The city of San Francisco was my first experience of the state of California and it was pretty much love at first sight – for both the city and the state. This year, I was planning my fifth visit to the city until the pandemic got in the way but I can’t wait to reschedule my trip.
Here’s my guide to how I like to spend my time in this Northern California city.
Where to stay
On each of my visits to San Francisco, I’ve stayed in very different accommodations – a luxury hotel on my first trip, a budget hotel on trip number 2, a hostel on my third visit and a roadside motel the last time – but on 3 out of 4 of my visits, I at least stuck to the same area of the city – Union Square/Nob Hill.
The area is one of the most central areas of the city, convenient for the theatres and shopping malls and with plenty of transport links – including a terminus for the famous San Francisco cable cars – to easily reach other parts of the city.
The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, perched on the top of Nob Hill near to Grace Cathedral, was one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in – although having to walk up the city’s largest hill from the bottom of Union Square at the end of each day was not my favourite!
We won our stay there on a Priceline bid so stayed there for a fraction of the usual cost and we spent most of our evenings sat in its top floor martini bar, Top of the Mark, listening to the piano player while looking out at the city through its floor to ceiling windows.
Wherever I’m staying in the city, I try to make a return visit to the Top of the Mark bar to enjoy the city view overs a drink and watch the fog roll in over the city.
If you’re looking for something a bit more budget for your stay, I found both the Hotel Beresford and the nearby USA Hostels to offer clean and comfortable accommodation also in a convenient Union Square adjacent location.
My only reason for not staying in the Union Square area on my last visit was having a car. We were visiting the city as part of a road trip so looked for somewhere within our budget that was easily accessible without too much city driving and had free parking. The roadside motel La Luna, somewhere between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Presidio area, was where we ended up and was a comfortable budget option for a couple of nights.
On my first visit to the city, we barely used public transport. In the city for 4 nights/3 days, we bought tickets for the hop on/off tour bus which lasted us for the first 2 days and used the cable car, and even a taxi, for the third day.
The hop on/off bus worked well for us on our first visit, helping us to get our bearings and to see the highlights of the city and learn a bit about it without having to navigate our way around an unfamiliar public transport system.
There were 2 routes to ride, one which took us from Union Square out past Alamo Square – home of the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ houses – to Golden Gate Park then back via Fisherman’s Wharf and a second which took us across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back and we decided along the way which stops to hop off and explore at.
On my subsequent visits to San Francisco, being more familiar with the city, I have made the effort to use the public transport system, usually purchasing a 1 or 3-day MUNI Visitor Passport allowing unlimited rides on the buses, metro, streetcars and cable cars and have found it to be and easy and convenient system to navigate.
The famous, historic San Francisco cable cars are, in my opinion, the most fun way of travelling across the city but the queues to ride at the terminus for these can be quite long and often, it is difficult to hop on elsewhere as there isn’t always room for new passengers when the cars reach these stops unless people are getting off there.
I try to head to the the Union Square or Hyde Street cable car terminuses either early morning or late evening/night as these are the best times to avoid long queues. If there is a queue, it is at least fun to watch the cable cars come in before swivelling around on the turntable and heading off in the opposite direction again.
When riding, I love to stand on the ledge on the outside of the cable cars, clinging on tightly as they ascend and descend the city’s huge hills but it is possible to find seats inside the cars if you prefer!
The Golden Gate Bridge
Probably the most famous of San Francisco’s sights, the suspension bridge painted the iconic shade of International Orange is a must-see on any visit to the city and there are a range of ways you can cross the bridge.
With the bridge not being visible from a lot of the more touristy areas of the city, it took to the end of my first visit to the city before we caught a glimpse of it while on a visit to the Presidio area. Later that day, we used the hop on/off buses’ Sausalito route to cross the bridge.
The bus took us from Fishermans Wharf to the Marina District where we made a stop at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts building before we drove across the bridge and see it up close. The main thing I remember about this is the wind in my face, whipping my hair into one huge tangle as we sat on the outside deck upstairs on the bus, whizzing across!
I managed to cling onto my camera long enough to take a few photos and luckily, it was a clear afternoon meaning the bridge was completely visible – which isn’t always the case!
Once across the bridge, the bus made a 10 minute stop at a nearby viewpoint where we could look back at it and at San Francisco city across the bay. The bus then continued to the pretty town of Sausalito where it was possible to hop off and explore. Being short on time, we instead stayed on the bus to return back across the bridge to the city.
On my second visit to the San Francisco, we decided to hire bikes from the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city and cycle across the bridge. Our hire bikes came with a map and detailed instructions of the route to reach the bridge, Sausalito and continue further to Muir Woods should we wish to.
The cycle to the bridge was mainly easy with some on road and steep uphill sections and it was great fun then cycling across the bridge, being able to stop along the way to take photos and enjoy the view.
The weather was mainly on our side with the unpredictable San Francisco fog only occasionally drifting in to obscure the peaks of the bridge. Mainly though, it was clear and sunny.
Once across, it was then down hill into Sausalito where we stopped for lunch and a look around this beautiful bay side town with its cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutique stores before catching the ferry with our bikes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.
My third visit to the city was as part of my Trek America coast to coast tour across the USA through the Northern states and this time, we were dropped off at one side of the bridge early morning and walked across to then meet our tour guide at the other side.
It was an easy walk across but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best with the fog covering the bridge for much of our walk across and only clearing occasionally.
On this trip, we also took a sunset catamaran cruise out to the bay but, as much fun as this was, the weather clouded over and the fog descended meaning we didn’t see any sunset and could hardly make out the bridge at all until we were right up close to it!
On my final visit to the city, we were on a self-drive trip where we needed to make a very early start. This meant the fog hadn’t had time to clear at all and we couldn’t see the structure of the bridge at all, it could have been any other road, which was a shame!
If possible, I would definitely recommend cycling across the bridge and including a stop in Sausalito before returning, definitely my favourite way of seeing this famous structure!
Another must-do on my first visit to San Francisco was a trip over to Alcatraz Island to explore the infamous former prison. Boats to the island leave from one of the piers near to Fisherman’s Wharf and need to be booked in advance – often well in advance! – from the official Alcatraz Cruises site. We decided on an evening visit, departing the mainland just as the sun was setting – not that we could tell as it had long clouded over.
Once on the island, we were handed headsets and listened to a commentary which guided us around the building while explaining the significance of each room or block and recounted stories from when it was an active prison. Night had fallen by the time we completed our tour and it was an eerie experience being on the island in the dark.
I have since been back in daylight hours and after we’d finished touring the prison, it was possible to stay on the island longer to join Ranger-led talks and find out more.
Probably the most touristy area of San Francisco and a popular area for many visitors to stay in, Fishermans Wharf is home to a variety of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions including Pier 39.
I love walking to the end of the pier where you will usually find the famous San Francisco sealions clambering onto pontoons in the bay, barking loudly at each other. It’s always amusing to watch if you can put up with the smell!
You’ll also find the Victorian-style carousel towards the end of the pier, notable for unusually being a double-decker carousel!
From Fishermans Wharf it is possible to walk along the bay front in one direction towards the Embarcadero area with the various piers and jetties and its striking Embarcadero Clock Tower or towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in the other direction. It’s visitor centre is free to look inside or for a fee, you can board some of the old ships docked in the bay at Hyde Street Pier or explore the Maritime Museum.
A bit further along from Hyde Street Pier but still in the Fishermans Wharf area is Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory and now home to various stores and restaurants including the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop and cafe for amazing ice cream sundaes!!
A quirkier attraction of San Francisco city, this road is often referred to as ‘the crookedest street in the World’. It is walkable to the top of the street from Fishermans Wharf if you don’t mind steep uphill walks – we had to make a few stops along the way up to catch our breath! – or the cable cars stop here. From the top, you can see the street winding down and watch the cars slowly crawl their way down before walking down to the bottom end of the street for a view of it from the other end.
Feeling a bit more adventurous on our last visit to the city, we not only drove our hire car down it but also took an ‘advanced’ segway tour of the city which involved segwaying down Lombard Street as crowds of tourists videoed and photographed us!
If it’s culture you want, then San Francisco has plenty! As well as the previously mentioned Maritime Museum in Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco is home to a variety of museums. Golden Gate Park is home to the de Young Museum – an art museum – and the science museum, The Californian Academy of Science. If art is your thing, the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park is also well worth a visit.
A small but excellent free museum that is worth a visit is the Cable Car Museum, not far from Union Square in the Nob Hill area.
As well as exhibits on the history of the city’s cable car system, the museum is housed at the powerstation for the cable car system and there is a viewing area where you can see the huge wheels whirring and cables shifting powering the cars along through the city!
My favourite San Francisco museum is the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio area of the city. The museum explores the life of Walt Disney and tracks the establishment of the Walt Disney company with plenty of clips from his early animated features and is really interesting for any Disney fan.
Golden Gate Park
Named Golden Gate Park despite it not actually being anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, this huge park – larger than Central Park in New York – is definitely worth a visit. Along with the aforementioned museums, the are plenty of other attractions in the park including the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Gardens.
If you don’t want to pay entrance fees into the attractions, there’s plenty to do and see for free. It’s possible to visit the viewing platform at the deYoung Museum without paying to go into the museum itself and there are plenty of gardens, sculpture parks, open spaces, lakes and even waterfalls to explore.
We explored the east side of the park before exiting and catching a bus down to the west end where the park reaches Ocean Beach.
San Francisco Hearts
If you’re wandering around Union Square, you might notice four heart-shaped sculptures, one on each corner of the square, each uniquely decorated. These hearts, part of an art installation and inspired by the Tony Bennett classic I Left My Heart in San Francisco, can be found all over the city.
A google search will bring up various websites listing some of the locations, some in obvious, easy to access places like at the end of Pier 39, some in harder to find places – we found one in a corner of Macy’s in Union Square and another in the foyer of a bank!
It can be fun trying to track them down and a good way to explore the city!
Exploring different areas of the city
The city of San Francisco is made up of many very distinctive areas, including Fisherman’s Wharf and the Union Square/Nob Hill areas which I’ve already mentioned, all of which are worth exploring.
The historic Haight-Ashbury area was made famous in the 1960s for being the birthplace of hippie culture.
Near to the east end of Golden Gate Park, the area has the quirkiness of Camden in London and Venice Beach in LA with its colourful houses, brightly painted murals and eclectic array of mainly independent stores.
If you are in the are, it is also possible to walk to Alamo Square from the main street to see the famous ‘Painted Ladies’, a row of colourful Victorian houses. There’s also great views of the city from the top of the hill in Alamo Square Park!
Not far from the Union Square/Nob Hill area, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. It’s always fun to walk down its bustling streets with the many market stalls and souvenir stores but my favourite place to visit there is the the Fortune Cookie Factory.
It’s free to enter and watch the fortune cookies being made, although if you want to take photos or videos you are asked to leave a donation, and it is even possible to write your own message to be put into a fortune cookie to give to someone!
Right next to Chinatown is the North Beach area which, confusingly, is not actually anywhere near a beach! This is actually the Italian district of the city and a great place to head to in the evening to find a nice Italian restaurant to eat out at.
Apart from the many Italian restaurants other points of interest in the area include the City Lights Bookstore, a large independent bookstore founded in the early 1950s; The Stinking Rose restaurant – the original garlic restaurant where it’s even possible to order a dessert made with garlic! – The Beat Museum which traces the history of The Beats generation from the 1950s onwards; the pretty Washington Square overlooked by Saints Peter and Paul Church (famous for being the site of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio’s wedding photos) and Telegraph Hill where you’ll find San Francisco’s Coit Tower.
Often said to resemble a firefighter’s hose, and coincidentally a monument to San Francisco’s firefighters, the Coit Tower stands atop Telegraph Hill and can be seen from many points in the city.
Walking up to Telegraph Hill there are views of San Francisco bay in one direction and the financial district with the distinct pyramid-shaped TransAmerica building on the other direction. It is possible for a small fee to go up to the top of the Coit Tower to a small observation deck but there’s not lot of room up there and I found the views to be slightly obscured by scratched windows in need of a clean!
There are many other areas of the city worth a visit, the Mission area is a great place to head to for a night out with its many bars and on my next visit I’m planning to visit its Delores Park which is supposed to have great views of the city skyline. Japantown offers many Japanese restaurants and Japanese-style spas and I’m yet to visit Treasure Island, an artificial island across the Bay Bridge.
Beyond the city, its also possible to take a trip out to Yosemite National Park to see the highlights – although I would argue that a day there really isn’t enough! – or to the closer Muir Woods which is on my ‘to do list for my next visit. Or head across the bay to visit the cities Oakland and Berkley.
However you spend your time in San Francisco, you’re bound to have a great time in this eclectic, beautiful city.