Ask the average person (American or not) to name 5 cities in the US that they'd like to visit, and I can almost guarantee that San Francisco will feature on the list.
And rightly so with icons like the Golden Gate Bridge, neighborhoods full of character and a tie to hip tech startups and the people employed by them, it's no surprise that San Francisco remains a popular tourist destination.
Even though many travelers avoid what most of us call tourist traps, there are some touristy things that you shouldn't skip in San Francisco including these personal favorites.
Cable cars are a San Francisco icon and should be at the top of your to-do list. With only three lines still in operation in the city, these historic cars are not to be missed. Hop on the Powell-Hyde or Powell-Mason line at the turntable station at the corner of Powell and Market streets near Union Square for a fun ride up and down San Francisco's hilly streets.
You can take the cable cars to Fisherman's Wharf, which is San Francisco's historical port district located along the northern waterfront area of the city. Here you can enjoy some fresh seafood and sourdough bread, visit the Musee Mecanique (a free museum filled with old penny arcade games), and get up close to the resident sea lions at Pier 39. Fisherman's Wharf IS very touristy, but is still worth seeing at least once.
No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a trip across the city's iconic bridge. You can drive across, walk across, or bike across. I would suggest biking, simply because it means you can stop along the way, yet it's much quicker than walking (remember, the bridge is more than a mile long). If you want to bike the easy way, consider a tour with the Electric Tour Company, which will put you on an electric-assist bike.
San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia and there is a lot to discover in this colorful neighborhood. Wander the streets here, and it's easy to forget that you're in the US at all. You'll see plenty of Chinese markets and food stands, along with shops and restaurants. And you won't hear a whole lot of English spoken. Be sure to find Ross Alley hidden down it is the tiny Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
Block off a day of your trip to take a tour of Alcatraz, San Francisco's famous prison island. Operated today by the National Park Service, Alcatraz over the years has served as everything from a lighthouse to a military fortification, to a federal prison from 1933-1963. Now, The Rock is a major tourist attraction. Head over to hear tales of its prisoners and escape attempts, and also wander through gardens and learn about the families that actually lived on the island.
One of the most famous postcard images of San Francisco is of the Painted Ladies a row of pastel-colored Victorian homes along one side of Alamo Square Park. This spot has been featured in countless movies and TV shows (including in the intro to Full House), and is therefore a popular draw most bus tours of the city will stop here. Walk to the far side of the park for a great view of the Painted Ladies with the city in the background.
San Francisco has tons of worthy neighborhoods to visit (the Mission with its murals, the Castro with its colorful vibe, and North Beach with its Italian influence come to mind), but if you're only going to visit one district other than Chinatown, make it the Haight. In the 60s and 70s, the Haight was the center of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in San Francisco. Today, the neighborhood still retains its bohemian vibe, with lots of funky shops to explore.
What other touristy must-dos in San Francisco would you add to this list?
Note: Available plans and coverages may have changed since this blog was published.
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Graduate student by day and avid traveler and blogger by night (and on weekends and during holidays), Amanda is just a small-town Ohio girl trying to balance a "normal" life with a desire to discover the world beyond her Midwest bubble. Amanda's adventurous nature and inability to say "no" have led her to some pretty amazing adventures all around the world. But she has no desire to stop exploring anytime soon. Read Amanda's blog, A Dangerous Business, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus.
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