San Francisco’s busy, one-way streets, bustling neighborhoods, rolling hills, and soupy fog can make navigating The City’s seven square miles a daunting daily challenge for any first-timer — or even long-time residents. Here’s a look at how one first-timer managed to take in the splendor of San Francisco’s must-see landmarks.
Travel Tip: This itinerary includes rides on SFMTA’s Muni system, which includes light rail, bus, historic streetcars and cable cars. Be sure you have exact change and hold on to your transfer tickets. Click here for more info on Muni.
The clock starts ticking, appropriately enough, beneath the giant clock tower at this bustling San Francisco landmark. A major commuter terminal as well as a dining destination, the Ferry Building houses butchers, artisanal cheese makers and the James Beard Award-winning restaurant, The Slanted Door.
The Embarcadero / PIER 39
Walk north along the Embarcadero for exceptional views of Russian Hill and Treasure Island. A mile later, you’ll be at one of the most popular San Francisco destinations, PIER 39. This is the perfect place to snap a picture, stock up on souvenirs and visit with some of the city’s most famous residents: its sea lions.
From PIER 39, head west on Beach Street until you reach Hyde Street. Take a moment to stretch your legs and then start walking up Hyde. When you reach the top, you’ll be at the intersection of Lombard and Hyde, looking down at one of the most photographed city blocks in the world. Known for its steep, flower-lined switchbacks, Lombard is a must-see for visitors.
Cable Car / F Line Streetcar
It’s time to head back to the heart of the city—and as they say, getting there is half the fun. At the corner of Greenwich and Mason Streets, hop onboard one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars and head south. The only mobile National Historic Landmark in the nation, the cable car will carry you over Nob Hill and down to Market Street. At the end of the line, catch the historic F Line Streetcar at Market and Fifth Streets, going west toward Twin Peaks. Your short ride down one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares will feel like a trip back in time.
Disembark the F Line at Market and 9th Streets and walk north on Larkin Street. You’ll soon find yourself in Civic Center Plaza, a green space surrounded by monumental San Francisco architecture. There’s the main branch of the city’s public library system, the Asian Art Museum and City Hall, with its towering dome (the fifth-largest in the world). Tours of the building are available weekdays at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., and by special appointment.
The Painted Ladies
From the northwest corner of City Hall at McAllister Street, cross Van Ness Avenue and board the 5 Muni bus, heading outbound to Ocean Beach. Hop off at Pierce Street and walk south. A short block later, you’ll be in another of the city’s most photogenic spots, Alamo Square Park. From its eastern slope, you’ll have a stellar view of the city skyline and the famous Painted Ladies of Steiner Street, gorgeous Victorian homes that have been meticulously maintained.
Hungry? Explore the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Bordered by Fulton Street on the north and Market Street on the south, this rapidly growing neighborhood is full of fine dining, independent boutiques, and multipurpose parks. Hayes Street, which is on the south side of Alamo Square Park, has a number of trend-setting establishments.
Start your second day in the Mission neighborhood. Vibrant, diverse and always evolving, the Mission is known for its abundant public art, its exceptional weather and its bounty of bars and restaurants. On 16th Street, between Church and Dolores Streets, you’ll find the oldest building in San Francisco: Mission Dolores, which was a house of worship for Spanish colonists. You can explore this building and its rich history seven days a week. Two blocks south is Dolores Park, one of the most popular green spaces in the city. Since it’s your first time here, you’ll want to read our first-timer’s eating guide to the Mission.
Heading west from the Mission will put you in the middle of one of San Francisco’s most famous neighborhoods, the Castro. Historically, the Castro was where the city’s LGBT population congregated. From there, a world of change was born. Observe the plaques of the Rainbow Honor Walk on Castro Street that salute those who pioneered the fight for LGBT equality as you survey the shops, restaurants and bars that keep the neighborhood active all day and night.
Golden Gate Park
At 18th and Castro Streets, board the 33 Muni bus heading outbound to General Hospital. On your short ride, you’ll see Twin Peaks and cruise down the famous Ashbury Street. When you hop off the bus at Haight and Stanyan Streets, you’ll be at the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park. Don’t let the name confuse you; you’re actually quite a ways from the famous bridge. Golden Gate Park has a number of experiences to offer. There are the Botanical Gardens, the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, and paddleboats on Stow Lake. Take your time and explore.
Golden Gate Bridge
Once you’re ready to see San Francisco’s most legendary landmark, hop on Muni or call for a ride with Lyft. Heading north through the Richmond and the Presidio, you’ll soon be face to face with the Golden Gate Bridge, in all its International Orange glory. You can walk, drive or bike across the 78-year-old bridge, which is considered to be one of the greatest achievements in 20th century engineering.
Palace of Fine Arts
East of the bridge and past the Presidio, you’ll see what appears to be a giant Roman relic. That’s the Palace of Fine Arts, and it’s old—but not that old. The only remaining structure from the famous Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, the Palace of Fine Arts will look particularly dramatic in the evening hours.
Marina / Cow Hollow
For top-notch dining, the Marina and Cow Hollow neighborhoods will always deliver. Chestnut Street in the Marina has a number of options, from delightful dives to classy and stylish establishments. Cow Hollow’s Union Street has even more to choose from, with a fun and friendly atmosphere coursing along the entire street.
By Tyler Cohn
Courtesy of San Francisco Travel, the official tourism marketing organization for the City and County of San Francisco. For information on reservations, activities and more, visit www.sanfrancisco.travel.
Photo Credit: Francesco Carucci/shutterstock.com