Living in Florida, the West Coast seemed about as far away as we could get with our (continental US) airline tickets so we chose to fly to beautiful San Francisco! Both my mom and I had never been to this city before, and its quirkiness, extraordinary food culture, and unique beauty totally stole our hearts. Here’s all the best things to do, see and eat in San Francisco so you can fall in love with it too:
Take a stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge – Obviously, seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in person was at the top of our list when visiting San Francisco and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint! We took our time walking across the bridge and soaking in the views of the bay (instead of trying to bike up to the bridge like I had initially planned and like we saw some unfortunate, tomato-faced individuals doing). It was a sunny afternoon, and we quickly got lost in deep conversation. The only thing that pulled us out of our bubble was this little person we kept noticing every time we stopped to take a photo or just catch our breaths. The man was always at the next stop first, stretching his leg back with intense flexibility, even though we were sure we had just left him at the previous stop. This guy’s agility and flexibility were beyond me. In fact, I was trying to figure out how he practically touched his toe to his head every time he stretched when my mom whispered to me, “I think it’s a prosthetic.”
Climb up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower – We completely underestimated the journey to the top of this hill in more ways than one! Leaving the street and ascending through the gardens of bright flowers that clung to the hillside felt like leaving one world and entering another. The concrete stairs were eaten up by clusters of vines, and the treetop overhead cast a refreshing shade on everything in sight. We actually stopped to smell the flowers, to admire their beauty. As we continued climbing up, we sometimes found ourselves just steps away from a resident’s back door. San Francisco was a strange, but delightful place that way. When we finally reached the top some thousand steps later (or at least that’s what it felt like), my mom collapsed onto the nearest bench. After a moment (or two or three 😉 ), we stood up to take in the stunning, panoramic views of the city from our new vantage point. The neat rows of houses seemed to form waves on the city’s hilly landscape. The bay and the hills beyond it glistened in the afternoon light.
Shop and snack at Pier 39 – This was a fun place to just walk around in the brisk, open air and window shop. The pier is lined with dozens of different specialty shops, including quirky spots like a store that sells products specifically designed for lefties! Plus, every pier/boardwalk needs at least a handful of sweet shops, candy stores, and ice cream parlors to feel complete, and Pier 39 is brimming with them. But the reason that Pier 39 is world famous has nothing to do with the pier itself; it’s the close-up view of the bay’s sea lions that makes this spot a must-see! Sunbathing on the docks or speeding through the water, the sea lions are the pier’s main attraction.
Visit the Sutro Baths and hike at Lands End – I don’t remember how I discovered this place, but it’s definitely one of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets. In fact, our Uber driver couldn’t even find it at first, and once he finally dropped us off in the correct location, we really did feel like we were at the end of the city. We began at the sutro baths, strange ruins that seem out of place in this uncivilized stretch of coastline. The only signs of life here are the five-star restaurant and dilapidated diner that overlook the water. We plopped down at the diner to have a slice of pie and to give ourselves a break from the pounding wind. My mom and I were talking, spooning pieces of pie in our mouths, when the man at the table next to us interrupted politely to point out the whales he had spotted from outside his window. Whales! Actual whales! Blowing water through their blow holes and moving majestically in and out of the water. I felt like I was a live audience to a taping of National Geographic or something. We couldn’t peel ourselves away from the window until the whales were out of sight, but we did eventually start our hike through the Lands End trail. However, it ended pretty quickly since my mom was getting Criminal Minds vibes from the dark, deserted trail, and it didn’t help that the one guy we did see on the trail seemed irritated as he talked to himself. We decided to turn back, but if we had been in a bigger group or at least had better cell reception to ensure our safety, we would have been able to enjoy this spectacular view of the bay and the fog clinging to the Golden Gate Bridge longer.
Explore Union Square and ride a trolley – Much like New York City, this part of San Francisco is full of people, noise, and tall buildings. There are retail stores and restaurants lining every street, but the most iconic thing in Union Square is the trolleys! I can’t imagine visiting San Francisco and not riding one of these. We literally took one up the block just to experience how the people of San Francisco commute (even though I’m pretty sure most of the other passengers were tourists, too), and to give our glutes a break from the intense incline of the hilly streets. For those two minutes, I rode the trolley with a cheesy grin on my face, replaying that scene of Mrs. Doubtfire riding the trolley in my head.
Souvenir shop at Fisherman’s Wharf – Fisherman’s Wharf is a short ten-minute walk from Pier 39, but it offers a completely different perspective of the bay. Besides the dozens of sail boats and jet boats docked along this part of the pier, you could see practically clear across the water. Like Pier 39, there’s also lots of yummy snacks available. We energized ourselves with a warm order of beignets before hitting the dozens of souvenir shops that border the pier. We found plenty of San Francisco memorabilia to bring home with us, like “I escaped Alcatraz” t-shirts and snow globes of the Golden Gate Bridge. Plus, my mom discovered Lush for the first time so we spent at least an hour perusing the store’s lotions, soaps, and gigantic bath bombs.
Alcatraz – I didn’t really know what to expect from the prison that once held Al Capone and hundreds of other criminals, but I was completely caught off guard by the island’s gorgeous plant life and refreshing sea breeze. Ginormous succulents grew all along the concrete walls that bordered the main building. Dozens of other flowers popped up from the ground and spilled onto the walkways in lush bushes. It was confusing to see the beauty of springtime overwhelm this island. Next, we walked down corridors lined with two floors of cells, each fitted with a cot and a tiny toilet, and through a washroom with fragments of rusted out piping. As you explore, there’s plenty of chances to pick up the history of the prison with stories of attempted escapes and assaults.
The Mrs. Doubtfire House – Honestly, my trip to San Francisco would not have been complete without seeing this place for myself (if you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a big Robin Williams fan and Mrs. Doubtfire may be my favorite of all his movies). We stood on the corner of Steiner Street and Broadway, marveling at the house we had seen a dozen times before on our tv screen and I half expected the characters from the movie to come climbing down the front steps at any moment.
Lombard Street – This zig-zagging maze of a street is another iconic San Francisco landmark. As bad as driving in Miami can get, I felt a special pity for the drivers trying to get down this impossible street. We stuck to walking and enjoyed a stress-free look at the street, as well as sweeping views of the city below.
Ghirardelli Square – This chocolate lover’s paradise is only a block or two away from Fisherman’s Wharf. Every chocolate product you could think of has a home here, including treats like sundaes, chocolate bars, cakes, cookies, brownies, and more – not to mention, all the elegantly wrapped gift sets and chocolate-inspired souvenirs. My mind was overwhelmed by the possibilities of so much delicious chocolate.
Bonus: Muir Woods! Sadly, we didn’t actually make it here because we didn’t discover it until we were in San Francisco and we just didn’t have the time, but this will definitely be on our itinerary the next time we visit. This forest is made up of towering redwood trees that form an enormous canopy overhead. The stunning crimson of these trees’ thick trunks would be an incredible sight to experience.
Brenda’s French Soul Food – This restaurant was definitely worth the walk (even if we had to pass through a sketchy part of town 😉 ) because we had the best breakfast of our whole trip here! The menu is Louisiana/Cajun inspired so I ordered a plate of plain beignets served with a homemade strawberry jam and my mom ordered the Andouille sausage and
cheddar omelette with sauce piquant. The combination of the fresh, zingy jam matched with the warm, fluffy beignets was an unforgettable meal. Since then, I have tasted fresh beignets from Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, but Brenda’s beignets still remain an extremely close second.
Pinecrest Diner – One morning, after we realized the crepe place we had planned to go to was closed for a special event, we eventually wound up in front of Pinecrest Diner, and I am so glad we did! It was a fight to get a seat inside, but the plate of steaming waffles topped with homemade whipped cream and juicy, fresh strawberries made everything better. What’s amazing is it was such a simple dish, but the ingredients were such high quality that it transformed into one of the most satisfying things we ate in San Francisco.
Fino Ristorante – I loved that this restaurant served mouthwatering Italian food, but with a California twist. My Pollo alla Saltimbocca was topped with prosciutto, gooey mozzarella cheese, creamy Marsala sauce, and . . . avocado. As an avocado lover, this meal was perfect for me, even if it wasn’t completely traditional. When there was nothing left, we moved onto dessert- the Chocolate Fino! This chocolate custard topped with fresh berries and encased by glistening melted sugar was as delicious as it was mesmerizing. It was the perfect ending to a classy, Italian meal.
L’Ardoise Bistro – Making a reservation at this restaurant was a fun surprise for my mom because she and my dad had visited France together years before I was born and she doesn’t get a lot of chances to enjoy good French food in Miami. That being said, the restaurant itself was in a strange location, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and we had to wedge ourselves into our corner table at the front of the restaurant that was MAYBE four inches away from the next table. However, none of that bothered us because the coq au vin we ordered was AH-MAZ-ING. I was so into the rich, creamy wine sauce and the incredibly tender chicken that it took me a moment to realize my mom had been completely silent for at least five minutes, something I couldn’t remember happening before in my 19 years of life. For a brief moment, I was alarmed, but when I looked up, I found her quietly, carefully savoring each bite of her own coq au vin.
If you want more ideas about how to explore this city, I would highly recommend checking out this blog post from Practical Wanderlust that inspired our itinerary. It includes a free walking guide and a local’s insights into San Francisco!