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Painted Ladies, San Francisco

12 essential activities for a weekend in San Francisco

This post was originally published on A Globe Well Travelled in 2016. The content has been revised and updated with fresh information.

San Fran is one of those cities that never gets old, no matter how many times you visit.

There’s always a neighbourhood you haven’t explored yet, or a scenic spot that you didn’t go to last time, or an activity that you missed on your last visit. I’ve had three trips to San Francisco, and there were still plenty of activities for me to do every time I revisited the city.

San Fran is the kind of city that you just can’t help but like. Those Victorian houses with their bay windows and bright colours will have your heart in a matter of moments! If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco anytime soon, here are my suggestions for 12 essential activities for a weekend in San Francisco.

Rob and Ash in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Where we stayed:

On our first visit to San Francisco we stayed at HI City Center, which I really liked. The hostel was a little further from downtown than some other hostels, but there was plenty of public transportation around for us to catch. It also had one of those old elevators with a sliding cage door, which was a huge novelty!

For our second visit, we stayed at the Days Inn Downtown as it was one of the only places near the city center with parking. It was surprisingly good, for a motel! I’d stay there again, for sure.

Clarion Alley, San Francisco

1. The Mission District

The Mission is my absolute fave spot in San Fran as its covered head to toe in street art (don’t miss the murals of Clarion Alley – see them on a Mission murals and graffiti tour). This area is filled with weirdos and young people relaxing in Dolores Park while smoking joints and playing a guitar.

And of course, you absolutely have to get a mission burrito; a large burrito, filled with rice and beans, and toasted on the outside. There are loads of places to get one, we went to Mateo’s the minute we arrived in San Fran and devoured a huge veggie burrito on the spot. It was amazing. I regret nothing.

Anchor Brewery, San Francisco

2. Anchor Brewery

I have done loads of brewery tours in my lifetime, but this one stands out as by far the best. Not only was it awesome to walk around the brewery and hear a passionate local talk about the beers the brewery makes, but it also included free tastings!

When I did this tour back in 2013 I paid absolutely nothing, but these days it costs $20 per person. Still, it’s 100% worth it. The tour books up in advance, so I’d advise booking via the Anchor website as early as possible.

Haight Ashbury, San Francisco

3. Haight-Ashbury

I absolutely love hanging out in Haight-Ashbury, otherwise known as ‘The Haight’. This area is known for being the origin of hippie subculture. Yep. In the 1960’s, this is where it all started. If you want to maximise those hippie vibes, you can even see this area on a VW bus through a San Francisco love tour!

If you wander along Haight Street between Golden Gate Park and Buena Vista Park, you’ll find loads of cafes, boutique stores, vape shops, vintage clothing, and of course the famous Amoeba Music record store. A great way to spend a few hours away from the bustle of downtown.

16th Avenue Tiled Steps, San Francisco

4. 16th Avenue tiled steps

I saw an image of these steps on Pinterest while I was researching things to do in San Fran, and of course I just had to seek them out and take my own photo!

You’ll likely need a car to find these steps as they’re not near to any of the other major attractions in San Fran. Head to the intersection of Moraga St and 16th Ave, and you should be able to find street parking close to the bottom of the steps.

Painted Ladies, San Francisco

5. The Painted Ladies

The first time I went to San Fransisco I was on a bus tour, and we drove past the Painted Ladies so quickly that I barely had time for a blurry-out-the-window-photo. This time, I went back and did it properly. If you want an up-close look at these pretty houses, try a Painted Ladies mansion tour.

The Painted Ladies are a set of 7 iconic San Franciscan houses, built in the 1890s, with gorgeous views of the city behind them. If you grew up watching Full House, you’ll probably start humming the theme song when you’re looking at the houses from Alamo Park as it will no doubt bring back memories of the show’s intro.

Coit Tower, San Francisco

6. Coit Tower

If you’re like me and actively seek out city views, then Coit Tower is a must while you’re in San Fran. The tower sits atop Telegraph Hill where you can look out over the city and the bay.

While you’re up there, check out the adorable houses of Telegraph Hill – they’re absolutely gorgeous and will definitely have you wishing that you were wealthy enough to live there.

Lombard Street, San Francisco

7. Lombard Street

Lombard Street is a steep one-block street that has 8 hairpin turns, making it the most crooked street in the world. Robert and I didn’t get to drive down it last time we visited San Francisco, so this time, we made it our mission.

Want to know what it’s like to drive down this crazy street? Here’s a video!

Alcatraz, San Francisco

8. Alcatraz

Yes, Alcatraz is touristy, but some of you might know that I’m really into dark tourism, so I definitely can’t leave it out of this list. Alcatraz is one of the most popular attractions in San Fran, so remember to book ahead with Alcatraz Cruises as there are limited spots available.

Your ticket will get you on the ferry out to the island in the bay, where you’ll then walk up to the top of the rocky cliff and into the prison itself. You’ll be provided with an audio guide where you can listen to commentary while wandering around at your own pace.

And if you’ve seen The Rock, you have permission to pretend like you’re Nicolas Cage saving the city of San Francisco.

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco

9. Fisherman’s Wharf

I don’t particularly like crowds so I usually tend to avoid super touristy places like Fisherman’s Wharf, but if you can handle sightseeing while you’re squished in with a bunch of other people then it’s worth a look.

The best things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf are to look at the sea lions lazing about on Pier 39, and if you’re not a vegetarian like me then you can grab some clam chowder.

Cable Cars, San Francisco

10. Ride the cable cars

It wouldn’t be a trip to San Francisco without a ride on one of the famed cable cars.

Check out this website (which is awfully designed but informative) for the cable car routes. For something more comprehensive, try this ultimate guide to public transportation in San Francisco which has info on the city’s cable cars, trains, buses, and ferries.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

11. Golden Gate Bridge

The beloved Golden Gate Bridge, arguably the most iconic landmark in San Fran. There are a number of ways to see it:

Golden Gate Bridge from Lands End, San Francisco

12. Lands End

Lands End is great if you like to insert a little nature in to your city stays. It’s a beautiful park with loads of trees and walking paths along the coastline, and it has some fabulous views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

You can also check out the ruins of Sutro Baths, a historic site where there used to be a grand public swimming pool which mysteriously burnt down in a fire (strange, right?) during its deconstruction in 1966.

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