Now that Qantas has launched new direct flights between Brisbane and San Francisco, start planning an itinerary with the help of this list of things not to miss…
1. Lombard Street is San Francisco’s own red brick road, claimed to be the crookedest street in the world for its eight hairpin bends in one block. It’s already busy with more than two million visitors a year, so getting a great shot without the tourist hordes is a challenge, but there’s been talk recently that soon there may be a fee charged to travel down it to help curb congestion.
2. The Painted Ladies are also a favourite as they stand in a regal row on Steiner Street, facing the Alamo Square Park. The Victorian mansions are now part of an historical district that includes the park.
3. Between Baker Beach and Pier 39, there are literally thousands of street art installations, (the Mission area alone has almost 500 murals), a Banksy hidden among them. The Haight and Clarion Alley are just a couple of streets to wander. A guided Wild SF Tour will get you started in the right direction.
4. Likewise, there are lots of stairs in this hilly city and plenty of colourful ones from the Lincoln Park steps and 16th Avenue tiled stairs to the wooden Filbert steps surrounded by greenery from top to bottom.
5. Kirby Cove for a picture perfect view of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
6. Angel Island is often called the ‘Jewel of San Francisco Bay’, designated state park and only accessible by ferry (or private boat) it is a great vantage point for panoramic views in all directions. This is a spot for nature lovers with pretty coves and beaches, hiking trails, biking (or walking) on the paved perimeter road, or take a Segway, scooter or tram tour to historic military sites and the old Immigration Station (‘the Ellis Island of the West’).
7. Treasure Island is man-made, originally for a World Fair in 1939, and still has some public art relics from that time, although it’s now a quick getaway to urban wineries, an annual music festival and monthly flea market. Accessible by car and bus via the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (‘Bay Bridge’).
8. Besides the beaches and hiking trails on Alameda Island, you’ll also find a Pinball Museum with 90 playable machines and a games arcade with more than 400 games for all levels of gamers, or board the HSS Hornet aircraft carrier (which was part of the Apollo 11 recovery mission) and museum for a sleepover and be one of the ‘crew’ in simulation activities. Wander the streets to see beautiful Victorian homes, browse vintage and antiques shops and discover Hawaiian-style eateries and tiki bars.
9. Alcatraz was once a fort, a military prison and a maximum security federal prison housing notorious convicts such as Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly but now it is part of a National Park and home to colonies of nesting seabirds. It’s one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions for visitors to wander among the ruins (the old buildings have not been restored), through the gardens, past tidal pools and to enjoy the sweeping views across the bay to the city skyline, but evening and behind-the-scenes tours are a way to escape the peak crowds.
10. Brooks Island is a nature reserve and a sanctuary for birds, accessible to people only as part of a naturalist kayak tour pre-arranged through the East Bay Regional Park District. There are wildflowers in the spring and a walk to the island’s highest point reveals a rare view.
11. Start with Golden Gate Park, more than 400 hectares of green space that includes special gardens, nine lakes, 4000 species of trees, museums and the Conservatory of Flowers.
12. The sea lions at Pier 39 are quite a spectacle so close to the city but less than 100km south, near Pescadero, mammoth elephant seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals come ashore at Año Nuevo State Reserve to rest, battle for mates, and give birth in the sand dunes or on the beaches. Find a guided walk and search seal viewing seasons here.
13. Point Reyes National Seashore (about 40km miles northwest of the city), stretched along 50km of coastline, boasts more than 200km of trails, majestic vistas, herds of tule elk, masses of wildflowers, and is a haven for rare birds –paradise for birdwatchers. Look out for the Cypress Tree tunnel, forming a natural arch over the road, on the way to the lighthouse.
14. About 20km north of the city is Muir Woods, a more than 100-year-old-growth redwood forest with close to 50km of trails.
15. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge is the Marin Headlands — coastal bluffs, rugged hiking trails, vast wetlands, protected valleys and historic landmarks.
16. Travel on to Mount Tamalpais, the highest peak in the Marin Hills, for hiking, horse riding, mountain biking and hang gliding.
17. Join the locals at Yoga in the Cathedral at Grace Cathedral, Nob Hill, where hundreds of people meet on the labyrinth every Tuesday night.
18. Drive to the top of Twin Peaks to enjoy panoramic views of the city or, if you’re feeling particularly hardy, you can hike to the top instead.
19. Take a bike tour of the Mission District and must-see neighbourhoods including Haight-Ashbury, SoMa, Alamo Square, The Castro and more on a five-hour mega cycle (only one small hill).
20. San Francisco City Guides lead richly informative and free Golden Gate Bridge walks.
21. It’s an everyday form of transport for the locals but a cable car ride on one of the steeper streets is quite an adventure for visitors.
Cafés and restaurants
22. Chef Nichole Accettola had great success selling her rye bread and smørrebrød – that is, open sandwiches with fillings like pickled herring and paté – at the farmers market before opening her Scandinavian style Kantine (1906 Market Street, Central Market), a minimalist café and bakery where her sandwiches, artisan breads and Danish pastries are offered on the menu along with build-your-own brunch boards.
23. Forget avo on toast, brunch is a whole other world of pancakes, crispy potatoes, shrimp and grits, and crawfish beignets – these last two on the menu at Brenda’s French Soul Food (625 Polk Street). Arrive with a big appetite.
24. Café International (508 Haight Street) ticks a lot of boxes while you’re on the tourist trail checking out Haight Ashbury, with its own street art mural out back, live music and open mic nights.
25. Avital Food Tours go behind-the-scenes in the Mission District, Haight Ashbury, North Beach and craft cocktails in Union Square.
26. Miette Patisserie is not a café, it’s an adorable pastry shop and chef/owner Meg Ryan admits she eats cake every morning with her coffee so you can too, although choosing what to have in this sweet treat of a store will be the dilemma. Find it at the Ferry Building Marketplace and several other locations.
27. Splurge at Spruce (3640 Sacramento Street) for white tablecloths, leather chairs, a marble bar and a taste of California cuisine.
28. Taquerias – burritos, tacos and other Mexican staples – are everywhere in the Mission area and La Taqueria (2889 Mission Street) serves them every which way, including vegetarian. The El Dorada burrito, pressed flat and grilled until golden is a specialty people keep coming back for.
29. The Riddler (528 Laguna Street), is a Champagne Bar that boasts an impressive selection of more than 200 bottles to choose from and dozens more sparkling wines by the glass, bottle (or magnum) because “Champagne shouldn’t only be for celebrations,” says founder and celebrated restaurateur Jen Pelka. Her patrons agree and The Riddler has been so successful in its home town, where it has been named Wine Bar of the Year, that Pelka recently opened a second one in NYC.
30. Trick Dog (3010 20th Street), is a favourite with the locals, and ‘best of lists’, not just for the laid back vibe in this converted warehouse but also for its changing menu of cocktails determined by random creative inspirations rather than anything as mundane as seasons. Food gets the thumbs up too.
31. Moongate Lounge (28 Waverly Place) is another that takes a different approach to creating its cocktails, guided by the Chinese lunar calendar, the wine selection is all natural, and the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s is downstairs for dinner.
32. For drinks with a rooftop view (there aren’t many) try Everdene above the Virgin Hotel (250 4th Street) in SoMa or Charmaine’s at the Proper Hotel (entrance at 45 McAllister Street) in Mid-Market.
33. Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery (100 Hooper Street) makes beer, distills whiskey, and distills beer (their own and from other breweries) into whiskey and, in addition to the taproom, has a cocktail bar, a restaurant and hosts tours so this is the place to try it all.
34. Each month, neighbourhood galleries stay open after hours (until about 7.30pm) to host people taking part in the ‘First Thursday Art Walks’. View the online map to browse for participating artists and galleries and plot a course in a particular area. The Castro Art Walk also takes place every first Thursday of the month from 6-9pm.
35. The Palace of Fine Arts (Baker Street) is the only remaining structure from a World’s Fair-type expo in 1915 and its ancient Greek-style colonnades are said to have inspired George Lucas’s vision for Queen Amidala’s royal residence in Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
36. Find quiet respite inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 Third Street) which has seven floors of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design and media arts on display.
37. Gregangelo Museum (225 San Leandro Way) isn’t a traditional museum, it’s more like a fun house with hidden doors, circus paintings and spinning time capsules. Visitors enter 13 or 27 rooms, each with a theme: Arabian nights, a spaceship, a bathroom under the sea, a pink stuffed animal cave, to name just a few. Be prepared for crawling, bright lights, some complete darkness and cramped spaces.
38. Peephole Cinema (280 Orange Alley) plays continuous short silent films for anyone making the effort to find and look into this hole in the wall, where only a small sign hanging above gives any indication where it is.
39. Winchester Mystery House (525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose) is about an hour south of the city but worth the journey to wander the sprawling mansion with 160 rooms that took nearly 30 years to build – a long way from the eight-room farmhouse renovation it started out to be. Work only stopped when owner Sarah Winchester (heiress to the rifle empire) died in 1922 and since then many have thought the house to be haunted.
40. Cartoon Art Museum (781 Beach Street) houses nearly 7000 original pieces of cartoon art, including comic books, graphic novels, anime, political cartoons and more for browsing.
41. At Exploratorium (Pier 15) you can levitate, touch a tornado, mix colours and break light apart, stop time, start a conversation, capture a wave, view curious contraptions and more in the ultimate brain teaser break from touring.
42. Staypineapple (580 Geary Street), looks more elegant than its name might suggest – all golden yellow accent pieces in a very smart interior, big bouncy beds, and it’s right slap bang in the middle of everything at Union Square. Get the camera out for the free afternoon snacks – yes there will be pineapple-flavoured treats! Otherwise there are free bikes for exploring, and fast WiFi for searching before you go.
43. Phoenix Hotel is in the burgeoning Tenderloin district (601 Eddy Street) and boasts a rock ‘n’ roll history, rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the courtyard and a landmark pool sporting its own work of art. From a Caravan Motor Lodge in the 1950s to hipster bunkhouse for 2020, this mid-century beauty has had quite the makeover.
44. YOTEL San Francisco (1095 Market Street) opened last year and is only 20 minutes ride from the airport and not much further from popular tourist sites including Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz. The building may have been standing for more than 100 years (it’s survived two earthquakes), and many of its heritage features have been retained in its recent conversion from office accommodation, but the detail is tech savvy, with self check-in kiosks, super-fast WiFi and ergonomically-designed ‘cabins’ in different sizes for solo travellers up to Queen suites.
45. Families love the Argonaut (495 Jefferson Street) for its convenience to key attractions and views of the Bay, Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge from its Fisherman’s Wharf location. Walking tours led by a National Park Ranger also leave direct from the lobby.
46. Luxury is the Huntington Hotel in swanky Nob Hill (1075 California Street) with huge rooms, soaking tubs, indoor pool and spa. See