Popular San Francisco Shore Excursions
Pier 39: A collection of shops and dining places, Port 39 is also home to an aquarium and -- its most popular attraction -- sea lions, which have been taking over a number of boat piers. They're best viewed from the left-hand side of Pier 39. Younger kids will love the hand-painted two-tiered Venetian carousel topped with almost 2,000 twinkling lights. You can book whale-watching trips there and rent bicycles, too.
Fisherman's Wharf: You can't visit San Francisco and not spend time here. Check out all the crab stands near Jefferson Street. Look out across the bay, and you'll see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ghirardelli Square: What started out as a factory making Civil War uniforms in 1864 has become famous for being a chocolate and spice factory from 1893 until the mid-1960s. These days, the factory is elsewhere and this place, though on the national historic register, is a multilevel mall filled to the brim with shops and restaurants. Look for the original 1860 cast-iron chocolate grinder from France on the lower level, and make sure you stop at the old-fashioned soda fountain down there, too (900 North Point Street).
Golden Gate Bridge: Heralded as one of the world's most beautiful bridges, this San Francisco bridge attracts about 9 million visitors each year. It's free to drive out of San Francisco over the bridge -- but to come back, it'll cost you $7.75 per vehicle. Pedestrians (including wheelchair users) and bicyclists may access the 1.7-mile span's sidewalks during daylight hours. Or, view it from afar on a bay cruise or a ferry ride across to Sausalito.
San Francisco's Cable Cars: Going "halfway to the stars," according to that famous song -- and it's just about true! -- there are only three lines of these mobile national landmarks remaining, but they take you over some huge hills, with stunning views of the bay. Add in the "tune" that each bellman plays, and it makes for great entertainment. The two lines that run from Powell and Market streets are nearly always packed because they head down to the Fisherman's Wharf area. For a less-crowded ride, with nary a wait, hop aboard the California Street line at California and Drumm streets. A ride costs $7 (exact change). Get on the north side of the car for the best views, and stand on the outside, if you dare!
Cable Car Museum: Visit this fascinating museum to see how the whole cable car system works. (1201 Mason Street, a stop on the Powell Street line; 415-474-1887; open daily, except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during April to October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during November to March)
Alcatraz: Run by the National Park Service, the Rock is where some of the most notorious felons were sent from 1934 until 1963; alums include Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and, of course, Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." It's essential to book tours in advance, especially during the busy summer months. The official operator is Alcatraz Cruises, and tours leave from Pier 33. (If you've visited before, note that this has changed in the past few years.) Tours take place most days from 9:30 a.m., running every half hour or so. The island closes at 6:30 p.m. in the summer months and at 4:30 p.m. at all other times. There are some evening (read: spookier) tours, but check the schedule if you're interested in these more in-depth adventures. It's important to note that there is a bit of an elevated walk from the boat to the cell house, so wear comfortable shoes. If you think it might be a difficult trek for you, consider taking SEAT, an electric shuttle that runs about every hour between the dock and the cell house. Bring a heavy sweater or a windbreaker; it gets chilly out there. You can also purchase a combined visit to neighboring Angel Island, known as the "Ellis Island of the West," where immigrants once entered the U.S. from Asia. These days, it's best for hiking and enjoying bay views.
Chinatown: Beyond the great big red-and-green gate on Grant Avenue is a place where prices are subject to discussion. Inside you'll find a 24-block maze of restaurants, shops, an ornate temple and cheap dim sum joints galore. Grant Avenue is more touristy, while Stockton Street caters more to local shoppers, with shops overflowing with dried fish and other exotic-smelling items.
Coit Tower: Photo ops abound not far from North Beach, atop Telegraph Hill. The tower was built in 1933 as a memorial to the city's volunteer firemen, with funding provided by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a genuine San Francisco character. The Diego Rivera-inspired murals at its base are wonderful to see. They were done by 25 artists under the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. For panoramic views of the city and the bay, ride the elevator to the top of the tower. (1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard; 415-249-0995; open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during November to March, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)
Filbert Street Steps: Descend the east side of the hill, through a hidden world of gardens and houses that can only be accessed on foot (Filbert and Sansome streets; daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Exploratorium: This is the city's hands-on science museum and "learning laboratory." With exhibits on everything from skateboard science to Polynesian navigation, it's a fascinating place for young and old. In 2013, it moved from the Palace of Fine Arts complex to Pier 15 to allow for eight times the exhibit space, stellar views of the bay and a restaurant by local chef Loretta Keller. Plus, it's an easy walk from the cruise terminal. (Pier 15, Embarcadero at Green Street; 415-528-4444; open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for 18-plus visitors only, closed Mondays, except select holidays)
Golden Gate Park: It might not be Manhattan's Central Park, but Golden Gate Park sure comes close. At 75,398 acres, it's one of the largest inner-city national parks on the planet, where you can rent bikes (rental shops on Stanyan Street), ride on horseback or simply gaze out on the Pacific. A must-see site in the park is the Japanese Tea Garden, a beautiful collection of waterfalls, bonsai trees and Japanese-style architecture; you can even have tea there. (75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive; 415-752-1171; open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. March to October, until 4:45 p.m. November to February)
The park is home to the de Young Museum and its collections of art of the Americas and Oceania. (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive; 415-750-3600; open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.)
Ride to the top of the tower and catch the great views for free. The park is also home to the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum, four-story rain forest (nice for warming up from the San Francisco fog), aquarium and a planetarium (55 Music Concourse Drive; 415-379-8000; open Monday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Legion of Honor Museum: Boasting one of the grandest settings you'll ever see, the palace-like Neoclassical building overlooks the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and hills of Marin County. It's the same museum found in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," where Kim Novak stared at a portrait. It's crammed with European and ancient art and located in Outer Richmond's Lincoln Park. (100 34th Avenue; 415-750-3600; open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.)
Haight-Ashbury: This legendary intersection is all at once trendy, nostalgic, funky and touristy. Made famous by the psychedelic '60s, it's a bit more gentrified these days, with swank shops and hip restaurants. You'll still spot a few aging hippies here and there along Haight Street -- and a lot of strangely colored hair atop kids' heads. If you want to see where the Grateful Dead lived in the mid-60s, head to 710 Ashbury Street. Amoeba Music, at 1855 Haight Street, is the haunt of used CD- and vinyl-lovers. Hungry? Stop by Cha Cha Cha at 1801 Haight Street for tasty Caribbean tapas.
North Beach: For people-watchers, the best coffeehouses are found in this Italian enclave, where baseball great Joe DiMaggio grew up. Don't look for a beach -- there isn't one, but there once was before a landfill gobbled it up. There's plenty of history in this part of town, though. Grant Avenue is the city's oldest street, and legend has it that as fires swept through the city after the 1906 earthquake, locals cracked open barrels upon barrels of red wine and soaked blankets that were then draped over their houses. While you're there, check out the historic St. Francis of Assisi Church on Vallejo Street. Established in 1849, it remains famous for its Schoenstein pipe organ and spectacular murals that grace the interior walls. The old-style Italian restaurants (with the obligatory red-and-white checked tablecloths) are classic, and there's plenty of nightlife along Columbus and Grant avenues. You'll also find boutiques selling handmade goods, and City Lights at 261 Columbus Avenue is one of the city's best bookstores, founded by Beat Generation legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Union Square: This is the center of the city; many hotels, department stores, restaurants and tiny boutiques frame the small park (mostly along Post, Stockton, Geary, Powell and Sutter streets). The Theater District is just three blocks away. Around the perimeter of Union Square Park, you'll find the sidewalks dotted with colorful flower stalls and jewelry vendors. Just across Powell Street at Market Street is the Westfield Center, a vertical mall with Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and a number of restaurants. (865 Market Street; 415-512-6776; open daily, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.)
SoMa (South of Market): Head over to SoMa for galleries, museums, shopping and plenty of entertainment in what was once a neighborhood filled with old factories and warehouses. You'll find plenty of nightlife there, too.
Twin Peaks: For a view beyond all views, head to the top of Market Street. If you want to reach it without too much of a hike, find the Pemberton Steps near Clayton Street. (They won't get you all the way to the top, but the views are still awesome.) The #37 bus will get you near the top, as well.
GLBT History Museum: A visit to this museum is an opportunity to visit world-class exhibits related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history and culture. For a guided tour, try Cruisin' the Castro, a two-hour walk through the gay community of Castro covering historic events and must-see sights. (4127 18th Street; 415-621-1107; open Wednesday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Contemporary art-lovers should spend time here. You can't imagine the breadth of works from artists such as Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. And, because the museum places tremendous focus on photography, you will have the opportunity to see work from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alfred Stieglitz. Its restaurant, In Situ, replicates famous chefs' dishes from around the world and helmed by Corey Lee, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Benu. (151 Third Street; 415-357-4000; open Friday to Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays until 9 p.m.; closed Wednesdays)
SF City Guides Tours: SF City Guides provides free tours of interesting San Francisco neighborhoods, led by knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteers. (A donation is nice, though, because this is a nonprofit.) Tours might take you to see Pacific Heights' grand mansions and Victorian architecture, through stairway streets in Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill, or beyond the tourist traps at Fisherman's Wharf to discover its real history. They might explain the Coit Tower murals or the 1906 earthquake and fire, or take you into the "Bawdy & Naughty" life of Gold Rush-era San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Be sure to check the online schedule (sfcityguides.org); the same tours are often offered every week, but not all.
Edible Excursions Tours: San Francisco is foodie heaven, and a great way to discover its many delicious offerings is on a culinary walking tour. Edible Excursions offers several tours in the city -- from the Ferry Building Marketplace to the Mission District -- and the East Bay. They typically give you hefty tastes of six to nine items, along with the story behind a particular food, dining establishment and neighborhood. Even if you've stretched your stomach on a cruise, a tour will take the place of a meal.
Pacific Heights: Jay Gifford, a Victorian aficionado, offers a 2.5-hour walking and bus tour of Pacific Heights, pointing out architecture inside and outside some 200 restored Victorian homes while imparting some fairly good local gossip. For Hollywood fans, this tour gives you a chance to see the house used in "Mrs. Doubtfire," as well as the one featured on "Party of Five."
Muir Woods: Head out about 12 miles beyond the Golden Gate for a walk in Muir Woods, located in Mill Valley. (It will probably seem familiar because scenes from "Return of the Jedi" were filmed there.) The ancient redwoods are jaw-droppingly gorgeous as you walk along trails marked for 30-, 60- and 90-minute hikes. (If you're driving in yourself, take note that Muir Woods is the first national park to require year-round reservations for all vehicles entering the park due to overcrowding.)
Sausalito: Take a 30-minute year-round ferry ride to this seaside village on the bay. Visit the art galleries, shops and restaurants, or take a stroll through a park guarded by large concrete elephants -- erected for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. If you're planning for an overnight stay, consider Casa Madrona's cluster of cottages.
California's Wine Country: Even if you don't rent a car, California's Wine Country is accessible: Take an eight-hour luxury bus tour with the Blue & Gold Fleet through Sonoma and Napa that allows for three wine-tasting stops, tours and time for lunch. Buses depart daily at 9 a.m. from Pier 41. For smaller group or custom tours, Napa Valley Wine Country Tours has legions of fans. Many other companies offer trips to Wine Country, from bare-bones to limos.