I’m far from one of those Californian girls, but I seem to keep landing back in the state, particularly in San Francisco! Thanks to my actual, bill paying job I’ve been to the bay area quite a few times and have collected some ideas for fun and unique San Francisco activities. I usually stay late or arrive early to work destinations so I have free time, which has allowed me to explore behind the city. So, I’ve also included some day trip or beyond ideas below as well.
Night time Alcatraz
Alcatraz is perhaps the most iconic San Francisco landmark, other than the Golden Gate Bridge. However, have you seen it by night? If not, this tour will give you a whole new perspective on the prison. The evening timing is great too for allowing you to pack your daylight schedule to the max and still make use of the night for exploration!
Leaving at sunset, the tour gives you beautiful views of the bay. Lucky for us, it was a clear day with a lovely sunset. Arrive on the island just before total nightfall and climb to the cell house by dark. Eerie? You bet! The audio tour is very interesting, including escape tales and info on some of the island’s most notorious inmates. From the prison, you can peer out across the bay, seeing the city lights, just as the prisoners would have. It was a form of punishment, where they could hear and see the world they couldn’t enter.
Visit Golden Gate National Recreation Area
This is pure, gorgeous nature right in the city! I didn’t visit it until my third trip to San Francisco, but I would urge visitors not to miss it, especially those who don’t have time to explore other parts of California.
This stretch of coastline is owned and operated by the National Park Service, but is free to enter. It’s actually comprised of several locations, all under the Golden Gate Recreational Area’s banner.
Land’s End is a large chunk of the area, with plenty of parking. The Visitor Center is here, with a gift shop and cafe. It overlooks the Sutro Baths, the remains of the 19th century public bathing facility. Although much of the ruins are, sadly, covered in graffiti, it’s still a place worth visiting. The ruins have narrow catwalk paths over the water, for the adventurous, and beautiful views for everyone else. Off to the right of the baths, find a tunnel into the cliffside. Openings to the sea caves below fill the tunnel with the sound of the pounding surf, and at the end you’ll come out to a opening for great views and photos.
Follow the coastline path above the baths for a short hike and the most stunning views. The coastline in California is undisputedly gorgeous, and the hike offers a glimpse into that.
Further along, you may, or may not, see the Golden Gate Bridge. When we first arrived, it was so foggy we didnt even know it was there! An hour later, we couldn’t miss it! This vantage point is right below the USS San Francisco Memorial.
A bit of a hike beyond that, you’ll find the instagramable Lands End art sculpture. We didn’t make it there, heading out instead to Baker Beach before dark.
Part of the recreational area, but about an 8 minute drive, Baker Beach is one of the largest beaches in the area. Its farthest point almost touches the Golden Gate Bridge, and is also a clothing optional area. An interesting tidbit- the first Burning Man festival was held here in 1986.
Chinatown- Two Highlights
San Francisco Chinatown is arguably the best in the states. There’s no shortage of touristy shops, those for the locals, restaurants and tea shoppers. These two are my personal favorites though.
Ten Rens Tea Shop
A real Chinese tea importer, Ten Rens has two US storefronts- Rockville, Maryland and Chinatown San Francisco. I’ve been to both, and of course this one is the most fun. Downstairs, taste dozens of tea varieties at the bar, or order bubba tea at the back- my favorite bubba tea anywhere! Loose leaf and packaged teas are also available for purchase.
Hang Ah Tea Room and Restaurant
Delicious dim sum! And of course, tea. This gem is hidden down a back alley, and gave my friend and I pause when Google Map told us to turn on the narrow lane. Dont hesitate though- skip through the front door and be ready to indulge your tastebuds! A few dim sum are only available on the weekend- like the taro root cake. Others, like the xiao long bao soup dumplings are, thankfully, always for order. These dumplings, filled with soup and meat, are out of this world amazing. You’ll only find them in places like Chinatown or true Chinese restaurants.
Ride a Historic 1928 Streetcar to see the Sea Lions
San Francisco is famous for its cable and street cars, but did you know a number of vintage 1928 streetcars from Milan, Italy currently run on the F Market and Wharves Line? When you head to the waterfront, it will be hard to miss these unique cars. Those aside, any of the cable and street cars are iconic and provide a fun, cheap way to get around the city.
The Pier 39 stop will drop you off right by Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Fisherman’s Wharf is a huge tourist draw and is usually crowded anytime of day. However, how can you skip the sea lions who congregate at Pier 39? Every time I’ve visited, the sea lions were present, so it seems pretty likely you’ll see them. They pile up and roll around on the floating docks, making enough noise to wake the dead.
Home of the (American) Irish Coffee
The Buena Vista is home to America’s original Irish Coffee. When the owner visited Shannon, Ireland in 1952 he had his first Irish coffee. Returning to the states, he worked to find the perfect concoction and eventually replicated his Irish experience. We can thank him for popularizing this beverage here! Since then, the Buena Vista has become something of a San Francisco institution.
They say they serve thousands of Irish coffees a day, their staple, but they have a full bar and food menu too. A few shops down, find their Gift Store selling San Francisco knickknacks and, of course, Irish whiskey. Tullamore Dew seems to be the whiskey of choice!
Visit A Dispensary & Dab Bar
Well, we’ve had our whiskey now, but San Francisco takes things to the next level. While cannabis is becoming legal in more and more states, a marijuana bar is still a bit of an oddity.
Urban Pharm, in Soma, serves as both a dispensary and a bar. They offer dabs, aka samples, and a full smoke lounge. The pure curiosity of it begged a peek. Selling everything from cannabis munchies, to CDB oils and body rubs, to actual smokes, they’ve got the field covered. It was a much more relaxed environment than the dispensary I visited in Denver a couple years ago, but security is still a top priority.
Show your ID at the door, and don’t pull out your phone. They mean business when they say no photos! And don’t forget- it may be legal in California, but it’s probably not back home! It is illegal to transport any of the cannabis products over the state line. But that begs the question, if you are flying from California to Colorado… is it still illegal?
Close it Out- A Dinner and Show to Remember!
Close out your day with one of the most unique dining experiences in the city, at Berber. Wherever I go, I’m always on the hunt for unique, strange and delicious food. Google ‘unique San Francisco restaurants’ and you’ll get a standard list of places like Foreign Cinema and the Tonga Room. Oddly, Berber hasn’t made the lists yet and I found it almost by accident.
Opened in 2018, Berber is a trendy, stylish spot serving North African cuisine. During the weekend, they have an awesome Supper Club. For $85 (as of 2019) enjoy a three hour series of performances and a four course prixe fix menu. Let me tell you, while San Francisco may be one of the priciest cities in America, thats a good deal. A recent dinner show in Chicago just priced in at almost double that.
The food is delicious, and the performances are spectacular! They vary week to week, but think burlesque meets Burning Man.
Quick Tip: LUCASFILM, Ltd.
For the Star Wars fan in us all, drive by Lucasfilm, located at the Presidio. You can photograph the life size Yoda sitting in the fountain. That’s about it, as the studio doesn’t currently offer tours. They allow visitors to wander the grounds, but Yoda really is highlight.
One, Two, Three or More Day Trips
Escape the city and spend some time exploring beyond it. These are just a few trips, ones I’ve personally done, but there are many options near San Francisco. Wander on!
Muir Woods National Monument
Amazing, you can drive 45-60 minutes north of the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and see giant Redwoods, Sequoia trees. Muir Woods is home to several groves, making them some of the most accessible. On the way, you’ll snake up a winding road surrounded by beautiful eucalyptus trees – you’ll know them by their water color trunks, and of course their scent.
Parking is limited! That’s an understatement. So while the site is operated by the National Park Service, it isn’t meant to handle thousands of visitors at a time. The earlier you arrive, the better luck you’ll have parking.
Despite this forewarning, you’ll step into a beautiful slice of nature once you enter the park. Just breathe in the woodsy, fresh air and stroll along the paths, admiring the enormous Redwoods. After, stop by the cafe cabin for a warm drink or snack. Now, I will admit if you’ve seen other redwoods, such as those at Yosemite, these trees are significantly smaller. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely spot, and, an easy stop en route to Sonoma or Napa.
Napa & Sonoma Tour
Did someone say wine? Why yes, I think they did! As a first visit to California wine country, I booked an Extranomical Tours wine country trip. They will pick you up and drop you off at various hotels in San Francisco, making it an easy way to visit Napa. Our tour guide was super informative and fun, making the drive pass right by. The tour was a great introduction to Napa and Sonoma.
The stops will vary based on timing, private events etc., but our September itinerary was as follows. We visited Cline Family Cellars in Sonoma- beautiful grounds and home to the California Missions Museum. The museum houses small scale replicas of all 21 Californian missions.
Next up, we spent a couple hours in downtown Sonoma. You’re free to eat lunch, or you can book lunch with the tour. Honestly, there are plenty of restaurant to choose from, so don’t feel bound to the tour. Next up, stroll to Lake Sonoma Winery, a tasting room on the main square.
Lastly, we visited Kieu Hoang Winery in Napa. This was my favorite! Owned by a Vietnamese-American, the winery has an eastern, zen feel to it. Lounge in the rock garden, or sit along the back porch overlooking the vineyard, which is just steps away. When we visited right before harvest time, they allowed us to stroll through the fields, wine in hand, and pick grapes to taste. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable, making for an all around great experience.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is stunning, spectacular, the Disney World of National Parks! It’s worth a week or more, but it can be done on a speedy trip from San Francisco. Some tour companies over one day trips, but I don’t recommend this. My husband and I left the city at 6am, drove the 3.5 hours to the park and caught a 1:30 pm tour.
The National Park Service offers a number of tours, and we took Glacier Point. The bus departs from the Visitor Center, climbs the mountain for a perfect view of Half Dome, and then heads back down. However, you can purchase a one way ticket, as we did, and hike the trails back to the valley. Four Mile Trail (which is actually closer to five miles) begins at the Glacier Point parking lot and descends the mountain via switchbacks, offering stunning views. We also encountered a wolf sized coyote, who gave no mind to the handful of hikers gawking at it.
We camped overnight at the Pines, just a short walk from the Visitor Center. If you can stay overnight, do! The night sky was unlike any other I’ve seen. The Milky Way was visible to the naked eye, more stars than you could count. I’ll never forget that, just waiting on the shuttle, with an artists’ palette overhead.
We headed back to San Francisco the next day, but not before walking to the base of El Capitan to watch the climbers, and then stopping for a hike through the Tuolumne Grove of giant Sequoias. These redwoods are amazing. One still stands with a path cut through it’s trunk. Thank goodness, we’ve come along way from the tourism of the early 1900s! So, that’s just a quick summary of a 1.5 day Yosemite visit. We crammed a lot into the time, and I’m glad we did. The park offers so much more though!