San Francisco is best known for its scenic beauty, cultural attractions, diverse communities, and world-class cuisine. Measuring 49 square miles, this walk-able cityincludes landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz and the largest Chinatown in the United States. A stroll of the city’s streets can lead from Union Square to North Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf, with intriguing neighborhoods to explore. Views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay are often laced with fog, creating a romantic mood in this most European of American cities.
Overview San Francisco, Getting-around, Essentials, Data
See our intro to San Francisco: San Francisco, California, USA — Overview for travelers
Sightseeing Overview by Keywords
- Union Square
- Cable Car
- Alamo Square
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Ghirardelli Square
- The Cannery
- Castro Viertel
- Coit Tower
- San Francisco’s Hills
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Golden Gate Park
- Mission Dolores
- Yerba Buena Gardens
- Museum of Modern Art
- Steinhart Aquarium
- San Francisco Zoo
- SF – Oakland Bay Bridge
- Richmond – San Rafael Bridge
How long is your stay in S.F.?
There is enough to experience and explore in San Francisco to fill a hundred itineraries, but most visitors want to see the more famous sites right away. Following is a basic list of the “must see” attractions and areas of San Francisco, separated into weekend-length groups.
Depending on the length of your stay, may be these groups help you to determine what to put into your specific schedule.
Ride the Cable Cars – There are three lines for this famous transportation system, Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and the California Street Line.
Web: Cable Cars | SFMTA
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge –Explore on foot or by car, bicycle, tour bus or fire engine tour. Travel under the bridge on a bay cruise or soar over it by helicopter or seaplane.
Visit Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf –
Fisherman’s Wharf (Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco (fishermanswharf.org)) is the most visited section of San Francisco. Enjoy street performers, fresh seafood, unique shops and visit the Boudin Museum & Bakery Tour to see loaf after loaf of San Francisco’s famous sourdough French bread baked. (Museum & Bakery Tour – Bistro Boudin)
Take in the fresh sea air as you watch fishermen coming and going from their daily journeys. Visit the sea lion colony on the west side of PIER 39, home of the Blue & Gold Fleet and Aquarium by the Bay (Aquarium of the Bay | Pier 39 in San Francisco).
READ MORE in our article: PIER 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
Alcatraz, the former federal prison, once housed some of the most notorious criminals — Today it’s a national park, reachable by a brief boat ride.
Visit Chinatown – The entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street is called the “Dragon’s Gate.” Inside are 24 blocks of hustle and bustle, most of it taking place along Grant Avenue, the oldest street in San Francisco. This city within a city is best explored on foot; exotic shops, renowned restaurants, food markets, temples and small museums comprise its boundaries. Visitors can buy ancient potions from herb shops, relax and enjoy a “dim sum” lunch or witness the making of fortune cookies. For a more “local” scene, walk one block over to Stockton St.
Visit Union Square – The landmark park is the heart of the city and is known for fantastic shopping. Sporting granite plazas, a terraced stage on Post Street, light sculptures designed by artist R.M. Fischer, a café, the TIX half-price ticket center, and four grand entrance corner plazas bordered by the park’s signature palms, the bustling square pays tribute to the Square’s distinctive history and captures the unique flavor and beauty of San Francisco.
Alamo Square, Painted Ladies Victorian Houses
These are the marvels of Victorian Houses and situated at Alamo Square, the ideal space for a relaxed lunch break. Read more: Alamo Square — Painted Ladies
Ghirardelli Square is located at 900 North Point Street between Beach and Larkin Streets. It is near the west end of Fisherman’s Wharf, two blocks east of Van Ness Avenue and one block west of the Cable Car turnaround at Beach and Hyde Streets.
Read more about Ghirardelli Square
Visit the Exploratorium at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero – Experience exciting and interactive exhibits that make learning fun, regardless of your age or familiarity with science at the original hands-on science museum, the Exploratorium.
Visit the Ferry Building Marketplace – Remodeled and repurposed in 2003, this gourmet galleria celebrates regional purveyors and cuisine. The Saturday morning Farmers Market is a spirited gathering of local farmers, high quality artisan producers and independent food businesses, catering to food connoisseurs alike.
Visit Golden Gate Park – Take a picnic, try fly-fishing, see the buffalo, rent a bike or skates, play golf.
More about Golden Gate Bridge, and the other San Francisco Bridges: San Francisco Bridges — Golden Gate, Oakland Bay, San-Rafael
Presidio of San Francisco
The Presidio’s 1,480 acres of prime real estate next to the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay have some of the best views in town.
Read more: Presidio of San Francisco
Visit the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden (JTGSF (japaneseteagardensf.com)), San Francisco Botanical Garden and pedal a boat on Stow Lake, or the California Academy of Sciences.
Discover the earth, ocean and space – all in one place at the California Academy of Sciences. The only place in the world to combine a natural history museum, aquarium, planetarium and world-class research and education facility under one roof. All housed in the world’s largest public green building designed by award winning architect Renzo Piano. Topped with a living roof, a 2.5-acre expanse of native California plants, providing a habitat for birds, butterflies and insects, it blends seamlessly into the beautiful landscape of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Park.
Explore the striking de Young Museum — The de Young Museum building is hard to miss, with dramatic architecture by Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects, a unique copper façade and an observation tower that rises 144 feet above the treetops of Golden Gate Park.
Web: de Young (famsf.org)
Visit North Beach – Rich in Italian heritage, San Francisco’s version of “Little Italy” compresses cabarets, jazz clubs, galleries, inns, family style restaurants and gelato parlors into less than a square mile. Bakeries and delicatessens serve up traditional Italian delicacies. A perfect spot for cappuccino and espresso, North Beach is transformed into one of San Francisco’s most electric playgrounds by night; live music and dancing keep the streets swinging.
Visit Haight Ashbury –The “Summer of Love” lives on mainly in stores throughout this charming Victorian sector; vintage clothing, books and records are abundant along Haight Street, the neighborhood’s busiest stretch.
Visit Mission San Francisco de Asis and the Mission District – The heart of San Francisco’s predominantly Hispanic neighborhood is 24th Street, a colorful collection of restaurants, taquerias, Mexican bakeries, fresh produce markets and specialty shops. Mission Dolores at 16th and Dolores streets is the oldest structure in San Francisco. The largest collection of murals in the city, each reflecting the pleasures, passions and pitfalls of their respective creators, adorns buildings, fences and garage walls throughout the neighborhood.
More about it: Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores)
Visit Castro Street – Steep streets and brightly painted Victorian houses give a distinct San Francisco look to this upper Market St. neighborhood, famous as the “Gay Mecca.” The Castro is a series of imaginative boutiques, bookstores and bars. Novelty items abound in shops at the end of Market St. between 16th and 17th streets.
Visit Union Street –The first neighborhood in San Francisco to convert its gingerbread Victorians into popular boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, Union Street’s distinct turn-of-the-century atmosphere makes a walk along its streets a delightful journey back in time, at least from an architectural perspective. The attitude along modern day Union Street, however, is anything but old-fashioned. This is where some of the city’s most fashionable and upscale citizens live and play.
Visit the Asian Art Museum – Located across from City Hall, this is one of the largest museums in the world devoted exclusively to Asian art with a collection comprising of nearly 15,000 works spanning 6,000 years of history.
Visit Japantown – The heart of Japantown is Japan Center, a five-acre complex of shops, sushi bars, restaurants, hotels and theaters at Post and Buchanan Streets. A five-tiered pagoda, a symbol of eternal peace, crowns it. Locals call this sector “J-Town.” More than 12,000 residents of Japanese descent call it home. There is much to learn from this small slice of Japanese life.
Visit the Civic Center – Be inspired by the architectural beauty of San Francisco’s City Hall and attend a performance by the San Francisco Symphony, Opera or Ballet.
See a Giants baseball game at Oracle Park –The crowning jewel of San Francisco sports, AT&T Park boasts sweeping views of the city and bay, with many modern amenities.
Visit the Legion of Honor Museum (Legion of Honor | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (famsf.org)) in Lincoln Park – One of San Francisco’s most beautiful museums displays an impressive collection of 4,000 years of ancient and European art in an unforgettable setting overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. See the nearby Holocaust Memorial.
Play Lincoln Park Golf Course with its lush grounds and spectacular views.
Visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) – One of the world’s most innovative museums of modern and contemporary art is the anchor of the Yerba Buena Gardens district where almost a dozen museums are located including the Museum of the African Diaspora.
Visit the Marina District – Off Marina Boulevard, grand stucco houses and flats dominate streets. Chestnut Street brims with inviting stores, restaurants and watering holes.
See the city from Twin Peaks – Clear days reveal a breathtaking view from one of the tallest points in San Francisco. See sweeping skylines that reach from the Pacific Ocean to Alameda.
Take a ferry to the charming towns of Sausalito or Tiburon. Hop a boat to Angel Island State Park and see the historic Immigration Station.
The steepest roads — San Francisco Hills
According to the city archivist, San Francisco has 42 hills ranging upward from 200 to 938 feet. But for those whose favorite sport is scaring friends from the flatlands, only five really count.
The city is built on a series of hills – more than 40! Consequently, almost every other street points the way to a panoramic view of the Bay. The principal hills, which early earned it the Roman sobriquet of ‘City of Seven Hills‘, are Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, Twin Peaks Hill, Mount Davidson Hill, Rincon Hill and Lone Mountain Hill.
The city’s 10 steepest through streets (open to vehicles) are conveniently confined to Russian and Nob Hills and Pacific, Dolores and Buena Vista Heights.
Read more: The steepest roads — San Francisco Hills – from Lombard Street to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.
Coit Tower – a symbol of San Francisco’s
Read more: The steepest roads — San Francisco Hills – from Lombard Street to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.
Neighborhoods of San Francisco
The S.F. Public Transportation website offers a nice map and textual overview of the S.F. neighborhoods: Neighborhoods | SFMTA
Getting-around in S.F.
The S.F. Public Transportation website is of great help again when it comes to information about anything from riding public transportation, cable cars, parking in S.F, bicycling, and more: Visitors | SFMTA