California, City breaks, Destinations, Experiences

Top 10 things to do in San Francisco (and some additional tips)

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I was in San Francisco for the first time last summer for a conference. I was really excited at the idea to get to know this city, but I also knew that the time available to do it was quite limited because of my busy working schedule. Before to go I looked online for advice on the main things to do and I found this really interesting post about what to do in San Francisco in 3 days. I had 5 days available, but half of the time I was busy for the conference, so I decided to go exploring the city early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I think that walking around San Francisco before sunrise is a fantastic experience that you should try too. As expected, San Francisco is completely empty early in the morning, except for homeless people sleeping in random places, so you literally feel like you own this beautiful and crazy city. Unfortunately, San Francisco is also a foggy city, so you must be lucky to catch the sunrise. I tried two times and results were not great. The first day I went to the ferry building pier and this was the result.

Ferry Building peer
Ferry Building Pier

Nevertheless being there on my own, before of everybody else that day, was a really good sensation. Another day I tried to catch the sunrise on top of Lombard Street, the famous crooked street. But again, I obtained just a foggy view as result.

Sunrise from Lombard Street
Sunrise from Lombard Street

However I could stand in the middle on Lombard Street because there were no cars and no tourists, and this was quite priceless.

Lombard street
Lombard Street

Anyway, if you are here is because you want to know the top 10 things to do in this city. It was not easy to pick up just 10 things to do, but I tried. So, here they are [plus some additional small tips which I added at the end]:

1. Mission District

Mission District is the most colourful area of San Francisco, with latino roots and a hipster vibes, which is famous for street art. Murales are mainly concentrated at Balmy Alley New murales are constantly added to the wall of the alley, which aspect is continuously changing. This was the aspect when I went (August 2017).

Balmy Alley
Balmy Alley

Between Mission District and Castro there is Dolores Park, where you can stop to get some sun and enjoy the view from the top of the hill. Well, when I was there I could barely see the sun, but the view was still great though.

Dolores park
Dolores Park

2. The Castro

The Castro District is one of the first gay neighbourhoods which were born in the USA. It is a lively and vibrant area still today, characterised by hipster cafes and restaurants, and rainbow pedestrian crossings.

Castro rainbow
Castro – Rainbow pedestrian crossing

I have several versions of this picture. But I love this one so much because of the detail of the man belly! Have you ever thought about the fact you are also in hundreds of other tourists photos? I wonder what I am doing in their pictures and what they think of me!  In this case, I think that the man belly is really sexy 😉 ahah

3. Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies are the Victorian and Edwardian houses which are one of the symbols of San Francisco. When I arrived there it was finally sunny, as you can see, but there were so many people there that I couldn’t take a good picture of the Ladies. So, here there is a picture of me with the Ladies on the back, tourists all around me, and downtown in the background.

Painted Ladies
Painted Ladies

4. Golden Gate Bridge and Marina

Here it is. Another symbol of San Francisco, the Golden Gate bridge.  The famous suspension bridge which links the northern side of San Francisco to Marin County.

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

If you have time, walk from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marina District by the beach. There you relax watching windsurfers and kitesurfers, or you can go and try yourself!

Golden Gate Bridge
Beach between the Golden Gate Bridge and The Marina District

5. Union Square

Union Square is the main square of the city. The night view of the square from the top floor of the Cheesecake Factory is incredible. If you want to eat there you need to book days in advance, but you can still go there, take a photo, and then eat in one of the other restaurants in San Francisco.

Union square
Union Square by night

Union Square is also famous for the hearts, located at the four corners of the square.

6. Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach is the beach on the west coast of San Francisco. I expected to find the surfer paradise, but well, when I was there it was just cold and foggy. Around the beach, there are many activities to do, even it’s foggy. If you want to know more about these activities, they are all well described here.

Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach

7. Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is amazing. You can really step out of the city while you are there. It has a rectangular shape and hosts a huge lake inside, with an island in the middle. If you are there, the Japanese Tea Garden is worth a visit. It is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.

Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park

8. Lombard Street

Lombard Street during the day looks completely different than before sunrise. Colours are more brilliant, but the downside is that there are so many tourists and cars that you cannot really enjoy it. The view is still great though!

Lombard Street
Lombard Street

9. Pier 39

Pier 39 is a good place to eat and have fun. There are several shops, a video arcade, and sea lions laying on the pier.

Pier 39
San Francisco – Pier 39

10. Chinatown

Chinatown is definitely an area of the city which must be explored early in the morning. The area slowly wakes up shop after shop and without tourists around you can really forget to be in North Americal for a while. The area is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest outside Asia. It still has its own strong identity, but it is also perfectly integrated into the city. In the picture, Chinese buildings are right next to the downtown skyscrapers.

Chinatown – San Francisco

Additional tips:

  • Public transports

Public transports are very efficient and you can really go everywhere just using them. Additionally, streets are so colourful and beautiful that you will actually enjoy walking around the city. If you are in this city you must use the iconic historic cable cars which can bring you up the steep hills of the city. There are 3 lines of cable cars, and here you can find the map of them.

San Francisco - Cable car
San Francisco – Cable car on top of Lombard street
San Francisco- Cable car in Powell street
  • Ferry Plaza Farmer Market

I love markets! Farmer markets, flea markets, Christmas markets, any kind of market! I could spend hours just going around them. I know they are my weakness, but not everybody enjoys them. This is the reason I didn’t put the Ferry Plaza Farmer Market in the top 10 things to do in San Francisco. However, if you love market as much as I do, this one is definitely a must see. Not only for the quality of the market but also because of the hip, small-town vibe which you can feel there.

Ferry Plaza Farm Market
Ferry Plaza Farm Market
Ferry Plaza Farm Market – Fresh peas
  • Alcatraz

If you really want to visit Alcatraz remember to book weeks in advance. I didn’t, and thus I couldn’t go because it was fully booked. However, I think it is one of the main attractions of San Francisco.

  • Clothes

As you can see from my pictures, the weather is pretty variable in San Francisco. I was there in August and more than one day I was cold even with my jacket. I know, you picture California as a warm sunny place, but San Francisco is different! So be prepared! Layers are key in this city.

Have you been in San Francisco? Would you add more places to the list? Let me know! I’m planning to go back soon to get to know better this city and I would love to know some hidden gems of this city.

San Francisco was the first stop of my 7-day road trip in Northern California. Click here if you want to know more about my itinerary.

16 thoughts on “Top 10 things to do in San Francisco (and some additional tips)”

  1. Hi Guisi, You really hit the top highlights of our city. Your images capture the beauty and personality of SF. So glad you had a great visit. Thanks for following my photography blog, Jane’s Lens. No doubt, you’ll see more west coast images. Much appreciated.

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