San Francisco – A first timer’s guide to the city by the bay

San Francisco is one of the most diverse and colourful cities in the USA, from world famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, to small independent craft beer breweries and a pier filled with sea lions! The city by the bay has something for everyone and is the perfect place to start your Californian adventure 🙂

We had heard such good things about San Francisco and Nat was so excited to visit the home of one of her favourite childhood programs “That’s so Raven?”, that we couldn’t think of anywhere better to start our road trip around California. 

We spent three days exploring the city but this didn’t really give us enough time to explore everything San Fran has to offer, although it is enough time for a first time explorer to make their way through the city’s highlights. These are our top picks as well as hints & tips to help you discover the best of what San Francisco has to offer.

Quick jump-around guide

Getting Around Town

Despite how big San Fran is the transport links are generally very good. We made heavy use of the Muni busses during our stay and for a cheap, convenient way to get around, we would suggest you do the same. The busses run all over the city and you will never be far from a stop no matter where you are.

The easiest way to use the Muni is to download the Munimobile app and buy your tickets on there. A single adult ticket will cost you around $3.00. You can also pay in cash to the driver, but exact change is required so we found it much easier to use the app.

Another option for getting around is to use Uber Pool. For those of you like us who had never heard of Uber Pool before, it’s Uber’s taxi sharing service where you share your ride with other passengers travelling to a similar destination. You usually have to walk a little bit as pool drivers will pick you up and drop you off within an area and not a specific location. Don’t worry though, it is never more than a few minutes’ walk and more often than not, you get picked up and dropped off at your desired spot.

Using Uber Pool can reduce your fare by up to 50% so we would recommend using pool as much as possible when getting taxi’s, and if you haven’t signed up with Uber before here’s our code : natalieh4280due for a further discount.

So now that you know how to get around, lets get into how you should split your time in San Francisco.

Food first (always) make sure you grab a hearty breakfast…

If you hadn’t gathered by now, you’re probably going to have a busy few days, and busy days need to start with a good breakfast! Head to Honey Honey Café & Crepery just down from Union Square for one of the best in town. Their huge menu and HUGE portions will satisfy any hungry tourist and will definitely set you up for an action-packed day in San Fran.

Explore the Golden Gate Bridge, The Presidio of San Francisco & Golden Gate Park…

We’re guessing that like us, and 99% of people visiting San Francisco, that your top priority as soon as the plane touches the ground is to head straight over to see the Golden Gate Bridge (and it should be!). However, we recommend spending a little bit of time to explore the Presidio of San Francisco, the park and former military base on the western side of the city. Start off by checking out the Palace of Fine Arts. The rotunda and surrounding structures are visually stunning.

A great place to get some cool photos of the famous R2-D2 shaped building!

From the Palace of Fine Arts, it’s a 45-minute walk to the Golden Gate Bridge through Crissy Field, a former US Army air base. The paths and beaches along the waterfront are great to stroll along and take in views of San Francisco bay on clear days. Plus, closer to the bridge there are some great viewpoints, and a café at Torpedo Wharf where you can even pick up a crafty cold one 😉

Take one of several hiking trails up the hill for great vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge and its iconic red/orange painted towers are the cities’ top attraction and a symbol of San Francisco & the USA in general all over the world. 

Walking or cycling over the bridge and down into Sausalito is a great option for spending a few hours. There are ferries that will take you back to the city for around $12.00 that run hourly. If you have the time, you can also do what we did and hike some of the trails around Land’s End for more great views of the Golden Gate looking out at the Pacific Ocean. 

Head down into Golden Gate Park and check out some of the museums such as the California Academy of Sciences and their rainforest dome.

Or you can just relax and enjoy the quiet with your beer buddy 🙂

Tour Alcatraz island…

We could write a whole blog about Alcatraz just on its own (and we might). Alcatraz has earned itself the nickname of the ‘worlds most notorious prison’, and with former inmates like gangsters Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, its easy to see why.

Tours must be booked online at https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ and cost around £30 per person for a day tour and £36.50 for a night tour. Ferries leave from Pier 33 and the whole tour generally take around 3 hours.

The tour ticket includes an easy to follow audio guide which takes you around the cell house & the infamous solitary confinement cells in D-block as well as walking you past locations of escapes and prison riots. The audio tour guide is one of the best and most informative we’ve experienced so make sure you make good use of it!

Explore Fisherman’s Wharf…

Be prepared Fisherman’s Wharf is very touristy and in Nat’s opinion might not be for everyone, think of Blackpool on steroids! It’s still a fun way to spend a couple of hours and there is a lot to do here – plenty of seafood restaurants, souvenir stores, museums to check out and SF’s main attraction sea lions! Our personal picks are: 

  • Grabbing a sourdough bread bowl of Clam Chowder at Boudin Bakery.
  • Indulging your sweet tooth at Ghirardelli square, the home of world-famous Ghirardelli Chocolate.
  • Enjoying an Irish coffee from The Buena Vista.
  • Visiting Pier 39 to see the colony of sea lions that live on wooden decks next to the pier.

Cruise around the bay at sunset…

A sunset cruise around the bay is the perfect way to spend an evening. We went with Red and White Fleet California Sunset Cruises and paid around £50 each for our tickets which included food and 2 drinks on the boat, but there are also plenty of options on Get Your Guide and Airbnb which we would suggest looking into.

Hopefully you will have better weather than us! 🙁

Take a perfect postcard photo of the ‘Painted Ladies’…

These Victorian style houses on Alamo Square have been featured in an estimated 70 movies, TV shows (That’s so Raven 😉 ) and ads over the years and are one of the must snap photo spots in San Francisco.

Relax in Mission Dolores Park…

Dolores Park is a great place to chill and soak up authentic local San Fran vibes. Head down to the park on a weekend and you’ll find tourist and locals aplenty sunbathing, picnicking, playing sports, enjoying some beers or just hanging out with friends. 

Nat clinging onto the 90’s – Britney style 😉

Get lost in Chinatown…

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the USA and the most densely populated area of the country outside of Manhattan (if you’ve ever been to Manhattan, you know!). The main area for tourists is Grant Street, however Chinatown covers 24 city blocks so spend an afternoon just getting lost around its streets and alleys sampling all of the food and tea you can! Number 1 tip : follow the locals!

Drive, or watch cars wind their way down Lombard Street…

Lombard Street is one of the most famous roads in the world. It is mainly known for the one-way block on Russian Hill, where eight hairpin turns past beautiful Victorian mansions (some of the most expensive in the city) make this the worlds most crooked street. 

Driving down the switchbacks is on many tourist’s bucket lists so wait times to actually get onto the street can be up to 20 minutes, and there are plans in place to introduce a system where drivers need to reserve a time slot in advance to reduce the congestion. If you’re nervous about driving Lombard Street then don’t worry, there are stairs on either side with plenty of great photo spots. But be aware, you will be sharing your perfect Instagram shot with hundreds of other wannabe photographers so you may be competing for the best angles.

Ride around in a tram…

The San Francisco cable car system has been a part of the culture of the city since the late 1800’s and it is said to be the world’s last manually operated tram system. Only 3 of the original 23 lines remain in use today but most people recommend the Powell-Hyde line for the best views of Coit Tower, Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay.

Get 360 panoramas from Twin Peaks…

Many locals will tell you that the best views of the city are to be had from the top of Twin Peaks. The two summits rise almost 1000 feet above the sea level and give unobstructed 360-degree views over the entire city, as long as you don’t head up on a foggy day that is! The best way to visit Twin Peaks is by car as they are located away from the rest of the city, but you can also grab an Uber or hop on a city sightseeing bus, as some of the routes do drop off and pick up at the base of the hills. Remember to dress warm too, the weather up there can be unpredictable!

Eat at the Ferry Building…

One thing that San Fran definitely isn’t short of is foodie hotspots, and you will definitely find something that takes your fancy at the Ferry Building. As the name suggests this is the main terminal for commuter ferries all around San Francisco Bay but it is also the home of the Ferry Building Marketplace, a hub of food stores, bars and restaurants that are a food lovers delight. A variety of vendors serve up everything from artisan cheeses to burgers and tacos with some of the best Californian wines to go with it.

We ate at Mijita Cocina Mexicana and would recommend for all fellow taco lovers!

Soak in the views from Coit Tower…

You’ll find the 210-foot-tall concrete column of Coit Tower on the summit of Telegraph Hill which boasts stunning panoramas over the city and the bay. Skip the line and book your tickets in advance online for $9 per adult, $6 for teenagers (12-17) and $3 for children. We would have loved to head up the tower during our stay, but the weather was so bad that the view would have been totally obscured. So, naturally we decided to grab a couple of cold ones instead 😉 Speaking of which… 

Try all the craft beer you can…

San Francisco has a seriously diverse bar scene, with independent craft beer microbreweries and pubs all over town, there’s no shortage of cool places to enjoy a drink or two. We tried a load of great bars during our stay, but our personal favourites are; 

Black Sands Brewery – For an awesome beer in a modern setting, head into Lower Haight and treat yourselves to lunch at Black Sands Brewery. Not only do they have a great selection of home brewed beers but their fish tacos are also not to be missed! 

Southern Pacific Brewing – A little further out of town in Mission District is Southern Pacific Brewing’s impressive bar/restaurant/brewery. Situated in a former industrial unit, the bar is one of the best we visited in America featuring an upper mezzanine and outdoor patio, both perfect for those hot summer nights enjoying a cold one. Pair the California Blonde Ale with the Brass Hat Burger and you’re in for a good time!

The Detour (Brewcade) – Another cool spot in Lower Haight. Definitely one of the quirkier bars we checked out in SF and absolutely worth a visit! This bar pairs a quality beer list with classic arcade games such as Pac-Man, Mortal Kombatt and Super Mario, we had lots of competitive beer drinking fun here! Pick up your game tokens from the bar and away you go.

Mikeller – Grab a seat at the bar in this classy brick lined beer pub in central San Fran and work your way across as many of their 40 taps as you can. Make sure you head downstairs into the cellar, this is home to The Tivoli sour room, where you will find the best Lambic and sour beer selection in the entire city. You won’t regret it!

Woods Cervecería – At the north west corner of Dolores Park this small bar has a great ‘lounge in somebody’s house’ vibe. Relax with a cold one and an empanada (a cute Spanish pastry), pick a board game or playing cards up from one of the shelves and enjoy some downtime in the busy city.

To finish the most important tips we can give would be:

  • Bring a jacket! The weather is so unpredictable and the majority of the time it can be very windy, our visit was late May and it felt like November time 🙁 We were very unlucky with the weather for that time of year but still being prepared never hurt anyone!
  • Whatever budget you’ve made (unfortunately) double it!   San Francisco was the most expensive place Nat had ever been too and Joe said it was on par with New York prices, so make sure you’re also prepared to part with a lot of dollar during your stay.
  • You don’t need a hire car in SF!  If you’re planning on arriving into the States via San Francisco don’t plan to pick your car up until you’re ready to leave. Parking spaces around the city are rare and pricey, and like we said the transportation links are very good and probably the only thing in SF that’s fairly priced. Save that dollar for your first beer, trust us you’re going to need it!

San Francisco is one of the most diverse cities we’ve ever travelled to. It can be a bit daunting at times because there is so much to see and do that there’s no way you could cover everything in a single visit, so don’t worry! Narrow down the things you really want to do and get stuck in. There’s a lot we didn’t get around to so who knows, maybe we will head back to the bay one day!

Let us know if you have any questions about SF or if you have any other suggestions for our next trip 🙂 Watch this space too as we are finally getting around to writing more blog posts from our Californian road trip adventure, including “Things you need to know before your first road trip”, to provide you with some useful tips we know now that we definitely wish we’d known before!

Happy road trippin’ folks,

Joe & Nat 

xxx

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