San Francisco seems to have sacrificed its vibrant vibes to its wild gentrification becoming one of the most expensive cities in the USA in the process. Still, the setting of San Francisco remains exceptional with the bay and mountains close by while the booming Silicon Valley and scenic Big Sur coastline is only a short drive away – depending on the horrific Bay Area traffic! This guide to San Francisco proposes both excellent indoor and fun and original outdoor activities to take in the best of the city while being able to adapt to its fast-changing weather!
Alcatraz is THE landmark of San Francisco. Escape the bustling city life on a trip to the quiet Alcatraz Island – or not: it is actually one of the most popular tourist attractions in town!
Hollywood has greatly contributed to this myth. Touring the island is the only way to find out what it was really like for extremely dangerous criminals such as Al Capone to be jailed in the most feared prison of the USA.
1.2 Fisherman’s wharf
It is the super touristy must-go-to place. So if you must, go, spot the seals and sea lions and leave! We have a much better spot for you to enjoy sea lions from up close anyway (jump to Day 5)…
Plan for time enough to snap a shot (and maybe an ice cream at Ghirardelli’s)!
1.3 The ferry building
The beautiful ferry building hosts the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Step in and browse its fresh and varied farm products making it one of the top farmers markets of the country.
Plan for 1 hour & grab lunch there.
1.4 The Autodesk Gallery
The Bay Area is the technological hotspot of the most powerful nation in the world. Whether you are planning on visiting the Silicon Valley or not, make sure you stop by the Autodesk Gallery to get a sneak preview. This interactive exhibit showcases the achievements that the Autodesk software technologies allow in the fields of architecture, engineering, construction, visual effects and more. Find out how leading-edge software helps shape a better and more sustainable world and the future.
Plan for 1 hour. Admission is free, check schedule here.
Pass under the instagramable Chinese gate at the corner of Grant St. and Bush St. and step into Chinatown. Stroll its fiercely decorated streets with red lanterns and dragons – for sure you’ll spot one either on a mural or in real life with its suite of percussionists.
Plan for 1 hour & have dinner there.
[modern to street art, burritos & beer]
2.1 The SFMOMA
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) hosted in a sustainable and striking building is home to a rich and varied collection of modern art displayed on 7 floors.
Plan for 2 hours minimum. Check out the full experience.
2.2 Mural walk in Mission
From the sleek galleries of the SFMOMA, dive into the street art in the Mission district. Its many colorful murals are full of symbolism or just entertaining to look at. Between enjoying the impressive graffiti and the best burritos in town, embark on this walk through the Hispanic neighborhood.
Plan for 2 hours plus burrito time (best enjoyed in the sun in Dolores Park).
2.3 The Anchor Brewing Company
A short ride from Mission, tour the Anchor Brewing Company where handmade beers are crafted in a historical brew-house.
It all started in 1870 with two Germans Otto Schinkel and Ernst Baruth migrating to the west coast of the USA to become rich. Things did not turn out the way they expected and they were not successful in the gold rush. To make a bit of money, they went back to their roots and started brewing. 1896 was the start of the Anchor Steam beer, a lager which name evokes the harbor of San Francisco and the boom of the industrial revolution.
They could not really go wrong. With strong German roots and know-how, they designed a lager mixing roasted and raw barley, hop, yeast, and the local water coming straight from the Yosemite Valley.
Despite the 1906 earthquake and the 1920-1933 prohibition both putting a stop to the brewing, the Anchor Brewing Company is still brewing its five legacy beers including the first American craft beer, the Porter designed in 1972 by Fritz – a brewing legend.
Plan for 1.5 hours. Click here for tickets & book your Uber on your way out as after the extensive beer tasting of so many excellent brews, driving would not be wise!
2.4 Head to Hayes Valley for shopping & dinner
Push slightly passed Hayes Valley to the Painted Ladies: these nicely painted Victorian houses have been made famous by the Full House TV show.
Then, head back to the trendy part of town where some of the city’s most in-demand shops and eateries can be found. Soak in the vibes over a nice dinner to conclude your day.
3.1 De Young museum [Golden Gate Park]
Belonging to the city of San Francisco, the De Young’s collections are showcased in two different locations. The De Young museum in the Golden Gate Park focuses on African, American and Oceanic arts with a small modern art collection. The Legion of Honor location overlooking the bay is home to the fine art European collection. Both locations offer temporary exhibits of a rare quality – check the program!
First head to the Golden Gate Park and start with the De Young museum. Check the temporary exhibits and then the permanent collections. Of particular interests are the Mayan stela’s and potteries and the Native American art. Do not head out before taking the elevator ride up the observation tower with fantastic views on San Francisco.
Plan for 2 hours minimum. Click here for tickets.
3.2 The Japanese Tea Garden
To feel like you are traveling through Japan without leaving San Francisco, head to the Japanese Tea Garden, a short stroll from the De Young Museum.
The compact and extremely well maintained garden contains all the elements of a traditional Japanese garden: ponds with colorful koi carps, waterfalls, cherry blossoms in spring, dwarf trees, bronze and stone lanterns, arched bridges, pagodas, a dry Zen garden, and an excellent Tea House.
Enjoying a strong matcha tea with a wagashi – a typical Japanese sweet – or a cup of sencha with some homemade dorayaki (pancake filled with red bean paste and chestnut) or kuzumochi (sweet rice paste flavored with green tea, strawberry, mango, or lychee) overlooking the garden is an ideal break whichever time of the day – and even at lunch time with a small salty selection of udon noodles.
Plan for 1 hour & grab lunch & a sweet there.
3.3 De Young museum [Legion of Honor]
Your entrance to the De Young Museum grants you same-day access to the permanent collection at the Legion of Honor branch. Head there for world-class European fine arts. The Rodin sculpture collection is impressive, and the Dutch, Spanish, Italian and French masters will enchant you. Make sure you take a docent tour as they are really excellent and engaging. You can be sure you will have fun and learn a lot!
Plan for 2 hours minimum.
3.4 The San Francisco city hall
The Beaux Art city hall building which cupola is inspired by the Invalides in Paris is worth peeping into – city officials of the early 20th century found San Francisco so ugly that they tried to turn it into a Paris with hills… Inside the majestic staircase and dome provide some great photo opportunities.
Then cross the street towards the San Francisco War Memorial. Interestingly, it is in this building (as much as in the high-class brothels of the Tenderloin!) that the United Nation was born in 1945.
Plan for 15 minutes.
3.5 A night at the ballet
Beyond being the founding location of the United Nations, the austere Beaux Arts style building of the San Francisco War Memorial hosts the oldest professional ballet company in the US, the San Francisco ballet.
If you are lucky enough to be in town when there is a performance, go check it out. Arrive a bit early to grab a drink at the Prelude to the Opera House, the cozy bar at the basement level and make sure to check out the terrace during the intermission for great views on the lit dome of the City Hall.
The program of the ballet season is audacious with some classics like the traditional nutcracker during the holiday season and also many recent creations. Amongst them, some democratize ballet for newcomers like ‘Space Between’ for instance, putting choreographers like Justin Peck, Scarlett or Pita on stage.
If you miss the ballet season during the first half of the year, you may have a chance to catch an opera during the second half.
Check the schedule here!
[back in time!]
Take the cable car to head to the LGBTQ area of San Francisco, famous worldwide. Roam the streets, pass by the camera store that Harvey Milk used to own before being murdered as the first openly gay LGBT official elected in California.
Plan for 1 hour and time for a coffee at Castro Coffee Company for some of the best brews around!
4.2 The Tenderloin
Explore the history of the most diverse and beaten up neighborhood of San Francisco. If brothels and gambling dens have disappeared, the look of the district has hardly changed for over a century and it remains on the vanguard of sweeping social changes in the USA. Your best starting point is the excellent Tenderloin Museum, followed by a walking tour.
Plan for 30 minutes for the museum & 1 hour for the walking tour. Check out the full experience.
4.3 Coit Tower
Hike up the hill to enjoy great views on the Golden Gate Bridge and the city. Sunset is best!
Take a look at Lombard Street from here with its bends (and if you are driving yourself, driving down the bends can be fun – be ready to wait in line as it is a very popular street).
Plan for as long as needed to enjoy the view.
4.4 Indulge yourself to a 3-star dinner
There are more 3-star Michelin restaurants in San Francisco than anywhere else in the US. You really cannot go wrong with any of them. So indulge yourself to an unforgettable experience!
[an outdoorsy day]
5.1 SUP the bay
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. There, join Sea Trek for a fun kayak or stand up paddle outing in the bay. Whether you feel in shape and want to go all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge or are in for a short paddle, you will have a blast. Browsing the funny floating houses is definitely a great experience and the best way is to do so on the water. On top of this it’s guaranteed you will be up close and personal with the seals.
Plan from anywhere from 1 hour to half a day.
5.2 Fly over
What a better way to check out the Golden Gate Bridge than from the sky. And what about doing this in style on board a WWII aircraft. The team of passionate pilots from Vintage Aircraft has been renovating biplanes as well as P40’s and P51’s that served during WWII. For sure you will a ride of a lifetime!
Plan for 2 hours to admire the fleet & to enjoy the views from the sky! Check out the full experience.
Text and photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
- Make sure to book your hotel nights ahead as places tend to be booked out fast.
- Want to have access to this article while exploring San Francisco? Download it through GPSmyCity and avoid roaming costs while exploring San Francisco at your pace! Already have the app? Check the mobile version of this article here.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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