San Francisco is an iconic city unlike any other in the world. It’s rare to find a city that’s as famous for its transportation and its landscape as it is for its architecture and cuisine.
If you’re visiting or planning to visit San Francisco for the first time, lucky you. There’s so much to see and explore.
To make sure you don’t miss out on anything, we’ve compiled a list of what San Francisco is known for (and yes, the Bridge made the list :). In true Dandyhorse fashion, it’s packed with cool original photos, tips on the best places to visit, and plenty of inspiration to make your time in San Francisco a true local adventure.
1. The Hills and Views
The stunning 360° panoramic view from the top of Twin Peaks
How many cities can boast that the best viewing spots are 100% free?
San Francisco is home to 48(!) named hills and plenty of opportunities to take in the cityscape. In short, awesome views are everywhere!
The breathtaking view from Twin Peaks is arguably the best in town. There are no trees or buildings to obstruct your 360-degree panorama which spans from the Pacific Ocean to the Golden Gate Bridge to the sailboats-studded bay to the dense urban expanse of San Francisco below.
If you want to avoid tourists, Tank Hill, a near stone’s throw away, offers similarly impressive views, and if you’re lucky you might even get the park to yourself.
An awesome poster of all of San Francisco’s hills(!) by our good friend and talented designer Abe Bingham
The best viewpoints in San Francisco
Here is a list of our all time favorites. These are incredibly special views of San Francisco beloved by in-the-know locals.
- Bernal Heights Park – Spectacular 360° city views including a very unique view of the bay and close up views of the Mission District and Twin Peak.
- Grandview Park – With epic views towards the Bay, Golden Gate, and Twin Peaks this hideout above the Sunset neighborhood is a total gem. Also, check out the famous 16th Ave tiled steps right across the street.
- Billygoat Hill Park – This little perch atop the Noe Valley neighborhood offers a super unique view of downtown, the Bay Bridge, and Bernal Heights to name a few.
- Corona Heights Park – A rugged outlook with a near-perfect view right up our main street, Market with stunning Downtown, Financial District, Castro neighborhood views.
- Star King Open Space – A patch of outdoor soul in the Potroeo Hill neighborhood is always super sunny and provides an irresistible view of the city, with unobstructed views all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Getting up the hills
The system built to navigate the notorious inclines is as iconic as the hills themselves. San Francisco is the only place in the world that still has a manually operated cable car system. The charming “ting-ting” of the bell is part of every-day life for the locals who still use the cable cars for their daily commutes, though nowadays it’s most popular with tourists.
Nerd out and learn about cable car history and how they work in this neat video.
For the most dramatic, scenic cable car ride, take the Powell-Hyde line or the California Street line if you want to avoid lines. For even more fun exploring all the hills and best views, including Twin Peaks, check out our electric bikes and our Hills & Beaches tour.
2. The Golden Gate Bridge
A stunning shot from Baker Beach circa 1936. The Bridge opened in 1937.
Obviously it made the list. The stunning Art Deco styling of the Golden Gate Bridge makes it one of the world’s most recognizable structures. In fact, it’s easily the most the world’s most-photographed bridge and for good reason!
Declared one of the wonders of the modern world in 1994, the Golden Gate Bridge welcomes 10 million visitors a year. It’s not just pedestrians and cars, but cyclists are also able to make the crossing from San Francisco to Marin County, across this gateway to the Pacific Ocean that spans the Bay. And don’t worry, the footpath and bike path are separated from traffic by fencing, so it’s a safe experience for all!
The incredible Golden Gate Bridge and SF view from the Marin Headlands. As seen on our Electric Essential SF Bike Tour.
Exploring the Golden Gate Bridge
As you cross, look out eastwards to see another iconic part of San Francisco: Alcatraz island. And the full grandeur of the San Francisco Skyline.
For an unobstructed view, you might want to check the weather before heading out to avoid the fog. Speaking of which…
3. The Fog
Summer in San Francisco, in particular, is defined by this extraordinary meteorological phenomenon.
Locals have a love/hate relationship with the fog which is so familiar to us, we gave him a name: Karl. You can even follow @Karlthefog on Twitter. Yes, he makes us wear layers even on days otherwise forecast to be bright and sunny, but San Francisco wouldn’t be San Francisco without the fog.
Don’t worry, our summers are generally bright and sunny for most of the day, but be prepared for chilly mornings and evenings when Karl comes to visit.
See Karl in Action!
If you’re prepared to wake up early and head up one of San Francisco’s previously mentioned hills, you’ll see the city in a whole new light. The pillows and streams of fog that nestle close to the landscape bring a kind of ethereal peace to the city.
As the fog lifts it casts a romantic, somewhat eerie haze that is beloved by local and visiting photographers.
It’s also important to mention that San Francisco has ‘micro-climates’, meaning that one part of the city can have dramatically different weather and temperatures at the same time. Indeed, the foggiest places in SF are on the west and north side of the city (especially near the GG Bridge). For consistently fog-free, warmer weather, check out these awesome east side neighborhoods: the Mission District, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, SoMa, the Dogpatch, and Mission Bay. Bonus: these neighborhoods provide awesome viewing of the surreal fog flows that even for longtime locals, is endlessly captivating. Wanna learn more about the microclimates? There’s a cool app for that!
Pro local tip: catching the sun
The east side of San Francisco near the Bay is almost always sunny. For plenty of sun and views of the surreal summer fog flows definitely make your way over to the Mission District, Bernal Height, or Potrero Hill. A great way to explore them and stay warm is on our Mighty Mini Electric Bike Tour.
4. The Nature
A great blue heron spotted on a ride in Golden Gate Park. Nature is everywhere in SF!
No matter how much you love the excitement and vibrancy of San Francisco, as with any city, you occasionally need to head to nature to recharge. Luckily for us, there are plenty of options within in the city itself! For being the 2nd densest city in the USA, it’s remarkable how much nature there is here.
For example: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area covers 82,027 acres of protected ecologically and historically significant landscapes in and surrounding San Francisco.
Below is just a selection of the beaches and parks in and easily accessible to the city.
Another thing that is awesome about San Francisco is that the beaches are so close and strikingly beautiful. You can access a beach in SF in about 30 minutes or less by bike no matter where you’re at! Better yet the beaches yield dramatic views in pristine natural settings. Here are our favorites:
- Baker Beach – For spectacular views of The Golden Gate Bridge, there is no better place than the locally beloved Baker Beach. We love it for it’s raw natural surrounding, epic views of the mighty Marin Headlands (just across the bridge), and wide open perspective of the Pacific Ocean. Fun facts: Baker was the site of the first Burning Man Festivals (’86-’89) and the north side of Baker is clothing option if you’re trying to avoid tan lines 🙂
- Rodeo Beach – If you’re after something a little wilder, head across the Marin Headlands to Rodeo Beach. It’s notable not only for the majestic rocks that sit just offshore but also for the fact that it’s composed of tiny, curiously-colored pebbles (red, blue, green, yellow, and brown).
- Ocean Beach – Other great SF beaches include Ocean Beach, a very long and wide sandy stretch on the west side of the city and beloved by surfers. Ocean Beach has great sand dunes on it’s south side that are awesome for picnicking and sunset beers.
- Crissy Field Beach – This beach is also gorgeous and the only great beach on the bay side. Featuring some original dunes, along with spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alacatraz, the mighty Angel Island, and kite surfers. If you go, definitely head the north side for the best nature and to avoid the crowds.
San Francisco has no less than 220 parks for you and your family to relax and play in. In fact, we’re the only city in the USA where you’re always a 10 minute walk or less from a park!
The most famous is without a doubt Golden Gate Park. At over 1000 acres, it spans 52 city blocks and is 3 miles (5 km) long and a half mile (.8km) wide, and is a full 20% larger than Central Park in New York City. It contains a near endless variety of meadows, lakes, plant, and wildlife. It also houses two world class museums, the California Academy of Science and DeYoung, SF grand art showcase. Cool cafes and specialty gardens (our favorite is the grand SF Botanical Garden) round things out, meaning there are tons of activities for you to enjoy. It’s also where the party’s at hosting multiple music, arts, cultural and family events each year.
If you’re visiting with your best four-legged friend, there are 31 designated park areas across the city for your dog to let loose and socialize.
Other Great San Francisco Parks
Our other absolute favorite and must-visit San Francisco neighborhood parks include:
- Dolores Park – SF’s most legendary and popular neighborhood park. Spectacular city views and a culture in and of itself. Essential!
- Alamo square park – beautiful downtown views and home to SF’s famous Painted Lady victorian homes.
- Washington square park – the legendary park in the heart of North Beach, SF’s historic Little Italy.
- Bernal hill park – mentioned above, Bernal is an unexpected city escape, and offer’s some of SF’s most distinctive and spectacular views.
- If you’re after even more nature, read our blog: “Must-Visit National Parks near San Francisco”.
5. The Food
The dreamy pastry counter at Tartine in the Mission District, SF’s best and most celebrated bakery.
San Franciscans are foodies. We’re spoiled by our access to a veritable cornucopia of great California produce and seafood year-round. In short, flavor and importantly freshness matter to us, and it’s reflected in the city’s consistently great cuisine. This is amplified by SF’s multicultural identity, the depth and quality of ethnic food options Is spectacular.
Sourdough (and bakeries)
Perhaps our most legendary and enduring product is sourdough. With it’s gold rush origins, sourdough in SF can be traced to the establishment of the famous Boudin bakery in 1849. It’s a tradition that is alive and well today. Boudin is even still producing sourdough from its original starter in it’s Fisherman’s Wharf HQ. While it’s a nice straight-ahead choice, there’s are a ‘new wave’ of craft bakeries here in San Francisco who have taken sourdough and turned it into an art form.
The Best Bakeries in San Francisco
Our favorite local bakeries, known for great sourdough and oh so much more!
- Tartine Bakery – pristine pastries and next level bread. One of the most storied gourmet bakeries in the USA, on SF’s most legendary foodie block.
- Neighbor Bakehouse – This innovative bakery makes some of the best pastries in town and supplies to all the best cafes in the city. Their open face toasts and sandwiches are divine.
- Acme Bread Co – The original artisan Bakery in SF. Sourdough in all it’s forms and so much more!
- Cinderella Bakery – The finest Russian bakery in SF. Exemplary rye bread and pastries you won’t find anywhere else.
Heaven in a bowl–it’s SF’s very own Cioppino! The best seafood dish of all time…
It’s perhaps not surprising that seafood is a staple on many menus. There is no better illustration of this than our most famous, born-in-SF dish, cioppino. This Italian-American seafood stew showcases all the best SF seafood in one indulgent dish: Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, and fish, along with local wine and tomatoes for good measure. It’s transcendent. If you’re adventurous, San Francisco is also legendary for its oysters which are largely sourced from Tomales Bay, just about an hour north.
The Best Seafood in San Francisco
Here are some of our all-time favorite places, both classic and modern to enjoy SF’s best seafood:
- Anchor Oyster Bar – This legendary and compact Castro neighborhood spot is known for its simple, exceedingly high-quality favorites. Their clam chowder is the best.
- Sotto Mare – this classic Italian spot in the heart of North Beach has an irresistible menu of fresh fish dishes. Their cioppino is the best in town!
- Skool – this spot offers innovative takes on classic seafood dishes. Started by ex sushi chefs, their dishes have Japanese-inspired flavors, quality, and attention to detail. Great outdoor seating too!
- Swan Oyster Depot – Much like Anchor this place is a total legend– old-school, no-frills San Francisco at its very best. Go raw here: the oysters, scallop sashimi, and smoked salmon are pure gold.
- Hog Island Oyster Co. – This is the public house of the beloved oyster farm in Tomales Bay, just about an hour north of SF. Go simple: Your goal here should be to eat as many local oysters, as you like them, as possible.
Beer and Cocktails
Outside the Anchor Brewery Public Taps on our Mighty Mini SF Bike Tour.
With it’s rough and tumble Barbary Coast roots, it’s no wonder that drinking has been a fixture of SF’s culture from the very beginning. In fact, some famous cocktails like the martini, Irish coffee, mai tai (and the tiki bar!) were created here. To say that San Francisco has a vibrant bar culture would be a grand understatement. (Pssst: For a selection of the best local’s bars, just sign up for our cool San Francisco guide.)
And you’re in luck if you’re into beer! SF is famous for ‘steam beer’, an ale/lager hybrid named after the fact that the beer used to be cooled in huge open tanks on the rooftop of the brewery, giving off huge clouds of steam as mixed with the brisk SF air and picked up natural yeasted. In fact, the Anchor Brewery still makes beer in this traditional way, albeit in a more controlled way.
The best San Francisco Beer and Spirits
Here are some of our local favorites:
- Anchor Brewery / Anchor Steam Beer – Found on tap at nearly every bar. You can also schedule a fantastic tour of their brewery, the oldest in SF; it’s about as traditional and iconic as it gets. With an “all you can drink” tasting at the end! Anchor also has a beer garden next door and make their own gin and whiskey, which is excellent.
- St. George Distillery – One of the finest and most award-winning craft distilleries in the world. We love the tour at their Alemeda space (a short ferry ride away) which comes with a very generous tasting at the end. Look out for their best-of-the-best gin, vodka, and whiskey at every bar in the Bay Area.
- Other great breweries – Our other favorites in beer include the Ft. Point Brewery, Laughing Monk Brewery, Cellermaker Brewery, Woods Brewing, and Barebottle Brewing Co.; all have great public houses— stay hydrated!
San Francisco, like our sister cities Portland and Seattle to the north, has a brilliant craft coffee culture. But our coffee roots go deeper than that, dating to the gold rush and spawning the likes of Folgers Coffee. Indeed, at one point San Francisco imported, roasted, and shipped the majority of the coffee consumed in the U.S. and it was our main industry in the 1920’s. Today, consistently great coffee can be found throughout the city thanks to some brilliant roasters.
The Best Coffee In San Francisco
Here is a list of our all time favorite local, independent craft coffee roasters.
- Andytown – Taking the art form to new levels, their coffee is a standout in its quality and flavor. Born in SF’s hip, cool and often foggy Sunset neighborhood, where the roasted bean is king.
- Linea – a micro-roaster in the Mission district with excellent coffee. They make the house coffee blend for SF’s finest gourmet market, Bi-Rite, enough said!
- Sightglass – great coffee served in brilliant spared-no-expense cafe’s around the city. A true feast for the senses and the most widely-distributed indie craft coffee brand thanks to their tech investors.
- Lady Falcon – this all-women owned & operated roastery name pays homage to the first women’s bicycle club in SF(!). These ladies produce spot-on coffee drinks, and operate out of a super-cute vintage van in must-visit Alamo Square Park. Dig it!
- Four Barrel Coffee – hair-raisingly strong and bold coffee, our fave. Check out their really cool roastery in the Mission District, the embodiment of über hip SF coffee culture.
Nothing defines SF’s dining scene more than the fresh, seasonal ingredients that pervade the menus at our best restaurants. This is also seen in our year-round farmer’s market culture, indeed, nearly every SF neighborhood has one, so you’re in luck any day of the week!
The Best Farmers Markets in San Francisco
Here’s a shortlist of our favorites that are standouts among all the others in the city.
- Ferry Building Farmers Market – the finest farmer’s market in the Bay Area, a showcase of the best-of-the-best in local seasonal produce. Wed & Sat.
- Alemany Farmers Market – the grandest and oldest farmer’s market in SF dating to the 1940’s. Really, it’s HUGE! And it’s super affordable and diverse, a great place for brunch too!
- Bi-Rite Market – Technically NOT a farmer’s market but… Legendary gourmet market that highlights the best local ingredients you can find anywhere. If you’re into food this is a must-visit.
6. The Neighborhoods
One of the great challenges when you visit San Francisco is making your way to as many neighborhoods as possible, while giving yourself the time to absorb the character and charm of each place. And SF has a LOT of neighborhoods, officially 36 of them but as many as 112(!) sub-neighborhoods or districts, largely defined by the hills.
Exploring the best San Francisco Neighborhoods
Don’t get FOMO just yet, there are really only a handful of must-see neighborhoods that are worthy of your attention and beloved by locals, if you’re here on a shorter visit. And there is a BEST way to see them all!
Biking the city really provides the ideal balance. Our Essential Electric SF Bike Tour all covers the hip, the historical, the curious, and the culturally significant parts of town spread across 10 neighborhoods. From our home base in SoMa to Golden Gate Park and back, we take in the diversity of SF’s hippest neighborhood including the Mission District, the vibrancy of the Castro Haight Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
7. The Architecture
The iconic ‘Painted Ladies’ of the Alamo Square Neighborhood
One of the greatest affirmations of San Francisco’s eclecticism and openness to change is its architecture. There is little to no uniformity.
Taking a stroll through Golden Gate Park, you’ll see the Conservatory of Flowers, an unmistakably Victorian glass and wood structure, mere minutes away from the modernist, copper-clad De Young Museum.
Over in the Castro neighborhood, the Castro Theatre evokes a Spanish colonial Mexican cathedral in its design. While in Lower Pacific Heights, an actual cathedral (St Mary’s) is so modern and minimalist that locals refer to it as “Our Lady of Maytag,” believing it to resemble a dishwasher agitator.
Of course, no list of San Francisco’s iconic architecture could neglect to mention the Painted Ladies. Beginning in the 60s, the owners Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the Haight Ashbury took to repainting their facades in bright colors and emphasizing their architectural features. Today the most famous are in Alamo Square but can be found throughout SF and always brighten our day.
For more inspiration check out our blog post: “12 Amazing Historical Landmarks in San Francisco”
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