Top Attractions in San Francisco
Northern California‘s best-known metropolis was once known as the “City of Flags” — a fitting moniker given the diversity of people who make up San Francisco’s population. All those different cultures have swirled together to create a unique cosmopolitan experience, with everything from streetcar rides to Chinatown parades. Even the city’s darkest historical corners, including Alcatraz prison, are now popular tourist destinations that you can enjoy with the entire family.
You could spend a lifetime in San Francisco and still not be able to enjoy everything the city has to offer. But if you have only a week, there are definitely a handful of must-see, must-do treats that should be on your family’s list.
Golden Gate Bridge
Taking your family to San Francisco? To make it the most memorable trip possible, you’ve got to hit the Golden Gate Bridge trifecta – seeing the Golden Gate from every possible angle – taking your family over, under and on the famed Golden Gate Bridge.
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, and any trip to San Francisco should include at least a glimpse of the famous structure. When it was built in 1937, it was the world’s largest suspension bridge. It’s now the second-largest in the United States, after New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
After you’ve taken your fill of photographs from afar, check out the Golden Gate Bridge up close and in person. You can drive across by paying a $5 toll, but if you really want to enjoy the scenic views, take the free route and walk along the sidewalk. It’s a two-mile hike each way, and parking is available at both ends of the bridge. The sidewalks are open from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M.
Riding On the Golden Gate Bridge
An absolute hit with children and families is the fire truck tour of San Francisco. The tour, which culminates with a drive over the bridge in an open air antique fire truck, is a nearly two hour long sing along complete with real firefighter coats to keep you warm on the cold San Francisco days. A variety of San Francisco landmarks, in addition to the Golden Gate, are pointed out during your journey. For more information visit Fireenginetours.com.
Flying Over and Under
To best see this picturesque city and all of its breathtaking landmarks, try a helicopter tour. Speaking of breathing, you might need to tell yourself to keep breathing when the tour helicopter flies over and then UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge. Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge is routine, but on days with good weather, the pilot will often ask if anyone objects to flying under the bridge. Before we even had a chance to respond, we were on our way, flying under the Golden Gate Bridge Bridge and giving us a thrilling memory we will never forget. For more information on the helicopter tours, visit www.sfhelicoptertours.com.
The Movie Tour is a must for anyone who considers themselves a movie buff. During the three hour tour, location after location, from the scenes of famous movies filmed in San Francisco, are pointed out. The tour also takes you to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge where you can get a view of the underside of the bridge.
Don’t think this tour isn’t for the family; favorites like the home of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as the home used in the opening credits of children’s favorite Full House, are pointed out during your driving tour of the city in an air conditioned mini-bus. For more information, visit www.sanfranciscomovietours.com.
Another underside viewing opportunity of the Golden Gate is provided by one of the options included on the Wharf Pass. The Wharf Pass allows purchasers to choose from a variety of Fisherman’s Wharf-based attractions, all for one low price. One option is a San Francisco harbor cruise on the Blue and Gold Fleet. The narrated boat tour takes you out into San Francisco Bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge. For more information on the Wharf Pass, visit www.wharfpass.com.
After taking advantage of these attractions, you’ll be guaranteed to have memories of the San Francisco that will last your family a lifetime.
Take a Cable Car Ride
If you’ve ever seen a Rice-A-Roni commercial, then you’re familiar with San Francisco’s famous cable car system. The buslike vehicles still make their way along train track–like rails that are built right into the hilly city streets. The infrastructure that makes cable cars work has itself become an icon, as it is the world’s last remaining manually operated cable car system in permanent operation.
Cable cars actually date back to well before the 1906 earthquake, which, as you might imagine, decimated the public transportation system along with pretty much everything else. The system was rebuilt, but never with the same gusto it had in the early days, since electric and then gas-fueled cars soon overtook cable cars in terms of speed, cost, and comfort. Today, there are three cable car routes still in operation, with the main two ferrying tourists from the Union Square area to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Cable car rides cost $5 per person, but if you plan to ride all day, consider getting the $10 daylong pass. If you’re older than 65, you can ride for just $1 before 7 A.M. or after 9 p.m.
Visit the Coit Tower
Coit Tower is not as well known as, say, New York City’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s Sears Tower, or Seattle’s Space Needle. But the principle is the same: This is where you go if you want a spectacular 360-degree view of San Francisco and all the land and water beyond the city limits.
The tower stands 210 feet and gets a bit more of a height bump from the fact that it is built atop Telegraph Hill in Pioneer Park. From the top on a clear day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz prison, Pier 39, Treasure Island, and more.
Inside the Art Deco tower, there are some pretty terrific views, too — of murals by twenty-six different artists. You can see most of the murals free of charge. However, if you don’t want to take the stairs up to the top of the tower, you’ll have to pay the $3.75 elevator fee (kids between 6 and 12 pay $1.50).
Because Coit Tower is at the top of a hill, parking can be limited, especially during peak tourism months like July and August. If you are in good health, leave the rental car at the hotel and use a good pair of sneakers to get up the hill.
San Francisco National Maritime Park
The San Francisco National Maritime Park showcases an impressive collection of historic vessels docked at Hyde Street Pier and set against the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. Most of the ships, including the 250-foot long 1886 Balclutha, can be boarded.
Other Places to Visit
The Golden Gate Bridge, streetcars, and Coit Tower are just a few of the places you’ll want to see during your family vacation to San Francisco.
Every city offers unique experiences that express the essence of the place. Often, they’re not the most popular sights or the most often-mentioned activities. Instead, they’re intimate glimpses of a city’s unique character. When you experience them, they’ll redefine your image of the place forever.
World’s Most Beautiful Urban Hike
Walk from Crissy Field to Fort Point. Westward, you face the Golden Gate Bridge and on the return, it’s the San Francisco skyline. Share the pathway with local bicyclists, dog-walkers and joggers, or take a detour to dodge the waves along the water’s edge
Better Than the Cliff House
The Beach Chalet offers a glimpse at San Francisco history in its downstairs murals. Upstairs is a microbrewery with window tables custom-made for watching the breakers roll in or the sun set.
Look East at Sunset, Not West
On clear days, the Marin Headlands are a great place for a romantic, twilight view of the bridge and the city behind it. To get there, drive north on US Hwy 101, exit at the first exit after the bridge, then turn left and drive uphill on Conzelman Road. Skip the first busy parking area and go halfway up the hill instead.
Best Golden Gate Bridge View
Baker Beach boasts one of the best Golden Gate Bridge views in the city, but the vistas aren’t its only attraction. Fishermen, tourists and dog-walkers roam the beach, ignoring nearby sunbathing nudists with typical San Francisco tolerance.
Get Stern in the Summer
Stern Grove Concerts, held every summer Sunday, are a long-standing San Francisco tradition. Pick up a picnic lunch, and join the crowd for a free concert in the middle of a stately eucalyptus grove. Don’t let the price tag fool you – some big-name performers have appeared on the state here.