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San Francisco is a city packed full of interesting things to do and fun places to explore. I mean, there is enough exploring to be done in this city to keep you busy for several days…and then some. I recently took a trip to San Fran with my husband for an extended weekend getaway. We were able to spend three full days in the city (not including travel time), and we crammed in as much sightseeing as our feet would allow. I have narrowed down my list of faves, and will share with you my Top Five San Francisco Attractions and why you should experience them too!
To begin the countdown (because we want to build up to the best, right?), let’s start with #5.
#5 – Union Square
Do you like shopping? Well, let’s talk shopping then! Union Square is definitely the place to be in San Francisco if you like shopping. For sure. Without a doubt. There are plenty of amazing restaurants, night life, galleries, unique artwork and outside spaces to take advantage of here, but the shopping is a major draw in this area. Numerous name brand anchor stores call Union Square home, like Niketown, Nordstrom, Apple Store, and Macy’s…just to name a few (you can browse the full list here, or see the map below). Everything from posh high end designer brands, gift and souvenir shops, to Starbucks and 7-11 stores can all be found within several blocks of each other. You could spend several hours, or days, in this area and still find more places to shop.
Another public spectacle here is The Cable Car Turnaround on Powell at Market Street. This is the spot where the cable car, well, turns around! It’s a tourist hot-spot, and you can usually expect a crowd of people taking photos and a 45 minute wait to hop on for a ride. We elected not to ride the cable cars because of the crowds. Maybe next time.
Our hotel was located in Union Square, so all of this was very convenient to us. We stayed at the Sir Francis Drake, a Kimpton hotel. I had just returned from my first trip to London a couple of weeks prior to this SF trip, and this hotel had me feeling like I had just traveled back across the pond. Complete with Beefeater doorman, Tom Sweeney, in full red dress and all. Fun tip: Tom has been a Beefeater Doorman with the SFD hotel for 42 years and is the most photographed man in San Francisco! It was a great spot with a very convenient location and I would highly recommend it!
#4 – Lombard Street
Lombard Street (aka the crookedest street in the world) made the list simply because of the cool factor. There is nothing to do on this one block section of the street except to take pictures, people watch a little, enjoy the AMAZING views of San Fran, and get your exercise in for the day/week/month/year. You know, depending on your normal activity level. Definitely interesting enough for a visit.
San Francisco is obviously known for steep angled streets, and walking UP to Lombard Street about gave me a heart attack. Well, maybe not quite THAT extreme, but almost. I have never seen a street with inclines like this. My quadriceps and calves did not understand that was happening to them. They were in shock, and I had to stop and catch my breath on more than one occasion. It was worth it. The popular block has stairs to climb and that makes it easier. All I kept thinking about was, can you imagine living on this street with thousands of visitors walking and driving on your block each month? How challenging must it be to run out for a quick errand? Oh yeah, and how much do these homes cost??? 😉
Anywhoo, Lombard Street is really cool and should be on any first-time-to-San Francisco-list!
#3 – Chinatown
Who doesn’t love a good Chinatown? Most of the major cities I have been to have an area of this type (NYC, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, etc.). San Francisco is no different. These neighborhoods tend to be culturally authentic and a great way to experience the Asian culture and cuisine first hand. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest is the US and the largest in North America, at about 1.34 square miles in diameter, which is roughly 24 city blocks. Total awesomeness.
What is there to do in Chinatown? Lots! Eat, shop, eat, shop, and eat. That about sums up my list! Honestly, there are many other things to experience, but all I tend to do is eat and shop. The authentic food is my fave. Beginning with the Dragon Gate, Grant Street is the main street in Chinatown where you will find most tourists exploring the eateries and shops full of authentic Chinese goodies, along with not-s0-authentic brand name knock off merchandise. All available at a bargain price. And if you don’t like the price, you can always barter for a lower option.
There are walking tours of Chinatown, and you can visit The Tin How Temple (oldest Chinese temple in America – built in 1852). You can celebrate Chinese New Year in February and Autumn Moon Festival in September. These are two major holidays that come complete with parades, fireworks, street fairs, and many other events. Read more in-depth details on the history of Chinatown and all it has to offer here and here. Put Chinatown on your “must do” list while visiting San Fran!
#2 – San Francisco Giants Game at AT&T Park
Where are my baseball fans at?!?!? Holla! We love baseball. Our son has been playing for a number of years and we fall more in love with the game each season. My son fully expects to be a MLB player when the time comes, so here’s to supporting and believing in that dream! But, I digress. If you are a baseball fan and you find yourself in San Francisco during baseball season, a San Francisco Giants game is a MUST! You don’t have to be a Giants fan to go, but you might be one by the time you leave!
AT&T Stadium in San Fran is phenomenal. Sitting right on the water doesn’t hurt either. I’ve never been a Giants fan, per sae. I am from Texas and we are for the Rangers all the way. However, I do love a good ball game and a great stadium experience anywhere I can get it. Great food, great drinks, great atmosphere, and a great game (against the San Diego Padres – big rival game and it was intense). San Francisco Giants and AT&T stadium did NOT disappoint!
#1 – Golden Gate Bridge
That brings us to #1 on the list! Of course, it’s the Golden Gate Bridge! One of the most recognized US landmarks on the planet, and definitely San Francisco’s top iconic attraction. This massive bridge is 1.7 miles in length and was built between 1933-1937. It is a toll bridge, and therefore will cost between $4.50-$7.50 to cross, which over 110,000 vehicles do every day.
So what makes this my #1 attraction on the list? Driving over a bridge, even if it is the most famous bridge in the country, is not that big of a deal. Right? Well, we did not drive over it. WE BIKED ACROSS THAT BAD BOY! This has to be one of my all-time favorite travel experiences thus far. Even though it was the workout of a lifetime, it is an experience we will always remember. We rented bikes at Parkwide Bike Rentals in Fort Mason, rode all the way to the bridge (including an uphill trek), across the bridge, and a full return trip, to boot! I think I cried a few times. My legs burned more than they ever have in my life (well, maybe except for the long haul up to Lombard Street – no, wait…this was worse), and it was the most awesome experience in the end.
My only regret is we did not get to visit Sausalito on the other end of the bridge. We will have to save that for our next trip when we DRIVE across the bridge. Or, better yet, take a ferry. If you have the chance, get on a bike and make it happen. The views alone are worth it. It will be a travel trip you won’t soon forget.
No matter how you experience the big-red-beast-of-a-bridge, the official Golden Gate Bridge website provides plenty of up-to-date information should you want to travel across the bridge on two feet, two wheels, four wheels, etc. Would this make #1 on your top five San Francisco attractions list too?
Bonus – Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
You know I love bonuses, so I am including the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in this list simply for the architecture. We were not able to attend any performances or events here, but I can imagine they are spectacular. Built in 1915 for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, this structure is reminiscent of heavy Roman influence. Left for ruin, the structure was restored in the last 1950’s to early 60’s, and has been a San Francisco landmark since. Read all about this architectural beauty here! Pictures do not do this area justice. At all. I highly recommend experiencing it for yourself!
Pier 39 – worth a quick mention
A VERY touristy spot is Pier 39, a 45 acre waterfront space known for overpriced shopping, restaurants, and attractions. While this place is worth a visit, it didn’t make my list because it wasn’t anything too spectacular. If you have younger kiddos with you in San Francisco, it’s probably a worthy trip. And the large crab statue is cute. 🙂 We walked, window shopped, and I got a hydro water massage. That was pretty cool!
Fisherman’s Wharf – AMAZING
Everyone knows you if you’re in San Francisco, you MUST visit the hot spot that is Fisherman’s Wharf! Lots to see, lots to do…lots of people, and LOTS OF SEAFOOD! I will explore this destination more in a San Francisco food post at a later date. I will, however, leave you with one word. #yummmmmm
SF Ferry Building Marketplace
Another foodie destination (but worth the mention as an attraction as well) is the Ferry Building Marketplace and Farmers Market. Again, I will cover this in more depth in a SF food post, but the people watching here is an attraction all it’s own! Beware if your are traveling with children. There are plenty of naked people hanging out (literally – ha!) in this area. Not something I would want my kiddos to see, but my husband and I still giggle about it when the topic comes up.
Directly across Embarcadero Street from the Ferry Building is another market with a plethora of local artists selling goodies of all kinds.
Top Five San Francisco Attractions – plus a few extra!
That wraps up my list of the top five San Francisco attractions, plus bonuses. We all know San Fran is loaded with top attractions (we did not visit Alcatraz – not really into the prison vibe), but I had to narrow them down or we would be here all day. Wait. Too late. Oh well. It’s all GOOD in the San Francisco hood! If you have yet to visit the AMAZING city of San Francisco, I hope this gives you a small glimpse of what there is to see and do. There is no way I could possibly cover it all. But that’s the beauty of it. I hope you get a chance to create a San Francisco adventure of your own!
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We LOVE San Fran!