Top Things to See and Do in San Francisco for First-Timers

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Beautiful San Francisco. I remember coming back home from San Francisco and saying to people that if I ever leave New York City that San Francisco is on top of my short list of cities to live in. Beautiful views, a hip and trendy restaurant and bar scene, the west coast chill vibe… definitely a great place to consider moving to, albeit expensive (however New York isn’t far behind).

My trip to San Francisco was the very first time that I’ve traveled alone. Traveling alone is a unique and fulfilling experience that everyone who loves to travel need to do at least once. It’s something that I will cover in a future post, but right now, here is my breakdown of my trip to San Francisco. This guide is specially catered to first-timers in San Francisco.

The photo journal of my trip to San Francisco with more photos can be found on my post: My Travel Photo Journal from San Francisco.

Basics

  • Trip Date: December 10 – 13 (4 days / 3 nights)
  • Weather: Cool, fall like weather. Dress in layers, it can get hot in mid day.
  • Arrived at San Francisco via San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
  • I opted to rent a car against advice that parking in the city is very difficult and garages are pricey.
    • You will need a car if you want to drive across the Golden State Bridge and visit Sausalito and Muir Woods.
    • Having a car allowed for greater flexibility and the ability to visit a lot of spots in a short period of time, especially at night when public transportation is limited.
    • Some garages have bad reviews and reports of break-ins. I looked up several garages prior to arrival and decided on the Sutter-Stockton Garage to be the most economical and best reviewed.
  • The BART is fairly easy to use in comparison to New York’s subway system
  • I stayed at The Mosser Hotel conveniently located in the heart of Downtown San Francisco.
    • Walking distance from Union Square, the Powell St. & Market St. cable car terminal station, BART train stations, and shopping areas.
    • I opted for the Mosser Twin with a shared bathroom. Great price point and perfect for a solo traveler. Other rooms types are available.
    • Full review HERE.

Must See & Do

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  • Sutro Baths
    • Ocean views and the ruins of the old salt water swimming pool complex.
    • Convenient free parking at Lands End Main Parking Lot.
    • Estimated time spent: 1 hour

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Painted Ladies *cue the theme song!
  • Painted Ladies
    • Brightly colored Victorian terraced houses made famous by the sitcom Full House.
    • Estimated time spent: 30 minutes
    • Easy Parking around the park.

  • Downtown & Union Square
    • Shopping, hotel, and theater district in the center of downtown San Francisco
    • Plenty of parking garages throughout
    • A list of stores, restaurants, and events can be found at the Union Square WEBSITE
    • Location of the Powell & Market St cable car terminal to get to Fisherman’s Wharf

Visit at least one of the Philz Coffee locations and grab a Mint Mojito!

    • Estimated time spent: depends on how much you shop… I just walked around for about an hour.

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Inside the iconic SF Cable Cars
  • Ride the San Francisco Cable Car
    • San Francisco is known for their electric cable cars and a definite touristy thing to do… However, only worth it do just once as the wait can be long.
    • Cost is 7$ per ride ($3.00 for Senior/Persons with Disabilities after 9:00 pm and before 7:00 am)
    • Unlimited ride passes are available, more information on the SFMTA WEBSITE
    • I suggest getting on at the terminals early in the day for a better chance to get a seat but you can get on from any stops marked by street signs along the route.

Lines and wait can get very long at the end of the day at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park location so I took an Uber back to downtown

    • Powell-Hyde line going towards the Fisherman’s Wharf area is best for views of Alcatraz as you go downhill
    • Estimated time spent: typical ride time from the Powell & Market St terminal to Fisherman’s Wharf area on either the Powell-Hyde or the Powell-Mason line is about 20-25 minutes.

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Steep winding road of Lombard Street
  • Lombard Street
    • The famous steep winding road
    • You can drive through it but there might be a line of cars trying to do the same thing
    • You can take the Powell-Hyde cable car which has a stop on top of the hill
    • Fisherman’s Wharf is only a few blocks away
    • Estimated time spent: 30 minutes taking pics and walking up the street

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  • Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39
    • Northern waterfront district, a major fishing pier with rows of seafood restaurants, souvenir shops, attractions, and views of Alcatraz
    • Popular tourist destination – so expect crowds and lack of parking
    • Location of boat tours to Alcatraz and Bay Cruises
    • Good for kids

Do not miss the sea lions at Pier 39! Located towards the end of Pier 39 on the left side when facing Alcatraz

    • Food, for the most part, is okay and overpriced but it’s expected of a tourist area
    • The oldest restaurant at the wharf is Alioto’s #8 and highly recommended
    • Visit the historic Buena Vista Cafe known for their Irish Coffee
    • Estimated time spent: 3-4 hours wandering, eating, & souvenir shopping

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  • Ferry Building Marketplace
    • Ferry terminal filled with farmer’s markets, restaurants, artisanal shops
    • View of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge with The Bay light show starting at dusk

I recommend eating at Hog Island Oyster Co. and trying their bacon clam chowder… damn good!

    • Go early as stores close at 7 pm weekdays and earlier on weekends
    • Can be easily accessed by BART train – get off at Embarcadero Station
    • More information can be found on their WEBSITE
    • Estimated time spent: 1-2 hours; depends if you wanna shop. I just came to eat

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  • Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
    • Photogenic architecture in the Marina District
    • When I visited, it was a quiet and tranquil green space
    • A bit out of the way from other attractions (don’t make my mistake of walking from Fisherman’s Wharf… it’s a long walk!). Bike or get a ride.
    • Estimated time spent: 30 minutes

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  • Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point / Battery Spencer
    • IMO the best spot to view the Golden Gate Bridge

Pro Tip: For the best pictures at this location, get there in the afternoon when the sun is behind you and the bridge, otherwise, you’ll be shooting against the light. Alternatively, move across the street to the other Vista Point. If you have a ND filter then this point doesn’t matter 😀

    • I hear you can come here at night as well to see the bridge lit up
    • You need a car to get there. I imagine you could bike there as well. Parking is limited on the street
    • Battery Spencer is pretty cool too in an abandoned photography type of way
    • Estimated time spent: 1 hour

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  • Twin Peaks Summit
    • Two hills located near the center of San Francisco providing panoramic views of the city
    • There is a parking lot and additional parking is available on the street
    • I went at night to get views of the skyline lit up by the city lights

Pro Tip: Bring a tripod or prop your camera on a solid surface. Set to timer. Then put your camera to manual and set the shutter speed around 1 second or more for these night time shots

    • Estimated time spent: 1 hour

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  • Sausalito City
    • Small picturesque coastal town north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge
    • Cute small independent shops along the commercial segment of Bridgeway
    • Metered parking along the streets

Eat at Barrel House Tavern and sit at the second-floor terrace for relaxing water-front views while enjoying your meal

    • Stopped here before heading further north to Muir Woods
    • Estimated time spent: 3 hours walking around, eating, and taking photos

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  • Muir Woods
    • National park known for its giant redwood trees
    • Parking is a little difficult. When the parking lots fill up, people start parking along the side of the road that gets further and further away. The parking turnover seems quick though so spots open up quick

Stay on the main trail (boardwalk) unless you want to hike. The side trails deviate from the redwood trees and add another hour or so of hiking

    • No cell phone/data signal so if you use your phone as a GPS, I advise downloading maps and directions for offline use
    • Estimated time spent: 3 hours walking around and taking photos

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  • Mission District
  • A melting pot of culture – Latino roots, compelling art scene, a growing hipster vibe, and the face of gentrification in SF
  • Plethora of hole-in-a-wall food joints, dive bars, trendy brunch spots, art galleries, coffee shops, vintage bookstores, and artisanal merchants
  • Typical street parking. Can be easily accessed by BART train
  • Colorful graffiti murals throughout the neighborhood

Eat at Taquería El Farolito – hole-in-a-wall Mexican restaurant and order a carne asada super burrito with everything… prepare to be satisfied for days!

    • Estimated time spent: 3 hours walking around and taking photos

Notes & Lessons Learned

  • Parking, for the most part, anywhere outside of the downtown area is not difficult at all.
  • Walking around, even for a few blocks can be challenging as there is a lot of steep hills depending on your location.
  • You can spend a day starting at Downtown SF in the morning, taking the Powell-Hyde cable car to Lombard Street, then walking to Fisherman’s Wharf
  • However, the cable car at the Powell-Hyde turntable at Fisherman’s Wharf to get back downtown has long lines in the afternoon. I suggest to just get a taxi or Uber
  • The area in Downtown SF known as The Tenderloin is notorious for being a sketchy area and many advise to avoid it. However, I walked through it during the morning and found it okay. The Tenderloin is located between Van Ness Ave and Market St and between McAllister St and Geary St. Still heed warnings though, I’m just saying it’s not as bad as some make it sound.
  • No data signal at the Muir Woods area… using phone as GPS was tricky
  • List of places that I didn’t get to go to because of time constraints
    • Golden Gate Park
    • Ghirardelli Square
    • Haight-Ashbury
    • California Academy of Sciences
    • de Young Museum
    • Transamerica Pyramid
    • Coit Tower
    • Exploratorium
    • Oakland area
    • AT&T Park
    • The Yard at Mission Rock
    • Crissy Field
    • Cable Car Museum
    • Yoda Fountain
    • Alcatraz Island

Map

Enjoy!

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