San Francisco - Sightseeing
San Francisco’s compact core makes for a leisurely and fun shopping expedition. Centre of the retail action is the city’s Union Square. Here you’ll find the twin bookends of American department store legend: Macy’s and Saks. Both offer the latest names in fashion, shoes, cosmetics and gifts. Levi’s huge store, too, is worth a look for its (cheaper in the US) jeans and shirts.
Fanning out from here, the pedestrianised streets and squares centred on Post and Stockton streets offer all the big hitters, from Louis Vuitton to Armani, Diesel to Gap. High and low fashion, chic and edgy - they all mingle together in San Francisco, quite unlike anywhere else in the US.
The cutting edge Westfield San Francisco Centre mall and the surrounding downtown San Francisco are where you’ll find funky fashions from Nordstrom’s and Abercrombie and Fitch and New York’s Kenneth Cole. If anything, this area has the edge, especially when it comes to younger, fresher fashions and eclectic boutiques.
For more colour and character, head to Chestnut Street - a distinctive, independent-flavoured enclave of retro gift shops, kitchenware, lingerie and gadget stores. There’s a great selection of delis and coffee shops here too, so you can rest your feet for ten minutes or so.
No shopping trip in San Francisco would be complete without stopping off in Chinatown. You’re sure to find a bargain here, whether you’re after electrical gifts, linens, perfumes or traditional Chinese remedies.
Haight Street, the epicentre of the hippy culture, still feels wonderfully unpredictable, even if where underground magazine publishers once stood, now there're dazzling jewellers, boutiques and sleek Scandinavian furnishing stores.
North Beach is the Italian district of San Francisco and, as you’d expect, this is ground zero for cool European clothes, imported shoes, cool record shops and leisurely lunch stops.
Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco’s timeless symbol, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway 101, is a deep red, Art Deco landmark that you simply can’t ignore, no matter where you are in the city. You can ride, cycle or walk across it (but be aware it’s two miles long!) or head to the rock pools and sands of Baker Beach, for stunning views across its length: time your visit for twilight, and you’ll remember the view all the more, when its lights start to twinkle against the skyline. Go in the daytime and you should be aware that the north end of the beach is a nudists’ area - so you may get a view you didn’t plan on!
Al “Scarface” Capone and co are no longer at home, but the island prison of Alcatraz still sends a shiver down the spine. The ‘inescapable prison’ rising from a tiny island in the San Francisco Bay, holds day tours with a difference. They’ll even offer to lock you in a cell, should you feel inclined. Head to Pier 33 for tour tickets and to catch the ferry. Advance booking is recommended as tours sell out fast.
Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39
Still clustered around a series of working (i.e. the fishing fleet unload their catch here) piers, Fisherman’s Wharf is lively by day and night, with its gift shops, pocket-sized museums, performing sea lions and seafood shacks. Part harbour, part traditional fun-fair, you can expect tourist-friendly attractions such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, a wax museum and the excellent San Francisco Maritime Museum all rubbing shoulders in this animated, buzzy waterfront district. Many tours depart from here too.
Famous for its 'postcard row', Alamo Square is one of San Francisco's most photographed spots, so make sure you stop here to capture the colourful Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies. Set against a backdrop of modern skyscrapers, this view offers an interesting contrast between old and new. The grassy square makes a perfect picnic spot with plenty to see.
End a thrilling bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge at this stunning seaside town or take the more relaxed option and catch a ferry across the bay. The waterfront offers unbeatable views of the San Francisco bay, whilst the variety of outdoor dining options provides a welcome way to refuel before heading back over the bridge. Sausalito has plenty of historical sights to take in, and with the option of boat rides and kayak trips along the shoreline, you may find yourself missing the last ferry back to San Francisco for more time to explore.
Standing at the top of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower is actually a monument built to honour the city’s volunteer firefighters. Its observation deck offers perhaps the best view of the city, and better still, it’s free. Twin Peaks, the two hills that tower over San Francisco at 922 feet, offer another breathtaking view of the city, as does the lofty Mount Davidson park.
The Aquarium of the Bay, Pier 39, is the city’s stunning underwater attraction. Within, you’ll come (almost) face to face with sharks, bat rays and weird and frightening-looking creatures from the Bay. The daily frenzy of shark feeding-time is a must-see!
More sedate thrills are the order of the day at the trim and elegant Japanese Tea Gardens where, instead of sharks, the Koi carp ponds offer a chance of peaceful contemplation, amid native Japanese and Chinese plants and shrubs.
If you’re travelling with kids, the Exploratorium, Lyon Street, is a blast. This state-of-the-art science and technology museum offers hundreds of “please touch” exhibits that cleverly reveal the wonders of the natural world around us. Great for a San Francisco rainy day (or, for that matter, to escape the fog for a few hours!).
Lombard Street is known as the “crookedest” street in the world. With its switchback, hairpin bends and flower-strewn verges alongside elegant Victorian mansions, this is one street with more than its fair share of kerb appeal. You don’t have to drive down it (there're usually long queues) but you can take the pedestrian stairway for great views from the top.
The Mission District is the epicentre of the city’s vibrant Latin American communities. Here, amid the street markets and murals, you’ll find tempting speciality shops, wonderful coffee and pastry cafes, markets and some of the oldest houses in the city. Dolores Park’s palms and sun-dappled park benches offer a pleasant spot to catch your breath.
The San Francisco area is a sports fan’s Mecca. The city’s baseball team, The Giants, have been thrilling crowds since the 1800’s - winning more games than any team in the history of baseball. You can catch them at their home ground, AT&T Park. The city’s football team, the San Francisco 49ers, play at Candlestick Park, until their new, state-of-the-art stadium is completed in 2014.
San Francisco is a city of parks. From ordered and trim, to wild and rugged, the city’s an outdoor-lovers’ paradise. The Golden Gate Park is an expansive playground incorporating museums, animal enclosures, funfairs and Crystal Palace-sized greenhouses. The California Academy of Sciences, within its borders, is an ambitious new museum celebrating man’s ingenuity, in a suitably dramatic Renzo Piano designed building.
Lake Merced offers hiking, fishing and viewing, with neighbouring Twin Peaks - at the top of the hill - offering the best 360 degree panoramas of the city.
Lincoln Park in Richmond, which provides majestic views of the Marin Headlands, and The Presidio, home to the gorgeous Palace of the Legion of Honor, offers coastal walks, forests and access to the fine stretch of sand at Baker Beach.
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