San Francisco may not seem so bright and shiny behind its famous foggy weather, but this city is truly the crown jewel of Northern California.
I have been here many times with my travels through work, and it is exactly what you see in pictures and postcards – a collage of colorful buildings lining steep hills and historic trolly cars that run throughout the city.
Whether you prefer trendy cuisine, art, or scenic views, there’s something here for everyone to enjoy! Here’s 11 beautiful and interesting places to visit when in San Francisco.
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Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco is home to one of the most famous bridges in the world! Can you guess the name? If you said the Golden Gate Bridge, you would be correct!
The bridge’s grand size, beauty in design, and mesmerizing views of the bay is really an attraction to remember!
Did you know the bridge is in-fact not gold? Many people assume the bridge’s rusty red color was the result of fading gold paint over the years, but the name actually comes from the Golden Gate straight that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.
I have been to the bridge a few times, and my favorite way to see it is riding a bike across. You have to rent bikes in the city as there’s no bike rentals on the bridge, but I can recommend renting from Blazing Saddles.
In my opinion, you see more views of the bridge along the trails leading up to it, which is why cycling is such a great option. You can bike across the bridge into Sausalito and grab a bite to eat, and if you don’t want to ride all the way back, you can pay a small fee through Blazing Saddles to hop on the Sausalito ferry with your bike.
We bought a ticket for the ferry, but ended up biking the whole way back to the shop! It’s a fun way to explore the city!
An attraction especially unique to San Francisco is a small rocky island in San Francisco Bay, known as Alcatraz.
Given its isolated and remote location, Alcatraz was once used to house prisoners from war. It also served as a federal petitionary.
The strong currents and chilly waters were considered ideal for deterring inmates from escaping… but it didn’t stop them from trying.
Today this abandoned federal prison serves as a museum and popular tourist site. Its accounts of housing the United States’ most dangerous and infamous criminals attract millions of tourists from all over the world. Even legendary gangster and mafia boss Al Capone spent time at Alcatraz!
Speaking of places that are eccentric, I couldn’t leave out Lombard Street from this list of unique tourist attractions in San Francisco.
I’m sure you’re thinking “what makes a street so interesting?”, but when it’s considered one of the most crooked streets in the world, it had to make the list.
Lombard Street is famous for its steep, one block sectioned road, with eight sharp turns. Its crookedness is thanks to the fact that the land beneath is naturally a steep grade, making it a safety hazard to vehicles and pedestrians.
Beautiful landscaped gardens and magnificent mansions line the street making it a popular photo op spot for tourists. If you want to get to the top to snap a pic, it’s an uphill walk! Take it from someone who has done it!
If you don’t feel like making the trek, you can also ride along with ease in a cable car via a tour that passes through this famous attraction. Would you drive down this street?
San Francisco’s Cable Cars
Taking the historic cable cars around San Francisco is a fun and easy alternative to walking up and down the city’s notoriously steep hills! It’s an experience that is so unique to San Francisco, you can’t miss it.
There’s three routes you can choose from, all of which stop at some of the city’s famous sites and attractions.
The Powell-Hyde Line is recommended as the best route. It has views of the Bay and Alcatraz, passes by Lombard Street and slowly makes its way down the steep San Francisco streets toward Fisherman’s Wharf.
Fishermans Wharf & Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are two of San Francisco’s busiest tourist areas.
Every time I visit, there’s always something going on or something to do at this site.
It’s a seafood lovers dream with lots of places to dine right on the water. Be sure to try the clam chowder in a bread bowl at Boudin Bakery! Yum!
After you fill up on food, go for a walk around the wharf. There’s plenty of shops and interesting attractions like Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum or Museum of 3D Illusions. Head over to Pier 39 and see the barking sea lions that laze around on the docks and snap a photo with amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge as your backdrop!
The Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in the United States.
In the 1840s, when gold was discovered in San Francisco, Chinese immigrants fled to California to escape poverty, hunger and poor economic conditions.
During this time, Chinese merchants started building shops in what used to be called Portsmouth Square. It was an area considered to be the first port of entry in San Francisco and originally one block from the bay. Often referred to as “The Heart of Chinatown,” Portsmouth Square is where Chinatown originated.
Today, there are two major streets in Chinatown – Grant Avenue and Stockton Street.
Grant Avenue was San Francisco’s first street! It is the more touristy of the two with souvenir shops and restaurants serving popular Chinese cuisine such as dumplings or dim sum.
On Stockton Street, you’ll see an array of shops huddled alongside residential buildings, with clothing hung up to dry in windows, and a much less touristy feel.
I suggest stopping by the Golden Gate Cookie Factory on Grant Street to see how they make fortune cookies! For sushi lovers, I recommend the Floating Sushi Boat, a restaurant where a sushi chef stands in the middle and plates sushi on little wooden boats that float around him as he prepares each roll for customers to pick and eat.
Alamo Square and Painted Ladies
Any fans of the TV series Full House remember the opening credits where the family picnics in the park? That scene took place in Alamo Square.
If you don’t know the show, Alamo Park is a residential neighborhood and park in San Francisco. It sits on top of a hill overlooking the downtown area offering a scenic view of the city!
What makes Alamo Square most notable is the row of colorful Victorian style houses, called “The Painted Ladies” that sit across the street from the park. These homes are privately owned, but you will always see tourists frequently taking photos in front of the resident’s homes as they have become a staple of San Francisco’s landscape (and city-goer’s Instagrams.)
Palace of Fine Arts
I actually stumbled upon this San Francisco attraction while walking around the city with some friends down by the water in the Marina District.
At the time, I didn’t know it one of the most photographed sites in the city, but now I can see why.
The Palace of Fine Arts is a free attraction in San Francisco. Its beautiful dome structure was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition – a world fair to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.
Today, it’s a popular venue for weddings and performances. The architecture of the columns and buildings surrounding the venue resemble the likes of ancient Greek and Roman ruins. There’s a variety of plant life and animals including turtles and swans! The landscape of it all creates the perfect setting for a peaceful afternoon stroll. It’s like a touch of European flair in downtown San Francisco!
Museum of Modern Art
Even if you’re not a fan of art or museums, I still recommend checking out the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. You can save it for a rainy day and spend a couple hours viewing works from artists all over the world.
It is the largest museum of modern and contemporary art in the United States. It’s also one of the largest in the world with seven floors of paintings, designs, architecture and photography!
There’s a rooftop sculpture garden that features the largest vertical garden in the Bay Area with over 12,000 plants, most of which are native to California. How unique is that?
Ferry Building Marketplace
The Ferry Building Marketplace is a foodie’s paradise!
Whether you want to grab a quick bite to eat, or a sit down dining experience, you can find it all here! From burgers and seafood to cheese, nuts, breads, wine, and more, you can easily kill some time walking around all the different vendors.
If you’re a coffee lover like me, Blue Bottle coffee is a cute and hip cafe with coffee and pastries! If you want to grab items to go, create your own picnic basket and have lunch in one of the parks around town! Why not circle back to Alamo Square? 🙂
For a change in scenery, hike the trail up to Twin Peaks.
These twin hills that sit almost 1000 feet above the city provide the most spectacular 360 degree view of San Francisco.
It’s about a two mile trek and a fairly easy hike. You can walk, bike or even drive the paved roads to the top.
No matter which way you choose to make the trip to the top you’re bound to get some pretty epic views along the way!
Did we forget any of your favorite places to visit in San Francisco?
Let us know and leave any comments if there are any more attractions or sites in San Francisco that you would add to our list!