10 must-dos for San Francisco first-timers

San Francisco Painted Ladies

You’ve been known to roll your eyes at fellow tourists running around with their maps frantically ticking off every single touristic attraction in town. The idea of jumping on and off any city bus makes you cringe. I get it, I’d personally prefer to blend in and act less like a tourist. But when you visit San Francisco for the first time, there are a few touristy things you are certainly going to want to do, like getting on one of those city buses. This 10 must-dos guide will help you not to miss the key places on your first trip to San Francisco.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Connecting San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge is possibly the most photographed landmark in the entire city and without a doubt the number one must-do in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco

It can be crossed either by bike or by foot as there’s a lane for pedestrians. There are many bike rentals and it is somewhat inexpensive to rent one for a day, around $20.

2. Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39

Fisherman’s Wharf is San Fran’s historic waterfront district. It offers a wide selection of attractions and things to do. From the Maritime Museum (free entrance) for a historical overview of the city to visiting WWII Pampanito Submarine, Hyde Street Pier, Ghirardelli Square, watching the sea lions swimming freely at Pier 39, or the somewhat freaky Musee Mecanique if you are into playing antique coin-operated mechanical instruments & vintage arcade games.

Sea lions resting in the sunshine at Pier 39 in San Francisco California

There are many restaurants in this are but I highly recommend trying a crab sandwich from the market. From Pier 39 you can take the ferry to go to Alcatraz (If you’re interested although is highly overrated and overpriced).

US WW II Pampanito Submarine
WW II Pampanito Submarine

3. Ferry Building

Historically a fascinating place, since its opening in 1898 it was the primary portal of the city, as most travellers and commuters could only reach the city by ferryboat. Nowadays,

The Ferry Building in San Francisco

The Ferry Building functions as a public food market with a wide selection of independently owned shops, fresh local produce, great restaurants, and other interesting local shops. I highly recommend Blue Bottle Coffee for a great coffee, Bookpassage bookstore and Miette Patisserie for delicious desserts.

Also, the ferry terminals operate from here if you’re interested in taking a ferry outside the city.

4. The Presidio

The area around Presidio is where the city of San Francisco started. Actually, the word presidio in Old Spanish means military fort. And that is precisely what this area was circa 1700 when the Spanish built this fortification to protect its new territories.

The Presidio Park and a cute little poodle dog

After it passed to Mexico, a new settlement called Yerba Buena, later known as San Francisco was started. Interestingly, the Presidio served also as a US army post. Nowadays, is a beautiful national park that offers not only a rich history but also great green area for picnics, hikes through the forest, scenic views of the GG bridge at Crissy Field, the Palace of Fine of Arts Theatre and from up the hill there’s a viewpoint called Lyon Street Steps offering great views from the top of the hill.

Palace of Fine Arts Theatre

TOP TIPS:

  • 24hours (1day) – City tour bus (hop on / off) is a great way to have an overview of your surroundings at least for the first day of your trip. Remember is very hilly and sometimes you can’t just walk everywhere. Price: $52.99
  • Free entrance to museums is the first Tuesday of every month
  • Buses take forever and only exact change is accepted. Also, the cable car fare isn’t cheap. A one-way ticket costs $7 and again only exact change is taken, so I highly recommend getting the Clipper Card or the CityPASS and sharing rides in Uber which works great there.

5. Golden Gate Park

Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco California

This park is another must-do really and simply enjoying walking in the park is great. However, I’d also recommend visiting the Japanese Tea Garden, Strawberry Hill and enjoying the tulips located in the western section of the park.

6. The Castro and Mission neighbourhoods

The Castro is synonymous with gay culture, its rainbow-coloured views, adult shops, bars and drag queen shows make it almost impossible to miss. This district is bustling pretty much all day long, however, it is at night that it really comes alive. The Castro Theatre and the GLBT historic Museum are the 2 main landmarks.

The Castro in San Francisco California

The Mission district is just next to the Castro and although it is super close it can’t be more different. It’s a residential area with many Victorian houses but it has sort of a hipster artistic vibe to it. It has become quite famous for its colourful street murals and graffiti paintings about Latin American culture, little cafes and restaurants. You can’t miss Dolores Park, Roxie Theater and of course the Murals at Balmy and Clarion Alley.

Victorian houses in the Mission San Francisco

7. Russian Hill

View from Lombard Street, Russian Hill District San Francisco California

Russian Hill name after a burial site of Russian hunters back in the 1800s, is nowadays quite an upscale residential area with fantastic views of the city, including the Bay and the Golden Gate. It is also famous for the crooked Lombard Street which is an iconic spot in San Francisco you can’t miss.

Lombard Street in Russian Hill District San Francisco California

8. Nob Hill

Nob Hill is another upscale area where practically all the posh hotels are located. There are a few iconic places worth visiting, such as the Cable Car Museum (below) where you can learn more about the city’s iconic way of transportation. It is also free for everyone to enjoy which is a plus.

Cable Car Museum in San Francisco California

Other must-dos are the Gothic-style Grace Cathedral, the charming Huntington Park, Union Square (further down) and of course China Town where you will certainly find many interesting things to photograph or buy.

9. Pacific Heights and Fillmore St.

If you happen to be looking for local designer shops where you can find different and authentic items you have got to head towards Fillmore Street around the Pacific Heights area. There are also many restaurants and bars with great international food.

Fillmore Street in San Francisco

Also, if you walk further down towards Fillmore District you will find the street where the famous row of Victorian houses called the Painted Ladies are located.

Colourful Victorian houses in San Francisco California

10. Wine tasting in Napa Valley and Sonoma

No trip to San Fran is complete without experiencing some good wine tasting in Napa Valley, although in order to do this, you are technically going outside the city. If you have the time I highly recommend spending a day visiting two of my favourite wineries: Carneros and Domaine Chandon.

I happen to have friends in Vallejo (a city in Napa) with whom I stayed but if you aren’t as lucky as I was, the best thing to do is arranging a price with an Uber driver who can take you to the wineries and drive you back to the city afterwards. Remember, renting a car to get there makes no sense as you simply can’t drink and drive and a normal taxi will cost a fortune.

Bouchon Bakery located in Yountville California

If you decide to go wine tasting I highly recommend paying a visit to the famous Bouchon Bakery in the little cosy town of Yountville, about half hour from Carneros you won’t regret eating those pastries, I promise. Well, unless you’re on a diet.

 

Cable Car ride in San Francisco California

 

Californian sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge

 

Californian Volkswagen Beetle

So, hopefully, this post has given you some ideas on the things you shouldn’t miss when you visit San Fran for the first time. And for those who have been already, I hope this article makes you want to go back. Let me know in the comments section what your favourite place in San Francisco is.

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