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Hidden Gems Around the World | Viator.com
Hidden Gems Around the World

Visiting San Francisco for the First Time? Here's What To See and Do


How to Tackle San Francisco as a First Timer
Hej, jag heter Gianmaria!

Gianmaria Franchini is a writer based in Oakland, CA who makes his life between California and Italy. He’s a Senior Writer with Viator, and the in-house San Francisco expert.

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Hi, I'm Gianmaria!

Gianmaria Franchini is a writer based in Oakland, CA who makes his life between California and Italy. He’s a Senior Writer with Viator, and the in-house San Francisco expert.

visa mer

A local psychedelic rocker famously once said that San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality. It’s mostly true: the majestic bay, mystical fog, pastel-colored Victorians, and unconditional surrender of inhibitions can leave first-time visitors spellbound.

Like magic, San Francisco packs walkable neighborhoods, open-air spaces, iconic tourist attractions, and a melting pot of cultures on the tip of a small peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean. The surrounding reality, with redwood forests and world-class wine country, isn’t half-bad, either. For the uninitiated, here’s how to visit the Cool Grey City of Love for the first time.

Start with the iconic tourist attractions

A beautiful park, with a lake and a grand pink building, in San Francisco.
There are so many iconic attractions in San Francisco. | Foto: Vacclav / Shutterstock

Don't miss the must-sees—they’re more than worthwhile.

San Francisco has steep hills and limited public transit options, but its manageable size makes it easy to visit the most popular landmarks without much fuss. And there are plenty—from Golden Gate Park and crooked Lombard Street to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. Most city sightseeing tours visit all of these and more, while hop-on-hop-off-bus tours offer speed and flexibility. To slow down and uncover the city’s past, opt for neighborhood walking tours, especially in North Beach, Chinatown, or Nob Hill.

Cross the Golden Gate—without getting lost in the fog

The Golden Gate Bridge in the mist in California.
The Golden Gate Bridge in the mist. | Foto: titipongpwl / Shutterstock

The world’s most photographed bridge is ideal for bike rides.

Head Perhaps San Francisco's most notable attraction, the Golden Gate Bridge should be on every first-time visitor's itinerary. Don't miss the chance to bike over the art deco span, which traverses about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) over the Golden Gate Strait from Fort Point to the Marin Headlands. Guided tours can lead the way, or you can rent a bike and head over on your own. The latter option makes it easy to explore farther afield, from Crissy Field and the Presidio on the city side to Sausalito across the bay.

Seek out inspiration at showstopping museums

Outside the Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Outside the Jewish Museum. | Foto: Eug Png / Shutterstock

Immerse yourself in art, from downtown to eclectic neighborhoods.

Visit the clutch of world-class museums around a few square blocks downtown: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and The Museum of the African Diaspora. Destinations for art outside the downtown hub include the de Young, inside Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor inside Lincoln Park near the Presidio. Book advance tickets to avoid weekend lines—the best part is that a ticket to one museum is good for same-day admission to both. A little more off-the-beaten-path, the Institute of Contemporary Art in the Dogpatch neighborhood is a free, adventurous option.

Take time to visit some lesser-known sites

The exterior of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, California
The Museum of the African Diaspora is more than worthy of a visit. | Foto: Anne Czichos / Shutterstock

These under-the-radar museums are as worthy as the big hitters.

San Francisco may have its fair share of massive museums, but that doesn't mean you should overlook the lesser-known gems ... even on a first-time visit. Stop by the Museum of the African Diaspora to get a better grasp on Black culture in the US and beyond. Or visit the Beat Museum for a closer look at the literary movement that's most closely associated with San Francisco. Whichever under-the-radar spot you choose, you'll be glad to have ventured (even briefly) off the beaten path.

Related: 8 Under-the-Radar Museums in San Francisco

Jump on a cable car—and step back in time

A cable car heads up a hilly street in San Francisco.
The cable car is a fun way to get around. | Foto: lunamarina / Shutterstock

Rush over the city’s steepest hills on moving National Historic Landmarks.

Part of the last manually operated cable car system on the planet, San Francisco’s cable cars have been hauling over the steepest hills since the late-Victorian era. Most visitors hop on near Union Square and ride the Powell-Mason line to North Beach, or the Powell-Hyde line to Fisherman’s Wharf; a third line cuts across Chinatown on California Street from the Embarcadero. Purchase a ticket from your conductor, and make sure to visit the Cable Car Museum to see original cars and how the 19th-century cable-and-grip system works.

Wander under majestic coastal redwood trees

Redwood trees near San Francisco.
The redwoods are incredible for hiking through. | Foto: MNStudio / Shutterstock

Muir Woods is one of the last remaining old-growth coastal redwood forests on the planet.

When you’re in San Francisco, fantastic hiking trails are always a stone's throw away. Don't miss the majestic redwood trees in Muir Woods, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Popular loop trails wind among the trees along Redwood Creek from the visitor center and back in about 30–90 minutes, while longer trails extend into Mount Tamalpais State Park next door. Keep in mind that public transit won't take you to the forest, and parking is extremely limited. To visit, it’s best to book a tour that includes a hike or two and stops at waterfront Sausalito.

See where the urban trails take you

Urban, flowery walkways on a San Francisco hill.
In this city, hills and flowers abound. | Foto: Andrew Zarivny / Shutterstock

Forested areas, hidden staircases, and dense neighborhoods make the city an urban hiker’s dream.

San Francisco is one of the greenest cities in the US, blossoming with parks, gardens, and open green spaces. To take advantage, lace up your hiking shoes and explore the walkable city on foot. Where to tread? Trails in Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, such as Lover’s Lane, meander through true urban forests. For a challenge, conquer the hidden staircases and steep hills near Coit Tower. Alternatively, check out Tank Hill and Kite Hill—scenic spots favored by locals—on your climb to Twin Peaks and Sutro Tower.

Play the sommelier or wine connoisseur for a day

A vineyard outside San Francisco in Golden Hour.
Vineyards outside the city. | Foto: Rolf_52 / Shutterstock

Explore Northern California Wine Country on wine tours, trolleys, or bikes.

Sip famous wines in Napa and Sonoma, celebrated wine-producing regions just north of San Francisco. Take a wine-tasting tour to avoid driving yourself: group tours offer great value, while private tours let you choose which vineyards to visit. Wine Country, however, is more than just wine—it's full of historic towns and beautiful state parks. Wine trolleys are a fun way to travel between tastings, while bike tours roll through some of the prettiest trails in Northern California.

Catch sea spray and gorgeous views cruising the bay

People enjoy the beach by the Golden Gate Bridge.
The coast is the perfect place for a wander. | Foto: canadastock / Shutterstock

Take to the water to learn what the Bay Area’s all about.

The San Francisco Bay is the Bay Area’s defining feature, with waters touching Marin County to the north and San Jose far to the south. In other words, there’s no better way to explore the region than getting on the water and cruising past islands, under bridges, or straight to lovely waterfront towns (hello Sausalito!). Bay cruises race out of Pier 45 in search of the best views, while combination tours explore the mainland before doling out ferry tickets to Alcatraz. For romantic types: sail past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge during sunset.

Go farther afield for the city’s hidden gems

White buildings in the Richmond District of San Francisco.
Gleaming buildings in the Richmond District. | Foto: Irra / Shutterstock

San Francisco has inspiring unknown corners—if you know where to find them.

Your trip is incomplete without checking out the city’s wilder corners. Before you leave, visit out-of-the-way neighborhoods—parts unknown that tour groups rarely touch. A case in point: the under-the-radar food scene in the Richmond District (“the Richmond” in the local lexicon), a quiet neighborhood close to the Presidio, Land’s End, and Golden Gate Park. If the Richmond is too tranquil for your tastes, head to the Dogpatch, an edgy part of town flourishing with new museums, restaurants, bars, and shoreline parks.

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Hidden Gems Around the World | Viator.com
Hidden Gems Around the World