There’s a reason why so many songs have been written about San Francisco. From its creative food scene and colorful Victorian buildings to its cultural offerings, it’s nearly impossible to experience it all in one trip. Our advice: don’t try to do it all. Pick several places and dive deep.
For an unforgettable experience, walk 1.7 miles (one way) across the Golden Gate Bridge, which opened to the public in 1937 and is painted International Orange, primarily so ships can see it in the fog. Its name refers to the fact that the bridge marks the entrance to the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. It connects Marin County to San Francisco. Its average height above water is 220 feet.
Afterwards, head to Golden Gate Park, home to 1,017 acres of trails, playgrounds and cultural gems like the California Academy of Sciences, featuring a four-story living rainforest and an aquarium with penguin feedings. The park's Japanese Tea Garden, which opened in 1894, is the oldest in the United States. You'll find paths lined by Japanese maples and cherry trees, along with a five-story pagoda and a large Buddha cast in bronze in 1790 and placed in the garden in 1949.
Don't miss Lombard Street on Russian Hill, which makes eight dramatic hairpin turns past beautiful gardens and mansions while offering striking views of the bay.
Then, visit PIER 39 and check out the Aquarium of the Bay. The aquarium is the next-best thing to donning a wetsuit and scuba gear to see the underwater residents of the San Francisco Bay. Explore one clear tunnel to view near-shore habitat, including mesmerizing schools of anchovies. The second clear tunnel will take you farther "offshore" to view bat rays and sevengill sharks, the largest shark inhabiting the bay and the only shark species to have seven gill slits. All other sharks have five.
Cruise the San Francisco Bay
Afterwards, board one of Blue & Gold Fleet's boats to trade city crowds for seagulls and fresh ocean air. Experience the bay on a cruise to view the city's skyline. The Sunset Cruise takes you past sea lions, the Golden Gate Bridge and hear the San Francisco Bay Bridge to see the world's largest LED light sculpture. It was created by artist Leo Villareal.
"San Francisco and getting on the water are almost synonymous because the bay is just so beautiful and when you are out on the water, you can see all the sites from the AT&T Park (baseball stadium) to Coit Tower," says Dennis Swayne of Blue & Gold Fleet.
Limited on time? Take the 90-minute Escape from the Rock tour that circles the island but does not dock on it. Complimentary earbuds let you listen to voices of former inmates on your Wi-Fi-enabled device. Buy tickets in advance to avoid the line and dress in warm layers. The bay wind can be surprisingly chilling.
Stop by the Blue & Gold Fleet at PIER 39 or learn more by calling (415) 705-8200 or visit www.blueandgoldfleet.com.
Visit Alcatraz Island
Home to Al “Scarface” Capone and other notorious criminals, Alcatraz is one of the country’s most infamous federal prisons. While it only operated from 1934 to 1963, its legend has grown with time.
Experience it on Alcatraz Cruises, the only authorized concessionaire for ferrying passengers to the island. It’s a 15-minute ferry ride to Alcatraz, and visitors can stay until the last ferry.
An audio tour is available in 11 languages that covers the island's history and features voices of former inmates sharing their stories. However, visitors often are surprised by the rest of the island's history, including the 19-month Native American occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-71, says Michael Badolato, Alcatraz Cruises’ program administrator. Today, it is a national park site.
Learn more about Alcatraz Cruises at (415) 981-7625 or alcatrazcruises.com.