San Francisco is the City by the Sea where Tony Bennett left his heart. To those who lived through the Swinging Sixties it is most familiar as the birthplace of the hippies — who went to San Francisco with flowers in their hair urging people to “make love not war”.
There is so much to see and do in San Fran, from the notorious Alcatraz Prison sitting on the rock across the bay to watching the hundreds of sea lions that have made the pallets and pontoons floating off Pier 39 their home.
Here are the top ten things to do in San Francisco.
This is probably the most famous prison in the world, and housed some of the most infamous criminals of all time such as Al Capone and the Birdman of Alcatraz Robert Stroud.
It stands on an isolated island known as The Rock in San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles offshore. The only way to reach it is by boat, with Alcatraz cruises operating from San Francisco on board America’s first hybrid ferry.
Alcatraz operated as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963 and there are several tours to choose from including the Cell tour where you can visit the actual cells where these notorious criminals were held. Despite this now being a tourist attraction, there is still a macabre feel to the place.
9 Pier 39 and the Famous Sea Lions
There is so much to see and do on Pier 39 — places to eat, places to shop and places to play, but the main attraction are the hundreds of Californian sea lions that have taken over K-Dock.
You can hear them barking when you arrive and from the sound will expect to find a few sea lions lying here and there — but when you walk round the pier to K-Dock you will get a shock.
There are literally hundreds basking on the pontoons in the sun and you can watch them playing and lolling about for absolutely free. A few sea lions started arriving there after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989 and two years later they started arriving in droves and took over the whole dock.
The Marina staff have turned it into a Marine Mammal Center and now they live happily in their new home.
8 Golden Gate Bridge
This iconic bridge spans the mile wide, three-mile long channel between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean and giant liners sail underneath it as they approach San Francisco. Built in 1937, it is anchored by twin towers which are 746 feet tall.
The view from the bridge and the top of one of the towers is amazing and Golden Gate Bridge guided tours take place seven days a week, with six tours a day during the season which runs from April 1 to October 6.
Pedestrians, wheelchair users and cyclists are all allowed to cross the bridge free of charge during daylight hours using the sidewalks but roller skaters and skateboarders are banned from using it.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside Asia and the oldest in North America. You can book a guided tour or simply wander round the streets and alleyways yourself.
Make sure to check the attractive buildings like the Sing Chong Building which was one of the first places to be rebuilt after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
It houses one of the best restaurants around and there are stunning views of the city from the top of the building. Another place to visit is the Bank of Canton which was originally the Chinese telephone exchange.
The first public pay station was installed in Chinatown in 1891 and in 1894 a small switchboard was set up here. The exchange was destroyed in the earthquake but rebuilt and remained open until the exchange closed in 1949. It was bought and restored by the Bank of Canton in 1960.
This is the district of San Francisco which was the center of the phenomenal Summer of Love in 1967 when 100,000 hippies or flower people arrived here. The episode was featured in the famous Scott McKenzie song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in your Hair).
Some of the most famous rock icons lived here like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and you can walk past the houses where they stayed. The area has been preserved as a tribute to the 1960s and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
There are a lot of funk, hippie-vibes around and vintage clothes can be found. You will also see people openly smoking pot, which is legal on prescription in San Francisco, and they will no doubt try to sell you some — but the people doing so are harmless. A visit here is like stepping back in time.
5 San Francisco Cable Cars
These are not like the Swiss cable cars but rather the clang, clang, clang trolleys featured in the song Judy Garland sang in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis.
San Francisco is one of the few cities in the world where you can ride on a national historical monument, as the cable cars earned that name in 1964 when they were refurbished, re-equipped and new tracks were laid down.
They are the world’s last permanently operational manually operated cable car system and they operate the same as the first cable car did when it went down Clay Street on August 2, 1873.
There are three different lines and the cars travel at nine miles per hour. You can visit several parts of the city on them, including Chinatown.
4 Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill
Coit Tower is not the most attractive monument but from the top you get amazing views of the entire city. Standing on Telegraph Hill, entrance is free but you do have to pay to take the elevator to the top.
Inside the tower is a wonderful collection of murals commissioned by the Federal Works Progress Administration and completed in 1933, which are great fun to look at especially the painting of the news stand which gives an impression of bygone days.
There are 400 steps down Telegraph Hill from the Tower but it is worth the descent as it passes by beautiful houses and gardens and brightly colored flora. Look out for the wild parrots that live in the gardens.
3 The Exploratorium
This fascinating experience can be found in the Palace of Fine Arts on Pier 15. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, San Francisco’s legendary science museum has six main galleries each focusing on a different area of exploration and a visit here is not like a trip to any other museum, as you get a real hands-on experience.
The features include The Tactile Dome, which is a pitch black maze you have to navigate by touch, and you can also try blowing the world’s biggest soap bubble. The Exploratorium is that it is a fun day out for the whole family.
2 A Bullitt Moment – Lombard Street
While in San Francisco, you can actually drive down the same route featured in the famous car chase scene from 1968 Steve McQueen movie Bullitt. The chase took place on Lombard Street and continued into Russian Hill, and was the most hair-raising moment of the film.
When you see Lombard Street you will realize why. It is the world’s most crooked street and is famous for the one block section that snakes steeply down from Hyde Street to Leavenworth which has eight very tight hairpin bends. It then continues through the Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill areas.
Steve McQueen did all his own stunts in the film but you are not encouraged to drive through the hairpin bends at the same speed as he did.
1 San Francisco Zoo
The zoo is an environmentally friendly place to visit with 250 different species of animals and birds including numerous animals ranging from the African Lion and Amur Tiger to the great one horned rhino and the Nile hippopotamus. The bird sanctuary is also a paradise for bird watchers.
The zoo has taken part or collaborated in sixteen conservation projects involving saving wildlife and nature and in 2013 it contributed $70,000 to these projects.
There is also a children’s petting zoo, miniature train and carousel, a recreation area for people to relax, a wildlife center which cares for rare and endangered species and a park and nature center.