Whether you’re researching California or are at the airport already, this guide will help you see all the highlights of San Francisco during your next visit.

Places to go and experiences to have

  • The ocean: What’s not to love about wishy washy sounds and a grey-looking number that people describe as blue?
  • Lombard street: That wind-y little street most people picture when they think of San Fran. It’s pretty and, depending on the route, you can see it while getting an awesome cable car ride. Why not double up?
  • Fisherman’s Wharf: Home to Pier 39 and sea lions, you can’t go wrong by spending at least an afternoon here. Try scallops at any of the seaside restaurants. Plus, if you wander to Pier 39, you’ll be able to grab a tasty snack while watching adorable sea lions at Boudin Bakery (one of the oldest bakeries and world famous).
  • Ghiradelli Square: Adorably lit up at night, the square is close to the Wharf and makes for a sweet stop (it’s home of the original Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate shop).
  • Little Italy: As someone who studied in Italy, I can say that my dinning experience was very on point. Authentic Italian gnocchi and a restaurant that transported me back, complete with balsamic vinegar. 

pesto gnocchi in Little Italy San Francisco

  • Union Square: A couple blocks north of Market Street, Union Square is the heart of downtown. Loved by many people for the location and buildings, there are small grassy spots and seating areas. But remember that this is downtown: I pictured it being low-key, but it is definitely busy so keep your eyes open. This is the area my mom and I went shopping and hopped on a cable car.
  • Cable cars: $7 one way or $21 all day. As mentioned above, it is possible to combine this great experience while en route to other activities. The line was very long but moved pretty quickly, so don’t be deterred!
  • Golden Gate Bridge: It’s free! Try Baker Beach or going through the Presidio to get a cool view.
  • Golden Gate Park: There’s nothing sweeter than getting away from the close buildings and getting some fresh air. There are many things you can do in there, like the Japanese Tea Garden and the California Academy of the Sciences, though those do carry a fee. What is free, though, is the people watching. We saw these adorable old men racing boats on a Tuesday morning:

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  • Alcatraz: I love history and crime and this was an absolute must! The day we went way rainy and foggy (a true San Fran vibe) but perfect. Once you take the ferry over, you’re free to hike around and listen to guided tours. It’s an eerie experience to say the least. One thing I didn’t realize was that the workers’ families actually LIVED on the island too… There are children who grew up on Alcatraz and I find that utterly fascinating.  

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  • The ballet: My mom and I lucked out. We were tired from our first day exploring and wanted to see the Opera House. They happened to be having a Frankenstein ballet (one of my favorite books) that night. We were able to grab rush tickets for cheap and experience a beautiful night at the ballet. A truly once in a lifetime experience. We barely even noticed that we were standing.

Transportation to take 

Although I did a lot of research and downloaded transportation apps for BART, my mom and I ended up ubering from the airport to our AirBnb. I noticed that, while most of our rides were around 30 minutes, they weren’t very expensive and it was worth avoiding the hassle of coordinating public transit. For those familiar with SF transportation, by all means, ignore this tip. We just decided we’d rather save time by getting exactly to our locations without missing bus stops.

  • I can give you the super brief options, though:
    • BART is an affordable option where you can buy tickets round trip or one-way or purchase a voucher ahead of time
    • SFO trains at the airport arrive about every 15 minutes until 11:50 pm
    • Taxi
    • The Muni is SF’s bus and metro system. This seemed complicated to me as a newbie to SF, but there are apps to help navigate these systems as well
    • Cable car

So there you have it: the skinny on SF. Depending on the length of your stay, you can really shorten or extend these ideas. Have a whole week? Sit next to the ocean and bask in it. Just a few days? Check out Baker Beach and get a sweet view of the bridge at the same time.

Sail boat on the pier of San Francisco

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