Set along the ocean, with rolling hills and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States and the jewel of Northern California. The city is full of history, great neighborhoods, parks, beaches, museums, and a whole host of entertainment options and things to do.
Some of the most famous attractions are Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf, but the sightseeing possibilities here are extensive. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest of its kind in North America and definitely worth visiting. For an interesting experience, hop on one of the historic cable cars and tour the city.
Discover more things to do with our list of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Bridge:
The Golden Gate Bridge is a California icon gracing San Francisco Bay. It is the most photographed site in the city, with the orange structure backed by blue water, or in many cases, peaking through low lying cloud. At night, the flood-lit structure is equally striking.
Connecting San Francisco with Marin County and other districts further north, the Golden Gate Bridge was, at one time, designated the greatest man-made sight in the United States by the U.S. Travel Service. Opened on May 28th, 1937, the bridge took four years to build and at the time of its completion, was the longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring approximately two miles in length.
If you want to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, the road is US Hwy 101, or SR 1, and walkways on either side of the bridge are open to pedestrians and cyclists. The walk begins at the start of the bridge (accessible from the Presidio shuttle) and ends with a viewpoint in Marin County.
Many locals enjoy biking across the bridge to the nearby waterfront town of Sausalito. Pedestrian access is on the East Sidewalk; bicycle access is on the East and West Sidewalks. The bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists during daylight hours.
For a great view of the bridge, or for anyone interested in photographing the bridge, there are a number of ideal vantage points. From the San Francisco side, Nob Hill, an area known for its posh old mansions, offers some beautiful views over the bridge.
On the opposite side of the bridge, in Marin County, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is another good spot. Also, if you are planning on taking a tour to Alcatraz, there are completely open views from the boat and island.
The historic and notorious Alcatraz penitentiary, located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, is one of America’s most infamous prisons. It operated for almost thirty years, closing in 1963 and re-opening as a tourist attraction in 1973. Some of America’s most well-known criminals were inmates here, including Al Capone and the “Birdman,” who would later form the basis for the fictional movie The Birdman of Alcatraz.
You can take a ferry over to the island and tour the site while listening to an exceptional audio recording that offers a glimpse into life in the prison, rather than just a historical list of the facts. The narration is even voiced by former inmates and guards of Alcatraz.
In the course of its 30-year existence, the penitentiary received a total of 1,576 convicts. There were never more than 250 at any one time, even though there were 450 cells measuring about 10ft by 4ft. At times the number of guards and staff was greater than the number of convicts.
While most people come for the history or the novelty of seeing a former prison, the island is now a prominent area for nesting seabirds.
An easy, convenient, and time-saving way to see Alcatraz and some of the other highlights of San Francisco, like Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and the Golden Gate Bridge, is to take a combined Alcatraz and San Francisco City Tour. If you have only one day to explore the city, and Alcatraz is on your must-see list, this guided tour is the best option. Alcatraz regularly sells out, so booking in advance is strongly advised.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist areas. If this is your first visit to the city and you only have a day or two to see the sights, Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the best places to visit. This old section, once the Little Italy of San Francisco, is known for its shops, restaurants, and beautiful setting along the waterfront. The views from Pier 39 back towards the city are exceptional.
It’s a fun place to stroll around and get a taste for the city. From here, you can also take a sightseeing cruise for spectacular views of the city, or organize a fishing charter. The docks by pier 39 are some of the best areas in the city to see sea lions.
Some of the main attractions in the area are Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, Musée Mécanique, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, and Ghirardelli Square. Restored 19th- and 20th-century ships line the waterfront at the Hyde Street Pier, which is now the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
The USS Pampanito, a national historic landmark, is a WWII submarine and part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Pier 39, located in this general area, is home to more than 50 stores and unique places to eat.