More than Your Eyes Can Handle: San Francisco's Best Sights
By Tom Molanphy
San Francisco Local Expert
Putting together an itinerary for seeing all the best sights this vacation? Perhaps you've got a few hours to kill between business meetings and want to know the best stuff to see. Or maybe you're in San Francisco for pleasure, hoping to knock off some of the "must-see" sights that all cities offer.
San Francisco, however, is not your average city. On top of being a major metropolitan area, flush with museums and urban highlights, San Francisco also enjoys a rare, Mediterranean climate. Unlike most major cities in the U.S. that are either swamped by blizzards in winter or blistering hot in summer, San Francisco is mild all year round.
So in addition to the sights and tours that most big cities offer, San Francisco also offers a wealth of year-round natural escapes that no other city in the country can match. A walk across the Golden Gate Bridge is always a must, and getting an overview of the entire Bay Area atop Twin Peaks or Angel Island is an excellent way to take in just how magnificent the whole area is.
Whether it's urban history or natural wonders that tickle your fancy, our list below has you covered. Just start planning your next trip to San Francisco before your vacation is done - this wondrous city has too much to see in one visit.
Muir Woods National Monument
More than 1 million people visit Muir Woods National Monument each year, and for good reason. The grove of coast redwoods has been protected for a century, and the amazing specimens rank among the tallest trees in the world. Some reach 252 feet, are 14 feet across, and are more than 1000 years old! Paved trails promise about an hour of strolling, while unpaved trails can occupy hikers for a full day or more. If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, take a quiet stroll in lovely Muir Woods and get back to nature. (415-388-2595, 415-388-2596)
Point Reyes National Seashore
Although Point Reyes is farther than Ocean Beach or Stinson, most would agree it's well-worth the drive. If you're looking for smaller crowds and a more rugged beach day, be sure to include Point Reyes National Seashore in your trip. As the name implies, this is miles and miles of pristine and protected beaches. And, with less people, you have a much better chance for viewing wildlife, which can even include grey whale sightings. If you have the time, include a visit to the Point Reyes lighthouse, which is only accessible on the weekends by bus because of its remote and protected location. ((415) 464-5100)
Angel Island State Park
One of the great things about San Francisco is its treasure-filled bay. Angel Island, only a short ferry ride from San Francisco, Tiburon or Vallejo, is perfect for either a short or long excursion. Bring a picnic lunch and idle the time away amid cool breezes and great views. If you feel ambitious, Mount Livermore, the island's 781-foot anchor, provides plenty of opportunities for hiking, beginning with a five-mile perimeter trail. From April to October, enjoy the Cove Cafe, and rent a bike to get around more easily. Camping is available, too, but the sites fill up quickly, so book early. (415-435-5390, 415-435-1915)
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. An average stay on "The Rock" lasted five years, and although liberties were abbreviated, prisoners were afforded magnificent views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Tours of the island focus largely on the desolate prison itself, including cell blocks, the cafeteria and the prison yard. Spring for the audio version of the tour, and get tickets in advance if at all possible. Booking windows and departure docks can be found at Pier 33. (415-981-7625, 415-561-4900)
The dramatic curves of Lombard Street help make this area one of San Francisco's most photographed sites. Within the beautifully landscaped, one-block descent from Hyde Street to Leavenworth Street are eight switchbacks, which have given Lombard the title of "crookedest street in the world." At the intersection of Hyde and Lombard, a cable car route provides spectacular views of Alcatraz, Angel Island, Coit Tower, Yerba Buena Island and the Bay Bridge. If you're on foot, you can safely watch cars negotiating the crazy switchbacks without actually having to do it yourself. Whatever mode of transport you're using, it's definitely worth a visit.
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 do need to warm up, the nearby Cliff House bar and restaurant is a San Francisco "must-see," as well. ((415) 561-3064)
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. The California Street line is usually less packed than the other lines for those who might be crowd-phobic. Purchase tickets at one of the end-point turnarounds or from the onboard conductor at any stop along the route.
Although it's called a "peak," there are actually 64 acres to this park that has been called San Francisco's "Marin Headlands, the more famous natural area across the bay. Covered by grassland and coastal scrub, Twin Peaks offers visitors an understanding of what the entire Bay Area looked like before development. Although there is hiking, the star attraction is the enormous view from this 922 foot peak, second to only Mt. Davidson in San Francisco. Plan for gusty winds, no matter what time of year you visit. If you don't have a car, most downtown tour buses chug up Twin Peaks and make it a regular stop. ((415) 864-9470)
Point Bonita Lighthouse
Newly restored Point Bonita Lighthouse hangs right over the Pacific. Offering thrilling views and a fascinating history, this lighthouse is a quick but steep drive from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The steepness doesn't end once you leave the car, though; visitors should be ready for a steep, rugged half-mile walk through a tunnel and over a walking bridge to reach the lighthouse itself. For those brave enough to venture out to the edge of the continent, the reward will be a spectacular, unbroken view of the entire expanse of the Pacific Ocean and miles and miles of California coast. (415-331-1540)
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. Automobile access is available from US-101 or Lincoln Boulevard; pedestrian access, from the east sidewalk (5am to 9pm daily). A newly re-designed visitor center and gift shop are located on the San Francisco side, while scenic overlooks and parking can be found at either end. Direct public transportation from downtown and from most parts of San Francisco. (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.