San Francisco, California
Perched atop steep rolling hills that overlook the San Francisco Bay, San Francisco resides on the edge of the peninsula and acts as a guardian for one of the Pacific’s largest natural harbors. The ‘City by the Bay’ is undeniably one of the greatest cities that draw millions of visitors from all over the world. It is easy to see why after you have strolled along its sloped streets, listened to the romantic bell chimes of passing cable cars, and marveled at the fine architecture of the Victorian-style houses. The city leaves visitors in a mist of enchantment after exposing them to its significantly rich history, trend-setting cuisine, and scenic beauty that towers high over its celebrated blanket of fog.
Although San Francisco has substantial offerings in terms of landmarks and attractions, the city is quite compact in comparison to other metropolitan giants. Despite being condensed to nearly 47 square miles, every district in San Francisco exudes its own certain unique flair and culture. This creates a more intimate environment that cultivates personalized experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE: The Golden Gate Bridge is the most iconic landmark that is synonymous with the city of San Francisco. The suspension bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County and spans the Golden Gate strait, which is the channel between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay. The engineers of the bridge utilized Art Deco architectural elements in the design of its streetlights, railings, and tower decorations. The Art Deco motifs are prevalent features that compliment the burnt orange coloring of the bridge perfectly. The most frequently admired overlooks on the San Francisco side of the bridge are the Golden Gate Welcome Center, Golden Gate Overlook, and Fort Point:
Golden Gate Welcome Center – Besides being a center that is dedicated to the stories and history of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Golden Gate Welcome Center is also a great place to take pictures. From the Art Deco themed Roundhouse Café to the Joseph Strauss Statue surrounded by flowers, the welcome center is an inspiring location to become acquainted with the Bay Area’s trademark bridge.
Golden Gate Overlook – The Golden Gate Overlook is on the western side of the bridge and provides onlookers with a straight-on view of the Golden Gate in a northerly direction. The lookout is in amongst the various batteries, which were defense fortifications that mounted artillery guns to defend the coast against ocean threats during the World War I and II.
Fort Point – Fort Point is a masonry fortification from the Civil War era that offers a spectacular ground-level vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge. Whether inside the fort or along the roadway, the perspective from this location effectively illustrates the bridge’s overwhelming prominence over the San Francisco Bay.
Marin Headlands – The Marin Headlands are a vast, naturally exquisite, and diverse wilderness that is set along a hillside peninsula with stunning views of San Francisco. The cliffside landscape abounds with hiking trails, historical sites, and family-friendly picnic areas, which make this expanse of land a breathtaking attraction. Popular destinations in the Marin Headlands include Vista Point, Battery Spencer, Fort Baker, Kirby Cove Beach, and the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
Vista Point – Vista Point is off of Highway 101 and just before the Alexander Avenue off-ramp in Sausalito. The view from Vista Point is a straight-on, southbound view of the Golden Gate Bridge with a view of San Francisco to the southeast. Along with a spectacular panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay, Vista Point is also home to the Lone Sailor Statue, which commemorates all of those who serve(d) in the U.S. Sea Services: Navy, Marine Corps, Merchant Marines, and Coast Guard.
Battery Spencer – The view from Battery Spencer is the ultimate perspective that pits the Golden Gate Bridge looming proudly in front of the city of San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay. The lookout is perched on top of a bluff so that tourists are at eye level with this modern masterpiece, which reinforces why this outlook is the quintessential perspective of the Golden Gate Bridge. Parking in the immediate area is extremely limited and, since this is a tourist hotspot, congestion along Conzelman Road is to be expected with motorist often stopping to wait for a spot. Despite the lack of immediate parking, there is the North Tower Golden Gate Parking Lot, which serves as an overflow lot for sightseers who don’t mind the steep trek back up the road to the overlook.
Fort Baker – Fort Baker is a U.S. Army base located on the northeastern side of the Golden Gate Bridge. To access the fort, take Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and take the Alexander Avenue off-ramp heading west. Signage will direct motorists to this secluded enclave of intact historical structures, scenic landscapes, and ample parking. Once at Fort Baker, take time to walk around the marina and then head to the Moore Road Pier. The Moore Road Pier extends into San Francisco Bay and provides onlookers with a southwestern view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the Needles rocks in the foreground. For an elevated view, make your way up behind the Cavallo Point Resort to the Chapel Steps Trail, which offers a tremendous overlook of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Baker, and San Francisco Bay.
Kirby Cove Beach – Kirby Beach is a secluded, course-sand beach and camping area with a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge facing east. The beach is situated at the base of the Marin Headlands and can be accessed via the Kirby Beach Trail, which is a 2-mile round-trip hike that starts just west of the Battery Spencer parking lot. The trail is relatively steep, so take caution as the decent to the beach may be easy, but the return trip can test your mettle. After everything is said and done, the demanding effort of this excursion will prove worthwhile for its alluring scenic views.
Point Bonita Lighthouse – The Point Bonita Lighthouse is a working lighthouse that warns ocean vessels of the dangers at the entrance of the Marin Headlands. The lighthouse is surrounded by the rough ocean waters that surge and crash against the craggy coast. To get to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, take Conzelman Road from Battery Spencer westward until the road intersects with Field Road. Here there will be parking available along the road or in the lots adjacent to the road (NOTE: The Point Bonita YMCA Parking Lot is not available to tourists, but there are additional dirt lots towards Battery Alexander that will require a longer hike). The trail down to the Point Bonita Lighthouse is a moderately steep, semi-paved trail that passes through the lush landscape of the Marin Headlands. At the end of the trail, a narrow suspension bridge transports visitors across the gorge below and deposits them in front of the black-domed Point Bonita Lighthouse.
PRESIDIO: The Presidio was a former U.S. Army military fort that has been transformed into a park consisting of historical museums, restaurants, and recreational activities. The area is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has become a haven for any outdoor enthusiast. The park is characterized by its immense fields, densely wooded areas, sandy beaches, and expansive views of the Golden Gate Bridge. A few of the main attractions within the Presidio are the Golden Gate Promenade, Crissy Field, Baker Beach, and Marshall Beach.
Golden Gate Promenade – The Golden Gate Promenade is a relatively flat pathway that begins at the entrance of the Presidio and culminates at Fort Point, which is at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. The distance of the promenade varies depending on the chosen route, but the trail spans anywhere between 2 and 6 miles. The most basic promenade route is 2-miles and is frequently utilized by runners, dog walkers, and pedestrians that wish to take in the scenic shoreline in a beautiful urban setting.
Crissy Field – Set along the northern peninsula of San Francisco, Crissy Field was once a U.S. Army Airfield that has now been transformed into a national park. Extensive efforts were put forth in the rehabilitation and restoration of the natural landscape, so that the area now encompasses a park, beach, and wetland all in one. Crissy Field has become a recreational paradise for locals wanting to enjoy the California sun and peaceful atmosphere.
Baker Beach – Baker Beach is a mile-long stretch of beach that resides at the western base of the Presidio’s rugged cliffside. What makes Baker Beach such a popular destination is its northern view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Many tourists and locals flock to the beach for basking in the sun, picnicking, and other outdoor activities, so be prepared for crowds. Another important note that visitors should be advised about is the fact that the northernmost end of the beach is clothing-optional, so there may be nude sunbathers and pedestrians strolling along the beach.
Marshall Beach – North of Baker Beach and below the jagged coastal cliffs of the Presidio lays the more secluded Marshall Beach. Unlike Baker Beach, which is easily accessed from the parking lot, Marshall Beach requires a short hike on the Batteries to Bluffs Trail. Due to this moderately steep decent, as well as limited parking along Lincoln Boulevard, the beach is not as crowded as Baker Beach. The lack of a crowd on this remote shorefront creates a more intimate atmosphere with profound views of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge.
Land’s End Trail – An isolated treasure of the northwestern San Francisco peninsula is the Land’s End Trail that can be accessed through the Coastal Trail. The hike meanders along the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean and culminates at a man-made rock labyrinth that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. The trail is an easy 2-mile out-and-back hike that starts at the Land’s End Main Parking Lot and traverses crushed stone and dirt pathways with a slight grade. Early morning treks are highly recommended since these trails are quite popular and become heavily trafficked with dog-walkers, joggers, and mountain bikers by mid-morning.
Palace of Fine Arts – Within the Marina District of San Francisco stands a relic that attracts visitors from all over the country to marvel at its architectural beauty. The classically designed landmark is the Palace of Fine Arts, which was designed to feature a pergola of Grecian-style pillars and an iconic rotunda alongside a brilliantly landscaped lagoon. The neighboring reflecting lagoon was a deliberate engineering technique so that a glimmering mirror image of the structure could be admired from a distance. Visitors can walk along the paved pathway that circumnavigates the pond and admire the architecture, the reflections, and the local wildlife that frequent the area.
Lombard Street – Located between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street, this famed section of Lombard Street features eight hairpin switchbacks along well-landscaped residences. The crooked street is paved with red bricks and provides onlookers with an elevated view of Coit Tower, the Bay Bridge, and the San Francisco Bay. This section of Lombard is a one-way street, but there are steps on either side of the road where pedestrians can walk the expanse of the famous roadway.
Alcatraz – Alcatraz, also known as ‘The Rock,’ is an island in the San Francisco Bay that used to be a federal penitentiary, but is now a National Historical Landmark and tourist attraction. The prison formerly housed notorious inmates such as Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, and Robert Stroud aka the Birdman of Alcatraz. Tours of the grounds are offered daily and ferry transportation to the island is included in the price of admission. A visit to Alcatraz explores the cellblocks, recreation yard, lighthouse, library, and other locations with deep historical ties to the former federal prison. Along with its historical significance, Alcatraz also offers fantastic views of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge.
YERBA BUENA ISLAND: The Yerba Buena Island is a land mass that sits in the San Francisco Bay and connects the eastern and western spans of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. Formerly an Army camp and then a U.S. Naval Station, the island is now under the control of the U.S. Coast Guard, so certain areas are restricted to visitors. From Yerba Buena Island, motorists can gain entry to Treasure Island, which provides spectacular views of the eastern and western spans of the Bay Bridge as it crosses the San Francisco Bay:
Treasure Island – Treasure Island is an artificial island that is connected to Yerba Buena Island via a man-made causeway. The isle has an active marina, roadways, and many historical buildings, but has recently broken ground on a construction project to increase housing on the island that expects to be completed in 2020. Upon completion, this run-down area will get a much needed facelift that includes over 8,000 residences, 3 hotels, and quality restaurants with a view. The western side of the island provides a sweeping panorama from the Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline to the Golden Gate and Marin Headlands. Treasure Island is a popular spot for locals to catch fireworks and sit back and marvel as the Blue Angels soar overhead during San Francisco’s Fleet Week.
Oakland Bay Bridge (Eastern Span) – The Oakland Bay Bridge, also referred to as the eastern span, finished construction in 2013 and abandoned the previous double deck span for the single deck design with eastbound and westbound lanes on either side. The new design employs a single tower with self-anchored suspension cables and roadways that are adorned with skyway light poles. The improvements created a more visually appealing, and structurally sound, bridge so that motorists may safely travel over the San Francisco Bay. The best location to view the Oakland Bay Bridge is either from the Bay Bridge Trail Lookout or the Treasure Isle Marina.
San Francisco Bay Bridge (Western Span) – The San Francisco Bay Bridge is the western expanse of the Bay Bridge that connects Highway 80 from Yerba Buena Island to San Francisco. It is an elegantly designed suspension bridge that features four towers with cables that connect each tower. The decorative lights on the bridge are visible from dusk until dawn to commemorate the 75th anniversary since the Bay Bridge opened. Although these lights were supposed to be only temporary, a deal was made with the State of California so that the lights would remain a permanent fixture of the bridge’s luminance.
Fisherman’s Wharf – Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most famous waterfront community that is known for its vivacious atmosphere, eclectic shops, and delectably fresh seafood. The district encompasses the northern waterfront from Ghirardelli Square to Pier 35, which is just past Pier 39. The neighborhood is also home to the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which features a fleet of historic vessels like the C.A. Thayer and Balclutha. A stroll along the harbor will have visitors overwhelmed with the sights and smells of the various vendors selling their assortment of seafood offerings.
Ghirardelli Square – Ghirardelli Square was originally home to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory before it was adaptively reused for unique retail shops and fine dining restaurants that embodied the San Francisco lifestyle. The square features old brick buildings, a stately clock tower, an ornamental fountain, and a large marquee that reads ‘Ghirardelli’ and illuminates the shopping center at night. No trip to San Francisco is complete before stopping by the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, or the nearby and less crowded Ghirardelli Chocolate Marketplace, to enjoy one of their ice cream sundaes smothered in their world famous Ghirardelli chocolate sauce.
Pier 39 – Pier 39 is a bustling boardwalk that is a main attraction for tourists in search of restaurants, souvenir shops, and exciting activities. This beloved destination attracts tourists to its docks to observe its most treasured residents, the California sea lions. These adorable marine animals have called the marina home and provide endless entertainment from their loud barking to their playful antics. Pier 39 is on the Embarcadero waterfront and is within walking distance to Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square along the lively San Francisco sidewalks.
THE EMBARCADERO: The Embarcadero is on the eastern waterfront of San Francisco and is home to one of the most enjoyable stretches of walkway along the San Francisco Bay. The pathway is a local favorite that is often frequented by pedestrians, runners, and bike riders, looking to enjoy the San Francisco atmosphere. During the winter months, the Embarcadero Center constructs a public ice skating rink where anyone can buy an admission ticket and ice skate rental to enjoy gliding across the frozen water. The Embarcadero Center is also home to local artists and vendors who set up their tents to showcase their arts and crafts for the passing crowds. As tourists meander further along the Embarcadero, they will encounter a myriad of attractions, eateries, and shops that are sure to impress.
Rincon Park – Rincon Park is home to the Cupid’s Span, which is a massive bow and arrow sculpture that resides along the Embarcadero. Despite the park’s diminutive size, the perfectly groomed grass and well-manicured landscape provides a peaceful setting to relax along the San Francisco Bay. Rincon Park is also a great area for photographers to set up along the railings and capture the sunrise as it crests over the Bay Bridge and East Bay.
Pier 14 – Pier 14 is a concrete and metal pier that extends into the San Francisco Bay and affords sightseers with breathtaking views of the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. The pier is open from 7am to 8pm and can be found north of Rincon Park and south of the San Francisco Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. Near the end of the pier there are swiveling bucket chairs that are permanent fixtures for visitors to sit and enjoy while taking in the gorgeous backdrop.