San Francisco carries a unique feel, with restaurants, stores, and apartments perched along steep hills. It’s surrounded on three sides by water, and ferries and fishing boats crisscross the bay. Clanging cable cars zip around city corners. Classic old street cars in bright colors travel along the wharf. A world landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, stands guard across the inlet. You will never run out of things to explore in San Francisco.
So, if you have just one day in this charming city, how do you narrow down your activities? Here’s what I recommend, especially if this is your first visit.
Head To San Francisco’s World-Famous Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge alone merits a visit to San Francisco. You’ve seen photos of the bridge all your life, and now you will get to experience it up close and personal. It opened in 1937 after taking four years to build. The roadway deck is held up by metal cables suspended from curving main cables draped over the two red metal pillars that give the bridge its recognizable outline.
You can drive the three miles across the bridge, of course, but what’s really fun is to walk or ride a bike. When you drive quickly across, you miss how massive this bridge is. On foot, you can gaze up at the girders, ladders, and catwalks. Pause whenever you want to look back at the cityscape.
If you bike across, you may want to continue on to Sausalito, the town on the other side of the water. If you prefer to go only a short distance onto the bridge, that will be enough to get a feel for how it’s built and be astounded by the views. Be sure to stop at the gift shop on the city side of the bridge for some memorabilia. And even if it’s a sunny, summer day, take a jacket with you as it’s windy on the bridge.
Stroll Along Fisherman’s Wharf
Yes, this is a touristy area of San Francisco, but you’ll want to go anyway. Why? Here you can look out over the bay and marina. Seafood is cooked right on the street. Buskers are out and about to entertain you.
Pier 39 is the center of activity. It’s full of shops and restaurants plus a small aquarium. A group of sea lions lives on wooden planks in the water and they are fascinating to watch. Just follow the noisy barking to find them.
You can tour a World War II submarine or try your hand at antique mechanical games in the free-of-charge Musee Mecanique. If you love historical ships, the nearby Maritime National Historical Park has several you can tour.
Ride The Cable Cars
What would a visit to San Francisco be without a ride on the noisy, careening cable cars? These are officially a moving National Historic Landmark. The cars first clanged their bells on the streets of this city in 1873. Andrew Hallidie began to build the cable car lines after he saw an accident that injured horses who had been drawing carts on the rain-slicked hills. Hallidie designed a better means of public transport. His idea proved to be a great one, as the cars are still running nearly 150 years later.
Today the city runs three lines of cable cars. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines travel north from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square and back down to the water. The California line runs crosstown and takes passengers through the financial district, past Union Square, and up to Nob Hill. Cable cars share the streets with automobiles, which can get interesting. You can buy a ticket once you board for the $7 ride. Move inside the car or stand on the running board and hang on (tight!) to the pole.
If you’re fascinated with the mechanics of how the cable cars go — and stop — pencil in a visit to the Cable Car Museum at 1201 Mason Street (on the Powell-Mason line). Inside, you’ll stand above the huge cables that run from here under the streets and move the cars as the grips grab onto them. This experience is sure to enthrall any school-age children you’re traveling with.
Wind Down Lombard Street
This is known as the “crookedest street” due to its eight hairpin turns in one block, and it is definitely worth your time. You can ride the cable car and get off right at the top of the winding part. Walk down the hill and take in the views of the bay below and the city’s hills nearby. People actually live on this street, and there is constant traffic. But stairs on either side allow you to walk at your leisure without standing in the middle of the road.
Climb The Filbert Stairs
This is a delightful “secret” stairway leading from the San Francisco wharf area up to Telegraph Hill. The Filbert stairs wind through the backyards of residents, and the people take pride in keeping up their gardens and benches for the enjoyment of all who wander here. It’s quite a climb, but so much fun. Start at the edge of the Levi Strauss Plaza at 1155 Battery Street. Take breaks along the 400 steps and turn around to see the bay far below. At the top, Coit Tower looms directly in front of you.
Enjoy Art Inside Coit Tower
Coit Tower sits atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and can be seen from vantage points all over the city. It’s named for patron Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left funds when she died in 1929 “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.” The slender tower resulted, and it still stands, rising more than 200 feet from its base. Even if you don’t go inside the tower, you can pause at its base and look down on the city. Pick out Lombard Street, then gaze over the water to find the Golden Gate Bridge and the island that hosts Alcatraz prison.
If you can fit a visit inside Coit Tower in your itinerary, you will happen upon an art gallery painted onto the walls. Colorful frescoes decorate the entire circular ground floor. These murals have a fascinating history. A year after Coit Tower was completed in 1934, a group of artists was funded by the Public Works of Art Project, a forerunner of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Each of the scenes depicts life in California during the Depression. The artists painted an assigned subject in an assigned area. Scenes show different aspects of industry and commerce. The artists worked at the same time, side by side, day after day until the murals were finished a few months later. The results are historic and worth seeing. Then take the elevator that whisks you to the top of the tower for more panoramic sights.
Eating In San Francisco
San Francisco is a foodie’s paradise. You can find any kind of food here. North Beach majors in Italian. Chinatown has outstanding Asian dishes. Seafood is a specialty, and fresh-caught offerings are everywhere from street vendors to the fanciest restaurants. Here are a few of my recommendations.
My favorite breakfast cafe is tucked into a line of fancy hotels and shops on Union Square, and you might pass it by if you didn’t know better. Sears Fine Food is an iconic, family-run restaurant famous for mouthwatering Swedish pancakes, bottomless cups of coffee, and a bustling warmth. It dates back to 1938. This is where the locals go (and various celebrities through the years, too). It’s not only a great place to start your day; it’s also where you can soak in the vitality of the city.
Another excellent choice for breakfast or a coffee is the Ferry Building on the pier. This is actually where the ferries to Sausalito come and go, and inside the building is a marketplace of fresh foods, pastries, and specialty gifts. It’s at the end of the California cable car line and at the beginning of the numbered piers. From here, you can hop on a streetcar and continue your sightseeing along the water.
Lunch And Dinner
Boudin Bakery is where sourdough bread as we know it today originated in the mid-1800s. Isidore Boudin traveled to California from Burgundy, France, and blended the sourdough recipe of Gold Rush miners with French baking techniques. Here, you can see the bread as it’s made in the restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. A small museum tells the story. You can enjoy a crusty sourdough bread bowl with clam chowder in the informal cafe or venture upstairs to the dining area for a delicious seafood dinner — complete with warm, fresh-baked bread. The views of the bay out the windows add to the ambience.
Sweet Treats In Ghirardelli Square
Right near the wharf you’ll find Ghirardelli Square. This is the home of the first Ghirardelli Chocolate factory. You can sit and enjoy a hot fudge sundae in any of three locations in the square. I recommend the one closest to the street, by the fountain. Here you can observe the chocolate-making process from start to finish. And a world-famous ice cream treat is a fine way to finish off your day.
Shopping In San Francisco
Head to Union Square for serious shopping. Anchor department stores include Nordstrom, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s. A large Apple store on the square is busy day and night. I have spent hours (!) in the multi-floor DSW browsing for shoes. There’s no need to shop till you drop, though. Stop for refreshment and rest at the Cheesecake Factory or the Boudin Bakery inside Macy’s.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, head to Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll find everything from clothing and books to key chains and snow globes.
With your one day in this vibrant city, you can experience the sights, sounds, and history that make San Francisco unique. You can walk the hills or ride a cable car. And you can sample some delicious cooking and desserts. You are certain to enjoy a memorable day, and you will want to return (for longer!) soon.
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