Known for its enigmatic fog along with almost impossibly steep streets and surrounding hills, culture-rich San Francisco is a grand tapestry woven from incredible food, wine, and history.
Home to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, San Francisco was also the birthplace of the Beat generation and the heart of the hippie movement with a history before that stretching back to the gold rush days. From its Victorian houses to its quirky cable cars, leftovers of the past are everywhere in San Francisco but so too is the 21st century with San Francisco’s avant-garde air written all over it.
San Francisco has long been a paradise for foodies and with vineyards just on the doorstep dining experiences tend to come as perfect combinations of inventive and creative dishes of every cuisine type paired with the best in wine choices. Tuck into sourdough bread bowls of clam and crab chowder at the seafront, browse the Farmer’s Market, eat your way through red-lantern strung Chinatown or head to one of the city’s many Michelin-starred restaurants for all kinds of unforgettable experiences for your taste buds.
In short, whether you have come looking for history, to sample the city’s quirks such as a drive down the almost impossibly wriggly Lombard Street, to walk where the Beatniks once walked, to explore street art and culture, to gaze on the ocean or simply the opportunity to feast at every opportunity San Francisco is an unbeatable destination.
A Morning in San Francisco
San Francisco has an amazing collection of sights to see and thanks to its relatively compact size it is possible to fit many of them into your morning. The easiest way to make sure you cover as much as possible and maximize your time is to take a tour. Not only will doing so see you seamlessly transported from one iconic spot to the other but it will also allow you to learn plenty about the city’s history and culture through knowledgeable tour guides. In this way, you will discover that each neighborhood has its very own special story to tell.
Alternatively, you can spend your morning exploring Alcatraz – San Francisco’s historic and notorious island-located former jail, just a short ferry ride away.
A City Tour
From hippie hangouts of the 60s to Victorian houses and the Golden Gate Bridge to vast natural areas San Francisco is packed with beautiful buildings, fascinating history, buzzing squares and otherwise a series of diversely interesting sites.
Of all its gems none is more iconic than the Golden Gate Bridge – arguably the most instantly recognizable and most famous bridge on Earth. If you want to get up close to this engineering masterpiece which was opened in the 1930s, you can use the pedestrian walkways and keep your eyes peeled as it isn’t unknown to see whales from here. Spanning the 1 mile of waters which separate San Francisco from Marin County, this bridge was the longest and tallest suspension bridge on the planet when it was built and is considered one of the greatest civil engineering constructions of the 20th century.
Butting up against the city’s premier icon is a historic area known as the Presidio. For two centuries this site was home to a military fort but is today a gorgeous natural area full of hiking trails including art options and a wealth of things to see and do. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area the entire site is free to access and has some stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bordering the Presidio is the Marina District – one of San Francisco’s loveliest neighborhoods – which can be found the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts. When it was built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition it displayed fine art works but today simply serves as a gorgeous lakeside spot full of swans and ducks where people come to find tranquility and admire the grand Roman-inspired architecture.
Heading east the next area you will arrive at is North Beach, the city’s Italian neighborhood which is awash with history. Famed for giving birth to the Beatnik movement, North Beach is a charming collection of cafes and restaurants oozing an air of romance which spill out onto the pavement European style and not surprisingly offer some incredible Italian cuisine choices.
North Beach is home to the waterfront Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 whose general bustle and wealth of street performers give them a decidedly carnival atmosphere. Still today the site for fishermen to haul in crabs and clams, the historic Fisherman’s Wharf was once where the early Italian and Chinese immigrants would fish from small boats in the late 1800s.
Boats are constantly coming and going here and there is an otherwise endless stream of sights and sounds. Along with a vast number of souvenir shops and boutiques, there are also various attractions such as the chance to explore historic ships and of course there are gorgeous views of the bay too. In short Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are a true treat for the senses including one for the taste buds. There is a good collection of restaurants here but the sourdough bread bowls of clam and crab chowder sold from a range of stalls are considered a must-try.
Arguably the main attraction at Pier 39 – besides its stunning views of the Golden Gate, the bay and Alcatraz – is the hundreds-strong colony of vociferous sea lions that laze about in the sun and consistently attract a stream of admirers snapping photos and watching their activities.
If you haven’t quite had your fill of spectacular views make your way to the elegant Coit Tower which perches on Telegraph Hill. Dating from the 1930s, this concrete tower site offers views of the bridges and the bay. If you head to its observation deck those panoramas become even more far-reaching and sensational with the famous and iconic Transamerica Pyramid visible on the skyline. When this 260m skyscraper was built in 1972 it claimed its place as one of the top 10 highest buildings in the world and only gave up its title of the city’s highest building in 2018 when the Salesforce Tower was constructed.
Be sure to check out the extensive painted murals inside the Coit Tower, as old as the building itself and depicting historic scenes from the state’s Depression era. If you have the energy to wander some of the trails of Pioneer Park which surrounds the tower you may get to meet the famous resident flock of parrots whose noisy chattering is impossible to miss if they are in the vicinity.
Another great viewpoint – the elevated neighborhood of Twin Peaks – is located a short drive away and has 360-degree views of the entire bay area.
If you opt to go on a city tour to explore its highlights you will almost certainly get to experience one of San Francisco’s quirks – Lombard Street. Described as the ‘crookedest street in the world’, Lombard Street’s famous one block section made up of a series of highly dramatic switchback bends was originally constructed in the 1920s to overcome the problems of building a road on such a steep gradient. However its highly unique wiggling design has led to it being a major tourist attraction in its own right and can be both walked and driven.
For those interested in getting a retail fix while in the city the centrally-sited Union Square is the place to be. With its vast collection of huge department stores, designer boutiques and art galleries Union Square represents the best of the city’s shopping and is also located in an area which leads the dining and San Francisco entertainment scenes too. Filled with grass areas and cafes, Union Square is also home to some of San Francisco’s beautiful painted hearts which are found installed around the city. First envisioned in 2004, inspired by the song ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco and intended to convey a message of kindness and giving, the hearts which change annually are painted by local artists and then auctioned off with proceeds going to the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.
San Francisco is a collection of lovely neighborhoods, each with a diversity and character all their own, a few of which during any tour of the city you are likely to experience. The Civic Center is one such which is home to a grand array of Beaux-Arts architecture buildings and a host of performing arts venues. One of the most majestic gems here is the lovely and magnificently-domed City Hall which dates from 1915 and is so huge it takes up more than two blocks.
The location for many blockbuster movies, the City Hall is open to visitors and is a spectacular sight with its marble interiors, majestic staircase and many sculptures. The beautiful exterior is sensationally lit each evening at sundown with special lighting seen on its facade to celebrate special events in the city’s calendar such as the rainbow schemes of the Pride Parade or the yellow and blue lights when the Warriors have fixtures.
Another of the must-visit neighborhoods of San Francisco is that of Haight-Ashbury. Now forever etched through and through with the history of the city’s hippie movement, Haight-Ashbury was the nucleus for musicians, poets, artists and counter-culture seekers in the 1960s. Once home to the Grateful Dead who are credited with sparking off the ‘Summer of Love’, this neighborhood today is infused with nostalgic leftovers of those iconic times. Wander amid vibrant street art, vintage stores, thrift outlets, an array of wonderful cafes and bars and a plentiful supply of Victorian era buildings.
The city’s most famous collection of this latter – known as the Painted Ladies because of their array of colors – can be found a short distance away in Alamo Square. With a backdrop of soaring skyscrapers this terraced row built during the gold rush days is one of the city’s most photographed sights.
Morning Coffee in San Francisco
As your entire morning is going to be spent exploring the numerous city highlights quite where you pause for coffee is up to you. With more cafes and coffee shops than anywhere else in the country you are not going to be hard pressed to find a place to take a caffeine break and with a multitude of local roasters such as Sightglass and Ritual quality coffee also tends to be the norm rather than the exception.
If your need for caffeine arrives early in your morning while you are exploring the Presidio head to the decidedly charming Trouble Coffee. With views of the ocean and walls full of the eclectic and quirky, Trouble Coffee is known for its excellent quality coffee and cinnamon toast so top-notch it is famous throughout the city. If you are looking to experience something of San Francisco’s outside-the-box atmosphere and vibe while sipping on high quality coffee Trouble is hard to beat.
North Beach – which comes a little later in your morning’s adventures – is full of cafe choices but one for those looking to follow in the footsteps of the Beatniks should check out the Italian-styled Caffe Trieste. This bohemian gem, so beloved by locals, first sprang into being in the 1950s and still has a decided air of nostalgia and history. Once the haunt of the famous Beat writers, Caffe Trieste was where Francis Ford Coppola would come to fill up on caffeine as he penned his ‘The Godfather’ masterpiece. This warm and welcoming family-run, no-nonsense and roast-their-own cafe serves up classic cappuccinos and lattes and will proudly tell you that they were the first of the wave of espresso houses on this side of the country. For those who like some kind of coffee accompaniment there are a range of pastries, cookies and biscotti.
An Alternative Morning in San Francisco – Alcatraz
A national historic landmark and with a story both grim and fascinating, the former maximum security prison of Alcatraz needs little introduction to most. Once the holding facility for such notorious names as Al Capone, Alcatraz – just a 15 minute ferry ride from San Francisco – is one of the entire USA’s top five most visited attractions, year after year.
Tours of ‘The Rock’ which finally ceased its role as federal prison in the 1960s typically include some first-hand accounts from former inmates who can describe exactly what day to day life was like as a prisoner at what is surely the most famous jail in the world. You can make your own way around the atmospheric and abandoned ruins if you choose with an audio tour.
Besides the prison Alcatraz Island is also home to the West Coast’s oldest functional lighthouse, historic military fortifications and a wealth of sea-birds. Although the ride to get to the island is brief it allows some sensational views of both the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge.
Lunch in San Francisco’s Chinatown
San Francisco is a wonderland for foodies and while the entire city offers plentiful choices for a great lunch nowhere ticks all the boxes quite like Chinatown. This sprawling 24 block city-inside-a-city is a destination all of itself and hugely popular with tourists. Nowhere outside of Asia is there a Chinatown this large and, established way back in the 1800s, it is also the oldest in all of North America.
Try and make some time before heading to your lunch venue to explore this tradition-infused area packed with characterful and colorful shops wafting out aromas of incense and exotic spices, bustling food markets, glinting temples, traditional tea-houses and an otherwise constant stream of cultural sights. There are even such delights as the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory where visitors can make their very own fortune cookie in the very city where the concept was invented. The magnificent Dragon’s Gate – the Grant Avenue/Bush Street entrance to Chinatown – is one of San Francisco’s most Instagrammable spots. Topped by three pagodas and decorated with fish and dragons while its stylized lions stand sentinel on either side, this gorgeous gate was a gift from Taiwan to San Francisco in the 1970s.
To make a bit of an occasion of your arrival in Chinatown and to tick one more iconic San Francisco experience off your must-do list travel by San Francisco cable car. Originally invented to make easy work of the area’s famous steep hills, San Francisco’s cable cars and their ringing bells have been part of the city scene since the late 1800s and today each historic ride allows you to take in some spectacular views.
Once you arrive in Chinatown it is easy to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the incredible array of cafes, tea-houses and restaurants dishing up authentic culinary delights in establishments ranging from the simple to the high-end elaborate. However, it would be almost unthinkable to arrive here and not sample some of the incredible dim sum for which the city is justifiably famous and considered to be as good as it gets outside of China.
One highly-rated choice here is the City View Restaurant which offers a pushcart service, especially helpful for those not highly familiar with the concept of dim sum – a dining choice where an array of bite-sized delicacies and treats make up your meal. This restaurant’s dim sum choice is diverse with varieties in steamed, baked and fried versions with the shrimp dumplings an especially popular choice.
Anywhere which has been part of a dining scene for many decades while also being able to boast regular diners in the past such as the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is going to instantly register as somewhere to check out. The R&G Lounge is one such restaurant with a sterling reputation and an ethos of using only the freshest ingredients for concocting dishes which have led to many a food-industry award. The menu is diverse but its signature dishes of live crab with salt and pepper and the special beef come highly recommended by patrons.
Its culinary splendors aside Chinatown is such a magnet for city visitors that there are a variety of tours connected with it. Taking a tour ensures you see all of its most iconic sights such as the Taoist and Buddhist temples as well as some of the off-the-tourist-trail alleys and lesser known corners. While you explore the sights, sounds and smells you will also learn something of the area’s history, symbolic architecture, culture and folklore so that you will leave feeling you have taken a real inside glimpse into life here.
Others tours are food-focused, allowing you to eat your way through Chinatown, sampling all kinds of delectable treats as you go. Such options typically include visiting the vibrant markets, experiencing a teashop, peeking inside herb stores and exploring the gems hidden away down side streets that you almost certainly wouldn’t find alone.
An Afternoon in San Francisco
With an afternoon stretching in front of you, you can decide whether to fill it exploring wine territory and sampling the fantastic produce or enjoying nature in all its glory combined with a visit to the charming seaside resort of Sausalito.
It is hardly a secret that California is one of the world’s leading wine producing regions and a visit to San Francisco can include some wonderful experiences for wine lovers and appreciators. Just north of the city can be found two easily accessible areas – the Napa Valley and the Sonoma Valley – where gorgeous landscapes and views are as top class as the wines they produce.
Tour companies to get you across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the land of wine may focus on one or the other of the valleys while some include visits to both these regions. Typically between two to four wineries are included on the trip where you can sample a variety of wines. The Ravenswood Winery cave tours and the Gloria Ferrer Winery are two of Sonoma’s most respected choices while the Napa Valley is home to the wonderful Robert Mondavi Winery and V. Sattui Winery. This latter represents one of the valley’s longest established wineries which started even before the days of prohibition.
The higher-end boutique and concierge-type experiences take everything up a notch or two, generally providing a more personal experience including perfect food pairings such as cheese and antipasti and VIP access to fully explore the behind-the-scenes workings. They will also sometimes combine the wine element with visits to the olive oil and balsamic vinegar producers of the Figone Olive Oil and Production Mill for a true foodie experience.
Besides sampling award-winning wines your winery visits also cover the whole wine-making process, exploring first the vineyards and learning about growing methods and following through to the cellar, experiencing along the way all kinds of fascinating facts about fermenting, barrel-aging and bottling.
An Alternative Afternoon – Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito
As both the stunning Muir Woods and charming Sausalito are located north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge it is easy to combine both on one visit.
Just 12 miles from the city can be found one of the handful of coastal redwood forests which still survives anywhere on the planet. Making up part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, this huge swath of land has 240 acres of ancient redwood trees, the oldest of which are believed to have been here for 1,000 years.
This beautiful natural area offers a wealth of hiking options covering varied terrain and habitats ranging from easy strolls to more challenging choices. The giant trees which soar up to 260ft however are the stars of the show no matter which trail you choose and some stunning vistas also tend to come as standard. The main looped trail offers a boardwalk platform throughout with bridge sections to cross the creeks.
Butting up against the Golden Gate National Park, Sausalito tumbles down from its hillside to meet its protected bay and still manages to preserve an air of quaint and charming seaside town. Though it is possible to reach Sausalito by road the half hour ferry journey is especially lovely offering some incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the water.
Sausalito has a number of things to see and do such as its Bay Area Discovery Museum and the free to enter Marine Mammal Center which works to rehabilitate injured and sick marine animals. However, what most come to Sausalito to do is simply stroll and meander – taking in the sensational views of the San Francisco skyline and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Perfect for those hunting for souvenirs or needing a refreshment pause, the waterfront is made up of art galleries, small independent shops, cafes and restaurants who, perhaps not surprisingly given the harbor location, specialize in seafood.
The city is also famous for its houseboat community, around 400 strong, which are an eclectic and highly photographic collection of floating homes ranging from the tiny to the grand. Be sure to check out the impressive free-to-visit scale model at the Bay Model Visitor Center. Originally built in the 1950s for the US Army Corp of Engineers for research purposes, this fully operational and huge model of the San Francisco Bay which recreates tides on a pared down timescale covering 15 minutes is fascinating to watch.
If you want to get some extra-special views make your way to the H. Dana Bowers Memorial Vista which offers far-reaching panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge, the ocean and San Francisco from an elevated hillside.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in San Francisco
There are many who consider San Francisco a utopia for many reasons and its fantastic food and drink scenes are two of them. Here you can brush shoulders with locals in laid back pubs or sip cocktails alongside the glitzy patrons at glamorous lounges. When it comes to dining the city has no less than seven 3-Michelin-star restaurants and a seemingly endless offering of other high quality venues dishing up every cuisine type you could imagine.
Quite what fits the bill as the ideal pre-dinner drinks spot in San Francisco for you will depend on many things. Is your own personal drink heaven made up of cocktails, craft beers or wine? Is the great in ‘great spot’ impossible to achieve for you unless you have a spectacular view or are surrounded with a particular type of ambiance? Do you feel more comfortable in an informal bar where the local crowds rock up after work or are you looking for refinement and elegance?
The good news is that whatever you answered to the above question San Francisco has it somewhere and in many cases an endless choice of somewheres.
For those whose dreams are full of images of exotic Hawaiian escapes for sundowners you have come to the right place. The so called Tiki is a concept which first sprang into being in the US after the end of World War II, offering venues decorated to resemble a little slice of Polynesian paradise and serving up exotic food and drinks to match. In many states the Tiki idea has all but disappeared over the decades but the San Francisco area has kept it alive and thriving offering some truly unforgettable venues which combine quirkiness and sometimes occasional touches of gorgeous kitsch.
The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar is the grand-daddy of all the Tiki scene, part of the city’s make-up since the 1940s, where a band play from the ‘lagoon’ (which is really a swimming pool) under thatch and the walls are adorned with tribal art.
At the other end to the long-established Tikis are the newer offerings which give modern twists, one of which is Last Rites with its slightly darker take on the whole paradise theme. A great pick for those looking for one-of-a-kind drinking venues, Last Rites dark interior is meant to evoke thick jungle and is proving an instant hit with the San Francisco crowd. Jungle vines creep everywhere, huge skulls form backdrops and the main bar is a genuine plane fuselage with airplane seats as stools. While the vibe and theme are perhaps tongue-in-cheek its excellent cocktails are not. Served in sanded-down glasses to resemble ocean-tossed glass, Last Rites has no less than 150 rum types on the menu and its skilled mixologists are forever adding their own creations to the vintage cocktail classics with some flaming options. Be warned, some of the drinks here are such high proof they are limited to two per person.
San Francisco also has a supply of swanky cocktail lounges where the décor is opulent and the crowd well-heeled. One of these is the Commons Club which is part of the Virgin Hotel and offers a decidedly refined and artistically lit venue for those who enjoy the finer things in life.
Exceptionally creative flair, a plethora of fresh ingredients and some fabulous fusions found nowhere else, the San Francisco dining scene is quite justifiably considered one of the best the entire vast country has to offer. Food can be paired with award-winning wines produced right here in the Bay area, some of which you may have already sampled during your San Francisco day.
The diversity here is astonishing and every type of ethnic cuisine is offered somewhere from Moroccan to Mexican and Indian to Italian.
While a wander in any neighborhood and district could unearth just about anything there are some areas known best for certain things. For example North Beach is associated with a large number of Italian choices and a nostalgic charm; the Mission is packed with taquerias and where you will find many of the city’s most famous and sought-after restaurants; Chinatown, hardly surprisingly, is where to head for authentic Chinese cuisine. So, if you are looking for something specific it pays to find out which area can offer you the greatest choices.
Spectacular views are often high on the must-have list for many diners and with a great array of high-rise buildings you might think San Francisco would be liberally littered with choices in the rooftop restaurant category. Surprisingly, San Francisco – perhaps because of its famous fogs and sometimes chilly night temperatures – has never previously explored the idea of skyscraper-top restaurants but in the last couple of years this has been quickly changing. B Restaurant’s rooftop terrace is perched on the Moscone Center building and despite its secluded and away-from-the-city feel has stunning views of the skyline and the Yerba Buena Gardens which it sits above. The menu here is contemporary American offering a little of everything from its oysters on the half shell which during the week are part of a fantastic happy hour dollar deal to jalapeno tacos.
Rooftops aside, if dining with a view is what you after then perhaps there is no more iconic sight than that of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the seafood- and steak-focused McCormick & Kuleto you can dine on succulent Dungeness crab, fresh fish and top quality beef cuts while gazing upon not just the famous bridge itself but the whole bay in all its stunning glory.
An Evening in San Francisco
From classic culture shows to jazz jam sessions and light shows to night boat tours the color-rich city of San Francisco has plenty to keep everyone happy in the hours after dinner.
If you’d like to inject a little culture into your evening it won’t be hard to find something to match your taste. Home to internationally-famous and supreme quality symphony orchestra, opera and ballet, this avant-garde city is also where you can find a multitude of contemporary theaters, dance troupes, cabaret and cutting edge artistic performers of every kind. For award-winning theater staged in some incredible outdoor locations check out the calendar of We Players to see what is on while you are in town.
Additionally, many of the city’s museums host regular evening cultural events such as the de Young Museum which has a free-to-enter offering of talks, demonstrations, dance, films and art-related events every Friday. Alternatively, the Asian Art Museum‘s has its own night programs on Thursdays.
Also opening its doors weekly into the evening is the California Academy of Sciences who inventively and successfully attempt to prove science is fun and entertaining with a varied program which includes cocktails and music.
Another beautiful venue which offers an outdoor cultural calendar is the Presidio with choices ranging from movies to music and should you get peckish while being entertained food trucks are typically all part of the experience.If after-dark lights have an air of magic for you San Francisco is going to be a delight. During the day the Bay Bridge takes a definite back seat to the Golden Gate but once the sun sets this span gives its rather more famous cousin a run for its money. With thousands of LED lights set vertically along soaring cables and flashing intricate patterns, the dazzling Bay Lights as it is known, is now a permanent nightly art installation. For great views of the show order a cocktail at the Waterbar and then sit back and enjoy the magic.
Another beautiful display can be seen at the historic City Hall. During special events and times of year the spectacle of this LED-lit attraction, which turns on at sunset, are especially lovely and colorful.