San Francisco was the last stop of my American trip in 2018. I had heard so many great things about this city that I was very curious to explore it… and I wasn’t disappointed. I spent 5 days in total in SF and I wish I could have stayed longer! From the Golden Gate Bridge to the street art of Mission District, from the island of Alcatraz to the summit of Twin Peaks, there’s so much to do in San Francisco. Here are the 9 things you definitely shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting the City by the Bay for the first time.
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery of photos of San Francisco.
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1/ Cross the Golden Gate Bridge
Along with the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most famous bridges not just in the United States but also in the world, and it is the iconic image of San Francisco. Crossing it is a must-do for every tourist visiting the city.
I highly recommend you to walk or bike across it, so that you would have plenty of time to enjoy the views over the Bay and San Francisco. If you decide to drive on it, it will cost you a few dollars: 7.25$ in the North-South direction from Sausalito to San Francisco, free on the opposite direction. In a purpose of safety, the Eastern side of the bridge overlooking the Bay is reserved for pedestrians while the other is only for bicycles. The total length of the bridge is 2,737m/8,980 feet and if you add some picture breaks it can easily take you more than one hour to go all the way across it!
Once you reach the Northern side, there’s a first lookout directly next to the bridge (called the Golden Gate Bridge View). Don’t leave without climbing to Battery Spencer Point though, overlooking the bridge from its Western side: that’s where you’ll have the best view, with the silhouette of San Francisco in the background.
2/ Visit Alcatraz
The second biggest highlight of San Francisco, that every traveller visiting the city should have on top of their bucket list! The island of Alcatraz became well known in the 20th century as the safest prison in the world, and criminals as famous (and dangerous) as Al Capone were imprisoned here.
Visiting Alcatraz takes several hours; at least half a day to explore it entirely and learn more about its rich history. It begun in 1850, when a fort was erected on this island, very strategically located in the middle of the Bay. Its use as a prison started only a few years later, but only for military prisoners at first. The most well-known part of the history of Alcatraz started in 1934, when it became a Federal Penitentiary.
Hundreds of criminals were imprisoned there but the most famous pensioner was of course Al Capone, “Scarface”, boss of the Chicago Outfit in the 1920s. He stayed in Alcatraz from 1934 to 1939 but contrary to a common belief didn’t die there. Suffering from syphilis and gonorrhoea, he spent the last years of his short life in hospitals and died in his property of Palm Island in Miami Beach in 1947, at the age of 48.
No one ever successfully escaped Alcatraz, although there were 14 different attempts by 36 inmates in 29 years. There’s only one doubt about three prisoners: the brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris. In 1962, they did escape their cell and managed to leave the island in a makeshift raft, but no trace of them was later found and they have been presumed dead since, drowned in the Bay.
The Penitentiary closed in 1963 and for a few years the island remained unoccupied. But in 1969, new residents arrived in Alcatraz: Native Americans. During nearly two years, a group called United Indians of All Tribes occupied the island, protesting against the treatment of Native Americans by the federal government. The signs of their presence are still visible on many points of Alcatraz, with graffitis saying “Indians welcome” for example.
The island was opened to the public in 1973 and is now an extremely popular destination: book your tickets at least 2 weeks in advance! The visit of the prison can be done with an audio guide and is very interesting. Imagine how tough the life of the inmates must have been in such tiny cells! You can also walk freely all-around Alcatraz, admire the gorgeous colourful flowers and observe the thousands of birds which are now using it as a nesting place.
3/ Admire the view from the summit of Twin Peaks
The Twin Peaks are two hills next to each other overlooking San Francisco from a height of 282m/925feet. The lookout at Christmas Tree Point offers a tremendous view over the city and the Bay (and if you look carefully you can even see a bit of the Golden Gate Bridge).
Take a coat with you before climbing to Twin Peaks, as the wind is often very strong at the top. The peaks are easily accessible by car with parking options at Christmas Tree Point, or by foot. Although there aren’t any public transports going directly to the summit, a few bus lines will drop you close enough, with only a short stroll to reach the main lookout. This is actually a good way to spend a very nice day in San Francisco, especially if you’re staying somewhere in Downtown: take a bus to Twin Peaks, climb to the top to enjoy the view and walk back to the city via Ashbury Heights, Haight-Ashbury and the Painted Ladies as described below.
4/ Enjoy the hippie vibes of Haight-Ashbury
Located directly below Twin Peaks, Haight-Ashbury is the “hippie” district of San Francisco. That’s where the “Summer of Love” of 1967 took place, and even if 50 years later youths looking for freedom have slowly been replaced by international tourists, the district still managed to keep a great hippie and alternative vibe.
The heart of Haight-Ashbury is, as its name suggests, around the crossing between Haight Street and Ashbury Street. If you’re coming from Twin Peaks as I suggested before, you’ll first walk down Ashbury Heights: take some time to admire the many beautiful Victorian houses of this quiet district.
Haight Street is probably the most colourful street of San Francisco. Peace signs are everywhere, as well as wall paintings, record shops selling albums of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead who all lived in the area (respectively at 112 Lyon Street, 142 Central and 710 Ashbury Street), but also restaurants, cafés (I can recommend Coffee to the People, at the corner with Masonic Avenue) and markets where you can find pretty much any kind of clothes, from eccentric dresses to zany jackets!
Finally, leave Haight-Ashbury to the East via Buena Vista Park (the oldest park of San Francisco), in the direction of Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies.
5/ Take a picture of the Painted Ladies
There are many gorgeous ancient Victorian houses in this part of San Francisco, but the quintessence of it is at Alamo Square, with the perfect alignment of the Painted Ladies. This spot, with the view over these six lovely houses painted in pastel colours and built with the same architecture is one of the most picturesque of the city. What a contrast between these ancient facades and the modern skyscrapers of the Financial District in the background!
If you followed the itinerary that I recommended you before from the summit of Twin Peaks, the best way to go back to Downtown San Francisco is to walk down Fulton Street, to the left of the Painted Ladies. It is a beautiful boulevard with many other Victorian houses and a great perspective over the City Hall at its end.
6/ Have fun observing the sea lions at Pier 39
There are 1.5 million people living in San Francisco… and a few hundred sea lions. These huge animals can grow up to almost 400kg, and a big group of them has taken up residence in the San Francisco Bay, more exactly at Pier 39, on the North-East extremity of the city. It’s a very impressive and highly amusing sight to watch them fight for a place to lay!
The Pier 39 is a popular attraction not just for its sea lions, but also for its dozens of bars and restaurants which attract a lot of people throughout the year. The nearby suburb of Fisherman’s Wharf is also worth a look: it’s the base for many cruises around San Francisco or boats crossing the Bay to Sausalito, it shelters many museums (including Madame Tussauds or San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park) and it offers great views over the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.
7/ Explore Mission District and its super rich street art
South of the Financial District, Mission District is the oldest part of San Francisco. The Mission Dolores was founded here in 1776, and it led to the creation of the city in the following years. Nowadays, Mission District is where the biggest Hispanic community of San Francisco lives. The heart of the suburb is around Mission Street, easily accessible by public transport, where you’ll find dozens of shops and restaurants (with excellent and relatively cheap Mexican food!). But the reason why you absolutely need to come to Mission District while visiting SF is its extremely rich street art.
Dozens of lanes of this suburb are covered with graffitis and murals, from the smallest tag to the biggest painting on an entire facade. In my opinion, the best way to explore this kind of places is always to randomly walk around the blocks, following your instinct, but if you’re on a limited time here are some of the most exceptional spots: Balmy, Clarion, Caledonian or Horace Alley, but also the Women’s Building, at the corner of 18th Street and Lapidge Street. Here’s a little gallery of some of the most exceptional works of art I saw in Mission District:
8/ Drive on Lombard Street
As you’ll quickly realise after arriving in San Francisco, the entire city is built on many hills. On the slope of Russian Hill close to Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street is one of the most surprising streets I ever saw. Would you dare trying to drive on it?
Lombard Street is a short one-way street going down in abrupt bends, with a declivity of almost 30%. Don’t forget to check your brakes before taking it! And even if you’re a pedestrian or a cyclist, watching vehicles going down this very flowery street is an entertaining sight. Don’t miss it!
9/ Take the cable car to Chinatown
Cable cars are another consequence of the hilly relief of San Francisco. This iconic means of transport, used to climb steep hills that remained impassable for buses for a very long time, is super old: the first cable cars were put into service in 1873! They have been threatened to be removed many times in their history, but three lines are still active, even though nowadays essentially tourists use them to travel around the city.
Two of these lines have a similar route (they share part of their itinerary), connecting the centre of San Francisco to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you decide to take one of them, stop at Chinatown to explore this suburb, one of the oldest Chinese districts in the United States. With plenty of cheap restaurants, hundreds of shops, traditional decoration and modern street art, there’s a lot to be done in Chinatown.
And you, what’s your favourite activity in San Francisco? Share it in the comments!
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