- A Powell–Hyde Cable Car Ride: Skip the less-scenic California line and take the Powell–Hyde cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf—the ride is worth the wait. When you reach the top of Nob Hill, grab the rail with one hand and hold your camera with the other, because you’re about to see a view of the bay that could make you weep.
- An Adventure at Alcatraz: Even if you loathe tourist attractions, you’ll dig Alcatraz. Just looking at the Rock from across the bay is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies—and the park rangers have put together an excellent audio tour with narration by former inmates and guards. Heck, even the boat ride across the bay is worth the price.
- A Sourdough Bread Bowl Filled with Clam Chowder: There is no better way to take the chill off a freezing July day in San Francisco than with a loaf of bread from Boudin Bakery, hollowed out to form a primitive chowder vessel, filled with hot steamy clam and potato soup.
- A Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge: Don your windbreaker and walking shoes and prepare for a wind-blasted, exhilarating journey across San Francisco’s most famous landmark. It’s one of those things you have to do at least once in your life.
- A Stroll Through Chinatown: Chinatown is a trip—about as close to experiencing Asia as you can get without a passport. Skip the camera and luggage stores and head straight for the food markets, where a cornucopia of critters that you’ll never see at the grocery store sit, slither, or hop around in boxes waiting for the wok. Better yet, take one of Shirley Fong-Torres’s Wok Wiz tours of Chinatown.
- Night of Comedy at Beach Blanket Babylon: Giant hats, over-the-top costumes, and wicked humor are what it’s all about at this North Beach classic, the longest running musical review in the country.
- A Visit with the California Sea Lions: These giant, blubbery beasts are probably the most famous residents of the City by the Bay. Though they left en masse for greener pastures—or bluer seas—back in 2009, they are now back in full force, barking, belching, and playing king of the mountain for space on the docks at Pier 39.
The Best Architecture
- The Transamerica Pyramid: Without this tall, triangular spire gracing its presence, the skyline of San Francisco could be mistaken for almost any other American city. Though you can’t take a tour to the top, on the Plaza Level—off Clay Street—there is a Visitor Center with videos and facts, a historical display, and a live feed from the “pyramid-cam” located on the top. Did you know this icon appears white because its façade is covered in crushed quartz? Located at 600 Montgomery St.
- The Palace of Fine Arts: This Bernard Maybeck–designed stunner of Greek columns and Roman ruins is one of the only structures remaining from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition which was held, in part, to show that San Francisco had risen from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake destruction.
- Mission Dolores: Also known as Mission San Francisco de Asís, this was the sixth in a chain of missions ordered built by Father Junipero Serra. Built in 1776, it is the oldest surviving building in the city.
- Sentinel Building/Columbus Tower: Real estate is at such a premium in our city; every speck of land has to be used if at all possible. There is no better proof of this than Francis Ford Coppola’s triangular-shaped flatiron building, located at the corner of Columbus and Kearny Streets. Under construction in 1906, it was one of the few structures in the city to survive the earthquake and ensuing fires.
- Recycled Buildings: Since San Francisco was the first city in North America to mandate recycling and composting; it only follows we would be good at recycling our old buildings as well. The Asian Art Museum was once the city library. The Contemporary Jewish Museum was created from an old power substation designed by Willis Polk. Built in 1874 to hold the “diggings” from the gold rush, the old US Mint (at 5th and Missions sts.) is currently being recycled and will eventually house the San Francisco Museum at the Mint. The Ferry Building Marketplace was—surprise—the old ferry building. Built between 1895 and 1903, 170 ferries were docked here daily.
- The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square: Also known as the Six Sisters, these famous Victorian homes on Steiner Street are among the most photographed sights in the city. The characters from the sitcom “Full House” lived here in TV land.
The Best Museum
- Palace of the Legion of Honor: Located in a memorial to soldiers lost in World War I, this fine arts museum features Renaissance and pre-Renaissance works—many from Europe—spanning a 4,000-year history.
- de Young: Appropriately housed in a new modern building in Golden Gate Park, the Legion of Honor’s modern fine arts sister, the de Young, features works from more recent times. Both can be entered on the same day with one admission ticket.
- California Historical Society: Established in 1871, this little-known gem invites visitors to explore a rich collection of Californiana, including manuscripts, books and photographs pertaining to the Golden State’s fascinating past.
- Contemporary Jewish Museum: Even if you have absolutely no interest in Jewish culture, history, art, or ideas, go to visit the old-meets-new building, created when New York architect, Daniel Libeskind, “dropped” shiny steel cubes onto the roof of the 1907 Willis Polk–designed Beaux Arts brick power substation.
- Asian Art Museum: Located in the big showy Civic Center space, across the way from City Hall, this is my favorite museum in the city. I never tire of looking at the variety of treasures from countries I had no idea were in fact a part of “Asia.”
The Best Things to do with Children
- The Exploratorium: Imagine a hands-on science museum where kids can play for hours, doing cool things like using a microscope to search for miniscule sea creatures, and then watch them attack each other with teeny, tiny claws. Throw in a drinking fountain in a real toilet and you’ve got the sweetest science museum on the planet.
- Pier 39 and the California Sea Lions: Featuring ice cream and candy stores, bungee jumping, a puppet theater, and lots of cool shops, Pier 39 is every kids’ dream come true. To top it all off, this pier is home to the famous barking sea lions.
- Musee Mechanique: Filled with old fashioned penny arcade games, kids love to pop in quarters and experience what their great, great grandparents did for fun 100+ years ago.
- Aquarium of the Bay: Stand on a conveyor belt. Move through a tube in an aquarium while all sorts to sea creatures swim over and around you. Repeat. What’s not to love?
- Cable Car Museum: Kids love to learn what makes things work. They’ll be fascinated when they enter this cool museum in action, especially if they’ve just hopped off a cable car. On the main level you can see giant wheels turning the very cables that pull the cars around the city. Below, you might catch a gripper actually grabbing a cable.
- California Academy of Sciences: At this 150-year-old institution located in the middle of Golden Gate Park, kids’ favorite activities include watching Claude, the cool albino alligator, and learning about the planets while laying back in their chairs at the Morrison Planetarium.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.