San Francisco journalist Herb Caen once said, "One day if I go to heaven, I'll look around and say 'It ain't bad. But it ain't San Francisco.'"
Whether a first visit or a 15th, this beautiful, exciting and diverse town knows how to do it right: It somehow manages to magically blend its colourful history with cosmopolitan flair.
Covering only 49 square miles and surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco packs an incredible number of sights into a compact urban area.
To really experience this marvelous city, we found the 2-day hop-on-hop-off city sightseeing tour ideal. With four unique tour routes, this venue proved to be the perfect way to meander our way around during our recent weekend visit. Public transportation also makes the city easy to navigate. Cable cars and streetcars are a big part of San Francisco’s past and present.
With their distinctive “ding, ding, ding”, the trolley cars rumble up and down the city's infamous steep hills like mobile museum pieces, tirelessly hauling thousands of tourists every day since they were introduced in 1873. And yes, those cable cars do indeed advertise Rice A Roni, the San Francisco treat.
The city is best known for its highly distinctive neighborhoods—diverse, fascinating and each unique in its own right. However, there are definitely several districts and icons that should not be missed:
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly the 1.7-mile Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 1937, this engineering masterpiece was once considered unbuildable due to the shrouding thick fog, 60-mile-per-hour winds and strong ocean currents.
Pedestrians and bicyclists crossing this architectural marvel are rewarded with some of the most sweeping views of the bay, city and the lush, green Marin Headlands. Even our foggy day in San Francisco was met with clear, sunny skies once we arrived on the Sausalito side of the bridge.
There’s no debating the intriguing and haunting pull of San Francisco’s infamous island.
One of the city’s top attractions, Alcatraz is located only 1.25 miles from shore. Best known for its reputation as a maximum-security federal penitentiary, its prisoners were the nation’s most unmanageable convicts. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert “Birdman” Stroud were among the “invited” guests to the 12-acre island also known as “The Rock.”
The island is accessible only by boats that depart from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf. Demand is high, and tours must be booked well in advance.
Walking the corridors and visiting the cell blocks of this abandoned (and reportedly-haunted) prison was an unforgettable experience. Although in operation from only 1934 to 1963, there were 14 attempted escapes. Most ended with inmates recaptured or killed, and there’s no evidence to suggest those who weren’t recaptured ever made it across the icy bay with its treacherous currents.
The Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf
Lined with elegant palm trees, historic pier structures and hip eateries, the Embarcadero on the waterfront includes the Ferry Building as a marker from which piers are numbered—odd to the north, even to the south. It’s also the place cruise ships sail in and out of San Francisco Bay.
Today, Fisherman’s Wharf rests on land created from the rubble of buildings destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906.
What could not be destroyed, however, was the love of the sea. Italian immigrant fisherman, (many from Sicily), answered the call when San Francisco’s population exploded during the Gold Rush, bringing the craft of their trade to the West Coast.
Dungeness crab from steaming cauldrons and clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls were tantalizingly familiar smells wafting from the vendors on the wharf. Both are signature must-have San Francisco dishes.
Since 1849, Boudin Bakery on the Wharf has been the home for the city’s famous sourdough bread. For a quick lunch pick-up, The Codmother Fish and Chips is a permanently parked food truck that serves the absolute best British-style fish and chips around.
A renovated bustling cargo pier celebrated its 39th birthday this year. Home to street entertainers, restaurants, shops and the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Pier also hosts an incredible farmer’s market.
However, it’s the boisterous crowd of sea lions sunning on the docks and frolicking in the bay that steal the show. Their famous bark has been heard since droves of the marine mammals arrived in the pier after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
Though scientists haven’t figured out why they came, it’s certain they’re here to stay.
Another must-do is the world-famous Ghirardelli Square, once home to the famous chocolate factory. Though it no longer resides at this location, the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop displays the original chocolate-making machines.
Nestled in the steep hills of the Russian Hill district, Lombard Street is touted as “the crookedest street in the world” because of its eight sharp turns in a 40-degree slope. This allows (forces?) traffic to slowly descend the steep incline, undulating snake-like at only five miles an hour.
The street zigzags around colorful flowers and well-manicured shrubs, offering majestic views of the bay.
2017 marked the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s infamous “Summer of Love.”
The history of the Haight is as colorful as the Victorian architecture that lines the streets of this eclectic neighborhood. Widely regarded as the birthplace of the counterculture made famous by the hippie movement in the 60s, the Haight was home to iconic period revolutionaries like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.
The district still has a bohemian magic that remains fascinating. Live guitar music warbles from street corners, tie-dyed t-shirts are hawked by vendors, the smell of pot permanently wafts and colorful peace signs adorn windows of its homes and businesses.
As long as the Haight stands, the 1960s will never fade from memory.
Known as the Little Italy of the West, it’s the fabulous restaurants that draw the crowds to this fun urban neighborhoud.
Pizza at its best can be found at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Award-winning, handcrafted pies are baked in an authentic Italian wood-burning oven—and they are fabulous. Enough so that the line forms outside hours before the restaurant even opens its doors. No reservations are accepted here.
But it’s not just pasta and pizza that makes North Beach special. It’s the boutiques, bookstores and coffee houses like historic Caffe Trieste—the first espresso coffee house established on the West Coast in 1956. Italian immigrant Giovanni “Papa Gianni” Giotta founded the popular neighborhood hangout that’s still owned and operated by the family.
Just a few blocks away in the grassy piazza of Washington Square Park sit the opulent and majestic spires of Saints Peter and Paul’s Church. This North Park Catholic mainstay was made famous when baseball great Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had photos taken on the steps after their civil ceremony.
Despite public belief that the couple was married in the church, this didn’t happen. DiMaggio had been previously divorced; hence, his second union could not be sanctified by the church.
Strolling one block outside of North Beach, we found ourselves in another well-known ethnic neighborhood known as Chinatown. The heart of it is Portsmouth Square, where the city’s first Chinese immigrants settled during the 1850s.
Today, the neighborhood is home to more than 10,000 Chinese residents. Offering authentic and delectable delights, unique produce and fascinating herbs, Chinatown made us feel like we were in Asia. (Most businesses, restaurants and outdoor markets post signs and prices in both Chinese and English.)
With its myriad hills and spectacular bay, San Francisco beguiles with natural beauty, vibrant neighborhoods and contagious energy. The city makes it wonderfully easy to tap into the good life.
Its cable cars, crooked streets and culinary treasures made for a perfect unforgettable getaway weekend.