Content originally written for the Let’s Go: USA & Canada Guide by our researcher-writer, Graham Bishai.
1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.; (415) 249-0995; sfrecpark.org/destination/telegraph-hill-pioneer-park/coit-tower/; open daily Nov-Mar 10am-5pm, Apr-Oct 10am-6pm
When your jaw drops at the view atop the Coit Tower, make sure it doesn’t fall 210 feet to the ground, or 520 down to sea level. Perched on Telegraph Hill, this Art Deco observation tower gives 360-degree views of the city, the bay, and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge. As you wait, which can be a little while (roughly an hour if the line stretches to the front door), look around at the floor to ceiling New Deal-commissioned murals, filled with depictions of rich history of labor in the Depression era. While there are good views from the base and the surrounding Pioneer Park, you’ll be glad if you wait it out and take the elevator ride, plus 37 steps, up to open air windows at the top. On the way down from the hill, take the Filbert Street Stairs, which wind through gardens and a neighborhood hidden under the trees of a city jungle. See if you can spot the wild parrots.
Admission $8; tours available for groups of 4-8; last entry 30min. before close; not wheelchair accessible
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39
The Embarcadero and Jefferson St; www.fishermanswharf.org/; (415) 705-5500; pier39.com; Pier 39 open daily 10am-10pm
The most touristy spot in San Francisco besides the line for the streetcar, the city’s waterfront is an attraction-lined promenade. At Pier 39, you’ll find a flashy, built-up boardwalk of amusement park-style shops and eateries, and an entire store dedicated to selling left-hander-friendly wares. There’s also a sea lion hangout on the west side of the pier. Just down the Embarcadero promenade at the center of Fisherman’s Wharf is a maritime plaza where historic ships are docked, street performers show off their skills, and souvenir shops try to woo you with the flashiest San Francisco memorabilia. At the Musée Mécanique, find an antique arcade with working retro game machines, in a building right on the water. Grab a bite at a seafood counter at the corner of Taylor and Jefferson Streets, or brave the huge lines for a milkshake or sundae at Ghirardelli Square, which is really just a set of stores built around a really big chocolate store. If you’re a snob who wants to avoid the touristy spots, feel free to write it off. But if you go, you’ll at least enjoy the bayfront view, and probably lots more, too.
Free; wheelchair accessible
Lyon Street Steps
2996 Lyon St.
At the top is Billionaires Row, the mansion-studded stretch of Broadway home to San Francisco’s richest residents. Start up there so you don’t need to climb all the steps. After window-shopping for a house you can’t afford, head over to the Lyon Street Steps. So much more than just a staircase, the steps are a manicured garden on an incline with sculptures and an excellent view of the bay and the Palace of Fine Arts, which is just a 15-minute walk down Lyon Street. Meander your way down, and while you’re caught up in the view of boats out on the bay, don’t forget to look back up at the gardens as you descend.
Free; not wheelchair accessible
Palace of Fine Arts
3301 Lyon St.; open daily 5am-12am
This is one fine arts palace. The site of a theatre which regularly hosts productions, the main event is really just walking around the place and revealing in its architectural beauty. Built with Roman and Greek influences in mind, pillars and arches wrap around a lake which displays its shimmering reflection. Swans, ducks, turtles, seagulls and fish make this pond home, and birds sing from the surrounding trees. Meander around the lake and through the Palace, taking in its towering aura and tranquil feel. This is a great starting spot if you plan to walk the stunning stretch along the water towards Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Check palaceoffinearts.org for theatre performance info; wheelchair accessible
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 3rd St.; (415) 357-4000; sfmoma.org; open F-Tu 10am-5pm, Th 10am-9pm
This world class modern art museum caters to every taste. Whether you like contemporary art, or earlier 20th century-type stuff, or really aren’t too familiar with art at all, this place will have something for you. Don’t miss the Pop Art exhibit on the fifth floor, complete with Madonna and Mao sitting right next to each other among the large collection of Andy Warhols. You also need to check out the hella trippy Tilted Plane on the seventh floor, where your perceptions will be challenged as you literally walk into the art. For those who like seeing famous names on the label next to paintings, (“Oh, I’ve heard of him!” *feels cultured*) The second floor houses the museum’s permanent collection of twentieth-century art, from greats like Matisse, Picasso and Rivera. In the café on the third floor, check out the interactive machines that walk you through questions explored in different artworks in the museum. Budget three hours or more in order to be able to do it thoroughly.
Admission $25, students $19; public tours daily usually every hour 10:30am-3:30pm, but check ahead; wheelchair accessible
Museum of the African Diaspora
65 Mission St.; (415) 358-7200; moadsf.org; open W-Sa 11am-6pm, Su 12pm-5pm
With an ambitious title for relatively small digs, this museum seeks to find visual answers to some of the largest questions facing people of African descent today. Largely an art museum, this small but powerful place showcases the artistic commentary of Africans and the black diaspora around the globe. Newly renovated and typically housing three different exhibits at a time, you can see the whole museum in less than an hour. Maybe half an hour if you’re quick. The staff are friendly and the place feels big enough that it stimulates your curiosity, but small enough so that it feels within reach, that you can dive deeply into the content explored. No boring, lifeless artifacts here; the exhibits feel fresh and modern, and the variety of media used grab your attention, from cinema, to sound effects, to virtual reality. Although the museum is by no means comprehensive, it will certainly make you think.
Admission $10, students $5; wheelchair accessible
Golden Gate Park
Between Fulton St and Lincoln Way; goldengatepark.com; park open daily daily 24hr, individual attractions’ hours vary
Of the many things in this park, the Golden Gate Bridge is not one. Despite what the name might suggest, the park and bridge are roughly three miles apart from one another. But who needs a silly bridge anyway? Golden Gate Park is jam-packed with attractions, all connected by its winding paths, from the California Academy of Sciences—a natural history museum—to the Conservatory of Flowers, which has more than 2000 species of floral friends. It also is home to the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Japanese Tea Garden. Beyond these attractions, if you continue to walk west in the park for roughly an hour, you’ll get to its other terminus, the Pacific Ocean. (Ocean Beach to be precise.) Catch a beautiful sunset there.
Free, admission to attractions varies; wheelchair accessible
Graham left behind the stressed-out chaos of Cambridge for the laid back life on the West Coast. A refreshing change of pace, he assumed, until the line for coffee on his first morning took 2 mins longer than he’s used to, and the Northeast nasty jumped out. Starting in Vancouver, Graham meandered south, toning his calves being a pedestrian on San Francisco’s hills and by navigating the monstrosity that is Los Angeles using just his feet and public transit (only resorting to Uber twice!) Graham’s love for the West Coast life only increased as he sat by the Puget Sound in Seattle, sipped kombucha in the crunchy cafes of Portland, climbed into a waterfall in Yosemite and stayed in an abandoned opera house in Death Valley. By the time he hit upper 80s sun of San Diego, buff calves and sun tanned, the words “West Coast, Best Coast,” almost slipped out of his mouth. Identity crisis looming, he figured it was time to go home.