I remember the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge. I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and my dad's cousin was showing me around. We were driving through the streets of the Russian Hill neighborhood when we peaked over a very steep hill and I saw those two big, red towers standing in all their glory. I was GIDDY. I remember this moment every time I bring friends or family to San Francisco and try to help them have the same excitement I had.
It's been almost six years since that moment and I've had the pleasure of playing San Francisco tour guide to many people. I like to tailor each tour to my audience and plan it around their preferences and must-sees. But after doing the same tourist activities over and over, there are only a handful that I still look forward to. For me, these are the top five(ish) essential stops for seeing the sights of the city, while also getting a feel for its unique culture.
1. Alcatraz Island
$38 per person | Buy tickets here
I have done the tour of Alcatraz three times and it's still one of my favorite touristy things to do. I would even say it is a "must-see". The tour takes about three hours and includes a ferry boat ride from Pier 33. The history of the island and prison is fascinating. I love the self-guided audio tour because you hear stories from actual former prisoners and guards. They also play sound effects over the narrator, like doors slamming shut and prisoners yelling during riots, so that you feel like you're really a part of the story.
Tip: Buy your tickets at least a month in advance. They almost always sell out ahead of time. Also, be sure to get to the pier at least 15 minutes before your scheduled departure time - they will leave you and you don't get to hop on the next boat. I usually like to park and go to Pier 39 before our tour. That way you can get Fisherman's Wharf over with (it's not my favorite attraction) and wander over with plenty of time.
2. The Golden Gate Bridge
I think I've made it clear that I am in love with this bridge. There are a few ways you can experience it. The first is by driving over it, taking your first exit on the right, then take a left and park at the vista point on top of the hill. Just put "Battery Spencer" into Google Maps and it'll take you there. I love this view because you can see the bridge from up high with the entire city in the background. Just a heads up that you may be sent a toll fee in the mail (about $7) if you head back over the Golden Gate Bridge at a certain time.
Another way you can view the bridge is by parking on the San Francisco side at the Golden Gate Bridge Parking Lot. You can then walk across the bridge and get a close up look. Keep in mind, it will be very windy and probably cold, so dress accordingly.
Your other option is to view the bridge from below, in the water. Well, not in the water, but from a boat. There are a number of boat cruises that you can choose from. My husband and I have done both the Blue and Gold Fleet tour where your go under the bridge, as well as a sunset catamaran cruise (wine and beer included) with Adventure Cat Sailing Charters.
Tips: I would not recommend biking across the bridge. I did this once and it's not as pleasurable as you think. You can't see the views much because you're focused on not running into people. There are also many other ways to see the bridge, like from Fort Point, Baker Beach, or Land's End.
3. San Francisco City Hall
Yes, I am biased towards visitors stopping at city hall because I was married there. But it's also a beautiful building that is a treat to see, especially from inside. If you can, visit Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. so that you can enter the building. The architecture is incredible and you get to join in the excitement as a number of couples wait to get married.
Tip: There are a number of excellent restaurants within a short walk from city hall. A few of my favorites are Brenda's French Soul Food and Absinthe.
4. Dolores Park
A true gem of San Francisco that I would not take my mother to. Mission Dolores Park is best enjoyed on a blanket with an assortment of snacks and alcoholic beverages (BYOB, they don't sell any there). No, it's not legal to openly drink in a park, but everyone does it and I have been there as police look the other way. Just don't get into a fight or be acting too crazy. This is a spot to sit amongst hipster locals and enjoy one of the best views of the city.
Tip: Try to go here on a weekday, as weekends can get somewhat crowded. There are still plenty of people relaxing on the grass, but you won't have to squeeze in between other groups on weekdays.
As a girl from Florida who ate at Olive Garden most of her young life, I do not take the variety of unique, exquisite restaurants in San Francisco for granted. There are so many options to choose from, it can be hard to pick one. My first suggestion is to not use any other website than Yelp. You can see which restaurants are highly rated, as well as scan the reviews for places that are loved by locals. Also, as a general rule, I don't eat near very touristy destinations, such as Fisherman's Wharf or Union Square. The Mission District is very popular for trendy restaurants. Some of my favorite San Francisco restaurants are El Techo (rooftop bar, sangria and tacos), Panchita's (Salvadoran pupusas), and Foreign Cinema (expensive, a real treat and cool atmosphere).
Tip: If you know your plans ahead of time, make reservations ASAP. The wait for popular restaurants can be an hour. It's worth the wait, but why not skip it if you can?
There are soooooo many other things to do in San Francisco than this short list. But I would definitely try to hit these five activities.