If you’re like me, going to San Francisco for the first time is going to result in love at first sight. While it takes me a little while to find the charms of some cities, I knew the minute I stepped off the BART at Embaracadero in 2012 that I was going to be smitten with SF for the rest of my life. I keep joking with my family that if I truly settled down in the U.S., it would have to be in San Francisco.
I’ve since been able to visit the city once more with Elissa and her family. While I’m hoping to stay a bit longer on a future third trip and really explore, I thought I’d put together a fun little list of things to do in San Francisco if you’re a first time visitor.
Located in Northern California’s Bay Area, San Francisco is the West Coast’s answer to the East Coast’s NYC (arguably more than LA). It’s a city for dreamers and creatives both in the traditional and modern sense, which is probably why it has such a liberal reputation.
I can’t pinpoint why I fell in love with San Francisco, but I did. Who knows? Maybe the astronomical rent prices and steep hills will make me ambivalent someday, but for now, it’s still one of my favorite places in the world.
Tips on Visiting San Francisco
You’re probably going to want to rent a car at one point. While the main area around the bay is easily walkable, there are a lot of other places that you need a car for.
Where to Stay
If you have a car, you should be pretty okay staying in the surrounding area (and it might be cheaper).
What to Wear
Be comfortable! There are a lot of hills in San Francisco, so wear comfortable shoes. It’s also a lot cooler in the summer than you’d think it is. The first time I went in July, I had to borrow my friend’s sweatshirt. Here are some simple pieces that would work well:
Also if you’re coming from abroad, San Francisco is where Everlane’s headquarters are, so you can head to their shop and see everything in person. It’s only closed on Mondays, address: 2170 Folsom St, Ground Floor, San Francisco, CA 94110.
It’s also great if you’ve forgotten a basic clothing item and need to replace it quickly since Everlane is both ethical and high quality.
Just be smart. San Francisco is a major city, so of course, you’ll want to be as cautious as you are in any of the big cities around the world. I felt okay taking the BART at night when I met up with a friend, but it also wasn’t the safest I’ve ever felt on public transportation. As always, if you’re not from the U.S., make sure you get travel insurance. Look at your local companies, but if anything check out World Nomads to get a quote. They’ll help you cover everything from lost tech to hospital visits.
Going to San Francisco for the First Time?: 10 Things Not to Miss
1. The Golden Gate Bridge
Of all the bridges in the world, this one is my favorite. Back when I was trying to be more history-ish with my blogging, I wrote about its poetic background. There’s just something about the design and color… I really don’t think I’ve seen a bad picture of it! I’d highly recommend walking across or even halfway across to get the full experience. When I visited, we parked closer to Fisherman’s Wharf and took a bus when we were around Ghiradelli Square. Here’s a direction guide from their site.
2. Angel Island
When I was growing up, I really didn’t think much about the Asian-American experience. In fact, the only time I ever heard of Angel Island was in an English vocabulary book in ninth grade! You know how you get 10 new words to learn, and then one of the activities is a paragraph that’s always about something random like history or current events? That’s how I first heard of Angel Island.
For 30 years, from 1910-1940, nearly 1 million Asian immigrants passed through Angel Island. Unfortunately, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (yep, that was really a thing!), immigrants could sometimes be on the island for years waiting.
On my next visit, I’d really like to take the time to visit. I’ve always felt like it’s something I should experience on my own. While the impression I got from Ellis Island has always been hopeful, the impression I get from studying Angel Island always seems much sadder, so I’d like to see for myself.
3. Grab dinner in Chinatown.
SF’s Chinatown here is the largest outside of Asia and the oldest on the continent. Head here for some authentic cuisine and feel like you’ve been transported to the bustling streets of Beijing or Hong Kong. Elissa, who had just gone to Hong Kong earlier that year, said the Chinatown there felt just like downtown HK.
4. Overdose on chocolate at Ghiradelli Square.
This one is for all the chocolate lovers! Within Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghiradelli started out as a chocolate factory. Once the chocolate manufacturing was sold in the 1960s, the Square became home to a mix of restaurants and stores. When I visited the first time, we actually went to the Ghirardelli Chocolate store and split their massive sundae between the four of us. Lola of North Beach also has some cute souvenir options if you want something more than generic photo postcards.
** Side note: Another fun place for a sweet treat is Mr. Holmes’ Bakehouse (home to the famous “I Got Baked” wall). I went to the one in Seoul, and the baked goods are delicious. Plus, yes, that wall is fun to take a photo of!
5. Eat clam chowder at the Boudin Restaurant.
By far a must eat in San Francisco is its clam chowder bread bowls. And Boudin is perhaps the most iconic place to eat them. While you can eat upstairs at the restaurant, which I did on my second visit, you can also get them down below. It’s a little more casual and budget-friendly too. Either way, you’ll be full for days afterward!
6. Go on a Napa Valley wine tour.
One of the things we did on my second visit was driving out to Napa Valley for the day. If you’ve been reading TSGA, then you know I don’t drink alcohol but I really enjoy learning about wine and visiting wineries. No joke when I was visiting my friend, Allison, in Wyoming we sat there and watched a wine documentary on Netflix.
The U.S. is one of the New World wine manufacturers, and Napa Valley is the heart of it all. We went to Artesia Winery, which has some gorgeous architecture and views to go with your wine. I wound up bringing back a bottle for my mom.
7. Take a ferry to Alcatraz.
An island in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was a federal prison for almost 30 years in the mid-1900s. In its time as a prison, only one known escape occurred in 1962. In fact, if you’re like me, this is probably why you’ve only vaguely heard of Alcatraz before now– the famous Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz.
The first time we tried to go, we couldn’t just get tickets at the pier, so I’ve only seen it from afar. Viator has a bunch of different options, and I’d definitely book ahead if this is high on your list.
8. Wind down along Lombard Street.
Deemed “the Crookedest Street in the World,” I remember seeing it on “Mythbusters.” The winding street was designed to actually make the hill safer to drive and walk along. I personally would recommend walking down instead of driving as you’ll be able to enjoy the house fronts more and not worry about getting your car safely through all the twists and turns.
9. Have a little picnic by the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square.
They’re these beautiful Victorian and Edwardian style homes that are painted in different colors. While you can see versions of them around the country, the most popular ones are right in Alamo Square in SF.
10. Drive out to Monterrey Bay.
While in San Francisco, definitely take a day trip out of the city and down to Monterey Bay. If you obsessed over “Big Little Lies” like I did this last summer, then you know the name because it’s the setting of the HBO TV show (the book takes place in Australia). It’s absolutely gorgeous out there.
Pay and head into the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. I don’t normally visit aquariums when I travel, but this is a worth every penny. Even if you only go for the sea otters, you’ll absolutely love it!
BONUS TIP: Just walk along the bay.
Honestly, the best way to enjoy San Francisco is to just walk around! You can walk along the pier or go down to the waterfront. You can get beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ghiradelli Square, Alcatraz, and more. I feel like each time I went, we spent a good portion of our day just enjoying being outside and taking it all in.
And there you go! Some tips and things to do if you’re going to San Francisco for the first time. Am I missing anything? What would you add to the list?
For More California Travel Posts
- Elissa’s Local Guide to Los Angeles
- The Getty Villa: Explore Los Angeles’s Best Kept Secret
- Postcards from San Francisco (a very old, TSGA style post :p)