Exploring San Francisco

5 Cool Things to do and see in SF

San Francisco is one of the most scenic cities in America, in part because of an inherent flaw in the way its streets were laid out. Not realizing that the city spans a very hilly area, designers arranged the streets in the usual grid form.

This grid form was actually implemented by the Spanish colonizers as part of the “Laws of the Indies.” While it has created an orderly urban fabric around much of the Southwest, in the uniquely three-dimensional geography of the Bay Area, it has created a network of streets that ascend and descend at seemingly precarious angles.

The end result is a city with incredible views of the Bay. As you drive along, you soar up to a flat space with a vista that opens up before you…then plummet downward like you’re riding a roller coaster. And if you’re not driving, you can enjoy that ride from one of the city’s iconic cable cars.

While most travelers know about the Golden Gate Bridge, not everyone is familiar with the other sights and sounds of the “city by the bay.” The good thing about San Francisco is that since it’s smaller than other metropolitan attractions like New York, even its most touristy spaces have ample room for explorers to enjoy the sights and sounds.

Here are a few attractions you won’t want to miss if you’re visiting.

#1: Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is one of the largest urban green spaces in America, and it boast an incredible variety of attractions that could easily take up an entire day to see. The Japanese Tea Garden will allow you to sample the harmony, simplicity, and elegance of Asian landscaping traditions, perhaps while sipping on on a cup of hot tea and meditating on the serenity of the natural setting that surrounds you.

In the center of Golden Gate Park, there is a beautiful oval green that is flanked by two world-class museums for both lovers of science and art. The California Academy of Sciences is a great place to learn about the flora and fauna of our world…and beyond. Staple exhibits and features include a planetarium, a rain forest, and The African Hall, which is one of the last remnants of the original, classical museum building. Across the green is the de Young Museum, which features collections of American, African, and Oceanic arts and crafts.

#2: Chinatown

While many of the Chinatowns around the United States are a mere nod to a once-thriving history of Asian culture, San Francisco’s Chinatown will have you feeling like you’ve stepped into a different country. The half-mile stretch of Grant Street, from the iconic Dragon Gate until Broadway, is packed with stores and restaurants with Chinese signage and authentic imports within. If you’re looking for silk garments, carved ivory, or Chinese food, this is the place to be. Mooncake, anyone?

While every store is a colorful adventure, things get even more exciting when you move a block up or down from Grant Street, and immerse yourself in a neighborhood that is still very much a locus of Chinese culture and language. Particularly interesting is Portsmouth Square, where people gather to play cards and Mahjong. Occasionally a band of musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments can be heard under the park’s pagoda. Best of all is Chinese New Year, which features lion dancing and fireworks.

#3: Haight-Ashbury

The Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood is the locus of 60’s counterculture. Everything you’ve heard, seen, or known about Hippies, Tie-Dye, and psychedelic rock came from this place. It’s most famous residents were The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane. If you’re looking to hear some street musicians, shop for tie-dye, or browse the selection at the massively sized Amoeba Music, this is your neighborhood.

For better or worse, developers have since seized on the hype of this area since the counterculture movement, and it has become gentrified in recent years. To that end, if you’re not adverse to browsing some higher-end stores (albeit some that pose as more Bohemian) you’ll find an amenable shopping experience here as well. Don’t forget to grab a scoop of ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s right at the corner of Haight and Ashbury (no, it’s not the original).

#4: Union Square and Environs

Union Square is the heart of San Francisco’s downtown space. In the center of the palm-lined plaza is a towering pillar that commemorates victory in the Spanish-American War. Fronting the square is the massive St. Francis Hotel (today owned by Westin), one of the most prestigious locations in the city since 1913. A large Macy’s also fronts the square, and on its top floor the Cheesecake Factory offers diners some incredible views of the city.

The area around Union Square is also great for exploring. The nearby Metreon is a great place to catch dinner and an IMAX movie. Yerba Buena Gardens is another beautiful green space in the urban fabric of the city, with an incredible waterfall monument to Martin Luther King. Across the street from the park is the SF MOMA, showcasing an incredible collection of Modern Art in an iconic building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta.

#5: The Embarcadero

Before the 1989 San Francisco Quake, the area along the bay was fronted by an unsightly raised freeway (sort of like the waterfront of Seattle today). After the tremors totaled the freeway, the space was redesigned to become one of the most scenic urban drives you can find in America today.

The Embarcadero is a palm-lined concourse stretching from the busy tourist hubs of Fisherman’s Wharf (a great place to eat fresh seafood) and Pier 39 (with shops and attractions like an underwater tunnel, the Wax Museum, and its famous Sea Lion residents). From Pier 39 you can catch a boat to Alcatraz, the once-functioning island prison that now sits like a lonely sentinel in the middle of the Bay.

The Embarcadero winds around the curvature of the bay and terminates near AT&T Park, where you can see the San Francisco Giants play in a throwback setting modeled after Baltimore’s Camden Yards. About midway along the Embarcadero is the Ferry Terminal, a once-defunct warehouse that has been revitalized into an incredible indoor market space, with a variety of places to shop and dine by the water.

You can also catch a ferry from the Ferry Terminal to the scenic towns of Larkspur or Sausalito across the Bay, in Marin County (the later of those two offers incredible views of the San Francisco skyline).

A final word…

There are so many more attractions we haven’t covered here, from getting lost in the charming streets of Little Italy to walking or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco is an incredible city offering a wide range of experiences for travelers of all types, whether sightseeing, dining, shopping, or playing is their preferred activity.

If you’d like to explore discounted options for staying in the city, click here.

Check back periodically to see what amazing place we learn about next!

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