As with any world-class city, San Francisco offers both iconic landmarks as well as hidden jewels. Travelers who parachute in and out without staying a couple of days on either end of a cruise are missing out on a wide range of sights and experiences in this diverse, vibrant city that is home to a number of world-class landmarks that adorn what may well be the world's most beautiful bay.
So, yes, spend an afternoon riding one of the storied cable cars and even visiting Fisherman's Wharf if you must. But set aside some time for the San Francisco that locals know and love.
I've lived in the Bay Area for 20 years, and the city is quite a storybook. You can find echoes of the Gold Rush, the rough and tumble frontier town that Mark Twain covered, the Great Earthquake of 1906 and the Beat Generation. You can visit former military outposts like the Presidio or swing by The Haight to capture the hippie vibe of the Summer of Love (1968).
Today, San Francisco offers just about everything for visitors who love cities: theaters, museums, the symphony, opera, ballet, jazz, salsa, rock, hip hop, shopping, fine and casual dining, all sorts or watering holes and great neighborhoods to explore.
The city is renowned for its cold summers and fog, so be sure to wear layers of clothing to protect from the chill you may feel on many summer and winter days. And be aware that the city is probably Exhibit A in the nation's growing income gap, with well-off tech workers gentrifying some downtown neighborhoods while homelessness is going up.
Cruise ships that call on San Francisco
San Francisco is not just a port of call but also a port of departure for cruises to Alaska, Hawaii and the Mexican Riviera. The city's opening a new cruise terminal in September 2014 that can handle ships up to 4,000 passengers means we're starting to see more arrivals and departures, especially from Princess Cruises. Ships that call on San Francisco include:
Jack Hollingsworth / Courtesy of San Francisco Travel AssociationA view of the Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco's tallest skyscraper.
San Francisco at its core
Diversity and tolerance are the twin credos that infuse city life. (And it's a diverse populace of 884,000 where Asian-Americans will outnumber non-Latino whites in the not too distant future.) This is what makes San Francisco such an extraordinary place to live and visit: Everyone is welcome, and walking through the city you'll encounter folks eager to help you on your travels.
Top things to do & see in San Francisco
Walk north: Your ship will likely dock on the Embarcadero at Pier 27. Your first choice is whether to head north to Pier 39, a small amusement park featuring a carousel from Italy with 1,800 lights, a bungee trampoline, 60 specialty shops and the family-friendly Aquarium of the Bay. One Pier 39 highlight: the Crab House (No. 203), where you can find fresh crab and butter, crab chowder and more. Nearby are fun if touristy Fisherman's Wharf (0.6 miles away), the Cannery, Ghirardelli Square and lots of barking sea lions.
Scott Chernis / Courtesy of San Francisco Travel AssociationDavies Symphony Hall, the concert hall in the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.
Walk south: Or, you can head south and pop into The Exploratorium at Pier 15, a kid-friendly hands-on science fair, before arriving at the Ferry Building (1 mile away), filled with food shops and cafes — and a good launchpad for your forays into San Francisco. Now, you can decide whether to head farther south, beneath the sumptuous Bay Bridge, grab a hot dog and cold brew at divey Red's Java House (Pier 30) and spend time around newly trendy China Basin and AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.
Walk downtown: A better choice is to head straight out of the Ferry Building and stroll down Market Street through the heart of downtown. From there, it's a couple of blocks to Union Square and all that fabulous shopping and people watching. Or you can take the BART train to Civic Center near Twitter headquarters, City Hall, the Asian Art Museum and War Memorial, home of the San Francisco Opera and Symphony.
Drive north: If you're keen on seeing the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, you might take a ferry across the bay to Marin County. But if you want a closeup view, grab an Uber and head to the Presidio — a former military base and now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area — for postcard-worthy photos, or walk, bike or ride-share across the bridge, with its 746-foot tall towers, which attracts more than 10 million visitors a year.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableAlcatraz Island as seen from Fort Mason, San Francisco.
Historical & cultural attractions
You can't take in all that San Francisco offers in the course of a day, so decide which attractions and landmarks to see:
- If you plan to visit Alcatraz, the former penitentiary that housed some of America’s most dangerous felons like Al Capone between 1934 and 1963, you should book your trip prior to arrival, as the ferry to the island frequently sells out.
- Chinese immigrants flocked to this part of California during the Gold Rush, and Chinatown remains one of the city's amazing cultural centers. The largest Chinese community outside Asia, Chinatown is very walkable, and you'll encounter fish shops, trinket stores, museums and more. Stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Hungry? Sam Wo is a venerable century-old noodle joint beloved by locals — try the jook (a rice porridge, $5).
- North Beach is the city's Italian American enclave, home to cafes, bookstores and Washington Park, across the way from the looming Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Part of the old Barbary Coast, born during the California Gold Rush of 1849, North Beach is steeped in the past almost everywhere you turn. City Lights (261 Columbus Ave.) doubles as a bookstore and an official historic landmark.
Jack Hollingsworth / Courtesy of San Francisco Travel AssociationLocals usher in the Chinese New Year with a colorful parade in San Francisco's Chinatown each January or February.
- Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, is the one the city's venerable landmarks. This city is known for its scenic, panoramic views, and this site offers a great perspective. The tower was completed in 1933, and you can see displays of California history inside.
- SoMa (South of Market) is startup central for tech companies and features art galleries, trendy restaurants and bars. At its center is the Yerba Buena Center (701 Mission St). with performances, galleries and a nearby IMAX movie theater. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, closed nearly two years for expansion, reopens May 14, 2016. Its store is a great place to find artful gifts.
- The Mission centers on Mission Dolores (16th & Dolores St.), dedicated in 1791 as one of 21 missions established by Spanish padres. The oldest surviving structure in San Francisco, it's the heart and soul of this vibrant if occasionally seedy neighborhood. (You can walk to it from the 16th Street station on BART.) Lately the Mission is also known for some of the top shops and restaurants in the city, outdoor murals, and the best burritos in the U.S.
- Grace Cathedral is a dramatic sight and Top of the Mark in the Mark Hopkins Hotel offers great vistas of the city. Both are on Nob Hill.
Can Balcioglu / Courtesy of San Francisco Travel AssociationGrace Cathedral, an Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco's Huntington Park.
Arts & entertainment
- If you're a culture buff, you'll want to buy tickets in advance for most performances by the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Opera (Verdi's “Don Carlo” and Bizet's “Carmen” are on tap in 2016) or the San Francisco Symphony, though you'll be able to catch an occasional concert in the park in warmer weather.
Scott Chernis / Courtesy of San Francisco Travel AssociationThe Conservatory of Flowers, a greenhouse and botanical garden that houses exotic plants in Golden Gate Park.
- The American Conservatory Theater puts on classic and contemporary stage productions. Plus you'll find a host of other stage shows, from the San Francisco Fringe Festival to the Berkeley Repertory Theater a short BART ride away.
- Rock and alt music fans can catch concerts at storied venues such as Slim's and the Great American Music Hall, the Fillmore and the Warfield.
- Golden Gate Park offers a host of activities and attractions. If you've never taken a Segway, here's your chance: Segway tours ($70 per person) are a fun way to zip around the park's glorious 1,017 acres. The Conservatory of Flowers is pretty year-round. The de Young Museum is the premier art museum in the city, featuring American art and offers a lovely view of the park from its top floor. (It also boasts the first app with indoor positioning technology, Guidekick; the iOS app helps you find a particular painting or installation.) The California Academy of Sciences is another highlight in the park, featuring an Osher Rainforest inside the Academy's biodome.
For the family
- San Francisco Whale Tours at Pier 39 offers tours year-round. It's a 5-hour round trip to the Farallones ($79), along with eco-tours on the first Saturday of each month. Your best bet to see a whale is from December to April.
- When my kid was younger, we loved taking him on the Blue and Gold Fleet to Angel Island for a hike, or to Sausalito or Tiburon in Marin County for a scenic lunch. When you return to the Embarcadero, head to the Ferry Building's shops and food stands, and try fresh oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co.
Best bets for dining
San Francisco's dining scene is not only vibrant — I'd put it just behind New York and on par with Los Angeles for some of the best dishes you'll find in the U.S., so I'll map out a lot of choices. Here are some that I can vouch for or that received high marks from local superstar food critic Michael Bauer, who says the city's restaurant scene has never been so good.
- Slanted Door (1 Ferry Building) boasts some of the best bay views of any restaurant in town. Look for modern Vietnamese cuisine with a California twist. Try the fresh spring rolls, green papaya salad, cellophane noodles, shaking beef or lemongrass chicken.
- Coqueta (Pier 5 on the waterfront), inspired by the cuisines of Spain, offers an open kitchen, dramatic decor, leather chairs, high ceilings, scenic views of the bay and a festive atmosphere. The menu leans to Spanish tapas, cheeses, meat skewers, family-style plates and innovative cocktails. Call ahead.
- Cotogna (490 Pacific Ave., Jackson Square) pays homage to rustic Italian cuisine with a seasonally changing menu of spit-roasted or grilled meats and fish, wood-oven pizzas and house-made pastas in a casual, stylish dining room.
Quick & casual
- If you're looking for something fast and casual, Souvia (517 Hayes St. near Octavia St.) is a hip Greek rotisserie featuring spit-fired leg of lamb, free-range chicken, plus salads, Greek yogurt, beerand wine.
- Dip Bistro opened in 2016 on Grant Avenue, the main drag in North Beach, and specializes in terrific French dip sandwiches priced from $11-$15. Coit Tower is a 10-minute walk away.
- Like dim sum for brunch? Lots of satisfying choices: Yank Sing, 49 Stevenson St. in SOMA; Great Eastern Restaurant, 649 Jackson St. in Chinatown; Eastern Bakery, 720 Grant St. in Chinatown.
- Z&Y (655 Jackson St. on the edge of Chinatown) offers perhaps the best Chinese food in town, from a world-renowned chef at street vendor prices. Forget the chow mein and try the pork ear, beef tendons or scallion pancakes, all for less than $9.
- Another inexpensive and quick bite can be had at Montesacro Pinseria - Enoteca (510 Stevenson St. near Market and 6th), an industrial-chic wine bar and shop specializing in brick oven-baked pinsa — a pizza-like flatbread dish true to Rome — plus wine and beer.
The no-frills setting at Montesacro Pinseria - Enoteca.
- The relatively new pizzeria Jersey (145 Second St. near Mission St. in SoMa) offers a decent pizza as well as pasta dishes, salads and sandwiches. Other pizzerias that continually get raves include Tony's Pizza Napoletana (1570 Stockton St.), Gialina (2842 Diamond St.) and Delarosa (37 Yerba Buena Lane).
- A favorite of many locals is Marlowe (500 Brannan St. at 4th St.) for a first-rate burger and fries as well as salads and seafood.
- El Garaje (475 3rd St.) is a casual Mexican taqueria with good food and sangria.
- Trestle (531 Jackson St.), named one of 2015's Top 10 Newcomers, will set you back about $35 for a three-course dinner. The 49-seat eatery features brick walls, wood flooring and two large flower arrangements. The menu changes nightly and features dishes such crispy-skin trout and spicy red pepper soup. The landmark Caffe Trieste, once a hangout of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, is three blocks away.
Mission Beach Cafe: a popular spot for brunch.
If you just have time for a weekend brunch, here are some good choices: Rose's Cafe (2298 Union St.) offers breakfast pizza and al fresco dining; Palm House (2032 Union St.) is considered one of the best outdoor dining spots in the city; Mission Beach Cafe (198 Guerrero St. at 14th St., the Mission) is a gem of a corner cafe with a personable service and good food; Bar Tartine (561 Valencia St., the Mission) offers a light-filled, airy space with natural woods and dishes with Scandinavian and Japanese influences.
Cafes & wine bars
If you're just hankering for a coffee drink, skip the Starbucks and head to the venerable Café de la Presse (Bush St. & Grant Ave.), trendy Blue Bottle Coffee (66 Mint St. and two other locations) or The Creamery (685 4th St. at Townsend, SoMa), where startup deals go down. For an exquisite neighborhood wine bar, head to the Marina for a tart or burrata at A16 (2355 Chestnut St.).
Midprice dining spots
- Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission St.) is a nationally acclaimed restaurant combining foreign and indie films with dishes such as Dungeness crab, tuna poke, beef carpaccio, pork chop, duck breast, mahi-mahi, scallops and fried chicken. Bask in an industrial chic setting featuring a fireplace, outdoor courtyard, mezzanine and full bar.
- Central Kitchen (3000 20th St. at Florida St. in the Mission) offers California cuisine made with local ingredients in a vibrant, airy dining room with a covered patio. Dishes include beef tartare, lamb roast, salmon, halibut, pork chops and chanterelle.
- The smallish (30 seats), insanely popular Flour + Water (2401 Harrison St. at 20th in the Mission) offers house-made pasta, wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza, house-cured meats and fish dishes. Look for authentic Italian dishes with Northern Californian inspirations. Call ahead.
- Octavia (1701 Octavia St., Pacific Heights) serves seasonal California cuisine straight from the area's top farms in a sophisticated, casual neighborhood setting. Sister restaurant Frances (3870 17th St. in the Castro) also spotlights the owner's commitment to sustainability with a rotating menu of fresh local ingredients, though the place is too noisy for my tastes.
- Californios (3115 22nd St., the Mission) serves fresh, upscale Mexican cuisine in a single fixed-price menu with small-batch wines served in an intimate space with just 22 seats.
Some of the dishes served at Californios.
- Hayes Street Grill (320 Hayes St.) is a no-nonsense seafood restaurant of grand proportion. The Hawaiian swordfish and Puget Sound salmon are perennial favorites.
- Zuni Café (1658 Market St., the Mission) offers sustainable Mediterranean cuisine, classic architecture and a great venue for people watching. The James Beard Award-winning restaurant opened in 1979.
- For upscale Italian, head to Delfina (3611 18th St., the Mission), which has been on Bauer's Top 100 Bay Area restaurants list every year since 1999 on the strength of its inventive, home-style, moderately priced dishes like Dry-Aged Liberty Duck, grilled swordfish and roasted chicken.
A dish from the family-owned restaurant Loló.
- A Mano (450 Hayes St., Hayes Valley) is an Italian restaurant with an emphasis on fresh hand-made pasta and other inexpensive dishes. Dinner only, first come first served.
- Californios (3115 22nd St., the Mission) is a Mexican restaurant for inventive tasting menus & small-batch wines served in a cozy, upscale interior. The restaurant serves a changing tasting menu of modern Mexican cuisine. The sommelier/co-owner pour small-production bottles from around the world.
- Rooh (333 Brannan St., SoMa) personifies the recent influx of upscale Indian eateries. A bistro with a relaxed urban vibe, Rooh specializes in both traditional and modern takes on Indian cuisine, accented with seasonal California produce.
- RT Rotisserie (101 Oak St.) is run by the same wife-and-husband team who operate the nearby and well-regarded Rich Table (199 Gough St. at Oak). Look for low-priced rotisserie dishes, salads and Dutch crunch sandwiches in a casual venue.
- Loló (974 Valencia St., the Mission) serves up flavorful, inexpensive Cal-Mex dishes made with local ingredients in a playfully decorated setting.
- Maven (598 Haight St. at Steiner) offers tapas-like plates such as mussels, trout, duck sliders and gnocchi paired with interesting drinks in a modern setting with log tables and an open kitchen.
- Pabu (101 California St., Financial District) combines old-world Japanese charm with urban sophistication. The airy venue, with dark woods and high ceilings, offers sushi, 25 fish choices, 20 maki rolls and 40 other dishes.
- If you just want to grab a drink and you're in the area, try The Beehive (842 Valencia St., the Mission), a new ‘60s-inspired neighborhood cocktail bar.
A gallery of images from Rich Table.
Higher-end dining spots
- Rich Table (199 Gough St., Hayes Valley) is a neighborhood restaurant that offers fine dining in a casual setting. Look for seasonal dishes like tagliatelle with strawberry-braised pork Bolognese and mustard greens or New York strip steak.
- Cala (149 Fell St.) — which Bauer dubbed the top new restaurant of 2015 — is getting raves as one of the best high-end Mexican restaurants in the nation. Look for Cal-Mex seafood — grilled oysters, manila clams, Santa Cruz abalone — and standards like quesadillas and gorditas.
- August 1 Five (524 Van Ness Ave.) is the best Indian restaurant in the city, with a vibrant decor, creative dishes and a modern flair. Try the pistachio-crusted lamb chops or crock of spiced ground bison.
- Right across the bay, Chez Panisse (1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) is ground zero of the California cuisine revolution, led by legendary food activist Alice Waters, who ushered in the California cuisine revolution. If you want to go, make reservations months in advance.
- Other superb dining choices include Zarzuela (2000 Hyde St., Russian Hill) for a modern twist on Spanish cuisine and Bix (56 Gold St. near Union Square), a classic supper club with a '30s feel.
A Black Horn Oval Bowl from Modern Citizen, founded by a San Francisco retail entrepreneur.
Shoppers the world over head to Union Square for both well-known designer labels and edgier, fashion-forward brands. Union Square's three anchors are Saks Fifth Avenue (384 Post St.), Neiman Marcus (150 Stockton St.) and Macy's (170 O'Farrell St.), while nearby Wilkes Bashford (375 Sutter St.) is the seven-story luxury store, now 50 years old, with themed floors for womenswear and menswear with hip architectural stylings.
Walk a block or two and you'll also find Barneys New York (77 O'Farrell St.) and perhaps the best specialty store in California, Gump's (135 Post St.), the place to find fine jade, distinctive tableware and furniture. Maiden Lane — named for the ladies of the night who once frequented the neighborhood — features French restaurants, cafes and luxury shops, including Ethos, newly opened Marni, French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen and men's clothier John Varvatos.
Courtesy of Westfield CentreWestfield San Francisco Centre, 865 Market St., is home to more than 160 boutique stores, accented by a 102-foot dome.
Not far away, Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom anchor the Westfield San Francisco Centre (865 Market St.), the other shopping hotspot in town.
For distinctive boutiques and shops that are less crowded, I like to window-shop along Chesnut Street, Union Street in the Marina, Hayes Valley and the Valencia Corridor of the Mission.
Other shops worth a look: Modern Citizen (2762 Octavia St.) for cool clothing, jewelry and accessories. Elizabeth Charles (2056 Fillmore St.), a high-end designer boutique known for its curated list of hard-to-find women's apparel and accessories. Rand + Statler (425 Hayes St.) reminds me of New York's West Village with its hip designer wear. When I used to buy hip designer wear.
Bargain hunting? Head to Jeremy's (2 South Park Ave. at 2nd St.) for discounts on men's & women's wear and designer shoes. Cris Consignment (2056 Polk St.) offers expertly curated secondhand high-end items.
Scott Chernis / Courtesy of San Francisco Travel AssociationThe painted ladies, the famous row of Victorian houses, at Alamo Square.
- If you're arriving by cruise ship, you'll pass beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, so don't miss the chance for a snapshot of the iconic landmark.
- For great views, take a car across the Golden Gate Bridge and point your camera at the bridge and the San Francisco skyline from Marin County, the Marin Headlines and Cavallo Point. On the way back, stop at the Presidio with its sweeping views of the region.
- One of the most photographed locations in San Francisco, Alamo Square's famous row of Victorian houses, dubbed the "painted ladies," is a visual treat you'll find at Hayes and Steiner streets.
- The top of Twin Peaks is a great vista to shoot. You can see the entire city of San Francisco as well as the Bay Bridge and Oakland.
- At night, point your lens toward the Bay Bridge — the lights returned for good to the Bay Lights project on Jan. 30, 2016.
Best time to go
Fall, winter and spring are the best times to visit San Francisco — September and October are especially glorious. Note: It really does get freezing cold in July and August because of the fog rolling in so leave the short sleeve shirts at home and bring a jacket, people! Average temps: 51°F in January, 57°F in May, 63°F in September.
The most expensive place to rent an apartment in the U.S.? Not New York. The average one-bedroom apt. in SF goes for $3,460 a month.
- San Francisco was founded in 1776 by colonists from Spain who established a fort at the Golden Gate as well as a mission named for St. Francis of Assisi.
- Union Square was named in the 1860s, reportedly after pro-North supporters of the Civil War who met in the park for rallies on behalf of the Union.
- The centuries-old cemetery at Mission Dolores was the setting for the graveyard in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
- SF has the most restaurants per capita in the U.S.: 39.3 restaurants per 10,000 households, according to real estate website Trulia.
- On both the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate bridge in the 1930s, carpooling was discouraged in a way: Cars with more than four passengers were charged an extra nickel for each extra rider. And if you didn't have the toll, you'd be forced to pawn a watch, cufflinks or spare tire.
- What's the crookedest street in the city? Everyone thinks it's brick-paved Lombard Street, but the San Francisco Department of Public Works says it's Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd streets, which has a steeper grade, tighter turning radius and fewer turns (seven to Lombard's eight).
- What's the most expensive place to rent an apartment in the U.S.? Not New York. The average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco goes for $3,460 a month.
When you arrive
Cruise ships dock at Pier 27, the new James R. Herman Cruise Terminal on the Embarcadero. If Pier 27 is occupied, your ship may dock at Pier 35.
Courtesy of Visit CaliforniaA cable car passes through Union Square in San Francisco at dusk.
Unlike, say, Los Angeles or Miami, San Francisco is very walkable, if you're up for climbing a few hills. Two national publications named San Francisco as the second most walkable city in the U.S., after New York. Unless you're traveling far afield, you won't need a rental car here. Just hail an Uber on your smartphone — the startup was born here and Uber cars now outnumber taxis by about a 3-1 ratio. Lyft is another low-cost ride-sharing service.
BART is a fast, inexpensive way to take an underground train to different areas of town and to the East Bay. If you're up for a bus ride, Muni has stops throughout the city.
Cable cars offer an exciting way to see the city. Most visitors try to hop on cable cars at Powell and Market or near Ghirardelli Square or Fisherman's Wharf. Be prepared for long lines in summer months.
Ferries depart from the Ferry Building, south of the cruise terminal, to Tiburon and Sausalito, in case you want to explore Marin County.
Need to know
Free Wi-Fi: San Francisco is one of the most wired cities in the United States. Businesses offer free Wi-Fi all over the city, particularly cafes and coffee shops.
Store hours: Stores are typically open weekdays from 9 am to 9 pm with earlier closures on weekends.
Tipping: As in most U.S. cities, a 15 percent tip on restaurant and taxi bills is standard, but it's really up to you.
Safety: Overall, San Francisco is a safe city, though thefts and car break-ins are common, so be aware of your surroundings.
How about you? Have you been to San Francisco? Have any tips for visitors? I'd love to hear about your experience and see your travel photos. I've sprinkled a few of mine in the photo gallery at top.
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