Our friends Mish & Rob from Making it Anywhere have been planning their first trip to San Francisco and it’s got me all excited about my favorite American city. I can’t stop talking about my favorite views and the cheapest tour ever.

But while I’ve written quite a few posts on San Fran, I don’t think I’ve really covered what I’d recommend for first-time visitors to this colorful city. I’m always saying that the touristy parts of San Fran are the worst, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit to spending an afternoon in Fisherman’s Wharf or strolling around Union Square!

Ok, maybe not Union Square.

Here are my top ten recommendations for a San Francisco newbie!

Take a Cable Car Ride

San Francisco Cable Car

The ultimate touristy activity in SF! You absolutely can’t miss it! Starting from Union Square, you rise up the ridiculously steep hills, passing cute neighborhoods along the way (remember to smile as fellow visitors take your photo on the iconic car!). As you crest over the top the bay comes into view, framed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. It’s like a slow-motion roller coster with epic views, and it’s worst the $5 cost at least once!

See the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Whether you walk over it, view it from one of the many parks, or cruise under it, you’ve absolutely got to see the most iconic of California’s many iconic views. It’s best either against a crisp blue sky or at sunset, when the orange frame glows even brighter than usual.

Go to Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf

Gird your loins for insane amounts of tourists, street performers, segway tours and that crazy guy with the bush that’s always hanging about, and head down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Walk along the stalls selling today’s fresh catch and grab chowder in a sourdough bread bowl from Boudin Bakery. When your belly is full, wander past the bread bakers towards Pier 39. Here you’ll find the famous sea lions (they stink but they’re funny) plus loads of touristy shops and restaurants. The candy store near the back is my favorite.

Before leaving the area, consider taking a harbor cruise to go underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a really cool way to get up close to the amazing architecture!

Eat Everything at the Ferry Building

EAT sign at Gott's in San Francisco

This building is beautiful, but I go here for one thing: great food! Gott’s burgers, Blue Bottle Coffee, Cowgirl Creamery, and dozens of other little shops serving macaroons, chocolate, fresh meat and other goodies. Grab some noms and head outside to enjoy the view of the other Bay Bridge. There’s also a Farmer’s Market held here three days a week!

The Mission

Mission Dolores Park View

If you’ve ever had to listen to me talk about San Francisco, you know this is really my #1 recommendation. It’s the most wonderful neighborhood in the city! The food is to die for (El Farolito! Bi-Rite! Tartine!). The parks have amazing views (see above). And the people are a wonderful, quirky mix of everyone in SF.

Visit the nearby Castro District while you’re here and soak up the history of this world-famous LGBT neighborhood.

Enjoy Golden Gate Park

California Academy of Sciences Roof

This beautiful park stretches all the way to the Pacific Ocean and houses multiple gardens, the De Young museum and the excellent California Academy of Sciences. Well worth an afternoon wander!

Grab Coffee at Philz

Philz Iced Coffee

Yes, this coffee is so excellent it deserves its own category. I love Philz so much because it shows SF in a nutshell. Cozy couches, long lines for a handcrafted masterpiece, and lots and lots of quirk.

They have locations all over the Bay Area now (though the original in the Mission will always be my favorite) so chances are there will be one where you’re staying. If not, make the trek anyway! I’m not even that in to coffee but I adore their Mint Mojito Iced Coffee.

In-N-Out

In-N-Out Burger

If you’ve never been to California before you NEED some In-N-Out. It is legendary, and those who no longer live on the West Coast, like myself, miss it dearly. It’s not so much about the meat as it is the whole package of toasted bun, special sauce, awesome fries, and Neapolitan shakes.

The simple all-American decor gives it a homey feel that everyone comes to love. And if you really want to feel like a local, order off the secret menu!

Oakland

Lake Merritt Oakland

The East Bay may not be as famous, but it’s certainly not to be overlooked on a trip to the Bay Area! Piedmont Avenue, Rockridge, and Lake Merritt are all foodie destinations in their own right. There’s also the Mountain View Cemetery with its excellent views of the bay. Berkeley is worth a stop too! Wander around its bookstores and grab a slider at Phil’s after practicing a bit of yoga. You’ll fit right in.

Wine Country

Wine Tasting

If you have time, rent a car or book a tour to go up to Napa or Sonoma for the day. The wines are excellent and the scenery is even better!

Did I miss anything? Share your SF recommendations in the comments!

  • http://www.makingitanywhere.com Mish

    Well this is pretty much the most awesome list ever! Thank you hugely – can’t wait to try it all out and report back!

    • Kit Whelan

      Haha, thanks for inspiring me to write it! Now I want to go back too!

  • http://danielmckinley.tumblr.com/ Daniel McKinley

    Having recently moved to SF from London I’d say this is a pretty good starting list, but for great coffee and views I’d recommend two more things.
    Firstly, Alamo Park is damn pretty, the abundance of painted ladies in the western addition makes it a great area to get the bus through. Hop off at the park and walk around the corner to Divisadero Street, head to a coffee shop called The Mill – you won’t regret it. Four Barrel Coffee (roasted in the mission where they have their other cafe), with Josey Baker making amazing toast. And right next door there’s a great americana-antiques store that’s worth a rummage through. From Divisadero it’s super easy to get to Japantown for an amazing dinner!
    Second, Telegraph Hill and the Coit tower is one of my favourite spots in the city. A stones throw from North-Beach proper, you’ve got the Coit Tower and its awesome views, some really great garden staircases. I recommend going to Levi’s Plaza (and if you fancy taking a few moments pop into the HQ, in the front they have a jeans museum), and going up the Greenwich St staircase to the Coit Tower. From there head back down to Montgomery and walk up it until you hit Union, there’s a boutique there called ACRE/SF that makes the best iced coffee in the city (the ice cubes are made with coffee so it doesn’t get watered down!). Then go back along Montgomery the way you came and head down the Filbert Steps and enjoy your coffee!

    • Kit Whelan

      GREAT tips Daniel! The views from Coit Tower are incredible and I know Four Barrel makes amazing coffee. Thanks for adding on to this list!

  • http://yearwithoutplastic.wordpress.com Danny

    Excellent list!

    My tips for SF: Immerse yourself in one of the most beautiful and unique cities in the world. Take lots of pictures. Bring pants and a jacket in the summer (and all the time). Wear your walking shoes.

    Here’s some of the fun things I’ve done, as a frequent tourist to the city:

    1) Spend some time in Haight Ashbury and the surrounding parks and coffee shops. Explore antiquity in the Amoeba record shop.

    2) Walk to the middle of golden gate park, then hit up the California Academy of the Sciences on a thursday night: http://www.calacademy.org/events/nightlife/.

    3) Street performers outside of Union Square are great. Take the cable car up or walk the hills. Then appreciate the cable car. Don’t get your hands or feet caught in the car. It’s a frequent source of lawsuits for the city.

    3.5) Explore the italian district (North Beach) and hit up Coit Tower. You may pass this Norweigan Church on the way. Great views.

    4) SF has one of the best China towns. Go get some grub! Japantown is also an excellent choice for lunch or dinner.

    5) Carpool with some other travelers / locals or rent a car and head out to Muir Woods. On the way there or back, definitely stop on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge and hike around.

    6) Get into some random stuff in the city at night. It’s a very colorful place. Just avoid the tenderloin at night, especially if you’re alone / wearing expensive things. This bar is amazing, especially if there’s a happenin band: http://www.swigbar.com/.

    7) Visit the Palace of Fine Arts at night when it’s lit up!

    8) Day trip to Berkelee. Here’s a nice restaurant: http://www.yelp.com/biz/jupiter-berkeley

    9) Join a tech startup

    10) Sell your tech startup

    • Kit Whelan

      Ha Love the last two :)

      Thanks for the great tips Danny, great additions here!

  • Christine

    Wonderful article. I’ve just got home from a trip out to San Francisco (never knew the west coast was so awesome being an easterner my self) So here is my two cents:
    1. Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito (about 8 miles one way starting near Fisherman’s Wharf) and there are tons of people riding, of all ages and bike experience (or inexperience). (bikes cost from 20-32$ for 24 hrs) I may be a little biased being an avid cyclist myself but by biking we had wonderful views the entire way and could stop every ten feet at our leisure for pictures on the way to the bridge (wonderful lookout point with amazing photo opportunity) on it and down on the other side over on the mostly downhill ride to Sausalito (adorable town on the other side of the bay with great restaurants and just a great vibe in general). Of course its possible to take the ferry back to SF instead of biking both ways.
    2. Muir Woods- not in SF but can easily take a 5$ shuttle from Sausalito. The bus ride is about 45 minutes through gorgeous valleys and windy mountain roads (slightly terrifying and yet thrilling for this Florida girl) up to the National Park with fantastically huge redwood trees and more miles of walking trails than any one could ever complete.
    3. Coit Tower- Gorgeous views, of all over the city. Went up there on the 4th of July to see the fireworks while avoiding the massive crowds down at Fisherman’s.
    4. North Beach for Italian food, yum.
    5. Cable car ride. Definitely a must! Instead of taking the most known and waiting in that line for the popular line, take the less crowded cable car that runs up California (starting in the financial district ending on Van Ness) different view, and it wont bring you to Fisherman’s Wharf but amazing ride none the less and still can get you where you are going.
    6. If you are in town for more than a few days and don’t have a car get a MUNI pass, good for unlimited rides on buses, cable cars and street cars for a set number of days, or else a clipper card.
    7. Jacket and pants a must even in the summer. Weird, but so is the rest of the city.
    8. Day trip to Berkely- Not just the university which is stunningly gorgeous but the town which has a vibrant small city feel (with much less hills) cheap and very good food (thanks to the university being right there) and an all around fantastic vibe.
    9. Sutro Baths and Coastal Trails- Out on the edge of SF on the coast there are the ruins of what was once a public bathhouse that never took off and miles of coastal trails on the cliffs above it that wind around until ultimately ending up at the Golden Gate bridge. I swear had to metaphorically pick my jaw up off the ground a few times from the drop dead wonderful views from every angle of cliff sides, the ocean, everything. Pleasant walk on well maintained trails.
    10. Festivals. Find one and go.

    11. The sea lions at Pier 39 go South for the summer to breed. Seriously. :/
    12. Free walking tours, if you are into that sort of thing there are a bunch of them, they usually just ask for donations or tips at the end.

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