San Francisco: The Basics
San Francisco can be overwhelming for first time visitors and seasoned travelers alike. There’s so much to do in the city and there are a plethora of tourist-friendly attractions, so it’s difficult to pick a starting point. The secret is this—there is no secret, just pick one and go. This article will give you the bare bones basics of Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, the Tenderloin, Chinatown and the Mission District. Remember that parking is often difficult in San Francisco, so take our various public transportation options whenever you’re able to.
Fisherman’s Wharf in itself can take days or weeks to explore. Fortunately, most desirable destinations are within walking distance from one another. If you get tired of walking, there are street cars, pedi-cabs and horse drawn carriages available for your leisure. The Wharf is an extremely touristy area, but your trip to San Francisco might feel incomplete if you miss out on the Wax Museum, Ghirardelli Square, the Aquarium of the Bay and Pier 39. There are a ton of gourmet options for seafood lovers and shopping, of course, is abundant. Be prepared for crowds and make sure you dress for the weather—it can change quickly.
Though in some ways it’s not as culturally significant as the Mission District or Chinatown, Union Square houses a large number of theaters and art galleries. Most travelers visit Union Square for an entirely different reason, however—shopping. If visiting store after store is your plan, try to go on weekend mornings to avoid mobs of tourists and locals who are hunting the same bargains as you.
The Tenderloin is only for adventurous travelers. Though it’s much safer than it used to be, you’re almost guaranteed to meet some colorful local characters and street people if you visit. The gentrification wave hasn’t hit the Tenderloin as hard as it’s hit anywhere else in the city, so be prepared to meet some real San Franciscans. The Alcazar Theater is a must-visit location for the architecture alone, but its cultural significance cannot be overstated either. Sgt. John Macaulay Park defies the rest of the Tenderloin by being beautiful and easily accessible to anyone. The Tenderloin is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also home to a side of San Francisco that travelers rarely see.
Chinatown is everything you’ve heard about and much more. There are plenty of amazing (and expensive) restaurants, curio shops, antique stores and historical artifacts to be found. Check out Waverly Place, The Chinese Historical Society of America and Chinatown Gate to learn something about Chinatown and the coexisting cultures that have lived there for more than 150 years. Most of the locals eat and shop on Stockton Street, and there’s no reason you can’t poke around there a little bit, too—just be sure to remain respectful and courteous at all times. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, if you haven’t seen it already, is worth bearing the tourist stigma for. Watch the process, eat a cookie and buy a bag because you certainly won’t regret it.
The Mission is home to a diverse population of artists and immigrants, but it’s also fallen victim to some gentrification in recent decades. There are a ton of authentic Mexican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan restaurants for you to enjoy if you look around, so take your time before choosing an eatery. Mission Dolores is the oldest standing building in the city, so take some time to look at this historic landmark and at its cemetery and gardens. Breathtaking murals are abundant here, but the Women’s Building and Clarion Alley murals. Beyond that, the sky is the limit when it comes to good shopping, art, music and nightlife in the Mission. Take some time to explore, but as always, respect the locals if you want to have a good time.
The key to enjoying San Francisco is to just start somewhere and run with it. If any of these brief descriptions sound like what you’re after, start at that location and work your way around the city from there. Just remember that “seeing everything” in San Francisco isn’t a real possibility for most travelers—relax, see what you have time to see and let the city soak in. We’d love to have you visit us again.
Wesley McDonald is a proud San Franciscan who enjoys blogging about travel, culture, the hospitality industry and life in the city. He’s an avid traveler, art lover and music fan. He is an online publisher for San Francisco Hotel experts sanfranciscohotelguides.com