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Having been to San Francisco a few times over the years, we decided to come up with a personal Top Attraction list based on the areas we most enjoy spending time in when visiting the city.
This is a personal list that will not be consistent with everyone else. It simply reflects what we have enjoyed most during our trips to San Francisco, something we hope will prove helpful to others in researching and planning their own travels to the city.
Inclusions in our list are arranged by their proximity to other nearby quality attractions, places we have enjoyed and felt were worthy of mention. They are not listed in a favourite-to-least favourite or chronological order.
Top Attractions in San Francisco
1.) Fisherman's Wharf area
A.) Views of Golden Gate Bridge
B.) Hyde Pier and the Maritime National Park Visitor Centre
C.) Musee Mechanique and Boudin Bakery and Tour
D.) Pier 39, Candy Baron and views of Alcatraz
2.) Golden Gate Park
A.) Botanical Garden
B.) Conservatory of Flowers
C.) Japanese Tea Garden
D.) Hamon Tower of de Young Museum
3.) Historic Cable and Street Cars
A.) San Francisco Cable Cars
B.) Cable Car Museum
C.) Lombard Street - Best Cable Car Stop
D.) F-Line Street Car
4.) The Next Best of the Bunch
B.) Union Square (nice shopping area)
C.) Ferry Building Marketplace
5.) Restaurants that we have most enjoyed in San Francisco
A.) House of Prime Rib
B.) Sotto Mare
C.) Blue Mermaid
D.) Blue Bottle Coffee
We have written reviews for each of these attractions and restaurants during our recent trips to San Francisco. These reviews (w/pictures) can be viewed below.
Locals often hate this area for being so touristy. Visitors enjoy it for the very same reason.
The truth is that first time visitors should make time to see the Fisherman's Wharf area as it has the largest collection of attractions in the city and some are very good to experience. Also, views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatrez can be great from the Fisherman's Wharf area when viewing conditions are favorable.
Unfortunately, while there are many interesting attractions around the Wharf area, dining here can be much less enjoyable. In the end, it might be best to spend your time at the Wharf by to have your meals elsewhere.
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the iconic and mostly easily recognizable structures in San Francisco. Outside of driving to and over it, views from Fisherman's Wharf are some of the best on offer in the city.
When visible, the Golden Gate Bridge might be the most beautiful in the world, something all visitors hope to see when in the city. However, weather doesn't always cooperate, often making the Golden Gate Bridge difficult to see under the clouds that frequently hover at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. So, if you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, make sure you take time to look and appreciate her as she might make an appearance during the rest of your trip. This has happened to us more than once while visiting San Francisco.
Click the link above to read our review of the SF Maritime Museum before visiting the actual ships which are docked on Hyde Pier.
This to be one of the best overall attractions in the Fisherman's Wharf area. Here you can learn a bit of the maritime history of San Francisco, see model ships and walk through the recently opened 'Walk Along The Waterfront' exhibition.
There is no fee to enter the Visitor Centre
Click the link above to read our review for Hyde Pier found in the Fisherman's Wharf area.
After visiting the San Francisco Maritime Visitor Centre, you can then walk on Hyde Pier to see the restored historic vessels docked here. This information on display at the visitor centre helps set the stage for a nice visit to Hyde Pier to see the vessels docked there.
Our favorites are the 1886 sailing vessel called Balclutha, the 1890 steam-engine ferry called Eureka and the 1907 tugboat called Hercules.
There is no fee to enter Hyde Pier. However, there is a US$5 fee to access the ships
This is a special opportunity to see a rare and unique collection of entertainment antiques, something you just can't easily find anywhere in the world.
This attraction is not only free to visit but is child-friendly and a nostalgic place to visit of many who appreciate antiques, history and an era recently passed.
For those visiting the Wharf area, a quick visit here should definitely be on your Must Do/See list.
Museum entry is free but like the days of old, you'll need to spend some coins to play the machines.
One of the genuinely interesting stops at Fisherman's Wharf is the Bouldin Bakery where you can see the very interesting sour dough creations made and put on display here. The large crocodile is really neat and the crabs and turtles are down right cute.
Bring your camera inside, they don't mind you taking pictures of their sour dough animal creations.
There is no fee to enter the Boudin Bakery, Cafe and Museum area
There are quite of few things to do and see at Pier 39, an easy place to spend an hour or two while visiting the Fisherman's Wharf area. Highlights for us include a visit to the Candy Baron, views of Alcatrez from the far end of the pier and the sea lions which can be seen basking in the sun just off Pier 39.
There is no fee to enter Pier 39.
The Candy Baron is a fun little candy shop filled with taffy and those classic sweets we enjoyed during our own youth. This one plays on your nostalgia and has a similar visitation quality to that had by visiting the Musee Mechanique also found on the Wharf.
If you are visiting the Fisherman's Wharf then you won't help but notice Alcatraz a few times. We feel the best views are had at the far end of Pier 39. Decent views can also be had from Hyde Pier.
Additionally, you might consider a boat trip and visit to Alcatraz, which can be arranged on the Wharf.
Similar to Central Park in NYC, the Golden Gate Park just seems to go on forever at times, affording locals and visitors plenty of opportunity for green space, recreation as well as a collection of attractions to museum and garden-like attractions.
While a half-day gives you a chance to see several of its attractions, you could easily spend 3/4 to a full day in this area of San Francisco. Plan accordingly, you just might find that you wish you had more time to spend here. We certainly did!
There is no fee to enter Golden Gate Park. However, many of the attractions within the park require admission fee.
This 26 acre area within the Golden Gate Park subtly divided into zones feature plant life from the various areas of the world.
The highlight of the Botanical Garden for us was definitely the Redwood Grove, offering an opportunity to see a few of these giants, something many will not be able to do if their travels don't extend beyond the city area.
There is a US$7 per person entry fee into the San Francisco Botanical Gardens
Here you can see exotic plant-life from the more humid and tropical areas of the world. Some lovely orchids, picture plants and giant lily pads among other interesting plants and flowers are housed in this Victorian era conservatory building.
While its the indoor scene you come and pay for, the highlight for us is the vibrant (and free) Dahlia Garden just outside the Conservatory building.
There is a US$7 per person entry fee into the Conservatory of Flowers.
To be honest, many Asian visitors or those who spend considerable time in the Orient will not find this a priority attraction. However, for those interested in a Japanese gardens and traditional Japanese landscape architecture, this would be a nice inclusion to your visit to the Golden Gate Park area.
There is a US$7 per person entry fee into the Japanese Tea Garden
Within the de Young Museum, there is free access to the lobby area and Hamon Tower. Taking lift to the Observation Level, you are afforded very nice 360 sweeping views of the Golden Gate Park and this area of San Francisco.
There is no fee to enter the Hamon Tower or the Observation Level. However, there is an entry fee to enter the main gallery areas of the de Young Museum.
The San Francisco Cable cars are an iconic attraction and an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so during a visit to this great city.
The Cable Cars slowly make their way through the streets of San Francisco between the Powell Street Station near Union Square all the way to Fisherman's Wharf. Best stops along the way are Cable Car Museum and Lombard Street.
Cable Car fee is US$6 per person
In addition to riding the actual cable cars, you can visit the free Cable Car Museum on Mason Street (Nob Hill). At the Cable Car Museum you can learn about the history of cable cars in San Francisco. There are a few old cable cars on display and you can also see the inner workings of the massive cable and pulley system used to support the existing system.
Cable Car Museum entry is free
The windy streets, on Lombard Street, between Hyde and Leavensworth on Russian Hill are commonly referred to as the crookedest street in the world. It is a iconic location in San Francisco, a place that all first-time visitors should try to find.
A good way to arrive at the Lombard Street attraction is via the San Francisco Cable Car, which makes it way along Hyde street stopping here. Another fun way to visit is to actually drive down Lombard Street, making the hairpin turns as you admire the design of this street.
While its the famous San Francisco Cable Cars that gets most of the hype, its the historic F-line street car that we most enjoy.
The F-Line plies its way between the Castro district, along Market Street, then following The Embaradero all the way to Fisherman's Wharf, making it a good alternative to the much more touristy Cable Car for those who want to enjoy one of San Francisco's historic forms of transportation.
Street Car fee is US$2 per ride
Living in Hong Kong, we have to admit enjoying Chinatown in San Francisco, This is something we don't say often about Chinatown found around the world. This is a serious yet visitor friendly Chinatown, one that can be much enjoyed.
While the main area along Grant Avenue is a bit too touristy for our likings, selling many things that are not normally found in Chinese shops or marketplaces, there are other areas that offer you a more authentic experience. We particularly enjoyed the area along Stockton Road. At times, it did resemble being at home.
Shopping opportunities are a plenty in this area of the city. Just have a look at the Union Square website to see a list of shopping brands and companies that are found in the area.
Highlight for us would be the Macy's department store, a classic American store type which is rarely replicated with much success around the world. Views from the Cheesecake Factory terrace are also enjoyable around Union Square.
This is a good marketplace for local foodies with a bit of extra money to spend. Here you can find shops offering a good range of gourmet and high quality stuffs in a market hosted in a restored historical building on the pier.
Nearby, you can also catch nice views of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Also, there is an interesting temporary exhibition called the Raygun Gothic Spaceship on display near Pier 14.
There is no fee to enter the Ferry Building Marketplace area.
Do make reservations in advance on OpenTable to avoid missing the experience to have some lovely prime rib at the House of Prime Rib. While the bread, sides and desserts may be a hit or miss, the prime rib has been excellent on both occasions that we have dined here.
We also enjoy the carving stations and how the meals are prepared right before your eyes. Talk about having confidence in your dishes.
House of Prime Rib is a fun, enjoyable and tasty night out. A meal we will eagerly repeat during future trips to San Francisco.
Locals rate and rave about this seafood diner on Green Street and it seems they have good reason for doing so. We had a most enjoyable seafood lunch here. While the chowder was just ok, nothing special, the prawn saute dish was simply divine, warranting praise and high recommendation.
Sotto Mare is now on our short list of 'must return' restaurants for future trips to San Francisco.
While is it a cliche but many visitors want to experience a bread-bowl of chowder along the Wharf. We have been disappointed with chowder in this area with the exception of the Blue Mermaid Chowder House, which has served up some very good chowder dishes for us over the past couple of years.
Food from the rest of their menu has been ok but nothing particularly special. It is the chowder that has made us happy at the Blue Mermaid Chowder House and will keep us coming back when visiting the Wharf area next time.
Handcraft coffee on offer at Blue Bottle and a queue full of eager customers patiently waiting for their freshly hand brewed cup.
This is a nice stop for coffee fans. We would have happily become regular customers had a Blue Bottle Coffee branch been available where we live.