I grew up next to San Francisco in a little beachside town called Santa Cruz. I grew up knowing it as the city of love, beatniks, and flower power from my parent’s generation, labels that can still be seen in the unique art and counter-culture of the city today.
It was the place for the best weekends away with friends, basketball tournaments, and the occasional high school field trip. The San Francisco from my childhood was the faraway exotic city over the hill. My friends and I would talk excitedly about how when we grew up we would all have our own apartments in the city. I remember those first few visits to San Francisco through bright eyes and a never-ending enthusiasm for the Golden Gate city.
Although I never moved to San Francisco (I don’t think my writer’s budget could quite afford that childhood dream), every time I make another visit to the city while I’m home I’m reminded of that feeling of vibrancy. San Francisco is fast and hungry, it’s the essence of light and dirt at the same time, it has an overflowing culture, it’s cosmopolitan, and most of all, it always feels like home even if I’ve never lived within the zip code.
You won’t find me saying many bad things about San Francisco, it’s a city that clearly fits well with me. So, I thought I would give you some of my favorite highlights of what to do around the city. Think of this as a checklist of activities that everyone should do at least once during a visit to the city, especially if it’s your first time.
Hike up to Coit Tower
Coit Tower is an iconic structure in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill that rewards you with one of the best 360-degree views of the city down below. While walking up to this monument, you’ll also be able to experience one of San Francisco’s charms, incredibly steep streets!
Coit Tower stands at 210 feet and has an abundance of colorful murals inside that were painted in 1933 as part of the Works Progress Administration under President Roosevelt. It’s free to walk inside the tower and around it, but if you want to take a glimpse at the view from the top, it’ll cost you $8.
Drive down Lombard Street
You may feel like the silliest tourist as you make your slow loopy way down the crookedest street in the world, but the bragging rights alone will be worth it. This is one of those highly touristy but only-in-San-Francisco type activities that you really have to do at least once. Be ready for a hoard of photographers as you reach the bottom, usually blocking the street with their selfie sticks outstretched.
Take a free walking tour
One of the few free activities you’ll find in the city, that’s not a local park, is the San Francisco City Guide walking tours. The company is made up of a variety of passionate volunteers that know all the juicy lore, legends and history of a layered city with an intriguing past.
They offer tours all over the city with different focuses, including one around the Japanese Tea Garden, another on South of Market and its architecture, an Alfred Hitchcock-inspired tour, and even one on the hidden history of Fisherman’s Wharf, among others.
While I was in town last, I went on the Russian Hill tour and learned so much about the beatnik community and even saw where Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s love shack was located.
Although these tours are free, they do appreciate (and expect) a small donation since the local tour guides are all volunteers and don’t actually get paid to show you around.
Go on your own brewery crawl
Don’t get me wrong, I love San Diego’s craft beer scene, but San Francisco takes the cake for craft beer in California – if simply because they have the oldest brewery in America here. Anchor Brewing was in fact America’s first craft brewery and it’s still an incredibly popular place to visit today. Since they don’t have a taproom open to the public, you have to book their free tours in advance, usually up to months ahead of time to guarantee a spot.
But the craft beer scene doesn’t stop there. Other favorites for tasty beer would have to include the cheeky 21st Amendment, the local’s hangout ThirstyBear, the intriguing (and delicious) Speakeasy Ales, and the artisan Almanac Beer Co.
Catch a game at AT&T Park
Bay Area teams are where it’s at right now, and what better excuse to catch a game at AT&T Park than to go see the esteemed San Francisco Giants kick butt? If you happen to be in the city during basketball season instead, the Golden State Warriors play just over the bay in Oakland and would be impressive to see live too.
The aspect I love about AT&T Park and baseball in general is how cheap tickets can be to a game. I grew up going to baseball games with my dad, and even though we were always watching from the bleacher seats, it was well worth the trip to experience a live game. And as an added bonus, ThirstyBear is just down the road after games get out! Did anyone say beer o’ clock?
San Francisco’s Chinatown is a hub of frantic activity and business. There are traditional Chinese restaurants as far as the eye can see, kitschy souvenir shops, and a lot of Hello Kitty gifts.
There is still a certain shroud of mystery around Chinatown in the city, you can feel the hidden secrets that still exist down the compact alleyways and dark corners. The smells are intriguing and sometimes alarming, but it’s all in the name of discovery. You could even go to the original fortune cookie making factory here (where fortune cookies were born!!), although don’t expect much more than a cubicle and the sweet smell of fresh baked fortunes wafting down the street.
See a musical at the Orpheum Theatre
Although on the pricier side, if you have the time I would highly recommend seeing a San Francisco Broadway musical while you’re in town. San Francisco is a place that attracts all types of artists, and it’s the closest experience you’ll find to actual Broadway in New York City.
I still remember when I went to go see Wicked at the Orpheum, and how amazed I was at the closing of “Defying Gravity” before intermission. I stared up in awe, touched by the performance by the lead actress who played Elphaba. Even if you’re not a musical person, this is one of those unique San Francisco experiences to have in the city. It’s a place that bursts with talented artists, after all.
Walk over the Golden Gate Bridge
Make sure to bundle up and head over to the Golden Gate Bridge before you leave. Don’t just drive over the iconic structure, instead, really take in its utter magnificence by walking over it. The wind in your face, the seagulls gawking overhead, and the cars whizzing past as you look down at the seemingly calm bay below is a must-have Bay Area experience.
The architecture and color, especially on a blue-sky day, will surely cause you to leave your heart in San Francisco until next time.
Go shopping in Haight-Ashbury
The alternative and punk-focused Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is like no place else to shop. There are tons of second-hand stores, record shops and tattoo parlors for whatever your eccentric needs.
It’s fun just to stroll along, poking your head into random stores and seeing what random gems you can find as a souvenir or gift to yourself. This district is considered the birthplace of American counter-culture and worth experiencing for yourself. Don’t miss Amoeba Music, which has one of the biggest collections of new and used CDs in the world. Those are still a thing, right?
Take a day trip to Alcatraz
I finally visited Alcatraz for the first time this past trip and I could see what all the hype was about. Alcatraz is a place that may give you shivers down your spine, but it’s one that has a fascinating history and imprisoned the likes of the notorious Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, and Alvin Karpis.
You could easily spend half a day here with your audio set, taking in the prisoner and guard stories, walking into pink prison cells, and staring out at the rocky bay, imagining how anyone could escape such a prison.
Spend a whole day museum hopping
As I’ve said before, San Francisco is a cultural hub and a city of the arts and ingenuity, and one place to see this is at the many world-renowned museums around town.
The de Young Museum offers up good views and modern art, the Museum of Modern Art (or MoMA) always has the most cutting-edge exhibits as well as work from some of the great classics of modern art, such as Picasso.
The Legion of Honor is an impressive historic building that houses fine art, the California Academy of Sciences is one of the largest natural history museums in the world, and the Exploratorium is interactive, scientific, and down right cool. Your choices are limitless depending on what interests you most.
To finish off your time in San Francisco, make sure to stop in at the piano karaoke bar near Market Street, where staff and patrons alike break into show tunes and sip on specialty cocktails. They also just happen to have the strongest martinis on the face of the earth, so get ready for a fun send-off and celebration for your last night in the city!
And just one last insider tip to leave you with before I go – if you want to try the most amazing sandwich you have ever tasted, head to the family-run Italian delicatessen, Molinari, in North Beach and have a picnic in the park. You can thank me later.
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. Follow her on The Atlas Heart for more great stories and photos of a worldwide adventurer.