One of the newest travel trends, bleisure travel is combining some personal sightseeing to a business or work trip. It naturally depends on your job, schedule, and your boss, but many folks elect to take a few personal vacation days when visiting a new and exciting city for the first time. One of the most popular is San Francisco, and if you only have a few hours or days there is plenty to see and do.
Given the compact size of the city, most places can be reached by foot, cable car, or buses; making it easy to visit several sites per day – if you’re on a tight schedule. Here I’m going to show you the places you shouldn’t miss to make the most of just a few days in San Francisco.
Technically not a place, but cable cars are a sight that can’t be missed in San Francisco. In fact, these are moving National Historic Landmarks. Whether to travel to your destination or simply to take a quick ride, these iconic cable cars are a must-have experience for any tourist.
The routes are named after the streets they travel, California, Powell-Mason, and Powell-Hyde, with the latter traveling over the most diverse terrain and hills. Make sure to ride early in the morning on both Powell Street lines as they are very popular with visitors. If you plan to ride the cable cars more than once, consider buying the 1- or 3-day passport, which is valid for cable cars, buses, and the Embarcadero’s vintage streetcars.
Originally a pelican nesting ground, the island of Alcatraz later served as a 19th-century military fortress, and then as "The Rock" – the infamous maximum-security prison that held America’s most notorious criminals from 1934 to 1963 – including Al Capone and George Kelly, among many others.
Today, you can visit the prison, its cells, and its surrounding grounds while listening to an audio guide with firsthand accounts from inmates and guards who spent time there. Beyond the history, Alcatraz offers quite a stunning view of San Francisco's skyline.
Make sure to buy your tickets weeks in advance, but if you’re trying to do a last minute trip, Alcatraz offers around 50-100 last minute tickets, first come-first served. They are sold first thing in the morning; so make sure you’re standing in line around 5:00 am to grab yours. Dedicate at least three hours to the tour to make the most out of it.
The undeniable icon of San Francisco that gets destroyed in almost every Hollywood action film is this famous bridge. Built in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge stands over 80 stories above the water and serves as a threshold between the ocean and bay on either side of the Golden Gate. There’s a museum that shows a close-up view of some of the bridge sections and construction process, but if you’d like a firsthand experience on the bridge, you can either walk, bike, or drive across it. Make sure to enjoy the unique vistas all around you as you cross it!
This is the world’s ‘crookedest street,’ zigzagging with eight landscaped switchbacks in just one block! Beyond being a beautifully landscaped crooked street, this spot has served as the filming location for a few films, including Hitchcock’s "Vertigo."
San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown in the country, and it includes everything from traditional pagoda-style architecture to the modern blinking colored neon signs. As in most Chinatowns in the country, it is common to see sellers calling for your attention and offering anything from herbs to live turtles, to souvenirs. There are similar "foreign" districts worth visiting like North Beach (Little Italy) and JapanTown.
Hike uphill to the Art Deco monument atop Telegraph Hill known as Coit Tower. From here you’ll get sweeping views of most of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, as well as enjoy several murals depicting life in California.
Believe it or not, this is the most touristy area in San Francisco – with a high degree of tackiness – and while it is overcrowded and restaurants there are overpriced and underperforming, you should, at least, walk through it to get a sense of its vibe. Don’t miss listening to and seeing the sea lions near Pier 39 and even going to the Maritime National Historical Park, which is well worth a visit. Near Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 33, where you catch the ferry to Alcatraz.
For some quiet time, head to Golden Gate Park, where you’ll see beautiful gardens, including the Victorian-era Conservatory of Flowers, and the Japanese Tea Garden. Other major sights in the park are the fine arts MH de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, with its ‘living roof’ of wildflowers covering a planetarium, indoor rainforest, and thousands of live animals.
If food is your thing, then Embarcadero is a must-go for you. The landmark Ferry Building, built in 1898, now serves as a market full of artisanal foods crafted exclusively by local producers. The best time to go is around lunch. At night, you can see the Bay Bridge (the other, overshadowed bridge in San Francisco) become the world’s largest LED display – with over 25,000 lights. For the best views, go to Pier 14, just south of the Ferry Building.
There are many more places to visit in San Francisco, but by visiting these, you’ll get a good glimpse of this fascinating and dynamic city. I can assure you, by the end of your trip, you will want to come back for more.
What’s your favorite thing to do in San Francisco?
Note: Available plans and coverages may have changed since this blog was published.
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Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.
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