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15 Things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area | The Filbert Street Steps and More

Updated on October 10, 2014
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge

It has been said that there are a few cities in America that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. Places that are so unique and hold so much character that you will not be able to achieve the same feeling anywhere else. Beside New York and New Orleans, there stands that which is dubbed 'The City By the Bay'.

For anyone who has a goal of traveling America, San Francisco is a destination that must be included on the list. Beautiful scenery goes hand in hand with one-of-a-kind neighborhoods, events, and attractions.

Once you delve into everything there is to see and do you will quickly come to realize that even a full week is not enough time. So, how do you shrink the list and give yourself enough time to enjoy the experience without rushing? The following is a list of some of the most popular attractions in the area with explanations on whether they are worth it or not.

Chinatown Mural
Chinatown Mural
Grant Street, Chinatown, San Francisco
Grant Street, Chinatown, San Francisco

Chinatown

The largest Chinatown outside of the actual country is located in San Francisco, with over 100,000 residents in a 20 square block area. If you want to experience the feeling of really being in a foreign land while still actually on American soil, this is one such place.

The main gate to Chinatown will funnel you down Grant Street, the most traveled street in this ethnic center. What you will instantly notice are tons of gift shops and restaurants that have little to do with Chinese culture. Most of the people walking this street will also be tourists who assume this is authentic as it gets. If you are looking for San Francisco t-shirts and trinkets at a reasonable price, this is the area. If you want true Chinese culture, it is not.

For anyone visiting this area, do yourself a favor and ignore the main strip. Take a walk up a side street, or even better, an alley. This is where you will be able to actually feel like you are in a foreign land with signs printed entirely in Chinese and businesses that sell authentic produce.

Personally, never once did I feel unsafe traveling through the area, despite it's poverty. Even walking down dimly lit alleys at dusk did not get the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. The locals were genuinely nice and at worst just ignored our presence. No one tried to sell us anything with the only exception a coupon here or there for a restaurant (which was usually on Grant).

A notable site of interest would be the fortune cookie factory which is located down Ross Alley. In a small building you will be able to actually see workers making their craft as it comes off their "assembly line". For a dollar you can purchase a small bag of freshly made cookies, or a larger bag at $5. The owner asks for a .50 donation to take a picture, obviously taking advantage of its notoriety as a tourist destination.

Overall, Chinatown is a definite destination not to miss while in town, therefore, it is WORTH IT.

Downtown Sausalito
Downtown Sausalito

Sausalito

If you cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take a veer to the right you will end up in Sausalito, a small town directly across the Bay. Known for it's Mediterranean feel with houses planted into the hillsides, even tiny homes here routinely sell in the millions making it one of the most expensive areas to live in the United States.

Tourists flock to the area for it's downtown which consists of many shops and restaurants. You will not only find stores with t-shirts and tourist goods, but also jewelry and art galleries.

Except for the store owners, most residents of the area have a quiet disdain for tourists. Many have done their best to quell the amount of people allowed in town by passing local ordinances against tour buses. While not completely successful they have forced double-decker buses to chop down into single level vehicles, and have forced the operators to enforce a quiet zone through the town. Honestly, the pretentiousness in the air hangs heavy.

If you are going to the town for the scenery, it is worth it. The views across the water of San Francisco are incredible. If you are going for the tourist attractions, forget it. The shops are ridiculously overpriced and offer nothing you could not get somewhere else cheaper. Even the food is at a premium with fast food burgers selling upwards of $9 and an ice cream cone at $5.

While I am sure there are people who would disagree, Sausalito is basically a town the offers an air of pretentiousness with little to back it up other than the view, therefore, I believe it is NOT WORTH IT.

Fisherman's Wharf Sign
Fisherman's Wharf Sign
Musee Mecanique Antique Arcade
Musee Mecanique Antique Arcade

Fisherman's Wharf / Pier 39

No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a walk thorough the infamous Fisherman's Wharf / Pier 39 area. Tourists line the streets year round to indulge in fresh seafood, enjoy a view of the Bay, watch street performers, shop, and breathe in the festive atmosphere.

Pier 39 is generally an outdoor shopping mall, with many stores and restaurants. If you are looking for vacation souvenirs you will not be disappointed. Note however that prices will be at a premium here. Most of the stereotypical things you would purchase may be cheaper in Chinatown as I mentioned earlier.

The most famous residents of Pier 39 are of course, the sea lions that reside on the floating K-dock. If within the area you will not miss the sound of their loud incessant barking. A visit to watch them is almost always worth it as they playfully interact with each other.

A hidden gem to this area is the Musee Mecanique, an antique penny arcade that is a must see for the novelty alone. Over 200 coin operated machines from the turn of the century are on display and in full working condition. While originally made to work for a penny, they have been fitted to take a quarter, a bargain for the enjoyment of times gone by.

Rarely will you be able to walk more than a few blocks without seeing a street performer. From magicians to musicians to the world famous Bushman there is always a show waiting. Steel drums penetrating the ears as you walk past the pier help make the atmosphere one of fun and relaxation.

Stroll up a bit and hit Ghirardelli Square where you can indulge in free samples of the many chocolates produced here since 1852. The complex is a tourist attraction in itself with many merchandise shops along with the requisite chocolate and ice cream stores.

Any visit to San Francisco will find the traveler ending up at one point or another at Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39. Do yourself a favor and indulge in this area at least once in your life. It is definitely WORTH IT.

Intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets
Intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets

Haight-Ashbury District

In the 60's the Hight-Ashbury area was the center of the counter-culture universe, with hippies making a pilgrimage from all over America to their home base. Fast forward to 2014 and the only real remnants of this scene involve tie dye t-shirts and a healthy supply of weed.

If you try, you will be able to get a sense of what the area was like in earlier times. The smell of marijuana will hit your nose, and depending on what you look like, chances are good you will get more than one offer to purchase some of the green stuff. There will be modern day hippie wanna-be's who wish to have been born in an earlier time sitting all around playing music or touting their ideas.

For the history buff, it is nice to see an area that holds so much folklore. A stop at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury for a picture is a must.

Another point of interest is 'Loved to Death'- a store that has been featured on the Science Channel series 'Oddities: San Francisco'. Inside the store you will find many one-of-a-kind items from two headed animals to antique weapons to macabre jewelry . Give yourself a half hour to look through the shop and wonder why anyone would want any of the strange items housed here.

It is a hard call, but in the end, one should visit the area just to catch a glimpse of the history it holds. It is by no means anything like it was in the last century, but even a small feel makes it WORTH IT.

Views of the Golden Gate Bridge
Views of the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

When you imagine San Francisco, one of the first pictures that come into mind is that of the Golden Gate Bridge. Opened in 1937 the landmark is still considered an engineering marvel. At a length of 1.7 miles, a walk or bike ride across the bridge is a must do for many who visit the area.

On either end you will get a breathtaking view worthy of a picture. Both sides have a visitor center that will allow you to pull over and admire the scenery. Walkers are allowed on the south (Bay) side of the bridge, while bikers are allowed on the north (ocean) side.

Note that during any time of the day the chances are good that temperatures on the bridge will be cooler than that of the city. The swirling winds will definitely make an appearance and chances are good your ears will be ringing afterward. Of course, it is still something that is quintessential San Francisco.

Whether you walk it, bike it, or drive across it, the bridge is an internationally known landmark which makes it absolutely.... WORTH IT

Japantown, San Francisco
Japantown, San Francisco

Japantown

Before World War II, there was a large and concentrated section of San Francisco that contained Japanese immigrants and culture. Unfortunately, due to the internment of Japanese citizens this population was displaced and by the time the war was over the area was settled by other ethnic groups. While some moved back to the area, others settled in other areas of the city or in the suburbs.

In the late 1960's an effort was made to piece together a six square block section of the traditional area as a Japanese cultural center. A mall was constructed along with other landmarks including the Peace Padoga, a monument to peace.

While the area has a wide selection of restaurants and shops, it fails to provide the same authentic feel as Chinatown. The mall has lots of stores with what seem like authentic goods, but they just as well could be produced and sold in regular retail stores anywhere else.

The concept is great, but for someone without a lot of time to see things, Japantown is just NOT WORTH IT.

Muir Woods Redwood Trees
Muir Woods Redwood Trees

Muir Woods

Before the early 1900's there were over two million acres of old growth forest in California. Massive Redwood and Sequoia trees dotted the landscape dwarfing anyone who stood next to them. By the time loggers had their turn at the harvest most of these areas were gone for good.

In the San Francisco Bay there was a single swatch of forest left in a canyon that was not easily accessible by loggers. Thanks to the foresight of US Congressman William Kent, the area was purchased and subsequently turned over the Federal Government. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed 'Muir Woods' a National Monument to be preserved for future generations.

The drive to Muir Woods is not long, you can get there in less than an hour depending on where you travel from San Francisco. Otherwise there are numerous tour companies who will gladly drop you off there for the right price. Since the attraction is park of the National Park System there is a $7 fee that must be paid upon entrance. More than worth it for the experience.

There are multiple trails you can go on to tour the woods, some easy, others more strenuous. Make sure to spend at least a couple hours there to enjoy the scenery and take in the atmosphere. The experience of seeing what the landscape should look like is definitely WORTH IT.

Little Italy/ North Beach
Little Italy/ North Beach

Little Italy/ North Beach

Another ethnic area of the city resides just north of Chinatown and south of Fishermans Wharf. The North Beach area is called Little Italy and rightfully so, as many of the residents claim Italian heritage, and the restaurants and shops uphold their traditions.

Unlike Chinatown though, it is not the case that you will feel transported to that land across the Atlantic. Most of the residents speak English, with very few not assimilated fully into American culture. It is more likely that you will think you are in an American city with a lot of Italian flags.

Despite this, the area is worth it for the restaurants alone. Quite a few high profile chefs operate out of the area, including Tony Gemignani who has won the World Champion Pizza title eleven times. There are also many bars offering a classic Italian atmosphere and an ample supply of good Old World and California wine.

If you are in town, you may as well take a walk to the area and enjoy the offerings. The time spent will be WORTH IT.

Inside Alcatraz Prison
Inside Alcatraz Prison
Alcatraz Newspaper Clipping
Alcatraz Newspaper Clipping

Alcatraz

Considered a cursed island by Native Americans, Alcatraz has a long and storied history that took it from being a Civil War Fort, to military prison, to Federal Penitentiary and to it's current role of a National Park. Looking out at the San Francisco Bay it is impossible to not notice the lonely island sitting just over a mile off shore.

Closed in 1963 due to the expense of operating the facility, the island was eventually turned into a major tourist attraction run by the National Park Service. Visitors can walk freely through most of the grounds to inside the prison and the cells themselves.

Tours book up over a month in advance so it is best to plan early. The most popular option is that of the 'night tour' which takes you to the island after dusk. These tickets sell out first and many times a month in advance of the regular tickets. Splurge on this option if you have the chance as it is only $7 more and easily worth more than that.

While the rest of the island is non-notable, the real attraction is the inside of the prison itself. If you take the tour I would recommend skipping the initial film and museum and heading up to the main building first. Once you arrive you will be given headphones and an audio device that will lead you on a self guided tour of the antique maximum security prison.

The feeling of stepping into one of the jail cells, especially the solitary confinement section, is enough to give almost anyone the chills. Imaging life inside the 'rock' while hearing the audio of actual former prison occupants telling tales of their time inside is a really neat experience that should not be missed.

Make sure to get a picture next to the Alcatraz Island sign before you get back on the boat. Since it runs on a schedule you may forget that it is there as you line up to get back to shore.

Let's face it, if lucky you will never personally see the inside of a working prison. Alcatraz is the closest thing you will ever have to imagining what it is like. It is that which makes it a must see attraction when visiting San Francisco, and absolutely positively WORTH IT.

San Francisco Cable Cars
San Francisco Cable Cars

Cable Cars

Hard to believe but one of San Francisco's most famous attractions almost disappeared in the 1940s. Faced with higher costs and the availability of newer modes of transportation, the city scheduled their elimination. Thanks to the efforts of a group of defiant citizens the issue was put to a vote and the citizens of the city decided to keep the lines open in perpetuity.

The Cable Cars are now one of the areas most famous attractions, with people lining up for hours to take a ride on the transportation of the past. Two main lines run throughout the downtown area taking tourists throughout the city.

Make sure to not call them Trolleys, a different mode of transportation. Also, know the difference between a cable car and a street car as to not sound ignorant to residents just waiting to correct you. A cable car runs on a track and attaches to an underground cable that moves at 9 MPH. A street car also runs on a track but gets it's power from an electric engine that pulls power from overhead wires.

Important Note: The main cable car line runs from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf. At both ends the cars will empty out and turn around. At almost every point in time there will be a long line to get on the cars. Waits of over two hours are not only common, but a regular occurrence. Along the way there will be additional stops and the operators have to leave room to pick up more people along the way, so they will leave seats open on initial fill up. To save yourself tons of time, go up one or two stops and load.

Seeing as cable cars are one of the things that make San Francisco the city it is, a trip or two up and down the lines is a requisite and WORTH IT.

Japanese Tea Garden
Japanese Tea Garden
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

A glance at most of the tourist maps of the city will show a large green section for Golden Gate Park. It could be assumed that it would be easy to visit and see everything in a few hours. You couldn't be more wrong. If you look closely you will see that the western portion of the map where the Park resides is condensed. The grounds are actually over two miles long, and a view of the actual size once you get will be overwhelming.

For starters, there are miles of trails available to walk through. One will be able to see all kinds of flora throughout forests, meadows and tended gardens. The Japanese Tea Garden is a must see for the small fee charged. There are also numerous lakes and ponds, including two waterfalls. The AIDS Memorial Grove is a beautiful area that offers benches to relax and reflect.

If you want activities, there are playgrounds and sports fields galore. For indoor entertainment look to on-site museums including the CA Academy of Sciences, the deYoung Art Museum, the Golden Gate Aquarium, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Buffalo Paddock which houses live bison for viewing.

For those who don't have the time or energy to walk the length of the park there are vendors offering bikes or segways. A quick study of the park map may be all it takes to convince you to go this route.

For those who travel the full length of the park, the Pacific ocean sits on the far western edge. For a sense of accomplishment succumb to the irresistible urge to dip your feet in after a long walk. The cool ocean breeze will be a welcome relief.

Honestly, if you plan on touring Golden Gate Park give yourself at least a day and make sure you study all your options beforehand. Otherwise you will leave feeling that you missed something.

With all there is to see and do, Golden Gate Park is WORTH IT.

Filburt Street Step Gardens
Filburt Street Step Gardens
Coit Tower
Coit Tower

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Coit Tower

For anyone looking for a birds-eye view of San Francisco, there is no better place than at the top of Coit Tower. Located just to the east of Little Italy you can walk to the top of Telegraph Hill and get a great view, or pay $5 to take the elevator to the top of the tower for a awe inspiring 360 degree view of the entire city.

The building itself is a landmark of San Francisco and can be seen almost everywhere. Built in 1933 as a monument to volunteer firefighters, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Murals from notable artists also adorn the tower and are worth a look.

A hidden gem of this area sits just behind the tower in the form of the Filburt Street Steps. Look carefully at the path behind the building and you will see a downward staircase consisting of over 400 steep steps winding down to the Embarcadero. Within this area you will see incredible flora in gardens kept by it's residents. If lucky you will see or hear wild parrots that inhabit this area.

For the views and especially the Filburt Steps Gardens, you must take a tour of the area. It is WORTH IT.

Mural in Mission District
Mural in Mission District

Union Square / Castro District / Mission District

Sitting near the middle of town resides the hustle and bustle of Union Square. For many tourists this will be the first part of town they experience after getting off the BART mass transit system. No matter the time of day there will be action and activities galore.

Let's face it though, this is a retail center. From Macy's to Bloomingdales to every store in-between, you can spend a day (and an entire wallet) on almost every brand of clothes imaginable. Going hand in hand you will find more restaurants than you could visit in a month.

While the area is well known in association with San Francisco, it does not offer anything you cannot find somewhere else. If you want to go shopping, stay home.

Located west of the downtown area you will find the Castro and Mission Districts. They represent the last stops on the Street Car route.

Castro is self-described as the "gayest spot on earth" and houses the large San Francisco gay community. You will know you are here from the rainbow flags flying over many businesses. Nightlife is it's biggest attraction as many flock to the area to enjoy the party atmosphere after hours.

The Mission District is predominantly Hispanic and holds a good collection of street art and murals. In addition it boasts incredible Latin and South American fare. Valencia Street is the main drag and you will find many offerings to suit your tastes.

While these areas have appeal, for anyone trying to fit everything in they sit at the bottom of the list. For someone with limited time, they are NOT WORTH IT.


The San Francisco Bay Bridge
The San Francisco Bay Bridge

© 2014 Jeff

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    • Chauncey St Clair profile image

      Chauncey St Clair 

      4 years ago from New York City

      This article brought back a lot of wonderful memories of when I went with my husband! Thanks for publishing, you've reminded me that it's time I get back!

    • Nanciajohnson profile image

      Nancy Johnson 

      4 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      I love visiting San Francisco. It has been awhile since I was last there, so thanks for the trip down memory lane!

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