The top sights to see in San Francisco
Updated: Aug 20
One of the top cities I have come across in North America has to be San Francisco, a city so laid back I was expecting everyone to be asleep at their desks, behind coffee stalls, on boats and so forth. Walking around places like Downtown, Fisherman’s Wharf and other busy areas, there wasn’t this sense of urgency or people rushing around to get from A to B like other cities I have traveled to like New York and Washington. Time seems to go a bit slower here and this means more time to have fun. With friendly locals, a city which prides itself in health and fitness and beautiful surroundings, this city is a must for everyone, even those with young children. Here are my top sights to see and do.
Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most beautiful bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge which is about one mile in length (1.6km) over the water which connects the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay. With its golden colour, this is why it is called the Golden Gate. The gateway to America. As well as cars and other vehicles driving along the bridge which connects the San Francisco Peninsula and Marin County to the north, there is also a pedestrian walkway and a cycle track to carry those who fancy a walk, run or a cycle. Designed by engineer Joseph Strauss in 1917, the bridge wasn’t completed and opened until 1937, to which at the time was the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world (that honour has now gone to Japan). At the time, the bridge was also one of the most projects in the United States, costing $35 million (around $520 million in today’s money). During the construction, Strauss oversaw the day-to-day construction and made some excellent contributions like putting a moveable safety net underneath the construction site which saved many people’s lives.
However, eleven people still died during construction, to which ten of those died on February 17th 1937 when the bridge was nearly completed. The net failed under the stress of a scaffold that had fallen and because of this, the workers fell to their death in the cold waters of the Pacific. Since the bridge opened, it has the record of the most recorded suicide deaths in the world. People would come here to end their lives by jumping off the bridge, and in the four-second fall to the water, the people are free-falling at 75mph. Slam! Most people die from the trauma of hitting the water whilst others still die from the icy waters or they just drown. Whilst writing this, the Golden Gate Bridge is having some work done and there should be a safety system to stop events like this happening.
To the north of the bridge is a fantastic viewpoint known as the Golden Gate Viewpoint which I highly recommend for beautiful views of the bridge and San Francisco in the background and nearby is the Bay Area Discovery Museum, a place for children from six months old to ten years old where they can run around with their imaginations. Lots of outdoor and indoor exhibitions and programs for them to enjoy whilst the adults can also get great views of the Bay Area and of course, the bridge. To the south of the bridge is the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center. As well as information, there are also toilets, food and again, another fantastic viewpoint.
A great way of checking out the bridge is to rent a bike with Blazing Saddles located in the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco. Riding along the shoreline and over the bridge to the small town of Sausalito where there are plenty of charming cafes and eateries. Then take the ferry back across the bay whilst taking in views of Angel Island and Alcatraz.
Walking from Crissy Fields to Ocean Beach via Lands End
Whilst in the area I planned my own 6.5 mile (over 10km) walk to take in some sights and amazing views of the bridge, ocean, beaches and some urban hotspots. Starting off in Crissy Fields (to the east of the Golden Gate Bridge), this beautiful walk through a park which is mainly open green grass and not many trees has amazing views when looking to the north. This is one of the best places to get a view of the bridge with the city of San Francisco behind you. Alcatraz Island can also be seen from here. Keep walking westwards and instead of going up the hill towards the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, keep walking towards the bridge until you get right underneath it. Here is Fort Point, a national historic site, which was built during the civil war when locals thought they might get dragged into it but it never happened. The Fort has never been attacked.
Head past the Golden Gate Welcome Centre (this is the only ‘real’ uphill part of the walk and it doesn’t last long), where more excellent views of the Golden Gate Bridge are to be had but then start heading south (following the blue and white square signs saying ‘Californian Coastal Trail’. Along the way are several ruins of old batteries/fortifications used to defend the city, also probably built during the time of the Civil War but were never used. The trail will go along Baker Beach which is a nice and sandy beach where many surfers come out to play but also I love the view of the Golden Gate Beach here. The walk then goes into an urban area out on 25th Avenue. Turn right onto Sea Cliff Avenue, which leads onto El Camino Del Mar. The properties around here are huge, stunning with beautiful gardens and probably worth millions of dollars. Wish I could live here!
There is a turning to the right which goes into woodland (the ocean is now north of you) and this area is called Lands End. Follow the trail path into the woods (still on the California Coastal Trail) for about ten minutes before taking a staircase down to the right (now coming off the main trail path). This will lead visitors to the coastline and here is where a Labyrinth can be found. Artist Eduardo Aguilera created this labyrinth with views over the Golden Gate Bridge in the background way back in 2004 and has now become a local tourist site. Also check out Mile Rock Beach where the labyrinth is located. It is not very rocky (as most of the rocks were collected by Eduardo) but the name still stands. This will be the last place to get views of the Golden Gate Bridge as once back on the main trail path, the path leads south and further down the peninsula.
Towards the end of Lands End park, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives on the USS San Francisco in the Second World War. This memorial is made out of pieces from the ship. Nearby is the Sutro Baths which overlooks the ocean and faces westwards. The baths were built in the late 1890s and was a massive public bathhouse which once held seven saltwater swimming pools. The place is now in ruins but still worth a look. There is also the Lands End Visitor Centre located here with excellent toilets and a place to grab a snack.
Walking south along the road (with an area known as Sutro Heights to the left and the ocean to the right), the views overlooking Ocean Beach are truly amazing, especially at sunset. Ocean Beach itself is wide, sandy and probably one of the best beaches I have come across in the United States. The beach lies five miles west from Downtown San Francisco but to be honest, I didn’t feel like I was in San Francisco but a small town along the coastline, far away from everything. I stayed a lot in this area during my stay (hotels are cheaper here and there is a tram to take visitors to Downtown), and I loved walking, running along the beach first thing in the morning and taking in the beautiful sunsets at night. This is where the six mile walk finishes. The Californian Coastal Trail does go further south towards Lake Merced Park, Thornton State Beach, and places along the California Coastal Road Number 1 - heck, walk all the way to Los Angeles if you wanted to but it will take a while.
Golden Gate Park
Whilst staying in the Ocean Beach area, there is a huge urban park here known as the Golden Gate Park and is a lot bigger than Central Park in New York City spanning around 3.4 miles west to east (however only spans half a mile north to south). The park is also the third most visited park in the country after Central Park and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
As well as a beautiful place to go walking, cycling, running or lazy around in the heat and soak those sun rays in, the park has a few things to offer like the De Young Museum which is a fine arts museum. There is also an outdoor music concourse area, an Academy of Sciences as well as the Japanese Tea Garden (which is the oldest in the United States), and is well worth a walk around. It felt so quaint and surreal. There wasn’t a sound to be heard when I strolled around looking at the amazing plants and buildings. At the western end of the park, there are windmills which have stood here since the early 1900s to provide a lot of water which was needed to water the plants and grass. There is also a beach chalet which overlooks the main road and Ocean Beach which has restaurants, one of which I went to twice for its amazing service and tasty seafood.
Back in the park, don’t forget to check out Hippie Hill (with a peace sign marked on the ground with chalk), an area where Bison is kept (and they have been kept here since the park was built) and the Prayers Book Cross which is a Celtic-Style cross commemorates Sir Francis Drake’s first landing on the west coast of America in 1579 to which the first use of the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ was used and the first Christian service in English which was used on the coastline. The cross is 60 feet high. For the children nearby there is a carousel which was built in 1914.
For more gardens within the park to check out, then go no further than the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. Because of the unique climate of the city and the Golden Gate Park, the plants here range from a variety of different national origins, some of which no longer exist in their natural habitats.
To the south-east of the Golden Gate Park (and south-west of Downtown) are the Twin Peaks, which are two hills with an elevation of 282 meters (925ft). They are not the highest natural place in the city, it would be Mount Davidson which stands one meter higher at 283 meters (928 ft) and that lies south of the Twin Peaks. I came up here at sunset and the views over the bay, the city, will be one I will always treasure. Make sure to come here to have a look at these amazing views. I could see as far north, right to the northern side of the bay area.
The touristy section, around Fisherman's Wharf.
I say touristy and so it is. Pier 39 at the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf on the Bay Coastline of the city is the place where a lot of people tend to hit up. There are a lot of restaurants and places to grab a snack as well as attractions like hitting up the aquarium, going on boat rides around the bay, the musical stairs, open heart, renting a bike and whale tours to name a few. There is also plenty of shopping to be had. It is touristy but still worth hitting up, believe me.
My favourite thing to do and see was to check up on the Sea Lions. There is not just one or two of them, there are about a hundred of them by the looks of it. I found out the Sea Lions started to come to the K Dock at Pier 39 after an earthquake in 1990 and have remained ever since. I thought it would be because of the sharks in the bay area but nope, they made the K-Dock their home after an earthquake.
This is truly a must. Take a ride on the cable car which runs between downtown and near Fisherman's Wharf. When I did this, I took the cable car from Hyde Street/Beach Street near the wharf because the queues here are much smaller. When I arrived at the last stop in Powell Boulevard/Market Street in Downtown, the queues were very long. The price isn’t too bad at $8 per person and some of the views along the way (especially going up Hyde Street and looking back at the Bay) is worth the ride. Also if the cable car driver is nice to you like he was to me, he will stop at the top of the famous Lombard Street (the windy road which goes down a hill which is featured in a lot of movies). At the halfway point, there is a Cable Car museum which is worth checking out if you want to know the history and the last time I looked, it was still free admission.
This white concrete column can be seen from anywhere in the city. Located at the summit of Telegraph Hill, the column has stood here since 1933. It has an elevator inside and takes visitors to the observation deck which provides 360-degree views of the city and the bay. Even the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen from here.
This island really doesn’t need any introduction but for those who don’t know, back in the 1930s to the 1960s, a prison was based on the island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Anyone who was imprisoned here could not escape. Or did people escape? Legend has it one or two may have got away but no one is too sure on this. Alcatraz Island is a great half-day trip from San Francisco and has to be on everyone’s list. I went with Alcatraz Cruises, the official cruise tour to the island and tickets/information can be found here. The cruises depart from Pier 33. As well as the ticket takes passengers to the island and entry to most of the buildings, the views from the boat of the Bay Area are just simply mind blowing. Walking around the prisoner cells, the showers room, seeing all the administrative offices whilst going around with an audio guide (which is included in the price), the amount of history, events which took place here in that short time was amazing. I could picture the scenes of people trying to escape here, the arguments in the hallways, some of the conversations, it really did feel like I was taking back in time with the audio guide. Another reason why I wanted to come to San Francisco’s most visited attraction is because the island and prison is the main feature of the film ‘The Rock’ from the 1990s with Nicholas Cage and Sean Connolly. One of my favourite films when growing up in school.
One thing I really like about San Francisco is the food. So I had to get on a food tour for sure and came across a company called Secret Food Tours. This tour is located in the Mission District of the city which was originally home to Irish, Italian and German immigrants but is now the main focus of the latino culture. On the tour I got to try out the best burritos in America, seafood, sweets, desserts whilst learning a lot about the local history from the tour guide. I won’t give too much away but this tour has simply got to be done.
Murals in the Mission District
There are a lot of murals in this district which are worth checking out. I didn’t get too see the murals along Balmy Alley (between 24th and 25th streets and Treat and Harrison Streets) but I did see the ones at Clarion Alley (located between 17th and 18th streets and Mission and Valencia streets). A lot of murals show events or people from the local community and also reflect a variety of artistic styles. Since the murals started here in 1992, over 700 have been painted.
Touring the city by van
I totally loved doing this tour with Vantigo. Checking out all the main sights of the city with an experienced tour guide whilst driving around in a Volkswagen bus. The tour took me to the Golden Gate Bridge, amazing views of Alcratraz, up to the Colt Tower, to the top of the Twin Peaks, around Golden Gate park amongst some of the places whilst learning about the history of the city from the Gold Rush to the rise of Silicon Valley, the earthquakes and some stuff which a visitor doesn’t know but a local does. This is a fantastic way to get a great insight into San Francisco.
One of my favourite American beers I have tried has to be Anchor Brewing. Started by German Immigrant Gottlieb Brekle who came here in the late 1840s for the gold rush. Then in 1871 he bought an old saloon on Pacific Street and started to produce and sell beer. In 1896 Brekle sold the bar and brewery to another German immigrant, Ernst Baruth and his son-in-law Otto Schinkel and renamed the beer to Anchor. In the late 1970s, the company moved to Mariposa Street and has been brewing there ever since. On the tour I got to hear about the history, how the beer is made and what the future holds for the company followed by a beer tasting session at the end. If you love beer, you're gonna love this tour!
Information of the brewery tour and how to book can be found here
Other places to check out
I add this section because San Francisco has so much to offer and I couldn’t fit everything in during my week's visit here (but this is one city I truly would love to come back to with the family). First off, the Painted Ladies houses near Alamo Square, which is a row of historical houses built in the 1800s which are now famous for appearing in television shows and movies.
The Palace of Fine Arts on Baker Street (to the north of Golden Gate Park) I did see from the roadside but didn't go in. This is an architecture mastermind with its Greek Style Columns.
Waters Edge Hotel
One of the hotels I stayed in wasn’t in San Francisco but on the northern shores of the bay in a small town called Tiburon which can be reached by road or by ferry from the city. I wanted a bit of luxury towards the end of my trip and found this stunning quaint hotel by the water. I managed to get two nights here and booked a Superior King room. The room had a king-sized plush bed, wood burning fireplace and more noticeable, the space and how much natural light comes through the large windows. Looking through the window, I had a view of the marina but the hotel offers bay views as well. When it came to breakfast, I had to pre-order the night before to which the food is delivered to guests rooms in the morning. There is a deck for all guests at the hotel where they can relax and take in the bay views. On colder evenings, there is a fire pit which is lit to give the place a more romantic feel to the place. The hotel is located on the charming high street of Tirburon which has a few quaint shops and charming restaurants and the ferry deck is less than two minutes walk. Highly recommend a stay here.
A lot of places I hit up mainly in San Francisco where with tour companies. I was taken around the city in a Volkswagen Van with Vantigo which also offers different styles of tours which include Alcatraz. I also did a self-guided bicycle tour from Fisherman's Wharf, across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito on the other side of San Francisco Bay (where I got a ferry back) with Blazing Saddles. I did Alcatraz Island with Alcatraz Cruises. The Food Tour around the Mission area of the city, I did with Secret Food Tours. A brewery tour I did was with Anchor Brewing.
San Francisco has to be one of my favourite all-time cities. I spent seven days here and that wasn’t enough. There are a heck of a lot of things to do and see here (and to eat of course) and I can see myself coming back here very soon to do the surrounding area. This part of California I have taken to my heart. The locals were helpful and very chatty, I love the outdoors attitude to life here and the landscapes in and around the city are truly stunning. San Francisco….you are amazing!