Author’s Note: This article “San Francisco’s Main Tourist Attractions” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebook/ebook with parallel content is my newest book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
San Francisco, perhaps more than any other American city, evokes images of romance. Movies and TV shows have pictured its sweeping hills studded with pastel Victorians. We have all heard its clanking cable cars and the wail of foghorns. The glow of sunset on the Golden Gate Bridge is an emblem of the American West.
San Francisco was once the way-stop to the Gold Rush. Today it remains a gorgeous meeting of sea, fog, and hills.
Locals call it The City. They like to capitalize it in their fond descriptions. The City sits on the edge of a peninsula separating the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco Bay. San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods. In pockets, diverse cultures and lifestyles cooperatively exist side-by-side. You can immerse yourself in worlds as different as Chinatown, Italian North Beach, and the Mexican-American Mission District.
The Newest Attraction: Salesforce Park
One major new attraction in the downtown is Salesforce Park at Fremont and First Streets. Critics praise it as a brilliant example of modern urban design. The park exists atop the new Transit Center, two stories above ground level, and is rather large. One floor below it transit buses come into San Francisco from the East Bay. When a bus comes in, a fountain around the park edge erupts in small-geyser celebrations.
Walk the perimeter of this new Salesforce Park, a full five-acre site. The elevated park covers two large city blocks. There are mature trees and demonstration gardens. You can sign up for an outdoor yoga or other exercise session with an expert. The park gives a fresh view of all the major downtown buildings, and is directly adjacent to the new Salesforce Tower, which is the tallest building in San Francisco. The new park brings joy to San Francisco locals and visitors.
In the park you can walk, jog, relax on the grass, or sit on a bench and pass the time of day. Gardens around the park show good signage, alerting you to plants that may be water-tolerant or may be a collection of California natives. As an urban amenity, the park has many virtues. After opening in 2018, the park closed for some structural security improvements, then opened again in 2019.
Getting Oriented to San Francisco
Two major airports serve San Francisco. Both are an easy half-hour drive to downtown. San Francisco International Airport lies 13 miles south of San Francisco off Highway 101. Across the bay, the Oakland International Airport offers equally easy access. From both airports you can catch the BART train into the heart of San Francisco.
Once in The City, another mode of transportation is the Cable Car. The cable cars are a major part of the San Francisco experience for many travelers. The famous clanging cars have been beautifully restored and maintained. Some cars on the three branches of the line are painted in the original 1870s colors. That’s maroon with cream and blue trim.
Most visitors board on Market Street. One line takes you from Powell Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. Another at the same start goes from Powell to the northern part of North Beach. The California Street cable car runs from Market to Van Ness.
At the start, the waiting line to ride the cable cars is sometimes long. Remember that you can board the cable cars anywhere along the line. Away from Powell, the wait may be less.
Leave some time in your schedule for a visit to the Cable Car Barn and Museum. It’s located at Washington and Mason Streets. There you can see historic paraphernalia about the system and glimpse the innards at work.
San Francisco History
San Francisco began with the tranquility of the Spanish-Mexican era from 1776 to the 1840s. Then came the exhilarating shock of the Gold Rush, in 1848. What followed was the reflective gentility of the late 19th century. All this ended in shatters in the Quake and Fire of 1906.
The earthquake of 1989, fortunately, did not possess the destructive force of the 1906 Quake.
In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza established a Spanish fort, the Presidio, and its surrounding settlement. Soon after, Junipero Serra founded Mission San Francisco de Asis. It was his sixth in California. Popularly known as Mission Dolores, the restored structure at 16th and Dolores Streets still stands. It is one of the oldest buildings in San Francisco.
The Gold Rush of 1848 transformed the face of San Francisco. Within a few years, the pastoral scattering of Spanish-Mexican dwellings changed. The original population of 100 boomed to a restless prospecting region of 250,000. Statehood came in 1850. By 1852 an estimated $200 million in gold had been mined.
To witness this early American era in San Francisco’s history, you can visit the brick fortification called Fort Point. The fort is located immediately below the south anchor of the Golden Gate Bridge. This was where Juan Bautista de Anza first planted a cross in 1776. The Spaniards erected a crude stockade by 1794.
Today the Civil War-era fort remains a prime example of 19th-century military architecture.
The 1906 Earthquake
The Great Earthquake shook San Francisco on April 18, 1906. It was, however, the Great Fire following the Quake that caused the most damage. The earthquake broke natural gas lines and destroyed the city’s water mains. All-consuming fire raged for three days. The conflagration destroyed 28,000 buildings.
Thereafter, San Francisco developed a certain fondness for firemen. Citizens expressed appreciation, most noticeably in the fire-nozzle-shaped Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. The tower was the dream of Lillie Hitchcock Coit.
From circa 1860 to 1900, developers built many beautiful Victorian houses. Fortunately, some survived the 1906 earthquake. Today those “Painted Ladies” have become a symbol of the city. Victorian homes say San Francisco as much as the Cable Cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.
You can tour one of the most striking and best preserved of these dwellings, the Haas-Lilienthal House. The Victorian is located at 2007 Franklin Street. Built in 1886, the classic Queen Anne features gables, bay windows, and a turret tower. Much of the decor is original. Visitors can see its mahogany walls, marble hearths, and fine tapestries.
Another prominent Victorian is the Spreckels Mansion. The home is located at 2080 Washington. You can see many other examples of Victorians on streets adjacent to Lafayette Park.
At 1000 California Street stands the James Flood Mansion. The home was built in 1886 by the Comstock silver lode millionaire. Today the Flood Mansion is the last of the great mansions from the baronial days of the mining and railroad kings. Other mansions in the neighborhood were swept away in the fires that followed the Quake.
San Francisco’s Main Attractions
San Francisco has so many attractions. So what are some of The City’s main lures? A selective list could not omit Golden Gate Park. And, of course, many visitors want to see Telegraph, Russian, and Nob Hills. San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest outside China. Other main attractions are North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The scenic 49-Mile Drive takes you through all of the above.
Golden Gate Park
In 1887, Golden Gate Park comprised 730 acres of dunes and 270 acres of arable land scattered with oak trees. Today, the park stretches across lush meadows, lakes, and dense stands of Australian eucalyptus. The open space encompasses more than 6,000 varieties of shrubs, flowers, and trees. Golden Gate Park is both a cultural and recreational amenity for the city.
Within its boundaries is the attractive Japanese Tea Garden. You shouldn’t miss the California Academy of Sciences, including the Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium. Golden Gate Park is also home to the 60-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden, the deYoung Museum, and the Conservatory of Flowers.
For recreation in Golden Gate Park, you can rent a bicycle. Or you can put on your running shoes and join the multitude of joggers and walkers.
The Hills of San Francisco
Climb the famous hills of San Francisco. You will be rewarded with spectacular views of The City and the surrounding bay. Atop Telegraph Hill sits Coit Tower. An eccentric patroness built the memorial in 1934 to honor the city’s volunteer firemen.
Russian Hill lies to the west. Here you’ll find Lombard Street, the city’s “crookedest street.”
The third famous hill is Nob Hill. The promontory was once the site of mansions. Today it is the home of famous hotels, including the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont. Both offer panoramic views of The City from cocktail lounges on the top floors.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia. Explore the enclave on foot with a walk up Grant Avenue. Walking enables you to browse through shops and explore side streets.
Grant Avenue is the main street for general shopping. Stockton, between Washington and Broadway, is where you’ll find the largest concentration of markets. Here you’ll see an amazing array of exotic vegetables and meats.
For a spicy Chinese meal, try Henry’s Hunan Restaurant, 674 Sacramento Street.
The Chinese New Year occurs in late January or early February. The festival comes complete with parade and firecrackers.
Italian North Beach
North Beach is the Italian district of The City, adjacent to Chinatown. The neighborhood stretches roughly between Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. Here you’ll find many Italian restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and Italian groceries. All lie within a few blocks of Washington Square, the heart of North Beach.
For a cappuccino or glass of wine, stop in at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store and Cafe, on the corner of Columbus and Union.
Some dining options are long established, such as seafood at Caffe Sport at 574 Green Street. But there are many others. Try movie director Francis Ford Coppola’s Cafe Zoetrope, 916 Kearny. The cafe exists in the lovely and historic Zoetrope Building, once known as the Sentinel Building. The restaurant is elegant but casual. Menu offerings feature Coppola’s selection of his own Sonoma winery fine wines by the glass, with pizza, pasta, and calzone dishes.
The Beat movement began in North Beach. Then, as now, it is the home of bookstores, cafes, galleries, small theaters, and nightclubs. City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Avenue, still thrives as a bookstore. It rose to fame under Lawrence Ferlinghetti as a publisher of local poets and is a gathering place of writers.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf was once the center of the fishing and canning industry in The City. While fishing still takes place, Fisherman’s Wharf today mainly attracts tourists. Its bayside shoreline hosts a wide variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants. Nearby Ghirardelli Square was first a woolen works. Then it became a chocolate factory. Later it was remodeled into a shopping and restaurant complex.
Scoma’s, 1965 Al Scoma Way, is an example of the traditional Italian cuisine and locally caught fish restaurant that continues to flourish today.
Adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 lures millions of visitors with its shops, restaurants, and resident sea lions. Aquarium of the Bay offers an engaging educational encounter for all ages with its displays of local undersea life in the Bay and nearby ocean.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Starting with Alcatraz
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area contains 35,000 acres of land and water. That expanse includes Alcatraz, Aquatic Park, and the Golden Gate Promenade.
Guided tours of Alcatraz Island, a federal prison until 1963, leave from Pier 33. The boat ride out to “The Rock” offers a fine view of The City and the Bay. Allow a few hours on Alcatraz for a visit. You can walk around on your own or listen to a Park Service ranger give an explanation. You catch a boat back when you wish.
Aquatic Park includes the Maritime Museum and the National Park Visitor Center, base of Hyde Street, plus several historic vessels you can explore. The scow schooner Alma acquaints you with Bay commerce, such as hay to feed the horses of San Francisco. The C. A. Thayer tells the story of hauling in redwood lumber from the small ports along the north coast.
The Golden Gate Promenade is a pleasant hike from the Marina to the Golden Gate Bridge. The walk passes through the restored Crissy Field military airport, now a tidal marsh and open public area. This three-mile path along the waterfront is a popular strolling and jogging area. Many improvements at the adjacent Presidio National Park will culminate with an over-the-freeway greenway that will allow you to walk from the Bay edge up to the innards of the Presidio.
A Walking City
San Francisco is a city for walking. For an overview of the major attractions, however, consider also a car and take the scenic 49-Mile Drive. There is a move now gathering steam to update the 49 Mile adventure to reflect a more modern city. The Visitor Information Center downtown from SF Travel can assist you with a map. Allow half a day for the drive, well marked by blue and white seagull signs.
Arts and Entertainment
In San Francisco, the arts and entertainment life is thickly textured. For example, on one Sunday each September an “Only in San Francisco” event occurs. On that day comedians gather at Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park. There they brave a bright sunlight that seldom penetrates their nightly comedy clubs.
During an all-day marathon of mirth, called the Comedy Day, the comedians give a collective annual thank you to their audiences. As many as 30,000 appreciators of humor gather for this annual free event.
Comedy is but one thread of the arts and entertainment life of San Francisco, but the degree of vitality in the local comedy club/theater scene is unique. Start a comedy evening at Punch Line (444 Battery St) and perhaps move on to Cobb’s Comedy Club (915 Columbus Ave). If comedy appeals to you, several additional clubs in San Francisco can be visited.
To many past visitors of an earlier era, San Francisco meant topless. It was in North Beach, at the corner of Broadway and Columbus, that one Carol Doda began a revered tradition. Carol Doda descended from the ceiling on a white piano with her bare, silicon-injected figure to titillate a generation of travelers. Similar clubs within view of the Columbus-Broadway intersection promised such events as the He and She Love Act. There was a time when Carol Doda needed a phalanx of lawyers to keep her free of city jail, but the tastes of the modern era have dealt an even crueler fate by declaring such acts passe, vice gone boring.
Spectrum of Theater and High Culture
A spectrum of theater can present either a diverting or thoughtful evening in San Francisco, depending on your wishes. One major company to watch is the American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary Ave), but there are also a dozen large and small additional groups. The popular recent Hamilton hit played at the SHN Orpheum Theatre (1192 Market St).
Ever since 1848, when the first lucky prospectors brought their gold nuggets out of the Sierra foothills to San Francisco, certain elements of the population have generously supported the crowns of established culture, the opera and the symphony.
In San Francisco there is one element that defines the good life as an evening pubbing around the North Beach jazz joints and refers to San Francisco with passionate familiarity as “Frisco.”
But there is also another high-tone element given to black ties, designer gowns, and limousines. These carriage-trade patrons tend to congregate at the Opera House (Van Ness Ave and Grove St) for an evening with one of the great divas. If you don’t fancy taking in an opera, you might want to stop by Max’s Opera Cafe (601 Van Ness Ave), a classical music bar where the waiters and waitresses aspire to be opera singers and just might regale you with arias. The San Francisco Symphony ranks among America’s finest.
There Are Many San Franciscos
What a visitor needs to comprehend, when thinking of the arts and entertainment world of San Francisco, is that there are many San Franciscos. Each is as authentic as the others. How would one classify such events as the annual Bay to Breakers run in May (about 100,000 participants each year, with many in costume) or the annual San Francisco Pride Parade in late June (another 100,000 participants in this lesbian, gay, and transgender event, led by Dikes on Bikes)? Not all the theater and performers in this city can be confined indoors.
The Great Museums
San Francisco enjoys its share of great museums.
South of Market Street on Third, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third St) has never been accused of lagging behind its audience. This museum also makes a special effort to show modern photography.
The Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St), in the Civic Center area, will likely expand your geographic sense of what is “Asian.”
In Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum was rebuilt to display its diverse painting collections more advantageously.
The Palace of the Legion of Honor (Lincoln Park, near 34th Ave) hosts European, especially French, and American shows.
Many of the major modern art galleries in San Francisco cluster downtown around Union Square. If you want to browse them, walk along Post and Sutter Streets.
If you want to engage in the art of conversation with an agreeable San Franciscan, one place to locate the natives is the Buena Vista (2765 Hyde St). The proprietors claim this is where Irish Coffee was invented. This is a fitting drink for San Francisco, a city of brisk weather, a fact noted by the American writer, Mark Twain, when he reportedly said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was my first summer in San Francisco.”
Drink and food are taken seriously in San Francisco, a city that helped invent the notion of the celebrity chef.
The City Itself as an Art Object
San Franciscans with a decided interest in art and entertainment also tend to argue passionately that the canvas of greatest interest here is the cityscape itself. The symphony with the most soothing sounds is composed of the assembled foghorns, strategically placed around the Bay, each with its own instrumentation. The laser light show that dazzles most in this urban disco is the sight of sunlight breaking through the fog bank.
And the fitting center stage place for you, the traveler, to witness all this is an evening cruise out on the Bay, with the Red and White Fleet (Pier 41) or the more posh Hornblower Yacht (Pier 3). The cruises amount to floating cocktail parties, some with a full dinner, music, and dancing, plus a display of one of the most glorious works of U.S. urban architecture, San Francisco, bathed in the setting sun, framed by curls of fog.
San Francisco: If You Go
The main entity encouraging San Francisco Travel is the San Francisco Travel Association at https://www.sftravel.com/.