06/06/2012 10:12 EDT | Updated 02/11/2015 04:59 EST

Top 5 Must-Sees In San Francisco (PHOTOS)


Everyone has their own San Francisco moment.

Whether it’s riding a cable car, seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time or hanging out at the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets trying to imagine what it was like during the Summer of Love, something usually leaves a lasting impression on tourists who visit this foggy Californian city.

A city of just over 800,000, San Francisco is a popular destination because there’s something for every kind of traveller. There’s enough fine dining to add several inches to your waistline. If you’re a wino, you’re just a hop, skip and a jump to the wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma. If the great outdoors appeals to you, Muir Woods National Monument is the place to get lost. Oh, and if prison breaks and hearing about some of America’s high-profile criminals is your thing, there’s always Alcatraz. To make sure you get the most out of your trip and have your perfect San Francisco moment, here’s the Top 5 things you must see and do.

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Experience The Golden Gate Bridge

Discover the reason why this iconic bridge was painted orange instead of the colour bearing its name while touring a new 3,500-square-foot visitors pavilion opening in May 2012. Arguably the most photographed bridge on Earth, the Golden Gate Bridge is celebrating 75 years in 2012, with celebrations happening throughout the year. Spanning 2.7 kilometres, about 120,000 automobiles cross the bridge every day and with spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline and infamous Alcatraz prison, it’s doubtful the drive ever gets old. Visit the new pavilion and take a personally guided tour to find out how long it took to build the bridge, how many people died during construction and how many times it has been closed.

Live Like The Locals

On Thursdays, downtown workers rush the food trucks. On Saturdays, everyone – from families to the city’s top celebrity chefs – jostle at the fresh produce, meat, cheese and fish counters to get the very best for their dinners. Get a taste of the life as a San Franciscan by wandering around the bustling Farmers Market in the city’s Ferry Building located on the waterfront. There’s an extensive application to be granted permission to sell goods at this market. Farmers must prove they’re environmentally responsible, humane to animals and pay fare wages to their workers. Upwards of 25,000 people pass through the Farmers Market each week, stocking up on artisanal breads, jams, prepared foods and products.

Taste Your Way Through Wine Country

A quick drive to the rolling vineyards of Napa Valley and Sonoma, San Francisco is a popular destination among winos. A great way to sample all of the fruit-forward pinots and buttery chardonnays you want until you’re cross-eyed without needing a designated driver is to take a tour. Extranomical Tours’ Wine Country and Redwoods Escape begins with a stop at Muir Woods National Monument. Get your camera ready as you wander through the fog-drenched forest full of towering Redwood trees, many over 600 years old. Hundreds of shades of green can be spotted through the forest in the form of moss, plants and vegetation growing in the heavy shade. Things may only get foggier from there as the tour takes you to meet the owners and sample the wines at three vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. The ride back to your hotel will be quiet as most passengers try to nap off their tipsy state.

Travel tip: Lunch at The Girl and the Fig in downtown Sonoma is a must. The grill cheese sandwich is the best you’ll ever have.

Walk The Pier

One of the city’s top tourist attractions is Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. The waterfront hot spot is chock-full of restaurants serving Dungeness crab, merchants selling t-shirts and activities including a boat tour to Alcatraz. The aquarium and second-level deck where you can watch sea lions basking in the sunlight is also a must-do. Fisherman’s Wharf attracts a number of local “personalities.” Perhaps the most infamous is the bushman, a busker who hides behind bushes and jumps out at unsuspecting tourists minding their own business. After he scares the daylights out of you, he’ll say, “I made you holler, now give me a dollar.”

Take In The City

They say the weather can change within a few city blocks and it’s also true for the landscape and people who live or hang out there. If you can handle the steep inclines, a great way to explore San Francisco is on foot. Visit the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, which still has a hippie and bohemian vibe left over from the Summer of Love in the late 1960s. The Castro district, perhaps the best-known LGBT community in the United States and home of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay man elected to public office in the late 1970s, is also popular among tourists. No trip to San Francisco would be complete without checking out the twists and turns on Lombard Street. Dubbed the city’s most crooked street, Lombard is famous for its zigzags that challenge even the most skilled drivers. Finally, all of your shopping desires can be met with a trip to Union Square. Many hotels are located inside the square or nearby so you don’t have to lug your purchases very far.

Where To Stay

Mystic Hotel

The newly-opened Mystic Hotel by chef and hotelier Charlie Palmer is perfect for travellers looking for a boutique that’s quaint but bursting with style. Located in Union Square and recently renovated, the 79-room property offers small but trendy rooms, spacious bathrooms and a speakeasy-style bar on the second floor called the Burritt Room and Tavern. It’s packed every night, signaling the hotel’s success as a popular hangout for both guests and locals.

The Westin St. Francis

Towering over the city’s Union Square since 1904, the St. Francis has survived a fire that broke out following an earthquake in 1906 and has had guests that range from celebrities and political figures to royalty. It also, some believe, has its fair share of ghosts. With spacious rooms and luxurious décor, you’ll get a mix of history and subtle elegance staying here. Be sure to splurge at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak for dinner. Seasonal ingredients are used to enhance each dish and some of the chef’s creations are bursting with so much flavour, you’ll want to stand up and clap.

* The writer was a guest of San Francisco Travel.