A friend of mine is visiting San Francisco in a few weeks and she asked me for some advice. She wanted the absolute musts for a first-timer and I though it would be a great idea to share it with all of you! (And, also, I won’t have to double-type). It was a bit harder than I imagined, because I wanted to include classic must-sees, but I didn’t want to be extremely touristy either. At the end, I decided to go for my personal favourites and drop spots like Alcatraz (sorry, it’s still not worthy for me) or the Cable Car ride (overpriced and crowded). So, here are the top 10 places any San Francisco’s newby should visit!
1. The Golden Gate Park
The Golden Gate Park shouldn’t be only one point in this list. There are so many things you can do in this place that it could use another article for its own. However, I’ll try my best to sum the best parts up.
The Golden Gate Park is a huge recreational area. It is actually larger than Central Park and it is near other amazing spots in the city like the Richmond District or Haight Ashbury (we will talk about this one a bit later). The appeal of this place goes beyond picnics and morning runs across its many acres. Beside the perks of your average urban park, The Golden Gate Park is also the home of several museums, themed gardens and various attractions. Additionally, it hosts events and concerts all year round.
The Conservatory of Flowers is a place that seems taken out of an Alice in Wonderland book (yeah, I was listening how the flowers sang “Golden Afternoon” in the first photo). The California Academy of Sciences is a real work of art. Just the outside of the building is an attraction by itself, and the Young Museum always has amazing exhibitions.
The park has several famous statues, like Don Quixote and Sancho. There is also a Dutch windmill in the west side of the place and you can even learn how to swing dance for free every Saturday.
The Golden Gate park offers endless possibilities for its visitors. You can always plan in advance and check the newest attraction or (like me) wander around to see what you can find. There is always something new hidden in its more than 1000 acres.
2. The Wave Organ
San Francisco is an expensive city. I love it, but it’s true. If you are looking for a budget friendly activity, this might be the perfect option. The Wave Organ is this huge construction right in front of Marina Green that features around 25 granite pipes which activate with the waves and produce music.
That’s the theory of its existence and it sounds really nice. However, if I stick to my journalistic professionalism, I have to confess that all the times I visited it, I have never heard a single sound coming out of that thing. Maybe I go in the wrong season. Maybe I’m half deaf and I haven’t realised. Maybe Poseidon doesn’t like me and he wouldn’t move the waves properly to produce music. Who knows? But the truth is that, music or no music, the place is quite charming. The construction is so cool and quirky and the view of the city from that angle is amazing! You also need to have a nice walk to get there, which, at least to me, it adds a plus to the experience. Also, lots of photo-worth scenarios. Every travel blogger’s paradise.
In any case, if you have ever been to the Wave Organ and actually listened to something other than the sea, please let me know. I’d like to get my ears checked.
3. Fisherman’s Wharf
If I can be sincere, I’ve been trying to think of a better reason to visit Fisherman’s Wharf, than the Clam Chowder, but it’s the base of its appeal! It’s quite full of visitors, there are a lot of tourist traps in the shops nearby and parking around is bloody expensive, but that bread bowl filled with a heavenly warm and creamy soup is completely worth it. Also, there is this homeless man that hides himself behind a bunch of branches and scares the pedestrians. That’s pretty amazing too.
4. Fort Point
I was struggling for many years to get a great spot to capture the perfect Golden Gate photo. I tried from several locations in the city, but Fort Point is, by far, the best.
Even though it is a popular spot, it is not extremely crowded with tourists and you can still manage to get a decent shot without somebody photo bombing you in the back with a selfie stick.
The view from the beach is amazing, but I also enjoyed visiting the inside of the fort. You can climb all the way to the top to have a closer look at the Golden Gate, since you are actually beneath it. Additionally, there is this sort of museum that recreates the lifestyle of the fort during the Civil War and you can meet these sweet ladies wearing long dresses and petticoats wandering in the halls.
The entrance is free and they exhibit documentaries about the history of the fort and host some other various activities for visitors. Also, if you are into cable cars, there are some that depart just outside the building and they are less crowded than the ones of Ghirardelli Square.
5. Pier 39
A bit of a cliché, but a necessary one. Pier 39 is the matrix of the tourists in the city. It is conveniently next to the Alcatraz’s ferry and there is an aquarium, a carrousel and plenty of overpriced souvenir shops.
To be completely honest, I’ve never entered any of the attractions in this place (a bit to pricey for a budget traveller like myself), but the place itself is lovely. It is really worthy to have a look even if you don’t plan to spend hundreds of bucks on it. The pier has a vintage carnival vibe inside that looks amazing in photographs, you can also see (and smell) the sea lions minding their own businesses on the decks and the view of Alcatraz is just breathtaking.
A plus: just outside the pier you can find any sort of street performers and artists. I’ve seen everything from British fire jugglers to 60-year-old gymnasts. But the price has to go to this uninterested Darth Vader who is using the force to squeeze a couple of dollars from the overly excited Star Wars fans.
6. War Memorial Opera House
I know that New York has the crown regarding shows and theatre plays, but if you are in San Francisco you can´t really miss the chance to watch something on its Opera House.
I have the worst of lucks because every time I visit the city, the Beauty and the Beast season is over, but I had the chance to see their Nutcracker Ballet in two occasions and a stage production of A Christmas Carol. Both of them worthed every penny.
The building is magnificent just on its own and it is just in front of the City Hall, which is also astonishing to look at. Especially at night. Just have a look at the shows that are running and do not think it twice before booking!
7. Ashbury Haight
Another budget-friendly spot for San Francisco lovers. Ashbury Haight is also famous for being the Hippie District of the city and it proudly earned its name. Vinyl record shops, psychedelic clothing retails, artisanal jewellery and lots of pot fill its streets.
The vibe of this place is so awesome. People dress so cool and relaxed, there are plenty of street performers and this out-of-the-ordinary shops and cafés. The prices are considerably lower than in other areas of town. Also, it makes the perfect place to have a snack, a drink or just a walk around to get to know all of its wonders.
If you are only going to visit one Chinatown outside of China, I think it must be San Francisco’s.
Starting with the Dragon’s Gate and finishing with the flying book lights just before Little Italy, this San Francisco district should be on your bucket list.
I’m not that much into souvenir shopping, I must confess. But if you want a postcard, a cup or a t-shirt with the Golden Gate on it, this is your place. Don’t even think for a second to buy something like that in Pier 39. Unless, you know, you like getting robbed. The prices in this place are awesome. Additionally, you can find plenty of options to eat some of the best Chinese food in town.
Furthermore, a personal favourite: There are free tea tasting all over the place! You just need to get inside, pretend you are going to buy something and they’ll give you a non-stopping selection of their incredible oolong.
9. Ghirardelli square
It is not only because I love chocolate (which I do). But Ghirardelli square is an awesome spot in the city to hang out. Sugar cravings aside.
Once you are done with the free salty caramel samples (if you go to the second floor shop, the guy that will become your new best friend gives you a free chocolate square every time you enter the building), you can actually have a look around the plaza and discover its restaurants and gift shops. The magnificent view to the beach is also a plus.
I must say that it is a bit pricey, considering it’s a popular tourist spot. But a chocolate-mint scoop from the ice cream shop can’t really hurt your budget that much, can it?
10. A walk in the beach
May sound like a no-brainer. But it is the perfect way to end up a trip to good old San Fran. There are plenty of spots to do so, but my favourite is in the Maritime National Historical Park.
It is right in front of Ghirardelli Square, so you can just stroll along with your ice cream cone while you enjoy the image of the ships near the coast, the view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate at the distance. Also, the crazy swimmers that decide to dive into the frozen waters of the bay are always a welcomed attraction. Even in the middle of winter! What are they thinking?!