Top 10 Worthwhile Tourist Attractions in San Francisco

2nd September 2010

10 Worthwhile San Francisco Tourist Attractions | Mighty Girl

Every few weeks, one of you sends me a note asking what to do while you’re in San Francisco. I get anxious when I don’t have time to answer in detail. Everything! You must do everything!

I’ve lived here for over a decade, and it is perfect. Perhaps you know someone who doesn’t agree that San Francisco is perfect, which is because they are deeply flawed. Come hang out here, and you’ll realize you don’t have to be friends with people like that.

While you’re in San Francisco, you should:

1. Ride a Cable Car. San Francisco has the oldest and largest running cable car system, and it’s the only place where you can still ride a manually operated cable car in street traffic. All the tourists try to board at Fisherman’s Wharf, where they wait hours for an angry, crowded, twenty-minute ride. You, on the other hand, will wait a few minutes on the corner of California and VanNess. When the car arrives, you’ll stand on the running board near the front and hang from a pole. Go ahead and hum the Rice-a-Roni theme song, we’ll indulge. Get off on the corner of California and Market, but before you do, ask to ring the bell. If you ask very nicely, most operators will let you. Ding-ding!

2. Go fishing at the Academy of Sciences. This is our newly revamped aquarium and nature center, and it’s a great place for science nerds to pass the afternoon. Settle in at the planetarium, squeeze tidal creatures in the touch tank, kiss the glass when a penguin gives you the eye, and sit very still for the Giant Grouper who has been with the Academy since the dawn of time.

3. Get a sweatshirt, and get out on the water. If you want to visit Alcatraz, you’ll need to make reservations, but the prison is fascinating and the boat ride alone is worth the ticket. If you’re a more spontaneous sort, you can take a cruise with the Blue and Gold Fleet at Pier 39, and it takes you right under the Golden Gate Bridge. If you like to hike, take the ferry over to Angel Island and explore the trails. It will be cold on the water, so bring a sweater lest you be forced to buy a San Francisco fleece — the universal signal that homeless people should hassle you until you give them a dollar.

4. Eat at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building marketplace is open all week, and you should eat everything you see there until you can no longer breathe comfortably. Try the Bluebottle coffee, the cured meats at Boccalone, a burger at Gott’s, chocolate pears at Rechiutti, the Cellophane Noodles with Dungeoness Crab at Slanted Door, anything at Boulette’s Larder — it’s hard to go wrong. If you happen to be here on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, you’ll get to experience the farmer’s market, which is among the best in the U.S.

5. Have tea at the Ritz. Tea at the Ritz Carlton Hotel is slightly cheezy, and an ideal cure for traveler’s fatigue. They have a harpist, bone china, and any number of tiny sandwiches. It’s a soothing way to pass an afternoon. If at all possible, borrow someone’s little girl so you can laugh while she twirls in her fancy dress.

6. Visit Golden Gate Park. There’s so much to do here, but here’s what you should do: Climb the moon bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden. Breathe in the steam at the Conservatory of Flowers. Take in the view from the DeYoung Museum viewing tower. Navigate the paddle boats on Stowe Lake. Brave the cement slide at the Koret Children’s Quarter park. Watch your neck.

7. Take some quarters to Musee Mechanique. This is an extensive collection of antique arcade machines. A few years ago, it moved from a magical, somewhat remote location on a cliff overlooking the sea… and relocated to Fisherman’s Wharf. Sad trombone. Many San Franciscans protested and mourned the move, and I was one of them. But! The vintage arcade machines are still amazing. Go have a look, and we’ll look the other way.

8. See the Golden Gate Bridge. Yeah, it’s gorgeous. Eat a loaf of sourdough bread while you walk across.

9. Hear the organist at the Castro Theater. This registered landmark was built in 1922, and is one of the few ’20s era movie palaces still in operation. The Castro Theater is awe-inspiring, jaw dropping, and when the Wurlitzer organ rises up from the floor, everyone cheers.

10. Have some fresh seafood at the Swan Oyster Depot. I think Rachel Ray featured this on her cheap eats show a while back, thereby guaranteeing that you’ll find a line at this tiny seafood diner. Wait in line. Take a seat on a swivel stool at the counter and enjoy a plate of oysters on ice. Grin at the suckers in line, and order another glass of white wine.

That’s it, except for a few bonus beloveds — The Tiki Room, Coit Tower, and the Exploratorium. On Monday I’ll do a locals guide, and tell you all about the places I drag my guests when they’re in town.

For now, what tourist attractions did I miss? Let us know what you’d recommend in comments.

45 thoughts on “Top 10 Worthwhile Tourist Attractions in San Francisco

  1. aaryn b.

    Visit SFMOMA (always has incredible exhibits) and make sure to run across the street to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at the Yerba Buena Gardens.

  2. Daffodil Campbell

    We had a really good time in the Haight at some yummy tapas place with pitchers of sangria. (It was near a record store, but I drank the sangria and ate the fruit and it’s all a little blurry to be honest).

    Also did Dim Sum in chinartown at Jade and we didn’t make it to Ghirardelli (is that worth it?) And the cable car museum was really interesting – you can catch the trolley right there, and go straight down to the turnabout near the Ritz (and H&M and Anthropologie but I digress). Also, Firefly in Noe Valley. And the sealions at the pier. And and and I’ll stop now. But we love SF !

  3. Tracy

    That tapas and sangria place on Haight is called Cha Cha’s I believe, and it is very fun.
    Great list. I’ve done most of it at some point in my life, but as a current resident in Santa Cruz who’s been meaning to get over to the city more, I’m going to keep it in mind for future trips.
    Looking forward to monday’s guide!

  4. LauraSt

    I always go to the fortune cookie factory in Chinatown, buy a few, then walk to the middle of Golden Gate Bridge and open them up. Fun!

  5. Meredith

    Visit the Mission Dolores and spend some time in the beautiful cemetery. Then, walk a few blocks and get a burrito for lunch. While you’re there, visit 826 Valencia and check out the Pirate Supply Store!

    Sigh. I love SF.

  6. NicoleT

    Pirate Supply Store? Exactly what do they sell there – eye patches and stuffed parrots? Hooks?

    And I am totally going to add #1 to my life list now…

  7. Alana

    Excellent timing, of couse. I am planning a trip to S.F. for an upcoming birthday celeration. It’ll be my first time in the city. I’ve always wanted to go and never made it happen – but after you posted the Big Eat list and then reading your post about Humphry Slocombe ice cream, well, it became a sealed deal in my mind and I started to plan. Figures you would also now provide me with a list of things to do that is WAY more cool than anything I’ve found doing Google searches. Can’t wait for Monday’s list too. Thank you, Maggie. You, like your city, are perfect.

  8. Allie

    Sit outside and drink whatever the daily cocktail is at the Waterbar under the Bay Bridge and eat $1 oysters during happy hour.

  9. Stacie Dong

    Musee Mechanique!!! and Sea Lions at Pier 39.

    Eat along 24th Street in the Mission (Dynamo Donut, Tortas Los Picudos, Humphrey Slocombe, Philz, etc. etc.) — or 18th Street (Tartine, Bi-Rite, Philz)

    Hike around in the Presidio

    Eat some sourdough and/or Dim Sum

  10. Jenn

    Oh Maggie thank you! Your timing is wonderful – I’ve been scanning your archives over the last couple weeks to see if I could find anything like this list. My husband and I were gifted some timeshare points that my parents couldn’t use up so we’ll be spending 4 mid-September days in your lovely city. I am so excited that you decided to publish this right now! I will eagerly await Monday’s post too.

    Um, I don’t want to push my luck but do you happen to have a Packing Light for San Francisco feature in the works?

    Well even if you don’t – you’re wonderful!

  11. Kim

    Don’t forget to drive down Lombard Street. Mission Dolores is well worth the visit. I also enjoyed walking Fisherman’s Wharf from end to end. Oh, and put Grace Cathedral on your places to see too! Eat at the Stinking Rose for everything garlic!

  12. Meg

    I always tell people to go to The Mission, eat ice cream at Bi-Rite, have lunch at Taqueria Cancun have dinner at Bar Tartine, people watch in DoloresPark, go shopping at the Pirate Store and then just browse your way up Valencia to 16th, hang a right and browse on over to Mission.

    Also: have dinner at Dosa on Fillmore, and if you’re staying a while go alllll the way out to the beach and see the camera obscura, explore the Presido, and go to the Exploratorium. And yeah, you should probably ride a cable car and walk around downtown on the hills (in which case you should go into Grace Cathedral and walk the labyrinth outside. And maybe have drinks at Top of the Mark. But there are a lot of, um, escourts at Top of the Mark these days, so it’s a little tricky.)

    Those are the kind of things I like to do on vacation because tourists make me rageful, so I can’t be around them very long. It’s like an allergy. An allergy you get when you live in New York (particularly when your boyfriend now husband lives in Times Square) too long.

  13. Stephanie

    This is a great list! We did a lot of these things for our “honeymoon in our backyard.” Which I have to say was the best idea ever. San Francisco and the greater bay area have so much to offer.

    I also can’t recommend enough splurging on a hotel or bed and breakfast in your home city. They are often just as amazing historical places as landmarks. We stayed at the Chateau Tivoli Bed and Breakfast and it was absolutely amazing. Like a museum, except one that you can sleep in, play piano in and explore on your own (especially if the nice inn keeper lets you stay a few extra minutes after everyone else has checked out to venture through the rooms). I kept looking for Narnia.

  14. Sarah

    Great list as always Maggie. Before we had our son, hubby and I had a day like that and it was awesome. We started at the Ferry building, ate a whole loaf of Acme bread, got some Miete cupcakes, and wandered for a bit. We watched the sunset past the Golden Gate from some tiny lookout near the Legion of Honor and then had drinks and danced a few songs at the Top of the Mark.

    On another visit (for a friend’s wedding) we stayed in a room at the St. Francis overlooking Union Square and had mai tais at the Tonga Room.

    We took our engagement photos at Baker Beach (a small hike from the parking lot, but wide flat sand with amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge).

    It’s an amazing city and I wish we could live there on some days. But living an hour to the south is good for now.

  15. Cindy

    I worked for this place once that sent me to San Fransisco for training. I had six hours where I got to actually roam around the city. The cable car ride was my favorite part. Favorite!

    But I also know that I have to come back for a visit. 6 hours is not enough.

  16. Nora

    This might be more of a “locals” thing, but now that I work right at the edge of Chinatown, I like to go to the Tuesday afternoon concerts at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. There’s a $10 donation, and you can spend your lunch break (or just an hour between 12:30 and 1:30) listening to live classical music in one of SF’s oldest churches. My favorite part is hearing the cable car bells sound outside while the music plays.

  17. Carolyn

    Can’t believe you didn’t mention the waterfront maritime park run by the national park service – the Balclutha is just fabulous! You can roam around the ship and there’s a short video that does an incredible job of explaining the significance of the port in relationship to the history of the city. Seriously, this is cool. And if you’re a nerd like me, you love collecting the cool National Park Service stamps. If you don’t have a park passport, just have them stamp a postcard. It’s a great way to remember your visit without spending a ton of cash. Our nephews loved collecting the stamps (Muir woods, Alcatraz, Fort Point, Crissy Field . . . ) – it was like a scavenger hunt.

    Oh, and that brings up Fort Point. How can anyone visit SF without visiting Fort Point? Seriously! The views alone are drop dead fab-u-lous. The crazy kite surfers catching a ton of air – right beneath the GGB. How cool is that?

    Okay, and Muir Woods?
    And the cable car museum? You have to go there just so you can appreciate how they work and why they were needed.

    I could go on and on, but these are tops on our list. And they’re all dirt cheap or free. How cool is that?

  18. Lora

    One of my favorite things to tell people to do is see “Beach Blanket Babylon” at Club Fugazi in North Beach. And have dinner at Capp’s Corner either before or after the show…a great evening!

  19. Sazzy

    I’m guilty as charged for sending you a note about what to do in San Francisco. Imagine my excitement when I saw this post! Thank you! I truly look forward to the locals guide on Monday.

    In addition to the above, I also recommend catching a Beach Blanket Babylon show in North Beach. It’s cheesy, but hilarious! Also of course, we can’t forget the famous crooked street. At the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, go up the hills to get a breathtaking view of the bridge and city.

    If any of you reading this live in San Francisco, please take advantage of seeing/doing everything! Go go go! I moved away from San Francisco and still have not seen half of what the awesome city offers. Every time I go back, I find my heart where I buried it, and we go exploring together!

  20. Melissa

    Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill is totally worth it. I’m a Mission devotee and therefore love Meg’s suggestions but I also really enjoy a day strolling Grant street in North Beach and chilling in Washington Square Park.

  21. Franca Bollo

    Walk from North Beach up and over Telegraph Hill, stopping for the view at Coit Tower (up in the tower or from the parking lot) and taking the Filbert Steps down on the east side, through Levi’s Plaza and across to the Embarcadero. Stop at TCHO chocolatier (for gifts to take back home, as you head south to the Ferry Building. Check out the lovely mosaics on the walls in the halls of the building.

    Stop by Greens at Fort Mason around lunch and pick up wonderful vegetarian food from their to-go counter. Then take a leisurely walk out to Crissy Field via the Marina Green. Check out the lagoon, greet the bazillion happy dogs cavorting, stop by the visitors center and end up at the Warming Hut for a cappuccino.

    Walk, walk, walk and then walk some more. My favorite way to get to know a city. And it allows you to sample all the foods without worrying about taking the extra baggage back on the plane home.

    Oh, and keep your ears open for the Telegraph Hill parrots. They show up all over the city, not just the north east side. They’re hilarious to watch if you catch sight of them in a tree … often hanging upside, always squawking. They’re the most graceless bird you’ll ever see fly, which fits their personality and adds to their charm. They snack in the loquat tree next door and argue with each other. It’s a scene worth watching.

  22. a.

    I can’t believe this comes only after my very first trip to San Francisco exactly a month ago! I can’t be too incensed, though, because I’m not sure SF would have been as high on my list of must-sees if not for my years of faithful Mighty Girl readership, to begin with. Plus, I did most of these things, and thus feel I earned a gold star. I want to go back, though, and get to the park/exploratorium.

    If you’re walking Telegraph Hill, be sure to pause near the stone wall along the path very near the top by Coit Tower to look at the little gnome dioramas someone has built into the wall! I felt like I won the lottery when I noticed those.

  23. Bridie

    Wow, Maggie. I’ve just added: “Do Mighty Girl’s top ten tour of San Francisco” to my life list.

  24. Suzy

    Don’t forget to bring cash to Swan’s – they don’t take credit cards. Get there early (before 11:30 am) for shorter lines.

    San Francisco’s cable cars are the only moving national historic monument.

    If you can, try the Alcatraz at night tour – breathtaking sunset views and an extra layer of eeriness.

  25. BeckyC

    Ooh! Yes! I got back just about a month ago and am only now processing my photos (and memories). I’d add:
    . Ice cream sandwich at the Hayes Valley Miette with locally-made, organic ice cream and home-made graham crackers.
    . Second on the Ferry Building on market days.
    . Muir Woods. I’m now a big tree hugger! I hug big trees! But, only the trees you are allowed to hug – stay on the path.
    . Dim Sum for breakfast at Golden Mountain on Washington.
    . Camera Obscura at Cliff House. $3 admission, a little informative speech form the nice man in the booth, and an awesome piece of amazing photographic history.

  26. Lisa

    My husband and I were just talking about what we would do if we took our son (age 11) to SF. We’re both originally from CA but live north of Seattle now.

    My absolute favorite museum in SF is the one at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. We’d take Matt to the Cliffhouse for a meal and wander around the Sutro Baths. And we came up with a lot of the things you and your other commenters mentioned too.

  27. Lisa

    And I have to say, I also particularly love the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. The husband and I almost got married there, but then decided we’d prefer to treat ourselves to a fabulous Maui honeymoon, so we had our wedding in a barn in Davis instead. :)

  28. Vicki

    We can’t go to SF without stopping by Golden Boys pizza on Green St for the most amazing pizza by the slice.

  29. Kathy

    Great list Maggie! Only in part because this is exactly what I used to recommend to visitors, and I loved everything on this list and visited it regularly (everything that existed when I still lived there in ’98). I share your pain/shame that the Musee Mechanique is still at Fisherman’s Wharf. I thought it was to move back after the Cliff House was remodeled…. anyway, I agree wholeheartedly, and only must take issue with the comment(s) about Lombard Street. Walk it if you must, I say, but the city’s REAL crookedest street is Vermont between 20th and 22nd streets, the east side of Potrero Hill. You must have access to a car, of course, but the view is not to be believed. Thanks for your work.

  30. Nora

    I second Carolyn’s suggestion of the Hyde St. Pier (the maritime park with the ships you can climb around on). It’s a nice walk from Fort Point, too — pretty and just hilly enough for some great views.

    Also, I think my neighborhood (the Lower Haight) is the best in SF. Sure, the top part of Haight has all the hippy shops and the homeless teenagers, but my end has Rosamunde Sausage Grill and beer at Toronado. We win.

  31. norm

    Exploratorium! It’s fun for everyone, not just teh kids. And *unlike* the Cal. Academy of Sciences, they belong to an organization with reciprocal membership agreements, so if you’re visiting and you bring the membership card from your home natural history museum / science museum you may be able to get in without paying a dime.

  32. Leah

    I’m not a local, but I did have one fantastic visit ten years ago (gasp — that long?) on spring break my senior year of high school. Things I loved:

    1. Archery at Golden Gate Park. There was some place within walking distance of the park (so, within a mile? I walk a lot and did so even then) that will rent bows and arrows. Go have some archery practice. Really!

    2. Russian food. There’s a Russian district of town with a big church and yummy, yummy food. We stopped in a bakery and brought piroshkis. Note that this area is really Russian but you should be fine speaking English. My brother was in DLI (Defense Language Institute) in Monterey at the time.

    3. Another vote for the exploratorium. Fun times!

  33. Lisa

    Maggie, I would just like to mention that you saying “Sad trombone.” in response to Musee Mechanique’s relocation is STILL making me laugh. It’s just so appropriate! I can HEAR the sad trombone! So now it pops into my head when something disappointing happens. Amy Sedaris is coming to talk at Herbst Theater and somehow everyone else knew already and it’s already sold out?? Sad trombone.

    So thank you for that. :)

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