So you’re headed to San Francisco on vacation? The city and the surrounding area has so much to offer that it can be completely overwhelming. You could spend a month hitting the world-famous tourist attractions alone. This list is designed to be your filter. Having both vacationed to, and lived in SF for years, this list is built from experience. Some of the famous tourist attractions are included, but only because they’re truly exceptional. The other things on the list are the lesser-known gems. These are some of the things that you don’t discover until you’ve lived there for years. If you pack all of this into a 10-day vacation, it’ll be the trip of a lifetime.
In no particular order
Muir Woods: This is the undisputed trip highlight for nearly everyone who ever visited us in San Francisco. This forest is truly majestic and you can’t get this experience anywhere else. This is not something that you can skip – it’s completely mandatory. Pro Tip: Walk in as deep as you can to get away from the crowds. Go on a weekday and show up early to get a reasonable parking spot.
Dolores Park: This is a place like no other. This park represents capitalism at its finest and is where you’ll find the locals on the weekends. Bring a blanket, find a place to sit, sit back and enjoy. Anything you could ever want or need will be delivered to you for a small cash fee. Unlicensed food vendors, illegal mobile bars, cold drinks, ice cream, illicit drugs…it will all be presented to you as the vendors circle the park. When you’re done, someone will happily collect your empties for the recycling deposit. Truly full service. Pro tip: show up before noon on Saturday or Sunday for the optimal experience.
Golden Gate Bridge: Obvious but exceptional. Driving over the bridge for the first time is an amazing experience. For the best pictures, go to the far side of the bridge (to Sausalito) and then take the road up the hill on the West side of the bridge. Pro tip: put your phone/camera away for the first ride across the bridge. Just enjoy. You have to cross it again to get back so save the pics for the second crossing.
La Taqueria in The Mission: This place has been voted “world’s best burrito” in too many contests to count. It’s one of the few popular places in the city where the food actually lives up to the hype. You can walk here from Dolores Park. Expect a line out the door and good luck getting a seat. Pro tip: While the burrito made them famous, the tacos are where it’s at.
Half Moon Bay: This little beachside fishing town is a 30-minute drive south of San Francisco on epic Highway 1. Half Moon Bay is such a beautiful town (when the weather’s nice) that it lured me into moving all the way across the country. I was only able to live there for a year, but what a great year. Pro tip: a meal at Sam’s Chowder House at sunset is unforgettable (but not for the food).
Shark’s Tooth Beach: This little-known beach is over an hour’s drive south from SF down Hwy 1. It’s a great place to spend a summer afternoon. Epic scenery, cold water, few people and multiple sea caves to explore are just some of the reasons it made the list. Pro tip: pack a cooler but keep it light. You have a really steep hike down to the beach from the road.
Alcatraz Ferry and Prison Tour: Assuming it was a silly tourist trap, I resisted going on an Alcatraz tour for years. I finally broke down and went when my parents visited. It was incredible. The frigid foggy ferry ride, the prison itself, the rich history, the quality of the self-guided audio tour; it’s absolutely exceptional in every way. I still can’t believe how good it is. Pro tip: buy tickets well in advance to save some cash and make sure they don’t sell out.
Chowder Bread Bowls at the Wharf: While you’re at Fisherman’s Wharf to board the ferry to Alcatraz, make sure to grab one of those tasty looking chowder bread bowls. They’re great. Pro tip: Don’t spend any additional time at Fisherman’s Wharf. Get your chowder, get on the ferry, and check it off the list.
The Mystery Spot: You’ll see the yellow bumper stickers everywhere in California. This place is extremely cheesy but so much fun. No radio or cell signals can get in or out and gravity pulls slightly sideways. The tour guides are great and it’s probably the best thing you can do in all of California for $6.
Land of the Medicine Buddha Hike: This is one of the more unusual and lesser-known items on the list. This hike in the Santa Cruz mountains takes you deep into a secluded forest at a Buddhist temple. It feels like you’re in totally different time and place. There’s a sacred spot deep in the forest that’s so quiet you can hear the blood pumping through your ears. Pro tip: Don’t talk on the entire hike. It’s truly a meditative place. Your silence will improve your experience and ensure others can enjoy as well.
Coit Tower: This is the giant cylindrical tower on the hilltop that you can see from all over the city. For $5 you can take an elevator to the top. You can literally see the entire city on a clear day. Pro tip: don’t waste your time or money going on a cloudy day.
Lombard Street: This is a famous super-curvy street on the hill. I recommend driving or riding down it to maximize the experience. It’s insanely steep and makes for good clean fun. It’s also free to go down which is nice.
Tommy’s Joynt: This SF staple is a must-eat. It’s a dingy little bar with an incredible looking cafeteria style food setup. This is one of the best value eateries in the city and the food is amazing. Go here and grab a few beers and hearty dinner with friends. Pro tip: The Burgundy Beef with rice is where it’s at!
Haight-Ashbury: This was ground zero for the infamous Summer of Love. Take an afternoon to walk around the Haight and you can still feel its unique energy. There are very few places on earth that have been the source of a total cultural revolution - this is one of them. Pro tip: See if you can “overhear” one of the guided tours or bus tours in the Haight. The stories of the Summer of Love presented in real-life context are totally mesmerizing.
Double Decker Bus Tour: This is another one that I never wanted to do but I’m so glad I did. I ended up on a bus tour when a friend visited who had just broken his leg. As it turns out, SF is a totally fascinating place with a ton of history and the bus tours are a great way to take it all in. Pro tip: I would especially recommend taking the bus through the Haight-Ashbury. The stories in context will have you feeling like a 4-year-old during story time.
Cha Cha Cha: While you’re in the Haight, grab lunch at Cha Cha Cha. This unusual Carribean restaurant is known for its giant pitchers of Sangria but the food and décor are equally amazing. The energy of the restaurant matches perfectly with the Haight.
Twin Peaks: Drive to the top of Twin Peaks for a great view. You can see the entire city and it’s completely free. Drive toward Sutro Tower (that crazy looking orange/white tower thingy) and you’ll be headed the right direction. A really short hike will take you to the top of the peaks for an unbeatable view. Pro tip: go at sunset on a clear day.
Mama’s Restaurant: Located on Washington Square, this place is fantastic. Everything is fresh, delicious, and beautiful. It’s just a great breakfast experience…nothing more, nothing less. Pro tip: go early and be prepared to wait for a while to be seated.
Golden Gate Park: This park is huge, 20% larger than Central Park in NYC. It’s also quite beautiful and hosts a number of fun concerts and events on any given weekend. Walk through and check it out. Pro tip: Golden Gate Park is not connected to the Golden Gate Bridge. Also, stay away from the really cool looking windmill near the beach (just take my word for it).
Wooden Coaster in Santa Cruz: This one is a bit of a drive, but it’s a beautiful drive. Santa Cruz is worth exploring if you have the time and it has a classic beachside boardwalk amusement park. Free to enter and cheap to ride, it has a classic wooden beachside coaster that’s a ton of fun. If you always wanted to ride a beachside coaster like the one from the show Full House, this one is pretty close. Pro tip: go on a weekday to avoid crowds and impossible parking.
Chinatown: SF has one of the largest and most authentic Chinatowns on the planet. Having been to China a number of times I can assure you that it’s pretty authentic. Walk through, see the sites and take it all in. It’s a good way to kill an hour or two.
- Chris, Founder