San Francisco Tourism
For First Time Visitors
San Francisco tourism can be a remarkable and unforgettable experience for the first time tourist! We guarantee it if you follow the directions below. You’ll see a sophisticated Disneyland for adults filled with a variety and beauty that is hard to believe.
Below are ways to help you make the most of your limited time on your first visit to San Francisco. This will help you get great enjoyment out of your first day’s visit and will start to show you where to focus the next time around. On future trips, after you’ve seen these basic tourist sights, you can begin investigating the more sophisticated aspects of San Francisco described within this web site.
FISHERMAN’S WHARF AREA
Though much of Fisherman’s Wharf is tourist-trappish (even more so if you don’t know where you are going) it’s still the place to make your first time headquarters. Don’t bother to check out most of shops, however, except for cheap souvenirs while passing back and forth.
Pier 39 San Francisco, CA: Free, and the 3rd largest US tourist attraction after the two Disneylands. Just wander through the shops to the end of the pier. Once you hit the beautiful San Francisco Bay turn left and keep walking until you see (or hear :) the sea lions just around the corner; it’s the best thing at Pier 39.Also check out the Aquarium of the Bay on the street side if you like seeing marine life. Over 600,000 visitors went through this non-profit San Francisco aquarium last year making it the 2nd largest paid attraction in SF after professional sports teams. It’s not that great, in our opinion, but still worth a visit if you are into fish.
- Ghirardelli Square, 900 N Point St: At the far west end of the Fisherman’s wharf area immediately south of Aquatic Park. This famous former chocolate factory is a nice place to get a chocolate ice cream treat. Don’t miss the most talented street entertainer in SF who works on Ghirardelli’s front steps. He’s a multi-lingual singer & joker who probably earns over twice what the average SF lawyer makes.
- Cable Car, turntable at Aquatic Park, Hyde St/Beach St: Take the Powell-Hyde Cable Car route starting out at the end of Hyde St. near Ghirardelli Square. This San Francisco cable car then climbs Hyde St., passing by Lombard St. (the “crookedest” street) & Filbert St. (the “steepest” street with a 31.5% grade), and heads over to Union Square and further down Powell St. to Market St. It’s a much more interesting ride than the other cable car routes. Waiting in line is always a problem when riding SF cable cars so you might as well save substantial time by just riding the one best route and forgetting the rest. Another tip is to get there as early in the day as you can. Of course, riding a cable car along with seeing the Golden Gate Bridge are things any tourist must do at least once. They are both are worth it.
- The Buena Vista Cafe, 2765 Hyde Street/Beach St: Located just across the street from the Powell-Hyde cable car turntable. Famous Irish coffee (up to 2000 served/day) and decent breakfasts. An excellent place to pass the time on a rainy day or while waiting for your first time tourist friends.
- Sausalito Ferry, Blue & Gold Fleet between Pier 39 & 41: Take a ferry ride to Sausalito and back. It’s cheaper and better than most boat tours. And, you can enjoy a quick pleasant visit to Sausalito as well.
- In Between: Between Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square, which are at either end of Fisherman’s Wharf, here are a few more good items to look over if interested. The Pompano submarine (paid admission), eating crab outside (pick a stand), Museum Mechanique (free admission), the six national landmark sailing ships at San Francisco’s Maritime National Park, Alcatraz boat tour if old jails interest you (make sure you pick a tour that drops you off on the island… some just go around it).
- Nearby: Here are three fabulous neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf – North Beach, The Marina and The Embarcadero. You can easily walk there for a wide variety of things to see and do that are really outstanding.
To locate these items pick up a free map at one of the street stands. By the way, these free tourist maps usually include coupons to several of SF tourist attractions you’ll walk by on the Wharf.
OPEN AIR DOUBLE DECKER BUS for a quick overview
Your first few days you won’t have time to do much more than gawk at the wonders. Taking an open air double decker bus is an excellent way to quickly do that while getting an overview. Then you will know where to stop later and smell the roses that interest you most.
Take a double decker bus that allows you to hop off then hop back on to the next bus coming by in 30 minutes. Then you can get out at your leisure all day to check out the many interesting details. Using the tour bus this way will also help keep you from getting lost and will provide ready transportation, something that can be challenging with so few parking spots or cabs available.
The quality of the different bus tour vendors can be somewhat spotty as per Yelp so here are a few tips from someone been on a few such rides (not me) (1) take tours that have a live guide rather than tapes, (2) start as early in the day as reasonable, it can get crowded later, (3) if you are ready to “hop on” a bus and don’t see one then call the office … often there are other stops near by, (4) take all the trips you want quickly then hop on & off the rest of the time, (5) he thinks the 48 hr hop on/hop off buses such as city-sightseeing are the best value (some even include a free 1-hr bike rental).
Most of best tourist spots around North Beach are physically very close to each other. You could easily walk between them (we do) if you know what you are doing but you can also easily waste a lot of valuable touring time if you get lost. So, stick close to the tour bus stops until you know what you are doing!
Also, take along a heavy sweater or light jacket. San Francisco is full of mini-climates so can often be hot in some locations (shorts weather) and cold in others (jacket or windbreaker weather). Don’t just wear shorts even if it’s hot; the layered approach could save you a lot of goose bumps :). As Mark Twain famously said, the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Usually the weather is fabulous compared with other parts of the country … however, still be prepared.
I won’t bother to tell you much about the obvious stops which most any tour bus will make. These should include North Beach, Chinatown, and the crookedest Street (Lombard) for example. Though I haven’t tried it most of the stops I like can be found on this San Francisco downtown tour. Here’s a bigger map that covers more areas.
If you have only one day and this is your first time in SF take the downtown tour. Personally, if it were my first time in town I would not take the longer bus tours that go to outlying locations such as Golden Gate Park & Golden Gate Bridge. Such trips take too much time which can be better spent getting a feel for the inner SF tourist attractions. It is probably better to go by your own car if you have one.
If you like to bike and have the time and energy for a rather long ride (for novices), then renting a bicycle near Fisherman’s Wharf, biking west along The Marina, then over the Golden Gate Bridge, and on to Sausalito is a very worth while experience. Then come back to Fisherman’s Wharf via the Sausalito Ferry Boat, a worth while ride in itself.
San Francisco streets can be a bit dangerous for most bikers unfamiliar with the City so we recommend that novices stay off main streets on trails along The Marina or in Golden Gate Park. Some of the popular bicycle rental outfits Bay City Bike (all over and decent), San Francisco Bicycle Rentals (great reviews), and Blazing Saddles (the most visible around Fisherman’s Wharf). For a video, maps, and directions see Blazing Saddles Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito bicycle tour.
NOW PICK YOUR OWN SPOTS
After you’ve spent such a day or two as described above you’ll have a great overview of the main tourist attractions. You’ll also know enough to decide on your own where to start exploring details of whatever appealed to you most. If you have more time definitely check out our SF Neighborhood Guide starting with the Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach neighborhoods for which you now have a feel.
If you move here and become a “local” then start looking through our entire website, www.hiddenSF.com, which is oriented towards the very best things to do in the San Francisco Bay area for locals which even locals may not know about yet. In particular see our best SF neighborhoods guide and best towns near SF, particularly along the Half Moon Bay coastline.
We’ve just shown you the tip of San Francisco tourism attractions, those not to miss on your first visit. Meanwhile look over this web site for a further taste of what’s waiting for you on future visits.