The Golden City. City by The Bay. The Paris of the West. Fog City. SF. San Fran. No matter what you call it, one thing is for sure: San Francisco has a lot going on. This sprawling city by the water beckons tourist from across the globe. The following ten attractions can probably explain why, as they combine the city’s cultural gems with its architectural sites and natural, breathtaking beauty.
This first site takes you out of the city itself and onto the island of Alcatraz, which sits 1.5 miles from the city itself. Here stands one of the nation’s most notorious prisons — no prisoner has ever been known to successfully escape from its confines. It’s out of business now and has been since Bobby Kennedy closed its doors in 1963, but you’ll get to feel all of the creepy vibes on a tour of the place. Be sure to book it in advance as slots fill quickly.
2. Twin Peaks
Taking in scenic views is a big part of visiting San Francisco, and there’s perhaps no better place to do so than the Twin Peaks. These two mounds reach over 900 feet into the sky, making them the perfect vantage point to peep the city skyline, the bay and, of course, the bridges. Most visitors suggest taking on the Twin Peaks on foot so that you can really enjoy the scenery and the panoramic views.
3. The Castro
The Castro is the heart of San Francisco’s gay community, one that has been loud and proud for longer than most in the U.S. All you have to do is spend an afternoon exploring this area to see why. There’s a GLBT history walk of fame. You can check out Harvey Milk’s old house, which is now an action center for the Human Rights Campaign. And, if you’re around in June, don’t miss the month-long pride celebration that rocks the Castro every year. As you do, remember that The Castro has worn the same colors for more than 50 years. That’s pretty incredible, right?
4. Golden Gate Park
A writer for Time magazine called the Golden Gate Park the coolest in the U.S., and for good reason: you could spend an entire day within its sprawling, lush confines and not run out of things to do. Most guests start at the Conservatory of Flowers, a gorgeous Victorian greenhouse that’s home to more than 2,000 plant species. If you have kids, they will love the carousel and the Steinhart Aquarium. Otherwise, everyone can agree on a scenic hike or picnic, which you can stage just about anywhere in this picturesque park.
5. Golden Gate Bridge
You can see the Golden Gate Bridge one of two ways: by land or by water. We suggest the latter in order to truly take in and appreciate the incredible piece of engineering that remains a symbol of the city, as well as the state of California. Many cruise companies will shuttle you out into the bay for panoramic views, as well as beneath the bridge so that you can peep at its inner-workings. For a more complete tour of the bridge, try driving, biking or walking across.
6. Cable Cars
After the Golden Gate Bridge, the second-most iconic image of San Francisco has to be its cable cars. Perhaps that’s because they haven’t changed much since 1873, as evidenced by their old-school aesthetic and hand-operated brakes. You can hitch a ride up Nob Hill, a more-than-300-foot incline that will give you a crash course in how to balance on public transportation.
7. Muir Woods
A quick drive outside of San Francisco proper will bring you the incredible — and lofty — Muir Woods. Here, you’ll be able to see the state’s iconic redwood trees, which can scrape the sky at an astounding 380 feet in height. You can access Muir Woods in about 30 minutes by car, but you can also catch a bus from the city if you don’t have a set of wheels at your service.
8. Palace of Fine Arts
Back in the city, you’ll find another relaxing hideaway from the hustle and bustle: the Palace of Fine Arts. It was almost taken down, but someone had the good sense to not only save it in the 1950s, but also to renovate it. Now, it’s a peaceful park that draws tourists and locals who want to take a few minutes — or hours — to relax and take in the Palace’s Roman-inspired architecture.
9. Fisherman’s Wharf
This one is certainly touristy, but it’s worth the crowds. You can gaze out onto the bay and admire the city’s ships both old and new. You can also watch as seals laze all day long in the sun. And, that authentic fishy smell that floats through the air? That’s all of the fresh seafood coming off of the ships and into the city’s shops and restaurants. Yum.
10. Union Square
If Fisherman’s Wharf feels too touristy for your taste, try Union Square instead. It has just about everything you could want out of a major metropolitan neighborhood: great (and luxurious) shopping, theaters, restaurants, art installations, a park and plenty of atmosphere. End your day here and you won’t have a problem catching the BART rail, bus or cable car back to your hotel.
Clearly, there’s plenty to do in San Francisco and these sites aren’t the only things to check out. With these ideas in your head (and perhaps a map in your pocket), head out and explore the city and all of its eclectic attractions. You’ll be surprised at just how much you find.