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A couple of weekends ago, I had the fortune of arriving in San Francisco on the first day of nice weather the city’s seen since 2017 started. I had visited San Francisco once with my family back when I was in high school, but it’s never the same visiting a city as an adult with adult friends rather than parents. One thing I always note in the back of my mind when I travel to a new city is whether the touristy sights are indeed just that – touristy sights – and nothing more. As much as I hate feeling like I’m succumbing to tourist traps, sometimes certain sights are popular for a reason, as I discovered in San Francisco with Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Other popular sites, such as the winding Lombard Street, were overrated in my opinion and not necessarily worth the trip. Here are my top 5 things to do in San Francisco.
1. Golden Gate Bridge
As cliche as it is to talk about how amazing the Golden Gate Bridge is, it really is a sight to behold. We decided to view the bridge from Crissy Field, which I would highly recommend for a great view of the bridge and great photo opportunities. As I mentioned earlier, we were fortunate to have arrived on the first nice day in a long time, so we were able to get a clear view of the bridge. However, I have seen many photos of the bridge slightly covered in fog, and it’s a really neat look as well! If the timing works out for you and it’s a clear day, I would recommend coming here at sunrise or sunset. Just keep in mind that your view of the bridge will frequently be obstructed by fog from late afternoon until morning, so I wouldn’t bank on getting a sunrise or sunset shot on a weekend trip to San Francisco. Other places that offer great views of the bridge are Fort Mason, Fort Point, Baker Beach, and even Alcatraz on a clear day. There are also boat tours offered daily from the wharf that will give you many opportunities to take photos of the bridge.
Alcatraz sounded like the biggest tourist trap to me, but it ended up being my favorite experience in San Francisco. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Alcatraz, it is a federal prison that operated between 1933 and 1963 and was designed to house uncooperative prisoners who were causing trouble in other prisons. Some former prisoners you may have heard of before include Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who served more time at Alcatraz than any other prisoner. During the 30 or so years that the prison was in operation, 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, and five are still out there somewhere, missing. Escapes were often deadly, as some prisoners drowned while attempting to swim to San Francisco, and others were shot and killed.
We pre-booked our tour tickets online through Alcatraz Cruises and picked up our tickets at the ticket counter at Pier 33 about 15 minutes prior to departure. We were able to show our tickets on our mobile devices, so there’s no need to print anything. It is advisable to arrive 30 minutes prior to departure, and while we were not permitted to board until close to our boarding time, I would still recommend planning to arrive early to allow yourself time to pick up your tickets from the ticket window and flexibility in case you get lost on your way there.
We took the earliest tour of the day, which departed Pier 33 at 8:45am. The only way to book the 8:45am tour is by pre-booking online; otherwise, the earliest tour available departs at 9:10am. An adult ticket costs $35.50 for a day tour and $42.50 for a night tour. I would say I generally have no interest in putting myself in eerie environments (e.g. haunted houses, or Alcatraz at night), so I was more than happy to pay the cheaper fare and tour the prison during the day. You can view a complete schedule of times and prices here.
The ferry ride to Alcatraz took approximately 15 minutes. Have your cameras ready because the boat ride to Alcatraz offers some spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and of the San Francisco skyline.
Once we arrived on the island, we were briefed by a tour guide and introduced to an ex-prisoner, Bill Baker, who was promoting his book on his time in Alcatraz. While I did not purchase his book that day, I would be curious to read it at some point. I find the history behind the prison, and in particular the many escape attempts, to be fascinating.
After the brief introduction, we were given audio headsets and embarked on a self-guided audio tour of the prison facilities. I thought the audio tour was informative and did a good job of placing the visitor back in the time of each incident that occurred. Afterwards, we walked around the grounds a bit, although part of it was closed off due to construction. In total, we spent about two hours on the island.
3. Muir Woods
I typically hesitate to recommend any activity that requires a car, partly because it is an added cost that I usually deem unnecessary in a large city with public transportation, and partly because I dislike driving. However, I think a trip to San Francisco would be incomplete without a trip to the redwoods. We rented a car from the city for one day and drove up to Muir Woods, about 16 miles north of our hotel in the financial district. The drive took about 40 minutes, and the latter part of the drive consisted of winding hills that did not even remotely resemble the flat, wide roads that I’m accustomed to drive in the Midwest. I definitely felt like I was holding up traffic a bit, but if I drove any faster, I knew I would be doing it at the expense of my life.
When we arrived at Muir Woods around 9:30am, the parking lots were all full already, so we had to park on the street a distance away from the entrance to the park and walk about 5-10 minutes to the entrance. There is a $10 admissions fee to enter the park, which you’ll pay at the entrance right before you enter.
Since we weren’t planning on staying too long in the park, we thought we would just stay on the main path and hike for an hour or so before turning back. However, we ended up veering off onto the Ocean View Trail after spending just a short time on the main trail. There was a sign that said the trail was closed at the top, so we thought we’d hike up a bit and see what the view is like before the closure and then hike back down. It turned out that the entire trail was open, so we ended up hiking all the way to the end of the Ocean View Trail and hiking back down the Lost Trail and Fern Creek. You can find a full map of the trails at Muir Woods here.
If you have more than just a few hours to spend at Muir Woods, we would recommend renting an RV and taking an RV trip to Muir Woods and the surrounding areas. There are plenty of campgrounds and RV parks in San Francisco, and RVing is one of the best ways to fully take in the beautiful of San Francisco and its surroundings.
4. Lands End
Lands End is a beautiful coastal trail that ends at the beach pictured above. While we did not have the opportunity to hike the trails since we still had our car from driving up to Muir Woods, we thoroughly enjoyed the views driving along the Coastal Trail. The trails looked like mini sand dunes with paths leading through them. The views are absolutely gorgeous as the path runs along the water. In the distance, a beach volleyball tournament was just beginning, and as I sat there, I marveled at how idyllic this city is with its breathtaking views and beach volleyball tournaments in the city in the middle of winter.
5. Pier 39
There are several piers running along the north end of San Francisco, but Pier 39 was my favorite because of the crowd of seals lazying around on the deck. If you haven’t observed seals before, you should know that they are quite entertaining to watch. While the majority of the seals were sleeping or choosing not to interact, the ones that did interact with each other were pushing each other off the deck, hopping over each other to get to the other side of the platform, and floating on their backs in the water. I could’ve stayed and watched them all day.
BONUS: 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
I’m including this as a bonus mainly for those of you who I know go out of your way to visit Instagrammable places in new cities. It’s not so much a “things to do” as a “places to see and take photos.” The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps are a series of steps that have colorful designs, as pictured above. What you see above is only one segment of the stairs, and the entirety of the stairs consist of at least 5-10 of these segments. Each segment has a different color and pattern, which make for many great photo opps. I did have a hard time taking photos here without anyone in them, so I would probably recommend going earlier in the day for the best shot at having the stairs all to yourself.
Looking to explore other big cities in the U.S.? Then you might want find these posts to be useful:
- A Local’s Guide to Visiting Chicago for the First Time
- 35 Free Things to do in Chicago
- Kayaking in Chicago With REI
- Best Bars in NYC’s East Village
- Best Restaurants in NYC’s Chinatown
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Great list for the San Francisco bay area. Riding a trolley around Pier 39 should not be missed. I would also add the Palace of Fine Arts as an extra Bonus (bonus #2?), for the lovely architecture and otherworldly atmosphere.
I hadn’t heard of the Palace of Fine Arts before! Will have to check that out on my next visit to SF. Thanks for the tip! 🙂
What a walk down memory lane….We went to San Fran for our honeymoon! What a nice place. So many things to see and do. Next up will be a trip including the kids.
We travel with them now and they haven’t had a chance to see what San Fran has to offer. I think they’ll love the Muir woods!!
What a great place for a honeymoon! The kids will love Muir Woods. We only hiked for a couple of hours but you could easily spend all day there. There are so many outdoor activities there, it’s great for kids!
Love this! I saw Alcatraz from across the sea but should have stopped by. Like you, I thought it was the biggest tourist trap haha, glad you had fun though! Will def plan a visit if I ever set foot in CA again
If you have any interest in history and prisons, you’ll love Alcatraz! I felt like I got so much out of my visit there, which pleasantly surprised me. Would highly recommend it for next time you’re there!
I love love love San Francisco. One of my favorite places but since I am on the east coast, I don’t get there often. I loved Alcatraz but would love to go back and walk the landsend trail and explore Muir Woods. Thanks for the share!
Agree 100% Kelly! I wish I would have had the opportunity to walk the Lands End trail too. Just one of many reasons for me to go back!
I love visiting San Francisco. It seems I have never stayed in the city long enough to see all that I have wanted to see even after being there a handful of times. For example, I still haven’t been to Alcatraz. Should have done the same as you and pre-booked but forgot I had already learned that lesson! Definitely, will try to remember for my next visit.
Yes, definitely book Alcatraz next time you’re there! I felt like I took so much away from the audio tour, and it was much more interesting of a visit than I expected. Yes, it’s touristy, but I wouldn’t call it a tourist trap at all. Hope we both get to go back soon. 🙂
When I visit San Fran, I will definitely be going to the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz as for me, it really is something I have to do 😀 I agree though, sometimes touristy places are touristy because … well just because and they can be such a let down but it’s lovely to read that the two places top of my list are worth it in your opinion 🙂 I will have to check out Pier 39 as well, if only to see the seals hanging around! #feetdotravel
Definitely, Angie, it’s always a lovely surprised when touristy places turn out to be awesome! The seals were super entertaining to watch 🙂
SF has been on my bucket list for a while now, the bridge with the mist coming in is absolute photography goals for me! 🙂 The only thing I think I will be scared of are those steep little roads as I am so scared of steep inclines but pretty sure once I get there and see all the awesome things that will be the last thing on my mind 😛
You might not want to go to Lombard Street then, Carlinn! People go there for the steep, winding streets, but they seem like a nightmare to drive down. I will say walking around SF was a great leg/glutes workout though. 🙂
I missed the Muir Woods whilst in San Francisco. It looks just like the Planet of the Apes movie, was Ceaser there? You had a great day for photographing the bridge, I agree it looks beautiful on a clear day and a misty day.
Haha Muir Woods does kind of look like the Planet of the Apes movie. And you’re right, James, the bridge looks beautiful regardless of weather.
I have always wanted to visit San Francisco and stroll through its hilly streets while admiring glimpses of views of the Golden Bridge. Thank you for the advice regarding buying tickets for visiting Alcatraz. A friend of mine visited San Francisco last year and because he didn’t book ahead he missed this great excursion as all the tickets were already fully booked when he arrived there.
I’m sorry to hear about your friend, Joanna. We had heard that Alcatraz fills up fast, so turns out it was a great idea to book ahead online. The views in SF are incredible and you will get a free workout walking up all the hilly streets. 🙂
Great list! I’ve never been to San Francisco but I’ve always wanted to go. It seems like such a vibrant, interesting city. #feetdotravel
I always wanted to visit San Francisco because of the Golden Gate Bridge and you’re giving me even more reasons to come to the city now 🙂 Muir Woods and Lands End look amazing and I’d go to Alcatraz and Pier 39 to watch the seals too. I really like the tiled steps as well – reminds me a bit of the Selaron steps in Rio de Janeiro. Hope I will make it to the West Coast one day!
I haven’t made it to Rio de Janeiro yet but will look for the Selaron steps when I do! Hope you have the chance to visit SF soon. 🙂
The one thing we didn’t get to do on our trip to San Francisco was Muir Woods – def something for next time! I wasn’t keen on going to Alcatraz it was all my friends who had alrerady been who convinced me – and I am so glad they did! We really enjoyed it – really interesting place (though I thought it smelt of cat pee really badly!!) #feetdotravel
Haha sorry to hear about the foul smell, Tracy. I guess that just adds more to the mood though – I can’t imagine it smelled too great when all the prisoners were living in there still. Glad you enjoyed Alcatraz and were pleasantly surprised like I was!
Lovely shot of the Golden Gate bridge! Great list.. a friend said that there is a Palace of fine art worth checking out. I did not know about the prison though…thanks for sharing 🙂
Yes you will have to go to Alcatraz on your next trip to SF, if you are able to take your eyes off the Golden Gate Bridge for a minute 😉 I hadn’t heard about the Palace of Fine Arts either until someone commented about that earlier, so that may be something to check out for next time.
San Francisco is such a lovely city! I have yet to get there, but it is on my list. The Golden Gate Bridge is so iconic that I visualize photos with it in the backdrop. Alcatraz looks very creepy. I have heard so much about the treatment of inmates there that it isn’t on my list. You mention that it ended up being a highlight so just maybe I will consider it if my husband wants to see it.
Right, I understand where you’re coming from. Alcatraz is a national park now though, so you wouldn’t be giving money to the prison or supporting their poor treatment of inmates by visiting. The prison itself has been shut down since 1963. And yes, the bridge is so iconic and beautiful whether on a clear or cloudy day!
I was also really impressed with the tour of Alcatraz expecting it to be a bit cheezy. With the audio of clanging doors and clomping feet from the headsets, it was quite eery. Also the size of the solitary confinement cells. Eek!
Yea I loved the audio of clanging doors and people walking around – it really brought me back in time and made me feel like I was there while the prison was still in operation. Glad you were pleasantly surprised by the tour like I was!
Great list of things to do in San Francisco. I haven’t been to US but I would love to do it one day. I believe the bridge, the pier and Alcatraz are a must on everyone’s list while visiting San Francisco.
Thank you for sharing.
Hoping to return to San Fran, as it’s been a long time since I last visited. The Muir Woods and seals are something I will check out next time! thanks for the tips 🙂
No problem – it was my first time watching a group of seals up close, and they were surprisingly entertaining to watch. 🙂
We visited San Francisco two years ago and fell in love with the city. Next time we return, we plan to go to the Muir Woods.
We fell in love with the city as well! 🙂 If you don’t want to rent a car, you could always take a tour from the city to Muir Woods. We saw some when we were there. 🙂
I haven’t visited SF yet, but I can’t wait to go and when I do, I will be checking out these 5 places. I have pinned for future use. Thank you for sharing 🙂
Thanks, Sam! Hope you make it there soon 🙂
Ahhhhh the Redwoods are our favorite place to camp in the country. They are truly magnificent. We weren’t interested in Alcatraz on our last trip because it was out of they way, but we will have to check it out one day. Loved your pics!
I really liked San Francisco but I didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked – we also did a Chinatown tour which was right in the middle of the day and disrupted our flow a bit. I would love to go back and head to Muir Woods and Land’s End. Loved Alcatraz but visiting it at night would be amazing. Glad that Bill Baker is still around – I got his book and chatted to him a bit!
Fun stuff! There is so much to do in and around San Francisco, you can easily fill up a few days. These are good suggestions! We especially liked relaxing at Lands End. Muir Woods is a must do on our next visit. Thanks for the ideas!
Great 5 things to do in San Francisco, Cali. I have been to San Francisco numerous times but have yet to visit Alcatraz Island, Lands End and Muir Woods which I have now added to my must do list. I pinned this for later use. Thanks for sharing 🙂
I was born in the Bay Area but moved when I was still a baby. I still have to go back and do all of these things! I’m embarrassed to say but I had no idea Alcatraz was near San Francisco. Learned something new today!
Such a great list! I love San Francisco! I used to live in the bay area several years ago and try to visit as often as I can. I miss going into the city every weekend. Thanks for sharing!
The Golden Gate Bridge reminds us of full house! Thank you for the list. Muir woods look amazing.
Awesome list of things to do in San Fran, guys! I’ve been to San Francisco twice now, and I’m actually surprised that I’ve only seen the Golden Gate Bridge and gone to the Pier … two of the five things you recommended! To be honest, I always considered Alcatraz to be a tourist trap as well, so I never went. I may have to change that now (though, it sounds kinda creepy, and I’m sure Ben would insist we go for the night tour. Eeeek)!
Thanks for your suggestions! We’ll have to keep this in mind when we head back to SF and sunny California. Safe travels!
Great post – so informative! The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz are both definitely on my list so it’s nice to know they’re not just tourist traps!! I also want to go to the Muir woods now, it looks beautiful!!
Well I did 3/5 haha I’d never heard of muir woods or the costal trail I’ll have to keep them in mind if I got back! Although I’d definitely add Golden Gate park to the list so much to see in there!
We’ll have to hit up Golden Gate Park next time, Maria! Muir Woods was really cool to see and a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city!