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    What to see in San Francisco: places of interest and attractions to visit

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    Lluis Enric Mayans

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    As promised in a previous post, here I am talking about San Francisco, the world capital of extravagance and the unusual, as well as one of the most fascinating cities in the USA, a stop that you cannot miss if you are planning a tour of California for your holidays.

    San Francisco is the nerve center of San francisco bay area, a vast metropolitan area of ​​about 7 million inhabitants, and the fascination it has exercised on millions of tourists for decades is due not a little to its particular geographical location, which sees it soar with its many hills and at the same time pour directly into the sea .

    The city is not huge, but you need to know how to organize yourself to fully enjoy it and not miss the main attractions. The main places of interest they are concentrated in a rather limited area and, with careful planning, in 3 days you can see a lot. So let's try to understand which are the stages not to be missed, here thing see in San Francisco:


    • The Ferry Building: the starting point for visiting San Francisco
    • Coit Tower e Lombard Street
    • Chinatown a San Francisco
    • Golden Gate, Sausalito…
    • fino a Muir Woods National Monument
    • Fisherman's Wharf
    • Union Square and the Financial District
    • Alcatraz: visit to the historic prison
    • Cable Car: San Francisco's historic trams
    • Painted Ladies: to take a souvenir photo
    • The most beautiful neighborhoods in San Francisco
    • Lesser known San Francisco attractions
    • Surroundings of San Francisco
    • How many things ... how to see everything in one go?
    • Tips for flight and overnight stay
    • San Francisco attractions map
    • Other useful information for visiting San Francisco
      • The climate of San Francisco
      • Getting around San Francisco
      • How many days to stay and how to outline an itinerary
      • Contradictions of San Francisco

    The Ferry Building: the starting point for visiting San Francisco

    Cable Car: San Francisco's historic trams
    Group gymnastics in the early morning in the square in front of the Ferry Building.
    San Francisco's iconic Ferry Building

    Other useful info ...

    • Tips on where to sleep in the city
    • San Francisco Pass: when is it worth it?
    • Advice on where to eat

    The Ferry Building is the perfect place to start. In the past it was a very important transport hub, but has now become a gourmets' emporium. The variety and assortment of products are infinite and of first choice. The best time to visit the Ferry Building is on Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, when the square in front is crowded with stalls.

    Having breakfast on the pier, on the outdoor tables, admiring the misty sea with a mixed background sound, composed of the chirping of the seagulls and the sax of a street artist, is the best way to start a day in San Francisco. For more information on the Ferry Building you can have a look here.

    Coit Tower e Lombard Street

    Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill
    La Tortuosa Lombard Street
    Lombard Street the most photographed street in San Francisco

    San Francisco is there panoramic city par excellence. Its continuous ups and downs create breathtaking views and perspectives scattered across San Francisco. There are, however, some particularly favorable points. One is Coit Tower, the Telegraph Hill Watchtower; the other is Lombard Street, the winding flowery road that rises on another important hill of the city, Russian Hill. For more details on how to reach these 2 panoramic points, I refer you to our dedicated guides:

    • Lombard Street in San Francisco: the crookedest street in America
    • Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill: 360 degree views of the city of San Francisco

    Chinatown a San Francisco

    Chinatown lanterns
    San Francisco skyline from the bay

    La San Francisco Chinatown is the oldest and largest Chinese community in the USA and looks exactly like the Chinatowns immortalized in many American crime films: picturesque arches (Chinatown Gate), bundles of red lanterns hanging in the middle of the street, decorated dragons, Buddhist temples, gilded portals and brightly colored balconies. Also in this case you can read our detailed guide to visit the neighborhood:

    • San Francisco Chinatown: what to see to immerse yourself in Asian culture

    Golden Gate, Sausalito…

    Traveling through the Golden Gate
    The Golden Gate in San Francisco
    Golden Gate Bridge

    Il Golden Gate, the great red bridge that connects the city to Marin County, is the symbol of San Francisco, one of the most daring challenges to nature ever launched by American architecture: 2700 meters long supported by 2 gigantic pylons called to withstand strong winds and the rushing currents of the bay. One of the best ways to see the Golden Gate is to rent a bike and cross it to get to Sausalito, a pretty seaside town also known as the Portofino of America.

    It is a peaceful coastal village where you can decide to spend a pleasant and relaxing afternoon, perhaps having dinner in one of its excellent restaurants (find all the information in our article on what to see in Sausalito). For bike rental in the city there are numerous dealers and tours, find out which ones by reading our article on how to rent a bike in San Francisco.

    fino a Muir Woods National Monument

    Continuing after crossing the Golden Gate a short distance from San Francisco (about 20 minutes by car) you will find Muir woods, a beautiful forest of giant sequoias that was also the setting for the film Apes Revolution - Planet of the Apes. Visiting this park you will be able to admire the majestic trees that characterize the woods of Northern California (also present in Redwood, Sequoia National Park and Yosemite Park), walking in already marked and easy to walk paths and a stone's throw from San Francisco .

    You can reach them either with a rental car from San Francisco or with an organized tour; find all the information on how to do it in our article dedicated to the itinerary from San Francisco to Muir Woods.

    Fisherman's Wharf

    The great symbol of Fisherman's Wharf towers over the neighborhood
    Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
    Pier 39, one of the busiest areas of Fisherman's Wharf,

    The crazy city, which wants to have fun and show off, finds itself all here: al Fisherman's Wharf (Fisherman's Wharf), one of San Francisco's most rowdy and party-goers places of interest. It is still a mooring point for fishing boats and for many sea lions, but above all it is an area full of shops, clubs and restaurants.

    The most commercial area is Pier 39, where you can find the most extravagant shops: left-handed shops, specialized socks or magnets retailers, plush shops where you can make and customize your teddy bear and much more. For an itinerary dedicated to this district, take a look at our guide to Fisherman’s Wharf di San Francisco and the article on Pier 39.

    Union Square and the Financial District

    Sea lion at Pier 39
    The Union Square Monument
    Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco

    The beating heart of San Francisco is Union Square, main square and important crossing point, surrounded by luxury hotels, beautiful monuments, classy shops and theaters. If you are a cheesecake lover, go up to the top floor at Macy's and do not miss the Cheesecake Factory (yes it is the one from the Big Bang Theory show): you will find many types of American cheesecake, of which we have given some samples here -> original recipe American cheesecake.

    With a pleasant 20-minute walk you can go to the Financial District, where you can admire another of the symbolic monuments of San Francisco: the Transamerica pyramid, a construction that looks like it has been plunged straight from the Blade Runner movie.

    Alcatraz: visit to the historic prison

    Seafood Groups in San Francisco
    View of Alcatraz
    Arrival in Alcatraz

    San Francisco Bay is also home to the island of Alcatraz, where the infamous prison that closed its doors in 1963 is located. It is possible to take a tour of about an hour on the island, accompanied by an audio guide and reconstructions of life inside the prison. If you want to get some more information on how to visit the prison take a look at our article on how to visit Alcatraz, where you will also find all the references on the tours available for this attraction. Consider that this is a very popular attraction so, to avoid the risk of being left dry, I advise you to move well in advance to book.

    Cable Car: San Francisco's historic trams

    Strolling along the many ups and downs of the San Francisco hills you will notice crowded means of transport with an old-style charm whizzing along the streets of the city; it's about the famous Cable Car, the historic trams that have operated since 1873, a valid means of travel but also a real attraction in itself. In fact, for those visiting San Francisco at least one tour is a must and for those who want to know more there is also a dedicated museum.

    All information on history, routes and timetables can be found in our guide to San Francisco Cable Cars.

    Painted Ladies: to take a souvenir photo

    After the Golden Gate and Lombard Street, the most photographed suburb of San Francisco is perhaps the one near Alamo Square, where you will find the famous Painted ladies, a grouping of private houses which, due to their color and elegance, has fully earned the status of "attraction". In fact, in San Francisco there are several Victorian-style buildings with these characteristics (you can indulge yourself by looking in the Haight-Ashbury and Nob Hill neighborhoods for example), but those of Alamo Square are certainly the most representative and photographed.

    To reach the area take bus 21 which stops at the intersection of Hayes and Steiner Street, just a stone's throw from the ladies. If you are on holiday with small children, you can take advantage of the playground that overlooks the colorful houses. In our article dedicated to the subject we have revealed how to "find" the main Painted Ladies of San Francisco.

    The most beautiful neighborhoods in San Francisco

    San Francisco boasts a number of neighborhoods steeped in history and personality. Here are the ones to consider:

    • Haight-ashbury: the hippie neighborhood of the Summer of Love
    • Mission: the Hispanic neighborhood famous for its numerous murals
    • Fisherman's Wharf: the old fishermen's quarter which has now become one of the liveliest districts full of attractions
    • North Beach: the district of Italian origin where Kerouac and the Beat movement have left lasting traces
    • Castro: the gay district symbol of the LGBT community
    • Chinatown: the neighborhood of the largest Chinese community in the United States
    • Pier: the port district where the Ferry Building is also located

    Lesser known San Francisco attractions

    Palace of Fine Arts

    San Francisco has a considerable number of attractions and consequently in a time of stay that on average settles around 3 days it is inevitable that many are somehow "snubbed", yet these places of interest, even if they do not fall into the category of so-called must see, are by no means to be underestimated and can put you in crisis when planning or even undermine the most popular attractions. Here is a brief list:

    • Garrison: many do not know it but San Francisco is one of the few American cities to be able to boast a National Park inside you. This is where the Spanish military fort was originally built, before San Francisco developed into a city. The area is located at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and offers numerous attractions including viewpoints, beaches, historic sites and walking trails. To find out more, read our guide on the Presidio of San Francisco.
    • Palace of Fine Arts: located at the eastern end of the Presidium, on the border with the district of Marina, this monument was erected on the occasion of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and then rebuilt in 1964. Today, in addition to being one of the most beautiful monuments in San Francisco, it is also used as an exhibition space. Read our guide to visiting the Palace of Fine Arts.
    • Golden Gate Park: on the western edge of the Haight Ashbury district there is a large park full of museums and gardens. Its best known attractions are the California Academy of Sciences, Conservatory of Flower and Japanese Tea Garden, but to those who know how to explore it in more detail, it can reveal other juicy surprises, such as the Bison Paddock, which will give you the opportunity to admire bison up close. To find out more, read our guide to Golden Gate Park.
    • SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art): Many know the MoMA in New York, but far fewer are aware of its counterpart in San Francisco, yet it is one of the largest museum complexes in the United States, with a collection of over 30000 works, among which those of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Marcel Duchamp. Lovers of Contemporary Art will find something for their teeth! If you want to visit it, you can read our article on the MoMA in San Francisco.
    • Ghirardelli Square: in the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood is an entire block made up of XNUMXth century red brick buildings, where you will find a remarkable assortment of shops and restaurants. Many of the buildings are former factories that can boast some history, and the most famous is undoubtedly there Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, founded in the mid-800th century and registered in the United States Register of Historic Places. Here is our guide to Ghirardelli Square.
    • Exploratorium: this particular museum focuses on interactivity: it will give you the opportunity to carry out scientific experiments and tests in first person and for this reason it is also suitable for families with children. Read our guide to the San Francisco Exploratorium.
    • Walt Disney Family Museum: Those wishing to learn more about Disney's creative genius will find a museum inside the Presidio entirely dedicated to its history, complete with drawings, prototypes, machinery and period films. Read our guide to the San Francisco Disney Museum to find out more.
    • Point Bonita Lighthouse: after crossing the Golden Gate, in Marin County, less than 20 km from the center of San Francisco, there is a splendid viewpoint that is snubbed by most. It is an old lighthouse on a cliff overlooking the sea, connected to the mainland by a bridge. The view is stunning and, if you visit it at the right time, you can even go inside the lighthouse. Here is our guide to visiting Point Bonita and the Marin Headlands region.

    Surroundings of San Francisco

    We have already talked about Sausalito and Muir Woods but of places of interest outside the city (and reachable within a day) there are many others: how about Sonoma and Napa Valley, the wine area par excellence in California? Or to cruise along the coast, whizzing on Highway 1, one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the United States, through Monterey, Carmel to Big Sur? Or the natural wonders of one of the most loved US national parks, Yosemite National Park?

    You can organize an excursion out of the city on your own (and in this case I suggest you rent a car from San Francisco and read our in-depth information dedicated to the individual attractions), or book an organized trip; you can take a look at our article on tours for San Francisco and surroundings.

    How many things ... how to see everything in one go?

    There are convenient solutions that allow you to see most of the San Francisco attractions saving and optimizing time. The first option is to purchase a San Francisco Pass, the second is to buy a cumulative package that contains many activities included, including a trip to Alcatraz, rooftop bus with up / down option, excursion to Sausalito, bicycle tour on the Golden Gate and guided tours in the most interesting districts of the city.

    Tips for flight and overnight stay

    To find a hotel we remind you of our article on the best neighborhoods and areas to sleep in San Francisco, while for the flight you can take a look at our tips on how to look for a low cost flight in the USA. If you arrive in San Francisco by plane, my advice is to evaluate the flight + hotel options, a cumulative package that often allows considerable savings compared to separate hotel and plane bookings. To find these offers go to this page.

    Do you need a tested and ready-to-use itinerary for your itinerary? Take a look at our ebooks American Dream Routes, available on computer, tablet and smartphone, and complete with day by day itinerary, interactive maps, suggestions on where to stay and much more!

    San Francisco attractions map

    In this interactive map you will find only the main points of interest in the city, for a complete map take a look at our map of San Francisco.

    Other useful information for visiting San Francisco

    Some concluding information may help you plan your trip and choose what to see in San Francisco.

    The climate of San Francisco

    It doesn't matter if it's summer, San Francisco is cold, very windy and often foggy. Then don't tell me I didn't warn you: here's an article on the climate in San Francisco that will help you organize your suitcase.

    Getting around San Francisco

    Do not focus on the car, expensive and practically useless: you will only take it when you leave the city to start the West Coast tour, as you read in our article dedicated to San Francisco Low Cost rental. One of the best solutions is, as already mentioned, to rent a bicycle, or take the cable cars, the famous ones San Francisco historic trams. Or there is always the bus ...

    If you want to know more, take a look at our article on how to get around San Francisco.

    How many days to stay and how to outline an itinerary

    San Francisco is usually not visited on its own, but rather tends to include it in much wider road trips to discover the West Coast, which inevitably tends to limit the days available a little. Given the need to combine the visit of the city with that of other stops at a distance of kilometers, the formula of 3 days it is certainly a good compromise as it gives the opportunity to get to know the city without having to give up other destinations.

    If you are interested in a typical itinerary to apply to the city, I refer you to my article: What to see in San Francisco in 3 days: detailed itinerary with map and movements. If, on the other hand, you have more or less days available, you can start as a base from the itineraries proposed in this other article: How many days do you visit San Francisco? Itineraries for 1, 2, 3 days up to 1 week.

    Contradictions of San Francisco

    I refer here to my personal experience: San Francisco is a beautiful city and yet I have often tried one feeling of insecurity. In the city you can easily meet homeless people (not all peaceful) and some neighborhoods (Tenderloin above all) are absolutely to be avoided. A minimum of attention in certain areas is necessary. To find out more, you can read our article on San Francisco's most dangerous neighborhoods.

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