Last month I went to San Francisco for several days with two of my travel gal pals. Planning to meet up with my friend who lives in California, I figured it’d be a good time to visit something on her side of the country since last year she came to me when we went to Boston. I’ve always wanted to see San Francisco and luckily she wanted to go there too! To our delight, a third travel mate was able to join us from her home in Michigan which made it a very fun filled reunion in the city by the bay!
San Francisco is a cool city and I was totally in loooove with their sustainability. It made travel life so much more relaxing when many places we ate served food made with organic/sustainable ingredients on reusables or at the very least compostable materials. They even offer composting citywide which is so amazing.
The best part of traveling is sharing all the places you went to, any insight you wish you’d had going in and things you think other travelers might like to know when planning their trip. When I travel with these gals, we usually end up planing the bulk of our itinerary once we get there. For this trip there were two tours we knew right away that we wanted to do so we booked those ahead of time to ensure ourselves a spot. Everything else was mapped out the night we got in. We each came with several places we’d found to check out and any recommendations given to us. Once we start mapping everything out we have a better idea for what we most want to do, what we might have to scrap based on time & usually find other gems during the process. While there is no way to see and do everything there is to offer in a city we try to hit all the things that will allow us to get the most out of our visit without feeling super rushed.
Here is a list of what to do when in San Francisco based on our experience and recommendations received from others!
Ride in a cable car
This is a San Francisco must! You can hop on a cable car at any stop along its route, saving you the time of having to stand in line at the start. While it may mean having to wait for a couple to pass if they are full, one should arrive pretty quickly where you can squeeze in! Just make sure you have $7 cash ready to hand to the operator as you are getting on or you can buy your tickets in advance. If you think you might want to hop on and off multiple times over the course of a day (or switch lines), there is an option to get a day pass for $17.
This area is super touristy but it does have quite a few spots that make it worth going to at some point during your trip, even if just to walk around and look at the fishing boats, enjoy the view and that fresh marina smell. Should you be down for a bit more than a stroll, put these stops on your list:
Musée Mécanique (Pier 45)
This museum filled with vintage machines and arcade games definitely warrants a visit. Being the perfect blend between cool and creepy, many machines were like something out of a horror movie while there were also lots of old school games I remember from my own childhood. All are in working condition so be sure to have some quarters or bills on hand to see these machines in action or take a trip down memory lane!! You can even put your strength to the test with the arm wrestler seen in the movie, Princess Diaries.
Visit with sea lions (Pier 39)
I don’t know about you but I just love watching wild animals just doing their thang. Obviously I’m not alone as this spot is one of the most popular stopping points for visitors. Hundreds of sea lions have made themselves a home here since the area provides them protection and plentiful food supply.
Boudin Bakery (Pier 39)
The outside of this place screams tourist trap, but if you’re passing by consider taking a second to pop in. This San Francisco bakery is known for their sourdough bread all started from their original mother dough that has in existence for over 160 years which allows them to avoid commercial yeast. How crazy is that? Since this stop was on my friend’s list I didn’t realize that piece of info otherwise I might have stopped to ask the baker some questions (like how the heck does that work?!). If you go be sure to take a peek into the kitchen and see their work in action! Their other selling point is bread loaves shaped to look like various animals or holiday characters. That was probably my favorite part. Oh, and it’s quite yummy. Bonus points if you bring your own bag to take a loaf with you!
Tour Alcatraz (takes off from Pier 33)
If you can get up, go early bird style. It’s soooo much less crowded. When you get there head straight up the path to do the self guided tour. By getting there first thing and making a bee line to the prison, the closer you will be to the front of the line and there wont be as many people getting in your way as you explore and listen to the tour. It fills up quickly and the number of people was noticeably different by the end from when we started. Also, catch the “slamming of the doors” if you can! It was at 10 AM when we went.
Be sure to book your tour as soon as you know you are going to San Francisco to ensure that you’ll get a spot on the boat over there. We booked ours a month out and the night tour was already unavailable by that point.
Exploratorium on Thursday Nights (Pier 15)
Hands on learning experience for the whole family by day that turns into a club-like, science party complete with adult bevvies on Thursday nights. While I can’t speak to what it’s like during daytime hours, we sure enjoyed their After Dark event. If you like games or the idea of freely exploring the world of STEM at your leisure without those darling children getting in the way then this is for you. Even if all you’ll be drinking is water from the toilet (see below). If you do head to the cocktail line, I had luck with one of the bartender’s being down with putting wine into my mason jar. Just point out the measurements on the side of the jar. I had a separate bartender who was not as quick to accommodate my request. Part of her concern was the glass factor. After some reassuring she later agreed but only after measuring the amount with the (compostable) single use cup they were using. Since that seemed pointless, I just took their cup and used the mason for water the rest of the night. Nonetheless it still felt like a win!
If crowds aren’t your thing, I found it to be a lot quieter down towards the end of the wharf, past Pier 45. There is actually a park in that area where you could sit and have a picnic overlooking the water with historic ships, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz off in the distance.
The Buena Vista
A popular spot for Irish coffee!
This crooked street is just a short (very) uphill walk up Hyde Street from Buena Vista and Fisherman’s Wharf if you’re feeling up to the climb. The incline of this hill is almost hilarious, particularly if you start out at Buena Vista before making your ascent. If that’s not your cup of tea, you could easily catch a Lyft or ride in a cable car. There is a path that walks alongside it so you can walk from top to bottom of this famous stretch of street.
Friday Night Food & Beer Garden at Fort Mason
On Friday nights during the warmer weather months the parking lot at a former Army post fills up with food trucks for a fun outdoor event. Head to the center for beer, wine & mixed drinks. While they were using compostable products throughout the entire event, I was very excited to get beer in my jar. This was also one event where my silverware came in handy!! The vibe is super laid back with sitting areas surrounding fire pits & and live music.
If you want a coffee that looks and taste’s like a unicorn dancing on a sugar cookie rainbow then you’ve gotta head to Home! Their birthday cake latte was the prettiest cup of coffee I’ve ever had and equally as delicious. While there we also ended up getting gourmet toasts that were absolutely fantastic. Trying to not take pictures the entire time, I missed the chance to capture the most amazing open faced sandwich I’ve ever had which was avocado, arugula, and halved cherry tomatoes topped with a sprinkle of chili flake seasoning. I’m seriously salivating just thinking about it. My friend got the almond butter, banana and strawberry toast and she loved it! Apparently these two toasts are only available at the location we went to on Clement Street so make sure you hit up that one if you’re trying to snag any or all of these yummies!
Land’s End Park & Trail
Starting out overlooking the Sutro Baths, hike the beautiful, peaceful trail to Land’s End Point, which offers a wonderful, unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge. There you can also catch the Land’s End Labyrinth which itself isn’t all that much to write home about but at least you say you saw it. Getting to that spot does require walking up and down some slightly hilly sets of steps which aren’t too strenuous but there are several other overlook spots along the trail if you don’t want to walk that far.
Land’s End Park is sandwiched in between two very popular beaches: Ocean Beach, a wide beach, stretching three miles along the Pacific, and Baker Beach, which apparently has a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both apparently are great places to watch the sunset!
Redwoods & Wine Country
We spent our last day visiting these two hot spots with Best Bay Area Tours and it was pretty much the cherry on top of an already perfect vacation. Seeing the redwoods was something I’ve always wanted to do as was wine country, so by doing this tour I scratched off three things from the bucket list with one trip (SF included). We could have rented a car but then would have had to navigate the crazy steep streets of San Francisco and none of us were down with that. Plus, by having an escort taking us to these places we could partake in allll the sampling we wanted and of course just enjoy the ride! We really had fun with this tour group – our guide was the bomb and very eager to share lots of entertaining facts along our journey! For our tour we went to Muir to see the redwoods and to Sonoma Valley for wine tasting. When pulling up the link to their site I noticed they made some changes to the format now instead visiting Armstrong Redwoods, which is apparently even better than Muir!
Other things that were on our radar:
Golden Gate Park
There are ton’s of things to do while in Golden Gate Park, including a botanical garden!
California Academy of Sciences
An aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum all under one roof situated in Golden Gate Park. They also have a Thursday night adult’s only thing similar to Exploratorium that looks pretty awesome (and I’ve seen several people recommend).
This pretty stretch of Victorian style houses sits across from Alamo Square park. While this spot was used in the opening sequence for Full House, just a head’s up that the house used as the facade for the show is actually a mile up the road!
Mr. Holmes Bakehouse
A smorgasbord of sugary baked goodness.
There are a lot of trendy ice cream spots around the city but this one caught my attention with it’s churro cone.
How To Get Around
From the airport it would have taken just as long to get to our hotel by way of BART train as it would have to take a Lyft secondary to traffic, but it cost much less!! Depending where you are staying you may be able to hop on this train to get into the city then hop off at a nearby station and walk the rest of the way.
The rest of the time we either walked or took a Lyft/Uber. The cable car system is also an option and you could kill two birds with one stone by riding it to somewhere you want to go. There is also the option of street car, bus or rail! We found that whenever we got around by car it often took just as long as it would have taken to walk. By walking you not only get around in the most environmentally friendly ways possible but also get to see more of the city and really take it in. Oh and you’ll easily burn off all the food you’re going to want to eat so you can savor all the flavors of the city without any of the guilt (which you really shouldn’t have anyway).
There are sooo many more things to do in San Francisco and not just of the touristy stuff. For an insider’s look at all the best local spots check out San Francisco City Guide on Instagram – that’s how I found Home & Garden Creamery!
Hope you found this guide helpful!! Thanks for stopping by!
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