Too Much for One Trip: Best Attractions in San Francisco
By Tom Molanphy
San Francisco Local Expert
Tony Bennett would probably refuse to reduce his beloved San Francisco to ten heart-stealing attractions. And with new visitor's centers at Lands End and the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as upgrades to the Embarcadero Piers for the recent America's Cup races, not to mention a multi-million dollar overhaul of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco is adding new features almost by the hour.
What's driving all the construction of new activities and sights-to-see is that San Francisco is again flush with tech money. Although there's no end in sight to this latest bubble, grab your chance to see San Francisco at its latest "height."
On top of world class opera, symphony and museums, visitors can come any time of year and enjoy world-class hiking and outdoor activities. The only thing that stands in your way is usually a little chilly fog - which is actually free-air conditioning and excellent for the skin, by the way.
The only bad news about a trip to San Francisco is that there's no way you can cover everything in one visit. On the bright side, you'll discover endless reasons to come back.
But if you only have time for ten things in Mr. Bennett's city by the bay, here are our top suggestions.
The Presidio Trust
From the original Ohlone Indians to the Spanish, Mexican then finally American rule, the Presidio of San Francisco has been an integral part of the city's history. Situated in the northwest corner of the city, tucked right beside the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio offers fantastic views of not just San Francisco but of Marin, Oakland and Berkeley across the Bay. And, although it looks like George Lucas will be building his private museum in Chicago and not in San Francisco's Presidio, there are many, many renovations underway in this beautiful area that makes it a must-see during your visit. ((415) 561-5300)
In San Francisco, a cable car ride is a must! The city's signature mode of transport is perfectly equipped to tackle steep hills, and since their premiere in 1873, cars have run the same way -- by gripping huge loops of steel that constantly cycle underground. The system, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964, has 40 cable cars that operate on the Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California Street lines. Purchase tickets at one of the end-point turnarounds or from the onboard conductor at any stop along the route. And there's no souvenir from San Francisco quite like a photograph from one of her famous cable cars.
The Exploratorium believes the fundamental childhood traits of being playful and curious should be fostered for a lifetime. Founder Frank Oppenheimer believed in intertwining art and science to make learning attractive and memorable through exhibits such as the Tactile Dome and Traits of Life. If you believe that families that learn together stay together, head to the Exploratorium for a lifetime of togetherness in one day. And even if your budget can't handle the price of admission, the Exploratorium offers fantastic exhibits outside for free, such as the "Fog Bridge" that blows misty gusts every half-hour. And the city hasn't found a way to charge for the views of the sparkling San Francisco Bay that the Exploratorium offers - at least not yet. (415-528-4360)
Like the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf is quintessential San Francisco. It's often the first destination for tourists, and its particular brand of energy mixes newcomer excitement, retail kitsch, a strong maritime heritage and a vibrant West Coast welcome. Fisherman's Wharf invites passers-by to sample Dungeness crab and clam chowder, to cruise the Bay, to pick up requisite souvenir t-shirts, and -- best of all -- to soak in the temperate sunshine or marvel at the fog as it rolls in across the water. If you happen to be in town on July Fourth, it's a popular place to view the annual fireworks show. (415-674-7503)
Lands End Visitors Center
This brand new visitor's center is worth the drive or bus fare to the end of Geary Boulevard. Besides framing unforgettable views of the Pacific Ocean, the center offers great gifts and mementos, as well as a small but impressive cafe stocked by local produce. If the wind, fog and rain happen to be working against you on your trip, head to Lands End Visitor's Center for all the beautiful glory of the Pacific and no take-home sniffles or flu. If you work up an appetite after your walk, the Cliff House just down the street offers a varied menu with seating that will have your perched right over the Pacific. ((415) 561-3064)
It's hard to imagine a trip to San Francisco without a Chinatown visit. Whether you make the grand entrance into Chinatown beneath the dramatic portal at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, or perhaps just happen upon the district while making your way about San Francisco, you can't help but be impressed by this city-within-a-city. Along its streets, exotic ingredients are hawked, silks and jade are proffered, and colorful mementos are sold to tourists. If you happen to be planning a visit in February, do your best to catch the Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown, one of the largest of its kind in the world outside of China itself.
Golden Gate Park
Considered the largest cultivated urban park in the country, this incredible haven boasts more than 1000 acres of gardens, meadows and woodlands. The park stretches three miles inland from the Bay, and within its bounds are the de Young Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, Strybing Arboretum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers and 27 miles of footpaths. Despite the beauty of its seemingly natural surroundings, the park is entirely man-made. Visitors can spend several days just exploring this rich and diverse park, as well as the Ninth and Irving neighborhood shops and eateries that are very close by. (415-831-2700)
Once just an old prison, Alcatraz is enjoying a makeover as a native plant conservatory and historical "must-see." During Alcatraz's 34 years as a prison, most of its inmates were simply high-risk escapees and troublemakers. Still, the prison plays strongly in national memory thanks to infamous residents like Al "Scarface" Capone and Robert "Birdman" Stroud. Tours of the island focus largely on the desolate prison itself, including cell blocks, the cafeteria and the prison yard. If you plan well in advance, you might get a spot on the super popular night tour of Alcatraz. Even if you're not planning on the night tour, get your tickets to this popular tourist destination well ahead of time. (415-981-7625, 415-561-4900)
The Ferry Building
We're starting off this list with the Ferry Building because, whether by boat, car, bus, trolley or foot, all points lead from the San Francisco Ferry Building. Whether you want to hike the hills of North Beach, push through the bustle of Chinatown, peruse gift shops on Nob Hill, or walk the Embarcadero all the way to Fisherman's Wharf, it's hard to find a better place to start than the Ferry Building. And it's not just a starting point - the Ferry Building has been redesigned to include some wonderful artisan shops, perfect spots for grabbing that something special to bring back home. ((415) 983-8030)
Golden Gate Bridge
One of the world's most famous bridges, the Golden Gate spans 6450 feet and links San Francisco to Marin County. Completed in 1937 at a cost of $35 million, the "Bridge That Could Not Be Built" is now a landmark visible from many points around the Bay. Besides the new visitor's center on the south side of the bridge, the bike lanes on the west side of the bridge have been widened. The best way to see the bridge is on foot, so put some time aside to walk across the 1.7 mile span. Even if you only make it half-way, the views will be well worth it. (415-921-5858, 415-455-2000)
About Tom Molanphy
The only thing that Tom Molanphy loves more than the food, art, music, and culture of San Francisco is sharing it with others. San Francisco never gets old for Tom. Tom has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 2000. He teaches writing, journalism and literature at the Academy of Art University in downtown San Francisco. His latest book, Loud Memories Of A Quiet Life, is available through Outpost19.
Read more about Tom Molanphy here.