The iconic city of San Francisco, aka the ‘City by the Bay’, is perched on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, where the salty sea breeze mixes with urban life in an inimitable blend of iconic landmarks, stunning views, eclectic districts, buzzing nightlife, and world-class cuisine.
This urban wonderland never fails to delight visitors with an abundance of must-see and must-do experiences including treasures such as The Golden Gate Bridge with its vivid orange hue, Alcatraz which stands as a haunting reminder of its illustrious past, and Fisherman’s Wharf with its delectable seafood cuisine.
With so much to see and do in San Francisco, it’s tricky to know where to start, so we’ve pulled together some of our team’s favourites sights of the city in our eShores travel guide to San Francisco.
If you’d like to combine a visit to San Francisco with other iconic USA destinations for the ultimate holiday, take some inspiration from our multi-centre holidays to the USA page or simply give us a call.
The Golden Gate Bridge: An Iconic Marvel
The Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most famous landmark, spans 1.7 miles across the entrance of San Francisco Bay. This suspension bridge boasts a stunning orange-red hue that perfectly complements the city’s natural beauty. Completed in 1937, it was once the world’s longest suspension bridge, and its art deco design remains a marvel of engineering.
Due to its location at the entrance of San Francisco Bay, the bridge often finds itself shrouded in thick fog, especially during the summer months. This natural phenomenon, known locally as ‘Karl the Fog,’ can obscure visibility and create an eerie, atmospheric effect. While foggy conditions can limit your view from the bridge, they also contribute to its charm, making it a memorable experience as you witness the bridge emerging and disappearing within the ever-changing fog.
The best time of day to view the bridge from one of the many viewing spots in the city is at sunrise or sunset, when the colours of the sky combine with the bridge’s distinctive orange hue and steel structure.
Whichever time of day you visit Golden Gate Bridge itself though, we highly recommend that you see both sides of the bridge, and you can either hire a bike to cross it, walk across, or catch a bus across from one side to the other where you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views from all angles.
Fisherman’s Wharf: A Mecca for Seafood
Fisherman’s Wharf, perched at the northern edge of San Francisco, encapsulates the city’s rich maritime heritage with its main highlight being its stunning seafood. Lining the waterfront there are numerous seafood food stands and world-class seafood restaurants where you can experience the freshest catches while you soak in the views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and San Francisco Bay. Here you can indulge in some of the local delights such as a steaming bowl of clam chowder served in a freshly baked sourdough bread bowl or the sweet and succulent Dungeness crab.
It’s not all about the seafood though, Fisherman’s Wharf houses some remarkable historical gems including the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine, where you can learn about some fascinating naval history and also the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where historic vessels celebrate the city’s past.
At the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf lies Pier 39, a bustling pier complex where you can relax in open air cafes and wander round a great selection of shops – although its main attraction is a thriving sea lion colony which delights the crowds who gather to watch the creatures lay around and cool down by diving into the waters.
Alcatraz: Unlock its Past
No visit to San Francisco is complete without a trip to Alcatraz, the infamous island that is home the notorious the former prison, often referred to as ‘The Rock’. This desolate outpost once housed some of America’s most notorious criminals including Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, and ‘Birdman’ Robert Stroud.
Although the last inmates left Alcatraz in 1963, it remains a highlight for anyone visiting San Francisco, offering a multi-faceted and fascinating experience. To reach Alcatraz, you need to take a ferry ride from San Francisco’s Pier 33 where you’ll be treated to fabulous views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay. Upon arrival, you can immerse yourself in a self-guided audio tour with a personal headset so that you’re free to roam and explore the prison to your heart’s content. You can step inside some of the cells, offering a first-hand understanding of the cramped conditions endured by the inmates and also experience the prison kitchen and courtyard which offer a further insight into prison life.
Beyond its historical significance, Alcatraz Island boasts stunning natural beauty. While exploring, you can take in the unique gardens planted by former prisoners, where stark beauty contrasts with its dark history, creating a hauntingly beautiful landscape.
Tours to Alcatraz run during the day and night (depending how brave you are!) but due to its immense popularity, we highly advise you to secure your tickets well in advance as they often sell out months ahead, particularly during peak tourist seasons.
The Walt Disney Family Museum: A Disney Fan’s Dream
If you are a Disney fan and interested in the life and legacy of Walt Disney, this museum is for you! It offers a fascinating and in-depth look at Walt’s personal and professional journey, showcasing his innovations in animation, film, and his designs for his original theme park, Disneyland. The self-guided tours take approximately 2 hours, and it’s good to note that, despite its focus on ‘all things Disney’ the museum is geared more towards adults rather than young children. The museum is located in a picturesque area in Presidio and outside you’ll find a beautiful park with wonderful views of the Golden Gate bridge.
Golden Gate Park: An Urban Retreat
Spanning over 1,000 acres, this urban park offers the perfect retreat from city life with an array of lush gardens, tranquil lakes, world-class museums and plenty of open space where you can take a peaceful stroll, have a picnic, rent a paddle boat, or simply put your feet up and watch the world go by for a couple of hours. One of the top attractions is the Japanese Tea Garden which features ponds, lush foliage, and authentic Japanese architecture. Make sure you stop for a drop of traditional tea and snack at the tea house. The Conservatory of Flowers, a Victorian greenhouse, is home to exotic plants from around the world, including rare orchids.
Also inside the park, you’ll find The California Academy of Sciences, which is an innovative museum with an aquarium, planetarium, natural history exhibits, and a living roof. The De Young Museum dominates the north side of the park, showcasing a world-renowned collection of classic art from various parts of the globe. Take the lift to the top of the museum’s striking, asymmetric tower for an awe-inspiring view of the entire park, as well as the city, Bay, and Pacific Ocean. If you have children with you, head to the park’s playground known as the Koret Children’s Quarter where they can explore on their own mini adventure and even enjoy a ride on a carousel!
Lombard Street: The Crooked Wonder of San Francisco
Lombard Street, designed in 1922, embodies San Fran’s unique character and creative spirit. Located in the Russian Hill area, it’s famous for its amazingly steep incline and its eight hairpin turns, each carefully landscaped with vibrant flowers, transforming the street into a zigzag of colour and curves.
Daring visitors may choose to drive down this quirky landmark (although we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as you’ll spend more time in traffic than you will driving!), walk along its pavements, or simply admire it from afar.
Beyond its unique road, the surrounding Russian Hill district offers a delightful mix of boutique shops, cafes, and historic architecture, making it an ideal place for leisurely stroll or a drink.
Ride a cable car: Ding Ding, All Aboard!
Even if you don’t need to get from A to B, riding in a cable car in San Francisco is a rite of passage and an absolute must-do when visiting the city. They are one of the few remaining manually operated cable car systems in the world, and their unique design and operation have been a part of the city’s identity for well over a hundred years.
Each car is designed with outward-facing seats on both sides, which allows you to take in the scenery. For the best seats, opt for the ones that look towards the picturesque San Francisco Bay.
Chinatown: Culture and Cuisine
San Francisco’s Chinatown is reportedly the largest of its kind outside Asia, and dates back to the mid 1800s. There is a lot to explore here, and you can easily spend hours taking in the various shops and restaurants that span the streets.
Start your visit to Chinatown at the Dragon’s Gate, a grand entrance adorned with guardian lion statues. Then simply wander around the charming streets such as Grant Avenue, the main thoroughfare where you’ll find shops, markets, and restaurants and other alleyways such a Ross Alley with hidden gems at every turn. The food here is delicious with the very best Chinese cuisine you can dream of including dim sum, peking duck and delectable pastries. Portsmouth Square is the historic heart of the community and here you can watch locals playing traditional games, such as mah-jong. The Tin How Temple is the spiritual centre of the town and represents the oldest temple in the USA.
If you get the chance, make sure you try some tea tasting. There are many places offering this and, similar to wine tasting, you get the chance to learn about the different tastes, as well as the leaves and health benefits of the teas.
Painted Ladies: A Victorian Jewel
The ‘Painted Ladies’ is a colourful collection of Victorian houses nestled in the heart of San Francisco, built during the California Gold Rush era and offering a captivating glimpse into the region’s newfound wealth due to the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills during the 19th century. The houses, which have featured in numerous films and TV series, are mostly private residences, and are primarily admired from the outside but you can walk or drive by them to get a close-up view and take a photo.
There is also a small museum near the houses which offers a deeper dive into their historical context and construction. The area around the Painted Ladies, particularly Alamo Square Park, is a lovely spot to relax and enjoy the view of these iconic houses from a distance.
Little Italy: The City’s Italian Oasis
Little Italy, also known as North Beach, was established in the late 19th century by Italian immigrants and is a charming area with characterful narrow streets. Here you’ll stumble upon the city’s best pizza, pasta, cannoli and espressos at iconic trattorias and cafes.
The area also offers cultural treasures such as Saints Peter and Paul Church, where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio famously posed for photographs after their wedding in 1954.
It’s worth noting that although it’s known locally as ‘North Beach’, Little Italy is not located directly next to the beach but in fact inland from the city’s coastline – although it is within reasonable walking distance to the waterfront areas including Fisherman’s Wharf.
Union Square: Shop ‘til you Drop!
For a spot of retail therapy, head to Union Square. This vibrant plaza was named after the pro-Union rallies during the Civil War and is the city’s main shopping district with a wealth of shops and luxury boutiques such as Macy’s and Saks 5th Avenue. It’s also a hub for the city’s outdoor performances, art installations and Christmas festivities.
If shopping’s not your thing, it’s always fun to grab a coffee and sit in Union Square and simple enjoy people watching.
Mission District: A Cultural Melting Pot
Originally settled by Spanish missionaries in the late 18th century, the Mission District has transformed into a mecca for immigrants and artists and is today a captivating blend of Latinx heritage and hipster creativity. With quirky shops lining the streets and the walls filled with cool graffiti, the area is hip and understated. The Mission is renowned for its culinary scene, offering everything from mouth-watering burritos to upscale restaurants. Right in the heart of the Mission District is Dolores Park which is a popular gathering place for both locals and tourists, offering beautiful views of the city skyline, and a vibrant, diverse atmosphere that reflects the cultural richness of the Mission District with lush lawns, palm trees, and street performers.
As the sun sets, the Mission comes alive with an eclectic mix of nightlife with bars, live music venues, and various entertainment options.
Marina Triangle: Swanky Lounges and Speakeasies
Another hot spot for nightlife is the Marina Triangle which offers a distinct nightlife scene that caters to a diverse array of tastes and preferences. As night falls, the streets light up with a bustling array of bars, swanky lounges, and intimate speakeasies, each with its own unique atmosphere. For those who prefer a more relaxed evening, the area boasts numerous establishments offering cocktails, fine wines, and locally brewed beers. These venues provide the ideal setting, often with outdoor seating areas, that allow you to soak in the lively ambiance in a comfortable environment.
It’s easy to see why people leave their heart in San Francisco. It’s a city where every corner boasts a unique story, with iconic landmarks, stunning views, and a rich melting pot of cultures.
What’s more, San Francisco makes a fantastic starting point or stopover for a multi-centre holiday to the USA, where you can combine other captivating destinations across the country such as the glamour of Los Angeles, the excitement of Vegas, the wonder of Yosemite, or indeed anywhere else on your US bucket list! Our travel experts would love to craft your own multi-centre adventure, so please get in touch or check out our USA multi centre holidays page for more inspiration!
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We have recently returned from a multi centre holiday in Thailand. Everything went smoothly as planned, the hotels were all lovely. We would definitely recommend eShores and would book through them in the future. Thanks to Laura who organised the trip for us.Posted 2 weeks ago
Been using eshore for several years,always come up with requirements we need.Always happy to rearrange. Staff are very knowledgeable and we always use Leanne as our point of contact. Experts for multi centre holidays.Posted 3 weeks ago
I booked two holidays in 4 months with Dave at eshores. First one a 16 day trip around Vietnam north to south which included numerous flights and taxis. My second holiday was in October traveling around Vietnam again and Cambodia. Every hotel in both countries was spot on, every transfer went smooth with no problems. I'll Definitely use eshores again and thanks to Dave who arranged everything, a fantastic experience 👍👍Posted 3 weeks ago
Recently booked a four centre holiday to Asia. The process was straightforward and seamless. Rob, the agent who dealt with our requirements was extremely helpful and not pushy. He was very easy to talk with and seemed genuinely interested in our plans. He managed to put together exactly what we wanted and at a great price.Posted 3 weeks ago
Andy at eshores has been great, he worked hard to meet all our needs and went the extra mile for us! We're looking forward to a great Honeymoon!Posted 3 weeks ago
As always Michelle mainly but with some help from Leanne have once again booked an hopefully (as not yet travelled) amazing customised trip to America next September with our family this time.Posted 3 weeks ago
First time I have used eshores and it won't be the last. Emma was so helpful in booking my 3 centre holiday to Portugal. Really pleased with accommodation selected and the overall cost. Emma was very quick to respond with different options and I'm looking forward to our holiday next year. I highly recommend this companyPosted 4 weeks ago
We have just booked a trip to the Far East having previously used this company twice, Vietnam/Cambodia and a Road Trip in the USA. Both trips were problem free with all aspects going to plan. Easy to talk to and never pushing for a decision. A lovely company , thank you Dave for your time and assistance.Posted 4 weeks ago
We booked what appeared to be a busy holiday to South Africa and Mauritius. This consisted of five different fights and hotels with the various transfers included. Rachael organised the holiday for us and every aspect of the trip went well. Took a lot of the stress out and allowed us to have a fantastic holiday. Friendly,Professional service with professional staff. Will use them again.Posted 1 month ago
All went well on our recent NY trip booked through Matt at EShores. Worth noting: -Newark Airport and Train Station great with transfers on the NYP Train (about 1 hour) to and from Penn Station/Airport Terminal (easy!) -Sanctuary Hotel great location and staff! Room and breakfast spot on. -Brooklyn Bridge walk back great, 1 stop over on subway as suggested. -United Airlines great - direct to and from Edinburgh! Recommended -weather spot on, temperatures just like here. Thanks for all your help and advice. Julie and Georgia (21st birthday girl!)Posted 1 month ago