Located in the northwestern part of California (more west than north), San Francisco is a small, yet heavily populated west coast city and is generally considered the cultural capital of the state, boasting more fine museums and galleries than any city of its kind. San Francisco is the hub and the anchor of California’s Bay Area, a city that abuts the majestic blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and represents the best this region has to offer.
Although the city of San Francisco spans a mere seven miles in length, it is absolutely jam-packed with a wide array of things to do and see. Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast, a foodie or just a curious traveler, San Francisco is certain to please every member of your group, and in fact keeps many visitors coming back again and again to enjoy all the variety the city has to offer.
In addition to the attractions listed below, San Francisco is home to the Golden Gate Bridge—always a crowd favorite—cable cars, Twin Peaks, Golden Gate State Park and the artsy Castro district—known as the heart and soul of the national LGBT movement. The city is also overflowing with great museums, galleries, performance venues, trendy shops and boutiques, and an unbelievable collection of fine restaurants and eateries, featuring culinary favorites from around the world.
In the following article we will introduce you, the reader, to some of San Francisco’s most popular sites and attractions. We will also provide a brief sketch or outline of each of these well-loved tourist’s stops, and explain why they are some of the most oft-visited sights and attractions in the entire country.
Shop and Dine in San Francisco’s Chinatown
Although there are several large cities across America with a Chinese-themed quarter or neighborhood, none can compare to the authenticity and true relevance of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Measuring roughly eight city blocks in length and three blocks wide, San Francisco’s China-themed and Chinese-inhabited district is the largest of its kind outside of China itself, and one of the true hallmarks of the Golden Gate City’s tourism industry.
Assembled in a way that reflects the actual Chinese society and architecture of the 20th century, San Francisco’s Chinatown is an absolute treat for the senses, with sights, sounds and aromas that will undoubtedly leave you thinking you are walking the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and/or other Chinese cities.
Being that San Francisco is a small town geographically, getting to Chinatown is as easy as a short cab or cable car ride. In fact, the iconic San Francisco Cable Car features a stop that is only a few steps away from the Chinatown neighborhood and experience.
While perusing San Francisco’s Chinatown quarter, guests will found boundless opportunities for shopping. Whether you’re in the market for clothing, home goods, or merely souvenirs and mementos, the iconic neighborhood has hundreds of storefront locations manned by hosts who are always happy and eager to offer their goods, services and advice. Of course, one of the real draws of San Francisco’s Chinatown is the amazing cuisine, which is virtually impossible to ignore. From Chow Mein to Sweet and Sour Pork to egg rolls and everything in between, no tourist will ever go hungry while enjoying all the fun and adventure that Chinatown has to offer all who travel here.
Ferry Building Market
When most local San Franciscans think of dining, shopping and entertainment, the first place that comes to mind is the Ferry Building Market.
The Ferry Building Market is quite simply a must-visit attraction when visiting San Francisco and a mandatory weekend pilgrimage for locals. Forget for a minute all the great shops and restaurants the indoor-outdoor market houses, the Ferry Building itself is a gorgeous example of architecture—one that includes a second-story walkway that is perfect for photo opportunities and watching people as they ride and jog along Embarcadero Street.
Locally, the Ferry Building Market is best known as the home of the world famous Cuesa Farmer’s Market. Operating daily, the farmer’s market offers a wealth of healthy foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc.—specialty items such as olive oil, hummus and baked goods, and various trinkets and souvenirs. In addition to the Cuesa Farmer’s Market, the Ferry Building Market is jam-packed with a wide assortment of goods that are fun to browse.
Within the main hall, guests can pore over and admire magnificent glazed ceramics; customized cutting boards; gardening tools and hundreds of types of honey and candles at the Beckind Store. In the front, outside part of the building, people gather every Saturday for the artisan market, where scores of venders ply wares such as homemade jewelry and crafts; paintings; clothing; leather goods; and other handicrafts.
Several restaurants also call the Ferry Building Market home, each serving some of the tastiest domestic and international fare in San Francisco. Don’t forget to order up some authentic West Coast clam chowder, served in a soft bread bowl; or some fantastic oysters on the half shell coupled with a local San Francisco brew. Finally, if you happen to be at the Ferry Building Market toward sundown, make sure to admire the emblematic Ferry Building Clock Tower, backed by the glittering lights of the San Francisco Bay.
Any trip to San Francisco should include a visit to the city’s world-famous quarter known as Fisherman’s Wharf. This heavily visited waterfront neighborhood perhaps best defines all that San Francisco has to offer: great food; amazing shopping opportunities, ranging from souvenirs and candy to fine handmade items and gifts; and some wonderful and very pleasing entertainment acts, ranging from indoor concerts to street performers that collectively bring a sense of awe to all in attendance.
Fisherman’s Wharf is home to several popular San Francisco sites and attractions, including Pier 39 and its large, diverse shopping center. At Pier 39, guests can peruse a variety of stores, such as the large sportswear emporium that offers shirts, sweatshirts, hats and other items representing all NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL teams, as well as scores of NCAA teams. There is also a tasty candy store located here, selling goodies that were popular in different generations, from the 1950s to today. Pier 39 is also home to several great restaurants and some casual eateries, allowing visitors to get a true taste of Pacific seafood delicacies as well as international cuisine. The edge of this pier is also a great place to watch seals sunbathing on the rocks below, soaking up that wonderful San Francisco sun.
In addition to the delicious food and marvelous shopping available at Fisherman’s Wharf, guests can also check out the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, a collection of amazing, almost life-like exhibits once featured on the television show of the same name.
Fisherman’s Wharf is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the famed Golden Gate Bridge; the harbor where tourists depart via the ferry on their way to Alcatraz Island; and the home of the San Francisco-based Ghirardelli’s Ice Cream and Chocolate store—the perfect place to visit after a long day exploring this massive, fun-filled neighborhood.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the perfect spot for viewing old ships, taking in the crisp and salty air of the bay, and sampling delectable seafood and shellfish that is fresh off the boat. The quarter is accessible by most of San Francisco’s public transportation offerings, including the historic F-Street Cable Car that drops off (and picks up) passengers just steps away from the wharf.
Although quite touristy indeed, the island that is Alcatraz is a must-see attraction when visiting the fantastic city of San Francisco. A site that can generate the interest of both young and old, Alcatraz boasts an incredible history that cannot be denied. Once a penitentiary—on an island surrounded by shark-infested waters—the attraction is now an interesting museum that tells the story of what life was like for the prisoners and staff once stationed here.
Alcatraz is a small, extremely rocky island in the heart of San Francisco Bay, and it is visible from many of the city’s most treasured landmarks, including the world-renowned Golden Gate Bridge. Visitors here will not only learn the history of the island, but will also be informed of the many failed escape attempts that are now the stuff of legend (even a movie entitled “The Rock”).
For those who want to visit Alcatraz Island, they will first need to purchase a ticket on the Alcatraz Ferry, which runs regularly from 8 AM until sundown throughout the year. Tickets for the ferry are not very cheap–$31 for adults—but admission to the island and the prison is free of cost.
Once on the island, visitors will be treated to a one-of-a-kind tour that inspires both awe and contemplation. They will be led to all the major sections of the prison, including the kitchen, where prisoners and staff worked together to prepare meals; the mess hall, where inmates gathered to eat, and the famed exercise yard, where most of the violence in the prison would take place. But perhaps the most telling, even spooky, part of the tour is when visitors are led to the prisoner’s cells, where two inmates were once forced to share a 6 x 9 space containing nothing more than a set of iron bunk beds, a toilet/sink combo, and a single writing desk.
Although visiting Alcatraz may not sound like the coolest thing to do in San Francisco, learning the history behind one of the most notorious prisons in the world is not something you will soon forget.
Muir Woods National Monument
For a taste of outdoor scenery at its finest, the city of San Francisco more than delivers with the Muir Woods National Monument. Named for the renowned naturalist and explorer, John Muir, this beautiful slice of California landscape is located just a half hour’s drive north of San Francisco, and is perhaps best known for the hundreds of Giant Redwood trees that populate it, including one that measures a remarkable 380 feet tall.
Muir Woods National Monument is a very expansive national park—a park that is an absolute treat for the senses. Here, massive groves of Giant Redwood trees produce awe-inspiring glances between guests, as tourists of all ages and nationalities pause to reflect upon—and often photograph—the stately, nearly 200 year-old trees. Those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city will not be disappointed they chose the Muir Woods National Monument as their final destination. In addition to the Giant Redwoods, this well-loved attraction offers plenty of things to do and see, such as having an outdoor picnic while soaking up the sunshine at Muir Beach or the even larger Stinson Beach, both of which are located within the boundaries of the national monument. Muir Woods National Monument is additionally a great place for hiking, trail running and cycling, as the park hosts an abundance of well-groomed trails that offer amazing scenery.
Those looking to see the entire Muir Woods National Monument all in one day can schedule a tour with one of the park’s guides—guides who explain the history of the region as buses roll slowly through a paved trail that is carved through the park. Shuttle buses, which run to and from Muir Woods National Monument from San Francisco, also run regularly, and admission to the park is only $10 per person, with children younger than12 years of age admitted free of cost. Muir Woods National Monument is open every day of the year starting at 8:00 AM. Closing times, which are based on sunset times, vary by season.