San Francisco, a city filled with diversity, acceptance, ample charm, and plenty of great food. I mean, honestly, there are so many things to do in California you could plan a trip there every month of the year and still not see it all!
Despite the fact that Marty and I had visited San Francisco a few years ago, we couldn’t resist the chance to go back when we came across the $79 round-trip flights from Dallas on CheapOair! I mean, San Francisco is one of the best California weekend getaways! So we packed our bags and set off on another San Francisco adventure.
Of course, we would have loved to do a complete gorgeous San Francisco to Seattle Drive, or a stellar California road trip, sightseeing all along the beautiful coastline of California, but alas, there wasn’t time for that on this trip.
Taking our cues from a 4 Day San Francisco Itinerary I saw, we knew that we still had so much to see in this fabulous city. Actually, there is so much to see and do in San Francisco that you almost forget that the city is actually pretty small only 49 square miles!
If you are considering visiting San Francisco then allow us to highlight some of our favorite tours and attractions in our beginner’s guide to San Francisco so that you can make the most out of your time there! It doesn’t matter if you are doing a layover in San Francisco, or have several days to spend here. This guide will help you plan it all!
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Guide to San Francisco
Big Bus Tour
As you know, Marty loves to take the hop-on, hop-off bus tours to orient himself to a new city.
While there are several open-top bus tours operating in San Francisco, we chose to do our tour with BigBus San Francisco because of their routes.
Big Bus not only has a route around all of the major sights in San Francisco, they also have a Sausalito line and a stop on Treasure Island! This tour was so much fun, and a great way to get to see so much of the city.
Trust me, what looks close on a map in San Francisco can be deceiving, especially when you factor in all the hills.
Your feet will thank you for hopping on a BigBus tour!
This is your first tip in your beginner’s guide to San Francisco! Honestly, there are so many hidden gems in San Francisco that you could stay busy for weeks. Luckily, you have this tour to help introduce you to the city!
Golden Gate Bridge
Oh, The Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic symbol of San Francisco and definitely something on everyone’s San Francisco bucket list.
Everyone dreams of getting the perfect shot of this beautiful bridge, possibly the most photographed bridge in the United States, and definitely making everyone’s guide to San Francisco.
Be sure to do your research because there are so many places to get the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The 80-year-old bridge was an engineering marvel in its inception and still stands tall today, connecting San Francisco to the Marlin headlands.
While no trip to San Francisco would be complete without seeing The Golden Gate, don’t be shocked if she is covered in fog most of the time.
During both of our trips to San Francisco (one in July, and one in October), we were only lucky enough to have a clear view of the bridge for a couple of days.
Funny fact, the fog has a name. The locals call the fog Karl. Karl even has his own social media!
If you’re interested in biking the Golden Gate Bridge, check out this post on biking the Golden Gate Bridge with Blazing Saddles.
While you have to pay a fee if you cross the bridge in a vehicle, you can walk or bike across for free. Biking across the bridge is actually a very popular activity.
If you’re interested in biking across the bridge, consider this Guided Bike Tour Across the Golden Gate that also takes you down to the charming town of Sausalito.
The Fisherman’s Wharf was originally a place for Italian immigrants to sell their treasures from the sea. Today, the Fisherman’s Wharf is brimming with souvenir shops, restaurants, and of course, plenty of tourists, making it a top attraction on our guide to San Francisco.
Despite the crowds of people, you really do have to experience the Wharf. The sweet smell of sourdough was incredible and drew us toward where it originated, the Boudin Bakery.
Outside of Boudin, there is a huge glass window where you can watch the masterful bakers create cute animals out of the bread. My favorites were the crab and the alligator. LOL!
Head inside and upstairs to check out their little museum and learn all about the ‘mother dough’. Trust me, the museum will make you hungry so when you’re done get a delicious sourdough bread bowl filled with classic clam chowder.
After filling your stomach, head down to Pier 39 for a sensory overload.
Pier 39, seemingly always crowded, bustles with activity day and night. Stop out front to enjoy some of the street performers before heading to the Pier’s main attraction, the sea lions.
The Pier 39 sea lions started arriving here after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Surrounded by abundant herring and a protected environment, the number of sea lions grew and in the winter approaches over 300.
While the smell can be a little much, it’s worth it to snap some photos of these cute creatures that always seem ready to pose. Don’t leave Pier 39 before visiting the other attractions including the aquarium, a fun carousel, and numerous shops and restaurants.
Pier 39 is a must do for your guide to San Francisco!
At Pier 45, you will find the Hyde Street Historic Ship Collection. The Hyde Street Ship Collection houses submarines, World War II warships, and the three-mast Balclutha, built in 1886.
Please note that the ships do rotate in and out for maintenance, so be sure to check their website for updates.
I have to be honest, Marty and I didn’t realize that the piers in San Francisco were public property, so you can stroll down any that you choose. We would have never ventured down Pier 45 had it not been for the walking tour that we participated in.
There is also a small sandy beach in Fisherman’s Wharf. Although you wouldn’t catch me swimming in these frigid waters, several people were and some without wetsuits!
I get chilled just thinking about it.
Purchased by Domenico Ghirardelli for the home of his famous chocolate company, this plot of land has gone through some major changes since its inception in 1893. Had it not been for some innovative thinking by the Roth family, Ghirardelli Square as we know it today would not exist.
The Roth family purchased the original plot of land after it had been sold and was going to be made into apartment buildings. The Roths hired a landscape architect to repurpose the historic building, thus creating the first adaptive re-use project in the United States.
Now a historic landmark, Ghirardelli Square is the protected home of Ghirardelli retail stores as well as several restaurants, bars, and a hotel.
Our guide to San Francisco tip: Be sure to go into all of the retail stores as they hand you a free sample every time you walk in. Who doesn’t love free chocolate?!
Also, check out the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop to view the chocolate manufacturing equipment. Don’t be surprised if the smells overtake you and just force you to buy an incredible ice cream sundae or a decadent salted caramel hot chocolate!
I went for the hot chocolate this trip, it was cold outside!
If you’re a true chocolate lover like me, then sign up for the San Francisco Ultra Chocolate Tour. This adults-only tour will take you on a 3-hour journey through chocolate heaven as you sample amazing chocolate paired with wine, beer, and artisanal cocktails.
I mean, cocktails and chocolate, pinch me!!
Union Square is a shoppers dream so therefor it had to be included in our guide to San Francisco. You will find designer stores glitzing up the sidewalks in this area.
I tried to talk Marty into buying me everything from Tiffany and Co., but he just wasn’t having it this trip. LOL!
The actual square, which faces Macy’s, is a great place to take a break from all of this shopping. The first time we visited San Francisco, there was a huge art display set up in Union Square, and this time it looked as if they were preparing to install their holiday ice skating rink!
You can find a complete list of Union Square events here.
Just up the street from Union Square, you will feel like you have been transported to another world. Walking up to Chinatown’s famous Dragon’s Gate, be sure and stop for the infamous selfie before journeying into this San Francisco treasure.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the second largest Chinese community in the United States. Be sure to visit during the day when all of the shops are open and the area is bustling with life.
Head to the fortune cookie factory on Ross to see the birthplace of these yummy crunchy treats.
Also, check out one of the great tea rooms in this area. Marty and I had a great time sampling and learning all about tea from a beautiful Chinese lady that told us she was in her 70’s but didn’t look a day over 30.
She contributed it to the tea?!
For an incredible Italian meal, just pick any restaurant in North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy. North Beach is lined with checkered tablecloth ristorantes, cafes, delis, and lively nightclubs and bars.
Originally part of the Barbary Coast, North Beach is brimming with history as well. The main street, Grant Avenue is the oldest street in San Francisco, and the North Point docks once welcomed thousands of immigrants to America.
Take a break and watch all of the dogs frolic in Washington Square Park before visiting the church where Marilyn Monroes ‘staged’ her wedding to Joe DiMaggio, Sts. Peter and Paul Church (they just took pics outside of the church after actually marrying at City Hall).
For the ultimate food experience, you have to take the Little Italy and North Beach Walking Tour. Not only will you learn about the fascinating history of this neighborhood, but you will also get to taste so much amazing food!
After eating our way through North Beach, Marty and I decided to walk up Lombard Street, you know, that famous zig-zag road in San Francisco, to work off some of the calories we had consumed.
I mean, how hard could it be? It was hard, but I’m no quitter, I did it!
Sorry, I digressed, the real reason you’re reading this section of our guide to San Francisco is because you want to learn about Lombard Street.
Lombard Street, “the crookedest street in the world”, definitely lives up to its name. When we visited during the day, the street was lined with other tourists snapping photos and watching the cars navigate the hairpin turns.
We noticed that there was a line of cars stretching as far as we could see waiting to drive the crooked part of the street. A lady on the BigBus Tour told us that it wasn’t uncommon for people to wait 2-3 hours for a chance to drive this section of Lombard!
I loved the beautiful houses that lined Lombard, all with their own unique style and charm. I do wonder though if the people can ever get out of their driveway?!
If you’re feeling adventurous, you could take the Advanced Lombard Street Segway Tour.
I have to be honest, we saw people doing this one, but I wasn’t brave enough. Well, actually I didn’t have the segway skills anyway! LOL!
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts was originally constructed for the Panama-Pacific exposition that took place in 1915. It was built to show the world that San Francisco had recovered from the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city.
Today it’s mostly used for weddings and photoshoots. Take time to stroll this beautiful area. We couldn’t believe the size of the columns and I loved the gorgeous swan lake.
It’s said that the design of the palace inspired Steven Spielberg to create the famous Star Wars character, R2D2. I can see the resemblance!
Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies
On our first trip to San Francisco, we missed the ‘painted ladies, so I was determined to see them this time. They just had to be included in our guide to San Francisco, so I made sure to visit them on our second trip!
The park was beautiful and surrounded by beautiful Victorian houses, but of course, we had to snap some pictures of the famous ‘painted ladies’.
Beautiful Alamo Square Park[/caption]
One of San Francisco’s hippest neighborhoods, the Mission District is hot real estate and well worth being listed in our guide to San Francisco!
Lined with vibrant street art and delicious food, the Mission District deserves a visit.
Head to Dolores Park for an amazing view of the city (although it was obviously cloudy when we visited) before embarking on your Flavors and Murals of the Mission District Tour.
Take in all the beautiful murals and learn about the history of this great area, including how this fire hydrant saved the neighborhood.
Golden Gate Park
You can spend an entire day exploring Golden Gate Park and still not see it all. This park houses a Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Arboretum, numerous trails, playgrounds and picnic areas on its 1,017 acres.
You might notice that all of the statues are hard to see in this park, that’s because its designer hated statues. When the city erected one of him for the park, he stole it and buried it in his backyard!
Read more about the park and plan your visit here.
We missed going to Alcatraz on our first trip to San Francisco, so we were excited to add it to our itinerary this time so that we could include it in our guide to San Francisco.
Please note that you need to book your Alcatraz ticket well in advance. They are known to sell out 3-4 months in advance, so don’t delay.
We did the BigBus and Alcatraz Combo Ticket for our visit and booked it about 45 days before our trip.
You will board a ferry over to the island before embarking on your tour of one of the United States’ most famous prisons. Of course, you will take the Cellhouse Audio Tour, which is included in your admission price but also check the daily schedule for special programs and guest speakers.
We found the island to be fascinating. Not only did we enjoy learning about the prison, but I loved hearing about the rest of the history of the island as well, including its stint as a military base and now a bird sanctuary.
Alcatraz is definitely worth your time and money.
While not for everyone, I found Haight-Ashbury to be a fun, funky area that intrigued me to no end.
Back in the 1960s, this area was flooded with young hipsters that decided mainstream America just wasn’t what they wanted. Their legacy lives on today in the funky bookstores, record shops, and vintage clothes stores that line this infamous street.
It’s as if you can still feel the energy of the famous musician like The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin still roaming the streets.
Now, granted, since marijuana is legal in San Francisco, you can’t escape the smell of it in this area, but despite that, Haight-Ashbury had a hippie charm that appealed to my inner flower child.
I loved visiting all of the retro-clothing shops and seeing all of the street art in this area. The independent thrift stores and coffee shops are like hidden gems just beckoning you to come inside.
Be on the lookout for “Those famous legs”, I mean they are one of the San Francisco Instagram worthy spots!
Take a Cable Car
You know you want that Rice-A-Roni moment of you hanging off of the side of the cable car. Go ahead, everyone is doing it, making it a fun addition to our guide to San Francisco.
Just don’t wait in line in Ghiradelli Square for the cable car. Get on the cable car faster by getting on at Mason or Bay Street.
For the ultimate thrill ride, get on the California line where California intersects Market to experience one of the big hills of the city.
Tips and Tricks
- Dress in layers. San Francisco is comprised of numerous microclimates. You might be hot in one area, and then freezing cold in another.
- Marijuana is legal here, don’t freak out!
- San Francisco is a big city, and therefore, you will encounter homeless people. Just use common human kindness and remember they are people too.
- Summer is cold here! I learned the hard way.
- San Francisco is overall a laid-back city, there really isn’t a need to get all dressed up unless you’re attending a special event.
- Don’t rent a car in San Francisco. Parking is scarce and expensive!
- The city is full of steep hills, don’t let the map fool you.
- Eat great food while here. Talk to locals and get out of the tourist areas for the best experience.
- Take some time to enjoy the San Francisco nightlife. There are many options to experience the cultural side of San Francisco including clubs, the San Francisco Symphony, or a live theatre show.
- Don’t try to cram too much into your time here. Be sure and slow down to go deeper into this great city. You can always come back like we did!
Final Thought on Guide to San Francisco
San Francisco is such a fascinating and fun city. Marty and I so enjoyed out time here (so much so that we have been twice). We enjoyed exploring the city, learning all about its diversity, history, and culture.
I highly recommend everyone visiting San Francisco at least once in their life! Comment below and let us know what we missed in San Francisco so that we can include it next time!
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About the Author
Michelle Snell is a travel writer, history buff, wine lover, and enthusiast of different cultures. While she is a professional educator by day, her passion for travel has her jet-setting all over the world during her free time.
Michelle enjoys bringing places to life through her informative writing style on her blog, That Texas Couple. Her practical tips and suggestions help make travel dreams a reality while immersing her readers in the history, culture, and food of a region. She is happiest sipping wine in Italy or chilling on a beach with her husband, Marty.
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