San Franciso is a captivating city full of creatives, techies, quirky neighborhoods, and cultural diversity. Its iconic bridges and skyline make it one of the most recognizable cities in the world.
Many people are surprised to learn that the 16th largest American city only covers 49 square miles. It’s a remarkably small area to hold so many intriguing sites, places to visit, and things to do. Here are some of the highlights of San Francisco that make it famous.
Those charming old cable cars that climb San Francisco’s steep hills were introduced in 1873 to help the locals navigate the city with ease. Today, tourists explore the city via the few remaining cable cars. This transportation system is so unique it has even been declared as a historic monument. You can get to all of the major attractions by cable car. Tickets can be purchased onboard or as a pass for several days.
You can also learn about the cable car system’s history and technology at the Cable Car Museum. Located in the affluent neighborhood of Nob Hill, the museum showcases vintage cable cars dating back to the 1870s.
Spanning the San Francisco Bay into Marin County, the Golden Gate Bridge was at one time declared as the greatest man-made structure in the United States by the U.S. Travel Service. It’s also one of the world’s most photographed bridges. At the time of its opening in 1937, it was the longest suspension bridge ever built. Made of steel and painted bright orange, it can withstand winds of 90 mph and an 8.0 earthquake.
Six lanes of traffic carry millions of people every year. But tourists get a different perspective with a three-hour-long Golden Gate Bay cruise. They can also get a good view without crossing the bridge at the Nob Hill neighborhood or at the Golden Gate Recreational Center.
The historic and infamous Alcatraz penitentiary is a must-see on any San Francisco itinerary. It sits away from the city in the distance on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The prison closed in 1963 after 30 years of housing some of the most notorious criminals including Al Capone and the “Birdman.” The two gangsters formed the basis for the movie The Birdman of Alcatraz.
The prison had 450 cells that measured 10 ft by 4 ft. A ferry takes visitors over to the island for a narrated tour. Former inmates and guards are among the audio-recorded narration.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most popular places in the city for tourists. Once known as the Little Italy of San Francisco, the old section features shops and restaurants in a stunning setting along the waterfront. Sightseeing cruises and fishing charters depart often from the wharf.
You’re sure to spot sea lions around the docks by Pier 39. At the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, you’ll see restored 19th and 20th-century ships along the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier.
San Francisco is an excellent city for foodies, and the Ferry Building Marketplace, formerly a ferry house, is the place to go for delicious dishes and treats. The Beaux Arts building has about 50 food vendors and a variety of restaurants and coffee shops. Some of the restaurants have the best chefs in the city.
You’ll find everything from artisan cheeses to freshly caught seafood, and the farmer’s market sells local produce and street food three times a week.
Although it actually isn’t, Lombard Street is known as “the most crooked street in the world.” (Vermont Street is steeper and more crooked.) But with a one-block section with eight hairpin turns, it can be a white-knuckle experience for the faint at heart. Located between Leavenworth and Hyde streets, Lombard is a tourist attraction that you may have seen in the movies or on TV.
On busy days, as many as 350 vehicles per hour travel on the street with a speed limit of 5 mph. The street was designed to reduce the natural slope of the steep hill.
San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square is a must-stop, especially for chocolate lovers. The square gets its name from Domenico Ghirardelli who once moved to California. (Today, the brand is owned by Swiss confectioners Lindt & Sprüngli.) It’s near Fisherman’s Wharf in a restored factory area and was the first project designed to revive abandoned factory complexes across the city.
The old red brick chocolate factory is now a shopping center with boutiques, art galleries, and eateries. Its belfry is modeled after that of the Château of Blois in France. The factory is surrounded by rose gardens, fountains, and terraces with city views.
Many major cities have Chinatowns, but the one in San Francisco stands out among all the others. It’s the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America. It was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1902 and was built back bigger and better, and entirely in Chinese style.
The San Francisco Chinatown is one of the city’s top attractions and features temples, stores, antique shops, teahouses, and theaters. If you’re in the city during a Chinese holiday, expect a huge celebration. The tourist section is along Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
Everyone in the world has probably heard of the Haight-Ashbury district. The neighborhood has a colorful history as a hangout for hippies and continues to be a famous San Francisco neighborhood. Back in the 1960s, it was the epicenter for the hippie and flower power generation making it the perfect place for the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967.
Young adults around the country came here for free love, drugs, and rock & roll. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin lived in the neighborhood and often performed free, impromptu concerts. The district is still vibrant today with quirky shops, restaurants, and historical sites.
San Francisco’s Mission District has been a magnet for young bohemian types in the last few decades. However, the area still retains its authentic Latino roots that date back to its history of mission lands inhabited by Spanish missionaries.
The district is a good place to escape the crowds of tourist spots like Fisherman’s Wharf and find a place to relax and look for a hole in the wall for truly authentic Mexican Food. Visitors like to visit the neighborhood for its funky atmosphere, intriguing murals, and city views from nearby Bernal Heights hill.
San Francisco’s Castro District earned its reputation as a mecca for gay people back in the 1960s. Around the time of the Summer of Love, the local police often harassed residents despite the growing progressive attitudes of the time. Aggressive media coverage sent the message that the gay community could no longer be unnecessarily harassed by authorities.
Today, the district is home to LGBTQ celebrations, parades, street fairs, live music, and drag queens throughout the year. It’s notable that the world-famous gay rainbow flag was designed by a San Francisco resident and activist.
The history of the Castro District made San Francisco the epicenter for gay pride in America. Today the Gay Pride Parade is a two-day event that draws thousands of people to the world’s largest gay community for a two-day event to celebrate. Each year, the parade has varying themes such as “For Racial and Economic Justice.” The event draws people from around the world. Past musical acts have included popular performers like Lady Gaga and the Backstreet Boys.
The state of California is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean. But unlike Southern California, none of the beaches are suitable for swimming because the tides are rough and the currents are strong. You’ll see a few swimmers and expert surfers at China Beach, but swimming isn’t really recommended there either.
Instead, San Franciscans and travelers visit the beaches for dramatic views, walks with furry friends, and horseback riding. One of the best is Ocean Beach, a part of the Golden Gate National Park. The beach is quiet and beautiful and has 16 fire pits scattered along the three and a half miles of pristine white sand.
Northern California is known around the world for its giant redwood trees. You may have seen the iconic photos of small cars driving through them and people looking like dwarfs standing by them. At one time, the state had around two million redwood trees. Many of them were cut down when the logging industry arrived.
One of the few remaining redwood forests can be seen at the Muir Woods National Monument on Mount Tamalpais north of San Francisco. The area is a part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area and has 240 acres of giant redwood trees.
The Presidio is a 1,500-acre national park at the Golden Gate. A former Army Post, the park is home to beautiful vistas, history, and nature. It features a 24-mile network of trails, indoor and outdoor art exhibitions. San Francisco’s oldest building is here, reimagined as a museum and cultural center.
Visitors can birdwatch at the wetlands and jump on a giant trampoline in a former airplane hangar. Most of the activities at the Presidio are free, and a free shuttle runs from downtown San Francisco to the park. Begin your visit at the Presidio Visitor Center in the heart of the park.
You’ll see some of the best views of San Francisco at the amazing Coit Tower perched on top of Telegraph Hill. Climbing to the top of the tower, you’ll see breathtaking panoramic views of the city, the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz. The slender white tower was built in 1933 and features exquisite Art Deco architecture and beautiful frescoes a la American Social Realism style.
The 210-foot high tower is located in Pioneer Park and has been declared as a National Historic Landmark. Seen in countless movies and TV shows, Coit Tower is a part of the city’s iconic skyline.
San Francisco’s Twin Peaks are world-famous and attract visitors for breathtaking views of the Bay Area. Located near the geographic center of the city, the bare and uninhabited hills are in a 64-acre park that gives visitors insight into what the area looked like before development. The peaks are the only hills in the city that haven’t been built over. Both of the peaks reach around 925 feet in height.
Spanish explorers called them “Los Pechos de la Choca” which translates to Breasts of the Maiden. Even on the hottest California days, a cool breeze blows in from the Pacific. Although you can’t drive to the summits, there are hiking trails for amazing vistas. You can also simply park your car in the north peak parking lot.
Residents and visitors looking to escape the city for the day can take a 25-minute ferry ride that leaves from Pier 41 to Angel Island State Park. It’s San Francisco Bay’s largest island and provides excellent views of the Bay area. The park has well-groomed trails for hiking and biking, and unlike at the Twin Peaks, you can hike to Mount Caroline Livermore, the island’s summit at 788 feet.
The park has 11 campsites, five picnic tables, and a few sandy beaches. A population of about 60 people live on the island, and there is a cafe that is open except in the winter and a restaurant open on weekends from June to October with live music.
Overlapping the SF neighborhoods of North Beach, Jackson Square, and Chinatown, the Barbary Coast has a raucous history. During the period of the Gold Rush of 1849, lawlessness and lose morals were rampant and gambling, saloons, and brothels flourished. The famous coast was the subject of a movie in 1935 and a television series in 1975. Both are titled The Barbary Coast.
Today, the Barbary Coast is a historical walking trail that chronicles the story of the area from the Gold Rush days to the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. During this era, San Francisco grew from a small village to the West Coast’s busiest port. Highlights on the trial include quirky hangouts like the City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Cafe.
You’ll see Saint Peters and Paul Church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were photographed after getting married at City Hall. Altogether, the trail connects 20 historic sites and museums. And as a throwback to its history, there are a number of strip clubs and adult entertainment venues. Each end of the trail is connected by the historic Hyde-Powell cable car line.
Land’s End is a park and trail that occupies the northwest corner of the San Francisco Peninsula. The park has outstanding views of the windswept coastal cliffs over the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. The park also has several historic sites and hiking trails. Along the trails, you’ll find stark shores, coves, cliffs, cypress, and wildflowers.
You’ll spy shipwrecks and the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a public saltwater swimming pool complex built in 1896. You’ll find a new Lookout Visitor Center thanks to the efforts of community volunteers who have helped revitalize the area. Stop at the cafe for a coffee and a spectacular sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.