The city by the Bay is our favourite in the United States. Despite being in California, San Francisco is colder than you think, more like British temperatures and often foggy, so pack layers! Wander the streets of historic China Town, hire a bike and cross the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and tour notorious Alcatraz prison.
Our 10 must dos:
Alcatraz - The Rock. Once Fort Alcatraz, the island became a federal maximum security prison from 1934 until 1963. ''Home' to some of the most notorious criminals in history like Al Capone, George 'Machine gun' Kelly and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. Maintained by the National Park Service, you can take the boat across where your entry fee includes an excellent self guided audio tour around the site. Walking the rows of tiny cells, around the canteen and the exercise yard, with views of the city skyline agonisingly close, be sure to watch staff open and close the cell doors using the original mechanisms. The echoing slam is chilling. You can also see graffiti left over from the 18 months that Alcatraz was occupied by Native Americans from 1969.
Cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge - Built in 1937, this iconic red suspension bridge is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the United States. Over 100,000 cars cross everyday, but there are walkways set aside for pedestrians and cyclists either side. We hired a tandem bicycle from Fisherman's Wharf and set off west along the waterfront, through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge. Cycling the 1.7 miles over the bridge, 245ft above the water with pelicans soaring below us was breath taking. On the other side, carry on cycling to the artsy harbour city of Sausalito for lunch. A regular ferry runs back to San Francisco (you can walk your bike into the storage bay and then take a seat upstairs), which saves retracing your steps back up a very steep hill to the Golden Gate Bridge.
China Town - the oldest China Town in North America and the largest outside of Asia. Enter through the ornate Dragon Gate on Grant Avenue, a gift from Taiwan in1969 and explore the traditional shops and eateries down hidden alleys and side streets. Ross Alley is the home of the Golden Gate fortune cookie factory - operating since the 60s, you can watch the tasty treats be hand folded in front of you!
Lombard Street - another San Francisco icon, this steep crooked hill crams eight wicked hairpin turns into one block. Totally unique, but definitely one to see on foot, rather than trying to drive it! The road is flanked by beautiful gardens and some of the most expensive houses in the city.
Musee Mecanique - this quirky museum is found on Fisherman's Wharf at Pier 45. Family run since 1933, the warehouse building is a cacophony of player-piano tunes, rattling pinball machines and clicking arcade games. The collection of 300 vintage machines can still be played, many for as little as 25 cents, and range from fortune tellers to intricate dioramas. Entry is free.
Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 - this bustling touristy area on the northern waterfront is heaving with restaurants, shops, street entertainers and sea lions! Pier 39 is an amusement park of attractions. Visitors love the noisy sealions who haul out and sunbathe at K Dock, the Aquarium of the Bay, whale watching tours, the carousel and mirror maze.
Visit the Painted Ladies - head to Alamo Square Park to admire the beautiful brightly coloured Victorian houses on Steiner Street. Built between 1892 and 1896, they survived the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire that destroyed much of San Francisco. Known locally as the Painted Ladies, Postcard Row and the Seven Sisters, the houses are very photogenic, especially if you stand in Alamo Park to get the cityscape in behind.
Ride the trolley - there is possibly nothing more San Francisco than standing on the side of a cable car as it climbs and descends the steep hills towards the bay. There are three lines to choose from, with the Powell-Hyde Line being the most popular - it takes you past Lombard Street and offers amazing views of Alcatraz from the top of Russian Hill, before continuing all the way to Fisherman's Wharf. Queues at the turnaround points at the ends of the lines can be long, especially in the morning, but you can also catch the cable car at any of the designated stops along it's route, just be sure to signal to the driver so he knows to stop! We tried heading back from Fisherman's Wharf at 10pm at night and found that we were 2 of only 4 people on board!
Watch the Giants play - The San Francisco Giants won the MLB World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, adding to their 5 wins as the New York Giants before their move to the West Coast in the 50s. If you can catch a game against one of their local rivals, the Oakland Athletics or the LA Dodgers, even better!
Muir Woods - a few miles north of San Francisco, across the water is Muir Woods National Monument, home to the Cathedral Grove Coastal Redwoods. Standing at 258ft tall, these towering trees aren't as massive as the ones you can see in Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks, but if you're only staying in the San Francisco area, this is a great way to admire some beautiful trees. NB, if you're driving yourself you must book a parking spot in advance or you'll be turned away, otherwise there is a shuttle from Sausalito.
Where to eat:
Far East Cafe, 631 Grant Avenue, China Town - Operating for 100 years, this restaurant has an gorgeous interior, with hanging chandeliers and lanterns and carved screens. The menu is outstanding and good value.
State Bird Provisions,1529 Fillmore Street - inventive, adventurous and hipster, this restaurant brings tapas style small plates round on a cart. You choose what you want, mark it off on a tally sheet and eat it while waiting for the next option to come round. This one is a bit of a budget buster, but as an indulgent treat we would definitely recommend coming here.
Alioto's, #8 Fisherman's Wharf - our favourite meal out in San Francisco. This warm and welcoming Sicilian restaurant offers Golden Gate views (fog permitting) and exceptional seafood. The city's oldest family run restaurant, Alioto's started out in 1925 as a fresh fish stall selling lunches to wharf labourers. By 1938 it was a popular restaurant, and during WWII its reputation for hearty delicious food was set in stone, as servicemen and women flocked there from the nearby Port of Embarkation. The menu is full of traditional Sicilian family recipes, and the cioppino (shellfish stew) is legendary.
How to get there:
Flights land into San Francisco International Airport (SFO), about 13 miles south of the city. From here you can catch the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) train to the Embarcadero, with stops including the convention centre, Montgomery Street and Powell Street. For other parts of the city you will need to take a taxi or bus.