San Francisco is a city like no other. Visitors flock there to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the impossibly steep streets lined with elaborate Victorian homes.
San Francisco is more than just its looks—it’s often called the birthplace of American counterculture, and the city has long been a haven for artists, activists, and other forward-thinkers. These attitudes saturate the city streets, and it’s San Francisco’s vibe more than anything else that captivates visitors and locals alike.
Learn from the Locals
There’s no shortage of things to see and do in San Francisco, and deciding where to go first can be overwhelming. Why not let the experts make the tough choices for you? Taking a walking tour is a great way to shrug off the stress of planning and get an intimate portrait of a new city. A themed tour adds pizzazz to an activity that might otherwise remind you of a dreary school field trip. We loved the ghost tour by Wild SF. Our guide was quite the character, and she walked us through places where grisly crimes have taken place—and where spirits may still visit today. If ghosts give you the heebie-jeebies, there are also tours that focus on the city’s culinary scene or its history of radical social movements. A tour of Alcatraz is a San Francisco must-do. This notorious former federal prison was home to the likes of Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, but its history spans much more than that. The first American fort on the West Coast was built on Alcatraz Island in the late 19th century. The complex later became a military prison, then a federal penitentiary. In 1969, after the prison had closed, Native American activists occupied the island to peacefully protest the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. In addition to its rich history, Alcatraz Island is also home to bird colonies and spectacular bay views. More adventurous visitors can take a night-time tour of the site.
Don’t Hate the Haight
The Haight was hippie haven in the 1960s, and much of its Summer-of-Love spirit lives on today. You’ll find plenty of vintage shops and record stores near the corner of Haight and Ashbury and along lower Haight Street.
The funky Love on Haight boutique is the place to get your tie-dye fix. When hunger struck us, we grabbed a bite at Burger Urge. Try to see if you can name all the local musical icons on their mural. Hint: the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jimmy Hendrix have all called this neighbourhood home. If the pervasive smell of incense gets to be too much, head over to Golden Gate Park for some fresh air. The colossal green space houses museums, a botanical garden, and a golf course. You’ll even find a heard of bison grazing here! The park stretches from Hippie Hill, where young people converge around drum circles and plates of pot brownies, all the way to a sandy beach on the Pacific Ocean.
OUR TOP TIPS
If catching a cable car from California Street and Van Ness Avenue is on your must-do list, be sure to get there before 11 a.m. Otherwise, traffic may add two hours to your route!
Pack clothing for all seasons, and wear light layers. San Francisco can experience extreme changes in weather from hour to hour, and from neighborhood to neighborhood. The city’s fog, which locals have affectionately nicknamed Carl, is bound to strike at some point, so bring a waterproof jacket.
Lombard Street is famous for its eight hairpin turns squeezed into a single block. It’s known as the “crookedest street in the world” and it can draw thousands of visitors in a single day. If you want to cruise this crooked street yourself, do so at night when there’s no traffic.
Frolic at Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is another great place to spend an afternoon. The neighborhood dates back to the mid-19th century, when fisherman flooded into the city to meet the demand created by the gold rush. Check out the marine terminal at Pier 41 to see the remnants of the old rail yard where ships used to dock and be unloaded onto rail cars. The area is now a thriving tourist destination, but there are still several active fishing operations. Visit one of the area’s many family-owned seafood joints to sample the catch of the day; the most famous local eats include Dungeness crab and clam chowder served in a bowl of sourdough bread. Speaking of sourdough,
Fisherman’s Wharf is home to the iconic Boudin bakery, which boasts the title of San Francisco’s oldest continually operating business. In fact, they bake their bread using the same mother dough they’ve been using since the gold-mining days. They claim that the perfect loaf can only be produced in San Francisco’s foggy climate. The bakery features a museum and an observation window so that you can watch the bread-making process. Budding bakers can also ask the pros questions through an intercom. We loved seeing bread baked into animal shapes, including crabs and lobsters. After you’ve fuelled up on carbs, you should have plenty of energy to explore the rest of the Wharf. Maritime history buffs shouldn’t miss the USS Pampanito, a WWII-era submarine that is now a museum moored at Pier 45. The vessel still flies a broom from her mast to signify that she made a “clean sweep” of enemy seas. Or, if you’d rather take some time to digest your seafood and sourdough, you can always flop down beside the lazy sea lion colony at Pier 39.
PHOTOS BY: CHRIS V. LINTON (@CHRISVLINTON)