After five unforgettable weeks in the United States, I’m finally back on Australian soil with a whole wealth of stories, tips, and photos to share from the epic Great US Road Trip.
Stop #1 on the trip was one of my favourite cities in the United States – San Francisco. The City by the Bay is one of America’s most recognizable cities and was especially abuzz during my visit due to the upcoming Super Bowl festivities.
Accompanied by the lovely Cherie from Flight of the Travel Bee, I had a few days to explore this colourful, quirky city and tick off a number of bucket list worthy items along the way.
If you’re plotting your own visit to San Francisco, I’ve put together 15 things worthy of your bucket list.
Bucket List Focus: San Francisco
#15 – Visit Muir Woods
The hustle and bustle of San Francisco is one liberally interspersed with manicured parks and areas of quiet seclusion, but for those really wanting to get away from it all – the nearby Muir Woods National Monument is a must.
With its slender, towering redwoods and its vibrant greens, Muir Woods is located just a short drive from the city but feels a world away. This drive takes you across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and by some quaint Californian coastal towns as well, so it’s definitely worth the trip.
Whether you visit it on a mist-shrouded, rain bejeweled day like I did or on a busier summer day when the crowds are out en masse, there’s a number of hiking trails and hidden secrets to be discovered along the way.
Entry is just $10 for those over the age of 16, but get there before 9am and you’re likely to get in for free as well. It’s also a great way to avoid the inevitable crowds.
My own visit was facilitated by the very cool SF Adventure Tours, who I’ll write more about later this week.
#14 – See the Sea Lions on Pier 39
It’s true to Pier 39 is a bit of a tourist trap with its boutique stores, chain restaurants, and oftentimes tacky attractions, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit.
I paid a visit to Pier 39 back in 2012 and wrote about the various things to do on Pier 39, but a few highlights include:
- A number of restaurants ranging from Mexican to seafood to fast food;
- The supremely tacky but enjoyable Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze;
- A double-decker carousel;
- Live performances;
- A huge variety of stores ranging from magic to high class fudge to western apparel;
- The famous Aquarium by the Bay;
- Nearby departure points for boat rides.
If none of the above immediately grab your attention, there is still one attraction that has become synonymous with the San Francisco experience, and that’s seeing Pier 39’s resident sea lions sunning themselves.
Anywhere up to 2,700 sea lions call K-Dock by Pier 39 home during the year, and it’s a rare day that the fascinating marine mammals are not in evidence.
Wander Pier 39’s left hand side for your opportunity to see them, and feel free to ask the naturalists from Aquarium by the Bay any questions you might have between 11am and 4pm on most days.
#13 – Wander the Streets
It must be said that San Francisco is a walker’s city. It’s a nightmare to drive, but a hell of a lot of fun to wander on your own two feet.
While there is no shortage of San Francisco walking tours for you to avail yourself of, I had the most fun when it was just two people wandering aimlessly and seeing what they discovered along the way.
During my four days in San Francisco, we wandered the foreshore from Pier 39 to the little known Yoda Fountain twice, wandered from Haight-Ashbury to the Tenderloin, and explored districts such as Mission and Castro to boot.
For some suggestions and routes for your walks, EveryTrail has a great list of San Francisco walks.
#12 – Visit the Palace of Fine Arts
Like something transplanted from ancient Europe to the American mainland, the Palace of Fine Arts is a sight to behold.
With its towering columns and manicured gardens, the Palace of Fine Arts is hands down one of my favourite spots in San Francisco and one I visited twice during my time there.
Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Convention, the Palace of Fine Arts is all that remains in San Francisco of the fair, and has become a popular spot for art displays, wedding photos, and as a stop for those wandering the San Francisco foreshore.
#11 – Bike the Golden Gate Bridge
While it’s possible to tackle the Golden Gate Bridge as a walk as well, San Francisco is such a fun city for cycling that it would be a shame not to take on its most iconic location from the saddle of a bicycle.
My 2012 visit to San Fran saw me cross the bridge and bike to Sausalito with Blazing Saddles, and it remains one of my fondest memories of my time in the United States.
After winding your way along the San Francisco foreshore (with obligatory stops for photos), you eventually cross the world-famous bridge before descending into quaint Sausalito for lunch before your ferry ride back to the city.
#10 – Eat a burrito in Mission
San Francisco isn’t Mexico, but it’s a city famous for the quality of its Mexican food. Specifically, it’s a city with a nationwide reputation for producing some damned fine burritos.
San Francisco’s Mission district is undergoing something of a gentrification these days, but its roots as a predominantly Hispanic community remain in the form of a huge variety of little taquerias serving some of the best burritos in the United States.
It’s hard to go wrong in picking one of the many little hole in the wall establishments that line 16th and 17th street in the Mission district, but the general consensus leans towards the imaginatively named La Taqueria, which won Best Burrito in America for its mouth-watering carnitas burrito in 2014.
I’ve tried the burrito in question (and about five others in San Francisco) and it is good. Definitely worth the trip!
#9 – Eat clam chowder or crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf
Sticking to the theme of food, it would be hard to overlook San Francisco’s other touristy foreshore attraction.
True to form, there are a bunch of attractions such as Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Madame Tussaud’s, and the San Francisco Dungeon to cater to the easily amused, but it’s for the seafood that I’m suggesting a brief stop.
Whether you help yourself to a steaming serving of clam chowder served in a sourdough bowl or something more recognizably dead like crab, it’s one of those stops that any tourist in San Francisco should make before heading on to less well populated locales.
#8 – Wander Golden Gate Park
San Francisco is blessed with a number of beautiful parks, but Golden Gate Park is an experience unto itself.
It’s the kind of place you can’t do justice to in a single day, with the park complimented by a number of museums and other attractions such as the De Young Museum, the picturesque Japanese Tea Gardens, or the Conservatory of Flowers.
With a variety of terrains to explore and a selection of cafes and food carts to keep you in high spirits, a day in Golden Gate Park is definitely something I’d recommend to any visitor to the City by the Bay.
A special shout out to the beautiful Japanese Tea Gardens as well. While the $8 entry fee might seem a little steep, the manicured gardens and the famous Drum Bridge (shipped from Japan in 1894) are well worth a look.
#7 – Cruise to Alcatraz
One of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks is undoubtedly the former prison island of Alcatraz. Rated by TripAdvisor as the #1 thing to do in the city, it’s an experience that certainly lives up to the hype.
We visited on a cold and windy February afternoon that really emphasized just what a barren and unforgiving place it must have been for the criminals (and guards) who called it home for so many years, and the howling of the wind in the barred windows was a fitting accompaniment to the sometimes grisly audio tour that guides you through the cells and mess halls of the old prison.
Learn from my mistake: budget plenty of time to do the island justice!
Our visit allowed only enough time to tour the prison, but the island itself is worth wandering around to take in not only its historic significance (it was also a Civil War era fort prior to being a prison) but it’s natural beauty as well.
#6 – Visit Lombard Street
I don’t really see the appeal myself, but people flock to the ‘Most Crooked Street in San Francisco’ for the opportunity to snap a photo of its eight hairpin turns and the gardens that adorn them.
Thankfully for you, most tours of the city will include passing by the well known street, so you won’t need to make a special trip unless bent streets really do it for you.
#5 – Visit the Oldest Chinatown in the Americas
San Francisco isn’t just home to the oldest Chinatown in the New World, it’s also home to the largest Chinatown anywhere outside of Asia.
So big that it has begun to encroach upon the territory formerly recognised as Little Italy, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a city within a city – a dizzying concoction of sights, smells, lights, and flavours that seems world’s away from the bustling, modern city that it exists within.
Chinatown draws more annual visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge, and while food is an obvious drawcard for visitors, the alleyways and architecture of this corner of the city are also worth a look.
#4 – Ride a Cable Car
As synonymous with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, the San Francisco Cable Cars are a landmark unto themselves.
Dating back to 1873, the San Francisco Cable Cars are more than just a way to get around town – they’re an experience that no visit to San Fran would be complete without.
Tickets are $7 for a one way trip and you’ll need correct change, but there’s something very fun about taking in the city from the rattling, clanking confines of a beautiful cable car.
#3 – Run the Bay to Breakers
It’s not for everyone, but for those who like to challenge themselves with a little physical exertion, San Francisco’s annual 12k fun run is a great way to stay fit, raise money for charity, and see the city in the process.
Starting in the city and making your way through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach, the Bay to Breakers is open to everybody from serious runners to the zany ones who like to run/walk in costume.
A smidgen shorter than Sydney’s City 2 Surf, the race takes place each year in May.
#2 – Browse in the Ferry Building
Opened in 1898 as a ferry terminal, today the Ferry Building is a bustling farmer’s market alive with smells and flavours as local produce and cuisine take over the lower floor of the lengthy steel structure.
History and architecture buffs will get a kick out of the building’s storied history, while foodies can sample locally made cheese, coffees, meats, breads, vegetables, and fruits.
The Ferry Building is open from 10am until 6pm on weekdays, and has slightly shorter operating hours on the weekend.
#1 – Attend a 49ers or Giants game
Sports fans will find plenty of options in and around San Francisco.
In addition to being home to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL and the San Francisco Giants in the MLB, neighbouring Oakland also has teams in both leagues.
Whether or not you’re a fan of either sport, there’s something quintessentially American about a day out at the baseball or football. I’ve had my day at the baseball in Seattle, but the NFL continues to elude me.
I couldn’t exactly afford Super Bowl tickets!
Football (soccer) fans will have to head farther afield to San Jose to see a local team taking part in the rapidly developing MLS.
What is on your San Francisco to do list?
Have I missed something obvious? Included something that you think is infinitely missable?
Want an Aussie in your inbox?