Iconic beauty, landmark attractions, and epic adventures make San Francisco, California a tourist magnet. Here are the best places to see in San Francisco.
It was my first day in San Francisco, California. The blue-grey clouds had come from faraway places to greet me. The occasional showers were actually the tears of happiness of San Fran. The mischievous spring breeze was needling me from everywhere despite the blanket trying hard to keep me warm in the open-air SF Adventure “woody”. Silence has filled the otherwise lively van. Suddenly I heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, the signature song of Tony Bennett.
It was in April I heard that song for the first time but today after being away from the city for a while, I truly understand its meaning. There was something about the city that took my breath away the first time I visited it. Let me try and share why I left my heart in San Francisco. Since the experiences are many and I don’t want to miss out on anything, I am going to share my experience through series of articles.
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Let’s begin with me falling in love with the sights, sounds, and flavors of San Francisco, California
Arriving in the ‘City by the Bay’
Before I landed in the US, I was skeptical about Immigration but all my doubts were put to rest. The Immigration Officer was very kind and genuinely interested where I was headed to.
Welcome to the US. You said your friend has been here for six years. What took you so long? And from San Francisco, you are going to Port Orford? I had never even heard about this place before. Let me Google it. WOW! It looks amazing! I know where I am going next.
The generous welcome started at the Airport continued at Waters Edge Hotel. A complimentary box of Chocolates, wine-n-cheese, cookies and other items awaited my arrival. My hotel was in Tiburon, an alluring upscale quaint town perched on a historic dock overlooking San Francisco Bay and Angel Island. The boutique hotel really pampered me with a luxurious bed, a bountiful continental breakfast delivered daily to my room, a fireplace, and an afternoon wine and cheese reception.
Even the 25 hours flying couldn’t bring down my excitement. I was so eager to explore the Wilderness and Wildlife that just after dinner I went exploring. And to my surprise, a herd of deer joined me. Lost in my thoughts I must have walked over two miles taking in the moonlit beauty around me and the sound of the waves crashing into the shore.
Exploring the sights and Sounds of San Francisco
The day started with a four-hour “Fogcutter” tour with SF Adventure Tours. It was like a tailor-made tour, a small group of six people in a 12-passenger “woody”, which took us around the classic landmarks and quirky side of San Francisco. From Golden Gate Bridge, Presidio, Golden Gate Park, Twin Peaks, Painted Ladies to exploring a lot of historical, architectural and great photo op sites, which only Eric knew. The best part of the tour was Eric’s sense of humor and his knowledge about the city.
During our entire tour, he kept telling us about the interesting trivia associated with each place like which house was used in which TV show. Eric was the one who made me have my first food truck meal in the US. It was super yummy super filing super-size at a very nominal price. And as I mentioned in the opening of the article, it was Eric who introduced me to the magic of, “I left my heart in San Francisco” song. I had so many of “my firsts”, thanks to Eric. If you have only one day to spend in San Francisco this is the tour you should take!
My tour ended at Pier 33 from where the Alcatraz ferry departs for the island and prison tour.
After that, I spent few hours at the historic Fisherman’s Wharf, a highly touristy area, lined with hotels, seafood restaurants, famous attractions, Pier 39 market, souvenir shops, and a promenade to enjoy the breathtaking scenery.
One thing that I couldn’t have missed and didn’t miss was enjoying the sourdough soup at the historic Bistro Boudin Bakery.
Relishing the flavors of San Francisco
After getting swept by the iconic landmark sites, it was time to satiate the hunger pangs at the culinary wonderland of North Beach or as famously called “Little Italy” of San Francisco. I met my beautiful guide Blandina of San Francisco Food Tour at Columbus Avenue. Dressed in a pink hat, orange bag, long boots, harem pants, leather jacket, loosely tied hair in two plaits; she symbolized the unconventional and artistic 70’s Hippie generation that was born and bred in North Beach. There couldn’t have been a better local guide than her because she has lived in the heart of North Beach with the first, second and third generation of Italian community as well as world-class painters, writers, and craftsmen.
We started our tour by enjoying the delicious coffee at Cafe Roma, where beans are roasted on the premises of the cafe by three generations of the Azzollini family. We were served Espressos, Cappuccinos, Hot Chocolate and whatever we wished for in a large, airy space, perfect for sipping, thinking and conversations.
Next, we savored the focaccia sandwiches at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe, an old North Beach treasure run since 1973. Mario’s is one of the few North Beach hideouts worth keeping secret but its prime location is hard to miss. A grilled eggplant sandwich on delicious green onion focaccia bread was Nirvana for a vegetarian like me. The quantity was huge and the taste was heavenly. Too bad I was not hungry.
We then enjoyed chocolate from Z Cioccolato (named one of the top chocolatiers in the US), Cannoli from Stella Pastry (which has been making cannoli since 1942), deli delights at Molinari Delicatessen (a local deli that has making salami in San Francisco since 1896), 100% organic gourmet popcorns at Cornology and lastly, we enjoyed real Italian pizza with homemade mozzarella at IL Casaro made in in their wood-fired ovens.
Our gastronomic tour also introduced us to the vintage and architectural side of the North Beach, which has been a hotbed for creative geniuses and had given birth to many movements. Blandina enthusiastically showed us the places where famous Hollywood movies like Big Eyes, Milk were shot. We even went to Caffè Trieste, a favorite hangout of the Beat Generation writers and where Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of the screenplay for The Godfather.
While I was absorbing all this, she took us to Macchiarini Creative Design & Metalworks Gallery, a San Francisco Legacy business started in 1948 which spans three generations, two centuries and 68 years! I was left awestruck with the metal craftsmanship.
Another place that I completely fell in love was Biordi Art Imports. A place more apt to be called a ceramic museum than a classic Italian Ceramic store. The store had exquisite finely hand-crafted ceramics, dinnerware, and accessories of Italian Renaissance style Maiolica.
We are able to maintain a high quality because we search and pick the best artisans from old traditional Maiolica centers of Italy. Our is a place where our customers would send their friends telling them, “You can buy me anything in that store and I would love it!
Said the store owner. Too bad I had luggage restriction. Else I would have bought the entire store.
The day was far from over for me as I wanted to see the shimmering San Fransico at dusk so I decided to join the two-hour Night Tour with Big Bus Tours. Starting from Fisherman’s Wharf, the Night Tour of San Francisco took me through Union Street to the Presidio for spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge, before climbing historic Nob Hill for a magnificent close-up of Grace Cathedral. The tour then made its way across the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island for picturesque views of the city skyline.
With yummy in the tummy and a bag full of memories, I called it a day to grow my love deeper with San Francisco in the coming days.
Hope you enjoyed the first part of me falling in love with the San Francisco as much as I experienced. Stay tuned for more.
Top 10 things to see/do in San Francisco
- Walk or cycle on the Golden Gate Bridge
- Gulp down the fresh catch at Fisherman’s Warf
- Take a walk on Pier 33 or take a ferry to Alcatraz
- Ride on the historic Cable Cars
- Picnic in the Presidio with spectacular Golden Gate Bridge view
- People watch or go shopping in Union Square
- Jog at the Baker Beach with Golden Gate Bridge company
- Feel the beats at City Lights and Beat Museum
- Dine on dumplings at China Town
- Relish the Japanese tea ceremony at Japanese Garden
Top 10 tips to enjoy San Francisco
- Check weather. San Francisco can get extremely cold in Summers
- Stay in the right place. If you like quite place stay in Tiburon. If you like centrally located places, stay near Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square
- San Francisco is small, so it is best explored by walking, cycling or Segway tour
- Break-ins are common. So never leave your stuff unattended
- If you have taken a bus/taxi, tell your exact address to the driver
- Choose your guides carefully. Instead of large bus tours opt for small “off the beaten track” tours like SF Adventure Tours and San Francisco Food Tour
- Book your tours in advance and confirm your timing a day before
- Go empty stomach and wear comfortable shoes for your Food Tour
- Tipping is an unsaid rule. Always tip your guides
- Head to Mason and Bay Streets to get into cable car faster
Many thanks to San Francisco Travel and Waters Edge Hotel for hosting me, SF Adventure Tours, San Francisco Food Tour and Big Bus Tours for making me experience the unique sights, sound and flavors of San Francisco. As always, all views are mine.
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