1. Golden Gate Park
Often touted as San Francisco’s answer to New York’s Central Park, the Golden Gate Park occupies an area more than a 1000 acres. Every year, 13 million visitors enjoy the park’s trails, picnic spaces, sports courts, museums and gardens. Whether you are hiking Strawberry Hill, observing bison near Spreckels Lake, or touring the planets at the California Academy of Sciences, there’s never a dull moment at Golden Gate Park. Visitors can also discover around 2,000 species of plants at the Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest existing public conservatory in the Western Hemisphere. But San Francisco’s tourists come looking for one attraction in particular: The Japanese Tea Garden.
The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest Japanese Garden in the USA. Featuring five acres of pristine and perfectly manicured gardens, visitors follow walking paths past a five storey pagoda, an arched stone bridge, cherry trees, bamboo plants, koi ponds, stone lanterns, a Zen retreat, and a tea house. While most attractions of the Golden Gate Park are free, the Japanese Tea Garden is not. However, if you arrive before 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you get in for free!
When it comes to parking, normally the only options visitors have is to park outside the park, or to use the Music Concourse pay-per-hour parking facility underneath de Young Museum. Another advantage of visiting Golden Gate Park early in the day is that the park isn’t too crowded at this time. You can easily find parking within the park itself, as the busloads of San Francisco tourists come later.
I placed Golden Gate Park uno numero on our list of things to do in San Francisco. When we arrived at the Golden Gate Park before 10am Monday morning, we found a spot right outside the entrance of the Japanese Tea Garden. Super convenient and time-effective in terms of exploring San Francisco!
2. Golden Gate Bridge
There is no way you can come to San Francisco and miss the Golden Gate Bridge. With its orange colored vaulting arches against the seascape, the Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most iconic structure and the city’s top attraction. The bridge derives its name “Golden Gate” from the body of water it spans, the Golden Gate Strait which connects the San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean.
Walking across the bridge should rank top on your list of things to do in San Francisco. I was keeping my fingers crossed on the weather. I didn’t fancy a gloomy day on the bridge, with rain spattering on my glasses. On a bright sunny day, you have gorgeous views of the sea, passing ships and boats, the famous former federal prison Alcatraz, as well as the San Francisco coastline. If you have more time on your hands, you can also choose to hop on a bike and check out some of the scenic bayside trails.
While the Golden Gate Bridge is accessible all day, there are certain irks that comes with being San Francisco’s number one tourist attraction. Parking options are limited on both sides of the bridge. Please note that there is no such thing as free parking, and be ready to compete with tour buses and vehicles of all shapes and sizes. I recommend Battery East Parking Lot on the South end of the bridge. It’s just a 2-3 minute walk to the bridge, and it’s a lot better than running circles around the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center.
3. Palace of Fine Arts
Originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco’s Marina District, the Palace of Fine Arts is one of the few surviving structures from the Exposition.
After undergoing extensive rebuilding and renovation work, the Palace of Fine Arts is today a popular attraction with San Francisco couples and their weddings and photography occasions. Walking under the huge columns and looking up at the beautiful dome, it’s not hard to see why. Elements from Roman and Greek architecture have been incorporated to recreate a wonderful mythical structure from another age. The yellow-pinkish tone of the facade is complemented by shady Australian eucalyptus trees, overhanging around a placid lagoon. While walking on the trails around the lagoon, you can catch sight of swans gracefully charting the waters, geese combing through their feathers, and turtles basking on exposed rock edges. It’s very idyllic and serene, and makes for a great romantic stroll.
Note: There is free parking available around the Palace of Fine Arts, but space is limited. We started our San Francisco trip early in the day, so we got lucky.
4. Haight Ashbury
Best known for being the epicenter of the 1960s hippie movement, Haight Ashbury became the symbol of American counterculture. Even now as you drive through the neighborhood, the quaint shops, bohemian storefronts and brightly colored murals are reminiscent of a time when hippies from all over the country congregated in San Francisco.
A famous landmark to look for in the Haight Ashbury district are the Painted Sisters. Also known as the “Postcard Row” or the “Seven Sisters”, these colorful Victorian houses are located across Alamo Square, and are one of San Francisco’s most photographed row of buildings. But despite their distinct appearance, these homes weren’t always colorful.
They were originally built in the Queen Anne style and were chalky white. Such houses exemplified California’s Victorian architecture, and were the rage during the late 19th century. Thousands of them were built in San Francisco, especially when the population swelled during the gold rush.
During the colorist movement of the 1970s, Victorian houses were transformed into bright, vivid edifices using colors such as gold, turquoise and vermilion. Today, the Painted Ladies are a distinct part of San Francisco’s architectural history.
5. Union Square
Situated in the heart of downtown San Francisco, Union Square offers locals and visitors a grassy respite from the day’s hustle and bustle. The square is surrounded by international brands, boutique stores, fine dining venues, restaurant chains, hotels and corporate offices. It was the perfect place for me to grab lunch at Chipotle’s.
San Francisco is home to one of the oldest Chinatowns in North America. The Asian community here is one of the largest outside Asia. The best way to explore the area is to simply wander around the neighborhood. It’s only 24 blocks long, and it didn’t take me any time at all.
Grant Avenue is the main thoroughfare, but feel free to venture in other directions as well. The streets are lined with fresh aromatic herbs, different merchandize, Chinese cookware, bakeries and cafes, vendors selling sweetmeats and fried snacks, and much more.
P.S. Keep an eye out for Waverly Place. It houses the Tin How Temple, which is the oldest Chinese temple in the USA.
7. TransAmerica Pyramid
San Francisco’s financial district is flanked by massive buildings, but none stands out more than the TransAmerica Pyramid. At 48 storey, it is the second tallest skyscraper on the San Francisco skyline.
8. Fisherman’s Wharf
This part of San Francisco is very crowded, and that can put off some travelers. In my experience, the bulk of tourists are concentrated in Pier 39. I walked a good distance all the way from the Ferry Building Marketplace through other piers. Most places were quiet and had relatively less people. There are shady and flower-lined promenades by the seafront, with private yachts docked. With a good breeze going and plenty of drinking fountains, it’s a great way to enjoy the seaside.
Big attractions like the Aquarium and San Francisco Dungeon, shopping venues, arcades, bars and restaurants are located in Pier 39. But if you stick to what I did, the throngs of people won’t bother you at all. Pier 39 offers majestic views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz prison, something you should definitely take some time to savor. In fact, cruises for Alcatraz depart from here.
But my favorite part were the sea lions, who huddle together and sunbathe on the buoys. They are quite the characters and have such amazing personalities, it’s hard to actually pull yourself away. It’s so much fun just to watch these beautiful mammals in natural surroundings, completely wild and free.
9. Cable Cars
When you tire of walking, hop on board San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, the cable car has navigated San Francisco’s steep hills since the late 1800s.
However, the lines are super long and you have to wait for ages before riding a cable car. With the weather transitioning from sunny and dry to chilly and rainy (completely normal for San Francisco), I gave the cable cars a pass. No thanks, maybe another time.
The fare isn’t cheap too, which might explain why locals in San Francisco don’t use cable cars. A one-way ride costs $7, which is not my cup of tea. Some travelers suggest the day pass for $21. Unless you plan to never actually walk in San Francisco, I wouldn’t bother with this either. It’s a complete tourist rip-off.
10. Ghirardelli Square
This place is heaven on earth for chocolate lovers, sweet tooth sufferers and dessert cravers. Located in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf area, the Ghirardelli Square has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. Not that it matters to me because I am just overwhelmed with all the sweet goodness around me. There are rows upon rows, shelves after shelves of pure decadence and chocolate utopia.
Ghirardelli Square is naturally very popular with San Francisco residents and visitors, and the sheer volume of people traffic is just amazing. Clearly, Ghirardelli must be knocking out some pretty high sales figures.
Visitors can also watch the chocolate manufacturing process while making orders at the Ghirardelli chocolate shop. This is something you don’t get to see every day, and I honestly haven’t seen chocolate being processed before. So it was pretty neat.
When you get bored of feasting with your eyes, the staff hand out free samples. The day I visited, I got the Milk Chocolate Caramel bar. Was not a fan, sorry Ghirardelli! But to be fair, I don’t really like caramel in the first place.
Obviously, I cannot leave this place without generously indulging myself. And nothing concludes my day in San Francisco better than the world famous Hot Fudge Sundae. Two scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with homemade hot fudge, whipped cream, chopped almonds and a cherry. Classic and simply marvelous!