By David Ward Destination Specialist

A guide to the best of California's golden city

If you’re planning a California road trip and the Pacific Coast Highway is on your list, you’re sure to be spending some time in San Francisco. Situated right on the coast, this is one of the USA’s most picturesque cities with beaches to the north and south, redwood forests close at hand and the mountains just a short drive away. But, with so much to see and do downtown, it’s well worth factoring in some time to explore the city itself. Here’s our top ten rundown of the must-see attractions.

Explore Fisherman’s Wharf

This is an absolute must. Fisherman’s wharf is San Francisco at its iconic best – busting stalls, street performers, the smell of the sea and the sound of sea lions basking in the sunshine at Pier 39. Head there early in the morning to watch fisherman unload their catch or join the crowds later on to sample it for yourself; steaming bowls of chowder and sourdough bread with cracked crab claw dipped in melted butter are both San Francisco classics. Then, why not pop along to nearby Ghirardelhi Square to try some of the famous chocolate or to pick up an ice cream for a sunset stroll along the waterfront? A delicious end to an action-packed day. 

Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf

Visit Alcatraz

Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Robert Stroud (a.k.a the Bird Man of Alcatraz) – some of America’s most infamous criminals were housed in the walls of Alcatraz prison, cast out into waters of San Francisco Bay. For us, a tour of this iconic institution is a must for the chance to experience what life must have been like in one of the world’s most notorious penitentiaries. The self-guided audio tour, complete with eerie prison noises and commentary from former inmates and guards, is superb and comes free with your ferry ticket. It’s popular, so be sure to book well in advance, especially if you’re visiting in summer.


Ride the San Francisco cable car

Another highlight of a visit to San Francisco is a ride on its historic car, which ploughs a route over the steep hills between Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square. The views of the city re superb, and you’ll get to see the wonderfully twisty Lombard Street with its flowered gardens and hairpin bends. Do allow yourself plenty of time, however, as the queues can be long. Rides cost $8 per person.

The San Francisco Cable Car

Shop ‘til you drop at Union Square

Once you’ve hopped off the Cable Car, you’ll be perfectly placed for some retail therapy in Union Square. The square itself, and its immediate surroundings, are the SFO equivalent of Oxford Street, so expect all the top chain stores plus huge department stores including a massive Macy’s. There’s also a Bloomingdales and a host of big-name boutiques, from Cartier and Chanel to Ralf Lauren and Tiffany & Co. And, when you, or your credit card, gets tired of all that shopping, you can always treat yourself to a slice at the truly wonderful Cheesecake Factory – yum! You’ll even find concerts in the park in summer and an ice rink in winter, for a dose of seasonal fun.

Union Square

Spend a day at Golden Gate Park

This vast park can easily keep you entertained for a whole day, whether you fancy exploring botanical gardens, boating on the lake, riding a Segway or enjoying the simple pleasures of a picnic in the sunshine. Budding botanists will love the Conservatory of Flowers with its highland, lowland and aquatic zones, while the Japanese Gardens are a sensory delight. And, there’s plenty for art buffs to enjoy, too, not least the excellent de Young Museum with its world-spanning collection of fine art.

Japanese Gardens at Golden Gate Park

Drive the Golden Gate Bridge

Just to the north of Golden Gate Park is the bridge that shares its name. There’s not much to say about this world-famous icon apart from, whether you actually drive across it or take in the views of it from the surrounding hills and beaches, it’s an absolute must on any visit to the city. Remember, if you are taking the car, there’s a toll of around $8, which you’ll need to pre-pay, unless you have a FasTrak tag on your hire car. Tolls are only charged one way, on the southbound drive into the city.

Golden Gate Bridge

Relive the 60s in Haight-Ashbury

Also on the border of Golden Gate Park, the erstwhile hippy enclave of Haight-Ashbury was the epicentre of 1967’s (in)famous Summer of Love. Today, it retains its bohemian vibe, played out across vintage bookstores, trendy bars, cafes and artist’s studios. If you happen to be in town in June, be sure to work the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair into your itinerary, where live music stages and countless street stalls bring the neighbourhood back to its creative roots. Otherwise, it’s well worth booking onto a guided tour to get the most out of the area’s more eccentric delights.


Go for a hike on Angel Island

This hidden gem is a short ferry ride from the city but a world away from the hubbub of downtown. Here, you can enjoy gentle strolls along sandy beaches, or take a hike up to the island’s lofty summit for unmatched views across San Francisco Bay. There’s even an excellent little café and, in summer, the chance to enjoy a spot of live music at the Angel Island Cantina. For a slice of history, pay a visit to the immaculately restored US Immigration Station, which served as the main processing point for thousands of west coast immigrants between 1910 and 1940.

Angel Island

Take in a ball game

San Francisco is a city with one of America’s proudest sporting traditions. Indeed, from football’s 49ers to baseball’s Giants, there are few places across the entire country which can boast quite the same big-game heritage. But it’s not just San Fran itself that holds all the sporting cards Across the bay in Oakland, the multi-NBA-title-winning Golden State Warriors will have sports fans licking their lips. The best way to experience it all? Book a ticket for a game, of course. After all, there’s nothing quite like the razzmatazz of watching live sport in one of America’s pro leagues. 

Oracle Park

Explore San Francisco's food scene

Culturally diverse and with the ocean, forests and mountains on the doorstep, San Francisco’s food scene is rightly revered. From the wharf’s catch-of-the-day seafood to the Mission’s burrito bars and taquerias, this is a city that tantalises the taste buds at every turn. And there’s something delicious for all times of the day. For breakfast and lunch, the Tartine bakery and Acme Bread Company are among our favourites, as are the numerous farmer’s markets dotted throughout Mission, Ferry Plaza and Noe Valley. Then, for dinner, you’ll be spoilt for choice as you pick between celebrated fine dining and those hidden gems favoured by the locals. And to wash it all down? Choose between artisan coffees, craft beers and the celebrated wines of Napa and Sonoma, just a few miles north. 

Fresh crab claw at Fisherman's Wharf