architectural treasure incorporates a 4-story rainforest; the largest live coral reef in the world; a planetarium; a swamp exhibit; and skeletons of T Rex and blue whales; and a series of interactive modules and interconnected exhibitions spaces.

Some exhibition highlights of the Academy include Altered State: Climate Change in California which focuses on how climate change is affecting California in terms of human and animal health, the well being of the ecosystem, the agricultural community, as well as the overall economy.

The main goal of this exhibition is to understand how much California is set to lose as a direct result of global climate change. A skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex is included in the exhibit as a stark reminder of the previous mass extinction, and the rapid rate at which species in our own time are facing extinction.

Rainforests of the World is another exhibit that showcases the valuable yet increasingly endangered biodiversity that is sheltered in the canopies of global forests.

Morrison Planetarium is another spot worth visiting at the Academy. The dome is tilted at a 30-degree angle to create a more integrated experience. During the initial moments of Fragile Planet, the inaugural film of the Planetarium, you will literally feel as if you are leaping off the edge of your seat, into the great abyss in front of you on the large screen.

Fragile Planet takes visitors on a light-speed visual trip from the Academy’s roof to the outer reaches of our galaxy and beyond, exploring the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos, as well as the fragility of life here on Earth.

The California Academy of Sciences building is situated on the east end of the Golden Gate Park, close to the Japanese Tea Garden and the DeYoung Museum.

6. North Beach

While many waves of residents have lived in and left their mark on San Francisco’s North Beach, the most visible and permanent stamp has been Italian. For decades, Italian restaurants, bakeries and delis were abundant, with smells of Italian cooking perfuming the air of San Francisco’s “Little Italy.”

A former immigrant neighborhood, North Beach is steeped in literary history, not to mention great Italian flavors. Its main thoroughfare is Columbus Avenue, which is enjoyable enough to just wander up and down, do some window-shopping or stop at a sidewalk café to eat. While North Beach has a mellow feel to it by day, after dark, Columbus Avenue lights up to herald a festive atmosphere.

At North Beach, you can visit the legendary City Lights bookstore, which has been designated as an iconic San Francisco landmark with its 3 levels of volumes, which includes an impressive poetry collection. Visitor can also browse the shops on Grant Avenue where you will find a great collection of small boutiques that sell vintage wares and cafés.

Take a coffee break at Caffe Trieste, a quintessential North Beach coffeehouse that has been family-owned for over 40 years. The coffeehouse presents concerts every week which range from Italian folk to pop. On Saturday afternoons, Caffe Trieste serves up live opera with their Italian-style coffee. It’s no wonder then that its atmospheric spot is a haven for writers and artists.

Savor sweetness at Caffe Greco, a bustling spot that is famous for its authentic Italian coffee and homemade gelato, cannoli and tiramisu. Also visit Molinari’s, a family-owned delicatessen which has been a local landmark since 1896. The interior is stocked with an impressive collection of salamis, sausages, big jugs of olive oil and canned goods imported from Italy.

Climb the Filbert Steps that wind their way past charming historic cottages with lush landscapes. Once at the top, you will enjoy a terrific view of the city. For more pleasant views of San Francisco, head up the Coit Tower, a stunning Art Deco tower that was erected in 1934. Watch out for the flock of wild parrots that live just below Coit Tower. You may even hear them squawking as they fly overhead.

Also check out the murals in the Coit Tower lobby which tell the history of San Francisco, and which were inspired by Diego Rivera. The murals were completed during the 40s by a group of muralists who regarded Rivera as their mentor, and are strongly socialist in context in their depiction of the struggle of workers around the world against corrupt authority.

Look for the newspaper in the Library mural that features a headline story about the destruction of Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads, a fresco situated in New York City, due to the fact that it featured Lenin.

Tosca is an institution in San Francisco. Unchanged since it was opened over 80 years ago, the bar features a vintage jukebox and cozy red vinyl booths. Here you can enjoy Tosca’s signature brandy and chocolate spiked cappuccino, as well as classic cocktails.

Also check out Saints Peter and Paul Church which was built in 1924, and which boasts twin spires rising to a height of 191 feet. Other attractions worth visiting in North Beach include the Italian pottery shops, and XOX, a homey café that sells some of the best handmade chocolate truffles in the country.

Several interesting festivals are held in North Beach. In June, you can attend the North Beach festival, an outdoor party that features Italian street chalk art, music and food. The Italian Heritage Parade is held in October and is the oldest Italian-American parade in the nation, which celebrates the Italian roots of North Beach through a festive parade.

7. Sausalito

Named after the little willow trees that 18th century Spanish explorers found growing along its streams, Sausalito is a small town best known for is spectacular waterfront views. Many visitors to the quiet and charming town say that Sausalito reminds them of the Mediterranean. Best visited as a day trip from San Francisco, Sausalito is easily accessed by a ride on the Red and White Ferry.

Famous for its relaxation, beautiful views and great dining spots, Sausalito is a beautiful town that offers plenty of fun activities to enjoy. Visitors can explore the art galleries and browse the souvenir shops along Sausalito’s Bridgeway. You are bound to enjoy the captivating dream-like views from here across the bay toward San Francisco.

For a different view point, walk north along the waterfront, past the yacht harbor where you will see the Bay Model. This is a 3D hydraulic model of the San Francisco Delta that covers over 1.5 acres.

One of Sausalito’s most fascinating points of interest is its floating houses. It is worth noting that American Singer Otis Redding wrote his hit song The Dock of the Bay while renting a houseboat in this area of Sausalito, as a way to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Plan your visit in time for the Sausalito Art Festival which takes place over the Labor Day weekend, and which attracts a wide range of artists and craftspeople. Twice a year in May and December, the Artists’ Open Studios is also held in Sausalito.

8. Haight-Ashbury

If there’s one place that truly evokes images of the bygone ‘60s hippie culture, its San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Famous as the epicenter of the Sixties hippie counterculture movement in the United States, Haight-Ashbury district is today a lively neighborhood filled with charm and numerous contrasts.

Save for the few hippie relics, Haight-Ashbury is today a whole new scene of boutiques, vintage clothing stores, second hand stores and hip restaurants. The neighborhood is a mix of bohemian nostalgia and urban chic, with alternative bookstores and cafés lining the sidewalks.

Nicknamed “the Haight” by locals, the area covers a stretch of 20 blocks from the Golden Gate Park to Market Street. Neo-punks come here to get a new piercing, club kids come for the rave scene and fashionistas go to grab a burrito. And then there’s of course you, the tourist, who will be spoilt for choice when it comes to things to see and do in this legendary San Francisco neighborhood.

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During the day, visitors to Haight-Ashbury can enjoy a laid back vibe ideal for lazing about in bookstores and cafes.

The corner of Haight & Ashbury was perhaps the most famous intersection in the world during the mid-1960s. This was the place where young people from all across the globe came in search of peace and love. Today, the neighborhood is worth a visit for its beautiful Victorian houses.

Buena Vista Park is a great spot to lean back against a tree in the tranquil surroundings of forested parkland, with amazing views of the city and the surrounding picturesque Victorians. Pine and oak trees stand side by side with cypress and eucalyptus trees, bordering trails that wind throughout the beautiful park.

One of the oldest parks in the city, Buena Vista park also features fragments of headstone inscriptions in retaining walls which were built from marble and granite partly salvaged from former San Francisco cemeteries.

Plan your visit in June when you can attend the Haight Street Fair. Here you can enjoy local band performances, food stalls from neighborhood restaurants, as well as plenty of shopping opportunities.

9. Mission District

Why pay to visit a museum when you can enjoy amazing art works free of charge in one of the world’s most beautiful cities? San Francisco’s Mission District is home to a dazzling range of outdoor murals that visitors can admire during a stroll through the neighborhood.

Murals you shouldn’t miss out on are those by Diego Rivera. These are 3 colossal works of art that helped kickstart the Mexican Mural Movement, a socially engaged style that was spread around the world. Along with his iconic wife Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera was one of the most renowned Mexican artists.

San Francisco hosts 3 of Rivera’s most important mural works, in addition to numerous other murals inspired by him, such as the many street murals of Mission District. All the Diego Rivera murals are open to the general public free of charge.

Visitors should check out Rivera’s Pan American Unity, a mural situated at City College. The mural was painted in 1940 and features a gigantic piece that is a monument to the unity of North and South America. The mural is regarded as one of the important artworks in the Bay Area due to its portrayal of an extensive exploration of the art, culture and history of the Americas.

Rivera’s Making a Fresco is found at the San Francisco Art Institute and comprises a 6-section fresco that occupies the entire wall of its own gallery. The mural is a depiction of the painting of a fresco within a fresco, which in turn portrays the construction of the city of San Francisco.

At the Pacific Stock Exchange you will find the Allegory of California, a mural that features the “Califa” which is the sacred spirit of California itself. The fresco is a depiction of the various early California industries, including oil drilling and gold mining. The mural was the source of controversy in 1931 when Rivera painted it, as his leftist politics were not well-received by the capitalist stock traders of the day.

10. The Castro

The epicenter of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement in California, if not the entire United States, Castro District, or simply “The Castro” is home to historic struggles and architectural gems. In its heydays during the 70s, the Castro buzzed with equal rights organizing, blaring disco music and full-on hedonism.

Today, the Castro continues to tease with shops named “Does Your Mother Know?” and still loves a good party as evidenced by its annual street fair, Pink Saturday and other festivities during the San Francisco Pride. Coquettish drag queens and gray-haired LGBT couples with babies in tow abound in the Castro.

Begin your exploring from the Rainbow Flag that towers above the Castro and Market Streets. Go west on 18th Street past the 4330s houses consisting of Italianate and Edwardian structures that date from the 1880s. The houses feature false front facades and carefully crafted cornices and columns. There are also Queen Anne cottages with decorative buttons along this street at 4425 and 4427.

During your stroll in the Castro, be sure to check out Clarke’s Mansion, a grand Queen Anne that was built in 1892. The ostentatious turret-ornamented house now comprises of 11 apartments.

At the GLBT History Museum you will find photos, artifacts and film footage on the bygone queer neighborhoods of San Francisco and more. Also visit Cliff’s Variety, a neighborhood institution that stocks everything from doorknobs and boas to toys and kettles.

The marquee of the Castro Theater is a 1922 Spanish Baroque relic that’s worth a peek. If you’re visiting in June and have time for a movie, check out the film screenings of the LGBT-themed Frameline among other film festivals held throughout the year.
Plenty of dining options abound in the Castro where you can sit down for a quick bite at a café or restaurant.

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