San Francisco is actually the coolest city In America, both culturally and climatically. Built on the hills along the southern shore of the win promontories which form the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco Bay, SanFran, or just SF to the locals, is noted for having a very mixed bag of weather. Indeed, one of the fun things to do in San Francisco is simply to try to work out which part of the city is likely to offer the best weather when you want to be out exploring.
From beautiful blue-sky days in September, when the temperature might get up to 88, to long gray days in January, where day time temperatures might fall as low as 48, San Francisco is blessed with more ‘weather’ than almost any other city in the US. Because of the wind and the water and the hills, almost every district in San Francisco has its own microclimate, and a local saying suggests that, if you don’t like the weather you should just walk over the next hill – one of the many unique things to do in San Francisco.
San Francisco has a very equable climate overall, but there is something else you need to know – one of the city’s most listened to radio stations is called simply – K-FOG. Because of the moisture-laden air coming in off the sea, mixed with the warmer dry air coming in from the hot dry terrain to the north and east of the bay area, there is a lot of fog in San Francisco. But don’t let yourself be put off by any climactic issues you might encounter in San Francisco, the city is quite simply the most spectacular and most interesting city in America. From Fisherman’s Wharf to Coit Tower, and from the Google Campus to the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the city is simply the best.
#1 The Rock
Alcatraz is located in San Francisco Bay, just over a mile from San Francisco itself. A lighthouse was built on the island which became operational in July 1853, making it the oldest working light on America’s west coast. Later the island was acquired by the US government which planned to fortify the island to protect San Francisco from naval bombardment.
The Alcatraz facility was finally transferred from military control and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons in 1933. Alcatraz operated as a federal prison from 1934 until it was ordered to be closed by Robert F. Kennedy, then the US Attorney General, in March of 1963. During that 29-year period, Alcatraz became known as one of the toughest prisons in the world. Today the island is a tourist destination, and Alcatraz Tours are just a fifteen-minute ferry ride from Pier 33, and a must on the San Francisco Bucket list. (PAID – $40.00)
#2 Silicon Valley
An important part of the Bay Area economy is what is called Silicon Valley. The name stems from the many silicon chip makers and hardware companies that set up in the area in the early seventies. These days almost all the money is in software and a drive around such cities as Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View, will reveal the headquarters or major facilities of such household names as Adobe, Google, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Intel, Netflix, Oracle, Tesla, and a thousand more.
One of the cheap things you can do in San Francisco is to simply drive south on 101 with a Silicon Valley tourist map, and pop in to see some of the fantastic campuses and outstanding buildings these mega-names have built for themselves. (FREE)
#3 Cable Cars
One of the great places to visit in San Francisco is Market Street. Not simply for the shopping but for the trolley rides. As we have said, San Francisco is a city of many hills and if you are going to walk up and down them all then you are going to be a sore-footed traveler by the end of the day. Fortunately, the San Francisco Cable Cars can save you all that trouble.
There are three trolley lines, two of which start at Market Street. There’s the Powell-Hyde Line which runs out to Beach, the drop-off point for Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Powell-Manson Line which also heads up Powell Street but then turns down Manson Street and takes you to Bay Street, the closest stop to Pier 39. The third line is the California Line, which runs all along California Street from Van Ness to Drumm, the closest approach to Pier 39 and The Embarcadero.
If you want to see San Francisco properly, and become familiar with how the city fits together then take a ride on the Cable Cars – one of the great things to do in San Francisco with kids. But don’t be fooled – although these are one of the greatest tourist symbols of San Francisco, they are a real working part of the city, and are full of real people going to real places for real reasons – that is part of the fun. (PAID $7.00)
#4 Fisherman’s Wharf
If you are looking for things to do in San Francisco for free, then Fisherman’s Wharf is definitely one of the greatest of the San Francisco Bucket List attractions. Indeed, Fisherman’s Wharf is definitely one of the most famous tourist attractions on the whole of the western seaboard of America, and is home to such well-known tourist attractions as Pier 39 and the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
There are literally thousands of restaurants in the area, many of which focus on local seafood delicacies, which spring from both the sea and from the rich cultural heritage of the area. From one-man-stands selling hot chowder and chilled Dungeness crab, to some of the best (and most expensive) seafood places in northern California, Fisherman’s Wharf offers as much choice as any visitor could possible wish for. From third and fourth-generation Italian family restaurants to chains like the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, if you are looking for places to eat in San Francisco then Fisherman’s Wharf is a top choice. (FREE)
#5 Zig-Zag Hill
Lombard Street is a main road in San Francisco which starts at The Presidio and ends at Embarcadero. Lombard Street cuts through Russian Hill, and it is here that it becomes a very unusual one-way street, running downhill for a block between Hyde and Leavenworth. This is where Lombard Street becomes famous, because the descent is made through a series of eight hairpin bends which are said to make this part of Lombard Street “the most crooked city street in the world.”
The Powell-Hyde cable car stops at the top of the block on Hyde Street, and it is well worth your time to get off the Cable Car and go for a walk down and up the equally wiggly sidewalk which runs beside the road. Walking down Zig-Zag Hill on Lombard Street is a unique thing to do in San Francisco, and is one of the great things to do in San Francisco with kids. (FREE)
#6 Nob Hill
One of the top places to visit in San Francisco is Nob Hill: a neighborhood of San Francisco known for its many up-scale hotels and historic mansions which has long been regarded as the natural hub of San Francisco’s wealthy families. Indeed, Nob Hill ranks as one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States, and is recognized as being one of the most expensive and most desirable property markets in the world.
If you are in search of things to do in San Francisco for free, and particularly if you are looking for things to do in San Francisco with kids, then get on a cable car and tackle Nob Hill from the top. Point out to the kids, as you walk down the hill, that if they study hard enough and work hard enough, then they too might aspire to buy a property on Nob Hill. When you get to the bottom find a Wendy’s or a Macdonald ‘s and assuage your angst with a burger or three. (FREE)
#7 The Golden Gate
One of the truly great things to do in San Francisco is to visit the Golden Gate Park San Francisco and the nearby Presidio.
Golden Gate Park San Francisco is a 1,000-acre public area just south of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park, run by San Francisco Recreation & Parks, is rectangular in shape. In this it is much like Central Park in New York, though Golden Gate Park is about a fifth larger. At more than three miles in length (east to west) and just over half a mile in width, Golden Gate Park still attracts more than twelve million visitors every year. However, that number has been in decline recently because of the development of The Presidio, immediately to the north of Golden Gate Park.
The Presidio is a beautiful park, filled with wood-covered hills which offer fantastic views of San Francisco Bay and the ocean, and the chance to walk in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the truly unique things to do in San Francisco. The Presidio had been a military base since 1776, when Spain built fortifications there to try to cement their precarious presence in the area they called Alta California. Eventually The Presidio became a Mexican base, and wasn’t recognized as belonging to the United States until 1848. As part of the 1989 Base Realignment and Closure review, Congress decided to terminate The Presidio as an active military base, and in 1994, all of the land area which comprised the base was handed over to the National Park Service. (FREE)
#8 Union Square
Union Square opened for business in 1850 and is named after pro-Union demonstrations which took place there. In 1903 a 97 ft tall monument to ‘Victory’ was erected to commemorate both the American victory at the Battle of Manila Bay and, strangely, President William McKinley, who was assassinated shortly before the statues unveiling. Between 1939 and 1941 a large parking area was built under the square; making it the world’s first underground municipal car park.
However, Union Square now refers not simply to the plaza, but to all the theatre, shopping, and dining, locations which surround it which makes it one of the top places to visit in San Francisco. The Geary and Curran theaters are at center of the Theater District while Powell and Market both offer excellent shopping to complement the many key stores on the Square itself. Nob Hill’s mansions and hotels, are just northwest of the Square. (FREE)
#9 Flower Power
In 1967 San Francisco, Flower Power were the words on every student’s lips, and the San Francisco district of Haight-Ashbury had become their rallying point. That same year pop-singer Scott McKenzie fired things up by asking visitors to come to San Francisco “wearing flowers in their hair”.
The Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour is one of the truly unique things to do in San Francisco and represents an All Access pass to the story of some of the coolest happenings in one of the coolest places in the world in the coolest era in American history. This tour walks and talks you through the history of the Soft Revolution, looking at the music, the art, the fashion and the drugs. The Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour is one of the great things to do in San Francisco at night, and is designed to give you real insight into the cosmic draw of Haight Ashbury for the children of the revolution! (PAID: $20.00)
#10 El Camino Real
El Camino Real is the oldest recognized road in California, providing a route between all 21 of the Spanish missions in California, and their associated pueblos and presidios, on a 600-mile route from Sonoma to San Diego which offers rare glimpses into California’s Spanish history. Following the route of El Camino Real to Mission San Francisco de Asis is one of the great cheap things to do in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Mission, Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asis), is also the oldest building in San Francisco, commissioned in 1776 as the sixth of the 21 missions in California. The original mission is a small building adjacent to the parish church, a large building with intricately decorated towers. The mission cemetery is the only extant cemetery within San Francisco’s city limits.
San Francisco is a great city, and if you ever ask yourself what to do in San Francisco or what you must see in San Francisco, then the answer you should give yourself is very simple – “Let’s go and find out!” The thing about San Francisco is that it’s a big place these days, and the major San Francisco attractions are scattered around all over the city. With pretty steep hills everywhere as well, San Francisco is not a great spot for self-propelled tourism. There are lots of low-cost travel options which will get you there quick enough, but San Francisco is one of the few cities where you might want to keep your automobile close at hand. If you want to explore the Bay Area and go north of the Bridge, then driving yourself is probably the way to go. Just watch out for rush-hour and the fog.
Frequently Asked Questions by Travelers About San Francisco
What should I see in San Francisco?
This one is easy – you should see the City and you should see the Bridge. All of the San Francisco must see attractions are within reasonably easy reach of the city center. Just get yourself to Market Street and you are twenty minutes’ walk or street-car ride from almost any of the many unique things to do in San Francisco. And to see the Bridge, my advice is to pick a fine clear day, get yourself to The Presidio well before lunch, and then spend the rest of the day admiring San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the beautiful sights and sounds of the Presidio itself.
Is San Francisco safe for tourists?
San Francisco is on average, a very safe city, but like any US city there are good spots and bad. Stay in the tourist areas and you’ll be safe enough. (Watch out for pick-pockets and panhandlers!) Wander out to the Mission area though, especially at night, and the crime rate is bad enough to cause some degree of doubt. Other potential trouble spots include SOMA (South of Market Area) Tenderloin and Chinatown, but as in any city – stay in the center, stay in the light, and stay with the group. Top things to do in San Francisco? – Stay sensible and stay safe.
What are the most popular tourist destinations in San Francisco?
Simple answer to a simple question – the two top things to do in San Francisco are: Fisherman’s Wharf and the Presidio. The great thing is that these two are not very far apart. If you want to walk around the heart of San Francisco then start on Market and take a trolley car until you see something interesting. If you are interested in hippy culture then a side-trip to Haight Ashbury is a must.