The symbol of this attractive Californian city is a postcard image shown in a great many films and used in many successful adverts: the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Its lithe and stylish profile is San Francisco’s unmistakeable trademark, a meeting point in a place packed with tourist attractions with unforgettably chic and distinctive shops, buildings and street corners.

In addition to the bridge, a further distinctive characteristic making San Francisco instantly recognisable is its trams on their ultra-steep climbs powered and pulled up the hills by a dated but always efficient system of wires. These are internationally unique and thus worthy of note. The city is also in constant cultural ferment dictated by its multi-ethnic soul and variegated city districts: from Little Italy to Chinatown and a large Japanese community, among many others.

A multiplicity of cultures and corresponding proliferation of eating habits: San Francisco’s variegated culinary panorama is one-of-a-kind. Obviously Italian cuisine plays an important part in this, followed by Chinese food and all the others. Quality food combines with exhilarating views and a chance to relax cradled by the breezes from the bay. And all this pervaded by the city’s characteristic spirit on every street: an urge for freedom.

Come and join us, then, in an exploration of the best 25 things to see in this dazzling city. You can get a close-up view of Golden Gate Bridge, the island of Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf on a Costa trip.

  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Island of Alcatraz
  • Fisherman's Wharf
  • Golden Gate Park
  • Yerba Buena Gardens
  • Cable Cars
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Castro
  • Baker Beach
  • Ferry Building Marketplace
  • Chinatown
  • Union Square
  • Muir Woods National Monument
  • Lands End
  • The Exploratorium
  • Oracle Park
  • Mission District
  • California Academy of Sciences
  • Ocean Beach
  • Children's Creativity Museum
  • Lombard Street
  • Coit Tower
  • Angel Island State Park
  • The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Ghirardelli Square 

Golden Gate Bridge

Let’s start precisely with the city’s most familiar image for every traveller, the bridge which spans the two banks of the Golden Gate before it flows into the Pacific Ocean with its suspended metal structure and characteristic red colour (actually orange paint). It links up San Francisco and Marin County and is crossed every day by around one hundred thousand vehicles.

It is Art Deco in style and was completed in 1937 to designs by engineer Joseph Strauss. And until 1964 the Golden Gate Bridge was still the longest suspension bridge in the world, before this record passed to New York’s Verrazzano bridge. Today the longest suspension bridge record is held by Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, in Japan. But the Golden Gate Bridge remains one of the symbols of the United States. 

Island of Alcatraz

There is another iconic place - and one which has featured in a great many films - which cannot be left out of any tour of San Francisco. A former federal maximum security prison surrounded by rough, icy waters. Practically impossible to escape from. But many tried (36) and only a very few (5) escaped capture but how many of these really survived? In any event brothers Clarence and John Anglin, together with Frank Morris, were never found after escaping from the prison in 1962. They are still on the wanted list today.

The Rock, as the world’s most famous prison is called, with its legends and secrets, unusual stories worth exploring. An underground tunnel between the prison and the coast has recently been discovered in perfect state and dates to 1860. It was built when Alcatraz was not yet a prison but a military fort. If only the prisoners had known.

The island of Alcatraz was opened to the public in 1979 and hosts a park with several species of rare birds. And it has a further legacy: a triathlon race held on the first Sunday in May which follows the route of a hypothetical escape from the ‘hell’ island. 2.4 km of swimming, 29 by bike and 13 on foot.

Fisherman's Wharf

Views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge are to be had from Fisherman’s Wharf, a characteristic San Francisco city district. And perhaps, as well as the view, you might want to treat yourself to a plate of excellent fish sitting comfortably at the tables of a characteristic restaurant. Or a sandwich of excellent fresh crab just cooked in butter from a road side stall. In both cases local fishermen will guarantee the quality of their just fished catch. In the morning you can see them in action at famous Pier 47, namely Fish Alley, as they unload their catch.

But Fisherman’s Wharf is also a meeting place for street artists. And the bay is the haunt of noisy sea lions. All near Pier 39 against the backdrop of other fish restaurants. Further on, Pier 33 is where the ferries for Alcatraz and Angel Island State Park leave from, a great day trip opportunity. And there is also USS Pampanito, a World War Two submarine on show, together with other historic ships, at the nearby National Maritime Museum

Golden Gate Park

With an overall surface area of over 4 square kilometres, ten kilometres of cycle track and one million trees, Golden Gate Park is the largest of America’s city parks and contains a great many gardens, like the Victorian style flower conservatory, the oldest Japanese tea garden in America and even a botanical garden with over 7500 species. But that’s not all. There are also artificial lakes, football fields and baseball courts and the Young Memorial Museum which we’ll look at later, also destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt to plans by architects Herzog and De Meuron.

It is much bigger than New York's Central Park and you can use the convenient minibuses at the entrance to get around. There are many areas worth visiting, more than one hundred, we might say. The Garden of Fragrance, for example, has a fascinating name and was designed for the sight impaired as a magical place dominated by novel fragrances. Other names of green corners are equally evocative: the great Dutch mill, the Japanese garden decorated with pagodas and bonsai, the Shakespeare garden with all the over two hundred flowers nominated by this legendary English playwright in his work. And then, in a very popular corner of Golden Gate Park, American buffaloes are left free to roam attracting a great many visitors.

Yerba Buena Gardens

On the subject of green spaces, the vast expanse of peace and quiet between Moscone Center and the Metreon is also worth strolling through. These gardens include wonders like The Esplanade, an art exhibition park and an oasis of pure relaxation. And also an open air theatre for concerts and other events.

One of its most popular attractions is the Martin Luther King Memorial, a majestic waterfall commemorating this preacher and activist leader of the civil rights moment for black Americans. Alongside the waterfall, some of his historic sentences have been carved into granite panels (remember “I have a dream”?).

There are also buildings such as the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Contemporary Art Museum. But every corner of the park has different leisure activities. As you stroll through Yerba Buena you’ll come across a bowling arena and a skating rink and also the museum which remains a favourite with children, Zeum, also known as Children’s Creativity Museum.

Cable Cars

It’s time for a great trip around the city streets. How shall we get around? San Francisco is never ordinary, not even where transport is concerned. So how can we resist the temptation to climb aboard one of those vintage trams called Cable Cars?

A trip on one of these unusual vehicles is part public transport journey part pure tourist fun. The carriages are the very same as when it was created and they were dragged by horses. There are various lines: California Street takes you to the financial district via the chic Nob Hill quarter whilst the Powell-Hyde takes you to Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Twin Peaks

A name which immediately conjures up memories of the popular TV series created by David Lynch together with Mark Frost. But note that the series was set in Washington! Twin Peaks in San Francisco is an attractive residential district just outside the city in an over 25 hectare hill park area, with fantastic views over San Francisco.

Those who love walking can try out the many footpaths to these two peaks which are always windy and afford spectacular views of the Bay Area.

The Castro

Here we are at the heart of gay culture, near Twin Peaks in Eureka Valley. You certainly won’t mix this area up with other districts, it’s unlikely that you won’t notice the markedly alternative atmosphere. First and foremost the many multi-coloured banners symbolising tolerance. And then the many adults-only shops.

 

Castro Theater is the last classical theatre remaining in the city. But above all it is a symbol uniting residents and getting hearts beating. This is the site of certain quality cinema festivals as well as classical music events and special filmings which conclude with heated debates in the presence of directors and actors.    

Baker Beach

Let’s not forget that we’re in California and at the seaside. Of San Francisco’s beaches many consider the most attractive to be Baker Beach, if only for its view, to the right, of the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. It’s certainly not easy to get to. Its setting is wild and the winds are sometimes chilly in winter.

It is precisely these cold winds which mean that the beach’s reputation for nude bathing is limited to brief periods of the year. But Baker Beach is somehow symbolic of the spirit of San Francisco: freedom and an urge for freedom of expression. There is nothing random about the fact that one of the first Burning Man festivals, the yearly Nevada event, took place right here.

Ferry Building Marketplace

Many see this as the best, perhaps the ideal, place for breakfast. The best mornings are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday when the Ferry Building hosts the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market with a range of stalls and a huge choice of breakfast foods. Inside the building there are roast meat stalls and other refreshment places, all serving great food.

And just think that, in the 1920s, the Ferry Building was an ultra-busy transport hub with thousands of commuters arriving here every day. Today all this is a thing of the past and the area is now one in which peace and quiet and sea breezes are the order of the day along the quay in the midst of seagulls and street artists. A recommendation? Boulette’s Larder, for example, where it goes without saying that many of the specialities on offer are Italian. 

Chinatown

Films and books have made it famous the world over but in any event San Francisco's China Town is America’s oldest and largest Chinese community and a walk through the streets of this mini China on US soil since 1840, the year it was founded, give you a feeling of being elsewhere, in China.

The aromas are those typical of Chinese food and so are the markets and Buddhist temples. But you need to get into the less central streets, like Spofford Alley or Waverly Place. Or go to Tin How temple, built in 1852 and now an object of veneration for migrants coming from the East. A contrast is Old St. Mary’s Catholic cathedral, rebuilt in 1906 after the great earthquake.

Anyone looking for more unusual objects should go to Ming Lee Trading, an immense old fashioned emporium packed with goods of all sorts from spices to dried fruit, and sweets to the obligatory noodles. And fortune cookies? These are there, too, and made directly by the Golden Gate Cookie Factory, a traditional sweet factory.

Chinatown is the stage for a great many events throughout the year. It begins with Chinese New Year, obviously, during which dance and music performances are staged, such as the China Town New Year Parade. Or San Francisco International Film Festival, America’s most long standing (since 1957), held in spring, and hosting 80,000 people per year.

Union Square

This immense square is the city’s hub, its beating heart, with a small park within it. Built in 1850, it is the place where those campaigning for American union met. It later became a trading and general business centre and was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, substantially then becoming what it is today: a great shopping district.

But that’s not all it is. As the heart of the city every cultural and political ferment reverberates through it. San Francisco’s various communities meet up in Union Square for music and dance events, art exhibitions, plays and speeches of all sorts. It is a microcosm of all the city’s main characteristics and attractions.

The principal luxury boutiques are here and all the main high fashion brand names are in Maiden Lane. There is a vast range of design, clothing, technology and craft shops. All this is on sale at the Westfield San Francisco Center. Lastly, the range of gourmet delicacies here is huge. 

Muir Woods National Monument

It’s time for a typical trip outside the city now. Let’s get in the car and drive a few kilometres north of San Francisco to get a glimpse of the wonders of the Muir Woods National Monument, a forest with a view over the ocean, home to ultra-ancient sequoias. “The best monument”, as President Roosevelt said, “that tree lovers can find across the whole face of the earth”.

A walk through the peace and quiet of nature, through vast expanses of walkways built to stop people treading on the sensitive roots of the sequoias, means getting lost in the majesty of these almost eighty metre tall trees. It’s worth booking a guided tour and even better at dusk.

Lands End

A beautiful wild area which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is surprising how few people know how heart wrenchingly beautiful this coastal park, to the north-western of the city, is. A rugged land packed with cypresses and bordered with cliffs plunging into the sea from considerable heights, Lands End overlooks the narrow canal which leads to Golden Gate Bridge and then to the entrance to San Francisco Bay. It is a difficult canal, a challenge to navigate.

The footpath along the coast is a stimulating experience. It starts just above Cliff House, crosses the woods and continues through a luxury residential area called Sea Cliff, near China Beach. At the outset it is paved but it then turns into a gravel track and takes in a couple of steep flights of steps. At 1.5 miles long, it is accessible to everyone and can be done in an hour.

The Exploratorium

Not only for children: it’s true that science is turned into play in this interactive museum but there's always a surprise around the corner and nothing is to be taken for granted. There are hundreds of exhibits and demonstrations in the programme. Certainly children will hardly be able to believe their eyes as they run around, discovering unforeseen innovations. Everything is a challenge.

For example, try moving around in the total darkness of the Tactile Dome and find out that you have to try to find the way out by trial and error, one step at a time. The Exploratium is on a historic quay and on your way out you’ll come across a glass cube observatory as you go up the steps you get a spectacular view of the boats, ships and ferries moored in the bay.

Oracle Park

And now for a bit of sport. Let’s head over to Oracle Park, home to the San Francisco Giants baseball stadium. A trip to this stadium is a must: this top level American sport is always fun to watch. And those who can’t stand the idea of watching a baseball game should not give up: if the game gets boring at a certain point, poke your nose out of the stadium and the view over the bay is fantastic!

Few other stadiums can rival Oracle Park for views but also in terms of character and charm, not even their San Francisco 49er fellow citizens at Candlestick Park. The new Giants stadium is relatively recent, having been built from 1997 onwards and opened in 2000 with the Giants victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Mission District

Agora entramos no Quartier Latin de San Francisco, o que você já deve ter percebido ao ver as imagens dos murais coloridos que o alegram. Pelo seu estilo característico, pelas obras de arte de rua, foi chamado de o Éden dos hipsters.

Através desses murais, a cidade expressa seu espírito, que anseia por liberdade de expressão incondicional. As mensagens dessas obras são muitas vezes demonstrações contra as regras comportamentais ditadas pela sociedade, são, antes de tudo, o resultado do não-conformismo desenvolvido até os anos 70.

O nome Mission District tem origem nos edifícios antigos que frequentemente abrigavam missões religiosas. Uma das mais importantes foi a Missão Dolores, estabelecida pelos espanhóis e reconstruída em 1782 com o trabalho dos nativos Ohlone, escravizados e forçados a trabalhar com apenas uma refeição por dia. Os primeiros murais foram feitos por escravos, como forma de protesto. É o famoso símbolo do coração, perfurado por três espadas.

O Mission Dolores Park é a área verde nas colinas, onde se joga futebol e basquete. Mas também onde costumam começar os protestos políticos. Além disso, muitos imigrantes italianos, irlandeses, alemães e asiáticos encontraram um lugar para ficar aqui ao longo dos anos. Assim, contribuíram para o desenvolvimento de uma cultura baseada na criatividade, fomentada por famílias provenientes do México e da América do Sul de maneira geral.

California Academy of Sciences

The academy comprises an aquarium, a great greenhouse encompassing all sorts of tropical forests, a museum and a planetarium. It is one of the greatest eco-sustainable works in the world. Did you know that it was built to designs by Italian architect Renzo Piano? This research institute and science and natural history museum is definitely worth a visit. You’ll find it in Golden Gate Park which, as we have seen, is the city’s largest park.

The first building dated to the late 19th century but was destroyed and burnt to the ground in the 1906 earthquake in which the collection was lost. Today the centre is based in a unique building which, as we have seen, encompasses an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum and other spaces, all built using environmentally respectful building techniques and recyclable and renewable materials.

Piano’s design puts a square centre stage. Natural lighting is provided by a concave glass dome equipped with a system of retractable fabric screens under the sky light. A 60,000 square metre cover absorbs rain water.

Ocean Beach

But let’s get back to the sea, to San Francisco’s west side, and Ocean Beach. This beach stretches out across a vast expanse of sand and dunes along the Pacific Ocean. It is a favourite with the people of San Francisco with its cool breeze and clean, salty air coming in from 6000 miles of open sea. And in this natural world in the midst of seagulls’ cries and the sound of the surf breaking against the waves, it is easy to put the stresses and strains of city life behind you.

The habit of visiting Ocean Beach is a deep rooted one - for over one hundred years since the area was an expanse of sand dunes and wild nature. The best eating place has always been Cliff House, after a bathe at Bagni Sutro and it is a shame that Playland fun park closed down in 1972.

In any event, the beach is open to all sorts of leisure activities: a picnic on the beach, a spot of fishing, children playing and dogs running free.

Children's Creativity Museum

Inside the Yerba Buena gardens there is an interactive museum for children aged 2 to 12 and their families. It is a truly magical place for children who are welcomed with great kindness and care by staff ready to accompany visitors in play, exploration, inventiveness, climbing, design and improvisation. There is so much to do that the hours rush by.

It is a concrete art and technology experience: visitors are invited to create clay figures or make stop motion cartoon videos, learn IT programmes and play a part in a music video. It is an experience that your children will not forget in a hurry - and neither will you!      

Lombard Street

Ready for another trip around the city centre? Then let’s go to Russian Hill and set out along this one-of-a-kind road, called ‘the most tortuous city road in the world’ by some. It is a street which dominates the view, featuring characteristic red paving tiles and a great many flowerbeds along the way.

It is an ultra-long street beginning at Presidio Boulevard, near Presidio Park, and continuing almost to the Embarcadero. But what makes it so unique, and thus famous, is the section which at a certain point - exactly where Russian Hill begins - climbs from Hyde Street to Jones Street and leads all the way to a panoramic point affording truly unique views of the city.

And just think that the street was initially straight and ultra-steep with no bends. But the people of the day realised, when they bought their first cars, that they’d never get them up those gradients. And so someone came up with the idea of modifying the route, adding a series of bends. And the result couldn’t be more attractive. A suggestion: do it on foot anyway, if you want to appreciate its beauties.

Coit Tower

It’s almost impossible not to notice it, at the top of Telegraph Hill Boulevard, with its unmistakeable profile: catching a glimpse of Coit Tower from the sea is an unmistakeable sign that you’ve arrived at Frisco Bay. It isn’t a lighthouse and neither is it a military column. It is yet another embodiment, in a way, of the city’s rebellious and anti-conformist spirit.

The tower’s name conjures up the figure of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a millionairess who, from a young age in the 1920s habitually accompanied firefighters on their firefighting missions (the buildings of the day were almost all built in wood). She smoked cigars and wore trousers, two things which were not then socially acceptable for women. But Lillie even dressed as a man to get into private clubs at which women were banned, in this prohibitionist era.

It was Lillie who funded the building of this monument, citing this in her will: it was to commemorate the work of the firefighters and beautify the San Francisco skyline. 64 metres tall, Coit Tower is opposite a statue to Christopher Columbus and provides wonderful views as well as ultra-colourful murals in the lobby.

Angel Island State Park

On the subject of the city’s skyline. An ideal place to appreciate it to the full is Angel Island. But the island is known mostly by the name ‘the Ellis Island of the West Coast’ because for years it performed the same role for San Francisco as the latter island for New York. It was here that immigrants arriving in the United States in the early 20th century arrived. They were then held here while they waited for a visa, sometimes for weeks, months or even years (especially the Chinese). So it was a lesser Alcatraz.

Angel Island can be visited in a single day, leaving on the morning ferry and returning in the early afternoon. The first stop is Immigration Station and the park rangers offer informative visits lasting around an hour. The best trail on foot is the North Ridge Trail, a panoramic walk with a final picnic spot.

The Walt Disney Family Museum

Near the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the symbols of America grabs your attention. What can possibly be more American than the Walt Disney story? And to tell it and the story of the ‘man behind the dream’, Walt’s daughter Diane’s dream was to create this museum with photos, films, objects, designs and anything else capable of describing the magic of the inventor of Mickey Mouse.

Opened in 2009 with over 12,000 square metres of displays, there are plenty of gems for Disney fans here: the young Walt’s first original pencil drawings, the Laugh-O-Gram (the first Disney production house) cartoons, the very first Mickey the Mouse design and lots of other priceless curiosities.

Ghirardelli Square

It all began with Domenico Ghirardelli coming to San Francisco bay from his native Rapallo by way of Peru and founding a chocolate factory right here in the square named after him. And over the years he succeeded in making himself a symbol of San Francisco. And even when the firm moved elsewhere, certain local entrepreneurs set to work keep Ghirardelli’s tradition alive. 

Today that factory - built in late 19th century bricks with a clock tower and a small fountain – is emblematic of what is considered ‘the city’s best chocolate’ and good ice cream but it is also a place to visit a series of restaurants and wine shops overlooking the bay with views over to Alcatraz, Angel Island and part of Fisherman’s Wharf.

Visit San Francisco with Costa

 

A spectacular city with exceptional viewpoints, fun activities and an inimitable style which have made it popular the world over. All you have to do now is choose it as your next destination.

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