San Francisco boasts panoramic vistas, distinct neighborhoods, outdoor activities to delight the most adventurous, and museums to engage the most curious. It’s European charm meets cutting-edge technology meets laid-back California living. In other words, San Francisco offers something for everyone, whether your idea of exploring means history tours and museums or self-guided wandering. Spend time in world-famous tourist destinations or discover the city’s lesser-known gems—either way you’re bound to discover why millions of visitors leave their hearts in San Francisco.
Which Discount Card Should You Buy?
Several outfits in town will try to sell you a card that grants you discounts at a variety of attractions and restaurants; some throw in transportation, too. They really do give when they promise, but there’s a problem with most of these cards: They usually include deals on stuff you’d never normally want to see or have time to cram in. Visiting extra attractions in an effort to make a “discount card” purchase pay off is a classic way to derail your vacation out of a sense of obligation.
Our advice? Don’t buy a discount card without first mapping out the plans you have for your visit’s days, because you will likely discover you’d spend more money obtaining the card than you’ll make back in touring. Never buy a discount card, here or in any other city, on the spur of the moment.
That being said, some may pay off and those that allow you to skip the lines offer real value in terms of time saved. Here are the two we’d recommend you consider:
CityPass (www.citypass.com)is a 7-day Muni and cable car pass with unlimited rides. It also allots users 9 days to visit four (five if you opt for the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor choice) top sights from a choice of eight—including Alcatraz and the Exploratorium. The attractions alone have a retail value of $148 for an adult, and the CityPASS costs $84. Throw in free Muni and cable cars for 7 days, and the savings add up. We think this is likely the better of the two options, as it only includes the sights most visitors want to see.
The Go San Francisco Card (www.smartdestinations.com) can be purchased for 1 to 7 days, and the price varies accordingly. It does not include Muni transportation, nor does it cover the Exploratorium. However, Alcatraz was recently added as an option if you buy a 3- or 5-day pass through Alcatraz itself (see website for details). For those interested in tours (including a tour of wine country) or traveling with children (it includes many sights that still interest them) it might be a worthwhile buy, especially if you can snag an additional 15% discount or the $10 off code for liking them on Facebook.
A (Nearly) Citywide Attraction
Cable Cars -- Although they may not be San Francisco’s most practical means of transportation, cable cars are certainly the most beloved and are a must-have experience. Designated official moving historic landmarks by the National Park Service in 1964, they clank up and down the city’s steep hills like mobile museum pieces, tirelessly hauling thousands of tourists each day to Fisherman’s Wharf and elsewhere at the brisk pace of 9 miles per hour.
As the story goes, London-born engineer Andrew Hallidie was inspired to invent the cable cars after witnessing a heavily laden carriage pulled by a team of overworked horses, slip and roll backwards down a steep San Francisco slope, dragging the horses behind it. Hallidie resolved to build a mechanical contraption to replace horses, and in 1873, the first cable car made its maiden voyage from the top of Clay Street. Promptly ridiculed as “Hallidie’s Folly,” the cars were slow to gain acceptance. One early onlooker voiced the general opinion by exclaiming, “I don’t believe it—the damned thing works!”
But indeed they do—and have for more than 100 years. The cars, each weighing about 6 tons, run along a steel cable enclosed under the street on a center rail. You can’t see the cable unless you peer straight down into the crack, but you’ll hear its characteristic hum and click-clacking sound whenever you’re nearby. The cars move when the gripper (they don't call themselves drivers) pulls back a lever that closes a pincerlike “grip” on the cable. The speed of the car, therefore, is determined by the speed of the cable, which is a constant 9 1/2 mph—never more, never less. The two types of cable cars in use hold a maximum of 90 and 100 passengers, and limits are rigidly enforced. The best view (and the most fun) is from a perch on the outer running boards—but hold on tightly, especially around corners.
Hallidie’s cable cars were imitated and used throughout the world, but all have been replaced by more efficient means of transportation. San Francisco planned to do so, too, but met with so much opposition that the cable cars’ perpetuation was actually written into the city charter in 1955. The mandate cannot be revoked without the approval of a majority of the city’s voters—a distant and doubtful prospect. San Francisco’s three existing cable car lines form the world’s only surviving system. Savvy travellers do like the locals do and catch the car a couple stops up from the origin to skip the often-long lines (sometimes a 2-hour wait in the summer).
Powell–Hyde and Powell–Mason lines begin at the base of Powell and Market sts. California St. line begins at the foot of Market St. at the Embarcadero. $6 per ride.
The Secret to Catching Cable Cars
Here's the secret to catching a ride on a cable car: Don't wait in line with all the tourists at the turnaround stops at the beginning and end of the lines. Walk a few blocks up the line (follow the tracks) and do as the locals do: Hop on when the car stops, hang on to a pole, and have your $6 ready to hand to the brakeman (hoping, of course, that he'll never ask). Note: On a really busy weekend, however, the cable cars often don't stop to pick up passengers en route because they're full, so you might have to stand in line at the turnarounds.
Finding Your Way -- When asking for directions in San Francisco, be careful not to confuse numerical avenues with numerical streets. Numerical avenues (Third Avenue and so on) are in the Richmond and Sunset districts in the western part of the city. Numerical streets (Third Street and so on) are south of Market Street in the eastern and southern parts of the city. Get this wrong and you'll be an hour late for dinner.
Urban Renewal -- Relaxation and rejuvenation are raised to an art form in the City by the Bay. Here are five spas you may want to try, for a massage, facial, or soak.
- Kabuki Springs & Spa, 1750 Geary Blvd. (tel. 415/922-6000; www.kabukisprings.com), was once an authentic, traditional Japanese bathhouse. After the Joie de Vivre hotel group bought and renovated it, it became more of a Pan-Asian spa with a focus on wellness. Access to the deep ceramic communal tubs—at $25 per person—private baths, and shiatsu massages remain. The spa is open from 10am to 10pm daily; joining the baths is an array of massages and Ayurvedic treatments, body scrubs, wraps, and facials, which cost from $65 to $200.
- Spa Radiance, 3011 Fillmore St. (tel. 415/346-6281; www.sparadiance.com), is an utterly San Francisco spa experience due to its unassuming Victorian surroundings and its wonderfully luxurious treatments such as facials, body treatments, massages, manicures, pedicures, Brazilian waxing, spray-tanning, and makeup application by in-house artists.
- A more posh and modern experience is yours at International Orange, 2044 Fillmore St., second floor (tel. 415/563-5000; www.internationalorange.com). The self-described spa yoga lounge offers just what it says in a chic white-on-white space on the boutique-shopping stretch of Fillmore Street. They’ve also got a great selection of clothing and face and body products, including one of my personal favorites, locally made In Fiore body balms.
- In the St. Regis Hotel, Remède Spa, 125 Third St. (tel. 415/284-4060; www.remede.com), has two whole floors dedicated to melting away all your cares, worries, kinks, and knots. Expect wonderful massage, facials, manis and pedis, waxes, and more.
- A few doors down in the W Hotel is the city’s outpost of New York’s Bliss Spa, 181 Third St., fourth floor (tel. 877/862-5477; www.blissworld.com). The hip version to St. Regis’s chic, it offers a similar spa menu, including wedding specialties.
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.