San Francisco boasts iconic landmarks and lively neighbourhoods, making this a favourite among travellers. It’s the fourth largest city by population in California. You’ll most likely want to spend at least a few days here before exploring further afield on a road trip or pairing it with another west coast gem such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland or Seattle. But what should you see while you’re there? Here are some suggestions from Mundana for must-see San Francisco.
The Golden Gate Bridge
With its International Orange paint job, there’s no missing San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It has linked the Presidio to the Marin Headlands since 1937. The stats are impressive: it measures 1.7 miles long, its towers stand 227 metres high (at times shrouded in fog) and more than 80000 miles of wire make up its two cables that support a suspended roadway. Take in the view from Fort Point or Baker Beach. On the opposite side of the bridge, you’ll find charming Sausalito, known for its art scene. From there you can book a seaplane flight over the city and bay – a water landing is an unforgettable experience.
One of the best places to hang out along San Francisco’s waterfront is at Fisherman’s Wharf. Many visitors choose to dine here – there are good seafood options where you can enjoy salmon, Dungeness crab and shrimp overlooking the water. There are also a number of visitor attractions including the Aquarium of the Bay, the 7D Experience and Madame Tussauds. Depending on the season, you might see a large colony of sea lions at Pier 39. Check them out on a webcam before your visit. These noisy creatures first started hauling out onto K-dock after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and have been coming back ever since.
Some of America’s most notorious criminals were held in Alcatraz. This almost impenetrable island prison was operational from 1934 to 1963. During that time it housed hardened gangsters like George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al Capone. No longer a federal penitentiary, it’s now a must-see San Francisco landmark. You’ll need to reserve well in advance to get a spot on one of the boats that ferry tourists over to “The Rock” but it’s somewhere you won’t want to miss. Ranger and docent-led tours help you to imagine what it would have been like to have been incarcerated here as you tour the cell house. Night tours are also available if you can handle this spooky place after dark.
No roundup of must-see San Francisco would be complete without a mention of Chinatown. Dive in through the Dragon Gate at the intersection of Grant and Bush Streets, installed in 1970. Admire Tin How Temple, a Taoist temple dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. Pay a visit to the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum to find out more about the immigrant experience and the history of Chinese settlers in and around the city. There are a slew of great eateries. Check out China Live, which combines food with a marketplace. Grab some fortune cookies at the decades-old Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company on Ross Alley. You’ll also want to call in to Red Blossom Tea for a tasting.
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The cable cars
Getting up San Francisco’s famously steep streets is made considerably easier if you hop on one of its cable cars. You’ll hear their bells ringing from several blocks away. This historic means of transport was first introduced in 1873. Little has changed since then, though they’ve been refurbished of course. As the world’s last manually operated cable car system, it’s recognised as a national historic monument. Hop on and watch as the cable car gripmen move and stop the cars. Captivated travellers can hang out at the cable car turnarounds on Powell, California and Market. Alternatively, visit the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street in Nob Hill where you can learn about their history.
This quirky street bills itself as the world’s crookedest street. It’s not. In fact it’s not even the crookedest street in San Francisco. That honour goes to Vermont Street. But that doesn’t stop people queuing up to drive down its switchbacks. There are eight hairpin turns in the space of just one block. When the road was planned more than a hundred years ago, it was designed to cope with the 27 degree gradient which was challenging for the vehicles of the time. If you’re visiting on foot, you can walk down. Though you’ll need to stick to the pavement (sidewalk), there are several points where you’ll get a good view of the twists and turns for a souvenir photo.
This pretty row of houses on Steiner Street overlooks Alamo Square Park. These Victorian era homes are sometimes called the Seven Sisters or Postcard Row. They’ve become one of the city’s most iconic sights. Partly that’s because of their colourful paint job. But they’ve also featured in many films and TV shows, from Dirty Harry to Full House. Time your visit for sunset, as the colours intensify and the setting sun casts a warm glow over the street. If you want to see inside, it’s rarely possible as these are private residences. However, occasionally tours are offered, so check listings to see if there’s a convenient date. You might also want to check out the Four Seasons in Haight Ashbury – not the luxury hotel chain but a row of four similar properties.
One of San Francisco’s most distinctive buildings is Coit Tower. You’ll find it in the 4.9 acre Pioneer Park at the top of Telegraph Hill. Its elevated position means it can be seen from many points across the city. The tower dates from the 1933. The money came from a woman called Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left $125000 in her will for something that would add beauty to the city she adored. The result, designed by acclaimed architect Henry Howard, stands 64 metres high. Inside, you’ll see a series of murals painted by some of the best local artists of the time. They show what life would have been like in 1930s San Francisco.
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