San Francisco’s Top Attractions

Photo by Tom Hilton

Must-sees for a first-timer to the City by the Bay

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There’s a first time for everything, and those new to San Francisco are welcomed with so many sights and flavors it can seem intimidating so we’ve picked the top attractions for you. This guide is for those who’ve never been to San Francisco (or “SF,” but arguably not “Frisco” and never “San Fran”) before, for those seeking the, dare I say it, “must-sees” of the City by the Bay.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is undeniably the top attraction in San Francisco. Dubbed one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the expanse of “international orange” sits against a breathtaking backdrop at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. A leisurely stroll leads visitors up from historic Fort Point to the Bridge’s Welcome Center. Toward the west, the Lands End trail offers a quieter view of the Bridge, especially from below at Baker Beach (also partially a nude beach; buyer beware). Pedestrians are allowed on the Bridge itself, though many opt to bike it. On the North Bay side, glorious views can be found in the Marin Headlands.

Ferry Building Marketplace

The Ferry Building Marketplace on a Saturday morning hosts a vibrant adventure into the world of local gastronomy: the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, an open-air market that brings together local farms and eateries. Booths encircling the Ferry Building sell everything from organic fruits and vegetables to honey and baked goods. If it grows, you’ll find it here. Arrive early to get your hands on popular food items before they run out. Be sure to check out the shops inside the Ferry Building for more culinary treats. When fully satiated, take a walk eastward along the Embarcadero waterfront toward AT&T Park (home of the SF Giants) or westward toward the world-famous Exploratorium interactive science museum.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is to San Francisco what Central Park is to New York City. The beautiful green rectangle holds numerous delights, most of them historic. From architecturally stunning museums (de Young Museum, Academy of Sciences) to natural attractions (Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden, Stow Lake), a visit to Golden Gate Park can easily consume several days if you allow it. Pick and choose if you’re short on time, or simply wander the beautiful park freestyle.

Union Square

Union Square is a West Coast mecca for those who like urban exploration, shopping and dining. The city’s central square is where the Christmas tree and ice skating rink go up during the holidays, and it sits at the heart of all the commerce you could hope to indulge in. Stick around past sunset to see the lights come on dramatically, most notably upon the historic Westin St. Francis hotel.

San Francisco’s Chinatown

One cannot visit San Francisco without spending some time in Chinatown. The city hosts one of the largest communities of Chinese people outside of Asia. From souvenir shops to teahouses, bakeries to banquet halls, the Chinese quarter offers a lot at a low price. Be sure to seek out Ross Alley, the oldest alleyway in San Francisco, in which one also finds a fortune cookie factory. During Chinese New Year (in February), San Francisco’s Chinatown plays host to one of the year’s biggest festivals and street fairs.

Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf

Alcatraz is another of San Francisco’s top attractions, and, as such, reservations for the prison island leave many waiting as long as two weeks for a ticket (book well before you arrive). The complete Alcatraz experience can consume the majority of the day, though night tours are also offered for a more mysterious experience. When you’re done, check out nearby Fisherman’s Wharf to conclude a day of historic waterfront adventuring. Here, you’ll find the touristy Pier 39 shopping area, sunbathing sea lions, the historic Hyde Street Pier, the Musée Mécanique vintage arcade gallery, Boudin Bakery, Ghirardelli Square and lots of fresh seafood.

Haight-Ashbury and the Painted Ladies

Haight and Ashbury are two streets that intersect in Upper Haight, otherwise known as the Haight-Ashbury District. Widely known as the epicenter of the Summer of Love, a 1960s hippie movement, the neighborhood is still home to eccentric cafes, boutique shops (with lots of tie-dye and smoking paraphernalia) and the freedom-from-conformity mentality. Near the eastern edge of the neighborhood stands Alamo Park, from which tourists gather to snap photos of the colorful Painted Ladies, the Victorian homes featured prominently in Full House.

‘Painted Ladies’, Photo by ‘Janitor’

City Lights Bookstore and North Beach

City Lights Bookstore sits at the center of the Beat Generation nexus in San Francisco. It was here that Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was published. The poets themselves frequented the bars nearby. And, just across Broadway, the Beat Museum provides all you’d hope to learn on the poetry movement. Down Columbus Avenue one finds Columbus Tower, a flatiron building in which resides director Francis Ford Coppola’s movie studio and restaurant. The rest of North Beach, the Italian district, is worth checking out for its unique eateries, shops and historic sites, such as Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill and Lombard Street in Russian Hill.

Dolores Park and the Mission

Spending a weekend day in Dolores Park is probably the most “San Franciscan” thing you can do; many locals (and their eccentricities) come here to lounge in the sun. It’s the best time for sitting and watching; whether it be playful puppies or a dancing robot with its loyal followers, you never quite know what you’ll see. Pick up some ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery down the street and sit for a few hours before exploring the rest of the Mission District, San Francisco’s now-trendy hipster neighborhood (ironic, yes) of popular eateries, artsy shops and socially minded street art.

Explore Another San Francisco Itinerary

Best of Fisherman’s Wharf … Seafood and sea lions along the waterfront
Best of North Beach … Modern adventures on the Barbary Coast
San Francisco with Kids … Food, fun and frolicking for the whole family
Fun, Food, Arts and Culture in the Embarcadero District … A walking tour from the Ferry Building to Union Square
Haight-Ashbury: Feeling the Groovy 60s … A stroll through the famous hippie hub

And more related itineraries below.

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