Best Ways to Be a Tourist in San Francisco

Iconic Pier 39
Iconic Pier 39

Last week, I traveled to San Francisco to attend the eTourism Summit. It was my second time in this city, having visited last year for the same conference, and I was determined to soak up as much as I possibly could in my day and a half of free time, spread throughout the week. It didn’t take long for me to get my bearings again and start to really appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of this captivating city by the bay. Often when I have limited time, I go with what I know works: the most touristy things the town has to offer. Most are clichéd for sure, but clichés do exist for a reason. I hadn’t been in the city more than half an hour before beelining for Fisherman’s Wharf, arguably the most touristy part of town.

I basically took this afternoon to revisit all the things I loved from my San Francisco visit with Kyle last year. My first stop was lunch at Boudin Bakery, the oldest bakery in the city, famous for its sourdough bread bowls filled with clam chowder. I’ll admit it—I ate there twice during my stay! Amazing. A restaurant with ties to the city going back to 1849 still remains one of the most popular eateries in Fisherman’s Wharf.

Pier 39 is an absolute must-see for any San Francisco first-timer… or second-timer, or 34th timer. This is a giant area of shops and restaurants, but I go for the sea lions! Shortly after the earthquake of 1989 rocked San Francisco, sea lions began appearing on K-Dock of Pier 39. Why? No one really knows. They tried to get rid of these large, smelly, noisy creatures by first blaring loud horns in the middle of the night, hoping to scare them away. When that didn’t work, they got fire trucks to come spray them with hoses. If anything, it made those pesky water-loving creatures even more fond of “hauling out” on the pier. Today they’re a staple of the Pier 39 experience.

After saying “hello” to my sea lion pals, I boarded a hop-on, hop-off Big Bus tour for some sightseeing around San Francisco. I used this company last year, as they make it incredibly easy to get around the city, while giving you a bit of history. I opted to buy the same ticket I did last year: the $50 “Dynamite 48-Hour Ticket” which includes a trip to Sausalito (a $25 ticket by itself), a Panoramic Night Tour ($30 value), a 1-hour bike rental (with one hour purchase) and three walking tours. I knew there was no way I’d get to do it all, but I wanted to visit Sausalito, which was my favorite bit of the city last year.

While all buses have an audio tour, I’d suggest waiting for a live tour guide. I actually passed up the first bus so I could wait for the live tour; I firmly believe the best way to discover a city is to hear about it from a local. I always make it a point to ask them what their favorite off-the-beaten-path activity and/or restaurant is, and I’ve seen some really cool places because of it.

The first leg of the tour takes you through North Beach, San Fran’s Italian district, followed by a jaunt through the Financial District, Union Square, and the City Hall area. You then drive through Alamo Square, which has an optional stop for the Painted Ladies, followed by the Haight-Ashbury (aka. hippie district), before heading to Golden Gate Park and finally journeying across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is shrouded in fog much of the time. Check out a route map here.

Now, something you have to understand is the fact that October is basically summer in San Francisco. I’ve been there in October both times, and had fairly decent, albeit chilly, weather. This year, the bridge was covered in fog a lot of the time, but it did still manage to break through occasionally. Some times during the year, tourists could be in the city for weeks and never see the famed bridge. Mark Twain once (supposedly) said, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” Someone once told me everyone who’s been to San Francisco has a San Francisco hoodie or jacket, and it’s probably true! I wore my San Francisco jacket with pride this year, after foolishly only packing summer clothes for my California trip last year.

Crossing the bridge on top of an open-air, double-decker bus is an experience. A cold one. It was so foggy we couldn’t see the bridge when we were on it. But miraculously, once we were on the other side, the entire bridge came into view. It was beautiful as ever.

Fun fact: Did you know the bridge was originally supposed to be painted yellow and black? It would have looked like a giant bumblebee! The color it is now was the primer that was put on before the bridge was to be painted. The architect saw how striking the color looked, and said that was how it needed to stay. International Orange has now been the iconic color for more than 75 years.

Once at Golden Gate Bridge North, a viewing point that allows you to see the bridge head-on, those going to Sausalito transfer over to a trolley that winds you down the hill to the picturesque little seaside town, where many of the city’s wealthiest residents reside. It’s filled with art galleries, restaurants, gourmet ice cream shops, and phenomenal views of San Francisco. Well worth a visit of you have a couple of extra hours.

The rest of the Big Bus tour takes you by the Palace of Fine Arts, Lombard Street (called the “Crookedest Street in the World,” but ironically not even the crookedest in the city!), and Chinatown before bringing you back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

I didn’t think I’d be able to take the night tour included in my ticket price, but I did manage to go the next night with a friend who was also attending the conference. There’s something magical about experiencing a big city at night. The route is slightly different, and it is no longer a hop-on, hop-off tour, but it does provide you with several photo ops, including a Golden Gate vista, and a trip to Treasure Island across the Bay Bridge for some great shots of the city lights. My favorite bit of this tour is the Financial District, a part of the city that comes alive with activity during the day as thousands of commuters pack in for work, but sleeps at night, leaving only the brilliant lights shining from tall, stunning architectural marvels. Pro tip for this nighttime tour: bring a jacket. And gloves, and a hat, and a scarf. Basically dress for a blizzard and you should be fine.

Then warm up with a cup of cocoa in Ghiradelli Square.

While I didn’t do it this year, one of the best touristy San Francisco activities is to ride the cable car! It’s an absolute must. They’ve been around since the 1870s, and are one of two U.S. National Landmarks that move (the other being streetcars in New Orleans). Pretty cool, huh? I suggest the Powell-Mason line from the Union Square area to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s $5 one-way, and you’ll want to make it your first activity of the day since the lines get extremely long. Or hop right on one block up, but you’ll miss seeing the operators manually turn the cable car.

In coming posts, I’ll talk about my highly-anticipated visit to Alcatraz, a movie tour of San Francisco, and a really awesome nighttime visit to the California Academy of Sciences, one of my new favorite museums! Plus, I’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Google Headquarters, which I was lucky enough to visit for a second time during my conference this year.

Places

Boudin Bakery

160 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States
(415) 928-1849

Pier 39

PIER 39, San Francisco, CA, United States

Big Bus Tours San Francisco

99 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

Sausalito

Sausalito, CA, United States

Ghiradelli Square

Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, CA, United States

Cable Car

Powell St. BART Station, Market Street, San Francisco, CA, United States

Boudin Bakery

160 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States
(415) 928-1849
https://www.boudinbakery.com/

Pier 39

PIER 39, San Francisco, CA, United States
http://www.pier39.com/

Big Bus Tours San Francisco

99 Jefferson St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States
http://eng.bigbustours.com/sanfrancisco/home.html

Ghiradelli Square

Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, CA, United States
http://www.ghirardellisq.com/

Cable Car

Powell St. BART Station, Market Street, San Francisco, CA, United States
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Guide-g60713-i331-San_Francisco_California.html

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