San Francisco packs a huge amount of sights into a small, compact area. The city is only seven miles by seven miles but that’s not to say it’s an easy walk because it’s built on a staggering 43 hills. And stagger you will after hiking some of those steps and steep inclines! I’ve visited the city three times in the last few years, twice in sparkling sunshine in January and February and again last month, at the start of our road trip, when the city was fabulously foggy. It was fascinating to see the city take on a misty persona.
There are certain things every visitor to the city should see and do; get up close to The Golden Gate Bridge, check out the best views, take a boat across the bay to visit ‘The Rock’ home of Alcatraz. You’ll want to trundle up the city’s hills on an iconic cable car for both the experience and the views. And that’s just for starters. There are also some fun and unusual activities if you’re looking for something a little off-beat. Here are my tips on what to see and do in San Francisco, the ‘City by the Bay’ for the first time visitor.
Ride a San Francisco Cable Car
Back in 1873 San Francisco’s answer to climbing all those steep hills was the cable car and some of them still operate today, they’ve even been designated National Landmarks. You can hop on at one of the turntables where the cars are turned or at the signed stops along the route.
There are some real characters running the cable cars, which are manually operated. Try and get an outside seat for the best views. The Powell-Hyde car is probably the most scenic, it passes Lombard Street but don’t get off there, stay on for some fabulous views of Alcatraz from the crest of Hyde Street.
You can purchase tickets from booths at the turnarounds or from the cable car conductor – try and make sure you have smaller notes as they can only give change up to $20. A one-way ticket is $7 or an all day pass $17.
Read more about best places to visit in California
Chat to the Locals
One of my favourite San Francisco memories was my first time in the city. I was there for work and heading back to my hotel after an evening out with a friend that lives near the city. I was riding the cable car back when about five SFPD policemen climbed aboard after finishing their shift. They were a friendly bunch and we were chatting (they liked my English accent!). Next thing I know is my friend’s driving alongside us in her car – she’d forgotten to give me some gifts to take home to her family. So, she’s chucking the gifts out of her car window and the cops were catching them for me – we laughed and joked for the rest of the journey and they even gave me a SFPD badge sticker. I still have it seven years later in my travel memory box. A fun ride indeed!
Check out Lombard Street
Talking of Lombard Street, if you’re in the Russian Hill neighbourhood it’s definitely worth checking out what’s known as one of America’s crookedest streets. It slopes at 40 degrees, has eight hairpin bends and is lined with some gorgeous Victorian mansions. Looking down Lombard Street you can see The Coit Tower in the distance.
Climb Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower
For some of the best views of the city and a look at some historic murals from the 1930s climb the hilly streets, or the 400 steps in Filbert Street, to The Coit Tower. You’ll see downtown San Francisco, across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz – worth the butt-crunching climb! The Art Deco elevator to the top of the tower and the murals are an added bonus.
Go for drinks at the Top of the Mark
Talking of views from high places The Top of the Mark is a rooftop bar located at the top of the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel. The stylish cocktail bar was converted from the 19th-floor penthouse in the 1930s and has breathtaking wrap around views of the city.
There’s live music ranging from swing to mellow jazz and a 100+ Martini menu, a long list of cocktails and wall to wall windows. I settled for my favourite Gin and Tonic to go with the magical views of the city from our window seat. You’ll need to book if you’re dining but for the bar it’s a first come first served basis – you’ll have to wait for space if it’s full.
Where: Nob Hill at California and Mason Streets
We also had fantastic breakfast views from our San Francisco hotel, The Hilton on Union Square, on the 46th floor. One minute we’d have fantastic city views and the next we’d be enveloped in the cloud as the mist rolled in.
Take the ferry to Alcatraz
‘The Rock’ can be seen from many parts of the city and it would be criminal to visit San Francisco and not visit Alcatraz. The audio tour is one of the best I’ve heard and conjures up the misery of life in the prison. You can walk ‘The Yard’ and stand in the cells where inmates like Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly did their time. Listen to accounts of life on the inside and imagine the echo of footsteps along the cold concrete corridors, the clink of keys and the slamming of cell doors. Peer through the iron bars and imagine how it felt to hear the sounds of New Year parties floating across the water from the city – no surprise there were so many escape attempts. On the fifteen-minute boat trip back to Pier 33 you’ll get some fabulous views of the city.
Book on-line at Alcatraz Cruises before your visit as tours get booked up well in advance and take a jacket for the boat, it gets chilly.
See the Sea Lions at Pier 39
The sea lions that congregate at Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf are worth a look although they are quite whiffy. The pier is very touristy but worth an hour for a taste of clam chowder in a bowl of sourdough bread and to check out the street entertainers.
The Golden Gate Bridge
There’s no doubt about it – I’m totally fascinated by The Golden Gate Bridge. So much so that I even summoned up the courage to ‘Bike the Bridge‘ even though I’m not that brilliant on a bike. San Francisco’s iconic structure is stunning from a distance but you really need to get up close and personal to appreciate how big it really is, to check out the Art Deco touches and of course the views. Bike it or walk it, either way you’ll be in awe of the ‘bridge that couldn’t be built’.
Have you been to San Francisco? What’s your favourite sight?