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5 touristy things to do in San Francisco (and whether it’s really worthwhile)

If you are headed up to San Francisco (Just 16 hours away on a nonstop flight from Singapore now), there are some tourist attractions that have become must-sees for you to ‘truly experience’ San Francisco. Whether you consider them touristy or not, there’s usually a reason these activities became so popular in the first place. I took on some of San Francisco’s tourist must-dos to tell you whether it’s really worth the hype to check out for yourself.

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco - Golden Gate Bridge Fog on Bridge
Foggy evening on the Bridge

The one thing you cannot miss when in the city is the famous Golden Gate Bridge at the Northern end of the city. Spanning almost 2km, this suspension bridge is the icon of San Francisco and a top thing to check out when you are visiting the city. You can cross the bridge by driving, cycling or walking, and it also makes for great scenery from various spots along the northern coast of San Francisco.

Is it worth it?

San Francisco - Golden Gate Bridge Fog
Yup you can only see the pillars of the bridge when you walk right underneath/past them

It was cold and foggy the day I crossed the bridge, and I underestimated the walking time a little so it was getting quite dark by the time I was done. All that wind and fog while quite atmospheric, makes it pretty damn cold and visibility in general was quite low – I could only see boats that passed quite close to or under the bridge, definitely not much in the distance. I wish I could have been there on a clearer day so I could better admire the architecture.

I took a bus to the Welcome Centre at Presidio park, walked across the bridge to Vista Point and back again. Now that I’ve done it, what I would recommend is taking the bus across the bridge, and then walking back from there. There honestly is no difference making that same walk twice in different directions. There are no tolls for pedestrians and cyclists, but you have to pay if you are driving.

Or, I would recommend cycling because that bridge is quite long. Note that you can’t rent bicycles at the bridge itself – the best option would be to rent bicycles from the Marina, Fort Mason or Fisherman’s Wharf area and cycle along the coast.

If you prefer just admiring the view of the bridge from afar, you can get pretty good views at Land’s End and Baker Beach on the west side of the bridge, or Marina, Fort Mason and Fisherman’s Wharf to the east.

San Francisco - Golden Gate Bridge Obscuring
You can see that it’s really bright and sunny just beyond the fog, which for some reason only sits on the bridge?!

Take the Cable Car

San Francisco - Cable Car Turntable
The famous San Francisco Cable Car or Trolley on the turntable

San Francisco is famous for its hills and the iconic cable cars used to get up and down these steep slopes. At its peak there were over 20 cable car routes, but today there are just 3 routes, mostly frequented by tourists looking to ride a bit of nostalgia. The whole system is rather antiquated and manual – the trams are turned around at a literal turntable, where the drivers and conductors push the car 180 degrees, and use long metal rods to hook and unhook catches.

San Francisco - Cable Car view
View from the cable car – grab the front/back most spot if you don’t want someone elses’s head in your shot
San Francisco - Cable Car selfie
Obligatory selfie. It looks a bit like I’m going to get run over haha

Is it worth it?

I took the POWELL-HYDE route which connected Powell Street to Hyde Street. It cost US$7 (just under S$10) for a 1-way, 1-time ticket on the cable car (US$20 for an unlimited day ticket) and the queue at was pretty damn long – I took almost an hour from the time I bought my ticket to getting on the cable car, for a ride that only took about 20minutes!

San Francisco - Cable Car on the go
Hanging out the tram on the slopes!

But hell it was pretty damn fun! I grabbed a standing spot near the front of the cable car and met a bunch of lovely old Texan ladies who were great fun to talk to and very cutely concerned with making sure I didn’t fall off the tram by hanging on to my bag! It’s not every day you get to hang precariously off the side of a cable car and pass mere inches away from other traffic, so I think its worth doing this at least once, but try and find a quiet day so you don’t have to queue quiet so long.

San Francisco - Cable Car standing ledge
Looking down and you can see just how little space there is to stand! You also pass close enough to other trams that you can hi-five the other passengers quite easily

This particular cable car passes by Lombard Street, the top of the crookedest street in San Francisco. While I didn’t stop to take photos, there were plenty of tourists there, and the hill top view explains why!

San Francisco - Cable Car Lombard Street
You can kinda see the beginning of the street towards the left side, but from the tram you can’t quite see the winding road

See the sealions at Pier 39

San Francisco - Pier 39 Sealions close up
Sea lions!

A little distance from Fisherman’s Wharf is San Francisco’s most famous and busiest pier – Pier 39. Thronged with tourists, it is also home to a bunch of unusual tenants, a bunch of sea lions that spend their afternoons laid out like brown lumps of sacks on the floating pontoons set up around K Dock.

San Francisco - Pier 39 Flags
Bright and sunny at Pier 39

Is it worth it?

It is free so if you would rather not pay to enter the aquarium on the other side of Pier 39, this is probably your next best option. It is quite an unusual sight to behold but what you do is basically just observe the antics of the sea lions, which include flopping on top of each other, grunting and headbanging and slipping into the water, so weigh that against how much you want to squeeze alongside all the other gawking snap-happy tourists.

My advice is to head up to the 2nd level just outside the Sea Lion Education Centre and look down from there as it is much less crowded and you don’t get blocked.

San Francisco - Pier 39 Sealions
View from the 2nd floor gives you a nice view of the surrounding bay area as well, and on a clear day even a bit of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance

Take that Painted Ladies postcard shot

San Francisco - Painted Ladies
Pretty painted ladies all in a row

This particular row of Painted Ladies, a name that refers to the Victorian houses etc. is one of San Francisco’s most iconic sights and most photographed spots, for the contrast of these quaint colourful houses against a modern backdrop of the city behind it. It is located on the eastern end of Alamo Square park at Hayes and Steiner Street.

Is it worth it?

San Francisco - Painted Ladies Pano
Panoramic view of the Painted Ladies

Perhaps if you are in the area. Maybe I’m a plebian but these are just houses to me, and San Francisco has a ton of interesting looking houses all around. This particular row is famous mostly for its appearance in movies and TV shows, as well as its modern backdrop. The proper ‘postcard shot’ to take would be from on top of the hill in Alamo Square park that faces this row of houses, but sadly there was some renovation going on so the park was closed, so I couldn’t get that iconic shot!

Visit Alcatraz Island

San Francisco - Alcatraz
Alcatraz in the distance – that’s probably the closest I got!

So I’m adding this in here because the prison island of Alcatraz is apparently one of San Francisco’s top touristy must-dos but you have to book your tickets to the island way in advanced otherwise they sell out quite quickly! I tried booking a week before and only the Angel Island-Alcatraz tickets (min 5 hours tour) were available, but I didn’t want to spend so much time out there given I had only 3 days to play around with.

Here’s where I need you guys to comment and tell me – did I miss out by not visiting Alcatraz?

Fly nonstop from Singapore to San Francisco with United Airlines. Go direct to USA in less than16 hours on the new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner – read my review of the flight. Thanks to United Airlines for sponsoring my trip to San Francisco.

Tell me about your touristy (or non-touristy) experiences in San Francisco – What should I check out if I go back some day?


Monday 1st of May 2023

Your review of San Francisco is spot on. The Alcatraz trip is worthwhile because of the scenery but the prison is also interesting. Perhaps 5 hours when taking the combined trip to Angel Island is not a good use of time but Alcatraz alone is nice. There are many scenic places in and near San Francisco including Big Sur near Monterey, Stanford University, Presidio of San Francisco, Cantonese food in Chinatown, etc. There a rare Lockheed plane at a little known museum at Oakland airport.

Jaclynn Seah

Monday 1st of May 2023

Thanks for the tips! Hopefully I'll have a chance to swing back that way in future and see more of San Francisco :)