There are so many fun things to do in San Francisco that it is difficult to narrow the list down to only ten items. I have attempted to cover all of the “musts” while incorporating a few fun things that are less widely known to the visiting crowd.
1. Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz is a small island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. It is the location of the first lighthouse and US fort on the west coast. It served as a military prison during the early 1900′s, and became a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. In 1972, it became a national recreation area and the National Park Service continues to operate the island today as a tourist attraction. Alcatraz Cruises depart daily from Fisherman’s Wharf and provide a ferry ride to The Rock, an audio-guided cellblock tour of the prison, and time to explore the island on your own. Boats return approximately every 30 minutes to San Francisco so you are able to spend as much time as you like at Alcatraz.
2. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937. It connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County. Before the bridge was built, the only practical way to Marin was via boat. Ferry services were established beginning in the 1820′s. Although the color of the bridge may look reddish, it is actually International Orange, a color chosen by Irving Morrow, a relatively unknown residential architect who also designed the overall shape of the towers as well as several other elements. There are several ways to see the bridge up close. Bay Cruises travel under the bridge. Sightseeing city tours see the bridge and trips to Muir Woods drive across the bridge. If you want a unique experience, fly over the Golden Gate on a seaplane tour or a helicopter flight. If you are more active, you can always walk across the 4200-foot-long bridge, or rent a bicycle and ride across. Just be sure to wear a jacket as the breeze coming off of the ocean can be very cool.
3. Coastal Redwoods
Muir Woods is located in Marin County, 12 miles north of San Francisco. It is 554 acres of protected coastal forest land controlled by the National Park Service. The tallest tree in John Muir Woods is 258 feet. Day trips to Muir Woods depart in the morning and early afternoon from San Francisco by bus, limo, van, and jeep. You can also drive up in your vehicle, but you might have to park far away from the park entrance. As long as you don’t mind a potential hike to get to the park, and you have a car, this is a viable option. There is a small gift shop, snack bar, and basic services available inside the park. There are several hiking paths to follow suitable for all schedules and skill levels.
4. Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley
Taking a trip to Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley from the city is a really fun way to spend the day or stay overnight. Driving to the wine country is ideal because it is so beautiful, but if you plan to drink or visit the wineries, I suggest a guided wine tour from San Francisco. Keep in mind that the legal drinking limit in California is lower than some states and many are considered “over the limit” after one drink. There are many transportation options from the city including limousine, jeep, bus, and van. Once you are there, the Napa Wine Train is one unique experience that I consider to be an absolute must. The train is first class, the food is exceptional, and the scenery is unlike anywhere else. Hot air balloon rides are available at sunrise, including a private flight for two with champagne and breakfast. If you are staying in Napa or Sonoma, there are also limo tours and antique car tours that depart locally. Some of my favorite wineries in the area include Viansa, which has a fantastic marketplace, and Artessa, which features modern art on display throughout their impressive facility.
5. Italian North Beach
North Beach is a San Francisco neighborhood surrounded by the former Barbary Coast, now Jackson Square, the Financial District south of Broadway, Chinatown to the southwest of Columbus below Green, Russian Hill to the west, Telegraph Hill to the east and Fisherman’s Wharf at Bay Street to the north. If you want to visit North Beach, you can easily walk there from the wharf and most downtown hotels. Most San Francisco city tours incorporate Italian North Beach into the tour, and there are also some food tours worth trying. At night, there are loads of restaurants that stay open late and many people dine outside, similar to what you would find in Europe. My personal favorite in the area is a small indoor spot called Caffe Sport on Green.
6. Winchester Mystery House
There are both Winchester Mystery House tours from San Francisco and tickets to the well-known mansion located in San Jose, California. The home once served as the personal residence of Sarah Winchester, wife of famous gun-maker William Wirt Winchester. At her control, the home remained under construction from 1884 until her death in 1922. The mansion is known for its size and total lack of a master building plan. Apparently, Sarah Winchester felt the house was haunted by the ghosts of people killed by the rifles her family built, and that her continuous construction would appease the spirits. There are several tours of the house that vary in length and content. You will see windows built into floors, stairways that lead to nowhere, and man other oddities that make this house unique. Guided tours depart every 30 minutes or so from 9:00am until at least 5pm. On the grounds, there is a snack bar, a gift shop, an arcade, and places to sit and relax both indoors and outdoors.
7. Monterey Bay
The city of Monterey is located along the Pacific Coast approximately 120 miles south of San Francisco. The city is known for its history of resident artists beginning in the late 1800′s as well as its famous fishing. Day trips to Monterey and Carmel depart daily from San Francisco. Once you are there, the Monterey Bay Aquarium should not be missed along with a walk through Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. After seeing Monterey, be sure to visit Carmel-By-The-Sea, which is a quaint little town. On my last visit, I really enjoyed a walk along the beach and a great dinner at The Hog’s Breath Inn, which is owned by Clint Eastwood. The first time I ate there was in 1983, and the food keeps me coming back. If you decide to drive on this excursion, I would also recommend that you include 17-Mile-Drive and Pebble Beach.
8. Haight Ashbury
The Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco is named after the intersections of Haight and Ashbury Streets. The area is most famous for its role as the center of the 1960′s hippie movement. It is surrounded by Golden Gate Park on the West, the Golden Gate Park Panhandle on the North, Buena Vista Park to the East, and Ashbury Heights and Cole Valley neighborhoods to the South. Today, the street is full of merchants with everything from thrift stores and clothing boutiques to toy stores and head shops. There are also a variety of restaurants and bars along Haight Street including a personal favorite, El Balazo. There are not many tours that visit Haight Ashbury due to the fact that street traffic and parking make the area difficult for large tour buses. For this reason, jeep tours are the best way to enjoy city sightseeing without excluding this neighborhood.
9. Golden Gate Park
A visit to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is a perfect way to spend a sunny day. With over 1,000 acres of public grounds, this is an extremely large urban park. There are many attractions to enjoy including the De Young Museum, the Japanese Tea Gardens, the California Academy of Sciences, and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens to name a few. On a recent trip to Stow Lake, we rented bikes and enjoyed a leisurely ride around the lake and park. Rentals are available on site on an hourly basis and include helmets. A picnic in the park is another fun suggestion with no shortage of great places to setup your spread. If you plan in advance, there are barbeque grills and park benches that can be reserved through the city.
Chinatown in San Francisco is a truly unique place. It is one of the largest Chinatowns in North America, as well as the oldest. It is a huge tourist attraction, drawing more tourists per year than the Golden Gate Bridge. There are a number of bus tours that incorporate Chinatown, but if you want to get a really good look, try one of the walking tours. If you decide to explore on your own, there is a really interseting fortune cookie factory that should not be missed. For food, I highly recommend Yee’s on Grant Street. The food is delicious, and once you are on Grant Street, you can shop in all of the stores, bakeries, and unique markets.
So, that is my top ten. There are so many other places that are worth visiting that I could easily fill a top 100. A few highlights might include Ocean Beach and the Cliff House, the Mission and Dolores Park, Twin Peaks, the Marina, and the Presidio. There is so much to do…