Wondering what there is to see in San Francisco? Here are the sight-seeing attractions you can’t miss out on, if you’re organizing a trip to the most European of all U.S. cities.
Beautiful, charming, almost surprising. San Francisco embodies the most innovative face of California and, probably, the United States in its entirety. Because it is the city of change and innovation, the city that constantly changes shape and contours without ever betraying its substance, which is so strongly geared towards optimism. In short, when we talk about San Francisco we often talk about the avant-garde: in architecture, in the world of work, in lifestyles and in the geography of the territory itself.
If you are planning a trip to San Francisco, get ready to discover a city very different from the typical American stereotype of fast food and mass tourism. In San Francisco, you can carve out your own space and size and, without forgetting the main attractions of the city, you can discover the most authentic soul of the place.
All you need to do now is discover the perfect itinerary to visit San Francisco: although it is a metropolis, in fact, it is a city on a human scale, and in the next few paragraphs you will discover why.
San Francisco’s location: the incredible geography of the Bay Area and the beauty of cable cars
Before we find out what to see in San Francisco, it is necessary to say a few words about the geography of the city itself, which gives the entire area an unusual and very special atmosphere. Located at the tip of the Californian peninsula, San Francisco is surrounded by water: on one side we find the Pacific Ocean and on the other the beautiful Bay of San Francisco.
The presence of water is not the only feature that makes this city unique: the charm of San Francisco also comes from the territory on which it was built. Unlike the vast majority of U.S. cities, in fact, San Francisco is perched on several hills that, overall, give the city a charming and very varied profile. The city streets are a continuous up and down and the numerous slopes allow you, in some places, to enjoy magnificent panoramic views of the skyline. Spend part of your trip to San Francisco walking through the city: you'll discover views so unique that you'll be literally bewitched.
If walking is not for you, you can move around using the unique Cable Cars. The Cable Cars, in fact, are part of the tram network of San Francisco, which is definitely one of a kind: special open trams on which people used to get on the fly. An attraction by all means like the Golden Gate Bridge (which we will talk about shortly), the Cable Cars are however very popular with tourists and so it may happen that, to get on it, you have to queue up.
What to see in San Francisco: from the Golden Gate to Sausalito
The urban fabric of the city is dominated by the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic bridge of San Francisco that connects the city to the southern part of Marin County, initially leading to the small but beautiful town of Sausalito.
This bridge, a miracle of technology and engineering, overlooks the city skyline since 1937, captivating the sight of thousands of tourists every year. The bright orange Golden Gate Bridge is undoubtedly one of the most iconic symbols of San Francisco: photographed from all possible angles, it acquires even more charm when it is partially surrounded by fog, which is quite common in the city.
In short, a visit to the Golden Gate is a must: you can walk along it, or even better, rent a bike and cross it pedaling to get directly to Sausalito, the first town on the other side of the bridge. From Sausalito, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the city, as well as the simple atmosphere of a small town that, however, is often stormed by tourists. And if you're too tired to return to San Francisco by bike, in Sausalito you'll find a ferry ready to take you back to the city (bikes allowed on board).
Visit Alcatraz: the most famous prison in San Francisco (and the United States)
Thanks to film and television storytelling, Alcatraz is the rocky islet that houses the most famous maximum-security prison in the United States: from an isolated and inaccessible place, Alcatraz has become one of the most visited attractions in the entire area of San Francisco. Alcatraz, in fact, has detained some of the most fearsome criminals in U.S. history.
Closed permanently in 1936, the Alcatraz prison has found new life thanks to guided tours of its interiors. You can visit the cells and find out more about the harsh living conditions of the inmates that were once detained within it. If you are planning to visit Alcatraz, we recommend that you book your visit before you leave for your trip to San Francisco. In this way, you will avoid the unpleasant possibility of the tours being sold out once you arrive at your destination. You can choose the time slot you prefer and then go to Pier 33, the pier of San Francisco from which the ferry that, managed by the company Alcatraz Cruises, takes care of transporting visitors to and from Alcatraz.
Lombard Street, the streets of San Francisco and its neighborhoods
As we mentioned earlier, San Francisco is a city to be discovered from top to bottom and admired, if possible, on foot. The public transportation system works excellently and it would be a shame not to take advantage of it. So, walk through the streets of San Francisco, get lost and then find yourself on the most famous street in the city: Lombard Street. Located in the Russian Hill district, Lombard Street is the most winding street in the world.
Climbing up the slopes of a gentle hill, Lombard street is characterized by magnificent hairpin bends: from the red tiles to the flowerbeds, it is a real spectacle that strikes and enchants the view. All you have to do is walk up Russian Hill and then reach the top of Lombard Street: the effort to reach the "summit" will be entirely rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of San Francisco.
In addition to Russian Hill, one of the many neighborhoods to see in San Francisco is Mission District: here you can breathe a different air, decidedly eclectic and multicultural, which finds its main influence in Latin culture. After the 1970s, it became the punk district par excellence and later the headquarters of many companies in the computer science industry. Walk through the streets of Mission District and let the view of the facades of the buildings run wild, often decorated with beautiful murals. One example is Chris Ware's work on Valencia Street, right on the facade of the building at 826.
But we can't talk about San Francisco without naming Castro, the "home" of the city's LGBT community. Castro is a historic district, where many battles for the rights of the homosexual community have been fought: it is no coincidence that it was here that Harvey Milk (to whom the docufilm "Milk" is dedicated) lived, the first openly homosexual politician who dedicated his life to the fight against discrimination.
Now let's move on to one of San Francisco's most famous neighborhoods, Fisherman's Warf, which, to tell the truth, looks more like a tourist attraction than a neighborhood. Here you can take a stroll and enjoy the local delicacies, go shopping, visit the aquarium, the many museums and, finally, stroll along the beautiful promenade that will lead you to the famous Pier 39, the pier around which sea lions live.
Chinatown of San Francisco: the oldest eastern district of the USA
Speaking of San Francisco's neighborhoods, we can’t help but dedicate a whole paragraph to Chinatown: because those who have been there, hardly forget the beauty of this place. Because it is in San Francisco that the oldest eastern district of the entire United States is located. Going to Chinatown means taking a trip inside a trip and, once you have crossed Dragon's Gate, you will immediately realize it. From spiritual temples to small restaurants serving traditional dishes, head to the throbbing heart of Chinatown, Portsmouth Square, near the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco.
Museums in San Francisco: a selection for you to visit
In a city devoted to innovation, integration, and change, there is no shortage of museums: and, in fact, San Francisco has many of them. Once in town, you'll be spoilt for choice. Among the most famous and unmissable, we ought to mention the SFMOMA or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: opened in 1935, visitors can enjoy more than 30,000 works of art here that touch on different figurative arts, from photography to painting, from installations to live performances. One of the most loved and visited wings of the SFMOMA is undoubtedly the one dedicated to Pop Art, which is located on the fifth floor.
If you want to deepen your knowledge of the eastern world after having been in Chinatown, we recommend visiting the Asian Art Museum, not far from the SFMOMA: it is the largest museum in the western world dedicated to oriental and Asian art.
Science lovers, on the other hand, can't help but visit the Exploratorium, where interactivity is the main theme. Fun and involvement are the underlying elements of the offer of this museum, which has set itself the goal of spreading science... by playing!
Eating in San Francisco: local specialties and the Ferry Building Marketplace
San Francisco also differs from other U.S. cities in terms of its culinary offer. Because here, in addition to the classic burgers and pancakes, you can find a type of cuisine that comes very close to our idea of gourmet. It is no coincidence that among all U.S. cities, San Francisco is considered one of the most "European". You can then delight in the most diverse dishes, among which we ought to mention the Clam Chowder in Sourdough Bread, one of the local specialties: it is a soup of fish, crabs or clams that are served within a small, hollow loaf of bread.
If you want to try the local delicacies, we recommend that you visit the Ferry Building Marketplace. Inside a beautiful historic building that once served as a ferry terminal is now a real temple of the city's gourmet universe. In addition to a beautiful fruit and vegetable market (open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays) inside the Ferry Building, you can find several restaurants that, we are sure, will tickle your taste buds.
San Francisco is so beautiful that it doesn't fear any weather conditions. In short, every opportunity is good to plan a trip to the city. But don't be fooled by the fact that San Francisco is in California and pack your suitcase with the idea of having to dress in layers whatever the season. The climate in the city, in fact, is Mediterranean and even the summer is quite cool. Just think that on average, in the hottest months of the year, the temperature hardly exceeds 23°C.
Having said that, the best time to go to San Francisco is undoubtedly the summer: you will never be too hot and, more importantly, there will be less chance of being surprised by the rain. However, even if you're spending the summer in San Francisco, remember to bring some sweaters and, above all, a jacket!
To visit San Francisco (and the United States in general) you must be in possession of a passport with expiry date after the date of return to Italy. All those who are planning a trip to the U.S. and San Francisco, then, must obtain the ESTA authorization, necessary to enter the United States under the program "Visa Waiver": the ESTA lasts two years and gives the opportunity to stay in the U.S. for consecutive periods not exceeding 90 days.