San Francisco - What you must see

By Geeta High, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on San Francisco.

Overall rating:3.8 out of 5 (based on 6 votes)
Recommended for:
Road Trip, Adventure, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range

My husband and I embarked on that old American institution - the road trip. It turned out to be the most amazing holiday of our lives and San Francisco, our starting point, was a highlight.

We spent many evenings hunched over a map of California in an attempt to plan a rough route around the State.  We knew we wanted to end up in Vegas - but where did we start?  Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway was a must, and San Francisco is a great starting point for this.  My husband has long admired the Golden Gate Bridge and this played a major part in our decision to start the road trip here.  Until this point, I had no idea just how amazing this city was, but a little research soon showed me what we had been missing, and left us in no doubt of where to start. 

Our intention was to collect the hire car from the airport and spend a night in San Francisco before heading south.  But a flick through a guide book and an hour on Google later, a night couldn't possibly be enough.  We extended our stay to 3 nights, but we were still pushed for time.  There is a great deal to see and do in San Francisco - it's most famous sights like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz must be seen, of course, but there is a world of charm beyond this.  Like New York, you have to plan ahead before you arrive, or you really are in danger of merely scratching the surface.  This is a city that deserves your time as well as your attention.

We stayed at the Castle Inn on Broadway, which we’d booked prior to arrival. At $120.00 a night, it was very reasonable for its proximity to the bay but, bear in mind, this is a basic (but very clean) hotel. Our main requirement was parking, and this wasn’t an easy task. I trawled through many Internet sites before I found the Castle Inn. Our location was perfect as we were a convenient walking distance to both Chinatown and Lombard Street, so not completely reliant on the car.

The owner of the hotel was a scary looking biker who turned out to be an absolute wealth of information and showed us many things on a map that I hadn’t read anywhere else (and I had done a lot of reading). Like where to find one of only three spiral escalators in the world (Westfield San Francisco Center), which my husband was sorry to miss – there was just too much to do and too little time.

The hotel was approximately 15 minutes from Lombard Street, but it is worth remembering that San Francisco is very hilly, so a lot of the walking is uphill or downhill – and pretty steep at times. Around the corner from the hotel was a tiny student-type pizza place (Escape from NY Pizza, 2109 Polk St, which did huge pizza slices for something ridiculous like $2! It was open til very late so was a handy place to stop off if we arrived back to the hotel late and fancied a quick bite. It looked like a shoddy enterprise, but the pizzas were first rate.

The golden Golden Gate

There are many ‘must-sees’ in San Francisco, making it a hugely popular tourist destination, but despite this, we never felt like we were in a city full of tourists (like ourselves!) - yet another of San Francisco’s charms. Golden Gate Bridge is definitely one of these ‘must-sees’ even if you have no interest in bridges and their architecture. Who could not appreciate the absolute beauty of the bridge, which is so commanding against the backdrop of the gorgeous bay? I recommend driving over it too (or walking if you have the time) as the views of San Fran ‘on the other side’ are spectacular – the windy roads take you up to quiet and pretty residential areas that offer stunning views of the bridge, city and bay. We actually drove over this twice (once by mistake having got into the wrong lane!) but that turned into a blessing as we chanced upon the Marin Headlands, a popular photo-spot offering the kind of views you see in travel books. Words really cannot do it justice.

One of our drives over the bridge was to Muir Woods which is about 50 minutes north of the city ( Take hiking boots and plenty of water, but it’s well worth a trip to see some of the tallest trees on the planet! There is a $6 toll charge when you come back over the bridge into San Francisco.

Crooked amongst perfection

Lombard Street, the self-proclaimed ‘Crookedest street in the world’ isn’t something you see every day – it is so steep no vehicle could drive up it so some bright individual built turns into it, thus giving the road its unique title. It’s great fun (and a little scary) to drive down but be prepared for long delays as everyone takes their turn. We also walked up the pavement running alongside which was hard work (and we’re pretty fit!), but worth it – the far-reaching views of the long, steep streets running exactly parallel to one another are quite a sight, and with the bay sparkling on one side and the Bay Bridge on the other, it is unforgettable. A cable car stops at the very top of the street giving you a chance to get a quick picture, but getting off is a must! The road itself is lined with colourful flowers and pretty, almost make-believe, Victorian houses. It’s truly one of a kind.

San Francisco Bay - past Pier 39

Pier 39, located in Fisherman’s Wharf (Beach Street and The Embarcadero), is a quaint little pier a world away from the British seaside piers we are used to. The piers run along a wide, palm tree-lined street and Pier 39 has many unique shops and eateries (check out Parking is difficult (and expensive!) near the Pier so take a cable car if you can. We easily spent a morning strolling in and out of the shops and watching the street performers.

Look out for the Lefty’s Store ( which stocks goods for left-handed people, we bought some cool souvenirs for people back home. My husband, a ‘hard-done-by’ lefty felt he had finally come home! There’s also Chocolate Heaven ( which is just that, and has a real olde worlde feel to it, as do many of the shops here. The Pier is also famous for the large number of sea lions that arrive here in the spring. They are literally a stone’s throw from the Pier and it is easy to spend an hour just watching them and their antics as they pull one another into the water. Or maybe we are just easily amused.

Climbing half way to the stars

Having a ride on a cable car is an absolute must, and it's a great way to see the city. You can take a seat, or if you're brave, stand on a rather narrow ledge in front of the seats. We thought this would be fun, but it turned out to be pretty scary too - you stand facing the traffic, holding onto a pole (for dear life, at times) and climb the steep streets, albeit at a slow pace. The scary part comes when cars rush past you on the opposite side of the road, but passing another tram going the opposite way and being told to 'breathe in' as you brush the standing passengers on that tram, is pretty cool. Heading down a steep hill is almost like being on a rollercoaster in slow motion, but it's all great fun. Don't stand when you have lots of shopping bags like we did!  See for route information and more.

Escape to Alcatraz

No trip to San Francisco is complete without a trip to Alcatraz, which we booked a day in advance. These tours fill up very fast despite the number of companies that offer them so book one as soon as you can. We booked with Alcatraz Cruises who had a stall near Pier 39 ( The tour cost $26 and was very informative, but allowed us plenty of time to explore the island at our leisure. Make sure you fit in a photo of yourself in a cell – surely a must?! If you purchase the day tour as we did, there is no set time for the ferry crossing (which departs every 15 minutes) so you really can make the most of your day. The views of the San Francisco skyline are just stunning from this angle with the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges on either side of the city.

What a sunset

One final spot I recommend is Ocean Beach, which runs along one side of Golden Gate Park.  It doesn't get much of a mention in the good old travel books, but it's definitely worth a visit. We drove part of the '49 Mile Scenic Drive’, which is well signposted and easy to pick up en-route, and this took us out along the coast. As luck would have it, we drove this as the sun was setting (complete fluke!) and witnessed the most beautiful sunset while local people flew kites on the beach. We sat and watched until the sun had fully set and marvelled at how this city seems to have it all.

I’m going home to my city by the Bay…

No surprise I have come home the most avid San Fran fan! We saw many beautiful places during our road trip, but San Francisco was a firm favourite. It has the city life combined with the calmness and beauty of the bay, which seems to be peeking at you wherever you are. I can see why Tony Bennett wrote that famous song so many years ago, and whose words we appreciate all the better since our return. We both long to go back and when we do, I’m sure we will leave our hearts there all over again.

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Geeta High
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
Average: 3.8 (6 votes)
Total views:
First uploaded:
20 January 2010
Last updated:
5 years 35 weeks 11 hours 21 min 56 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Adventure, Road Trip
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
sightseeing, city break

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1. Castle Inn

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Community comments (11)

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Thanks for the tips, Geeta!

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I will be visiting for only 3 days, so found your entry to be ideal! Loved the personal view-point, and it read a little like a diary... Personally, I'm both excited AND anxious about my trip, but the way you detailed things, without overdoing it, and didn't get to 'wordy' was perfect for me and I really bought into your love of the city. I can only hope that I enjoy my trip as much as you did!

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

It is clear from the way you write that you really love this city. The enthusiasm really shows. I love the description about riding the cable car. It makes you picture yourself doing this and wish you were there! The level of detail about the hotel is particularly useful because people want to know as much as possible about where to stay and help them make a decision. Mentioning the pizza place around the corner is a nice touch and probably the kind of place I would just walk right past unless I had a recommendation from someone like you.

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I am a native of San Francisco who also lived in Manhattan for three years so was interested in seeing an outsiders view of my home. You touched on the typical tourist attractions - thankfully keeping all the hidden gems that we locals know secret - labeling them as "must-sees" but I didn't get much detail and description about why they are must sees. Many natives haven't been to Alcatraz and avoid Fisherman's Wharf so I'd been interested to see why the tourists like it so much.

SF is one of the top three premier eating cities in the entire US (neck-and-neck with New York and New Orleans, although Vegas is starting to make a name for itself too) and there weren't many great food finds listed.

Plus, it's a wonderful mix of numerous cultures like Chinatown and North Beach (Italian district); it's a big city in a small area and only a couple of hours drive at most to beaches, forests and snow. Then there's the wine country... Yes, I love my home. I'm glad you did too, but again, I'd be interested in really seeing why.

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We'd love to see your guide to SF Nichole - especially something like a foodie's guide, or great hotels that are worth the bucks.

Thanks for your comments. Being our first visit to San Francisco and having limited time, we were restricted somewhat so had to prioritise what we wanted to see/do. The attractions you say many locals haven’t seen are a huge part of the reason tourists visit San Fran, so we were excited to see the things we so often read and hear about. Of course, your impression of San Fran will be very different to my own, my guide was to show people why we fell in love with the city, from a visitor’s perspective. Your reasons will no doubt be very different. I’d love to read a review of San Francisco from your perspective as I’m sure nobody would know the city like a local. Particularly the restaurants you mention. Again, due to time constraints, we were often grabbing ‘quick bites’ and as this was my personal account, I could not comment on the food aspect. We would have loved to have seen the beaches and wine country, but as this was a stop on a road trip, we had already arranged to drive to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite so, again, we just did not have enough time.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Geeta your words remind me of our 2 day visit in September, and the pictures just bring it all back. Lovely to be reminded of the great city and sites, especially the sealions - we were dumbstruck by them for about an hour - just couldn't tear ourselves away from watching them!

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Thanks Abby. I enjoyed writing it for the wonderful memories it evoked, and I'm really pleased that reading it did the same for you. Only trouble is, now I am even more desperate to go back! Hopefully one day soon.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Geeta, thank you for a very enthusiastically written guide. I wanted to give this guide a four rating as your passion shines through but there are a few elements missing.

It would be great if you could add a colourful introduction about San Francisco telling readers why your chose to begin your road trip there as well as what is special about the city - at the moment we are thrown straight into your hotel recommendation. Please also make sure that all prices are quoted in the local currency as not all of our readers are UK based.

To help readers to find your recommendations - such as the shops you mention and the pizza place - please include as many contact details as possible (address; phone number; website is ideal). Finally (I promise), please fill in your profile so we know more about you.

If you do all of the above I am sure that this guide will be rated highly by the community.

What do readers think of this guide? Can you add any further tips or recommendations? Thanks.

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Thanks Cathy, I will certainly take your comments on board. I was a little worried about the word limit so felt restricted in some ways, but I'll gladly fill in the blanks!

Great. Thank you Geeta.