Customize your two days in San Francisco by choosing what you like best from this handy list of 20 notable attractions! Choose among awe-inspiring views, historical landmarks, top-notch museums, eclectic neighborhoods, and all-around fun places to go.
The Golden Gate Bridge opened to vehicular traffic in 1937 after four years of construction. Spanning 1.7 miles over the Golden Gate Straight, more than 100,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day. It is at an average height of 220 feet above the water, a distance that was designed to allow Navy ships unencumbered passage beneath the bridge.
No one would have predicted the success that the Golden Gate Park would become. From its beginnings as dusty sand dunes on the outer lands of San Francisco to today’s premier tourist destination, the park’s history is filled with both stories of success and stories of perseverance against adversity.
3. The Presidio
The Presidio of San Francisco originated as a Spanish fort in 1776 before Mexico gained ownership of the territory. In 1848, the United States took ownership of the land and it became a military outpost designed to protect the United States from naval threats. In 1994, ownership was transferred to the National Park Service, which operates and maintains the Presidio today. Hike one of the Presidio’s beautiful trails that offer breathtaking views, wade in the ocean at Baker Beach, jump on the trampolines at the House of Air, or visit the Walt Disney Family Museum.
The Fisherman’s Wharf area was originally the location of a small fishing community of first generation Italian immigrants who made the area their home in the early 1800s. Today the Wharf is a bustling hub of activity where, thankfully, you can still enjoy freshly caught crab! Enjoy great seafood, find San Francisco memorabilia, or take a tour of the surrounding area on a Segway. At night, check out the live music at Castagnola’s, take a sunset cruise, or visit a comedy club.
5. Pier 39
Pier 39 opened in 1978 and ten years later was named the third-most visited attraction in the country. A top tourist attraction to this day, Pier 39 boasts shops, restaurants, a video arcade, street performers, the Aquarium of the Bay, virtual 3D rides, a two-story carousel, and California sea lions.
Although numerous prisoners attempted to escape from Alcatraz Island over its history as a federal penitentiary, most were either killed, died in the attempt, or were hauled back to their cells. No attempt has ever been ruled a success, although the bodies of some inmates assumed dead were never found. Visit today to see what life on the “Rock” was like for the country’s most dangerous criminals.
When the first homes were built on this hill on Lombard Street, the grade was 27%. The grade was too steep for cars, decreasing the property value in an era when automobiles were becoming standard. Claiming that the steep grade thus caused damage to property value, landowners successfully petitioned the city to re-grade the road. In 1922, city engineer Clyde Healy designed and reconstructed the street with eight switchbacks and a 16% grade making the hill accessible to automobiles and easier to walk for pedestrians.
Founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium was created as a public learning laboratory that explores the world through science, art and human perception. It relocated in 2013 to the historic Pier 15 where it stands today. A hands-on, participatory museum of science, art and human perception. Boasting 600 floor exhibits, a calendar full of events, discussions, and programs.
This island officially became Angel Island State Park in 1955. It is home to the national historic landmark Angel Island Immigration Station, which from 1910 to 1940 processed over 1 million Asian immigrants. The island offers camping, hiking, and dining, and is a great place to ride a bike. The Blue & Gold Ferry offers daily trips to the island from Pier 41 in San Francisco.
Despite the early and pervasive discrimination against those of Chinese descent, the Chinese-American community has thrived in San Francisco. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community on the West Coast. Drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown offers fascinating novelty items, inexpensive and authentic Chinese food, and a variety of cultural attractions that reflect the city’s Chinese community and heritage. Located at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Bush Street, Chinatown is a must-see on any San Francisco itinerary.
11. North Beach
Visitors may wonder why the neighborhood is called North Beach when it is half a mile away from any beach. When the neighborhood first earned this name, it actually was by the beach. The original San Francisco shoreline began at Taylor and Francisco Streets just blocks from the heart of North Beach/Little Italy. In the late 1880s, the city filled in the area past Taylor Street with landfill to create more room for development, pushing the shoreline back for several blocks. North Beach is the premier destination for Italian food and culture in San Francisco.
12. Union Square
Union Square is an open and welcoming plaza lined with palm trees, sculpted bushes, terraces, and a café. Union Square is most famous for its shopping. With more than five hundred retail stores, high-end jewelers, electronics stores, trendy boutiques, and restaurants, Union Square draws tourists from all over the world. Locals shop here, too! Stop by Gucci, Burberry, or Chanel for a taste of name-brand luxury. Enjoy the view of Union Square from the top floor of Macy’s at the Cheesecake Factory, or try Boudin’s Sourdough Café for an authentic San Francisco restaurant. Walk one block to Market Street to visit Westfield Mall, a multi-level complex of hundred of retail stores, specialty shops, restaurants, and more.
Founded in 1911, the San Francisco Symphony is a classical music orchestra based in San Francisco. With a year-round schedule of performances along with many guest artists, the San Francisco Symphony is a great choice for a night of musical enjoyment.
Ride an iconic piece of San Francisco’s history: the cable cars. With two cable car lines coming from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf and one line traveling up and down California Street, there are plenty of sights to see while holding on for the exciting journey.
15. Cable Car Museum
While you are riding a Cable Car, why not get off at the Washington/Mason Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse? (the California cable car line has a stop three blocks away on Mason Street.) This Cable Car Barn is home to the Cable Car Museum. The museum has a large collection of mechanical displays, historic photographs and a viewing area of the engines and winding wheels that pull the cables. Admission is free.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is a modern art museum located in the SOMA (South of Market) area of San Francisco. A nonprofit organization, SFMOMA holds an internationally recognized collection of modern and contemporary art and was the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art. The museum’s current collection includes over 26,000 works of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts.
This downtown San Francisco public park is more than children’s playgrounds and landscaped greenery. With hundreds of free outdoor performances, public art displays, an ice skating rink, a bowling alley, a carousel and the Children’s Creativity Museum, there is something for everyone at the Yerba Buena Gardens.
18. Contemporary Jewish Museum
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, located across the street from the Yerba Buena Gardens in the SOMA (South of Market) area of San Francisco, is a smaller museum dedicated to Jewish culture, history, and art. The CJM is a non-collecting museum, working with artists, national, and international cultural institutions to bring in new exhibitions each year.
19. AT&T Park
Premier Bay views, glittering city lights, and a state-of-the-art stadium create a festive atmosphere at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Home to 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series winners the San Francisco Giants, and seating over 42,000 fans, this 2014 “Most Vegetarian-Friendly MLB ballpark in the country” is a must-see for fans visiting the city.
In the Southwestern reaches of San Francisco is the San Francisco Zoo, with 100 acres of gardens, animals, and activities. It is home to more than 1,000 exotic, endangered, and rescued animals. The San Francisco Zoo you see today was established in 1929 and built in the 1930s and 1940s.
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