The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about San Francisco is the fresh smell of the ocean. It is a very bright city with relaxed atmosphere. There is no rush comparing to New York. I’ve been there twice and I want to come back. I love it’s oceanic influence, I love it’s nice streets with well-kept houses, I love the cable cars, I love the parks.

San Francisco by itself is not that huge, unlike the Metro area, having the population of over 3.5 million. There are more than 50 hills in San Francisco which sometimes makes it quite difficult to get around without the public transport. The hills are actually very steep and after a whole day of walking around, it can be exhausting to climb one of those.

The real estate is ridiculously expensive in San Francisco mainly due to the high demand from the Hollywood artists and successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, which is probably the reason why the city is kept very well. This is also the reason why most of the people are fit as they have time and money to visit a gym and do sports on a regular basis. And this is one of the reasons why the city is so calm and laid back.

Of course there are a lot of people, who come to work in San Francisco, while residing in the Metro area, of course the city has it’s business center, and of course there are rush hours and busy people on the streets, but I still feel that it remains peaceful and relaxed. And this is what I like about it.

The climate of San Francisco is a really weird one. Summers are cold, windy, foggy. There is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”. This, of course, is an exaggeration… But it is very close to reality! When visiting San Francisco you should dress in layers. It can be very cold and windy in the morning, while after a couple of hours it gets hot, and you want to wear nothing but a t-shirt.

Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy day. Image by different2une / CC2.0

Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy day. Image by different2une / CC2.0

Both times when I went to San Francisco, it was the starting point for my US trips, and both times I had a company of people who were visiting the US for the first time, except for me. I was so excited to show them around and to express how I love visiting the States. But the first thing me and my friends saw, was how a guy robs a bag store by grabbing a bag and rolling his skateboard down the hill right in the center of San Francisco. After the incident I had some hard time explaining my friends that it’s not that common in the US and why I still love coming here :)

I usually visit San Francisco for two-three days as you can manage to see the most of it. I really like the West coast, therefore I tend to save a couple of days to see more of the West coast destinations.

I would like to share with you my favourite must-see places in San Francisco. Of course there are much more places to see and explore but if you only have a couple of days, then this guide might come very handy.

Market Street and Ferry Terminal

I usually stay exploring the city somewhere near the Chinatown so the first thing I do, I walk the Market street in the direction of the Ferry Terminal. The Market Street has some boutiques and large chain cafes. You will see the Ferry Terminal right at the end of the Market Street while on the right side there is a massive and beautiful San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge.

You can walk through the Ferry Terminal as there are some nice eateries inside, but my personal recommendation would be the Gott’s Roadside. They have delicious burgers, fries and beers. I really liked the food and the atmosphere, so I would highly recommend this place.

Ferry Terminal building by www.bluewaikiki.com / CC2.0

Ferry Terminal building by www.bluewaikiki.com / CC2.0

Afterwards I would head north along the coastline to see different piers on the right side and the district of the Coit Tower on the left side.

Coit Tower

The Coit Tower was built in 1933 and became a well-known city landmark since then. Both times I was in San Francisco, the Coit Tower was undergoing a reconstruction and was closed for visitors. But I still really liked the view from the Telegraph Hill where the Coit Tower is located. Now the tower is open to visitors and I bet the view of the San Francisco is amazing from there. It costs 8$ to use the elevator to get to the top, and I will definitely visit the tower once I’m in San Francisco again.

Colt Tower. Image by by stephenyeargin / CC2.0

Colt Tower. Image by by stephenyeargin / CC2.0

Cable Car

Alternatively to the morning route towards the Ferry Terminal you could take the Cable car towards Fisherman’s Wharf and walk it in the opposite direction right towards the Ferry Terminal stopping by at the Coit Tower.

The Cable cars in San Francisco is the world’s last manually operated cable car system in the world.

There are three routes in operation but the best one is the Powell-Hyde line. It’s the longest one and the most scenic. For the best experience I would suggest staying on the sidestep outside the cable car and hold on while in the motion! This is the best experience – you will pass by cars and other cable cars very close and the wind will blow into your face but I bet you will have a smile on your face like a dog who sticks its head out of a car window! :)

You can always hop on at any station but the chances are that the sidestep will already be occupied, so if you want to grab that precious spot you’d better embark on the first stop of the route – Hyde or Powell stop. The ticket costs $6 one-way and can be purchased directly with the conductor in the Cable car. Alternatively you can buy a day or several day passes if you plan to ride the Cable car several times.

Powell-Hyde line Cable Car. Image by by THE Holy Hand Grenade! / CC2.0

Powell-Hyde line Cable Car. Image by by THE Holy Hand Grenade! / CC2.0

Pier 39, Fishermans Wharf

Pier 39 is one of my favourite places in San Francisco. I know that it is also one of the most touristic places but I still enjoy it. It’s a pier with old wooden buildings and a lot of shops and cafe’s. Walking the Pier 39 boardwalk makes you imagine that you are in the old times. You can also see a carousel, similar to what you see in the old movies. In the summer you can also buy some fruits and berries from the market on the pier. I really enjoyed sweet and juicy cherries there. Prices are quite high on the Pier, as in the most of the tourist spots, but I don’t mind overpaying a couple of dollars for an ice cream or a beer at a nice place with the wonderful view.

One of the must-do things on the Pier 39 is watching the true inhabitants of the pier’s marina – the sea lions. You can observe them doing their regular sea lion stuff on the wooden docks. They are enjoying the regular sunbath but sometimes you can see them trying to get someone’s place, push or even fight each other. Sea lions are very cute and you can observe them for hours.

Sea Lions on the Pier 39 docks. Image by  by Janitors / CC2.0

Sea Lions on the Pier 39 docks. Image by by Janitors / CC2.0

At the Pier 39 you can also arrange a tour to Alcatraz or buy tickets to the bus tour. Alcatraz is the former high-security prison on the island. Some of the well-known criminals like Al Capone did their time in Alcatraz. Only a few times prison breaks were attempted but no one found those who tried to escape. They have probably drowned in the strong and cold current around the island or were eaten by sharks. I have never done the Alcatraz tour as it takes couple of hours but I had so many things planned for San Francisco, so I decided not to do the tour.

After the Pier 39 head towards the next couple of piers where you can see the huge Fishermans Wharf sign and some small restaurants. I highly recommend trying a takeaway crab soup in a bread bowl. That’s the real thing to try when you visit San Francisco. I also really like the slogan of one of the restaurants called Sabella & LaTorre’s. It says: “If It Swims We Have It”. So in the Fishermans Wharf you can try any kind of sea foods. And the best part of it is that it was freshly caught a couple of hours ago in the San Francisco bay.

Fisherman's Wharf sign. Image by by Janitors / CC2.0

Fisherman’s Wharf sign. Image by by Janitors / CC2.0

I was also thrilled by the Musee Mechanique located on the Pier 45. There are some old mechanical arcade games such as pinball, whac a mole etc. You should get some quarters before going in as you will definitely want to play some of those :)

When you walk the Jefferson street you can see a lot of small boats on the right. They offer various sightseeing and fishing tours. If you are a fishing fan, I bet that could be very cool.

But what really amused me, was seeing world famous Bushman. He is a street performer who hides behind a bush and jumps on people to scare them. Sounds a bit cruel, but believe me, when you see it or even participate in it – it’s hilarious. If you are lucky enough you can see him in action right by the boat tours on the Jefferson street.

Bushman hiding behind the bush to scare the approaching couple. Image by by nan palmero / CC2.0

Bushman hiding behind the bush to scare the approaching couple. Image by by nan palmero / CC2.0

Next you can head forward towards the beach in the Aquatic park. It’s a beautiful place to take a walk or enjoy the scenery on a bench. Although the water in the San Francisco bay is very cold all year round, you can still see some people swimming at the Aquatic park. If you are brave enough, grab your swimsuit and try it yourself!

Lombard Street

Since your are already in that area, I would suggest visiting Lombard Street next. It’s the most crooked street in the world. The slope of the street is so steep, that engineers had to make it crooked to drive it safely. Though it’s hell of a fun to see how a lot of tourists are struggling to drive the Lombard street in their cars. The street itself is also gorgeous with a lot of glowing bushes and trees. All the houses there are very well-kept and it is a pleasure to have a walk there.

Lombard Street - the most crooked street in the world. Image by CallMeWhatEver / CC2.0

Lombard Street – the most crooked street in the world. Image by CallMeWhatEver / CC2.0

From there I’d hit the Columbus avenue and walk it down to the Chinatown.

Chinatown

It’s the largest Chinese community outside Asia and the oldest Chinatown in North America. The San Francisco Chinatown is like an individual city within another city. I’ve heard that Chinese community is a closed one and some of the people who come to live there have never spoken English or left the Chinatown. Nevertheless, Chinese community is expanding rapidly and so is the Chinatown.

You should definitely see the Dragon Gate right at the entrance to the Chinatown. Apart from that I would just walk around, explore local markets and restaurants. You can buy some nice souvenirs here, Chinese spices, teas, and well… almost everything.

Chinatown. Image by Janitors / CC2.0

Chinatown. Image by Janitors / CC2.0

Twin Peaks, Castro District

In the evening of the first day I would visit the Twin Peaks. It’s a high hill with a city overlook point. The view from the Twin Peaks is stunning. You can see the whole city, and if you are lucky and there is no fog, you can see the Golden Gate bridge and the ocean.

If you like walking then I would suggest to walk the Market street and you will get directly to the Twin Peaks. Although it takes a little more than an hour from the Powell station, it’s fun to see the city. Just be careful while passing by the Civic Center, as the area there is not very nice. In the daytime you should be fine. Just keep walking and act like you know where you are going. But otherwise Market street is safe and nice for a long walk towards Twin Peaks. At some point you will also pass the Castro district known for being a gay neighborhood of San Francisco. You will see plenty of gay bars and shops there. On your way you can stop by and explore the neighborhood and check out the Castro street.

Alternatively you can use trolley or bus to get to the Twin Peaks. But either way you will have to walk up the hill by foot.

San Francisco view from the Twin Peaks. Image by by Project 1080 / CC2.0

San Francisco view from the Twin Peaks. Image by by Project 1080 / CC2.0

The best idea is to arrive half an hour before the sunset. You can overlook the city in the daytime and enjoy the sunset over San Francisco. It was such a relaxing atmosphere. Me and my friends just sat down on the hill, smoked a cigar and enjoyed the view. Priceless moment.

View of San Francisco from the Twin Peaks at the dusk. Image by by freestock.ca ♡ dare to share beauty / CC2.0

View of San Francisco from the Twin Peaks at the dusk. Image by by freestock.ca ♡ dare to share beauty / CC2.0

Bear in mind that it might get quite windy and cold up there so take some warm clothes with you.

Marin Headlands, Point Bonita Lighthouse

This is the WOW place. I didn’t visit it during my first time in San Francisco, and now I so regret it. It’s a high steep cliff over the Pacific ocean where you can observe the various ocean colors ranging from dark blue to bright green. I simply love this kind of places. Oceans, seas.. I can observe it for hours. It makes me very peaceful and happy as I feel myself in harmony everything around me. You can also see the Golden Gate bridge and the city from there but for me the water is all that matters.

Pacific Ocean view from the Marin Headlands. Image by by Franco Folini / CC2.0

Pacific Ocean view from the Marin Headlands. Image by by Franco Folini / CC2.0

There are also several places where you can get to the edge of the cliff with no railings. I’m that person who is afraid of height and i had to get there with little steps and shaking feet to look down. But it is totally worth it

My recommendation is to go see the Point Bonita lighthouse. There are usually free guided tours with no prior reservation required. But keep in mind that the lighthouse opening hours are only Sat – Mon 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. You will have to go through a cliff and over a hanging bridge to get to the lighthouse. The lighthouse and the hanging bridge are very beautiful and the view from up there is stunning. The name of the spot speaks for itself.

Point Bonita Lighthouse. Image by by Frank Schulenburg / CC2.0

Point Bonita Lighthouse. Image by by Frank Schulenburg / CC2.0

You can get there either by car, by bike (but you will have to pedal uphill quite a lot so better be prepared), by food (around 1,5 hours one way) or by UX76 bus, which I think is the most convenient way (Field Rd & Light House stop for Point Bonita). The only problem is that the bus only runs on weekends. Anyway, the lighthouse is only open on Sat-Mon, so probably the best days to visit the lighthouse are Sat-Sun. By the way, the bus goes over the Golden Gate Bridge – which is also a nice experience to drive through the bridge!

The bus runs from downtown Sutter street and continues to Ness avenue. You should check for the nearest bus stops.

You should pay for the public transport inside the transport itself and it costs 2.25$ and you have to have the exact change. If you pay too much, the driver won’t refund you. You can also buy a day pass available at the certain locations throughout a city. Couple of times I only had 2$ in exact change instead of 2.25$ and the driver let me in. But I would not count on it every time. It might have just been a good luck for me.

You should also explore the area around the Point Bonita and take the bus to the last stop (Fort Cronkhite Parking Lot) which takes you to the Rodeo Lagoon. You can take a sunbath and a swim there or take a hike on one of the many trails there. However due to the lack of time we didn’t even leave the bus and went back. On the way back we stopped at CONZELMAN RD/Kirby Cove bus station and went to the Battery Spences viewpoint. The view of the Golden Gate bridge is stunning from there. After posing for several pictures we met a nice couple who told us that they live just 30 minutes north of San Francisco and the climate there is much more mild without strong and cold winds. The wind there was truly strong so be prepared to have some warm clothes. Next we headed down to the foot of Golden Gate Bridge following the path and excited to walk down the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge

This is probably the most recognized symbol of San Francisco and maybe even of the whole US in the world. It is truly massive and it is beautiful. When looking at the bridge just imagine that it was built in 1937. I couldn’t find the right place for this thought inside of my head. How come in 1937 they built this huge, beautiful and most importantly strong construction that stands here today?

The bridge got its name from the Golden Gate Strait which is the entrance to San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. And actually in some combinations of light it might appear that the bridge is made of gold but in reality it’s orange. I have read that most of the steel constructions are painted with a special orange-colored anti-corrosion paint before painting it into the usual grayish colors. During the construction of the bridge some inhabitants of San Francisco saw the bridge at that stage and proposed to leave it orange. I’m not sure if this story is true, but I’d like to believe it :)

Golden Gate Bridge. Image by kjarrett / CC2.0

Golden Gate Bridge. Image by kjarrett / CC2.0

The bridge in total is around 2,7km long and it takes some time to walk it, but you should definitely do it. There is a great view of the bay and a lifetime experience to walk under those huge arches over the bridge.

The bridge is not only a historical landmark, it’s also an important piece of transport infrastructure. It gets quite loud due to the wind and numerous cars passing by but the walk is still amazing.

The bridge has also been a hotspot for suicides. Therefore city officials tried their best to build fences against people hopping off the bridge. Thus it makes it very safe to walk the bridge and even for those who afraid of height there is nothing to worry about.

If you walk the bridge after visiting Marin Headlands, you will finish at the parking lot at the city side of the bridge. There is a gift shop, a bus stop to get to the city or Golden Gate Park and a very nice view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Go ahead, take a picture!

Golden Gate Park

On the parking lot at the foot of the bridge there is a bus stop. The bus N28 will take you directly to the Golden Gate Park. Exit at the Fulton St & Park Presidio Blvd station right at the entrance to the park. Cross the street and enter the park on the pedestrian street on the left side of the roadway.

First thing you will see is the rose garden. It’s not huge but there are some beautiful rose bushes and flowers. Next head forward, cross the roadway and go a bit to the right following the pedestrian path. You will come across to the Japanese Tea Garden. This is my favourite spot in the park. The entrance costs 8$ but it is totally worth it. It’s very peaceful and quiet inside. You will see some nice bushes, plants and the cherry blossom trees. There is also a pool with goldfishes swimming around. I suggest going up the hill and taking one of the benches to sit back, relax and enjoy the view. You can also visit the tea house for the Japanese tea and some snacks.

Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park. Image by David Paul Ohmer / CC2.0

Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park. Image by David Paul Ohmer / CC2.0

When you exit the tea garden on your left you will see a very beautiful square in front of the California Academy of Science. It’s a natural history museum with an aquarium and a planetarium. Both times I was too tired and did not have much time to visit the museum. Besides, the price is quite steep – $35 entrance, but if you are into the natural history, I bet this would be a nice place to visit. Although, if you are planning a trip to New York on your itinerary, you should consider Natural History museum in New York. You can get there for free thus saving some bucks for other attractions or shopping.

California Academy of Science. Image by THE Holy Hand Grenade! / CC2.0

California Academy of Science. Image by THE Holy Hand Grenade! / CC2.0

Hippie District

San Francisco is well known for its hippie movement in the 1960s. If you are wondering, where are all the hippies now then there is a whole district called Haight-Ashbury that reminds of that time. On the Haight street it’s not uncommon to encounter hippies, find smoke shops, graffities and some authentic bars and restaurants. You can see the hippie culture influence on the district and it’s a nice place to visit if you are into this culture or just feel adventurous.

Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. Image by Alaskan Dude / CC2.0

Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. Image by Alaskan Dude / CC2.0

Nightlife

To be honest, I didn’t party in San Francisco, but I have read many reviews that you should consider North Beach bars if you want to go out. You could also consider Columbus ave or Grant ave as there are some nice bars, but probably nothing fancy. If you are more into clubbing, go to Ruby Skye, which is a fancy nightclub with well-known DJs. Although, keep in mind that Ruby Skye will be quite expensive.

Places to Stay

Both times I stayed in the Nob Hill, Chinatown and Union Square districts as those are the central locations and the hotels are affordable there.

Union Square. Image by by Peter Kaminski / CC2.0

Union Square. Image by by Peter Kaminski / CC2.0

I would definitely avoid staying in the district of Tenderloin and Civic Center. They might seem central, but the streets are not really safe.

To be honest, the both hotels I stayed in San Francisco were not the best hotels in the whole US especially keeping in mind the price rate. I’m not the person to complain about the hotel rooms. I’m okay with staying in small rooms, I don’t mind outdated rooms, I even don’t care if there is a window or not, but in comparison to all other hotels I have stayed in the United States, those two were at the bottom end of my list. They are quite outdated and small. But in general it wasn’t that bad. I would stay there again if I had to, but I also wouldn’t mind paying 20-30 dollars more per night to get a more decent hotel room.

I stayed in Hotel Astoria ($) and Grant Plaza Hotel ($). The location was perfect, and I would stay there again if I come to San Francisco on a budget. Otherwise you might look for other nice hotels in this area such as Hotel Nikko San Francisco ($$), Baldwin Hotel ($$), Grand Hyatt San Francisco ($$$) or The Scarlet Huntington ($$$) or just use the Booking.com search to look for other hotels in San Francisco.

Final Words

San Francisco is a very bright and light city and I hope you will like it as much as I do! Let me know in the comments below what are your favourite spots in San Francisco.

Close to San Francisco you can explore scenic California Route 1 which goes along the Pacific Ocean coast, visit Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks or fly to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. You can check out the other US West coast destinations in my America’s Most Scenic Destinations blog series on Trip.Center Blogs.

Stay tuned for more destinations on the Trip.Center Blogs!