Last Updated on January 18, 2023

San Francisco journalist Herb Caen once said, “One day if I go to heaven, I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.” Since there is no visitors guide to heaven, enjoy this visitors guide to San Francisco.

Whether you’re in town for your first visit or your 50th, this beautiful, exciting and diverse city knows how to do it right. San Francisco somehow manages to magically blend its colorful history with cosmopolitan flair.

Covering only 49 square miles and surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco packs an incredible number of sights into a compact urban area. It’s like no other American city – vibrant and rich in culture and history with jaw dropping vistas over the Bay, that spooky fog and that amazing bridge! For over 150 years, the city has been a magnet for immigrants, artists and people looking for a change of fortune.

Scott McKenzie’s song, “If You’re Going to San Francisco,” is a classic (the bands Journey and Metallica call SF home too), and as a Californian, I can suggest some of the places you shouldn’t miss when visiting the magnificent City by the Bay in my visitors guide to San Francisco.

Visitors Guide San Francisco

Purchase a Hop On-Hop Off Passport

One of the best ways to get around the city is to purchase a 2-day hop-on-hop-off city sightseeing pass. With four unique tour routes, the bus proved to be the perfect way to meander around during our recent weekend visit.

It may seem “touristy,” but it’s an ideal way to get the lay of the land without a car and familiarize yourself with San Francisco’s fascinating and eclectic neighborhoods. Oh, and whatever you plan on doing and wherever you planning on going in the Bay Area, dress warm! San Francisco has a micro climate because of the ocean, bay and mountains which surround it, its regularly windy, foggy, overcast and cool – even in the summer.

Walk or Bike Across the Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly the 1.7-mile Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 1937, this engineering marvel was once considered unbuildable due to the thick shrouding fog, 60-mile-per-hour winds and strong ocean currents.

Pedestrians and bicyclists crossing this architectural gem are rewarded with some of the most sweeping views of the bay, city and the lush green Marin Headlands. Even our foggy day in San Francisco was met with clear, sunny skies once we arrived on the Sausalito side of the bridge opposite SF.

Visit Alcatraz Island

Every visitors guide to San Francisco is going to include the Bridge and the Rock. There’s no debating the intriguing and haunting pull of San Francisco’s infamous island.

One of the city’s top attractions, Alcatraz is located only 1.25 miles from shore. Best known for its reputation as a maximum-security federal penitentiary, its prisoners were the nation’s most unmanageable convicts. Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “Birdman” Stroud were among the ‘invited’ guests to the 12-acre isle also known as The Rock.

The island is accessible only by boats that depart from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf. Demand is high, and tours must be booked well in advance. Former guards and inmates, if available, will give color to the tour and answer your many questions.  

Walking the corridors and visiting the cell blocks of this abandoned and reportedly-haunted prison was unforgettable and unsettling. Although in operation from only 1934 to 1963, there were 14 attempted escapes. Most ended with inmates recaptured or killed, and there’s no evidence to suggest those who weren’t recaptured ever successfully made it across the icy bay with its treacherous currents.

If you go, be sure to ask guides about the takeover of Alcatraz by Native American activists in the 1970s, a fascinating page from American History few know about and even fewer understand.

Explore Fisherman’s Wharf

Today, Fisherman’s Wharf rests on land created from the rubble of buildings destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. What could not be destroyed, however, was the love of the sea. Italian immigrant fisherman, many from Sicily, answered the call when San Francisco’s population exploded during the Gold Rush days (the so-called ‘49ers which give the city’s NFL team its name), bringing the craft of their trade to the Pacific Coast.

Steaming cauldrons of Dungeness crab and clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls are tantalizingly familiar smells wafting from the vendors on the wharf. Both are signature must-have San Francisco dishes.

It’s the boisterous crowd of sea lions sunning on the docks and frolicking in the bay, however, that steal the show on the wharf area. Their famous bark has been heard since droves of the marine mammals arrived in the pier after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the earthquake that interrupt the Bay World Series on live television between the San Francisco Giants and their neighbors, the Oakland Athletics. 

Sourdough and Chocolate Treasures

Fisherman’s Wharf is also renowned for its Boudin Bakery, home to the city’s famous sourdough bread since 1849. Visitors can tour the facility and learn the history of how this magnificent bread was ‘accidentally’ discovered.

Another must-see is the world-famous Ghirardelli Square, once home to the famous chocolate factory. Though no longer at this location, the historic building hosts the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop. Displays of its original chocolate-making machines cover the walls and free samples of its chocolates are still happily handed out.

On the block adjacent to Ghirardelli Square, the Buena Vista Café – as legend has it – served the first Irish Coffee hot cocktail anywhere in the world.

Ride the Trolley

With their distinctive ‘ding, ding, ding,’ trolley cars rumble up and down the city’s infamously steep hills like mobile museum pieces, tirelessly hauling thousands of tourists every day since they were introduced in 1873.

And yes, those cable cars advertise still advertise Rice A Roni, the San Francisco treat.

Visit the Cable Car Museum

This is easily one of the most overlooked attractions in San Francisco. The museum near the wharf highlights the history of the cable car from its first run in 1873 to the present. Guests can learn about the inventor, technologies, builders, rapid expansion, near loss and the ongoing efforts to save and rebuild the cable cars of San Francisco.

The museum houses a collection of historic cable cars, photographs, mechanical displays and a gift shop run by the Friends of the Cable Car Museum.

Drive (or walk) Lombard Street

Nestled among the steep hills of the Russian Hill district, Lombard Street is touted as ‘the crookedest street in the world’ because of its eight sharp hairpin turns on a 40-degree slope. This forces traffic to slowly and safely descend the steep incline, undulating snake-like at only five miles an hour.

The street zigzags around colorful flowers and well-manicured shrubs, offering majestic views of the bay. During busier times of the year, visitors may need a permit to drive this famous street, so it’s wise to check before heading out to explore this unique part of San Francisco.

See the Painted Ladies

If you’re a movie buff, then seeing the Painted Ladies should be on your list. This row of seven beautiful houses with Victorian and Edwardian architecture and gorgeous details is located in the Alamo Square part of the city.

These lovely ladies appeared in more than 70 movies and TV shows. A few famous ones include “The Rock,” “Vertigo,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the popular TV series, “Full House.” They comprise one of San Francisco’s most photographed sites along with the Golden Gate Bridge.

Stroll the Streets of Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the second-largest in North America and one of the largest Chinese communities outside the country of China. It’s the real deal.

Restaurants, markets and other businesses still list their items in both English and Chinese. The food here is incredible, especially if you ask for a local recommendation.

We love the Fortune Cookie factory where visitors can watch these cookies being made and even choose individual messages to be placed inside the cookies they purchased. My grandkids absolutely loved theirs.

Explore the Italian Life in North Park

Known as the Little Italy of the West, it’s the fabulous restaurants that draw the crowds to this fun urban neighborhood.

It’s not just cioppino (an Italian fish-stew originated in SF) and pizza that makes North Beach special, it’s the boutiques, bookstores and coffee houses like historic Caffe Trieste—the first espresso coffee house established on the WestCoast in 1956. Italian immigrant Giovanni ‘Papa Gianni’ Giotta founded the neighborhood hangout that’s still owned and operated by the family and incredibly popular with the locals.

Just a few blocks away in the grassy piazza of Washington Square Park sits the opulent and majestic spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church. This North Park Catholic mainstay was made famous when baseball great Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had photos taken on the steps after their civil wedding ceremony.

Despite public belief that the couple was married in the church, this didn’t happen. DiMaggio had been previously divorced; hence, his second union could never be sanctified by the Catholic church.

No visitors guide to San Francisco can do justice to the magic and charm of its many unique neighborhoods.

Admire the View from the Coit Tower

Built as a viewing tower in 1933, the Coit Tower sits at 1100 feet high with 360-degree views of the city and the bay. The 180-foot cylindrical tower that crowns the top of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower is a landmark that stands out in the city skyline, and one adored by San Franciscans. That other prominent architectural landmark of the SF skyline is the Transamerica Pyramid.

While the views from Coit Tower are spectacular, the area has become known for its flock of wild green parrots living amongst its trees.

Dining in the City by the Bay

San Francisco definitely has a love affair with food. So much so that the city’s culinary offerings explode with ethnic diversity. You can find a good restaurant on nearly every corner. The word in San Francisco is that locals are so particular about their food that if a restaurant doesn’t make it in two months, it won’t last.

Here’s how I take advantage of San Francisco’s outstanding food. Each visit, my wife and I select foodie themes, be it Italian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Greek, or Mexican. Then we look for a restaurant the locals love or a highly rated chef driven restaurant. Somehow, it always works out, and truth be told, we’ve never had a bad meal in San Francisco.

And if you like garlic, then you MUST try The Stinking Rose. One mile from The Stinking Rose on the other side of Chinatown, John’s Grill established itself as one of the top steakhouses in America since its founding in 1908! The restaurant is famously featured in the 1941 movie “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart.

And so it goes with San Francisco where each block, each restaurant, each neighborhood pulls you forward excitedly to the next until your time there sadly comes to an end. We didn’t even mention the Presidio, or SFMoMA or the California Academy of Sciences or Tiburon and Sausalito across the Bay or… don’t despair. San Francisco isn’t going anywhere and you’re always welcome back.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Along with its world class museums and restaurants, San Francisco is a world class hotel city. Rovology is partial to the opulent Fairmont San Francisco and the hip Kimpton Alton Hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf. No shortage of wonderful hotel accommodations around town are available to suit your needs. Use the map below to browse your options.

Booking.com

Author

  • Noreen Kompanik

    Noreen Kompanik is a retired registered nurse, legal nurse consultant and military spouse turned travel writer. She launched her travel writing career in 2014 and has over 1,000 published articles in a variety of digital and print publications.