SAN FRANCISCO | San Francisco is a city of contrasts and constant change. It was founded by the Spanish in 1776, then became part of Mexico before being ceded to the USA in 1848. The California Gold Rush of 1849 saw the city grow massively and things have never been the same since. The city has been through its ups and downs, all which have made their mark on the layout of the city. It’s a diverse place, a city that’s welcoming of people from elsewhere. These diverse influences can be seen in the city’s food, culture, architecture, and more.
The bay, the cable cars, the fog, and all of the images that many visitors associate with San Francisco are all here, and all add to its uniqueness, however the more you dig, the more you realise just how multi-layered this place is. There’s a lot to do here, and narrowing it all down can be tough. If you’ve only got a few days to explore, here are some suggestions on how to spend your time in SF.
Visit A Museum
There are plenty of museums in San Francisco. They are diverse in scope and topics, ranging from the mainstream to the obscure. A must visit is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It’s one of the largest modern art museums in the USA, with 33,000 works of art, including painting, photography, architecture and design, and media arts. The Asian Art Museum is also well worth visiting. There are over 18,000 pieces in its permanent collection, one of the largest collections of Asian art in the world.
For those interested in fine arts, visit the de Young Musuem. The museum specialises in art from the USA, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and in particular costume and textile arts. It’s curated in a way that reflects an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods.
More obscure museums of interest include the Tenderloin Museum, which tells the story of this diverse, vibrant, misunderstood neighbourhood from 1906 to present, as well as the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia, which features ever PEZ dispenser ever sold. Entry also gets you access to the Classic Toys and Banned Toys museums – a worthwhile stop when travelling to or from the airport.
Eat A Mission Burrito
The style of burrito that’s recognised today as the San Francisco burrito (or Mission burrito) originated in San Franciso’s Mission district in the 1960s and is distinguished from other burritos by its large size, inclusion of extra rice and other ingredients, and use of a flour tortilla, primarily to aid structural integrity.
A good Mission burrito is truly delicious, and everyone has their own opinion on where to find the best in town. Here’s my take.
See Some Amazing Street Art
San Francisco is one of the best cities in the USA in which to find street art. There are literally thousands of mural spread throughout the city, covering a diverse range of topics and themes. The highest concentration of street art in the city is the Mission District. In fact, the neighbourhood has one of the highest concentrations of street art of any neighbourhood in the world. Over 500 murals from the early 1970s through to today provide much for visitors to contemplate.
I’ve created this convenient guide to help you navigate the Mission’s street art, taking you through the history of important pieces such as the Carnaval Mural, the Women’s Building MaestraPeace Mural, and the artwork of Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley.
Go Across The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge needs little introduction. When it opened in 1937, it was both the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world, and has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It’s a beautiful, imposing landmark that’s even more impressive in real life than one assumes before visiting.
I get a thrill whenever I drive across it, and recommend you drive, cycle, or walk across it at least once. A good chance to drive across is on your way to or from wine country. Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and Napa are all just over an hour’s drive away in good traffic from downtown San Francisco.
Soak In The Atmosphere Of Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown was established in 1848. It’s the oldest Chinatown in North American and the largest Chinese neighbourhood outside Asia. In fact, it’s the most densely populated part of the US west of New York City. With such history, it comes as no surprise that Chinatown is a wonderful part of the city to explore, with plenty of unique landmarks, buildings and more.
Chinatown (actually one of four Chinatowns in the city) consists of approximately 24 blocks, bordered by Powell, Kearny, Bush and Broadway. To this day it’s an area that Chinese immigrants move to, with many of the area’s amenities geared towards the city’s Chinese community. Many popular Americanised Chinese foods such as Chop Suey, and fortune cookies, originated here, and there’s lots of great food to be found, be it Americanised favourites or more traditional, regional fare.
Enjoy Some Of The Bay Area’s Finest Produce
San Francisco’s Beaux Arts style Ferry Building is one of the city’s icons and has had several uses since it first opened in 1898. A 2002 restoration brought the building back to its former glory, and today it’s a wonder to walk through. Part of the redevelopment included restoring and renovating the Grand Nave of the Ferry Building, which is now home to the Ferry Building Marketplace.
The Ferry Building Marketplace showcases the agricultural wealth of the Bay Area and many artisan producers have stores here. ACME Bread Company, Cowgirl Creamery, Blue Bottle Coffee, and Dandelion Chocolate to name a few.
The Ferry Building is also home to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which is open seven days a week and sees many of the Bay Area’s farmers come to town to showcase their produce.
Visit A Famous Prison
In any city, there are popular tourist attractions that aren’t really worth visiting (I’m looking at you Fisherman’s Wharf) and those that are. Alcatraz Island, only a 15 minute boat ride from the mainland, definitely falls into the latter category. There are several things to see on Alcatraz, but of course the largest and most famous is the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
The prison operated from August 11, 1934, until March 21, 1963, and housed some of the USA’s most infamous prisoners – Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker, Whitey Bulger, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis to name a few. Visitors to the prison and are given a tour of the cellhouse and island, and a slide show and audio narration with anecdotes from former inmates, guards and rangers on Alcatraz.
Alcatraz is a very popular attraction, so if you want to visit I highly recommend buying your tickets online, at least a few weeks before you intend to go.
Walk Up Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks are two large hills near the geographical centre of San Francisco, and offer panoramic views of the city and San Francisco Bay. The peaks are home to a wide array of natural wildlife, including raccoons, skunks, opossums, white crowned sparrows, Red Tail Hawks, and the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. There’s also an abundance of unique plant life. Twin Peaks is accessible by car, but hiking up to the top on foot is the way to go. It’s a steep hike, but rewarding.
Sample Fantastic Beer & Wine
Being so close to some of California’s best wine regions means that there’s no shortage of fantastic, local wine in San Francisco. Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and Napa are home to not just great wineries, but also fantastic breweries and food spots. I highly recommend allocating at least a full day if you can to getting out of the city and exploring around these cities, but if time doesn’t permit there’s no shortage of great bars and breweries to visit in the heart of San Francisco.
There’s more than 120 breweries in the greater Bay Area, and over 30 of them can be found in San Francisco. Here’s a list of some of my favourite craft beer spots in town. For wine, check out Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, High Treason, and Terroir, all of which offer a wide variety of wines, with an emphasis on interesting local drops from independent winemakers.
See Some Live Sports
There’s great professional grade sport to be enjoyed in and around San Francisco throughout the year, no matter what code you’re into. Baseball fans can see the Giants play live at the very centrally located Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park), while across the bay in Oakland, visitors can catch the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum. If you’re a basketball fans, the Golden State Warriors can be seen at the brand new Chase Center. This state-of-the-art arena in the city’s Mission Bay district has seen the Warriors move from Oakland back to San Francisco, where they played from 1962-1970.
Fans of American football can see either the San Francisco 49ers or Oakland Raiders. The 49ers play in Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara – the best way to get to the stadium from San Francisco is by train and tram. To make things easy, here’s my guide to seeing the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. As for the Raiders, they’re slated to move to Las Vegas next year so the 2019/20 season will be your last chance to catch them in the Bay Area.
For ice hockey there’s the San Jose Sharks and for soccer the San Jose Earthquakes. Both of which can be easily reached taking a similar train and tram combination as you do to get to Levi’s Stadium.
Relax In Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park was created in the 1870s with the aim of making it “one of the beauty spots of the world”. The large, rectangular park is indeed very beautiful and today it’s the fifth most visited city park in the USA. Beyond the park’s natural features, it’s home to landmarks such as the Victorian era Conservatory of Flowers, one of the world’s largest conservatories, a grand 1914 carousel which is still in operation, and a 1930s Beach Chalet containing restaurants and murals.
Admire The Unique Architecture Of Haight-Ashbury
Haight-Ashbury is one of San Francisco’s most iconic neighbourhoods, known by most for being the birthplace of the 1960s counterculture and hippie movement. The neighbourhood contains some of the best and most complete examples of Victorian architecture in the city. In particular, two story row houses built above a high basement/garage that were popular amongst the mostly middle class residents of the area at the turn of the century. Many of the houses are painted in bright colours, and are adorned with lathe-work gingerbread. It’s a fascinating neighbourhood to walk through, full of history and character.
San Francisco is one of the best cities in the USA to find great coffee. One of the pioneers of the country’s third wave coffee scene, Blue Bottle Coffee, originated here in 2002 and today there’s no shortage of places roasting beans and brewing some of the most delicious, high quality, ethically and sustainably sourced coffee around.