Brian and I recently visited San Francisco to celebrate our 16-year anniversary. We try to make it a point to take a trip or two just the two of us every-year. We’ve been out to California before, but we’d never visited San Francisco together. This lively, romantic and adventure filled city just seemed like the perfect destination for a four-day getaway.
We had so much fun running all over the beautiful Bay Area and really made the most of our time with our well-thought out itinerary. From iconic sites and tours to hiking and biking to drinking and snacking we really felt like we saw all the best San Francisco has to offer. I’ll save you the trouble of planning and loop you in on our awesome itinerary. Here’s how we spent our fantastic four days in San Francisco!
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After dropping our bags off at the Hilton Hotel in the financial district we headed right up Kearney Street to Telegraph Hill. Atop this historic hill is one of San Francisco’s most recognizable locations, Coit Tower. Built as an observation tower in the 1930’s this 201-foot structure offers 360° panoramic views of the city and the surrounding bay. Sights stretch from the Bay Bridge, encompassing views of the Financial District, Russian Hill, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, right up to Alcatraz. It was the perfect place to get a lay of the land and begin our adventures. While the hike up Telegraph Hill is quite steep there is an elevator inside the tower itself that takes you to the top for a fee of $9 for adults.
Nestled inside the lobby of the art-deco tower is an equally impressive historic sight. The interior of Coit Tower is filled with frescos painted by local artists in 1933 as part of the Federal Art Project set up by President Roosevelt to keep artists employed during The Great Depression. Twenty-five artists joined efforts to paint a vivid portrait of life in modern California including shopping, farming, banking, shipping and city life.
Famished from our long flight we made our way over to Fisherman’s Wharf. This world-famous district along the northern waterfront is a vibrant hub of vendors, souvenir shops and attractions including Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum, the Maritime National History Park, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
We made a bee-line to the Boudin Sourdough Factory for some lunch. We enjoyed soup and sandwiches in the casual cafe and then spent some time watching the professional bakers carefully craft batches of bread and shape and bake the dough into intricately designed animals through the 30-foot observation windows. There’s even a two-way intercom system where you can ask the bakers questions directly.
We made sure to take a quick trip upstairs to where the Bistro restaurant is located to see the small museum and learn more about the history of the bakery and catch a peak at into the bakery itself and see (and smell!) where the “Mother” dough is kept in a special vault.
Feeling satisfied from our savory sourdough lunch we made our way to the nearby Pier 45 to see the Musée Mécanique. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but believe me, it’s a great place spend a spend a few bucks. And by a few bucks I mean that’s all you will need for a fun time! This retro arcade offers a throwback to early 20th century games and mechanical oddities from self-playing pianos to fortune telling talking heads. All for the low price of QUARTERS. Admission is completely free, and the only money we spent was the handful of quarters I made sure to pack just for this museum. There are plenty of change machines on hand if you need it.
Blue and Gold Bay Cruise
We continued our orientation with San Francisco by taking a Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise. This excursion was included with the CityPASS bundle of attraction tickets we purchased prior to our trip. CityPASS is such a great value! I find it always includes the very best attractions a city has to offer into one extremely easy to use package. We simply exchanged our ticket voucher at the Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise ticket window and picked up our pocket-sized ticket book. We didn’t have to stand in line again for tickets at any of the other included attractions.
Our one-hour Bay Cruise sailed around Alcatraz Island, past Angel Island and directly underneath the Golden Gate bridge. We enjoyed the fully narrated information about local landmarks but even more impressive were the breathtaking views. I definitely recommend doing this tour in the afternoon when the skies are blue, and you can enjoy unobstructed views of the San Francisco skyline and the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.
Sea Lions at K-Dock
We could see the famous California harbor seals basking in the sun on the floating docks from our Bay Cruise but decided to get a closer look from the viewing platform at Pier 39. Last century, this cuddly bunch arrived and set up home right on the wharf.
We continued exploring the rest of the extensive Pier 39 complex. Refurbished in 1978 to resemble a quaint wooden fishing village, this 1905 cargo Pier now houses popular tourist shops and restaurants spread through two levels. There are also various street performers and amusements including a double decker carousel.
Aquarium of the Bay
Our CityPASS also included a visit to the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39. We strolled through the 300 feet of crystal-clear glass tunnels for a scuba diver’s view of over 20,000 marine animals from San Francisco Bay and surrounding waters. I was amazed by all the sharks and bat rays! The Aquarium offers the unique opportunity to touch them in their “Touch the Bay” pools along with sea stars and anemones. The river otters were adorable and really seemed to enjoy their watershed habitat.
Lou’s Fish Shack
After out aquarium excursion we were hungry for some seafood. Fisherman’s Wharf is home to some of the best! We wandered the various seafood merchant’s stalls selling clams, calamari, and oysters fresh from the ocean before settling on Lou’s Fish Shack. We had a quiet table on the second floor by the window where we could people watch. I dug in to the Dungeness crab. Brian enjoyed the Pacific Mahi Tacos and their California craft beer selection.
After dinner we headed west along the waterfront to Ghiradelli Square. A beacon bayside landmark since 1862, this former chocolate factory and woolen mill is now a three-level modern shopping and restaurant complex. The square retains the famous Ghiradelli trademark clock tower and the original Ghiradelli electric roof sign but the real draw here is the decadent desserts served in the soda shop and sold in the Ghiradelli store. We polished off a hot chocolate fudge sundae and banana split made with Ghiradelli’s home-made ice-cream and topped with lashings of cream. Vintage chocolate making machinery still operates inside the shop to demonstrate the process Ghiradelli uses to make their trademark chocolates.
Wheel Fun Bike Rentals
Our second day in San Francisco began early. We took the Powell-Hyde Cable Car to Bay Street. It was just a short walk across the intersection from there to Taylor Street where Wheel Fun Bike Rentals is located. Booking our bikes ahead of time saved us money and made pick-up a cinch. We chose Wheel Fun Rentals not only because they had the best pricing available for e-bikes but because they offer a unique GPS audio guide.
Krispy Kreme Donuts
The previous evening at Ghiradelli we had seen an advertisement for their special Krispy Kreme donut. We had to check that out! After all we’d knew we’d soon be biking off all the calories! Krispy Kreme, an 80-year-old doughnut brand, plus Ghiradelli, a 165-year-old chocolate brand is truly a match made in heaven. The doughnut is filled with salted caramel filling, dipped in decadent chocolate icing, drizzled with caramel and topped with a blend of amber sugar, salt sprinkle and Ghiradelli mini chocolate chips. My mouth is watering again just thinking about it!
Our first stop was in the Marina District at the end of Yacht Road to see the Wave Organ. Created in 1986, the acoustical art piece is certainly not the prettiest sight, but that’s not the point. The installation is meant to stimulate your ears not your eyes. Sound is created as the Bay waves move in and out of organ pipes made of PVC and concrete.
Presidio – Palace of Fine Arts
From there it was on to the Presidio. Once the nation’s premier army post, the Presidio, located on the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula is now it is home to museums, restaurants, recreational paths and architectural remnants of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition. The most prominent of which is the Palace of Fine Arts. Easily one of the most beautiful historical monuments in San Francisco, we stopped by to explore the impressive structure. Originally designed to resemble a Roman ruin, it certainly took me back to Italy right there in the middle of the California coastline.
Crissy Field and Fort Point
From the Presidio we biked to Crissy Field. A tidal marsh once covered this field before it was used as a military airfield. In 2001 it was transformed into a waterfront park for recreation which now offers one of the most spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. We took the opportunity to get some photos here before continuing our trek.
Our final stop before getting on the Golden Gate Bridge was at Fort Point. Completed by the US Army in 1861, this fort was built partly to protect San Francisco Bay from any attack, and partly to defend ships carrying gold from California mines, it is the most prominent of the many fortifications that can be found along the coast and is a classic example of a pre-civil war fortress. It made it through the 1906 earthquake but was nearly demolished in the 1930’s to make way for the bridge. I’m glad it survived as it’s the perfect spot for photos at the base of the bridge.
Biking the Golden Gate Bridge
Biking over the Golden Gate Bridge itself was an unforgettable experience! Feeling the ocean wind in your face and sensing the majesty of this landmark was absolutely exhilarating. It’s an adventure that will stand out in my mind forever and easily our favorite experience in San Francisco. None of our photos really do it justice!
Brunch in Sausalito
Once we crossed the bridge, it was an easy 10-minute downhill ride into Sausalito, a quaint and charming little seaside town. We dropped our bikes off at the super convenient Sausalito Bike Return service and then made our way along the main avenue to The Barrel House for lunch. This was our favorite meal of our trip. Not only was the Eggs Benedict brunch perfection on a plate but the view we enjoyed of San Francisco and the Bay while we ate was simply spectacular.
From Sausalito we took the Golden Gate Ferry back to San Francisco. The Golden Gate Ferry drops off at the iconic Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. This place is so much more than just a transit hub! Locally-produced artisan goodies like Cowgirl Creamery cheese, and Hog Island Oyster Company make it a foodie paradise! We were still pretty stuffed from our fabulous lunch but we did try the delicious Blue Bottle Coffee and Humphrey Slocombe’s ice cream. The flavors change every day at this inventive creamery, but the “Secret Breakfast”–made with bourbon and corn flakes–is one of three things that never come off the menu. I can attest that it was the best ice-cream I’ve ever tasted in my life!
After leaving the Ferry Building we hung a right and walked along the Embarcadero to Pier 15 for a visit to the Exploratorium. Tickets to the Exploratorium were also included in our San Francisco CityPass. Since 1969 this renowned museum and global learning center has been wowing people of all ages with creative and interactive exhibits exploring science, art and human perception. We were simply amazed by all the unique hands-on displays! From the tiny microbores to the giant inflatable installations it was a feast for our senses.
Hanging another right out of the Exploratorium we continued up the Embarcadero to Pier 33 for our evening visit to Alcatraz. First, I must mention that a tour of Alcatraz isn’t a spur of the moment activity. Tickets to Alcatraz sell out months in advance with Night Tour tickets being the most difficult to come by, often selling out as soon as they go on sale 90 days before the tour date. I knew we wanted to do the Night Tour as it is substantially less crowded than the day time tours and more areas of the island are open to visitors. Furthermore, the National Park Service offers extra talks and programs exclusively in the evenings.
Initially I had no luck finding anything available from the official Alcatraz Tour site. We purchased a tour that was bundled with the Alcatraz Night Tour from a Tour company. It was expensive but 100% worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. If you use a third-party vendor like we did just make sure it is a reputable vendor like Bay City. Many tours claim to visit Alcatraz when in fact all they do is sail by it.
Alcatraz means “pelican” in Spanish, a reference to the first inhabitants of this rocky island. It’s location in the middle of the bay is both strategic and exposed to harsh ocean winds. In 1859, the US Military established a fort at Alcatraz to guard the Bay. In 1907 it became a military prison and in 1934 it became a maximum-security federal penitentiary which it remained until 1963. Commonly called “The Rock”, Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
The award-winning audio tour included with admission is truly OUTSTANDING! I really can’t express that strongly enough. It is unlike any other audio tour we’ve ever done. Not only does it walk you step by step through the extensive prison complex you are immersed in the sounds and narratives of the island’s fascinating history from first hand accounts of the actual guards and prisoners. You truly get a sense of what it was like to be in Alcatraz prison when it was in operation. You’ll even be walked through an extensive escape attempt complete with sound effects and an exciting description of what later become known as the Battle of Alcatraz. The talks given by the National Park Rangers where also excellent and kept us enthralled. From start to finish Alcatraz was one of our favorite experiences in San Francisco!
Big Bus Tour
Included with our Alcatraz ticket package was a Big Bus Tour of San Francisco. It was just our luck that Big Bus Tours has a stop right at our Hilton hotel. It made it a breeze to hop aboard to begin our third day of exploring San Francisco from yet another angle.
The unique thing about the city of San Francisco is that is comprised of around three dozen districts (or neighborhoods) and each has its own vibe, culture, and charm. The Big Bus tour was a great way to see some of the Districts we didn’t otherwise plan to spend a lot of time in on this trip. We were able to take in everything from Union Square and Little Italy to the Castro and Civic Center and even the not so appealing Tenderloin district.
Golden Gate Park
Having made almost a complete circuit we hopped off the bus at Golden Gate Park. A masterpiece of landscape gardening created in the 1890’s out of a sandy wasteland the park today is one of the largest urban parks in the world. The immense park stretches over 1000 acres from the Pacific Ocean to the center of San Francisco, forming an oasis of greenery and calm amid the bustling city beyond.
Among the many attractions of the park are meandering paths, sports facilities, lakes, botanical gardens and major museums. The park is even home to a herd of bison. There’s so much to do within Golden Gate Park we could have spent our entire four days here and still had plenty to see but we decided to focus on a few of the highlights.
California Academy of Sciences
We used our handy CityPASS tickets once again to visit the California Academy of Sciences which sits on one side of the main concourse facing the De Young Museum of Fine Arts. CalAcademy (as it’s called for short) has been located within Golden Gate park since 1916 but settled into its new state of the art building in 2008. It houses the Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium, and the Kimbrall Natural History Museum. The living roof which is accessible from a rooftop deck is filled with native plant species and designed to make the museum blend in with the surrounding parkland. We were wowed by the four story Rainforest Dome that took us on a vertical journey through four different rain-forest habitats complete with free flying birds and butterflies. The giant Tyrannosaurus in the atrium is also amazing!
Japanese Tea Garden
Crossing the main concourse again we headed to the exquisite Japanese Tea Garden. Here picturesque paths wind through the carefully manicured Japanese trees, shrubs and flowers. Built for the California Midwinter Fair of 1894, the garden transports you to this day, to another land. The koi fish pond and pagodas are beautiful and seem to almost have been painted into the landscape. The steeply arched Moon Bridge was a marvel as well, forming a dramatic circular reflection in the pond below.
Passing the exquisite Conservatory of Flowers, we made our way to the bottom of Golden Gate Park and onto the streets of “The Haight.” The corner of Haight and Ashbury streets was the nexus of hippie culture and the beating heart of the psychedelic “flower power” in the 1960’s. Once home to Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead it is now one of the liveliest and most unconventional places in San Francisco, with an eclectic mix of people, cafes, vintage clothing boutiques and record stores, like the landmark Amoeba Records.
Cable Car Museum
From Haight-Ashbury we caught a Lyft to the Cable Car Museum. This free museum is actually the powerhouse of the cable-car system. Anchored to the ground are engines and wheels that wind the cables through the system of channels and pulleys that run beneath the streets of San Francisco. It was fascinating to observe them from the mezzanine level and then walk down-stairs to see them in action under the street. The museum also houses several early cable cars and mechanisms that control the cars –the last of its kind in the world.
We hopped on the Cable Cars yet again and headed over to China Town. Cable cars run down two sides of Chinatown and are an essential part of the area’s bustling atmosphere. This densely populated neighborhood with its colorful facades, teeming markets, temples, theaters, restaurants and stores is “a city” within a city. In fact, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese communty outside the country of Asia and the oldest in the United States. Chinatown actually attracts more tourists than the Golden Gate Bridge. We made sure to hit the top tourist sites like the Dragon Gate at Bush Street and Grant Avenue but we also took our time wandering down Stockton Street through the many markets, herbalist shops, tea stores and alleyways.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
In one such alleyway we found the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. The fortune cookie is actually a San Francisco invention! This shoe-box of a space, in operation on Ross Alley since 1962 is one of the last places in the United States where they are still made by hand. We watched as workers removed hot flattened cookies off the griddle press, placed a fortune inside, then deftly folded it into the traditional fortune cookie shape. It was fascinating how meticulous the workers were. Any tiny imperfection in the spherical discs caused them to be tossed into the “reject” pile. We bought a huge bag of these delicious fortune-less “rejects” for the bargain price of $4.50 and brought another bag of cookies that fulfilled their fortune cookie fate to bring home for our family.
Dim Sum Dinner
We continued our culinary explorations by checking out several of the bakeries dotting Chinatown selling traditional Chinese pastries and egg tarts. Then it was time for a Dim Sum dinner. Dim Sum is traditionally more of a brunch meal but there are many places in Chinatown that offer selections of delicious dumplings and pork buns into the evening hours for tourists like us. We dined at the Hang Ah Tea Room tucked into yet another quiet alley way. They claimed to be the first Dim Sum restaurant in the United States.
Since San Francisco has one of the best public transportation systems in the world there really isn’t a need to have a car when in the city. Plus, parking overnight can be crazy expensive. We opted to rent a car for just one day so we could head out to Muir Woods in a fraction of the time that it takes to use the shuttle service and then just return it at the airport before flying home. We started our fourth and final full day by picking up our rental car at a garage on Bush Street. The process could not have been easier and soon we were on headed toward the Marin Headlands.
Muir Woods Woods National Monument was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, making it one of the earliest national monuments in the country. It’s only 30 minutes away from San Francisco, but transports you to another time and place. For that same reason, it’s also a very popular park, famously crowded with incredibly limited parking. To curb this problem the park service instituted a reservation system in January of 2018. This is brilliant! We made sure to beat the crowds coming in on shuttles by visiting on a weekday in the early morning. I made our parking space reservation and purchased our park entry tickets together on-line ahead of time, selecting an entry time of 9:00 AM.
We further avoided the crowds by taking the road less traveled. We hiked the Canopy View Trail which climbs up the canyon wall through thick sections of tall, straight, young redwoods. This trail actually leaves Muir Woods National Monument and enters Mt. Tamalpais State Park. It descends pretty steeply and we found ourselves feeling thankful not to have hiked it going in the opposite direction. After a couple miles the trail loops back and eventually connects with the Redwood Creek Trail –the main trail in the National monument.
One of the few remaining strands of first-growth coast redwoods, the woods are named for John Muir, a 19th century naturalist who was the first to persuade Americans of the need for conservation. Most of the old growth redwoods here are between 600-800 years old, and the oldest is about 1200 years old. Rising around 120 meters, these trees are truly ridiculously high and breathtakingly beautiful! My favorite section was the Cathedral Grove where the trees tower toward the heavens like sky scrapers. Redwood Creek bubbles out of Muir Woods and makes its way down to the sea at Muir Beach. We stopped by to take a look at this wide expanse of sand.
Lunch in Sausalito
We stopped in Sausalito on our way back again for lunch. This time we dined at The Napa Valley Burger Company. The large selection of burgers and an even larger selection of beers were the perfect post-hike meal!
We continued our earnest research into Bay Area ice-creams with a stop in to Lappert’s Ice Cream. A family-run chain of ice cream (and gourmet coffee) stores. The flavours will whisk you off to far-off places like Manila Mango and Mexican chocolate cinnamon swirl.
After making our way back across the Golden Gate bridge into San Francisco we decided to make full use of our rental car for the day and do the drive down Lombard Street. Running across the tip of the peninsula, Lombard Street is famous for the short, steep section on Russian Hill. Known as the “crookedest street in the world” it stretches for only one block between Hyde and Leavenworth streets yet has eight hairpin turns. The street was originally straight but the grade is so steep that developers had to make it curvy in order to drive down safely. During the summer weekends they close it off to through traffic so we were glad to be there on a weekday when we could drive down. In fact we went ahead and did it twice!
From iconic Lombard Street we headed to Alamo Square for another post card worthy vista. The grassy area here on the eastern side of Alamo square provides the perfect vantage point to view the Painted Ladies. Any Full House fan will surely recognize them right away from the opening credits or anyone who grew up in the 90’s watching Mrs. Doubfire. This set of six “Queen Anne-style” houses, built between 1895, are all painted in all different pastel colors, boast beautiful porches, and are between two to three stories high. So many grand old Victorian houses line the streets in this area that it has been declared a historic district.
Next we made our way to the Mission District or simply, “The Mission” as it’s referred to by the locals. Before the dot-com boom the Mission was the last ungentrified central San Francisco neighborhood. Historically the heart of the city’s Latino community, the area known for its bright eye-catching and thought-provoking murals.
Every bit of wall on Balmy Street is covered by gorgeous artwork that speaks to local issues, human rights, and gentrification.
There are vibrant murals around every corner! We encountered many more as we explored the area’s bakeries and eclectic shops.
We headed up to El Techo de Lolinda for some drinks. Rooftop bars aren’t all that common in San Francisco, which makes El Techo special. The heat lamps kept us warm while enjoying cocktails and the panoramic views of the city.
Of course, we absolutely had to get a mission burrito – a large burrito bursting with rice, beans and tender grilled meat and fresh fillings nestled inside a soft flour tortilla. There are loads of choices in this area, but we hit up a local favorite called Taqueria El Farolito. Cheap and delicious the carne asada “Super Burrito” was as big as my arm. I was glad we decided to share one between us along with some Modelo beer and Mango flavored Mexican Soda.
Our last stop for the day was a bit of a bust. We’d heard that the best view of the Bay Area sunset was from the top of Twin Peaks. Unfortunelty we really couldn’t see anything from the top as San Fransisco’s notoriously intense fog was in full force up there. Did you know that San Franciscans even have a name for the fog? It’s Karl! With such an amazing trip we could hardly complain about this little run in with Karl!
Cable Cars and Street Cars
Finally, I mentioned several times throughout our 4 days in San Francsisco that we rode the famous Cable Cars. These moving landmarks are iconic, unique and insanely fun! What a thrill it was to hang off the side of these historic cars as they clattered up and down the hills, bells ringing.
One of the best parts of our San Francisco CityPass tickets was that they included a 3-day UNLIMITED pass to ride ANY San Fransisco Municipal Transportation. When you consider that a single one-way ride on the Cable Cars is $7 per person or a 3 day pass is $33 you really start to see what a great value the CityPASS package is.
My top tip here is to completely skip the endless line at the stop on Hyde Street where the line begins/ends just below Ghirardelli Square. Instead, head to ANY other stop and just hop on. I can’t for the life of me figure out why people wait in the hours long lines instead of just walking to another stop. For an even less crowded experience take the California line! There were several times where we had these cable cars completely to ourselves!
Also worth checking out are San Francisco’s historic streetcars that roll along the Embarcadero on the F Market & Wharves line. The street cars are SUPER fun and a fast way to get from one end of the piers to the other. The historic streetcars are also included in the San Francisco CityPASS Municipal Pass along with all regular buses and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains.
San Francisco CityPASS is valid for 9 days starting with the first day of use, giving you plenty of time to see the best of San Francisco, and take the best memories home with you. We sure did!
Have you been to San Francisco before? What are your favorite things to do?
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