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Iconic San Francisco Tourist Attractions

Updated on August 2, 2016
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Patty Burness specializes in culinary & wine tourism & luxury travel. Get up close & personal with the best of her worldwide adventures.

San Francisco through the fog
San Francisco through the fog | Source

It was recently reported that almost 25 million visitors came to San Francisco in 2015. But not to worry, there are enough iconic San Francisco landmarks for everyone. Here are some destinations that should be on everyone’s must-see list.

The magnificent Golden Gate Bridge
The magnificent Golden Gate Bridge | Source

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is a site to behold with its beautiful color (officially it’s called international orange) and the soaring towers at either end. This suspension bridge is about two miles long and connects San Francisco to Marin County in the north. It hovers over the strait that connects the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Construction was started on the bridge in 1933 and opened to a huge celebration in 1937 that lasted for a week. It is one of the Wonders of the Modern World.

The bridge is easily accessible by bus, car, bike or on foot. There are walkways on either side of the six traffic lanes for bikers and pedestrians. If you’re driving, find vista points on both the San Francisco and Marin sides of the bridge (there is a toll when headed southbound). You won’t leave without at least a dozen pictures; after all, it is one of the most photographed bridges in the world.

Iconic Coit Tower
Iconic Coit Tower | Source

Coit Tower

Known as the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, this 210 foot structure is located in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood. It was named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy resident who was an ardent supporter of the fire department. When she died, she left a substantial sum of money to beautify her favorite city. Completed in 1933, the tower resembles a fire hose nozzle though accounts indicate that it wasn’t designed with that intention.

The white cement cylindrical tower rises from the crest of Telegraph Hill. Ride an elevator to the top of the tower where you’ll find an observation deck and stunning panoramic views of San Francisco. Murals on the interior of the ground level depict life in California during the depression and were originally painted in 1934. They have recently been restored to their original glory.

Visiting Coit Tower is free, but there is a charge for the elevator ride to the Observation Deck. A park surrounds the Tower and is a perfect place to picnic. Access to Coit Tower is by car (although the small parking lot quickly fills up), bus, bike and on foot.

Ride the cable car
Ride the cable car | Source

Cable Cars

The cable cars of San Francisco are iconic and became even more famous in the popular song “I left my heart in San Francisco” when Tony Bennett croons that “little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.” Visitors can enjoy the ride on a number of lines crisscrossing the city from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf and from the bottom of Market Street to the top of Nob Hill. The thrill of riding a cable car doesn’t just come from sitting aboard and taking in the sites: Stand on a runner and hold on as you go up and down hills and around corners listening as grip operators clang out on song while ringing the bell.

The system was first tested in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie who used a wire-rope design (patented by his father in Great Britain) for the cars. About a month later, the system officially opened on Clay Street, and within a few years, the system spread throughout San Francisco as the cable was laid and tracks were built. In 1906, the system was destroyed by the devastating earthquake, but after numerous efforts by local residents, some of the lines were reinstated. The cable cars are now a “moving” National Historic Landmark.

Don’t forget a visit to the Cable Car Barn and Powerhouse where you can see the cable machinery and other mechanical devices in action as well as historic cable cars on display.

Cable car conductors will accept cash for the price of a ticket or riders can use transfers from the bus and rail lines.

Fisherman's Wharf from the Hyde Street Cable Car
Fisherman's Wharf from the Hyde Street Cable Car | Source

Fisherman's Wharf

The Hyde Street cable car line barrels down Nob Hill and ends in this glorious destination. Fisherman’s Wharf extends along the northern waterfront of the city from Ghirardelli Square past Pier 39. It’s here that you’ll find hotels, restaurants, shops, Bay cruises and fishing charters, historic sailing vessels and even a small beach – all with fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. Of course the area takes its name from the fleet of fishing vessels that came with the Gold Rush and continue to moor here until it’s time to head out for a catch of Dungeness Crab, herring, salmon and more.

Ideal for families and singles alike, find several popular shopping areas such as Ghirardelli Square and Pier 39, museums including the Exploratorium and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! and historic ships like the Jeremiah O’Brien and the USS Pampanito, a World War II submarine docked at the Hyde Street Pier. There’s even an aquarium near the docks where hundreds of sea lions congregate and bark away to the delight of visitors.

It’s best to walk or take the bus or cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf. Parking can be expensive in the garages and hard to find on the street where meters must be fed. Then it’s time to get out and stroll along, taking in the magnificent sights.


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    • profile image

      Patty Burness 15 months ago

      You'll have a great time. . enjoy!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 15 months ago from Auburn, WA

      One of my favorite places. But still haven't ridden a cable car visited Coit Tower. Hopefully soon. Sharing.