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Top San Francisco Attractions

The first time you visit San Francisco, or any new destination, the question asked isn’t usually what attractions should be scene but what attraction to see first, what to expect, how to get there, and how much time is needed. We’ve provided tips, advice, and other information about the top tourist attractions in San Francisco to help with your itinerary planning.

Golden Gate Bridge Golden Gate Bridge
Alcatraz Island Alcatraz Island
Lombard Street Lombard Street
Ghiradelli Square Ghiradelli Square
The Painted Ladies The Painted Ladies

The Golden Gate Bridge


The Golden Gate Bridge, with its sweeping cables, bold color and soaring 750-foot towers, has been an unofficial symbol of San Francisco since May 1937. An engineering masterpiece, this suspension bridge of art deco design is 90 feet wide with a total length of 1.7 miles. It took four years to construct the bridge.

The bridge that stands today has come a long way since Chief Engineer Joseph B. Strauss submitted his original plans. Consulting Engineer Leon S. Moisseiff helped Strauss redefined the plan, but it wasn’t until Consulting Architects, Irving F. Morrow and his wife Gertrude, came on board adding architectural enhancements that define the art deco styling of the Golden Gate Bridge we know today.

More than 9 million people visit the bridge each year, according to the San Francisco Convention and Visitor Bureau. During daylight hours, visitors can walk or bike ride across the sidewalks of the bridge.

On the southeast side of the Bridge reside the immaculate gardens where you can wander along brick sidewalks that wind around nearly five acres of annual and perennial flowerbeds. With the Bridge as a backdrop, this peaceful retreat offers an alternative way to view the Golden Gate Bridge.


Alcatraz Island

 Address Alcatraz Island (accessible only by ferry)
 Admission Adults $16.00 (includes self-guided audio tour)
Reduced rates for seniors and children
 Hours Ferry first departs at 9:30am from Pier 41 at the waterfront and runs every 20-30 minutes. The last boat from Alcatraz leaves at 4:30pm. Alcatraz is closed only on Christmas and New Year's Day.
 Phone 415.705.5555

As if in its own separate world, isolated Alcatraz Island sits in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. It was the strongest military fortress in the west and the first (and still operating) lighthouse along America’s west coast.

Now one of the Bay area’s most popular destinations, Blue & Gold Fleet operates tours to Alcatraz under the concession of the National Park Service. Visitors cross the Bay on a 15-minute ferry ride that leaves from Pier 41 on San Francisco's waterfront. Once on the island, visitors can tour the prison and discover the history of "The Rock."

Tour guides and exhibitions educate visitors about the rich history of Alcatraz Island and some of the prison’s most notorious inmates including Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelley, and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." Original objects, artwork and documents of the inmates and prison guards are also on display.

There is a current exhibit about the American Indian’s presence on Alcatraz, including their occupation of the island during 1969 to 1971 and the confinement of a group of Hopi Indians in 1895.

Breath-taking views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen from the island and it also offers an unexpected treat for the nature enthusiast. Unique flowers and plants grow all over the island.

Keep in mind that there is no food service available on Alcatraz, so you may want to pack a lunch to enjoy in the picnic area located at the dock.


Lombard Street

Known as the “crookedest street in the world,” Lombard Street winds up a steep hill, satisfying walkers and drivers with a unique view of the city. This distinct attraction draws thousands of visitors each year despite the fact that it really can not claim the title it has been given. More crooked, but not nearly as scenic, is Vermont Street located between 20th and 22nd Streets in Potrero Hill.

Lombard Street is one-way downhill. You can drive your car down slowly hugging the curves in lowest gear, but expect a bit of a wait especially on the weekends. Pedestrians can walk straight up or down the steep hill using side staircases.

People actually live in houses along Lombard Street, which is located between Hyde and Leavenworth. In the summer months, their gardens make a colorful backdrop and help to make your strenuous trek along the snaking road a little more enjoyable. But it’s all worth it when you reach the end of the road when you can capture an uphill view of the whimsical street on camera.


Ghiradelli Square

 Address 900 N. Point (between Polk and Larkin Streets)
 Hours Shops generally open 10am – 9pm in the summer and 10am – 6pm in the winter.
 Phone 415-775-5500

Although most of the shops and attractions in the waterfront area of Fisherman’s Wharf can be overpriced and touristy, be sure to wander through Ghiradelli Square.

The site of one of San Francisco’s tastiest exports ever, most of the redbrick buildings in the complex were part of the chocolate-making factory owned by Domingo Ghiradelli. The factory itself dates back to 1864 when it manufactured Civil War uniforms, but its better know for its spice and chocolate production. Look for the placards throughout the complex that point out interesting information about the square and the old factory.

The buildings have now been converted into 20 dining establishments (including succulent seafood restaurants), and more than 50 stores that sell everything, including souvenirs, gifts and clothing.

Unfortunately you won’t enjoy the smell of chocolate wafting through the air, but the Ghiradelli Chocolate Company still produces chocolate. The factory, however, is situated in a lower-rent area of East Bay. But the shops in the square do sell Ghiradelli chocolate products so you can take a bar home as a souvenir. Or you may be tempted to enjoy your Ghiradelli chocolate while watching the street performers that often entertain passersby at the nearby West Plaza.


The Painted Ladies

The city lovingly refers to the more than 14,000 Victorian houses spread throughout San Francisco as “Painted Ladies.” Erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these structures are made of redwood. The city’s oldest Victorian homes were destroyed when the earthquake and fire of 1906 hit downtown San Francisco.

There are three main styles of San Francisco’s Victorian homes, though these styles were often blended during renovations by later owners. The Italianite style was inspired by Renaissance Italy and is known for having slanted bay windows and Corinthian columns. The Stick style uses wood strips rather than patterns for ornamentation and squared-off bay windows. The Queen Anne style is characterized by extravagant details like lacy ornamentation and rounded shingles.

A popular pictorial representation of San Francisco in TV shows, posters and movies is the strand of Victorian houses in the Alamo Square Historic District. This row of houses is surrounded by Golden Gate Avenue on the North, Fell Street on the South, Webster Street on the East and Divisadero Street on the West. For the best view of this collection of Painted Ladies, head to the heart of historic Alamo Square at Fulton and Steiner Streets and look east. You will enjoy how the soft colors of the Painted Ladies are offset by the jarring sky scrapers dotting the background of the city’s skyline.


San Francisco Travel Guides
 Frommer's San Francisco
 Lonely Planet San Francisco
 Let's Go San Francisco
 Fodors San Francisco