San Francisco - Top Five

There are literally hundreds of things to see and do in San Francisco, whatever your interests, but it is also famous for a number of big hitting tourist attractions. Here are my top five must see things and places.

Fisherman's Wharf

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by dkm1981 on November 12, 2011

Fisherman’s Wharf is the area of San Francisco that lines the sea front. It is extremely popular with tourists and it is this popularity that has made it what it is – a haven of restaurants, shops and tourist traps that some may find gaudy and not in keeping with the rest of the laid back city, but that I found engaging and fun as long as you look past the tat!

The main strip is Jefferson Street and the area runs from around Pier 39 on one end and to the beginning of the Golden Gate Promenade at the other end. There are a number of tourist attractions here that will draw people in such as a large aquarium and restaurants like The Rainforest Cafe, but these are the kind of thing that you kind find pretty much anywhere. If you look a little deeper you’ll find a lot of things that are unique to this city and these are the things that make it such an enjoyable place to be.

Pier 39 is just like any other pleasure pier in that it is lined with shops selling souvenirs and generic gifts, but there are fascinating placards scattered around it that tell the history of the city and the pier itself. I particularly enjoyed the ones about the rebuilding of the pier after the great fire and the one telling of the pier being a target for potential Alcatraz escapees. The signs are large and include photographs and they educate in a fun way. Another great thing about the pier are the sea lions that have taken residence at the end of it. They just arrived one day about twenty years ago and they have never left. We spent hours enjoying the sun and watching the sea lions from the upstairs balcony of the pier and children in particular will love it. The other thing that Pier 39 is great for are the views out to Alcatraz, it is absolutely the best place in the city to get a photograph from as it is just about the nearest place without being on the ferry.

Further down from Pier 39 is the Hyde Street pier which is a lovely reminder of what times gone by where like. The pier is a much more industrial pier and there are old vessels permanently docked here that give you a very good idea of what it was like. Again there are various things to read and learn and one of the best places to do this is the visitor’s centre at the end of the pier.

Ghiradelli Square is located at the farthest end of Fisherman’s Wharf and is the former home of the chocolate manufacturer. Whilst the chocolate is no longer produced here, there are remnants of the old buildings and there is a chocolate shop where you can buy untold amounts of the devilishly good yet slightly pricey chocolate.

Oddly enough, nestled amongst all the souvenir shops, there are a few art galleries which are lovely places to wander around. They often have big name artists on display – when we wandered in them we saw some Dali works, a couple of Picassos and a few other local artists. Since the galleries are located towards the end of the area, they occupy huge spaces and so the works of art are displayed beautifully.

Of course, if you want the in your face kind of fun that places like Blackpool provide, it is here by the bucket load. There is a Madame Taussauds, a Ripley Odditorium and, as I’ve already mentioned, a huge aquarium to keep you entertained. All of them offer big discounts as well if you pick up leaflets from your hotel.

Eating wise, you are spoilt for choice and there is (to use a corny phrase) something for everyone. You can get fast food in the form of all the usual burger and chicken places or you can go a bit more upmarket with one of the fish restaurants. For a fun and laid back lunch, try Wipeout, a friendly restaurant / bar on Pier 39 where the service is good and the portion sizes typically huge. Whatever you do though, you must try some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl – absolutely delicious and very local to this area. Almost everywhere sells it and it makes for a hearty lunch by the sea.

Some people thing Fisherman’s Wharf is a bit tacky and certainly the guide books tend to brush it off as a tourist trap to be sneered at, but we absolutely loved the atmosphere that the place had. Sure we went slightly out of season in mid-October so it wasn’t overly crowded, but it has as much or as little as you want in close proximity and it has all the ingredients for a great holiday by the sea – fun and frolicks and cracking views.
Fisherman's Wharf
The Embarcadero
San Francisco, California

Cable Cars

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by dkm1981 on November 12, 2011

San Francisco is famous for its steep, straight streets but probably even more so for the cable cars that climb up and down them. The cable cars are both a tourist attraction and a good way of navigating the city without exhausting yourself with steep climbs. If you are in the city, you should definitely have a go on one of the cars if you get chance.

There are three routes operating through the city. The first goes along California Street, but is one that is less often used by tourists because it doesn’t service the attraction per say, with it running between the financial district and Van Ness. Much more often used by tourists and also much more convenient to tourists are the two lines that run between Fisherman’s Wharf at the sea front and Union Square, which is the main shopping area in the city. The lines all operate from 6am until midnight daily so are a great way of getting between the two areas that are popular with visitors due to there being lots of hotels in both areas. The cable cars aren’t cheap though. If you have a Muni Passport, which is a transport pass that allows you use of all of the buses, streetcars and cable cars in the Municipal System for a set duration and price, then you can use it for free, otherwise it is a fairly hefty six dollars for a single journey regardless of where you get on or off the car. As with many public transport systems in the United States, you must buy your ticket before you board the car and you can do this at the various ticket points along the route.

The two routes I have mentioned are particularly busy if you join them at either end of the route and you will find that you have to queue for a while, particularly at Union Square. The cars are also quite small, so they don’t let that many people ride on each one. Having said that, if you are one of the last to join, you will have to ride on one of the footplates at the edge of the car – arguably the best and most fun way to do it, but you’ll have to remember to breathe in when you pass other traffic on the way!

According to Wikipedia, the San Francisco cable car system is the last permanently operational manually operated one in the world and it is this manual operation that makes it such a fascinating and quaint way to get around. When you board the cars you can see all of the mechanisms in the middle of them and you can’t help but have a lot of respect for the drivers who have to use more than a bit of elbow grease to get them going and then stopping again. The cars can only stop on the flat bits of the roads at the busy cross sections which makes it quite amusing when they stop all traffic in order to let people on and off. The cars themselves are very traditional and are exactly as you would imagine them to look; made with polished wood and lots of dark colours and you’ll not be able to resist taking a picture of them.

Even though it is a fairly pricey way to get around, you should definitely have a go on one of San Francisco’s most famous tourist attractions because they are a lot of fun and are actually quite convenient.
Cable Cars
401 Van Ness
San Francisco, California, 94102
(415) 673-6864

Golden Gate Bridge

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by dkm1981 on November 11, 2011

The Golden Gate Bridge is probably the most famous of San Francisco’s landmark and arguably the most famous bridge in the world. It spans the bay from The Presidio to Marin County on the other side and, as far as bridges can be, it is actually quite pretty. It isn’t the biggest bridge in the world, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most impressive.

It is a suspension bridge that was finished in 1937. At either end of the bridge is a little placard showing off some of its most impressive facts; the two towers are a lofty 746 metres high, the roadway across it runs for 1.75 miles and the cable used to construct it is enough to circle the Earth three times. Apparently it is five times stronger than it needs to be, which explains why it has suffered no damage despite years of hurricane winds, earth quakes and extremely heavy use. One of the most fascinating facts though in my opinion is that it can sway up to 21 metres – something that I absolutely wouldn’t like to have tested whilst I was on it. The bridge is painted in ‘international orange’ a colour that makes it even more famous – I wouldn’t like to guess at how many extra tonnes the paint gives the bridge.

A trip to the city isn’t complete without crossing the bridge in one form or another. One of the most popular ways to do this is by cycle and there are lots of ‘cycle the bridge’ tours available from the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, where bike hire will cost around $18 for a round trip. The first time I visited, I crossed it on a bus. If you are thinking of going by vehicle, then you need to bear in mind just how busy the six lanes of the bridge get and that there is a $5 charge for the south bound trip. It is worth it once you’ve done it though because there is a lovely viewpoint at the far side where you can take some fabulous photos of both the bridge and the city in the background.

This time I visited, we walked across the bridge. I actually bottled it about a third of the way across as you can definitely feel the sway that I mentioned. This isn’t helped by either the huge vehicles trundling past on the other side or the numerous signs along the way offering counselling to those who have thoughts of jumping off. Its status as the world’s most popular suicide spot is, unfortunately, something else that makes the bridge famous and the evidence of this status is there in the signs.

My husband (the daredevil) walked much further than I did and took some spectacular photographs of the huge towers and the island of Alcatraz in the distance. He wasn’t enough of a daredevil to look too far over the side in the middle of the bridge though, where there is a small protrusion which acts as a kind of viewing platform.

Back on terra firma at the beginning of the bridge there is a grassy area where you can admire the construction in all its glory, as well as a rather overpriced gift shop that, as the numerous signs tell you, has no toilet facilities. There are also a couple of benches and some quite interesting signs that tell the story of the bridge from its construction to now.

You can’t possibly go to San Francisco without experiencing the world’s most famous bridge, but if you haven’t got a head for heights, be prepared to be afraid – very afraid!
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco Bay
San Francisco, California

Lombard Street

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by dkm1981 on November 10, 2011

Lombard Street is one of San Francisco’s strangest tourist attraction in my opinion because it seems odd that anybody would want to go and look at a bit of road, but as we found out when we visited this is not just any bit of road.

Lombard Street in its entirety stretches through the North Beach area of the city but it is the section at Russian Hill between Leavenworth Street and Hyde Street that draws in the visitors because this section has been dubbed the ‘crookedest street in the world’ thanks to its numerous tight turns in such a short distance. Its claim to being the crookedest street in the world has been contested, but it still makes for a fun and picturesque place to visit.

As you may know the city of San Francisco is famous for its steep streets and the seven switchback turns that make Lombard Street crooked in this section are a solution to the 27% gradient of the hill. It was far too steep for cars to comfortably pass through it so the turns were built in. The road is now paved with red stones and lined with flowerbeds and very quaint houses that make it a lovely place to go and see. Interestingly the houses that line the street here are some of the most expensive in the city, although I don’t think I’d fancy living here because of the sheer number of people and cars that pass by – it must also be one of the busiest streets in the city if you ask me.

The street is one way as the road is very narrow and so cars can only travel from top to bottom. The best place to get a photograph from though is the bottom and if you are staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city, it is just a short (albeit quite steep walk) from the area. There is a cable car line that passes along the bottom and stops just near the bottom of the road if you want avoid the walk.

There are steps running up both sides of the street so you can walk up and down it if you wish, which I’d recommend if you can because it is a very pleasant place to be and the top affords fabulous views back down into the bay and you can even see Alcatraz Island in the distance on a clear day.

We visited the street twice; once we walked to the bottom as I mentioned and we took some lovely pictures and enjoyed the general buzz that seems to surround the street. The second time we went as part of a tour on a GoCar, which is a self guided little car than you can hire by the hour to see the sights. We drove down the street as part of the tour which was a whole lot of fun – I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. We also became a bit of a tourist attraction ourselves driving down the street in a bright yellow car!

I’d definitely recommend a quick visit to Lombard Street if you are in the city as it is a quaint and picturesque place and there is certainly nothing else like it in the world!
Lombard Street
Between Leavenworth and Hyde Streets on Russian Hill
San Francisco, California

Alcatraz Island - Escape from the Rock

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by dkm1981 on November 3, 2011

Alcatraz Island is without a doubt one of the most famous of San Francisco’s landmarks and, with such a varied and interesting history, deservedly so. I visited for the second time on a recent trip to the US and I was pleased to find that nothing has changed since my previous visit almost ten years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit then and did so again this time.


We got our tickets from the island’s website a few weeks before we visited. They strongly recommend purchasing your tickets in advance and I’d definitely agree. We went to the island on the first ferry of the morning at 9am and there were already signs up to say that tickets for that day were sold out. Buying them in advance also makes things a lot easier because you print your tickets online and simply show them at the gate. The tickets do state that you need to show photo ID and produce the card that you paid for them with, but we didn’t have to show anybody any of these things. It’s worth taking them just in case though because it isn’t worth missing out for the sake of sticking your driving license or whatever in your pocket.

The tickets vary in price like I said, but during the day the price is around $29 per adult. This price includes your ferry ride over and the audio tour when you get there and I think it offers exceptionally good value for money especially when you compare it to entry tickets for other attractions in the US and what is included. There are various discounts for children, the elderly and US military personnel as well as group discounts, full details can be found on the website:, which also gives details about what you can expect on your visit. This site it the official one for Alcatraz Island. There are many others out there, but I’d strongly advise against using them because they tend to be ‘middlemen’ in that you pay them, they go to the official concession and buy the tickets and then you pick them up. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about how unreliable they can be, so be warned.

===Getting There===

You should allow the entire morning or afternoon (depending on when you go) for your visit and you need to be at the ferry terminal at least fifteen minutes before your departure time. The ferries depart from Pier 33, which is about a ten minute casual walk from Fisherman’s Wharf walking in the direction of the financial district. The island is located about a mile and a half off the coast and is a short but pleasant ferry ride away. For me the ferry ride was an important part of the visit as I felt like the suspense was building as we approached. You can get fabulous views of both the city skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge as you pull away from them, however there is an odd feeling that you are leaving civilisation behind.

===Welcome to Alcatraz===

When you disembark the ferry, you are given a short talk about the layout of the island and the rules that you must follow whilst there. As it is a National Recreation Area, smoking, eating and drinking anything other than water is not permitted anywhere apart from the harbour area. There are a couple of buildings down here including toilets, a bookshop and an auditorium where an introductory video is shown every half an hour. We skipped all of these things and headed straight up to the hill to the main prison buildings. The walk up the hill is quite steep and there is a little train that is available for those who can’t manage it, although seating is limited and places are exclusively for those who have walking difficulties.

There are a number of things to see on the way up including the first prison room that I mentioned earlier. The island morgue is also found up here although you can only look through a glass window into it. The pathway up is also lined with gardens, which were maintained by the better behaved prisoners who had earned the privilege. The tour starts properly in the shower room of the main building where you pick up your audio tour. It was here that I learnt one of the most fascinating facts of the whole trip. Alcatraz was the only prison in the country in which prisoners took warm showers. This was to prevent them from becoming acclimatised to cold water in case they tried to escape. Simple yet ingenious.

===The Audio Tour===

The audio device that you are given on entering the prison buildings is without a doubt the one thing above all others that makes the visit so utterly engaging, thought provoking and authentic. The tour is narrated by former prisoners and prison officers, so everything you hear is actual first hand experience. The narration is accompanied by various sound effects that manage to make you feel like you are the only person there and that you are having a private tour. The narrators guide you around the prison giving you clear directions and telling stories about life on the island. The prison officers talk about their opinions of the prisoners and it was interesting to hear that they thought Al Capone was a fairly normal guy until he contracted syphilis when ‘he seemed to just lose it’ and that they thought that Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz) was a real annoyance to everybody officers and prisoners alike.

Another part of the tour that I found fascinating and that no doubts captures the imagination of every visitor is the talk of the famous escape attempts. 36 prisoners attempted escape and all but three were captured or killed in doing so. The other three have never been accounted for but it is widely believed that they perished in the freezing, choppy and sometimes shark infested waters surrounding the island. The bloodiest attempt at escape, since dubbed the Battle of Alcatraz, is described with shocking frankness on the audio tour. Whilst the main narrator explains what happened, pointing out various places in the prison where the events took place, the background noises included shouting, gunfire and stabbings that really send a shiver down your spine. You really get a feel for what exactly happened. You can also still see the tunnel in one of the cells that was dug out by prisoners using spoons in another attempt.

Some of the most poignant points on the tour are those described by former prisoners. There is a part where one of them describes hearing parties from across the bay on New Year’s Eve when. He says that it was the one time when they really realised that there was a world out there that they were not a part of. Another part that really got me was when one of the prisoners talks about being locked up in solitary confinement. At this point you can actually walk into one of the dingy solitary cells that are completely unfurnished as you listen to the prisoner describe how he unstitched a button from his jacket and threw it over his shoulder and then searched around the cell to find it the pitch blackness in a bid to occupy his mind whilst he was in there.

Other parts of the prison that are visible on the tour include the officer’s houses where they lived with their families. There is narration here from one of the daughter of one of the prison officers who describes what it was like living on the island. You can also go into the Governor’s offices and the dinner halls where much of the furniture is as it was.

===Final Thoughts===

The Alcatraz Island experience is one that should be experienced by all visitors to San Francisco. The tour is extremely good value for money and is one of, if not the, best guided tour I have ever taken. The way that it has remained unchanged since it was a federal penitentiary makes it one of the most authentic tours there is. This coupled with the excellent and well presented audio tour makes it both chilling and educational way that will make you fascinated from the minute you arrive at the island to the minute you get back to ‘the real world’. Don’t miss it.

Alcatraz Island/The Rock
San Francisco Bay
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, 94133
(415) 705-5555

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