What to See and Do in San Francisco

by  Kristine Hansen | Feb 28, 2020
Union Square, San Francisco
Union Square, San Francisco / bluejayphoto/iStock

San Francisco is packed with neighborhoods rich in culture, stunning architecture, marvelous museums, cool urban beaches, and an eclectic food scene spanning many ethnicities. The best part? The city is pedestrian-friendly, whether that means using your own two feet, renting a shared bicycle, or hopping onto one of the iconic cable cars. Just be prepared to dress in layers because the morning’s dense fog is no joke, but, once it burns off, leads to long hours of sunshine. From the sprawling Golden Gate Park to some of the country’s best tacos in the Mission District, here’s what to see and do on your next trip to San Francisco — California’s fourth-most populated city.

Alcatraz Island

A word of caution in that tours of this island attraction (a former federal prison 1.25 miles off the Embarcadero in San Francisco Bay) are so popular, it’s rare you can purchase tickets the day of your intended visit. In the 1980s, Alcatraz received designation as a National Historic Landmark and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is managed by the National Park Service. Tours range from two-and-a-half hours to over five hours. You can also take an evening tour of the former prison. 

Golden Gate Bridge Tours

Golden Gate Bridge / Florian FILLONNEAU/iStock

Some consider it a rite of passage to cross the 1.7-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge, either on bicycle or by foot (jogging or walking). Make the process easy by booking the journey through a tour company, which provides bicycle rentals and group guided tours. However, afterwards, transportation back to San Francisco is then on your own. Alternatively, purchase a ferry ticket. 

San Francisco Bike Rental

With hilly streets, scenic vistas of towering redwoods, and the San Francisco Bay, experiencing the city on bicycle is a great option for active travelers — you’ll get stunning views and a kick of adrenaline all in one. Plus, there's no shortage of bicycle rental businesses in San Francisco. You can also book a shared-bicycle rental through Bay Wheels for $2 per hour. 

How Far Is Napa Valley from San Francisco?

One of California’s most famed wine regions — Napa Valley, which includes the town of Napa — is about 50 miles from San Francisco. Like many metropolitan areas, the time of day you’re traveling impacts the length of the trip. (In other words, avoid morning and evening rush hours, plus Friday-night weekend traffic.) If you're okay with a day trip, you're in luck. Many tour companies offer one-day visits to Napa Valley and make stops at a handful of wineries. This way, you don't have to worry about the driving. 

Napa Valley / PatrickCivello/iStock

How Far Is Yosemite from San Francisco?

One of California’s most beautiful (and most popular) national parks, Yosemite National Park, is about 175 miles from San Francisco. This is about a three-and-a-half hour drive. Since you'll need a car to adequately explore the park's 1,200 miles, it’s best to rent a car in San Francisco.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

The majority of San Francisco hotels are clustered near Union Square, which — even if you’re not into shopping — means public transit is right outside your door. It can be tempting to stay near the airport if that’s where you are flying into, but keep in mind that it a 45-minute BART ride away, which can seriously cut into your vacation time. Stanford Court Hotel, in tony Nob Hill, features eco-friendly and wellness-centric amenities plus turntables back at the room. Hotels along the Embarcadero tend to be chains; however, in recent years, boutique options have popped up, including Hotel Vitale and Hotel Zephyr. Here, expect sweeping bay views, as well as an array of dining options (both indoors and out).

Stanford Court Hotel / Courtesy of the property

What to Wear in San Francisco

Layers are your friend in San Francisco because, within a single day, the temperature can swing about 30 degrees. To avoid sweating in the afternoon and being chilly in the morning or at night, dress in layers. San Francisco, although a metropolis, is a casual destination. Many locals and visitors alike opt for tried-and-true comfort apparel over fashion trends.

Where to Eat in San Francisco

There isn’t a type of cuisine you won’t find in San Francisco. And, even if you’re a seasoned foodie, be prepared to be wowed. From Michelin-star Indian food at Campton Place (inside Taj Campton Place San Francisco) to garlic shrimp tacos at Tacqueria La Cumbre in the city's Mission District, a food-focused itinerary could take nearly two weeks. Italian eats in North Beach (from focaccia at Liguria Bakery to cannoli at Victoria Pastry), dim sum in Chinatown (check out City View), and sourdough bread at Boudin are all musts. For upscale seafood — plus an amazing array of California wines — reserve a table at Waterbar, which is located along the Embarcadero.

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