The San Francisco Bay Area is a sizable region and there are numerous attractions and activities located either in San Francisco or within a short drive. Some of these attractions list coupons in local San Francisco travel guides. These guides are usually free and many can be found at local shops, on street guide racks around select tourist destination such as at Pier 39 or Fisherman’s Wharf. All attractions are alphabetized below.
Driving in “the City” takes a bit of patience. Often there will be no left hand turn signal and you will be forced to wait to turn on an orange light. Often the orange lights are a bit longer then most and you have plenty of time to complete the turn. There are many one way streets in San Francisco. Make sure that you have a map that clearly shows these one way streets. There is nothing more frustrating then finding a route on a map from one place to another, and then find out when it is time to execute that route that you are facing a one way street.
When we have driven in San Francisco we have found that the major streets are usually quickest way around. However, if you are not in a hurry there are many nice side streets that are well worth seeing for the luxurious homes, or distinctive architecture. For more information about driving in San Francisco, Click Here.
Alcatraz Island is worth the ferry price from mainland San Francisco to the island. This island was the home to a maximum security federal penitentiary until the early 1960’s. It is now a part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area. The penitentiary used to house several notorious characters such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelley, and the Birdman of Alcatraz. The ferries leave from Pier 33 just south of Fisherman’s Wharf (5-10 mins walking distance) starting at 9:30 and 10:15am and then every 1/2 hour after that until up to 4:15pm. Check out the popular night tour option also. Once you are on the Rock, check the schedule for return ferries as it differs from week to week although typically they will return every half hour on the quarter hour – and they do leave exactly on time, so if you are one minute late, consider yourself 29 minutes early! It is strongly suggested that you make reservations using the website below. In the summer the tickets sell out extremely fast and even during the off-season they sometimes sell out, especially on good weather weekends.
The ferry ride is a wonderful way to see San Francisco from a distance and experience the sights, smells and sounds that is the San Francisco Bay. Make sure that you bring your camera for there are great photo opportunities of the city as you pull away from the mainland. Bring a jacket as this trip can be a bit windy. Comfortable walking shoes are always nice when you will be taking a walking tour. For up-to-date schedules, pricing & buying e-tickets (which you can print) visit: www.alcatrazcruises.com
Tickets can be purchased on the same day as you plan to take the ferry. This will work fine on some days during the off season, however in the heart of the tourist season (June through August) the lines may be quite long and you may face delays or most likely won’t even get a ticket. We highly recommend purchasing your tickets ahead of time. You can purchase your tickets up to a month ahead of time, but 2 weeks is usually enough time to guarantee a space on a ferry.
Once you reach the island we highly recommend you take their award winning self guiding tour which guides you through the main jail. Typically start you tour with a Ranger Introduction as soon as you step off the ferry – walk up the path to path on your left and watch the 15 minute intro video – then walk all the way up the hill to the jail. Pick up headphones and a unit which hangs around your neck – this will be your tour guide for your time in the Prison. This tour is very informative with former prisoners and guards narrating.
Bringing a picnic lunch is smart as there is no food service on the actual island – snacks are available on the ferry. However be aware that you cannot take food away from the main dock area – bottled water is ok to carry with you throughout your self-guided tour of the island. There are ranger guided tours also available. The first time I went I took a ranger guided tour. The rangers are extremely knowledgeable and you will learn more about this island then if you were to explore on your own. They took us into the heart of the penitentiary and we were even able to enter the solitary confinement cell. The ranger closed the door and we were immediately thrown into complete darkness. Fortunately he kept us in there for only about 30 seconds. Apparently 30 seconds was too long for some, as they began to shout hysterically. Towards the end of the tour we saw the cell where some inmates had tried to break out of the prison. They had moved their bed against a wall and for several months they had spent a few minutes or hours each day chiseling a hole through the wall.
Alcatraz island is also where several movies have been filmed including Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood and more recently, The Rock starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. More information about this unique and well-known island available here: www.nps.gov/alcatraz or here: www.alcatrazhistory.com/mainpg.htm There is also an Alcatraz Alumni website! Visit: www.alcatrazalumni.org
Click on any of the thumbnails below for larger photos of Alcatraz. Photos below include the main cell walkway, examples of prisoner’s small cells, the lighthouse, the water tower, grenade damage from when guards killed prisoners after a riot, recreation plaza, and photos of famous Alcatraz prisoners.
AT&T Park is located in the China Basin area of San Francisco, not far from where the Bay Bridge leaves land on its run across the water to the East Bay. This park is the home of the San Francisco Giants Baseball team. Even though it is a modern park, it feels like a historic baseball park. Its a “classic” park and its not even that old yet! It is an intimate park – certainly much smaller than Candlestick Park. This park is situated right next to the Bay, and often during games kayaks and boats will float in a part of the Bay called McCovey cove waiting for the rare times that a baseball will be hit out of the ballpark into the water.
Broadway Street is a great place for nightlife. The exotic and not-so exotic businesses are mixed in here. There are many erotic sex shops and strip clubs located here including Centerfolds. Despite these businesses this place is definitely not considered “seedy” or rundown. In other words these businesses do not necessarily dominate this street although their presence is certainly felt at night. There is certainly a good mix of restaurants and local cafes here as well.
One place you will want to stop in for a few minutes, or a few hours, or all day is the famous City Lights Bookstore located on the corner of Broadway and Columbus Ave (Address: 261 Columbus Ave). This was founded by the famous poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and was often frequented by members of the Beat generation of poets. Be sure to visit their “poetry” room – this is one of the best sources of many types of poetry – hundreds and hundreds of books are available. Visit: www.citylights.com
NOTE: A great place to take newbies (if you want to frighten them, and maybe yourself), is to drive up the Broadway Hill just above Chinatown/Stockton Street! This is one of the steepest hills in all of The City and it dead ends almost at the top so you cannot turn around, and there is absolutely no decline in the incline where the road is blocked.
All parking is perpendicular to the side of the street (you park sideways instead of up and down like normal parking), and if there is not a parking spot somewhere on your drive up the steep hill, you must back all the way down the hill to the bottom. If you are lucky to find a parking spot, its recommended to back in, so that you can drive out when you leave. Its a weird feeling when parked on this hill to feel the car and your body leaning at such an angle down the hill….quite a struggle if you have to push your door open on the uphill side. Also note if you are on the downhill side and you open your door, it will fly open at an extremely rapid pace if you let it, probably bashing the car below you. Always use caution in these situations when opening car doors especially when you are parked horizontally on the steep streets of San Francisco.
Chinatown is located near the Italian neighborhood of North Beach and to some extent these two neighborhoods mesh together on their “borders”. Chinatown is located only a few blocks from San Francisco’s central shopping area of Union Square. This is the largest Chinatown in North America. There are some very inexpensive restaurants located off the main “tourist” parts of Chinatown. Several have bee in the range of $13 for two people for dinner – very large portions, or $5 for a decent size lunch per person.
Stockton and Pacific cross street area, is more of an authentic flavor of the real Chinatown, compared to the touristy China town with its tourist shops and bright red pagodas and arches – which start a few blocks north of Union Square. The Stockton and Pacific area is where all the markets are – fruit and meat mostly. Few tourists come to this area compared to the touristy part of Chinatown which is located closer to Union Square. There are some very good Dim Sum restaurants in this area – take your pick.
Also be sure to visit the produce markets – you may be the only tourist here! Website: www.sanfranciscochinatown.com
Cow Palace is located a bit south of downtown San Francisco, with part of the stadium extending into Daly City. It is located at 2600 Geneva Avenue. The Cow Palace is an extremely large indoor stadium. Some of the major events held here are rodeos, circuses, concerts and pro wrestling. Every January the Sports & Boat show is held here. For more information call Phone Number (415) 469-6000. Website: www.cowpalace.com
Civic Center is an impressive display of governmental buildings. The top of the rod iron fences in front of the buildings are framed with gold leaf. Some of the buildings here are the public library, city hall, the State building, and the Federal building. All these structures are constructed in French and Neo-Renaissance style. The United Nations held an international conference here in 1945. One June 26, 1945 the Charter of the United Nations was signed in the Veterans Memorial Building.
The fancy building in this complex is City Hall. Historic Gay & Lesbian marriages were initially conducted on the steps here during Gavin Newsom’s first term as mayor of San Francisco. This building is popular with tourists – enter through the main door and then go through security. There is a huge domed ceiling with a grand stone staircase leading to the second floor.
Fort Mason Center is located at Marina Blvd. and Buchanan Street. This center is located right next to the water. Old warehouses are now home to various shops, classrooms and galleries. Weekly events are also given. Incidentally this is where we started our bike ride to Los Angeles in 2001 during one of the AIDS rides. For more information call Phone Number (415) 979-3010. The Mexican museum and the Museo Italo Americano building is also located here. Website: www.fortmason.org
Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge are well worth visiting. First of all Fort Point National Historic site can be reached by turning off Lincoln Blvd at Long Ave or taking the last northbound exit before you reach the Golden Gate Bridge. This fort was built by the United States army between 1853 and 1861. This fort was once the main defense for the west coast. Now you can take a self guiding tour and learn about the fort’s history and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. This fort lies directly underneath the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The road that leads out to the fort parallels the water and during heavy storms in the winter, waves have been known to completely crash over the road. As you drive along the road notice the heavily corroded iron chain that separates the edge of the road from the water. Years of salt water have taken its toll.
A small parking lot is located just before reaching the fort. It is about a 3 or 4 minute walk to the entrance of the fort from this parking lot. Make sure that before you enter the fort you walk over to an area where you are almost directly underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Most likely the wind will be howling with tremendous velocity. You will be able to hear the cars clanking above as they drive over the steel plates on the bridge. Sea gulls will be flying in and out of the bridges supports.
The fort is made of brick. It is composed of 3 stories and is a great place for the kids. It is also a good place to become lost as there are many rooms. There is a good self guiding museum on the second floor. It contains many pictures and historical articles about the construction of the fort and the Golden Gate Bridge. Joseph Strauss was the primary design engineer for the bridge. There are some great photographs of the bridge during its initial construction. There is also a dramatic photograph of the 50th year anniversary bridge walk which took place in May of 1987. I remember at one point during the walk everyone decided to sway back and forth and after the initial human swaying the bridge started swaying and at that point everyone became frightened. That was the last time that they tried that stunt!
The top story of this fort is well worth the several minute hike up the stairs. Once at the top you are completely exposed to the wind and elements. There are spectacular views of the bridge, The City, and the bay. Definitely bring a camera! You can see where the old cannons were installed. There used to be a bridge that connected the top of the fort to a hill about a hundred feet away. In the late 1930’s that bridge and part of the hill was removed to make way for the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort is open from Wednesday through Sunday from 10am until 5pm. Admission is FREE. Donations are accepted. For more information call (415) 556-1693. NOTE: the fort is closed during certain days of the week during the Golden Gate retrofitting project. Website: www.nps.gov/fopo
Golden Gate Bridge. There is good information about this bridge in the fort which lies under the southern span (see above for more information about the Fort Point museum). First of all, the twin towers are the world’s tallest bridge towers. They stand 746 feet high. Sometimes when you drive across the bridge you can see people suspended in buckets painting or making repairs. From the bridge level they look like suspended ants.
Clearance between the bridge’s roadway and the water is 220 feet. The overall length is 8,981 feet and the main span length is 4,200 feet. This is among the longest suspension bridges in the world. In the 1950’s a strong storm tore through the Bay Area and left one side of the bridge’s roadway about 10 feet higher then the other. Needless to say there was quite a lot of repairs.
The bridge toll is $7 if you are driving south bound (discounts given for FasTrak). There are no longer human toll collectors – invoices are sent to your address based on images that are taken of ever single license plate that passes through the former toll booths southbound. If you are driving north there is no toll. There are ways to save money on this toll. One way is if you carpool. On this bridge Carpool is defined as three or more live people per car (not blown up mannequins that resemble humans – this has been known to be done to avoid paying the toll and for also using the carpool lane!). This carpool rule only applies during the commute hours, generally between 6:30am and 8am and then again in the late afternoon commute. Before this bridge was constructed ferries used to carry people from the Marin side of the bay to the San Francisco side.
Also for a wonderful experience try biking across the bridge. The bike lane is located on the western side of the bridge and is for bikes only (no pedestrians). The actual ride can take from 10 to 20 minutes depending on how fast you ride. Once you reach the Marin County side you can bike under the bridge along the waterfront into the happening expensive town of Sausalito (great restaurants, shopping & views of San Francisco) or up to Marin Headlands which offers great views of The City and the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge website is maintained by Cal Trans: www.goldengatebridge.org
Golden Gate Park is composed of 1,017 acres. It is bordered by Lincoln Way, the Great Highway, and Fulton Street. It is basically a rectangle of greenery that slices its way through the western portion of The City from West to East. This park used to be an area of sand dunes. Around the turn of the century a park superintendent turned this wasteland into an oasis of small lakes, native trees and other assorted gardens. Now there is a bison padlock, restored Dutch windmills, tennis courts, golf course, polo field, an outdoor music area, and lastly many miles of jogging or hiking trails. The de Young Museum and the California Academy of the Sciences is also located in this park. However, these places are major attractions in there own right so we included them in separate sections. The Park is open daily 24 hours. For more information about Golden Gate park call (415) 666-7200. Website: www.nps.gov/goga
– Conservatory of Flowers . Unfortunately large storm in 1995 badly damaged the Conservatory of Flowers. This storm was one of the worst wind storms of the 1990’s. We can remember driving down 19th Avenue about 1 week after the storm and seeing hundreds of down trees and broken branches littering the sidewalks and ground. The conservatory is built out of many glass panes and is North America’s longest running public conservatory. The storm broke most of these panes and it was very expensive to replace these. (415) 666-7017. Website: www.conservatoryofflowers.org
– Japanese Tea Garden is a delightfully landscaped garden complete with quaint bridges, ponds, waterfalls, and statues. Dave recommends visiting this garden in the spring. When Dave was there the cherry trees were all in bloom along with many other tree varieties and flowers. There is a tea house here and tea is served daily from 10:30am until 5pm. The garden is open daily from 9am until 5pm. Admission is $3.50. For more information call Phone Number (415) 666-7024.
Lincoln Park is the home to an incredible building, the Legion of Honor, and also home to a memorial to the holocaust victims. This park is out on a small peninsula and is located at 34th and Clement Street. Parking can be quite tight so I recommend getting there early. Bring your camera if not for family and friend photos, then for at least taking pictures of this incredible building. There are large ionic columns in front of this building. Once you pass through these columns you enter a courtyard and are greeted by a large sculpture sculpted by Rodin. The Legion of Honor is a sizable fine arts museum.
The Legion of Honor has permanent works by Renoir, Monet, and Rodin. Often they will have exhibits that come through. We recently saw an excellent exhibit of early and mid renaissance sculpture and paintings. Works were on display by the great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, and Titian, among many others. A separate room was devoted to original works by classical composers. Mozart, Beethoven, Grieg, and Hayden were a few that had original compositions displayed. For more information call (415) 750-360. The holocaust memorial is a sobering experience. White washed and thin statues are lying in a pile surrounded by barbed wire. www.wiesenthal.com
Lombard Street is a popular San Francisco tourist attraction. Well not all of Lombard Street is a major attraction, just the part that winds its way down a 40 degree slope in a series of extreme S turns. This portion of Lombard is often referred to as the “crookedest street in the world”. If you have never been here a drive down this part of Lombard is well worth it. I also recommend walking this. If you walk it you won’t feel like you are in a rush. There is no one clinging to your rear bumper and you can take your time and enjoy the sights and take pictures.
The upper part of the steep windy section is in a residential neighborhood. You can find parking on several of these streets. Directly next to the steep crooked part of Lombard there is a brick pathway that matches the roadway for steepness and crookedness. Along this pathway there are nicely manicured gardens and beautiful flower gardens. These people who live in these homes must be sick of all the tourists walking on their sidewalks, but then you can’t beat the fact that you can tell people that you live on the “crookedest street in the world”.
Note: campers and trailers are prohibited on this part of Lombard. Also note that the traffic jams getting to the top of the crooked part of Lombard street are quite bad in the summer months of June-August. There are only two entrances to the top of Lombard – driving on Lombard going up to the Crooked section, or coming in from the south. If you try to drive in from the north you are not permitted to turn left down onto the crooked section. When you get to this section you will see why as there are cars backed up in both directions trying to get onto this crooked section of Lombard street.
Marin Headlands are located on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Look for the sign directing you to Marin Headlands on one of the first exits on the northbound side of the freeway just after you exit the bridge. There is a narrow winding road up to the headlands. You will be amazed at how soon you have left the hustle and bustle of San Francisco and are out in a natural setting. It is from this road that people have captured the classic views of the city in their photographs. From here you have the Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground and the city in the background. The classic look of San Francisco is the Golden Gate Bridge just peeping above the fog and the tallest buildings also sticking out of the fog.
When this road begins to level out at the top of the headlands you will soon see the remains of old concrete forts. These were constructed many years ago during the war times just in case enemy ships came into the harbor. Now they are abandoned and people climb over and inside of them. There are ways to get inside the forts. It could be dangerous as there is lots of broken glass on the floor and metal rods sticking out of the concrete walls. It is also pitch black inside and a flashlight would be necessary. There are some good photo opportunities from the top levels of these forts. Website: www.nps.gov/goga/marin-headlands.htm
Ocean Beach is well worth visiting – this is a huge very wide impressive beach that runs along San Francisco’s west/ocean side from the Cliff House in the north all the way down to San Mateo County. From the lookout point near the Cliff House on a warm late summer’s day this area looks nothing like the rest of San Francisco – rather more like some of the beaches in Southern California. Surfers, dog walkers and when warm, sun bathers use this wide sandy beach.
Shoot on over to Ocean Beach from Geary Ave in the north – which runs into the Great Highway – a 4 lane stretch of roadway that borders Ocean Beach. Just north of Ocean Beach is the famous Cliff House – a restaurant, lookout and gift shop perched on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Just north and below the Cliff house is the site of the old Sutro Baths – where people used to come to enjoy the swimming pools. There is a tunnel in the rocks here and walkways leading up to view points of the Pacific Ocean and the entrance to the Bay Area.
Palace of Fine Arts is located at the South East approach to the Golden Gate Bridge at Bay and Lyon Streets. This building is the last remaining structure from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition. This building is situated in a park with a small lagoon. There are benches around the lagoon and often you can see people feeding ducks and geese, and also the occasional sea gull. Admission is FREE. For more information call Phone Number (415) 567-6642. Websites: www.palaceoffinearts.org
Performing Arts Complex is located opposite City Hall. This center is composed of the War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. The opera hall is open again after undergoing significant renovations. It is an impressive building from the outside. Davies Symphony Hall contains an organ with approximately 10,000 pipes. The acoustics in this great hall are decent. The hall contains 4 stories; we enjoy walking out on the balconies and overlooking the streets of San Francisco. These balconies extend from the third story. There are various musical instruments placed in the walkways of this symphonic hall. Some are quite old and of historical value. If you are looking for inexpensive but still good acoustic seats then you will want the seats directly behind the main performing stage.
The prices for these tickets are often a quarter of what you would expect to pay for seats in the main seating area. We also enjoy this seating area because directly behind these seats are doors that lead to the backstage area. A casual observer would think that these doors cannot be opened or are locked because they blend in with the surrounding wall. However, we have found that they have always been open. After several performances I have been able to sneak backstage and speak to the performers and get their autographs. This saves the annoyance and hassle of waiting in the “autograph” line after the performances. Tours of this hall are given upon request on Wednesday and on Saturday. Call Phone Number (415) 552-8338 for more reservations. Website: www.sfwmpac.org
Pier 39 is billed as San Francisco’s number one attraction and is located near the Fisherman’s Wharf area next to the actual bay. This area is very crowded during the summer months. This is a collection of attractions such as an Underwater World, Bungee jumping, a Turbo Ride Simulation Theatre and a huge collection of touristy shops with touristy prices as well as quite a few restaurants, mainly serving seafood. A kids Merry-Go-Round is available for part of the season. Live performers often show their “stuff” in the summertime on the stage right next to the Merry-Go-Round. Typical performances are G rated and include juggling, magic shows and comedy. Outside of the Pier 39 you will often see street performers. Walk to the end of the “Pier” through all the shops and you will have excellent views of the Bay Area – including the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island.
A California Welcome Center is located upstairs on the second level – they have high speed Internet access, and its a great place to visit for tourist information about not only San Francisco, but also other areas in California as well.
Pier 39 is a great place to catch boat rides in the bay, including a tour to Alcatraz and back. Be sure to visit the World Famous Sea Lion Resting Area – these huge creatures, mostly male sea lions, haul themselves out of the water and plop themselves directly in front of a viewing platform – they lounge around on floating docks. Its quite impressive to see when there are many lying around at once. Pier 39’s restaurant association maintains a website where you can view the sea lions via their webcam as well as read about the restaurants on the pier.
You can park in a public parking garage located almost across the street from Pier 39. There is also parking along some of the city streets west of Fisherman’s wharf, some metered, some not the further you get away from the wharf. For more information, visit www.pier39.com
San Francisco Zoo is well worth a trip with the family. Highlights include animals of three continents, Australia, Africa and South America. A rare Asian Rhino also lives here. Other parts of the zoo include bears, the “cat kingdom” and the Primate Discovery Center. Every day at the zoo features a number of talks by employees – held throughout the day at various locations. A 1906 Earthquake shack is on display near the Cat Kingdom, as a relic of this great earthquake, these shacks were hurriedly built to provide shelter in the days following the earthquake.
A large snack bar is located at the entrance which serves food that is a bit expensive – several cafes are located within the zoo. The zoo is located south west of downtown right next to the ocean. Parking can be a bit tight but I have always been able to get spaces if I wander around the block several times. In the absence of free nearby neighborhood parking, the zoo maintains its own large paid parking lot. The zoo is open daily from 10am until 5pm. General admission is $18. Discounts are given for students, seniors and proof of San Francisco residency. For more information call (415) 753-7080. Website: www.sfzoo.org
Union Square is considered the heart of San Francisco’s Shopping District. Its a “square block” that is surrounded by many huge and popular shopping stores (Banana Republic, Macy’s, Louis Vutton etc) as well as restaurants and fancy hotels. During the holiday season (post Thanksgiving and closer to Christmas) it can be very crowded on the streets in this part of the city.
Union Square underwent a complete makeover in the early part of this century (for some reason this square seems to get a new makeover every 15-20 years) – it always has been and it still is a great place to sit and people watch. There is an expensive parking garage underneath the main square. Website: www.unionsquareshop.com