Articles by City & Category
San Francisco Travel Guide & Tips
March 2, 2022 By Deborah Wakefield
Remember "Name That Tune," the TV show/musical guessing game that had contestants betting they could correctly identify a song after hearing only five... or three... or sometimes a mere two notes? If there was a visual version of the show called "Name That City," contestants would surely pinpoint San Francisco in a heartbeat. Even a fleeting, split-second glimpse of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge or one of those classic RiceARoni cable cars instantly screams San Francisco!
From Coit Tower to Alcatraz to the "Painted Ladies," a string of seven colorful Victorian homes that adorned the opening credits to the long-running sitcom "Full House," San Francisco's landmarks are unmistakable. But there's a lot more to "The City by the Bay." And many of the city's treasures and treats are tucked away in its innumerable neighborhoods.
Depending on who you ask, San Francisco has 140-ish distinct neighborhoods. Everyone's heard of Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf, but what about some of the others—not to mention their interesting sobriquets. Does Treasure Island really boast buried bullion? Was The Castro named after a Cuban dictator? Is The Sunset district the best place to watch the sun go down? (Answers: No, no and maybe.)
San Francisco Travel's online "Neighborhoods" guide is a great way to peruse the districts you might want to include in an upcoming visit. Each neighborhood blurb offers a little history and practical information for visitors.
Guided Tours: San Francisco City Guides offers 1.5-2-hour tours that cover a variety of topics, including neighborhoods. (City Guides is a nonprofit supported almost entirely through guest donations. So, while the walks are free, a $15 per person donation is suggested.) Visit the "Find Your Tour" page to search tours by the following themes: Architecture/Art, Essential San Francisco, History/Pioneer, Landmarks, Natural History, Neighborhoods, Social History, Stairways/Views, and Uniquely SF. Although walk ups are always welcome, it's best to preregister for tours online (just in case the group has a size limit).
MAJOR ATTRACTIONS & NEIGHBORHOODS
Use the links below to jump to must-see attractions in various neighborhoods:
- Alcatraz City Cruises—Embarcadero
- American Bookbinders Museum—SoMA/Yerba Buena
- Aquarium of the Bay—Fisherman's Wharf
- Bay City Bikes and Parkwide Bike Rentals—Fisherman's Wharf
- Bay City Bikes and Parkwide Bike Rentals-Golden Gate Park
- Blue and Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Cruise—Fisherman's Wharf
- California Academy of Sciences—Golden Gate Park
- Children's Creativity Museum-SoMA/Yerba Buena
- City Lights Bookstore—Telegraph Hill/North Beach
- Coit Tower—Telegraph Hill/North Beach
- Conservatory of Flowers—Golden Gate Park
- Contemporary Jewish Museum—SoMA/Yerba Buena
- de Young Museum—Golden Gate Park
- Golden Gate Park
- Grace Cathedral—Nob Hill
- Japanese Tea Garden—Golden Gate Park
- Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum—The Presidio/Richmond District
- Mission Dolores—Mission District
- Museum of 3D Illusions—Fisherman's Wharf
- Museum of the African Diaspora—SoMA/Yerba Buena
- PIER 39—Fisherman's Wharf Neighborhood
- The Presidio—The Presidio/Richmond District
- Saints Peter and Paul Church—North Beach/Telegraph Hill
- San Francisco Botanical Garden—Golden Gate Park
- San Francisco Cable Car Museum—Nob Hill
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)—SoMA/Yerba Buena
- San Francisco Railway Museum—Embarcadero
- San Francisco Zoo & Gardens—The Sunset
- Theater District/Performing Arts—Union Square
- The Walt Disney Family Museum—The Presidio/Richmond District
- Yerba Buena Park—SoMA/Yerba Buena
- Castro District
- Cow Hollow
- Embarcadero / Financial District
- Fisherman's Wharf
- Golden Gate Park
- Haight-Ashbury District
- Mission District
- Nob Hill
- North Beach
- Pacific Heights / Marina District
- The Presidio / Richmond District
- SoMA/Yerba Buena
- The Sunset
- Telegraph Hill
- Union Square
- Union Street
San Francisco's Chinatown is North America's oldest and second largest (only Manhattan's is bigger). Stepping into this district feels like a trip to China, sans the long airline flight and customs lines. Residents and merchants greet one another in Chinese; the wonderful smell of dim sum dumplings waft from restaurants; and splashes of bright red (a lucky color in China) decorate building fronts, signs and lanterns strung across the streets.
You can explore Chinatown on your own or book a tour that gives you extra insight into the culture and flavors of the neighborhood. Wok Wiz Tours offers a "Classic Tour" that delves into the history of the first Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and ends with a dim sum tasting. The "I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown" Tour is, as the name implies, for serious foodies. The tour starts with a traditional Chinese breakfast, incorporates a tea presentation and sampling, meanders through a bustling Chinese food market, and ends with a hosted, family-style Chinese lunch.
All About Chinatown Tours also has a culinary tour that aims to demystify China's regional cuisines, exploring the differences between Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hunanese, Northern and Halal foods. You'll visit an herbal pharmacy, hear about how the mooncake was invented, visit a fortune cookie company, sample dim sum and egg custard tarts, and browse seasonal fruits at Stockton Street food markets.
Other options include the 2-hour Chinatown Tour that departs daily at 10 a.m. and covers historic sights, architecture, murals, an authentic Buddhist temple, outdoor food stalls and a lot more. For an additional fee, you can add a dim sum lunch to your tour.
Sweet Souvenirs: The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, a tiny slice of heaven tucked into a nondescript Chinatown alleyway, invites you to master your own destiny. Well, they'll let you craft a personalized message to be wrapped inside an order of bespoke, handmade, hand-folded fortune cookies. Custom orders come in packs of 50 (up to two custom messages per order) or 100 (up to three custom messages allowed). Order your cookies a few days before you visit and then collect them in person from this unassuming, sweet-smelling landmark.
You can find lots of other souvenirs and gift ideas along Grant Avenue, which is also the location of Chinatown's beautiful Dragon Gate (at the intersection with Bush Street). The gate has three passageways, a large center entryway for vehicles and a pair of columned side portals for pedestrians. Each entry is covered with a green tiled roof, the largest of which is topped with two fierce dragons representing power and fertility. Flanking the sides of the gate are two traditional Chinese guardian lions.
Chinese Historical Society of America is the oldest organization in the United States dedicated to the presentation of Chinese American history. Its small museum is located inside the historic Julia Morgan-designed Chinese YWCA building. The museum covers the immigrant experience through photos and artifacts.
One permanent installation is a 1952 mural by James Leong (1929-2011) titled One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in America. Unveiled in the era of Senator Joe McCarthy's bullying campaign of terror against suspected Communists, the finished mural evoked strong responses among Chinatown's then residents. Some objected that the painting was "too Chinese" and reinforced stereotypes; others complained that the artist had over-Americanized his subjects. Unceremoniously relegated to a recreational room over the years, the mural suffered the indignity of ping-pong-playing children hitting balls against it. But, in 2000, the mural was painstakingly restored by Leong and moved to a more prominent display area.
Two of Chinatown's most photographed sites are the Sing Chong and Sing Fat buildings, which face one another across the intersection of Grant Avenue and California Street. Topped with pagodas, they were the first buildings to be built in Chinatown after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. If you time your picture taking just right, you can capture an image of the streetcar passing in front of one of these iconic buildings.
Nip down one of Chinatown's famous alleys and side streets, where you'll find old-world herbalists, tiny restaurants, artwork and more surprises. Two of the most popular alleys for visitors are Ross, the oldest alley and home of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, and Waverly Place, nicknamed "The Street of Painted Balconies" for its colorfully painted facades.
Also on Waverly Place is the Tien Hau Temple, the oldest Taoist temple in Chinatown (founded in 1852 in honor of Tin How, the Empress of Heaven and Goddess of the Seas). Respectful visitors are welcome in this Buddhist temple, so long as they don't mind walking up several narrow flights of stairs to get there. The view at the top is worth the effort. The scent of incense hangs heavy in the air alongside hundreds of beautiful red-and-gold lanterns and dangling red prayer cards. Just beyond is the shrine with its carved wooden statue of Tin How. You may see gifts of fruit left for Tin How, who was thought to protect the early Chinese immigrants on their journey across the Pacific. Note: As this is an active place of worship, please refrain from taking photos or talking.
At one time, there were dozens of Japantowns in California alone. These areas flourished during the Meiji period (1868-1912), when large numbers of Japanese moved to the western United States for economic reasons. Japantowns were neighborhoods where newly transplanted residents and their families could continue to celebrate their ancestral culture, language and customs within the larger American society. The areas boasted Japanese-language schools and newspapers, shops with Japanese items, and Buddhist temples. Sadly, many of these vibrant, dynamic communities disappeared during World War II, when American citizens of Japanese ancestry and Japanese immigrants were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war.
San Francisco's Japantown has been at the center of the Bay Area's Japanese and Japanese American community since 1906. It is one of only three officially designated Japantowns remaining in the United States (the others being in Los Angeles and San Jose).
Edible Excursions will introduce you to the flavors of Japantown with its popular culinary walking tour. Tastes on the tour may include sweet potato lattes, onigiri (rice balls); takoyaki (golf ball-sized Japanese street food with a piece of tako, or octopus, tucked inside), and sweet and savory mochi, a Japanese dessert is made from sweet glutinous rice flour.
Many of Japantown's cultural celebrations, including the Cherry Blossom Festival, Nihonmachi Street Fair, the Summer Obon Festival (honoring ancestors) and the Year-End Festival, are held in Peace Plaza (at Post and Buchanan streets). When not hosting a community event, the plaza is a tranquil spot for reflection. Donated by Osaka, San Francisco's sister city in Japan, the plaza's main element is the Eternal Flame Monument, a five-tiered pagoda of contemporary design.
Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival: You don't have to travel all the way to Washington, D.C., to see a springtime profusion of cherry blossoms. In fact, we would argue that the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is better than D.C.'s (insert friendly rivalry here) because it includes more cultural elements. There's the Grand Parade that winds from City Hall to Japantown, the booming percussion of taiko drum performances, traditional folk dancing, a tea ceremony demonstration, kids' activities, music and food. (Although held virtually in 2021 due to COVID, the festival is typically held over two weekends in April in Japantown's Peace Plaza.)
One of the most moving elements in the community is a three-sided, nine-foot-tall landmark that stands in honor of California's remaining Japantowns (San Jose and Los Angeles have similar installations). The three sides of the monument illustrate important moments in Japanese American history. The first panel, The Beginning, notes the arrival of Japanese immigrants to California. The second, The Exodus, depicts the heartbreaking injustice Japanese Americans faced when they were forced from their homes and into internment camps, effectively being imprisoned by their own government. The third panel, titled The Promise, conveys a more hopeful message: It shows three generations of Japanese Americans dancing at Obon.
Fisherman's Wharf has been the home of San Francisco's fishing fleet for close to 125 years. If you're like many, though, the colorful boats, while fun to see, aren't nearly as interesting as the delicious haul they deliver to San Francisco's restaurants, including Dungeness crab, Pacific rock cod, halibut, salmon, and more.
Seafood Seasons: You can time your visit to mesh with your favorite seafood. Spring-Summer is the best time for halibut, which can be served fancy-style as steaks or fillets or as finger-friendly fish and chips with a side of creamy tartar sauce (Frankie's Pier 43, whose eye-catching décor—take time to inspect the antique toys dangling from the ceiling—is a mishmash of color and history, is a favored pit stop for fish and chips). Winter is Dungeness crab season. And while some would argue that the best way to eat Dungeness crab is to pick it yourself straight out of the shell, plump, piquant crab cakes run a close second (Fog Harbor Fish House on PIER 39 offers both whole crabs and crab cakes served with a zesty Cajun remoulade). You'll also see Chinook salmon (May-October), Rockfish (March-December) and striped bass (year-round) featured as specials on local menus.
Fisherman's Wharf's most famous residents are the rowdy, rambunctious sea lions that have taken over PIER 39's K-Dock. The first sea lions arrived after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and, thanks to the marina's protected environment and plentiful nearby supply of herring, it wasn't long before dozens of their flipper-footed pals followed. While K-Dock's sea lion population can swell to as many as 900 in winter, summer sees a good number of the pinnipeds migrate south for the breeding season. However, to the delight of visitors, a few "single by choice" sea lions remain year-round.
It's easy to conduct your sea lion surveillance from the railings of PIER 39. You also get a nice view of these gregarious, social animals from the decks of the Blue & Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Cruise boats. The Blue & Gold Fleet packs a lot into each 60-minute Bay Cruise Tour, taking guests along the San Francisco waterfront, under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and around infamous Alcatraz Island (see the Embarcadero neighborhood description for details on exploring Alcatraz on foot).
Once back at PIER 39, visitors can dig into fresh seafood at several restaurants, shop for souvenirs, or visit other attractions.
At the Aquarium of the Bay, you can get up close to the residents of San Francisco Bay without ever leaving dry land. The aquarium's 300 feet of crystal-clear tunnels provide a scuba diver's view of some 20,000 marine animals from the bay and nearby waters. The Touch the Bay exhibit lets guests feel the unique textures of sharks, rays and sea stars, while the adorable antics of the resident river otters are sure to leave a smile on your face.
You can carry that smile over to the designed-for-the-Instagram-era Museum of 3D Illusions. You'll have a blast inserting yourself into dozens of 3D backdrops that let you become part of the artwork. Before you leave, your phone will be chock-full of photos of you riding a magic carpet over San Francisco, running from zombies, or hanging by your fingertips from a skyscraper.
One of the most beautiful PIER 39 attractions is the San Francisco Carousel. Handcrafted in Italy, the San Francisco Carousel is intricately hand-painted with famous San Francisco landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Chinatown, Lombard Street, Alcatraz and, of course, the popular California sea lions. The carousel's 1,800 twinkling lights make a sunset ride especially memorable.
And no one should depart the Fisherman's Wharf district without a stop at Boudin at the Wharf, purveyors of "the bread that began with the gold rush." Since 1849, Boudin has been baking loaves of this crusty, tangy San Francisco staple using its own special starter (flour and water that's been left to ferment until natural, wild yeast from the air around us drops in to work its magic). Legend has it that Boudin's starter—from which it still bakes all of its sourdough fresh each day—was given to bakery founder Isidore Boudin in 1849 by a Gold Rush miner.
There is a small Boudin's café on PIER 39, but Boudin at the Wharf (a 6-minute walk from the PIER) is the company's flagship store/café. It's the best place to watch the bakers at work and, of course, sample the end result.
Finally, if you need to work off some of that delicious sourdough, you can rent bikes from Bay City Bike and Parkwide Bike Rentals. The outfit offers guided bike tours, including a "Streets of San Francisco Electric Bike Tour" (you'll appreciate the motor when tackling some of San Francisco's famous hills), as well as on-your-own bike rentals (pedal bikes, hybrid or electric). Among the more popular guided tours are "Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito," which takes riders across the Golden Gate, into laid-back, sunny Sausalito, and then by ferry back to Fisherman's Wharf; and the "Golden Gate Park Tour," which, thanks to its avoidance of busier city streets, is perfect for families and novice riders. You'll see the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake and the park's herd of resident bison (from a safe distance).
Traveling from Fisherman's Wharf to the Embarcadero is only a 30-minute walk along the waterfront, but you can also catch a ride the F Line or E Line vintage streetcars. The F Line (also known as the Market & Wharves Streetcar) connects the Castro district to the waterfront (Embarcadero and Fisherman's Wharf area). The E (Embarcadero) Line hugs the city's east-facing waterfront.
The retro streetcars were built in 1928 in Milan, Italy, and later acquired by the city to smoothly and stylishly transport visitors and residents. Even if you only ride a few blocks, the nostalgia is worth the ticket. And if the ride has only whetted your appetite for more information on rail travel, visit the San Francisco Railway Museum (fittingly located on the F Line route) for an in-depth dive into rail transit of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Streetcar or Cable Car? What's the Difference? You can dazzle the locals—and perhaps annoy your traveling companions—by pointing out the differences between a streetcar and a cable car. San Francisco's streetcars, which are also called trolleys or trams, run on steel rails and have a pole or arm that connects to an overhead wire for power. The city's cable cars also run on rails, but without any overhead wires. Instead, the cable car tracks have a slot or groove between the rails. This is where the cable resides that pulls the car along its route. So, if it's on rails and has an overhead pole connecting to a wire, it's a streetcar. If it's on rails with an open slot between them and no overhead pole/wires, it's a cable car. Dazzle away!
Across the street from the Railway Museum is another impressive temple to transportation: The landmark Ferry Building with its dramatic clock tower. When it opened in 1898, the Ferry Building was San Francisco's transportation hub. Until the 1930s, as many as 50,000 people a day commuted by ferry to the city. The elegant two-story building with its repeating interior arches and vast skylights was also the focal point for anyone arriving by train.
The construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, along with increased personal automobile ownership, gradually made commuting by ferry obsolete. By the 1950s, the Ferry Building was a shadow of its former grand self. But San Franciscans are consummate recyclers, and the Ferry Building was restored, refurbished and reopened in 2003 as a reimagined (albeit smaller) transportation hub, a notable collection of restaurants and shops, and a thrice-weekly farmers market. And visitors can still catch ferries here for day trips to Angel Island, Sausalito, Oakland and other destinations.
From several of the ferries, you'll get a great view of San Francisco's bridges: the famous Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, referred to most often as simply the "Bay Bridge." And while the iconic Golden Gate with its orange vermilion paint job has always been the flashier of the two siblings, the long-overshadowed Bay Bridge got a pretty cool makeover for its 75th birthday. Light artist Leo Villareal designed a 1.8-mile display of 25,000 individually programmed LED lights that display changing, non-repeating patterns. The Bay Lights, the world's largest LED light sculpture, adorns the north side of the Bay Bridge's west span. The lights shine nightly from dusk to dawn and are ideally viewed from along the Embarcadero, from the Ferry Building to Pier 33.
The Exploratorium, Pier 15 on the Embarcadero, is a gateway to exploring science. It's also a must-do for families. As one of the most experimental museums in the world, the Exploratorium invites guests to touch, tinker and play with more than 600 interactive exhibits. As you move in front of the Colored Shadows exhibit, your body can block one, two or more of the light streams, resulting in shadows of many colors. Pick a rainstorm to experience, from mist to driving rain, in the playful Remote Rains. Slow down, settle in and create surprising contraptions in the Tinkering Gallery. And don't miss breathtaking views of the city and bay from the museum's beautiful glass-and-steel Fisher Bay Observatory.
Although Alcatraz can look peaceful from the water, the gritty history of the island's use as a federal penitentiary has brought a dark mystique to the place. The presence of such infamous inmates as gangster Al "Scarface" Capone, bootlegger George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and murderer Robert "The Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud further helped establish the island's notoriety. But the history of Alcatraz also encompasses its earlier use as a 19th-century harbor defense fort. And when you dock at Alcatraz, you'll see visible reminders of the two-year (1969-1971) occupation by Native Americans whose goal was to bring attention to the grievances of America's indigenous peoples. The occupation was an inspiration to indigenous groups around the world seeking additional rights and cultural respect.
Alcatraz City Cruises, the official concessioner to the National Park Service, offers a variety of tours. The Day Tour allows visitors to explore the Cellhouse, guided by an award-winning audio tour narrated by former inmates and correctional officers, who tell stories detailing prison operations and daring escape attempts. Then take more time to roam the windswept island and learn about its layered history through outdoor interpretive signs, a Discovery Guide island map, and exhibits. Park rangers are stationed around the island to answer questions.
The Alcatraz Behind-the-Scenes Tour includes the Cellhouse Audio Tour, but also takes guests to several areas that are typically off limits to the general public. And you can experience Alcatraz in a whole new light during an evening visit. The Alcatraz Night Tour is restricted to a limited number of visitors each day and includes talks by expert island historians.
The 1,500-acre (607 hectares) Presidio is a former military base turned national park. Because the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge connects to the Presidio, the park is one of the best places to view and photograph this art deco-inspired icon. It's free to walk or bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, and about 5 million people each year make the 3.4-mile (5.5 km) round-trip. The Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center (on the Presidio end), which offers an orientation video and displays of construction artifacts, is a great starting point for your journey. (Note: The hours during which pedestrians and cyclists can be on the bridge vary by season. If you're planning a round-trip excursion, be sure to check hours and plan accordingly.)
A hike across the Golden Gate Bridge may leave you feeling the need to refuel. Luckily, many of the Presidio's former military buildings have been repurposed as eateries. The Presidio Social Club, which occupies the 1903 military barracks, serves a seasonal menu heavy on local ingredients. Weekdays, Café Rx, a favorite with park staff, serves reasonably priced breakfast and lunch items in its off-the-beaten-path location.
If the weather is fine, you might want to stay outdoors, enjoying the Presidio's numerous hiking trails, bike paths and picnic areas. There's also Baker Beach, a mile-long stretch of sandy shoreline under serpentine cliffs and an 18-hole golf course.
But, should San Francisco's famous fog and mist rule the day, duck into The Walt Disney Family Museum. Founded by Walt Disney's eldest daughter, the late Diane Disney Miller, the museum is located inside one of the iconic brick Montgomery Street barracks, built in 1895. Inside, visitors are taken on a meticulously planned journey through Walt Disney's fascinating life. Among the exhibits are the first-known drawing of a certain now-famous mouse, film clips, and a spectacular 13-foot model of Walt Disney's original vision for Disneyland.
Yoda Visit You Must: Yoda—yes, the Yoda of Star Wars' fame—has been immortalized in bronze on the Presidio campus. If you're wondering how a statue of a fictional 900-year-old Jedi knight ended up in a national park in San Francisco, you're not alone. But the answer is clear once you realize that the sculpture sits outside the offices of Lucasfilm, the production company of Star Wars creator George Lucas. The life-sized Yoda (a little over 2 feet tall) sits atop a fountain and is a popular selfie spot for Presidio visitors. Location: Outside the Lucasfilm offices in the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio's Building B.
Stretching from Oregon to Mexico, the 1,200-mile (1,931 km) California Coastal Trail links the Presidio to Lincoln Park in the neighboring Richmond District. Hikers navigating the trail will find Lincoln Park packed with attractions, from the stunning views from at Land's End to the stunning artworks on display at the Legion of Honor Museum.
See 4,000 years of ancient and European art, including an original Rodin The Thinker, at the Legion of Honor Museum. The museum's beautiful building is a three-quarter-scaled adaption of the 18th-century Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris. Not to miss in the galleries: Water Lilies by Claude Monet; an intricately designed, painted and gilded wooden ceiling from Spain's Palacio de Altamira; and a Relief from the Tomb of Mentuemhet (circa 660 BCE), Egypt.
Across the street from the Legion of Honor museum, situated in a grove of trees, is sculptor George Segal's devastatingly moving Holocaust Memorial. Segal's haunting tableau depicts a man standing behind a barbed-wire fence. Behind this figure are several sprawled, ghostly white bodies whose placement echoes the horrific images of the victims of the death camps.
Per square foot, Golden Gate Park is one of America's most jam-packed attraction enclaves. But, even with its myriad museums, gardens, monuments, activities and events, the park's 1,017 acres (411 hectares) rarely feel crowded. In fact, the park's sprawling grounds played an important role after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, when thousands of the city's displaced and traumatized residents sought refuge here, many living in temporary wooden barracks until the city could be rebuilt.
Because there are so many to cover, we've grouped Golden Gate Park's attractions into categories (this lengthy list only scratches the surface of all the park has to offer). Many of the descriptions below are courtesy of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.
GARDENS AND OUTDOOR SPACES
Japanese Tea Garden—Created for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition as the fair's Japanese Village exhibit, the Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest in the United States. Its lush, harmonious landscaping pays homage to the traditional Japanese art of the garden. Paths wind through its 3.5 acres (1.5 hectares) of carefully chosen and manicured plants, including graceful Japanese maples, twisting pines, clipped azaleas, and cherry trees that put on a spectacular flowering display each spring.
San Francisco Botanical Garden—The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum grows and conserves plants from around the world. The 55 acres (22 hectares) of landscaped gardens and open spaces are home to more than 8,000 varieties. Stroll through a grove of coast redwoods and a Mediterranean garden, explore cloud forests from meso-America and southeast Asia, and wander gardens of flora from Chile, Australia, Japan, California, and more. The garden's special collections include rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias and succulents.
Shakespeare Garden—The California Spring Blossom and Wild Flower Association established the half-acre intimate formal garden in July 1928 to showcase the plants and trees mentioned in William Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Today, this charming, secluded garden is the perfect urban spot to enjoy a good read or have a romantic picnic lunch. Of course, with love and Shakespeare in the air, this garden has become one of the city's most popular wedding venues.
Rose Garden—Until January 8, 1961, San Francisco had no municipal rose garden, although an informal one had existed in the park on Stanyan Street between Oak and Page streets early in the century. Today, the Golden Gate Park's Rose Garden contains examples ranging from a simple five-petal configuration of the wild rose to hybridized blooms in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and fragrances. These delicately perfumed blossoms are a universal symbol of love and romance and offer the perfect backdrop for a budding relationship.
Queen Wilhelmina Garden—No, you're not in Holland—there really are two windmills in Golden Gate Park. The Dutch (north) Windmill stands 75 feet (23 meters) high and is surrounded by some 10,000 tulip bulbs that bloom each spring. Interspersed with Iceland poppies, the tulips seem all the more glorious and colorful. The bowl-shaped Queen Wilhelmina Garden was designed by Roy L. Hudson and named in 1962 to honor the long-reigning queen of the Netherlands, who had died that same year.
Waterfalls—There are two manmade waterfalls in Golden Gate Park. The first artificial waterfall installed in Golden Gate Park was Huntington Falls, which cascades down the length of Strawberry Hill and spills into Stow Lake. The falls are named for Collis P. Huntington, one of the Big Four railroad barons, who donated $25,000 to the creation of the waterfall. While you're at the falls, be sure to climb the adjacent stairs past the surrounding sculpted rocks to look down over the top of Huntington Falls at Strawberry Hill.
The second falls is Rainbow Falls, which adorns a hill that was originally quarried for rock to pave the Golden Gate Park's roadways. In the late 1920s, neighbors lobbied to beautify the quarry, which had become a dump site. In June 1929 the park commission appropriated $17,500 to magically transform the eyesore into an artificial gushing cascade. The name of the falls is derived from the multicolored electric lights that once illuminated the cascade.
Bison Paddock—Visitors to Golden Gate Park are often astounded to stumble upon a herd of American bison browsing in a meadow in the park's western end. But these huge, shaggy Great Plains denizens have been a beloved institution since 1892. Before San Francisco opened its first zoo in the 1930s, a menagerie of creatures was kept in Golden Gate Park, including bear, deer, sheep, elk and bison.
An emblem of the American West, bison had been driven nearly to extinction by the time Golden Gate Park's herd was established. The herd's first home was in the park's eastern end, but in 1899 they were moved to the meadow where they reside today, just west of Spreckels Lake along John F. Kennedy Drive. The small herd that remains is cared for by staff from the San Francisco Zoo, while Recreation and Parks Department gardeners maintain their enclosure.
California Academy of Sciences—One of Golden Gate Park's jewels is the California Academy of Sciences. The museum is really four attractions—all housed under one living roof and accessible via one admission ticket:
- There's the Steinhart Aquarium, which is home to 40,000 live animals representing 900 species. The aquarium offers an unprecedented view of underwater and terrestrial habitats. The California Coast exhibit shows off the Golden State's oceanic residents, from eels and rockfish to a giant Pacific octopus. Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed takes visitors deep into the ocean, where sunlight is scarce and animals adapt in amazing ways.
- The Morrison Planetarium is one of the world's largest all-digital planetariums. Its 75-foot dome immerses guests inside cutting-edge visualizations and hyper-realistic virtual environments. From faraway galaxies to the workings of our own planet, visitors experience the cosmos like never before.
- Step inside the Osher Rainforest, a lush, four-story exhibit teeming with life: free-flying birds, exotic reptiles, golden silk orb-weaver spiders and amphibians. Inside the dome, a magnificent neotropical rain forest stretches 90 feet (27.5 meters) above. From the canopy, plunge (via elevator) four stories down for a beneath-the-surface view of an Amazonian flooded forest. At each stage of the journey, you'll come face-to-face with some of the incredible animals that call these forests home.
- Finally, the Kimball Natural History Museum draws on more than 160 years of academy research to highlight the uniqueness of our planet in surprising ways. Learn about the fascinating role of color in the natural world, compare fossils of our early human relatives, and marvel at one-of-a-kind specimens from the academy's scientific collections—all while strolling beneath the bones of some of the planet's largest inhabitants.
Before departing the academy, be sure to visit the Living Roof, where rolling hills and fields cover nearly 90% of the museum's 2.5-acre (1 hectare) rooftop. The Living Roof is dotted with weather stations, solar panels and skylights that draw natural light into the museum below.
de Young Museum—Visible from the California Academy of Science's roof is the neighboring de Young Museum, a fixture in Golden Gate Park since 1895. The museum's current building encompasses American art from the 17th century through today, plus indigenous works from the Americas, Oceania and Africa.
The de Young's outdoor Osher Sculpture Garden is free to the public and a peaceful place to soak up some California sunshine surrounded by thought-provoking artworks like Andy Goldsworthy's site-specific work Drawn Stone (2005). Goldsworthy's work is inspired by the unique character of California's tectonic (aka "earthquake-prone") topography. Goldsworthy created a continuous crack running north from the edge of the Music Concourse roadway in front of the museum, up the main walkway, into the exterior courtyard, and up to the main entrance door. Along its path, this crack bisects—and cleaves in two—large rough-hewn stone slabs that serve as seating for museum visitors.
Another stunning piece is James Turrell's Three Gems (2005), a "skyspace" located in a grass-covered hill in the Osher Sculpture Garden. Guests sit inside a domed stupa (imagine an upside-down beehive) with an oculus in the top. Colored lights illuminate 40 minutes before sunset and change colors for a total of 70 minutes as the oculus overhead frames the darkening sky and changing atmospheric conditions. (Tip: For optimum viewing, check sunset times over the dates you will be visiting and plan accordingly.)
The de Young's Hamon Observation Tower is a spectacular glass-walled space with 360-degree panoramic views of downtown San Francisco, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Bay, and the Marin headlands.
Conservatory of Flowers—A Victorian confection of wood and glass, the Conservatory of Flowers, which opened in 1879, is the oldest building in Golden Gate Park and one of San Francisco's most beloved landmarks. It houses some 1,700 species of aquatic and tropical plants, many of them rare, including a 100-year-old giant Imperial philodendron, a world-renowned collection of orchids, giant water lilies, and carnivorous plants. Special exhibits have included such popular favorites as the Butterfly Zone and the miniature garden railroad.
MEMORIALS AND MONUMENTS
AIDS Memorial Grove—The National AIDS Memorial Grove is a living tribute to all whose lives have been touched by AIDS, and a dedicated space where people can gather to heal, hope and remember. The memorial's purpose is to ensure that those who have suffered from the AIDS epidemic—both those who have died and those who have shared their struggle—are not forgotten.
Portals of the Past—This unusual little monument stands on the shores of Lloyd Lake (just to the west of the de Young Museum). During the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, most of the prestigious Nob Hill neighborhood was flattened. Somehow, though, the columned entrance to the mansion of A.N. Towne, the general manager of Southern Pacific Railroad, survived intact. The mansion's façade was later removed and brought to Golden Gate Park, where it still stands today, a symbol to the perseverance of San Francisco.
Prayer Book Cross—On a steep knoll, this 64-foot-tall (19 meters) Celtic cross stands bold to the sky. The tallest monument in the park, it is nicknamed "Plymouth Rock of the Pacific." Here, above Rainbow Falls at Crossover Drive, it commemorates—controversially, some would say—the first-known use of the Book of Common Prayer in an English-speaking service on North America's West Coast.
Bay City Bike and Parkwide Bike Rentals—(See additional entry under the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood's description.) Bay City Bikes offers both bike rentals and guided bike tours. One of the most popular guided rides is the "Golden Gate Park Tour," which, thanks to its avoidance of busier city streets, is perfect for families and novice riders. You'll see the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake and the park's herd of resident bison (from a safe distance). And, once your guided tour ends, you can keep the bikes longer for some on-your-own exploration.
Another interesting way to see the park is by Segway with Golden Gate Park Tours. And before you say, "But I don't know how to ride a Segway," rest assured that your tour guide will give you all the instruction you need to confidently use one. (But, just in case, you'll also get a helmet.) These small-group tours are typically 2.5 hours long and fully guided. Not only will you get to explore the most interesting nooks and crannies of Golden Gate Park from a unique vantage point, you'll also walk away with some fun selfies and a cool "Yeah, I Segway" attitude.
The SkyStar Wheel—You can drink in unparalleled views of the park, downtown San Francisco, and even the Pacific Ocean from the SkyStar Wheel. The wheel rises 150 feet (46 meters) above Golden Gate's Music Concourse, the open-air events plaza between the California Academy of Sciences and de Young Museum. Each of SkyStar's ADA-accessible gondolas are private for your family/group and hold up to six people.
Even better, the gondolas are enclosed, which means a comfortable ride even in foggy or rainy weather. (Note: The SkyStar Wheel was installed in 2020 as part of Golden Gate Park's 150th anniversary celebration. It will depart San Francisco in March 2025.)
Koret Children's Quarter and Carousel—Generations of San Franciscans (and young visitors from around the world!) have fond memories of the children's playground and carousel in Golden Gate Park's southeast corner. The playground, called the Sharon Quarters for Children when it opened in 1888, is thought to have been the nation's first public playground. With generous support from the Koret Foundation, the playground underwent a major renovation and reopened in 2007 as the Koret Children's Quarter, retaining the park's popular concrete slides. A charming 1914 Herschell-Spillman Company Carousel is a focal point.
Just how slippery is a concrete slide? The short answer is "not very." However, with a piece of cardboard under your bum, you'll fly down the Koret Children's Quarter's historic concrete slides. Built into the side of a hill in the 1970s, the pair of slides follow the contours of the land and have a slight curve halfway down. Because concrete slides can be a bit scratchy on elbows and calves, long sleeves and pants are recommended. And don't forget the cardboard.
The Mission District (aka "The Mission"), is one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco and is known for its brilliant street art, architecture, and the famous and much imitated Mission burrito (more on that later).
Officially called Mission San Francisco de Asís, after Saint Francis of Assisi, the mission was nicknamed "Mission Dolores" due to the nearby Arroyo de los Dolores stream, which translates as the "Creek of Sorrows." Next door to the beautifully restored historic mission is the larger and newer (built in 1918) Mission Dolores Basilica, whose excessively decorated bell towers and over-the-top ornamentation are classic examples of the California Churrigueresque style of architecture.
Most guests to the mission are drawn by its history and stunning artwork. The chapel's beamed redwood ceiling is painted in a geometric Ohlone Indian design resembling a repeating chevron pattern. Although the ceiling has been repainted over the years to retain its vibrancy, it was originally created using natural vegetable dyes.
At the front of the sanctuary is an ornate baroque altar that is actually three separate pieces. The center altarpiece was handcrafted in Mexico and installed in 1796; the two side altars arrived in 1810.
Before departing the mission, take a few moments to wander through the adjoining cemetery and garden. For Alfred Hitchcock fans this peaceful space may trigger déjà vu. That's because Hitchcock, the master of psychological thrillers, chose the small cemetery for the famous graveyard scene in his film Vertigo.
The hidden mural of Mission Dolores: Concealed by the mission's massive and magnificently carved altar is a 230-year-old mural painted by Native Americans who once inhabited the area where the mission was established. Although the mural was rediscovered in 1918, it couldn't be moved and so remained hidden in situ for another century. But recently the mural—or a reproduction of it, at least—has emerged into the light of day. Ben Wood and Eric Blind lowered a camera into the cramped space where the mural resides and digitally documented its every inch. Muralists Jet Martinez, Bunnie Reiss and Ezra Eismont then painstakingly recreated the mural as it looks today, complete with two centuries of cracks, peeled plaster and holes. You can view the recreated mural just a few blocks from the original on Bartlett Street, between 21st and 22nd streets.
Head to the Mission's Balmy Alley if you'd like to see more of the city's celebrated street art. This block-long alley is actually home to the city's most concentrated collection of murals. The art changes frequently and explores topics from human rights to gentrification to Hispanic culture. (Balmy Alley bisects the block bordered by Treat Avenue and Harrison Street between 24th and 25th streets.)
Clarion Alley (between 17th and 18th and Mission and Valencia streets) is another art-filled thoroughfare. The artwork here was organized by the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), whose mission is to "...support and produce socially engaged and aesthetically innovative public art." The more than 700 murals painted here since 1992 have a decidedly political slant, often depicting themes of inclusiveness and speaking to social, economic and environmental justice.
A 5-minute walk from Clarion Alley delivers you to the Women's Building, a women-led community space that advocates self-determination, gender equality and social justice (can we get more of these, please). As remarkable as the work going on inside the Women's Building is the mural that adorns two sides of the four-story, 37,000-square-foot landmark structure. Titled MaestraPeace (meaning "woman teacher of peace"), the monumental mural was painted by seven female artists. The intensely hued and kinetic design is an incredible mélange of real-world crusaders (e.g., Rigoberta Menchu, who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, and trailblazing artist Georgia O'Keeffe) interwoven with such mythological beings as Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec goddess of the moon, and Guanyin, the East Asian goddess of mercy and compassion.
Lest we forget, let's get back to those famous burritos. Named after the Mission District, Mission burritos became popular here in the 1960s. Size is the immediately noticeable difference between a Mission burrito and its run-of-the-mill counterpart, which will look sadly Lilliputian in comparison. Within the innocuous-looking tortilla shell there may be a few surprises, too. The wrap usually contains rice, beans, meat (carnitas are a favorite), avocado, cheese, pico de gallo, salsa verde, and sometimes shredded lettuce. The true test comes when it's time to eat. If you can lift your burrito with one hand and get your mouth around the whole tortilla, it's not a Mission burrito.
Once you work your way through a mega-sized Mission burrito, you might need a quiet spot to sit and digest. The rolling hills of the nearly 16-acre (6.5 hectares) Mission Dolores Park are the perfect place. Thanks to a fortunate combination of climatological and geographic elements, the Mission District is often sunny while the rest of San Francisco succumbs to the area's famous fog. So, soak up the sunshine, take in views of downtown skyline, and enjoy the awesome people-watching.
No place embodied America's 1960's counterculture movement more than San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. The district was so well-known that by 1967 thousands of young people from across America converged here for the "Summer of Love," a months-long mélange of free love, hallucinogenic drugs, self-exploration, rock music, and political protest. The area's sensual. charismatic allure was a magnet for rebellious runaways, disaffected college students, edgy artists, writers, revolutionaries, and musicians.
Among the famous—and notorious—who have called Haight-Ashbury home are the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jack London, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, the Hell's Angels, and even, briefly, Charles Manson. The Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour is a "2.5-hour flashback" to the ‘60s that covers the district's former residents, its history and architecture.
San Francisco City Guides offers free tours (donations appreciated) of this hippie-dippie mecca as well. You'll see the once-rundown Victorians that housed 60's rockers, writers and flower children now transformed, repainted and restored. Notables include 710 Ashbury (the former Grateful Dead residence) and 2400 Fulton Street (once Jefferson Airplane's crash pad). Just remember, these comely, colorful homes make great photos, but they are private residences, so be considerate and take pictures from a respectful distance.
Another Victorian you won't want to miss—it's actually nearly impossible to miss—is the one with a giant pair of lady legs kicking out of a second-story window. The eye-catching iconic art was all part of a plan to draw attention to Piedmont Boutique, which has been selling what can only be called "you do you" fashions since the ‘70s. Need a pair of fur boots? Hot pants covered in sequins? A rainbow-colored feathered boa? You'll find racks and racks at Piedmont Boutique. The giant fishnet-stocking-clad legs with their ruby stilettos and provocative pose are the perfect accompaniment to a store that specializes in racy, glitzy garments and over-the-top accessories.
The Castro is San Francisco's most famous LGBTQ neighborhood. While the entire city is openly gay-friendly, The Castro tics it up a notch with its Rainbow Honor Walk, the GLBT History Museum and its ubiquitous rainbow flags. It's also the most fun neighborhood in which to celebrate Pride Month each June.
The historic Castro Theatre, located on the district's main drag, is an ornate 1922 movie palace that serves as the neighborhood's most iconic landmark. Just down the block are the brass sidewalk plaques that constitute the Rainbow Honor Walk, which recognizes the "contributions to humankind made by LGBTQ people." The large plaques include an etched portrait of the honoree and a short biographical blurb. Among those whose names are immortalized due to their achievements are Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, U.S. Congressional Representative Barbara Jordan, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, singer-songwriter Sylvester James and astronaut Sally Ride.
Hope will never be silent: These five uplifting words appear in white neon high on a building at 400 Castro Street. Designed by Illuminate, the same nonprofit group responsible for the Bay Bridge lights, the neon sign immortalizes the words of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. Popular and charismatic, Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. Tragically, in 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated inside City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former city supervisor. Although the murder ended Milk's activism, it did not end his inspiring influence. His example galvanized generations of future activists whose work continues to this day.
Harvey Milk's assassination and other milestones from San Francisco's queer past are chronicled through exhibits and programming at the GLBT Historical Society Museum, the first stand-alone museum of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history and culture in the United States.
Even if you can't visit The Castro during Pride, there are still lots of places to cut loose and have fun. Mingle with locals at rustic, laidback Blackbird Bar or Twin Peaks Tavern, known as the "Gateway to the Castro." Catch a live music performance at the subterranean Café du Nord, a former speakeasy located on the lower level of the historic Swedish American Hall. Regular drag events, karaoke and dance competitions make Toad Hall Bar a lively stop seven days a week.
The clang-clang of the trolley bell is quintessential San Francisco. The city's three cable car lines—the California, Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde—reach into several districts, But with its hills and challenging inclines, Nob Hill is perhaps the neighborhood where visitors find a cable car ride the most welcome.
Straight and steep (hang on tight), the California cable car line runs along Market Street from the Financial District to the top of Nob Hill. Historically Nob Hill was among San Francisco's ritziest neighborhoods, home to the mansions of railroad barons and the site of luxury hotels. One of these temples of affluence, the spectacular Fairmont Hotel, still reigns as Nob Hill's queen. Even if your budget can't afford an overnight stay, it's worth a stroll through the swanky lobby with its marble floors, columns, gilded accents and ornate ceilings.
If it's a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening, pop into the Fairmont's Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, one of the city's most iconic watering holes. The Tonga Room, which opened in 1945, is a retro Tiki bar, one of thousands that took off in popularity after World War II. But while most have long since faded into obscurity, the Tonga Room has gone from hip to kitschy and all the way back round to cool again. Guests gather at tables under thatched umbrellas, sipping Mai Tais out of ceramic coconut shells around a "lagoon" (the hotel's former indoor swimming pool) while faux rainstorms, lighting and thunder blow in at regular intervals.
Just steps from the Fairmont is Grace Cathedral, an Episcopalian church built in the French Gothic style. Visitors can take the Grace Cathedral Grand Tour (temporarily suspended due to COVID). There's a fee for this 90-minute docent-led tour, but it's worth the investment to peek inside areas not typically seen by visitors who go the self-guided route. The tour includes a 94-step trek to the top of the South Tower, which offers a great view of the city.
Amidst the cathedral's murals and stunning stained glass is another beautiful artwork: the Ghiberti Doors, nicknamed the "Gates of Paradise." Cast in bronze, these are replicas of the famous doors designed in the 1400s by artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral in Italy. The doors' 10 panels represent various Old Testament stories, including Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, and Noah (the cathedral's website wryly notes that the depicted animals depart Noah's ark "looking decidedly seasick"). If you step back and gaze at the doors from a distance, the black frames around each panel give the overall art the look of an old-fashioned filmstrip running up each door. (if you're under 40, you probably won't get that reference. Google "film strip.")
Before you depart, trace the design of one of Grace Cathedral's two labyrinths (one indoors and one outside). The outside labyrinth is accessible 24/7. As you focus your eyes and thoughts on the path of the labyrinth, you may find yourself gradually tuning out your surroundings and entering a more meditative state, which is exactly what the labyrinths are designed to evoke.
In the Russian Hill area of Nob Hill is Lombard Street, known as "the Crookedest Street in the World." Actually, Lombard isn't much different from most other city streets until you get to its most famous section (between Hyde and Leavenworth streets). This short stretch, which is bordered by stately mansions and gorgeous gardens, features a zigzag design with eight hairpin turns. Driving down the one-way street is a bucket-list item for many visitors, but walking the pedestrian staircase is a better option for those who want to savor the views and take photos—not to mention get a great lower-body workout.
How Lombard got so kinky: According to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, the crooked section of Lombard "was originally straight and cobbled, but impossible for cars to pass. As automobile traffic grew, the city decided in 1922 to create the signature S-shaped route to help cars navigate the precipitous 27% grade." Those early city planners were simply seeking a practical fix for the increasingly risky roadway. Little did they know their twisted solution would create one of the world's most iconic and photographed landmarks.
Gadget and gearheads won't want to leave Nob Hill without popping into the San Francisco Cable Car Museum (admission is free). The museum is housed in the old Ferries and Cliff House Railway Co. Building, which was built in 1887. This building is more than a museum, though; it's part of the city's working cable car system. Upstairs you can stand on a deck overlooking the giant wheels that power the cables that pull the cars along their routes (warning: the machinery is really noisy). Downstairs there's a close-up view of the cables themselves. The museum also has three antique cable cars, historic photographs, and trolley bells.
Like most major cities, San Francisco's main retail district is home to all the usual big-name brands: Giorgio Armani, Burberry, Hermès, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton, etc. The cherry on this shopping sundae, though, is all the very cool, but not so well-known shops that make a trip to San Francisco's Union Square a sine qua non.
Remember the days when well-heeled gentlemen and ladies wouldn't dream of going out without a hat? (Millennials and Gen Z-ers, ask your grandparents.) The owners of Goorin Bros. Hat Shop in Union Square remember those days well. That's because the company got its start making custom hats in Pennsylvania in 1895. In 1949, the sons of company founder Cassel Goorin moved the family business to San Francisco.
Even though hats are no longer a fashion staple, they do make a fashion statement. Goorin has a wide variety of hats, from classic Humphrey Bogart-esque fedoras to casual newsboy-style flat caps. There are ballcaps and beanies, too, for those who refuse to embrace old-school sartorial elegance. Most styles work well on both women and men, and the exceptional sales staff can usually match you with a hat that you'll insist on wearing out the door.
If you're a sucker for costume dramas like "Downton Abbey" and "The Gilded Age," you've probably found your eyes wandering longingly to the glittering rings, necklaces and tiaras worn by the shows' beau monde. An astounding assemblage of similar pieces can be found at Lang Antique and Estate Jewelry, internationally recognized for its huge collection of fine antique and vintage jewelry. The shop's inventory of rare and one-of-kind pieces turns over regularly, but a recent perusal of the cases revealed a Georgian-era (1714-1830) snake necklace, complete with the snake's golden fangs grasping a freshwater pearl; a French Belle Époque (1871-1914) sapphire and diamond dinner ring; and an Art Deco (1920-1930s) geometric diamond brooch.
T. Kettle is a Canadian-based company with an outlet inside the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall. It offers a premium assortment of loose-leaf tea blends, some of which can't be found anywhere else. Even if your total experience with tea boils down to dunking a Lipton tea bag into a mug of microwaved tap water, the store's staff can help guide you to a blend that pleases your palate, whether your tea tastes skew to spicy, minty, citrusy, grassy or sweet. And you're in socially conscious San Francisco, so, naturally, all of the shop's tea blends are certified vegan, kosher, organic and 100% Fair Trade.
T. Kettle's neighbor in Westfield Centre is Miniso, a Japanese-influenced lifestyle brand based in China (it's a little confusing). The design aesthetic is sleek and simplistic, and the prices are incredibly affordable (think Ikea without the meatballs). And while the price tags are calming enough, the profusion of products in soothing pastels will make your shopping experience even more Zen. Miniso introduces new items and designs weekly, so there's always something novel on the shelves.
If shopping is your raison d'être, you may want to stay near Union Square. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, including the regal, historic (built in 1904) Westin St. Francis on Union Square; the dog-friendly Hotel Nikko San Francisco; and Villa Florence Hotel, located right on the Powell Street Cable Car route.
San Francisco's cable cars can't just put it in reverse when they reach the end of their respective lines. Instead, they must be turned around by hand on a wooden turntable set into the street. It's fascinating to watch the cable car operators hop out, grasp the sides of the cars and slowly turn them. Union Square has one of these turnarounds at the intersection of Powell and Market streets. Tip: The wait to board a cable car at the turnarounds can be long. Since the cars depart not entirely full—to allow for riders to board along the route—it's usually quicker and easier to catch a car a few stops away from the turnaround.
Union Square is the perfect base for theater lovers who want to take in several plays and shows. That's because Union Square is adjacent to San Francisco's Theater District. This area is small but jam-packed with stages, clubs and restaurants. Market Street is where many of the big-production venues are located, like The Strand, a space used by the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.); the Curran, which hosts touring shows and pre-Broadway engagements; and the Orpheum Theater, another Broadway-focused stage.
Close by is the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, which encompasses several venues: the War Memorial Opera House (San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera, concerts, lectures and more), Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall (San Francisco Symphony), Herbst Theatre (concerts, theatrical productions, recitals and lectures), the Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, and The Green Room.
A little further away is the Geary Theater, the main space used by the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and the Golden Gate Theatre, a popular destination for Broadway productions, touring plays and operas.
There are lots of great places around Union Square for a pre-theater drink or dinner. If you're dressed up, the Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel is ideal. The room features gorgeous Art Deco fixtures, rich redwood paneling (hence the name of the bar), and a pretty glam crowd. For a pre-show dinner, try Bouche (French, 603 Bush Street), La Marsa (Tunisian, 454 Geary Street), or Bota Tapas and Paella Bar (Spanish, 490 Geary Street).
Or skip the show and take a deep dive into Union Square's classiest watering holes. Avital Tours offers a 3-hour, private-group Cocktail Tour that stops at three cocktail bars. At each stop, you and your besties can enjoy a handcrafted cocktail paired with small bites. Sip at a leisurely pace while your guide, the bartender or the establishment's owners provide details on the creation of the cocktail or the history of the bar and neighborhood.
Close to Union Square is SoMA/Yerba Buena neighborhood and its collection of museums. SoMA, which is short for "South of Market" (as in the same Market Street that runs through the Theater District), was once an industrial district. But like their counterparts in other major cities, the old warehouses have been reclaimed and transformed into lofts, restaurants, clubs and high-tech workspaces. It's all very hip and trendy.
And one of the neighborhood's biggest hipster magnets is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—SFMOMA. The first museum on the West Coast dedicated to modern and contemporary art, SFMOMA tripled its size in 2016 with a $305 million expansion. Much more than simply a spacious home for renowned modern and contemporary artworks, the transformed SFMOMA gives patrons room to absorb, ponder and reflect. Two favorite contemplation spaces for visitors are the Living Wall, a vertical garden stretching 150 feet (46 meters) along the Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace and composed of nearly 20,000 plants; and the glass-walled Roberts Family Gallery, whose Roman steps offer an inviting gathering spot.
SFMOMA houses about 30,000 pieces of art. That means visitors may want to visit the museum's website, make a list of what they most want to see, and then create a strategic game plan for hitting those highlights (most people recommend taking the elevator to the top of the museum and then working your way down to the ground floor).
Modern art spans a time period from 1860 to the late 1900s and encompasses styles from Post-Impressionism to Cubism to Surrealism and others. Museum highlights from across this spectrum include Henri Matisse's vividly colored, Post-Impressionistic Woman With a Hat; Frida Kahlo's oddly imbalanced wedding portrait Frieda and Diego Rivera; Andy Warhol's iconic Triple Elvis; and Georges Braque's Cubist Violin and Candlestick painting.
Worthy of a full-day visit, SFMOMA has several dining options to keep visitors energized, including Café 5, serving California fusion fare and located in the museum's Jean and James Douglas Sculpture Garden (5th floor).
Just steps from SFMOMA is the Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD). This is one of the few museums in the world focused exclusively on African Diaspora culture and the rich heritage of the people of Africa and African descent. These legacies are thoughtfully conveyed through paintings, multimedia art, public programming and films.
Diaspora comes from the Greek term meaning to "scatter about," a phrase that sounds innocuous enough. What must be remembered with regards to the African Diaspora, though, is that the "scattering" of people from Africa was largely the result of mass kidnappings, white supremacy and the forced enslavement of human beings. While the museum encourages challenging conversations, those discussions are meant to be inclusive of White visitors. The goal of the museum is to share, explore and celebrate—with all visitors—Black cultures, history, art and traditions.
One of MoAD's most arresting art pieces is something you see before you even enter the museum. It's a gigantic image of a child's face that peers out over Mission Street from behind the museum's three-story-high glass wall. Once you enter the museum, however, it's apparent that the image of the child is actually a collage made up of thousands of smaller photos—contributions from people around the world. The collective work recreates the pensive portrait of a young African girl taken by celebrated American photographer Chester Higgins Jr. during a visit to Ghana.
A not-to-miss area is the Emerging Artists Gallery, which features new artists, especially those from around the Bay Area. Exhibits change frequently. As the museum proclaims invitingly on its website: "Come see what's new at MoAD. We can't wait to show you around."
A state-of-the-ART hotel: Interestingly, MoAD occupies the first three floors of the luxurious St. Regis Hotel, which has its own collection of art. According to the word salad of bombastic prose on the hotel's website, "The discerning art collection at The St. Regis San Francisco features exquisite works by acclaimed local artists that have been carefully curated to exemplify timeless elegance and luxury." That's a whole lot of highfalutin words that tell us exactly zero about the collection itself. So, in not so grandiose language: Check out "Winged Woman on One Leg III," a dramatic bronze piece by American sculptor Stephen De Staebler in the ground-floor elevator lobby; ponder (preferably with cocktail in hand) the myriad elements of "Love" and "War," a kinetic two-panel mural by Canadian painter Andrew Morrow located in the lobby bar area; and reflect on the 36-foot-square (3.5 square meters) glass panel that recreates a contemporary painting by American artist Raymond Saunders. Saunders' piece is so large that it is attached to the outside of the hotel, overlooking Third Avenue. The work's bold red color and design is especially beautiful at night, when the piece is lighted.
A 5-minute walk from both SFMOMA and the Museum of the African Diaspora is the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM). As a non-collecting institution, the museum doesn't have a permanent collection of art and artifacts. Instead, CJM partners with other national and international cultural institutions to book in an ever-changing series of art, exhibits, films, and speakers that highlight the modern Jewish experience.
CJM's architecture fuses a historic power station, originally built in 1881, to a soaring blue steel geometric superstructure. The integrated building embodies the past and present, the utilitarian and the abstract, the traditional and the contemporary. Since opening in 2008, it has become an iconic edifice in San Francisco's cityscape, its design fascinating everyday passersby. Yet, from the ground, few realize that the building's unusual shape is derived from the Hebrew letters, chet and yud, which together spell chai, the Hebrew word for "life."
Bibliophiles—the ones who love flipping real paper pages, as opposed to just scrolling through text on a touchscreen tablet—should stop at the American Bookbinders Museum. This is the only museum of its kind in North America. The exhibits detail and celebrate the history of bookbinding, from hand tools used by craftsmen in the 1600s to the earliest automated bookbinding machines of the 19th century. Among the standouts is an English imperial arming and printing press from the late 1800s. This rare dual instrument could both print pages and impress a design (often in gold) onto a book's cover or spine, distinct tasks normally performed by two separate presses. There's also the sinisterly named "American guillotine" (circa. 1890), whose blade could cut cleanly through thick blocks of paper to create a trim that was much more uniform than anything done by hand.
This two-block public area within SoMA is bordered by Third and Fourth streets and Mission and Folsom streets. This compact oasis encompasses gardens, art pieces, a children's museum, an ice rink, performing arts spaces, Moscone Center (the city's convention center), and an antique carousel. Due to Yerba Buena Gardens' myriad attractions, we've grouped them into categories.
KIDS AND FAMILIES
Children's Creativity Museum—There's a lot to explore at the Children's Creativity Museum, whose slightly tilted, circular glass design is reminiscent of a Gravitron (those spinning carnival rides that pin people to the wall with 3 G's of centrifugal force). Whatever the architect was thinking when she conceived the building, the effect is a structure whose quirky design is irresistibly magnetic to kids.
Inside, you and your child can make your own stop-motion film in the Animation Studio, where the helpful staff will walk novice filmmakers through the steps necessary to bring their creative concepts to life. Once you've completed your magnum opus, your animation can be saved as a digital file and emailed to you. Once you get home, you'll be ready to screen your movie for friends, family, and maybe a talent agent or two.
The museum's Making Music exhibit lets kids create their own musical instruments and perform their own "songs" with a variety of sounds from the Drum Pad, Melody, and Sound Effects stations (parents may want to pack earplugs). At Innovation Station, the Mystery Box Challenge presents kids with an age-appropriate conundrum in need of noodling. The catch: Kids can only use the materials inside the box to invent a solution.
Antique Carousel—Next door to the Children's Creativity Museum is the LeRoy King Carousel. Constructed in 1906, this historic hand-carved masterpiece is the work of famed carousel creator Charles I.D. Looff (he also built the first carousel at New York's Coney Island Amusement Park in 1876). Fully restored in 2014, the carousel is enclosed in a glass pavilion, which means it's rideable regardless of San Francisco's mercurial weather.
The carousel is a spinning menagerie of more than 30 brilliant beasts. Many are horses, each with its own distinct, bejeweled livery and tails made of real horsehair. There are also giraffes and camels—even a chariot pulled by a dragon. (Note: If you purchased tickets to the Children's Creativity Museum, you'll receive a discount on your carousel ride.)
Children's Playground—Kids need a break from sightseeing and museums? Set them loose in Yerba Buena's playground. They can whoosh down a 25-foot-long (7.5 meters) tube slide, challenge the kid-safe climbing wall, navigate a child-sized hedge labyrinth, play with water in the fountain and stream, or just run around to their heart's content.
Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center—If you're wondering how on earth one goes about bowling on ice skates, relax. The Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center is actually two separate facilities under one umbrella. At the ice rink, public skating is available daily and there are skate rentals on-site. The Bowling Center has lanes available for non-league bowlers primarily on weekends (weekdays by reservation).
GARDENS AND MEMORIALS
Thank you to Yerba Buena Gardens for providing many of the descriptions below.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial—San Francisco's memorial to Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to be the second largest in the United States. The memorial includes a large reflecting pool, whose water cascades over giant blocks of Sierra granite, forming several waterfalls. Below the reflecting pool and behind the curtain of falling water is a serene walkway lined with glass panels inscribed with Dr. King's most inspiring words and poetry.
Cho-En Butterfly Garden—Artist Reiko Goto created the exquisitely serene Butterfly Garden, whose plantings provide the habitat for a number of species of native San Francisco butterflies. Rest on a bench, learn about butterflies from beautiful painted tiles, or just watch a self-sustaining population of butterflies including the popular Monarchs. The plants in the garden are also native to the Bay Area and encourage growth in all butterfly stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult.
The Oche Wat Te Ou | Reflection Garden—The Oche Wat Te Ou | Reflection Garden is a tribute to the native Ohlone Indians. The memorial is in the form of a semicircular wood wall patterned with Ohlone basket designs, which stand behind a crescent-shaped pool and a circle of moss-covered rocks. It is a contemplative environment, set beside a redwood grove with a single live oak tree nearby. Artists Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and James Lunain intended the piece to serve as a performance area for poetry, storytelling and other events in the oral tradition.
East Garden—Located directly across from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the East Garden features a dramatic cascading fountain and a small terrace where visitors can sit and feel as if they're in the water. John Roloff‘s 18-foot-high sculpture Green Glass Ship—Deep Gradient/ Suspect Terrain, rises above the terrace accompanied by portholes that allow a hint of activity in the Moscone Center.
Upper Terrace Garden—The Upper Terrace Garden provides dramatic views of the gardens and the city. Atop the terrace is a large reflecting pool surrounded by a distinctive granite-paving pattern, designed by artist Lin Utzon. The terrace includes cafés and seating. It is planted with evergreen trees and shrubs that frame the Sister City Garden.
Sister City Gardens—The Sister City Gardens, which run along the entire length of the Upper Terrace, feature flowering plants from San Francisco's 18 sister cities. The result is a global quilt of colors, smells and vibrant contrasts that remind visitors of community connections beyond the Bay Area.
PERFORMING ARTS SPACES
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—Opened in 1993, YBCA serves as the cultural anchor for the Yerba Buena Gardens district. Its galleries and theater spaces host ever-flowing calendar of contemporary art, dance, music, theatrical performances, and film screenings.
Cow Hollow takes its name from the 800 or so cows that were pastured here in the late 1800s. That was back when this urban stretch of stylish shops and dining establishments was a bucolic meadow dotted with 30 dairies. But, as the California Gold Rush continued to drive San Francisco's rapid expansion, the cows were eventually evicted to make room for additional housing. And it wasn't long after the cows left that a new neighborhood emerged, complete with retail shops and Edwardian and Victorian mansions.
The Union Street Association, whose mission includes preserving and protecting these historic buildings, offers 2.5-hour Victorian Home Architecture Walking Tours. The tour passes by 200 meticulously maintained Victorian homes, including a few with movie credits and celebrity owners. There's the house where "Mrs. Doubtfire" was filmed and another that served as a location for Anne Hathaway's scenes in the "Princess Diaries." Expertly led, the tour is packed with design details and fascinating stories. By the time your tour concludes, you'll have learned enough to appreciate the architectural differences between Queen Anne, Italianate and Stick-style Victorians.
An eight-sided beauty: In 1848, a quirky, short-lived architectural fad jumped off the pages of a book titled "The Octagon House: A Home for All." The book's author was Orson S. Fowler, a well-known phrenologist (a believer in the idea that the bumps and contours of a person's skull were indicative of that person's character and mental abilities) and the publisher of a daring Victorian-era sex manual. Fowler's novel architectural idea was that a house without right angles would better reflect nature's undulating forms, allow for more usable floor space, provide more light, and improve the "interchange of friendly and benevolent feeling."
A beautifully preserved example of Fowler's avant-garde design lives on in The Octagon House (2645 Gough Street at Union Street). Constructed in 1861 for the McElroy family, this blue-and-white belle of a building is topped with a small cupola. Saved from demolition in the 1950s by the California Society of the National Society of the Colonial Dames in America (which purchased the derelict building for $1), the home has been fully restored. It is open to the public from 12 to 3 p.m. on the second Sunday and the second and fourth Thursday of each month (excluding January).
Cow Hollow's main drag is Union Street, a popular shopping and dining enclave, This is the perfect spot for a post-tour lunch or dinner. Fun options include Terzo (3011 Steiner Street), a Mediterranean café whose vintage clapboard building was a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop in the 1880s; Extreme Pizza (1980 Union Street), located in a striking compound of three circa. 1870 Victorians; and Kaiyō (1838 Union Street), serving Peruvian-Japanese cuisine and cocktails in an Instagram-ready setting.
Cow Hollow and Pacific Heights have a bit of a blurry border. What isn't blurry, however, are the fantastic views from the top of the Fillmore Street Steps. San Francisco has many hills and several street staircases, but the steps bordering Fillmore Street are among the city's steepest. Your reward for climbing to the top: A spectacular vista that encompasses the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Palace of Fine Arts in the adjoining Marina District.
The Palace of Fine Arts is the only remaining structure from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, a World's Fair-style event. (The Fillmore Street Steps were built at the same time to allow residents easier access to the exhibition site.) The colonnaded Beaux-Arts building, which borders a large lagoon with resident swans and a park, is now used primarily as a wedding and event venue. It's also a peaceful place to relax on a sunny day. The Palace's domed rotunda is one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco, both by visitors and professional film crews looking to capture the perfect establishing shot.
So I Married an Axe Murderer: The Palace of Fine Arts makes a cameo in the kooky Mike Meyers-Nancy Travis comedy "So I Married an Axe Murderer" (1993). When commitment-shy Charlie Mackenzie (Myers) and butcher-with-a-mysterious-past Harriet Michaels (Travis) are on their first date, they stroll past the Palace of Fine Arts. They even take a few moments at the Palace for an impromptu dance, and for Harriet to dress down—in perfect Russian, no less—two passing Russian sailors who comment in their mother tongue on Harriet's appearance. Is Harriet's fluency in Russian foreshadowing or a red herring? Before this and other mysteries are resolved in the film's ax-wielding denouement, movie viewers will have visited multiple San Francisco sites. Other city locations featured in the film are Alcatraz (the late actor Phil Hartman is brilliant as a no-nonsense park ranger/tour guide), the Ferry Building, a cable car (of course), the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Fog City Diner, the San Francisco Chronicle offices, the Presidio, the Victorian houses along Alamo Square, and lots more.
Another stunning Pacific Heights viewpoint is at the top of the historic Lyon Street Steps, which descend from Broadway and Lyon Street in the Heights to Vallejo Street below. Unlike the Fillmore Street Steps, which are cut into the sidewalk bordering Fillmore Street, the Lyon Street Steps replace the portion of Lyon Street that's simply too steep for vehicular traffic.
The stairs are bordered by hedges and landscaped plantings and are extremely picturesque. The 1.7-mile (2.75 km) staircase is broken up by garden landings, which give you an excuse to catch your breath while taking in the views of San Francisco Bay and the Presidio. The stairs are least busy mid-afternoon, when stair commuters are tucked away in their offices and the fitness buffs have typically finished their workouts. But, should you be on the stairs when San Franciscans are commuting or exercising, a quick step to the side to let them pass is the polite thing to do.
The Telegraph Hill area boasts another set of scenic steps: the Filbert Street Steps, which lead to Coit Tower and Pioneer Park. Filbert's 400 steps wind their way past beautiful urban gardens and through the Telegraph Hill woodlands, home to a flock of wild cherry-headed conure parrots. No one knows exactly how the parrots, which are native to South America, came to be living on Telegraph Hill. Did a pair of pampered pet parrots escape decades ago from some handsome Victorian mansion and take up residence on the hill? Did a truck filled with exotic birds crash, releasing its colorful cargo? Whatever their origins, the parrots are as noisy as they are brilliantly hued. You'll likely hear them before you spot their bright red heads and lime-green bodies.
Once you arrive at the top of Telegraph Hill, drink in views of the bay and beyond. For an even higher vantage point, take the elevator to the top of the 210-foot (64 meters) Coit Tower. This lovely landmark was built in 1933. Construction was made possible by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a San Francisco philanthropist and fire department patroness who died in 1929, leaving behind $100,000 (about $1.6 million in today's money) to be used for the beautification of the city.
Inside the tower are murals painted in 1934 by artists employed by the Public Works of Art Project (a precursor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration). The art depicts life in California during the Great Depression. Reflecting concerns of the day, various works reference the social inequities of the Great Depression, the disorienting rush to increased industrialization, and the push-pull between socialism and capitalism. A sampling:
- California Agriculture, Maxine Albro—This cheerful fresco chronicles the state's vast agricultural landscape: a woman in a red and white polka dot dress carefully hand cuts flowers for future bouquets; a group of men in an orchard pick and pack vibrantly hued oranges while another pair meticulously arrange apricots on screens to dry in the sun; behind them, a farmer harvests hay. The seasons that drive the agricultural cycle are represented in the hills the artist included in the background of the mural. There's a green hill symbolizing spring, a golden ridge for summer and fall, and a snow-capped Sierra Nevada peak depicting winter.
- Animal Force and Machine Force, Ray Boynton—One of the tower's larger murals, this piece is divided into three sections. To the left are a depiction of human and animal-powered activities; to the right are more modern techniques (e.g., a man fiddling with a factory's pressure gauges, a hillside being scraped away by a power shovel, another man wielding a jackhammer). Separating the two areas is a doorway, gorgeously decorated by the artist. Over the top of the doorway is a massive pair of eyes peering through a veil of clouds and flanked by a full and crescent moon. The nurturing feel of the animal-powered side of the mural is in striking contrast to the battle man seems to be waging against nature on the machine side. Perhaps the artist favored the former, making it look more inviting, soothing and harmonious.
- Newsgathering, Suzanne Scheuer—Scheuer's bustling 1930's newsroom is a far cry from the digital newsgathering operations of today. A man with a green eyeshade taps letters into an old-fashioned linotype machine. Pipe-smoking men in dapper three-piece suits write editorials in longhand. Secretaries (yep, that's what they were called back then) take dictation and answer landline phones. On the left side of the fresco, finished newspapers roll off the printing press and into the hands of a newsboy who will ultimately distribute them to the waiting public.
North Beach, which overlaps with Telegraph Hill, was historically home to a large Italian American population. While the area's residents have diversified over the years, a large number of Italian restaurants remain, making it a perfect stop for those who love Italian fare.
Another nod to the neighborhood's Italian roots is Saints Peter and Paul Church, a magnificent Roman Catholic edifice that still performs a weekly mass in Italian (as well as one in Chinese). The church's twin spires soar 191 feet (58 meters) into the air, making it easy to spot from a distance. Inside, the church is richly ornamented. Visitors will see a replica of Michelangelo's Pieta; the elaborate High Altar, made of Carrara marble and other fine stones; stained glass; and a life-sized statue of La Madonna Addolorata (The Sorrowful Mother), the patroness of Sicily. Visitors are welcome most days from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Before you depart the district, make a literary pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous independent bookstores in the country. Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, City Lights quickly became a gathering place for Beat poets, artists, activists and booklovers. What started as a tiny sliver of a shop expanded multiple times as the store's fame grew (tour buses once cruised the block, giving their socially conventional passengers a glimpse of beatniks in the wild).
The triangular shape of City Lights' original storefront is evocative of the idea that this isn't a place for square fuddy-duddies. As the store's website decisively trumpets, this is a bookstore with "a commitment to free intellectual inquiry." As such, the shelves are stuffed with thought-provoking titles covering social discourse, LGBTQ issues, racial concerns, fascinating fiction and more. It's also the place to go for author readings, symposiums and other literary events.
The Sunset district was once referred to as the "Outside Lands," which has the vaguely disturbing ring of a dystopian future. Perhaps that's why real estate developer Aurelius E. Buckingham chose in 1887 to enhance the area's appeal with a glamorous new moniker. Why he chose "The Sunset," though, for a perpetually fog-shrouded location remains a mystery. When it comes to hyperbolic real-estate embellishment, go big or go home, we suppose.
One attraction that doesn't require any hyperbole to promote is the San Francisco Zoo and Gardens. Open 365 days a year, the zoo covers 100 acres (40.5 hectares) on the Pacific Coast. Its 2,000 exotic, endangered and rescued animals give visitors a chance to connect with wildlife in an informative and engaging way. Highlights include:
- Lipman Family Lemur Forest—This lushly forested area is home to seven species of lemurs. On cooler days, look for the ring-tailed lemurs snuggled together on the heated gray platforms. On sunny days, you can often see them catching some rays in a yoga-like sitting position.
- Fisher Family Children's Zoo—This park within a park has lots of fun experiences for families. There's a "Meerkats and Prairie Dogs" exhibit, a nature trail, a family farm area, an insect zoo, and red pandas (arguably the world's cutest animal).
- Penguin Island—The colony of Magellanic penguins appear identical, but they are actually quite diverse in personality, disposition and markings, as the penguin specialists can attest. Magellanic penguins are extremely social birds and can be seen "flying" through the water at speeds up to 15 miles per hour, basking in the sun, preening or hanging out in one of 36 burrows on the island.
- Koret Animal Resource Center (ARC)—The zoo's animal ambassadors play a key role in connecting guests with wildlife. More than 100 birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are housed and cared for at ARC, a working facility and key part of the Fisher Family Children's Zoo. The ARC is a training ground for future ecologists, conservationists, biologists, zoologists and animal care staff, through its teen, young adult and adult volunteer programs.
- South American Tropical Rainforest & Aviary—With only the most essential barriers between you and the animals in this open-air aviary, don't be surprised if a toucan or a macaw suddenly sails over your head. See these beautiful birds, as well as sloths and an anaconda. Don't worry; the anaconda is most definitely contained!
Beyond the animals, there's a lot to keep kids happy. The Elinor Friend Playground is good for children from babies to tweens. It's divided into three "bio-regions" that take their themes from specific ecosystems: the River Play Area for toddlers (6 months-2 years), Polar Zone exploration space for preschoolers (2-5 years), and the Banyan Tree climbing structure for pre-teens and tweens (5-12 years).
Since its arrival at the zoo in 1925, the historic Dentzel Carousel has made 3 million revolutions (and still spinning). The hand-carved wooden carousel features two chariots and 50 animals, including horses, giraffes, ostriches, tigers, lions, pigs, rabbits, cats and a reindeer. Each is individualized with whimsical details and jewels. A rare menagerie carousel, it is one of only seven Dentzel Carousels remaining in the United States. Location: Near the Fisher Family Children's Zoo.
One of the zoo's most unique attractions isn't an animal; it's a rare 1925 miniature steam train known officially as the Fleishhacker Playfield Limited (and affectionately nicknamed "Little Puffer"). To make room for a new exhibit, the then 53-year-old train was relegated to storage in 1978 and sat unused for two decades. But, thanks to a grant in the late ‘90s, the zoo was able to send the train to the Golden Gate Railroad Museum for restoration while staff laid down a new set of tracks. When you see the Little Puffer today, you'd never guess that this fully functional, pristine miniature steam train is pushing 100 years of age.
San Francisco Travel, the City by the Bay's official visitors' bureau, has a terrific online Dining Guide that can be searched by neighborhood or food type. Need a café in Pacific Heights? Seafood on the waterfront? It's all here.
If it's your first visit to San Francisco, here are a few local favorites you might want to try:
Sourdough Bread from Boudin at the Wharf— Legend has it that Boudin's sourdough starter—from which it still bakes all of its sourdough fresh each day—was given to bakery founder Isidore Boudin in 1849 by a Gold Rush miner. Since then, Boudin has been continually turning out loaves and bowls of this crusty, tangy San Francisco staple. At Boudin's flagship factory on Fisherman's Wharf (160 Jefferson Street), you can order a bread bowl filled with clam chowder, a sandwich on thick-cut slices of sourdough bread, or a whole loaf to take home. There are even loaves in the shape of turtles, teddy bears and crabs for the little ones.
Mission Burrito— Named after San Francisco's Mission District, Mission burritos became popular in the 1960s. Size is the immediately noticeable difference between a Mission burrito and its run-of-the-mill counterpart, which will look sadly Lilliputian in comparison. Within the innocuous-looking tortilla shell there may be a few surprises, too. The wrap usually contains rice, beans, meat (carnitas are a favorite), avocado, cheese, pico de gallo, salsa verde, and sometimes shredded lettuce. The true test comes when it's time to eat. If you can lift your burrito with one hand and get your mouth around the whole tortilla, it's probably not a Mission burrito. Places to try in the Mission District are El Faro (2399 Folsom Street), Taqueria El Farolito (2779 Mission Street), and Taqueria Cancun (2288 Mission Street).
Seafood at Fisherman's Wharf— We won't tell you what to order, but you should definitely find something fresh and from the sea at one of the restaurants or stalls along Fisherman's Wharf. Dungeness crab is a favorite, but there are also oysters, restaurants serving cioppino (an Italian-American seafood stew), salmon, rockfish, halibut and white sturgeon. In December 2021, San Francisco even announced a pilot program that allows the public to purchase fresh Dungeness crab right off the boats at Fisherman's Wharf. Sample seafood on the waterfront at Cioppino's on the Wharf (400 Jefferson Street), Fog Harbor Fish House (on Pier 39), and Hog Island Oyster Co. (One Ferry Building, Suite 11A).
Dim Sum in Chinatown— Dim sum is a broad term for Chinese small plates and snack foods. Often served with tea, dim sum encompasses bite-sized steamed dumplings with a variety of fillings, fluffy bao buns stuffed with barbecued pork, rice noodle rolls, spring rolls, sesame prawn toast, and more. Although dim sum is traditionally eaten for breakfast, no one will scold you if a few happen to find their way onto your lunch or dinner plate. If it's your first time dabbling in dim sum, head to Chinatown's Far East Café (631 Grant Avenue), Oriental Pearl Restaurant (760 Clay Street), Wing Sing Dim Sum (1125 Stockton Street), or Delicious Dim Sum (752 Jackson Street).
Ghirardelli Chocolate— Ghirardelli has four locations in San Francisco, but the Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop (900 N. Point Street) is the biggest draw for visitors. It's where you'll find the iconic arched "Ghirardelli Square" sign (a popular Instagram spot), a self-guided tour or historic chocolate-making equipment, and walls full of Ghirardelli artifacts. Oh, and lots and lots of chocolate. The menu features Ghirardelli's "World Famous Hot Fudge Sundae," served in a handmade dipped waffle bowl; the "Nob Hill Chill," vanilla ice cream blended with milk, handmade hot fudge and topped with mini chocolate ships; and "Create Your Own Quake Shake," a vanilla milkshake blended with your choice of three chocolate squares from the Pick & Mix table, then topped with whipped cream and chocolate chips.
Humphry Slocombe— This ice cream spot has only been scooping since 2008. But, even in that short amount of time, the gourmet shop has made a name for itself, thanks to a crazy kaleidoscope of wacky flavor combinations. Billed as "ice cream for grownups," the shop's co-founders—Jake Godby and Sean Vahey—aren't shy about experimenting with adult ingredients like whiskey and coffee. The hot sellers at Humphry Slocombe are Secret Breakfast, made with bourbon and corn flakes, and Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, whose label reads "Some problems only coffee or ice cream can fix. Some need both."
What's up with that odd name? In addition to their shared love of ice cream, Humphry Slocombe's owners have a mutual passion for vintage British comedies. To create their company's unusual brand, they combined the names of two lead characters (Mr. Humphries and Mrs. Slocombe) from the slapstick 1970's sitcom "Are You Being Served?" The comedy series, which ran for 10 seasons, relentlessly parodied Britain's class system and featured dialog brimming with double entendres and inuendo. The unorthodox comedy is perhaps a fitting inspiration for a decidedly unconventional ice creamery.
BART—You can easily transfer to downtown San Francisco from either the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) or the Oakland International Airport (OAK) on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). For just a few dollars, the BART trains will quickly deliver you to the city center. It takes about 30 minutes to reach downtown from SFO; 45 minutes from Oakland—those travel times are much faster than navigating Bay Area traffic.
SFO's BART station is located inside the airport's International Terminal. The station is a 5-minute walk from Terminal Three and a 10-minute walk from Terminal One. Both terminals have connecting walkways that make it easy to reach BART. Or take the SFO AirTrain from any terminal directly to the BART station.
Oakland's BART station is located offsite, but the convenient AirBART shuttle will connect you to the train. The shuttles depart every 15 minutes from the third curb across from the terminals. When you get off the shuttle, you can purchase your BART fare from the station's ticket machines. (Children age four and younger ride for free.)
There's an app for that: The official BART app can be downloaded from either the Apple Store or Google Play.
Clipper Cards—If you're planning to use public transportation throughout your stay (a smart move considering the daily cost to park a vehicle at most hotels), consider a Clipper Card. This all-in-one transit card can be stored on your smartphone.
Clipper Cards work on BART, Caltrain, Muni (the authority that oversees San Francisco's city buses, streetcars and cable cars), the Golden Gate Ferry, and many other transit options. If you order your card online and set up automatic reloading, the card is free.
There's an app for that: The My Clipper Card app (available through the Apple Store or Google Pay) lets you plan your travels, pay fares with your phone, and reload your card as needed.
Muni—Muni's network of buses, streetcars and cable cars can get you just about anywhere in the city. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (aka Muni) has a trip-planning feature on its website that will give you the best options for getting from point A to point B.
A smart choice for travelers is a Visitor Passport, which can be purchased for increments of one, three or seven days. Visitor Passports offer unlimited rides over the designated number of days on all Muni buses, historic streetcars and the cable cars (BART is not included).
The MuniMobile app allows you to pay as you go or pre-purchase tickets and store them for future rides. Tickets purchased through the app are discounted compared to on-site cash prices.
There's an app for that: MuniMobile is the official ticketing app for Muni (available through the Apple Store or Google Pay) lets you plan your travels, pay fares with your phone, and reload your card as needed.
Cable Cars—The city's three cable car lines—the California, Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde—reach into several districts. You can pay per ride, but it's more cost effective to use a Clipper Card or Visitor Passport (both described above).California Line
- Serves Chinatown, Downtown/Civic Center, Financial District, Nob Hill, Pacific Heights and Western Addition.
- Runs up and down California Street, starting in the Financial District and ending at the top of Nob Hill.
- Popular stop: Grant Street stop, which marks the entrance to Chinatown.
- Serves Chinatown, Downtown/Civic Center, Financial District, Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill, SoMA (South of Market).
- Starts at Hyde and Beach Streets near the Hyde Street Pier.
- Ends at Powell and Market Street.
- Popular stop: Lombard Street (aka "the Crookedest Street in the World").
- Serves Chinatown, Downtown/Civic Center, Financial District, Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill, SoMA (South of Market).
- Starts at Bay and Taylor streets, just a few blocks from Fisherman's Wharf.
- Ends at Powell and Market Street.
- Popular stop: This is the closest line to PIER 39.
CABLE CAR TIPS, RULES AND ETIQUETTE
- Make sure you have your fare/ticket before you board. Conductors cannot accept cash. The MuniMobile app is a great way to pre-purchase and store tickets on your smartphone.
- If you're catching a cable car along its route, as opposed to the end of the line, position yourself at a Cable Car stop pole. A courteous wave to the conductor will alert her that you'd like to board.
- Always wait safely on the sidewalk until the cable car comes to a complete stop before boarding.
- San Francisco's cable cars can't just put it in reverse when they reach the end of their respective lines. Instead, they must be turned around by hand on a wooden turntable set into the street. It's fascinating to watch the cable car operators hop out, grasp the sides of the cars and slowly turn them. But the line to board a cable car at the turnaround can be long. Since the cars depart not entirely full—to allow for riders to board along the route—it's usually quicker and easier to catch a car a few stops away from the turnaround.
- The city's busy streets and steep hills can make for an exciting ride. So always hold on tight. If you're holding onto the special poles on the outside of the car as you stand, don't lean outward.
- Service animals are encouraged to ride in the interior section of the cable car, either on their owner's lap or as far out of the aisle as possible. If riding on the exterior sections of the cable car, service animals must be on their owner's lap.
- Your backpack doesn't need its own seat. If seated, please hold packages and purses on your lap.
- Due to their historic nature, cable cars are not equipped with accessible boarding.
There's an app for that: See the description of the MuniMobile app above.
The F Market & Wharves Historic Streetcar Line—San Francisco's historic streetcars were built in 1928 in Milan, Italy, and later acquired by the city to transport visitors and residents. Even if you only ride a few blocks, the nostalgia is worth the ticket.
The F (Market & Wharves) Line runs 2 miles (3 km) along the waterfront from Fisherman's Wharf to the historic Ferry Terminal Building before hanging a right and heading another 4 miles (6.5 km) to the Castro District. Along the way, you'll pass Alcatraz Cruises at Pier 33, the Exploratorium museum at Pier 15, the Ferry Building shops and restaurants, and Westfield San Francisco Centre.
There's an app for that: See the description of the MuniMobile app above.
San Francisco CityPASS and San Francisco C3 Tickets
Save more than 40% off admission to four top attractions with a San Francisco CityPASS ticket. Each ticket includes prepaid admission to four attractions, including:
- California Academy of Sciences
- Blue and Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Cruise
- Plus your choice of any two of the following:
For shorter-stay/weekend travelers, there's the San Francisco C3 ticket, which includes prepaid admission to any three of the following attraction options. (Attractions do not need to be selected in advance and can be visited in any order.)
- California Academy of Sciences
- San Francisco Zoo and Gardens
- Blue and Gold Fleet San Francisco Bay Cruise
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—SFMOMA
- Aquarium of the Bay
- Bay City Bike and Parkwide Bike Rentals
- de Young Museum + Legion of Honor
- The Walt Disney Family Museum
San Francisco CityPASS and San Francisco C3 tickets can be ordered online up to one year prior to your planned travel dates. Once you complete your purchase, your mobile tickets will be instantly delivered to your email. You can save the tickets to the Apple Wallet on your smartphone or simply leave them in your email. Once you begin using your tickets, you have nine consecutive days to use the remaining admissions. That generous time allowance lets you spend a full day exploring each attraction while still leaving plenty of time to discover other parts of the city.
For more information on visiting San Francisco on a budget, visit the San Francisco Travel website.
To get the most out of your stay in San Francisco, we recommend finding lodging near San Francisco's top attractions. Use this map to find the right lodging for you: