Anyone who knows us a little or follows our travel reports knows that we always love to explore cities on foot and on our own. In San Francisco, it’s not as easy as other cities because of the many steep roads and the long distances, but there’s a lot to discover and see. In total we spent 3 days in San Francisco and would like to show you here the most famous sights and great photo spots, which you should definitely have seen when visiting this great city. 🙂
Table of contents
Things to know about San Francisco
San Francisco is a city and metropolitan area on the west coast of the United States of California, California, united with about 800,000 inhabitants, after Los Angeles, San Diego, and San José. The name of the city is of Spanish origin and is named after St. Francis (Francis of Assisi).
San Francisco was built on more than 40 hills, which makes today’s cityscape with its steep streets so unique. Due to the proximity to the San Andreas fault, however, there is always an increased risk of earthquakes. The heaviest earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, occurred on April 18, 1906, destroying nearly 75 of the entire city. The last major earthquake took place in 1989.
San Francisco, like New York, has a very well-developed public transport networkwith the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI), the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the Cable Cars & the many ferries. The city’s most famous attractions include the Golden Gate Bridge, the historic Cable Car, painted ladies, Pier 39 and Lombard Street. The best time to travel is in September and October, when there is hardly any fog.
20 interesting facts about San Francisco
San Francisco is a city and metropolitan area in the U.S. state of California
– San Francisco is located on the west coast of the Pacific Ocean
– San Francisco was founded on June 29, 1776
– San Francisco was part of Mexico until the Mexican-American War (1848)
– With 800,000 inhabitants, San Francisco is the fourth largest city in California after Los Angeles, San Diego and San José
– About 4.3 million people live in the San Francisco metropolitan area
– The name of the city is of Spanish origin and is named after St. Francis, i.e. Francis of Assisi
– San Francisco has a large-scale, strictly right-angled road network
– San Francisco is one of the most important port cities on the west coast of North America
– The proximity of the city to the San Andreas fault carries an increased risk of earthquakes
– San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese neighborhoods outside the People’s Republic of China
– San Francisco is known for its large number of Victorian houses
– The San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area ranks 7th among the major areas of the USA in economic performance
– Most famous sights: Fisherman’s Wharf, Cable Cars, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz & Lombard Street
– San Francisco is home to several large companies such as Levi Strauss, GAP, Wells Fargo and Industrial Light & Magic
– With 3.9 million foreign visitors, San Francisco ranked 33rd most visited cities in the world in 2016
– The time difference in San Francisco is minus 8 hours to Germany
– Flight time to San Francisco is between 10 and 11 hours
– San Francisco International Airport is located 21 kilometers south of the city center
– The Golden Gate Bridge was originally to be painted black with yellow stripes – today’s famous orange should only serve as a rust protection agent
“Hop-On Hop-Off” with Big Bus through San Francisco
The company Big Bus Tours is the world’s largest provider of sightseeing tours in an open double-decker bus. Currently, you can go on a city exploration tour in 21 cities and on 4 continents with A Big Bus. There are 7 cities in Europe (Budapest, Dublin, Istanbul, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna), in America there are 7 cities (Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC), in the Middle East there are 3 (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat) and in the Asia-Pacific there are tours in 4 cities (Darwin, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney).
The advantage of a Big Bus Tour is that you can see the most important sights of a city in a short time. And you are completely flexible, because at each stop there are entry and exit options, so that you can put together your sightseeing program very individually. On the bus you get headphones and you can learn interesting things about the city with the help of recorded comments – and also in 10 different languages.
Since the sights in San Francisco are all a bit further apart, we decided on a deluxe ticket at a price of 75 USD per person. This includes 2 days of hop-on hop-off, free city tours, a night tour and a tour of Sausalito. The Big Bus San Francisco shows the beauties of the metropolis on three different routes:
Red Route: Day tour of San Francisco with crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge
Blue Route: One-hour panoramic night tour with a tour guide
Green Route: Tour of Sausalito, a small coastal town north of the Golden Gate Bridge
Here you can download a nice map, in which all routes and stops of Big Bus in San Francisco are drawn.
The Go San Francisco® Card – 27 attractions with one card
With the Go San Francisco Card you can visit up to 27 attractions, sights, museums and much more. These include: Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Bus Tour, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, de Young Museum, Exploratorium, Aquarium of the Bay, Golden Gate Bay Cruise, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, U.S.S. HORNET Museum or a round trip by ferry to and from Angel Island. There are different maps depending on how many sights you want to visit or how long you are in the city.
On the one hand, there is the all-inclusive version,where you can see so many attractions you can create in one day: All Inclusive for 1 day (74 USD) – 2 days (109 USD) – 3 days (139 USD) – 5 days (169 USD)
Or there is the ExplorerPass,which allows you to visit 3, 4 or 5 attractions within 30 days of first use: 3 election attractions (71 USD) – 4 election attractions (93 USD) – 5 election attractions (109 USD)
We kindly received two “San Francisco Explorer Passes” from San Francisco Travel for 3 arbitrary choice attractions and have come here for a visit to the Aquarium of the Bay, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! and a Muni day pass, with which you can use all public transport incl. cable cars can be used free of charge all day long.
Prepaid SIM card for the USA
Normally, we always use the free Wi-Fi networks at the airport, in Starbucks stores, at Mc Donalds or in hotels. Somewhere there is somehow always a network 🙂 But since we really had a long road trip of over 2,000 kilometers ahead of us this time, we decided to get a prepaid SIM card for our time in the USA on Amazon in advance. With unlimited traffic for the whole 2 weeks, this cost 29 euros in T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network. After receiving the card by post, you must activate it online in advance and indicate when the SIM card should be valid. This is really very simple and in hindsight it was really a great investment, because so we were always mobile reachable and could always look at our pre-create Google MyMaps Katen or use the route navigation to the nearest hotel, shopping outlet or supermarket. This makes things really easier 🙂
So if you’re looking for a good prepaid card, you’ll find a lot of good deals here on Amazon.
Google Maps map with all attractions in San Francisco
For our 3 days in San Francisco, we created a Google MyMaps map with all the main attractions so that we could always see where we are and what attraction we can explore next. By clicking on the picture or here you can view the map directly in Google Maps.
Start of our Big Bus Tour was directly at the Big Bus Office, which is located in the fisherman’s Wharf district. The port district was created around 1900, when Italian immigrants came here and worked in the fishing industry. About 50 years later, the area had already developed into a tourist area, which still attracts millions of visitors today. There are countless hotels, restaurants, shopping and various activities, such as Bay tours. And of course you can still buy fish here 😉
The Promenade Pier 39
The center of Fisherman’s Wharf is definitely Pier 39. Opened in October 1978, Pier 39 is a promenade where there is a fair almost all year round – you can’t describe it any other way. There are numerous restaurants, candy shops, souvenir shops but also attractions such as a carousel and the aquarium. Here it is only so busy with tourists. This may also be due to the view you have from here on the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz.
The sea lions at Pier 39
The highlight at Pier 39 is the sea lion colony,which has its home here. You can easily find the way to the sea lions without asking anyone or looking at a map, because you hear them and smell them, the closer you get to the colony at the K-Dock.
The fact that California niplions visit the San Francisco Bay is actually not so unusual, because they have always done so – especially in winter, when they find food here by blaid fish. In October 1989, however, everything was suddenly different, because since then the animals are permanently here and use the pier as a resting place. They had left their hitherto typical trunk rock “Seal Rock” because they came out and into the water here more easily at the boat docks. Initially there were only 5 to 10 sea lions that lived here permanently … but only a few months later there were already 400. At first, one did not know how to deal with the mass of animals, because the boat owners could not easily get past the heavy animals, there was property damage, but also strong noise and smell. In March 1990, it was decided that dock K would be closed for public boat traffic and left to the sea lions. In 1995, the old jetty was removed because it had become old. The sea lions got their own 3 by 4 meter large pontos, on which they rest ever since.
Twice before, all sea lions were gone from one day to the next. In 2009 they were gone for half a year because they had “moved” a winter camp on the coast and in 2014 they were all gone for about two months. It happens again and again that in the summer months some sea lions go to the south to get to the breeding sites on the Channel Islands – but that all are gone for several months, really only happened these two times. Luckily, when we were there, there were a lot of sea lions, so we could watch them wonderfully from the pier. There are also a number of information boards at the pier.
If you want to watch the spectacle, but don’t want to fly around half the world, you can watch the sea lions via a live webcam 🙂
Aquarium of the Bay
At Pier 39 there is the Aquarium of the Bay, which focuses on native marine life from San Francisco Bay and the adjacent rivers to the Sierras. It houses 20,000 marine animals, including sharks and rays, squid and jellyfish, otters and many more.
The exhibition is divided into five rough areas:
Discover the Bay: Here the ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay is presented and different habitats of animals are shown. Sea creatures can be seen here, for example, moray eels, garibaldi, anchovies but also perch.
Go with the Flow: In the area you will find aquariums and tanks with very fascinating jellyfish.
Under the Bay: There are two tunnels through which you can walk. You can see animals that live in the shallow bays of San Francisco Bay, but also sharks, rays and sturgeons that live in the deeper areas.
Touch the Bay: Touching explicitly allowed 😉 Here you can touch bat rays, leopard sharks, starfish and sea cucumbers.
River Otters: Four very playful otters can be observed here. One of them was rescued in time from a fur trade in Louisiana.
All in all, it was a nice visit, for which you need a maximum of 1 hour. But for 28 USD entrance fee per person we would have expected a little more.
The old slot machines at Musee Mecanique
At Pier 45 there is a real rarity: the Musée Mécanique. The museum is privately owned by Dan Zelinsky, but is open to the public and does not charge an entrance fee. The museum is home to the largest private collection of slot machines: more than 300 mechanical machines are located here. And you can try many of them yourself by throwing 1 or 2 quarters (25 to 50 cents). Some of the things here are very rare and historic – a real journey into the past. It was a lot of fun to walk through the museum and try out one or the other vending machine. Highly recommended!
Behind the museum is the submarine USS Pampanito, which can be visited for an entrance fee of 20 USD. The submarine dates back to World War II and then undertook patrols in the Pacific, sinking six Japanese ships and damaging four others.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Fisherman’s Wharf also hosts the“Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” museum, which we looked at. We already knew this kind of museum from London and find it very interesting every time what is so curious in the world. The Ripley Museums are all about curiosities, records, natural wonders and incredibles from all over the world.
The American Robert Ripley was a comic book artist, reporter, adventurer and world traveller. On his travels, which have taken him through more than 200 countries, he has seen all sorts of strange, unusual and inexplicable things. Replicas and photographs of these finds form the basis of the worldwide museums – or odditoriria, as Ripley called them. Today, the collection is supplemented almost daily with new pieces, in order to let the tradition live on even after Ripley’s death. And despite all the curious finds, Ripley once said, “I have traveled to 201 countries and the strangest thing I saw was man.”
Ferry Building & Pier 7
Walking along the piers towards the south-east of the city, you can see it from afar: the blue clock tower of the Ferry Building, which plays a part of the Westminster beat every half and every hour – the same melody as London’s Big Ben.
The Ferry Building is, as the name suggests, a ferry terminal but also a small shopping centre. From here, the ferries that cross the San Francisco Bay depart. The present building was opened in 1898 and was at that time an important transport hub for travellers. At peak times, up to 50,000 passengers were transported through the ferry services every day. The great earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906 survived the Ferry Building, as did another earthquake in 1989. From 1999 to 2003, the building was restored to the public in full beauty: with a public food market, small shops and restaurants.
Only about 5 minutes walk away from the Ferry Building is Pier 7, certainly the most beautiful pier in San Francisco and a great photo spot! The view from there on Treasure Island, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Downtown with the Transamerica Pyramid in the background is truly stunning.
The Golden Gate Bridge
Probably the most important, well-known and famous sight of San Francisco is definitely the Golden Gate Bridge. As already described in the previous article, we could see the bridge every morning from our hotel room window, but of course we didn’t want to let it take us to see it up close. Since there is a lot to tell about the bridge and the viewpoints, we want to tell you about it in a separate blog post.
The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square
The Victorian, multi-coloured wooden houses “Painted Ladies” from 1892 to 1896 are certainly one of the most famous postcard motifs of San Francisco. From the opposite Alamo Square Park you have the perfect view of the row of houses – including the skyscraper-filled skyline in the background. So it’s best to bring a small blanket, sit on the lawn and enjoy the sun and this incredible view of the city. Simply beautiful 🙂
Maybe this famous “Postcard Row” seems a bit familiar to you … not surprisingly, because the Painted Ladies in San Francisco have so far appeared in more than 70 movies, TV series and commercials – for example in the opening credits of the series “Full House”. By the way, the term “Painted Ladies” is not only used for this row of houses, but also describes every series of Victorian or Edwardian houses that use multiple colors to show their architectural details. That’s why the “Painted Ladies” are also available in other cities in the USA, for example in New Orleans, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, New Jersey. For the first time, however, this term was actually used for the row of houses in Alamo Square – in 1978.
Small photo tip: Don’t visit the Painted Ladies too late in the afternoon, otherwise your own shadow will be in your way while taking pictures.
The steep streets of San Francisco
If you’re in San Francisco, you can look forward to a hilly pleasure. Since the city was built on more than 40 hills, today’s cityscape is characterized by many steep streets. There are streets, such as Filbert Street, which has a gradient of 31.5 percent and has thus already been seen in some movies as a “jumping hill”. The most famous steepest street in San Francisco, however, is Lombard Street.
The nice thing about these extremely steep roads is that you can create great optical illusions here… or are the houses in the photos really built so crooked? 😉
Just 10 minutes from our hotel, Lombard Street is located. The name is likely to say something to many. It is one of the most winding roads in the world. In fact, the entire Lombard Street is about 9 to 10 miles long and runs from the Presidio to Telegraph Hill, but only the winding section between Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street in the Russian Hill district is famous. With a gradient of 27 percent, it used to be one of the steepest streets in the city until the 1922 section was converted into a serpentine form as a one-way street. Since then, there have been 8 hairpin bends on the 145-metre-long track.
Every tourist in San Francisco wants to drive down this road once, so traffic jams often form at the beginning of the road. You can only enter the street if you come from Lombard Street. Turning off Hyde Street is prohibited. It also makes sense, because otherwise you would block the paths of the cable car. Here the Cable Car line Powell-Hyde runs and stops at the top right at the beginning of Lombard Street, so that you can get off here very easily and then use the side footy path downhill. By the way, there should be days – especially on summer weekends – when 350 cars per hour (!) drive along the winding road section. Crazy! It was relatively difficult to take beautiful photos of the road, because the view of the many curves through the vegetation was not completely possible. So we just ran the road and watched the others drive down the road. A good view of Lombard Street can also be seen from the viewpoint at Coit Tower. However, you need a very good telephoto lens 🙂
The Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill
Built in 1933, Coit Tower is a 64-metre observation tower on Telegraph Hill. Free parking is available right in front of the tower. But there is also a city bus up here and puts you almost exactly at the door. If you want to take the elevator in the tower to the top, you have to pay 8 USD. But we did not do that. We were content with the view from the parking lot to the winding Lombard Street.
The Palace of Fine Arts
Coming from the Golden Gate Bridge on foot along Crissy Field at the Palace of Fine Arts and seeing the grounds, we first thought, “The Roman-Greek architecture somehow doesn’t fit the cityscape.” Nevertheless, we really liked the building complex. The buildings were originally built for the Panama Pacific World Exhibition in 1915. Today, the buildings and the lake act as a venue for corporate events, private galas, fairs, weddings and other events with large space requirements. Some movies have also been shot here.