The Ultimate Guide To San Francisco
San Francisco, the Bay City!
San Francisco is a cosmopolitan city in Northern California, located on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco was once owned by Spain, followed by Mexico, and then finally ceded to the US after the Mexican–American War. The Gold Rush led to the rapid development of the city and soon turned San Francisco into a cosmopolitan city.
The growth and expansions in San Francisco continued through the World Wars, and soon San Francisco became Northern California’s financial and cultural center.
San Francisco has several nicknames, including Baghdad by the Bay, Fog City, Golden Gate City, Bay City, The Golden City, and referred to as San Fran in Europe.
The Bay City is a melting pot of several cultures and has an alluring charm that draws tourists from all over the world, making San Francisco one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations!
Besides the natural beauty, the picturesque beaches, and closeness to the Silicon Valley, San Francisco is also known for attractions like Golden Gate Bridge, Cable Cars, Alcatraz Island, China Town, and Pier 39.
Here is my ultimate guide to San Francisco, featuring major attractions and things to do in San Francisco, along with a suggested itinerary and recommendations on San Francisco hotels and San Francisco restaurants.
Getting To San Francisco
The best way to get to San Francisco is by directly flying into one of San Francisco’s airports!
You could also fly into any other major airports in Califonia and then rent a car and drive to San Francisco. However, if flying or driving is not an option, you could still get to San Francisco using train or bus services. Below I have outlined different commute options, best driving routes, train and bus services to get to San Francisco.
Airports Near San Francisco: San Francisco International Airport (SFO), San Francisco, CA, just 12 miles from the city. Oakland International Airport (OAK), Oakland, CA, 20 miles from San Francisco, and about 30 minutes drive. Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC), San Jose, CA, 45 miles from San Francisco, and about 50 minutes drive. Sacramento International Airport (SMF), Sacramento, CA, about 92 miles from San Francisco and 1 hour 30 minutes drive.
I highly recommend flying directly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO). However, if you find a better price and don’t mind driving, you can also fly to other nearby airports.
There’re a lot of people who fly into Los Angeles (LAX) and then drive to San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a long drive, around 480 miles, and takes anywhere from 8 – 12 hours, depending on the places you stop on the PCH. However, Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the world, and it’s absolutely worth the long drive.
If you’re planning to drive to San Francisco from Los Angeles, you must take the Pacific Coast Highway!
The beautiful highway overlooking the Pacific Coast starts from San Diego and goes all the way to San Francisco. Many prefer breaking the PCH drive into two parts (1) San Diego to Los Angeles and (2) Los Angeles to San Francisco. You can find more details about the PCH drive in The Ultimate Guide To Pacific Coast Highway.
On your drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco via Pacific Coast Highway, you can stop at several vista points, beach towns, and attractions, including Santa Barbara, Solvang, Hearst Castle, Elephant Seal Vista Point, Big Sur, Monterey, and Santa Cruz.
If flying or driving is not an option, you could use Amtrak’s train and Greyhound’s bus services to get to San Francisco.
Train Services to San Francisco: Amtrak offers quite a few train services in California, and no matter where you’re coming from, you will most likely find a connecting train service to San Francisco.
Here are a few popular train services offered by Amtrak connecting Califonia to other states – California Zephyr connecting Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco. Southwest Chief connecting Chicago, Kansas City, New Mexico, and Los Angeles. You can find the complete list of Amtrak train services in California on the Amtrak Website.
If you don’t find a direct train to San Francisco, you can always take the train to the closest Amtrak station and then take a connecting train or bus to San Francisco.
Bus Services to San Francisco: Greyhound offers daily bus services from several US cities to San Francisco. You can check the schedule and make your reservations online on the Greyhound website.
Things To Do In San Francisco
Though San Francisco is small in size, it’s a bustling city with several conspicuous attractions!
There are several sightseeing opportunities in San Francisco, including some great neighborhoods, museums, parks, beaches, and a few guided land and boat tours.
I highly recommend purchasing a multi-attraction discounted pass from CityPASS and using Big Bus Tours that offer hop-on-hop-off bus tours of San Francisco city, stopping at all major San Francisco attractions. The hop-on-hop-off bus tour is a great way to explore the city without having to worry about traffic and parking.
Here’re my favorite and must-see attractions in San Francisco!
Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic landmark of San Francisco and a masterpiece of engineering and ingenuity!
The Golden Gate Bridge is a massive suspension bridge, approximately two miles long, with huge towers and sweeping cables, connecting San Francisco to Marin County. It got its name, “Golden Gate,” from the Golden Gate channel, the water body that connects the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay.
The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was quite challenging and was built against the water current, fog, and wind in the area. But once the construction was complete in 1937, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge until 1964.
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most beautiful and photographed bridges in the world!
The elegant orange Golden Gate Bridge with a backdrop of the blue ocean is quite a view and a photographer’s dream! You can drive through the bridge, stop at several designated viewing points, bike the bridge, and even walk the bridge.
Here are my favorite and some of the best Golden Gate Bridge viewing points!
Best views of Golden Gate Bridge from the Shore
Marshall’s Beach: This is great for an up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the shore, GPS Coordinates Lat: 37.80166, Long: -122.47988.
Baker Beach: Baker Beach is located within a short distance south of Marshall’s Beach, offers similar views but from a distance. GPS Coordinates Lat: 37.79355, Long: -122.48362.
Best Views of Golden Gate Bridge from the Top
The Marin Headlands, located across the Golden Gate Bridge, is a hilly peninsula in Marin County and has a scenic drive along the Conzelman Road with several vista points offering breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge with the backdrop of San Francisco City.
Hawk Hills, Golden Gate Observation Deck, and Golden Gate View Point are the best viewpoints along the scenic drive in Marin Headlands!
These Golden Gate Bridge viewing points are all located along the Conzelman Road, but to make sure you don’t miss them, here are the GPS Coordinates – Hawk Hills Lat: 37.82772, Long: -122.49960, Golden Gate Observation Deck Lat: 37.83234, Long: -122.49103, and Golden Gate View Point Lat: 37.82875, Long: -122.486006.
You will need to pay a toll to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. The toll payment system is fully automated, and you can find more details here.
Once America’s premier maximum-security prison is now a popular tourist attraction in San Francisco!
Alcatraz, also popularly known as “The Rock” due to its location in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, was a maximum-security prison, operational from 1934 to 1963, housed some of the nation’s most incorrigible prisoners.
Today Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most prominent landmarks and a popular tourist attraction allowing people to explore and learn about the prison through a self-guided narrated audio tour.
The ferry ride to Alcatraz offers some great views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge!
The access to Alcatraz island is only via a ferry operated by Alcatraz Cruises departing from Pier 33. The quick 20 minutes ferry ride takes you to Alcatraz, and after a short briefing, you are set free to explore the island on your own.
You can start at the theater where you can watch a short movie about the history of Alcatraz Island. Then do the self-guided audio tour of the prison that will take you through several parts of the prison, including the inmate cells, the kitchen, dining room, library, and the outdoor playing area.
The Alcatraz prison tour takes about an hour, and once you’re done with the tour, you can explore other regions of the island, including the gardens, gift shops, warden’s houses, and enjoy the beautiful views of San Francisco Bay.
If you’re planning to visit Alcatraz, which I heartily suggest you do, you must buy your Alcatraz ferry tickets in advance.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the most lively neighborhood in San Francisco City!
The northern waterfront area of San Francisco, overlooking the San Francisco Bay, starting at Pier 33 and continuing all the way to the Ghirardelli Square, is known as Fisherman’s Wharf. In the 1800s, several Italian immigrant fishermen came to San Francisco and settled in this area close to the wharf, and that’s how the neighborhood got its name – Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Fisherman’s Wharf is still the center of operations for the San Francisco fishing fleet and home to several fishermen. However, the Fisherman’s Wharf area has undergone a significant development making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the City of San Francisco.
The Fisherman’s Wharf, bustling with activities and several tourist attractions, is a must-see in San Francisco!
There are a ton of things to see and do in Fisherman’s Wharf, including museums, restaurants, shops, and several distinct attractions. The choices can be overwhelming, and you will need an entire day to see and experience everything in Fisherman’s Wharf.
Things to do in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco
Pier 39: This is my favorite in Fisherman’s Wharf, a dock line up with several restaurants and shops overlooking the gorgeous San Francisco Bay. Here are some of the most popular attractions and things to do in Pier 39 –
- Aquarium of the Bay
- Sea Lion Center
- 7D Experience
- Musical / Piano Stairs
- San Francisco Carousel
- Several Street Performers and Musicians
- San Francisco Bay Cruises
- Several Restaurants and Shops
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park: Located on the west end of Fisherman’s Wharf is the Hyde Street Pier, where you will find several restored ships, including the USS Pampanito, a national historic landmark, a World War II submarine. There’s also a visitor center featuring several artifacts and exhibits providing insight into the Fisherman’s Wharf’s history.
San Francisco Dungeon: Learn, live, and ride San Francisco’s history with this unique part show, part ride experience at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Madame Tussauds Wax Museum: Take pictures with celebrity wax figures at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Fisherman’s Wharf.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not!: See some strange and shocking ancient artifacts at Ripley’s Believe it or Not in Fisherman’s Wharf.
Ghirardelli Square: Once home to the Ghirardelli chocolate manufacturing plant and the Ghirardelli Chocolate Marketplace is now a popular dining and shopping district in Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside Asia and the oldest Chinatown in the US!
Chinese immigrants, who came to California during the Goldrush, stayed in this part of the town. They built their own houses and businesses in this area, and that is how Chinatown neighborhood was established in San Francisco.
Chinatown in San Francisco is a great place to experience Chinese culture, cuisine, and pagoda-style architecture!
I recommend you start at the Dragon Gate at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue and then continue walking down the alley, enjoying the architecture and exploring the shops, temples, and other buildings lined up on both sides of the alley.
Here’re a few popular attractions and things to do in San Francisco’s Chinatown – The Chinatown Dragon Gate, Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, Tien Hau Temple, Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, tea houses, several souvenir shops, and plenty of Chinese restaurants.
Lombard Street in San Francisco is known as the “Crookedest Street” in the World!
Lombard Street in San Francisco is famous for its steep and hairpin turns. If you’re wondering why this “crooked” design? Safety! The steep grade of the street posed a critical safety risk, so this design.
Lombard Street is also one of the most scenic streets in San Francisco, with beautiful mansions and landscaping. Even if you’re not planning to drive through Lombard Street, it’s still worth visiting and taking a short walk up the street to enjoy the beautiful neighborhood. Lombard Street Address: 1070 Lombard Street, San Francisco, California 94109
Driving through the “Crookedest Street” can be really challenging and will only recommend to seasoned drivers.
San Francisco Museums, Gardens & Monuments
If you’re already overwhelmed with the choices of attractions in San Francisco, you better wait until you see the entire list of museums, gardens, and monuments in San Francisco.
Besides the mainstream tourist attractions, there are several other beautiful gardens, museums, and landmarks in San Francisco!
Palace of Fine Arts: The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco is a monumental structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was originally built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in 1915. The structure is beautifully designed and has a reflection pool that creates a mirror image of the structure. Palace of Fine Arts Address: 3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123
Golden Gate Park: Located in the heart of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Park is a large park with many beautiful gardens and is home to several prominent museums. You can easily spend a couple of days exploring Golden Gate Park. Here are the top attractions in Golden Gate Park:
- de Young Museum
- California Academy of Sciences Museum
- Steinhart Aquarium
- Japanese Tea Garden
- San Francisco Botanical Garden
- The SkyStar Wheel
- Conservatory of Flowers
You can use the Golden Gate Park Website for the complete list of attractions, driving directions, and operating hours.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA): If you’re an art lover, you don’t want to miss this! SFMOMA is internationally acclaimed for its modern and contemporary art collection. SFMOMA Address: 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103.
Legion of Honor: Located in Lincoln Park, San Francisco, in a beautiful setting with gorgeous ocean views, Legion of Honor is another remarkable museum in San Francisco. The Legion of Honor is renowned for its ancient European and Mediterranean art collection. Legion of Honor Address: 100 34th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121.
Asian Art Museum: The Asian Art Museum houses an extensive collection of Asian artwork from various regions in Asia, including China, Japan, India, and Korea. Asian Art Museum Address: 200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102.
Exploratorium: One of the World’s most popular interactive science museum is a fun place for kids and grownups alike. Exploratorium Address: Pier 15, The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94100.
Lodging & Dining In San Francisco
San Francisco is small in size and is well connected with excellent transportation choices thought out the city. So you don’t necessarily have to stick to a particular neighborhood or stay near an attraction you plan to visit.
However, every neighborhood in San Francisco offers a unique experience. Here are some of the best areas and hotels in San Francisco:
Union Square: The Union Square neighborhood is bustling with shops and restaurants and is also a transportation hub providing easy access to all the attractions in San Francisco. These are some of the best hotels in Union Square, San Francisco – Grand Hyatt San Francisco, Hilton San Francisco Union Square, and Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco.
Fisherman’s Wharf: The Fisherman’s Wharf area is another favorite of mine as it puts you right on the waterfront, with easy access to the pier and several popular attractions, and great restaurants serving some delicious seafood. Here’re a few great hotels in the Fisherman’s Wharf area – Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf, and Hotel Zephyr.
Irish Coffee, Clam Chowder, and Dungeness Crab! That’s San Francisco!
If you’re in San Francisco for sightseeing, you most likely will be dining in the restaurants and cafes that are close to the attractions. So, I would outline the best cuisine and restaurants that you can try when visiting a particular neighborhood or attraction in San Francisco.
Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurants: You must try one of the seafood restaurants in Fisherman’s Wharf on your trip to San Francisco. There’re several excellent seafood restaurants in the Fisherman’s Wharf, including Alioto’s Restaurant, The Grotto, and Cioppino. The Dungeness Crab Cakes, Seafood Soup, and Seafood Spaghetti are some of my favorite dishes in these restaurants.
Pier 39 Restaurants: With the beautiful views of the San Francisco Bay and the countless dining options, Pier 39 is my favorite place to dine in San Francisco! Full-service restaurant, outdoor dining, snack bars, icecream parlors, you name it, Pier 39 has it! You can find the complete list of dining options in Pier 39 on the Pier 39 Website.
Chinatown Restaurants: The visit to Chinatown is incomplete without trying some Chinese food. The choices of restaurants and dishes are overwhelming in Chinatown. Here are a few restaurants I have visited and highly recommend – China Live, Golden Gate Bakery, and Chinatown Restaurant. I relished the scrumptious custard-filled pastries, egg tarts, cashew chicken, and the spring rolls in Chinatown.
Golden Gate Park Restaurants: Golden Gate Park is vast and depending on which part of the park you’re visiting, your dining options will vary. But there are ample dining options in Golden Gate Park, and some of my favorites are Marnee Thai, Shangri-La Vegetarian Restaurant, and Nopalito Mexican Restaurant. You will find the complete list of dining options on the Golden Gate Park Website.
Union Square Restaurants: Union Square in San Francisco is known for its shopping and diverse culinary options. My top picks are – Bartlett Hall for American cuisine and craft beer, Tropisueno for Mexican food, and Fifth Arrow for pizza and bowling.
San Francisco Trip Itinerary
With so many things to see and do in San Francisco, it becomes quite challenging to decide and plan all the activities and attractions for your trip to San Francisco.
To help you plan your perfect trip to San Francisco, I have compiled a sample four day San Francisco trip itinerary!
I recommend spending at least four days in San Francisco to cover the major attractions in San Francisco. In the itinerary, I have covered all the major attractions in San Francisco and have grouped them based on their locations, and have allocated sufficient time at each attraction.
If you wish to visit just the main attractions in San Francisco, you can stick to Day 1 & 2. If you’re into museums and arts, you can use Day 3 & 4 from the itinerary.
- Alcatraz – Start your San Francisco tour by visiting the Rock / Alcatraz. Take the morning ferry to Alcatraz and spend four hours exploring the Rock. Four hours are enough to leisurely explore Alcatraz, including the roundtrip ferry ride.
- Golden Gate Bridge – Enjoy some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge from the shore and from the top at the following viewing points –
- Marshall’s Beach
- Baker Beach &
- Marin Headlands – Hawk Hills, Golden Gate Observation Deck, and Golden Gate View Point
- Chinatown – Start your day at Chinatown, enjoy the architecture and the several shops and restaurants at Chinatown.
- Lombard Street – Drive or simply take a short walk to see the “Crookedest Street” in the World!
- Fisherman’s Wharf – Spend the rest of your day at Fisherman’s Wharf exploring the several attractions and restaurants in the area:
- Pier 39,
- San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
- San Francisco Dungeon
- Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
- Ripley’s Believe it or Not
- Ghirardelli Square
- Golden Gate Park – Spend the entire day at Golden Gate Park exploring some of the finest museums and gardens of San Francisco:
- de Young Museum
- California Academy of Sciences Museum
- Steinhart Aquarium
- Japanese Tea Garden
- San Francisco Botanical Garden
- The SkyStar Wheel
- Conservatory of Flowers
- Museums, Parks & Monuments: Based on your interest, you could visit a few other great parks, museum, and monuments in San Francisco:
- Palace of Fine Arts
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
- Legion of Honor
- Asian Art Museum
I recommend purchasing a multi-attraction discounted pass from CityPASS and using Big Bus Hop-on Hop-off Tours for the 2nd and 4th day of the San Francisco trip itinerary.
Other California Attractions & Related Posts
I hope you enjoyed reading the post, The Ultimate Guide To San Francisco, and I hope this will help you plan your trip to San Francisco.
Happy feeding your soul!
Shop Travel Essentials
This is not a sponsored post, and I recommend products based on my experience. This may contain affiliate links, and I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase using my link at no extra cost to you. More Travel Accessories.