San Francisco & beyond – sightseeing travel tips

San Francisco & beyond – sightseeing travel tips

San Francisco, in northern California, is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. It has 44 hills and therefore, is full of characteristic steep streets with wonderful views of the San Francisco Bay, the iconic Golden Gate bridge, the beautiful Bay bridge, the island of Alcatraz with its notorious prison, and much more. 

Read about my favourite sightseeing discoveries, strolls, great food & drinks, cool atmosphere, nature, and tips on how to enjoy a trip to San Francisco

The San Francisco skyline
The San Francisco skyline

San Francisco has year-round fog however, autumn, especially September, is the best month to visit. The weather is often warmer than in summer, with more sunny skies. Pack a few layers though, do not underestimate the bay area breeze!

There are many activities to do in hilly San Francisco and the surrounding Bay area.

Let’s explore by area

Laurel Heights, Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow and Marina are beautiful residential areas worth exploring on foot…despite some steep streets

Lyon Street Steps

This area is one of my favourite strolls. The junction of Lyon Street and Broadway Street is the start of the scenic Lyon Street Steps (332 steps that go down towards the Bay.) The views at the top of the stairs are spectacular. The mansions with balconies and manicured gardens in the surrounding streets are wonderful to look at. And since this is not a very touristy area, you’ll have peace and quiet to enjoy your walks.

The junction of California Street and Lyon Street is a good place to start a stroll up north. The scenery, the architecture and the views get better as you continue walking up. From the top of the steps, you can see the blue San Francisco Bay, the Palace of Fine Arts dome, and the Presidio Park.

Before you go down the Lyon street steps, make a right on Broadway street and walk up to Gough street. Take your time to admire the beautiful mansions with spectacular views. Broderick Street and Baker Street have stairs and interesting pathways that go down and are parallel to Lyon Street steps. However, do not miss walking down the steps on Lyon Street, it’s a beautiful experience.

Presidio Park

The Presidio of San Francisco is a park and former U.S. Army military fort. Continue on Lyon Street along Presidio park toward the Marina and you’ll see more beautiful architecture. Don’t miss a stroll in Presidio park by the pond. Make a left on Chestnut street and you’ll see a restaurant, a Starbucks and a pond. It’s really nice and relaxing to walk around the green areas, maybe sit on a bench and rest before continuing on foot. Read the History of The Presidio here.

The Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts with its white dome and columns is a beautiful area to explore on foot, see the ducks in the water, maybe witness a bride and groom in a photo session and a video being filmed. The surrounding houses are beautiful to look at.

Marina boulevard

Walk along Marina boulevard to the east and take in the breeze and the views. Continue along the Marina and go up to Fort Mason park on a hill. You’ll get nice views of the Bay and will run into many people riding bicycles towards the Golden Gate bridge to cross over to Sausalito. You may walk all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf and its piers.

The Marina and the red Golden Gate bridge in the background
The Marina and the Golden Gate bridge in the background
The Golden Gate bridge on a cloudy day
The Golden Gate bridge on a cloudy day

Lively streets with great shops, cafes, bars and restaurants

  • Chestnut Street between Divisadero Street and Filmore Street. I noticed that this area if mostly frequented by people in their twenties compared to the other streets.
  • Union Street between Steiner Street and Octavia Street. 
  • Filmore Street between Sutter Street and Pacific Avenue.

Along the Bay and North Beach

There are areas along the Bay with different atmospheres for all tastes. 

The Fisherman’s Wharf 

This area is full of attractions such as, restaurants, shops, cafes, street performers, boat tours to Alcatraz, seals in Pier 39, Ghirardelli square, the chocolate museum, cable car stops, trams, etc. therefore, it’s a very popular destination for visitors.

The Embarcadero 

The waterfront area surrounding the Ferry Building is more relaxed yet very lively. It has beautiful views of the Bay Bridge, the Financial District and the city’s skyscrapers. Inside the Ferry Building you’ll find cafes, restaurants and shops, as well as ferries that go to Sausalito and Larkspur; where many locals live and commute by ferry to San Francisco.  

The Ferry building
The Ferry building on a bright sunny day

Further south is Bay bridge 

Bay bridge is a direct road between San Francisco and Berkeley, Oakland, and Treasure Island on the east. The view of the bridge from underneath is beautiful. There are a few restaurants by the water where you may contemplate the bridge and the San Francisco Bay.

The Bay bridge which links San Francisco with Oakland on the east
Bay bridge which links San Francisco with Berkeley, Oakland and Treasure Island on the east

North Beach

Also known as Little Italy due to its Italian heritage, has great Italian trattorias, cafes, and a lively atmosphere around Washington Square and Columbus Avenue.

Washington Square in North Beach aka Little Italy
Washington Square in North Beach aka Little Italy

Russian Hill

The Crookedest Street – Lombard Street

The Lombard Street block  between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets is a steep one-way street with eight sharp turns that zig-zag among beautiful flowers and between two rows of houses with fantastic views. Walk up and down the steps for pedestrians and admire the views, the flowers, the crooked street and the architecture of the houses.

Downtown and Chinatown

Union Square, the Financial District and Chinatown are busy areas worth visiting in daylight. 

Union Square has good shopping and the Financial District has skyscrapers and a young corporate vibe. The Transamerica Pyramid was the tallest building in the city until 2018 when the Salesforce Tower opened and became the tallest building in the city.

The Financial District by night
The Financial District by night

Chinatown 

Chinatown in San Francisco has the largest Chinese community outside of China, in the world. Grant Avenue is the nicest street to walk on in Chinatown. Take your time to enter shops, supermarkets, see murals with art, street decorations and the architecture. Restaurants in Chinatown are authentic with wait staff who barely speak English and add to the experience. The food is great but don’t expect refined service.

The Golden Gate park 

Located in the west, close to the Pacific Ocean, is a big park with many things to see such as, the Japanese tea garden, San Francisco Botanical Garden, Conservatory of Flowers, de Young Museum and much more. There are bicycles for rent or Segway tours to cruise around this beautiful park. 

A walk along Ocean Beach 

It has great views of the Pacific Ocean, and colourful houses. The Cliff House is a legendary restaurant with great views. It has a refined restaurant and a casual pub style restaurant to choose from, both with great views of the ocean.

Haight-Ashbury 

A neighbourhood near Golden Gate park and the birthplace of the hippie counterculture movement in the 1960’s. It’s nice to walk along Haight Street towards Golden Gate Park and admire the well-preserved colourful Victorian houses, the vintage clothing shops, casual bars, restaurants, and feel the hippie vibe.

Alamo Square Park – Painted Ladies

Located in Western Addition, is a small hilly park east of Golden Gate Park, and one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco. Go up to Alamo Square Park from Hayes and Steiner Street and look at the city skyline. You will see an escalating row of colourful Victorian houses (aka Painted Ladies) and in the background, downtown’s skyscrapers. The contrast is stunning. This view has been features in movies and a hit TV show between the late 70’s-90’s.

The iconic Victorian houses aka The Painted Ladies with downtown san Francisco in the background
The iconic colourful Victorian houses aka Painted Ladies
with downtown San Francisco in the background

The Castro 

One of the friendliest neighbourhoods in San Francisco. It is home to the LGBTQ community and is filled with independent local designer shops, bars, nightclubs, restaurants and rainbow flags. In the same fun and friendly spirit, and just around the corner, is Dolores Park in the Mission. It’s where people go to play, picnic, lounge and enjoy spectacular views of downtown’s skyline on sunny days. The best photos can be taken on Church and 20th street. 

Colourful, friendly and lively Castro neighbourhood
Colourful, friendly and lively Castro neighbourhood

The Mission district

Has a rich history that dates back to when the Spanish Missionaries arrived to San Francisco in 1776. It was populated by Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans, also known as Chicanos, and later by Latin Americans from different countries. Today, the neighbourhood is the epicentre of Latino culture, with art, food, shops and numerous Latino artistic and cultural institutions. Valencia street between 15th-18thStreet is a vibrant part where you can enjoy the Latino vibe.

Places to eat and have a drink

Harris’ is an elegant steakhouse with impressive quality and great service. The atmosphere is elegant and calm.

La Mar is a Peruvian gourmet restaurant located on the waterfront and near the Ferry Building. It is big and has three atmospheres; a bar overlooking the street and the Financial District, the restaurant inside, beautifully decorated with an open kitchen, and the terrace, overlooking the bay and Treasure Island. The food is great and so are the cocktails!

Yank Sing is a great address for dim sum. It has two central locations. The ordering process is an experience; the wait staff walk by the tables with carts displaying food by category. You select your choice and they add it to your bill. If you want something different, they call the pertinent cart. If it gets too complicated, you may also order from the menu. The food is delicious and the service is authentically Asian.

Capital is a homestyle Cantonese restaurant in the heart of Chinatown. It’s nothing fancy but the food is great and the portions are generous. The whole experience transports you to an Asian city, and you forget that you are in the U.S.

Flores, located in Cow Hollow, serves traditional Mexican cuisine and great cocktails. A friendly place to have a drink and people watch on lively Union Street, or to have an authentic Mexican meal.

Palm House is a fun place to go for drinks and food, or just drinks. It has many atmospheres to choose from and on weekends, in the afternoon, it may become a party. The quality of the drinks and food; inspired on tropical places, is great, and the service is very friendly and professional. It’s located in the busy part of Union Street so feel free to go bar hopping.

Spruce is a great place to go out for drinks, small plates or dinner and enjoy a vibrant atmosphere in a beautifully decorated setting. Located in the chic neighbourhood of Presidio Heights, it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the good things in life.

Tonga Room is located in the beautiful Fairmont Hotel. If you enter through the hotel lobby, with its elegant and classic décor, you will be surprised to see the atmosphere of the Tonga Room. It’s a fun and tropical bar and restaurant with Polynesian-fusion cuisine. The decoration and atmosphere are bright, and joyful. The former hotel’s swimming pool became a lagoon and a floating stage for live entertainment at the Tonga Room. 

Marianne’s is a cool, low-light lounge with a sexy retro décor. It’s great for a drink and small plates.

B. Patisserie is a great place to have pastries, ‘viennoiseries,’ sandwiches, coffee and more. The quality is impeccable and the atmosphere is modern, clean, minimalist. There is a beautiful dessert display to look at while you wait in line to place your order.

Ippudo is an award-winning casual Japanese restaurant focused on ramen. The food is excellent, fresh and somehow comforting. Ipuddo is located in downtown Berkeley, not far from UC Berkeley campus. 

Barrel House in Sausalito, is the perfect place to go for lunch or a drink, sit outside overlooking the bay and San Francisco from a distance. A delightful experience!

Sightseeing beyond San Francisco

Muir Woods National Monument 

Located in Mill Valley, is an ancient forest full of coast redwoods; many over 600 years old. There are three trails that you can follow on foot, the shortest taking half an hour and the longest one and a half hours. Most of the trail is paved however, there are some paths that aren’t. Muir Woods is a beautiful experience to the senses. The scent of the redwoods is nice, the trees are beautiful to look at all the way to the top and you learn about history and geography. More info on Muir Woods here.

Redwood trees that smell nicely in Muir Woods National Monument
Redwood trees that smell nicely in Muir Woods National Monument

Sausalito 

Is a beautiful city in Marin County, across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. It has nice shops, art galleries, restaurants and cafes along the water, with beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. It’s known for its Richardson bay house boat enclaves which used to be artist squatter houses after WWII. You may go to Sausalito by ferry, by car or by bicycle. 

Berkeley

Is home of the University of California, Berkeley where the free speech movement started in 1960s. The beautifully green campus is easily accessible from downtown Berkeley. A visit to the campus is a good idea to change atmosphere and witness international student life in one of the most prestigious universities. Take the Bart train from San Francisco directly to Berkeley and from there everything will be within walking distance. Shattuck avenue is the main street in downtown Berkeley and where the Bart station is located, as well as many shops and restaurants.

Travel tips

  • Take the cable car at least once. It’s the last manually operated cable car system in the world and an icon of San Francisco. A nice route is the one from Ghirardelli Square to the Cable Car Museum going uphill on Hyde Street. Find more information about taking the cable car here.
  • If you depend on WiFi to have access to the internet, don’t count on restaurants or cafes as much as in other American cities. Do your homework before you venture outside. 
  • A great app that I use in cities where it’s available is Citymapper. You may save itineraries and look at them offline. Google Maps is also a great one. If you plan to walk, look for maps that will show the steep streets. There are some beautiful steep streets worth the physical effort and the extra time however, there are other streets that are just steep and uninteresting.
  • When it comes to transportation within the city, the Muni; bus and metro system are very reliable. The easiest way is to buy a clipper card and top it up with money. Uber and Lyft; the ride sharing system works great in San Francisco. In my experience, they are punctual, fast, reliable and cheaper than meter operated taxis.
  • With the boom of tech companies and young professionals having more purchasing power, San Francisco has been gentrified. This has affected low income people and many have lost their homes and now live on the street. It’s sad to see so many homeless people. Unlike other cities, where homeless are segregated to one area, in San Francisco they are spread out in the city. There are some areas to be avoided such as the Tenderloin, Market street between 6th-11th, Union Square at night, some areas in the Mission, etc.
Tram, one public transportation option
Tram, one public transportation option

Have a great time in your Northern California adventure and share your travel tips in the comment section.

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