My first memories of San Francisco are of Bay views and Victorian homes decked out in mismatched colors. It’s no accident, I imagine, as these represent the city’s natural beauty, vintage elegance, and still-lingering oddball personality.
After years spent scouring for the city’s most obscure corners, I’ve come to appreciate how the tourist attractions reflect those same qualities—and make excellent first impressions. Old-timers still hawk Dungeness crab from the kitschy waterfront; lovely Lombard Street is as crooked as ever; the Golden Gate Bridge stands in art deco glory; and Alcatraz is a windswept menace. If you’re a first-time visitor, see the tourist-circuit heavyweights, check out a hidden gem or two, and you’ll likely leave your heart in San Francisco.
Fog and chills often roll in on a dime—always carry a jacket.
If you only have time for one thing, make it the Golden Gate Bridge.
Back on firm ground, stay on the city’s north end, and check out the Palace of Fine Arts. Pass through Fort Mason to Aquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf—it’s roughly an hour on foot and a nice bike ride. From there, you have a choice: Take a cable car to Market Street, or visit North Beach and Chinatown, two of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, for an early dinner.
Your second day is for visiting an island—or two. Grab breakfast at the Ferry Building before boarding the F Market heritage streetcar toward Fisherman’s Wharf. Hop off at Pier 33, where ferries depart for Alcatraz every 30–40 minutes in the high season.
Whether you’re visiting Alcatraz on a tour or on your own, give yourself at least 3–4 hours including the round-trip ferry ride. For full-day outings, visit Angel Island instead. You can easily see the historic buildings, hike or bike perimeter trails, and grab a bite by the water in a single day.
In the afternoon, take the same F Market streetcar toward the Castro district. Explore the neighborhood’s LGBTQ scene, and peek inside the Castro Theatre if you’re able. From there, it’s a brisk walk to Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, where you’ll finish your visit in one of the city’s loveliest spots, the Conservatory of Flowers.