San Francisco, The City by the Bay or Frisco for those who know it well, is without a doubt the Frenchiest city in the United States. Seductive, tolerant, open to the world and to the Pacific, alternative, San Francisco is a city on a human scale that can be visited in a few days.

Discovering the neighborhoods of San Francisco is a magical moment: between organic markets, vintage stores and cultural and artistic curiosities, San Francisco is a city apart on the American continent, less flashy than its neighbor Los Angeles, freer, independent and resolutely modern on the changes of our contemporary societies.

Come on, I’ll tell you more about what to see for a first visit in this singular city.

1. Get a bird’s eye view from the hills of Twin Peaks

The best thing to do upon arrival in an unfamiliar city is to understand its topography and for that nothing is better than to take the height.

The two easiest hills to see the extent of San Francisco are the Twin Peaks which rise to 305 meters. At this height, the 360 degree view encompasses the Golden Gate Bridge to the Castro district.

Next, I can’t recommend going to Bernal Heights in the south of the Mission District, a secret spot known to the locals. After strolling through the park and the quiet little streets of the neighborhood, the hill opens up to the city, an opportunity to see San Francisco differently.

2. Visit Alcatraz, the legendary prison island

Who has never heard of Alcatraz, where famous bandits were held prisoner? Closed in 1963 by Robert Kennedy, the island is now a national park protected by the American government. Dozens of volunteers maintain the flower gardens, a favorite refuge for birds that like to come and nest. Inside, I have the feeling that everything has remained in place and we discover how the daily life of the prison was organized.

From San Francisco, it takes 20 minutes by boat to get to Alcatraz. Along the way, signs tell the story of the only possibly successful escape of three men, since their bodies were never found, who in 1962 fled on a makeshift raft after digging out the wall of their cell.

3. Admire the Golden Gate Bridge from every angle

Absolute icon, the Golden Gate is the most photographed monument of the city. An art deco bridge built in 1933, it spans the bay and connects San Francisco to Sausalito located on the southern tip of the peninsula.

Traditionally of orange color, because it allows to distinguish objects from their environment, this tint perfectly matches the blue of the sky and the ocean; orange being on the spectrum of colors its perfect complement.

To admire the bridge, I recommend you to go to Battery Lancaster known as South Vista Point and to visit the monument, the meeting point is the Golden Gate Welcome Center.

things you must do on your first visit to San Francisco

View on the Golden Gate in SF

4. Walk in Golden Gate Park

A green oasis, Golden Gate Park, larger than New York’s Central Park, is a lung open to the ocean. This space gathers leisure and cultural activities with the De Young Museum exhibiting paintings by Hopper or Abbott.

Further on, the conservatory of flowers is nestled inside an imposing Victorian greenhouse, one of the largest in the world. As for the park, it spreads out over 40 hectares to stroll, do sports, picnic or meditate under the pagoda of the Japanese tea garden.

5. Get educated at the Academy of Sciences

Located in Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences, designed by Renzo Piano, is an architectural and ecological marvel with a green roof and 60,000 photovoltaic cells that produce its own electricity.

Inside, visitors will discover an aquarium with 900 unique species and nearly 40,000 live animals, all housed in larger-than-life ecosystem reconstructions. The planetarium takes place under a 22-meter dome in which the visitor observes the cosmos up to the most distant galaxies. Finally, the artificial tropical forest includes more than 1600 plants.

6. Enjoy clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf, although very touristy, is the old center for bringing fresh fish throughout the city. It is on this wharf that one takes a boat to discover the bay and visit the former prison island of Alcatraz.

To taste the famous clam chowder, you have to go to Ghirardelli Square and order this traditional and hearty dish made of potatoes and cream, all served in a French loaf of bread. And I’m pretty sure it’s absolutely delicious.

Also read San Francisco Citypass: Wow awesome to have had this pass on my weekend!

7. Climb the hills in a cable car

Since 1873, San Francisco’s streetcars have allowed residents to climb the hills without getting tired. If nowadays only 3 lines remain, Powell-Mason line 59, Powell-Hyde line 60 and California Street line 61, the Cable Car remains a picturesque way to visit the city.

Closer to a ski lift thanks to the cable traction than to a modern tramway, these lines are operated by a gripman in charge of driving the machine and a ticket collector. The single trip costs about 7 dollars, so I think it is better to buy a CityPass for 1, 3 or 7 days to enjoy the Cable Cars in unlimited.

things you must do on your first visit to San Francisco 2

modern tramway in San Francisco

8. Drive down Lombard Street

With a 27-degree drop, Lombard Street is the most winding street on the continent thanks to eight hairpin turns that wind through flower beds. But the streets of Frisco would probably be less famous without the success of the 1969 Oscar-winning movie Bullitt. I guarantee you that the chase undertaken by Steve McQueen to protect a witness at the wheel of his green Mustang has remained in the history of cinema. Caught in Bernal Heights, the two cars pass through Potrero Hill, Russian Hill before going down Taylor Street and finding Alcatraz in their sights.

Then they head for the Golden Gate, which the film’s production was forbidden to enter before the gangster’s Dodge Charger ends up exploding in a gas station.

9. Stroll in Chinatown

The largest Chinatown outside of China, Chinatown was completely rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. More real than real, I can confirm that you can believe you are in an ancient city of the Middle Kingdom as the district is full of temples, apothecary stores and tea rooms.

10. Admire the Painted Ladies

If there were nearly 48,000 Victorian houses built between 1837 and 1901 in San Francisco, today only a handful, about 14,000 of these Painted Ladies still stand, especially in the Alamo, Haight Ashbury, Russian Hill and Castro neighborhoods. Built of redwood, the Victorian style is characterized by an entrance porch and three levels.

The blue house sung by Maxime Leforestier in 1972 still exists. It is located at 3841 18th Street in the Castro neighborhood. Simple in appearance and still painted blue, it was home to a community of hippies. To visit one of these houses, you have to go to The Haas-Lilienthal House which is open to the public on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays in the early afternoon.

Should you rent a car in San Francisco?

In my opinion, definitely! Whether you are on a road trip in the USA or just visiting the city for a few days, we tend to move around a lot to see as much as possible.

Taking a cab every time you visit is not the best thing: waiting time, multiple fees, impossibility to stop when you want… even if a lot of people in SF don’t have a car because here public transportation is a bit better developed than in Los Angeles or San Diego, the car is still your best way to visit this city.

When you arrive at the airport, rent a car from Enterprise, Hertz, Avis or Alamo, their reputation is well established, just compare prices.

If you have an American Express card, it may include as a benefit a car rental insurance, which could save you some insurance on the cost of your rental.

How do I get to San Francisco from anywhere ?

After choosing the period of your stay on the American West Coast, the best way to get there is to find a flight with as few stopovers as possible from the US or Europe.

For me, I recommend you to take Delta or Virgin Transatlantic, they are the 2 best airlines to go to the USA: impeccable service on board, few delays, earning Delta Skymiles Miles on your travels.

There are cheaper airlines but with so many risks:

  • Cancellation of the flight and a refund that comes weeks or months later
  • A huge delay on the initial take-off time
  • Surprise fees once at the airport: payment to check in a baggage, to eat an edge, to drink, to choose your seat… in short,
  • check the conditions of the low cost flight tickets before paying!

To compare the prices of flights to SF, I suggest you to use the world famous website !

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