San Francisco is a city that everyone should visit at least once. It’s built on a small spit of land and surrounded by water on three sides. The incredibly steep streets are lined with stately old hotels and bustling family businesses. San Francisco offers world-class shopping and lots of people are frequently out and about. Cable cars zoom by with bells clanging, and you can smell the delicious foods when you pass by the doors of restaurants that offer Chinese food, Italian meals, and seafood caught fresh from the bay.
If you are going to San Francisco for the first time, your visit will go more smoothly if you know a few basics. Read on for a few tips. Check out the websites of the places you most want to visit. Plan your itinerary. Then go and explore one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
1. Getting From The Airport Into The City
If you are flying into San Francisco International Airport, one easy way to get into the city is to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, known as BART. A BART station is inside the airport and you can buy a ticket, board the train, and be on your way in no time. From the BART station in the airport, trains run about every 10 minutes into Union Square in the heart of the city.
If you have more than two people in your group, it may be less expensive to take Uber or Lyft. When we went with our grandson, we rode BART into the city because we knew Tyler would enjoy the experience of riding BART. Then we saved a bit by taking Lyft to the airport when we left.
Check out the ticket prices and routes before you leave home and decide how you want to arrive in the city.
2. Drive In, Park And Leave The Car
If you are driving in, be aware that parking in San Francisco is notoriously difficult and pricey. And public transportation is extensive and even fun. Park in your hotel lot or a long-term garage. Then walk or take public transportation until you leave. You’ll save a lot of time rather than searching for expensive and rare parking spots.
3. Know The Many Public Transportation Options
The number one most iconic way to zip around the center city is the cable car. Your first visit to San Francisco must include at least one ride on the clanging cars that ply the streets. While the cable car routes can get you where you want to go, they are also an experience. I usually buy a pass for the days I’ll be in San Francisco so I can hop on and hop off the cable cars without buying individual tickets. You can buy tickets and passes at the turnaround just past Union Square.
Another way to travel is to ride the historic streetcars that run back and forth along the water on the F line route, starting at the ferry landing and going to Fisherman’s Wharf. This collection of streetcars comes from different parts of the world. For example, one car is a 1928 Italian streetcar. Each car is unique and provides a great way to save your feet while gliding along the waterfront.
A bus system can take you to more remote areas of the city.
For all methods of transportation and information on tickets and passes, visit the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency website. Also, download the app so you can check schedules in real time when you arrive.
4. Experience The Famous Golden Gate Bridge
So, you’re finally in San Francisco! Be sure to plan time to go to the city’s landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. Opened in 1937, the bridge is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. The deck is held up by metal cables suspended from curving main cables draped over those two red pillars that give the bridge its distinctive look.
Before your trip, think about the options for crossing the bridge. Of course, you can drive across, but my two favorites are walking across and riding a bike from one side to the other.
When you walk across, you can see the rivets and stand under the pillars. You also can stop whenever you like and take in the view of the city and the bay. The bridge is less than 3 miles long, but you can walk just part way and turn around if you don’t want to go the entire distance.
Biking across the bridge is also a great experience. You have to keep an eye out for pedestrians and it’s a bit harder to stop to admire the views. But once you cross the bridge, you can continue cycling a few miles into the town of Sausalito. Grab lunch there, then ride the ferry back across the water. Bike rentals are available at the marina area of San Francisco.
Whether you walk or ride on the bridge, take along a jacket. The wind here can be fierce, even on a warm, sunny day.
5. Embrace The Touristy Fisherman’s Wharf Area
On busy summer days and holidays, Fisherman’s Wharf is jammed with tourists. You may usually avoid such areas in your travels. But you’ll want to spend at least an hour or two at Fisherman’s Wharf checking out the piers, watching the sea lions play on their platforms in the bay, wandering through the shops of Pier 39, and eating in one of the many cafes and restaurants.
My favorite place to eat is Boudin’s, of sourdough bread fame. Choose from the casual cafe downstairs or a more elegant restaurant upstairs. In the small museum, you can learn about the history of sourdough bread. The “mother dough” started right here. A timeline tells not only about bread but also notes events in San Francisco’s past.
6. Plan Ahead If You Want To Go To Alcatraz
It may seem strange to plan a visit to a former maximum-security prison while you are on vacation. But a tour of Alcatraz will be a highlight of your time in San Francisco. You will find “The Rock” a fascinating place to explore, and the tour comes complete with a boat ride on the bay. Book tickets ahead if you want to be sure of a tour.
Allow at least two hours on the island. Take an audio tour of the cell blocks, walk through old tunnels, and sign up for a guided tour led by a National Park Service guide. I went on the tour about prison escape attempts, and I learned so much.
7. Include Some Hidden Gems Along With Well-Known Ones
You will want to visit the Golden Gate Bridge and the wharf. Ride the cable cars. Enjoy a hot fudge sundae at the original Ghirardelli’s. Boat out to Alcatraz. But along with these popular sightseeing activities, plan to include a hidden gem or two. Your trip will take on more personality.
Here are a few suggestions that might catch your fancy. Head to the City Lights Bookstore in the North Beach area. This has served as a literary meeting place for decades, drawing alternative thinkers and writers. You’ll find the quirky and fascinating literature in this independent bookstore.
Or take a walking tour of Haight-Ashbury, billed as the birthplace of the 1960s hippie counterculture movement. Find a helpful sign on the street showing the location of homes of the Grateful Dead, Charles Manson, and Jimi Hendrix.
If you are an art lover, go to Coit Tower, which sits on Telegraph Hill and is visible from vantage points all over the city. Rising 200 feet in the air, the tower is more than it appears to be. Inside, the walls are decorated with murals that depict life in the 1930s.
Public funding paid for artists to paint their assigned areas of the rotunda, and the tower became an art gallery. You’ll be surprised by the lively colors and fascinating subjects of these fresco paintings.
8. Work Out Your Legs Walking The Steep Hills
Walking in the city center of San Francisco means walking up and down very steep hills. For some, this is part of the fun of a visit. Going at the slow pace of a walk allows you to savor the architecture of hotels that are more than 100 years old and narrow apartment buildings that rise several stories high. The sounds include the clanging bells of the cable cars and happy conversations.
If you have health issues that make walking difficult, you may want to take transportation or call for Uber, even if you are going only a few blocks.
Flat parts of the city include the piers, with a wide walkway on the landside. They are numbered in order from the ferry landing at Pier 1 to piers in the 40s at Fisherman’s Wharf, with the museum ships docking at Pier 45.
So, you can plan a pleasant walk outside. Just be careful not to overdo it on the hilly streets unless you are up to the task.
9. Consider Staying Near Union Square
This is my favorite area of San Francisco to use as a base. I’ve stayed in hotels near Fisherman’s Wharf and also in other areas of the city center. I like staying near Union Square because it’s easy to take a cable car or other transportation down to the wharf. And it’s not as crowded with tourists. Restaurants abound, and shopping at the gigantic Macy’s as well as boutique stores is easy. Union Square is especially delightful during Christmastime, with the tall lighted tree and oversize decorations giving it special warmth.
Hotels range from the elegant Westin St. Francis to the venerable but smaller Chancellor Hotel. And just a few blocks off the square is my first choice, the Hilton San Francisco Union Square. The Grand Hyatt San Francisco is also upscale and convenient.
San Francisco is dense, noisy, and lively. It will satisfy all your senses and cater to your interests, whether it’s architecture, history, science, or art. Do a bit of preparation before you go, then enjoy this city where “little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.” You’ll be gathering vivid, unforgettable memories to treasure.
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