It may measure less than 50 square miles/130 square kilometres, but San Francisco justly ranks as one of the greatest cities in the world. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, the “City by the Bay” truly has it all. Trend-defining cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining to outrageous food trucks; world-renowned symphony, ballet, theatre, and opera; plus almost boundless outdoor adventures, San Francisco justifiably stands out as one of the ultimate must-sees on any traveller’s wish list.
With towers soaring 746 feet/227 metres into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted fire-engine red, the Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.
If you’re scratching your head as to why a bridge called “Golden Gate” is in fact red, here’s why. It’s generally accepted that the mouth of San Francisco Bay—the narrow strait that the bridge spans, was named Chrysopylae (Greek for “Golden Gate”) by early explorer John C. Fremont. (Captain Fremont thought the strait looked like a strait in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or “Golden Horn.”) So it makes sense that the bridge is named after the expanse of water that it crosses. But what about that crimson colour? Call it an unexpected surprise. When the steel for the bridge was first installed in place, it was only covered with red primer. A consulting engineer liked it, suggested the colour be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint colour.
"The Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing."
Technically, that colour is “International Orange,” but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking, or pedalling across the 2.7-kilometre span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the span, especially when the fog slips in (especially common in summer), so dress in layers, and bring a hat or flip up a hood to keep your head warm. Bike rental companies abound (two favourites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come equipped with detailed route maps showing you where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to idyllic towns, such as Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighbouring Marin County. (For extra fun, catch a local ferry to get back to the city.) Back on the bridge, there’s a nice gift shop and a café at the south (city) end and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost to protect the gate before there was a bridge. Look up for a remarkable view of the bridge’s underbelly, a spectacular network of massive girders, enormous columns and impressive cables.
Hanging onto the outside (yes, the outside) of one of these clanging trolleys, chugging through Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and other city neighborhoods—well, it doesn’t get much more San Francisco than this. Truth is the city’s cable cars aren’t just an entertaining way to get around this up-and-down city; they really function as public transit too—just count how many package- and computer-toting locals climb on and hop off as you ride. In summer, lines can get long at the turnaround at Powell and Market Streets especially for the Powell-Mason Cable Car line. Get just as good a ride on the quieter Powell-Hyde Cable Car line. For a fascinating look at how the historic cars have crisscrossed the city since 1873, visit the free Cable Car Museum, with inside peeks of how the cables that power the cars actually work.
Known for such famous inmates as Al "Scarface" Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert “Birdman" Stroud, Alcatraz is certainly one of San Francisco’s most sobering sites. Standing on the wind-and-fog-whipped island, looking across to the dazzling City by the Bay, so close yet so far away (the waters here are notoriously cold and treacherous), it’s easy to imagine how agonizing it must have been for inmates incarcerated at this federal penitentiary between 1934 and 1963. Early bird, morning, and afternoon visits to the island with cell house audio tours are offered daily. The audio tour includes recorded comments from former Alcatraz inmates, is both chilling and fascinating, and adds notable depth to your visit. For a bizarre twist, consider taking the eerie after-dark tour.
But a visit to “the Rock” isn’t all gloom and doom. Rich in history, the island is also home to the first lighthouse and first U.S. military fort built on the West Coast. On clear days, Alcatraz boasts 360-degree views. Walk around Alcatraz to take in views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and dramatic Bay Bridge heading to the East Bay, lushly green Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island—a California State Park and another worthy island destination in San Francisco Bay.
What’s more, Alcatraz has morphed into an important nesting site for seabirds, and roughly a third of the island is roped off during the nesting season to let the birds rear their chicks. Scan the island’s decaying buildings and overgrown gardens (former wardens’ and guards’ wives were known for their green thumbs) to spy nesting cormorants, pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and California gulls, who seem particularly good at laying eggs directly in the middle of pedestrian paths.
Note: Though ferry boats depart frequently from Fisherman’s Wharf, make reservations early; space often sells out weeks in advance.
In San Francisco, ingredient-driven menus reign supreme. With some of the nation’s best produce at their fingertips, chefs in the City by the Bay create edible magic, often changing menus nightly to reflect what’s freshest and tastiest that day. Many chefs work closely with local farms and food purveyors to get exactly the ingredients they want. Early morning trips to one of the city’s year-round farmers’ markets are part of the routine for these wizards of the kitchen. Special occasion restaurants, many sprinkled with Michelin stars, abound, like the smooth sophistication of double-starred Coi, Atelier Crenn, and Quince. Lively, crowded, and trendy options line the streets of The Mission District, particularly along Valencia Street. But inexpensive options are easy to find, too: consider Clement Street for outstanding pho and other Asian foods, or track down food truck gatherings sponsored by Off the Grid. And for one-stop you’ll-definitely-find-something grazing, walk (slowly) through the Ferry Building Marketplace, where permanent booths sell local delicacies like crusty sourdough (Acme Bread) and artisanal cheese (Cowgirl Creamery), and sit-down restaurants, like Charles Phan’s celebrated Slanted Door, offer amazing food and waterfront views.
Start your trip with a visit to one of the most iconic spans in the world. With towers soaring 746 feet/227 metres into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted fire-engine red, the Golden Gate Bridge makes a dramatic destination, and a great way to...
End your road trip by exploring one of the world’s great cities. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, the “City by the Bay” truly has it all. Trend-defining cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining to...
Yes, there really are fishermen at Fisherman’s Wharf. Bobbing at the docks are a handful of weathered fishing boats, and they still chug out to catch Dungeness crab and other seafood in and around the Bay, as they have for over a century. Early risers can watch them unload their catch at Pier 47, nicknamed Fish Alley. Or sleep in and just sample the catch: Try fresh crab cooked in steaming cauldrons set up on sidewalks here—cracked crab dipped in melted butter, paired with a fresh loaf of local sourdough is a delicious San Francisco tradition. And if you like buying kitschy souvenirs (who doesn’t need a “can of fog” or a foam crab-claw headdress?) then you have found your mecca in Fisherman’s Wharf.
"Stroll to Pier 39 for more seafood eateries, shops, street performers, and the area’s noisiest residents: a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions."
Other attractions—the new San Francisco Dungeon attraction, with its spooky take on San Francisco history and antique arcade games at Musée Mécanique—are fun diversions too. Stroll to Pier 39 for more seafood eateries, shops, street performers, and the area’s noisiest residents: a barking and bellowing throng of sea lions who have turned some of Pier 39’s floating docks into a sea lion beach party. Knowledgeable aquarists from Pier 39’s Aquarium of the Bay are on hand 11 am to 4 pm daily (weather permitting) to answer questions about the hefty pinnipeds (bulls can weigh nearly half a ton).
Ferries to Alcatraz and Angel Island State Park (a wonderful day trip for families) are based at Fisherman’s Wharf’s Pier 33. Kids also love exploring the historic ships and the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine, all part of the National Maritime Museum (at nearby Hyde Street Pier). If they’ve still got too much energy, have them work it off on a walk east along the beautiful, bay-hugging Embarcadero to The Exploratorium hands-on science center at Pier 15. Finish this perfect day with double scoops at Humphrey Slocombe ice cream at the adjacent Ferry Building Marketplace.
This elegant square circled by tall palm trees, in roughly the middle of the city’s downtown, is the hub for luxury shopping. Walk streets bounding the square to jot down your anything’s-possible wish list of finds at Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bulgari (as wells as major retailers such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Nike). Slip into the sultry Clock Bar, in the Beaux Arts – style Westin St. Francis, to clink martini glasses and compare notes. Anyone longing for a European vibe will feel right at home strolling the narrow, boutique-lined, almost-pedestrian-only Maiden Lane (car free from 11 am to 6 pm). It’s just off the square, and is home to Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Gumps (the place in town for wedding presents), as well as cafes that set up little tables right on the street. Just south of the square, on Market Street, you’ll find Westfield San Francisco Centre, the city’s upscale, indoor shopping mall.
Of course, all that shopping can be exhausting. Union Square makes it easy to recharge: the square has plenty of sunny benches for relaxing. Or order an espresso and a flaky pastry at upscale Emporio Rulli, with pleasant outdoor seating under market umbrellas right in the square.
Come on Sundays to include champagne brunch in the lavishly luxurious Garden Court of the Palace Hotel (top spot for local doyennes spoiling their grandchildren). During the holidays, Union Square transforms into a wintry, family-filled charmer, with an ice skating rink and little ones staring up at an enormous Christmas tree—and glittering shop windows all around.
Wrapping around the north end of the city, this 14,491-acre/5,864-hectare park, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is an outstanding destination for families, adventure seekers, history buffs, and anyone else who likes to relax on the edge of one of the most beautiful bays in the world. First, there are the beaches (and how many major cities have several beaches?). Southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s Baker Beach, with a wild feel and amazing views (just be warned: it’s clothing optional, particularly on its north end). Crissy Field, the sandy stretch on the Presidio’s northeast corner, attracts families, water-loving dogs (they’re okay off-leash here), and kite-boarders and wind-surfers. Just inland from Crissy Field is the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo, now home to an intimate theater.
Hiking and mountain-biking trails loop through the heavily wooded park, a wonderful way to see buildings that once housed military personnel (the Presidio was a working U.S. Army base from 1846, before California was a state, until 1994). Many buildings have been handsomely converted into open-to-the-public destinations, including justly popular restaurants (Dixie, Presidio Social Club, and the Presidio Officer’s Club) and the Walt Disney Family Museum, which focuses on the personal history and brilliance of the man behind the mouse (definitely not Disneyland, in case the kids get overly excited, but more for grownups).
Another notable site: the Letterman Digital Arts Center, part of the Lucasfilm empire—though buildings are generally closed to the public, you can give your regards to the Yoda statue, in the campus’s main courtyard.
The City by the Bay, known for its liberal, alternative lifestyles, is one of the best-known areas in the world for LGBT. In the Castro, a rainbow flag flaps in the wind above colourfully painted crosswalks, making one big statement: San Francisco welcomes the LGBT community with open arms. There are more than 60 gay bars and clubs, and although the Castro serves as the epicentre of LGBT culture and nightlife, gay-friendly businesses are sprinkled citywide—frankly, it’s the norm here. Learn more about the city’s remarkable gay movement on a guided “Cruisin’ the Castro” historical walking tour.
Every June is Pride month, when visitors flock to the city for the annual (and outrageous) SF Pride Parade, as well as Frameline LGBT film festival. Badlands, the Lookout, and Twin Peaks Tavern are legendary haunts, and The Parker Guest House, W, and Casa Luna SF are just a few of the city’s gay-friendly hotels.
Gardens, glades, quiet lakes—here’s the emerald heart of San Francisco, a classic city park where everyone, from first-time visitors to go-every-weekend locals, find something amazing to see or do. The park’s cultural hub is in its northeast corner, surrounding a broad concourse featuring fountains and a band shell. On the north side is the de Young Museum, showcasing a world-class collection of classic art from around the world. Take the elevator to the top of the museum’s eye-catching, asymmetric tower (admission to the tower is free) for a spectacular view of the whole park, as well as the city, bay, and Pacific Ocean).
Opposite the de Young is the equally impressive California Academy of Sciences, home to a planetarium, aquarium, living 4-story rainforest, and natural history museum under an undulating living roof. It’s a quick stroll to the Japanese Tea Garden, always lovely but especially breathtaking in spring when cherry trees and azaleas bloom. Other treasures abound, easily discovered by bike (rentals are available along Stanyan and Haight Streets on the east side of the park; be sure to get a lock too). Stroll among the colourful plantings fronting the giant glasshouse that’s home to the Conservatory of Flowers, explore the botanic gardens (great for birds as well as plants), and look for the surprising herd of American bison in the park’s northwest end.
If you’re not into cycling or strolling, there’s a free shuttle on weekends and major holidays, with stops throughout the park. However you travel, you’ll see locals everywhere—playing tennis, picnicking, jogging, rowing across little Stow Lake and horseback riding on broad paths. San Franciscans seriously love their park.
In San Francisco, there are few quiet nights, and though bars and clubs may call it quits at 2 a.m., the city makes sure you stay busy until quitting time. For classy entertainment, the city boasts outstanding symphony, classic and contemporary ballet, and opera companies. There’s also a thriving theatre community, most notably the American Conservatory Theater, which presents classic and new works at The Geary Theatre, near Union Square. Broadway road shows always stop in San Francisco; check the schedule for SHN, which presents most works at the impressive Orpheum Theatre, on Market Street. City Arts & Lectures offers intriguing conversations with celebrities, stars, and global movers-and-shakers. Attend an open-to-the-public gallery show, or a special museum night. For rowdier fun, there are rock concerts at the legendary Fillmore, indie bands at Bottom of the Hill, and open mic nights at Hotel Utah Saloon. Here, nightlife wouldn’t be complete without a bit of hopping around the city’s bevy of bars, from upscale establishments with craft cocktails (like Bourbon & Branch and The Alembic) to longstanding neighbourhood watering holes (The 500 Club) where you can go elbow to elbow with the locals.
The stately brick buildings in this impressive 1895 complex, the original site of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory (previously a woolen mill), are now the home of a stylish collection of shops and restaurants—one of the most pleasant places to stroll and shop in the city. Wind through passageways and across plazas to visit an assortment of boutiques and gift shops, or relax with bay views from a selection of restaurants. If you have kids along, you probably have one destination in mind more than any other: the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop. The line can be out the door but don’t worry—it moves fast. Soon you’ll be facing the staggering menu of sundae choices: Will it be the family-size “Earthquake”? (Eight scoops, eight toppings, bananas, whipped cream, almonds, chocolate chips, and cherries.) Or maybe have a “Gold Rush” (vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and peanut butter throughout).
There’s no lack of transportation options in San Francisco, but it’s important to plan ahead and pick the best route for your destination. Downtown, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf are easily walkable. The city’s local MUNI buses, trolleys, and streetcars travel citywide, and are an economical and safe way to get around—just know you may need to wait a bit at your stop. The “F Market and Wharves” historic streetcar, which runs along the Embarcadero, is a popular tourist route, with stops for Fisherman’s Wharf (at Embarcadero and Stockton), the Ferry Building (at Market and 4th Street), and for AT&T Park (home of the Giants baseball team) at Don Chee Way and Steuart Street. Tip: If you plan to use public transportation, consider getting a Passport from CityPass; it allows 7 days of unlimited Muni and cable car rides (plus discounts on area museums and attractions).
Clanging cable cars are always fun, but have a fairly limited system—best if you want to travel between the waterfront and Union Square. Taxis are concentrated downtown, and while they can often be the fastest way to get around, fares can quickly add up.
The underground BART system is a great way to travel beyond San Francisco, with routes south to San Francisco International Airport, and east to Oakland, Berkeley, Pleasanton, and other communities. Caltrain connects San Francisco with San Jose and points in between, and heads as far south as Gilroy. To travel north to Marin County, hop aboard a Golden Gate Transit ferry to ride to Sausalito, or a Blue and Gold Fleet ferry to Tiburon.
For do-it-yourself exploring, try the innovative and inexpensive bike system called Bay Area Bike Share. Sign up for a low-cost 24-hour or 3-day membership, then pick up a bike at a designated station (scattered from Mission Bay to Market Street and Columbus Avenue to the Embarcadero), and return it to the same station, or ride to another station, do your exploring, and pick up another bike to continue on your way. You can stop and go as much as you want. Healthy, inexpensive, car-free—not bad.
Guided tours are another fun way to explore without having to drive. Some tours use traditional vans or buses, while others employ more unusual modes of transport. Ride the Ducks tours use wacky-looking amphibious vehicles to drive not just on city streets, but also straight into the bay. Climb aboard a vintage fire engine to explore the city with San Francisco Fire Engine Tours, and even cross Golden Gate Bridge. You will definitely notice the stares and smiles.