San Francisco attractions

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NOTE: This page is a daughter page of: Travel

San Francisco (SF) is the 13th most populated city in the United States, with 0.9 million residents, land locked into a relatively small area - only 5 miles wide. It's also one of most famous cities in America, and attracts ~25 million visitors a year, thanks to it's prevalence in movies and fascinating history as a liberal city which was build from ships visiting for a failed gold rush and all but burned to the ground after major earthquakes in 1906.

Things to do in San Francisco

So for other cities I've written my own list, but here I know there's a video that I can't possibly improve on.... two amazing Germans filmed their trip, and Germans are always an amazing authority on travel! This is the video:

And here's a copy of their their map:

Top 10 things from the video

Their top 10 list:

  1. Fisherman's Wharf - Includes several interesting locations such us Pier 39, sea lions, bay cruises, carousel, aquarium, etc. Visit the Cable car turnaround, Historic Pier 45, Ghirardelli square, etc.
  2. Palace of Fine Arts Theatre - Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. You can also visit The Wave Organ, a wave-activated acoustic sculpture, located nearby.
  3. Golden Gate Bridge - Built in 1937 and was the tallest and longest suspension bridge at the time of its construction.
  4. Sutro Baths - The ocean-side ruins of the (once) largest indoor swimming pool in the world. Built at the end of the 19th century, it featured six saltwater and one freshwater pool.
  5. Golden Gate Park - Features the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden, beautiful Stow Lake with Golden Gate Pavilion, Alvord Lake Bridge, Dutch Windmills, and more.
  6. Beautiful Streets - Don't miss the following locations: PAINTED LADIES near Alamo Square – a row of Victorian homes with Edwardian elements, 16TH AVENUE TILED STEPS – a neighborhood project where the community got together and raised funds to transform 163 steps into a work of art, LOMBARD STREET claimed to be "the crookedest street in the world". List of interesting and beautiful streets: here.
  7. Alcatraz - Got its name from the Spanish word usually defined as meaning "pelican" or "strange bird" and has some fun birdlife on the island. It's famous for its abandoned prison, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary that housed many famous criminals, such as Al Capone. Reserve your ticket:
  8. Ferry Market Building - Terminal for ferries features a food, retail, and restaurant hall, focusing on local and sustainable products and offers an amazing view towards the Oakland Bay Bridge.
  9. Financial District - The Manhattan-like district, a concentration of tall buildings and corporate headquarters of numerous world-famous companies. The tallest buildings here are the Salesforce Tower (lit up at night) followed by the The Transamerica Pyramid, they are hard not to notice!
  10. Chinatown - The biggest Chinatown outside Asia and the oldest one in North America. It was established in the mid 19th century and has played a major role among the Chinese immigrants in North America. It's fun to grab a delicious Chinese meal there.

What I would add to that is I quite like the double-decker bus tours to get around. When my family came to visit, we booked the 2 day with Big Bus Tour (there are a few other companies, all similar, but for $66 this had the most routes over 2 days), and it was really interesting for me to hear about the colorful history. The other thing I'll add is a couple of extra gems in the Fisherman's Wharf area:

  • SF Dungeon - easiest to described as half haunted house, half interactive-educational... runs most of the day (book online for $30 a person to be safe) and lasts 60 mins.
  • The Musée Mécanique - Translates to "Mechanical Museum", an interactive museum consisting of 20th-century penny arcade games, some of them fairly politically incorrect, which is a delightful sign of the times. Good entertainment value here - get yourself $10 worth of quarters, and they will last quite a while. Good date spot actually - you can compete in some of the games.
  • There is also a (little) free maritime museum tucked away here, or if you pay a fee it's fun to explore the historic boats on Hyde Street Pier.
  • ... and yes, the sea lions are pretty cool... as is the mirror maze.

Not mentioned:

  • The Castro - Is the famous main gay district of SF... ask around for directions to Hot Cookie where you can buy a big penis shaped ice-cream. Extra creamy. A gay friend took me into a couple of gay bars there and this is weird for a straight guy to say, but I'm disappointed there weren't more hot guys there. How am I supposed to be a good wingman if my buddy doesn't fancy anyone. Sorry I let you down Josh... give me another chance! :-P
  • Coit Tower - A tower on top of Telegraph Hill, described as "the most optimal 360 degree viewing point to the San Francisco Bay and five surrounding counties. There is limited parking at the top and to go up the tower you'll have to check for opening times and be prepared for a 40 minute wait, even if you've already bought the $7 elevator tickets.

Getting Around

Use Google Maps, just like everywhere else! Download an the SF offline, but hopefully you get a SIM or something to help you determine when to use ride share and when to use public transport. The BART (train) is the best way to get to Oakland quickly for instance, but to get from your hotel to Golden Gate Park might be so slow you're better off in a Lift. Install both Uber and Lift before you leave and Google Maps will show you the price difference... if it's a similar difference locals prefer Lift as being less evil generally.

Diving Deeper

The list above is amazing, but obviously this is very much overseas tourist stuff... it won't take you to any local places. If I referred you to this site, maybe I'll let you know some of my secret places. Admittedly I don't have many, but for me I really love salsa and Ecstatic Dance. I also like comedy and there's quite a few fun markets around. The Ferry Market Buildings, for instance, has a nice local market every Saturday morning, and from there you can catch a ferry to Fisherman's Wharf, Oakland or even Sausalito.

Got even more time? You'll need a car, but here's some incentive:

  • North: How about a trip to over the bridge (car needed) to walk drive ~2 hours to the redwood forests Muir Woods or ~1 hour drive to get an iconic view of the bridge by walking to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. If you're a wine fanatic you might decide to take a trip to Napa Valley or Senoma county (both ~1-2 hours depending on traffic).
  • South: How about a lovely drive down the coast? If you south far enough you can see Half Moon Bay (~1 hour) or the beautiful Monterey (~3 hours) area with beautiful beaches and its own tourist attractions like a pier and amusement park by the beach... with famous Big Sur forest just a little bit south again. Be warned that traffic makes the difference between 2 hours or 4.... so check Google maps for traffic times.
  • East: Over the "Oakland Bay Bridge" bridge is Oakland and Berkley... far more laid back, more space, cheaper (well a bit cheaper) and more artsy. It has a lot of homeless too, and reputation for car theft etc, but I think it's a little unfair. If you're paying $3.5 thousand a month to live in a city that smells like urine (San Francisco). If you're into snow (and it's the right time of year) or hiking around a lake, lots of SF residents love visiting Lake Tahoe for a night or two (make sure you book before you leave) since it's a 4 hour drive (even without traffic).

My Relationship with San Francisco

I've live in the "Bay Area" (a huge area around SF with 7 million inhabitants) since Sep 17, 2012... but only on Mar 1 2018 did I move from the "South Bay" to SF itself... living in a neighborhood called Nob Hill, which is pretty close to the financial district. Since the bay area is huge - and parking in San Francisco is difficult (not as difficult as NY, but still hard and expensive)... it wasn't until I moved to SF itself did I really explore and realize this city has everything.

The Good

Sometimes you have to dig down into narrow little places to find these hidden little places of dine dining, alternative lifestyle parties (hippies hosting tantra workshops or cuddle parties etc), secret parties, comedy and art... lots of art still. There are still some really interesting people around... lots of guys complain dating here is hard because there are more men than women, but that just means you need to actually put some effort and creativity into it. People here are often hard workers (too hard sometimes), but the upside is a lot of powerful women (and men), driven, creative and intelligent. Flakey? Yup, but there's still lots of places around for dancing... whether you like night clubs, couples dancing (see: Bay Area Salsa) or hippy dancing. San Francisco has major hills to give your legs a workout, but the reward for walking through right parts of the city is incredible views.

The Bad

Sadly the landscape of SF is changing. Denitrification is something everyone talks about... tech companies (including the one I work for sadly)... with their relatively high paid jobs have moved into the city and south bay, causing rent and home prices to soar. SF is the [2nd most expensive] city in the US. I got crazy fortunate to find a nice rent controlled one-bedroom for $1,900 a year via my friend Adam who lives in the same building.... sure it's only ~1000 sq feet (~50*20 ~= 1000 sq feet = 9*6m =~ 54 sq meters), but I've heard most people pay more like $3,500 for about the same size. Different neighborhoods, different prices of course, but if you're hoping to book a hotel room you might be in for a nasty shock. You people might consider couch-surfer or just make a friend in SF!

My biggest sadness around SF is the homelessness issue here. There are ~8000 homeless people in SF, so most neighborhoods you'll see it everywhere. I read an interesting book about the issue: Helping the Homeless: A Service Guide (book), breaking it into chronically homeless and newly homeless. Many of these people have been failed by the mental health system, many have simply had misfortune like a car accident (enough to send many Americans into bankruptcy with hospital bills) and been evicted with growing house prices. All this to say, I was worried moving to SF would make me feel pretty shitty.... shitty to be live in an area where you have multi-millionaires and even billionaires living on the same street as someone living in a cardboard box or their car. Depending where I walk, I'll pass dozens of people sleeping in the streets, and often asking for money. To keep me sane I invented a things called Strawberries for Smiles ( whereby once a week I'll pack a few boxes with socks, fruit and other goodies in a gift box and give this away while walking to the SF Google office. It makes me feel human..... and it makes it a bit easier to say no to everyone else asking for money because I can say "I'm at my quota". The fact is... if you gave $5 to every homeless person you walked past you'd easily end up spending tens of thousands a year, compatible to your rent.... hence I set my limit. I'm the same with picking up litter... I pick up 3 pieces a day - else a 10 minute walk in the city would take me three times longer (depending on the neighborhood). Don't get me wrong, there are some suburbs where you won't see homeless people... affluent areas like the "Marina" (know for rich white girls in yoga pants), seems to have scared them away somehow. Other neighborhoods (many of them) are knows to smell of urine. SF even has a "poop map".


SF is an interesting mix of new (expensive new skyrises) and old (historic victorian houses), rich and poor, and built on wonderfully liberal ideas, and yet now full of tech yuppies on electronic scooters, rocking their hipster beards. It's a place where it's normal to be 30 or 40 and still single, going on online dates, meeting CEOs (or people who introduce themselves as CEOS) and overhearing conversations about IPOs and "my latest trip to Hawaii" on the train. I'm sure I won't live in SF forever.... maybe Oakland is more my speed - there's more space, more art and frankly more personality. The personality of SF is best described as confused.... and yet it still has an interesting charm, and it's a hard place to leave because walking the streets is never a dull moment. Just be careful not to have your car broken into and don't be shocked to see lots of drug use and occasionally a naked person just hanging out. It's up to you if you want to stick in the tourist areas, or look at some of the more grungy areas like the Tinderloin where you'll see capital buildings juxtaposed against people asking for cash. But hey - even in a place like this you can sometimes see a smile. Hopefully you will have a smile when you visit to. You gotta take the good with the bad, and please aim to make a positive difference if you live here.

As a tourist, you might not notice half these issues... I just wanted you to know. You'll still have an amazing time here... and what you decide to do is really up to you, based on what you like. The tourist trail?... or mix in some real local flavor. Either way, have an amazing trip, and feel free to email me if I've missed something critical!


    Andrew Noske