San Francisco: 12 Iconic Sites

Now that travel has begun to open up after Covid, we are seeing more tourists return to San Francisco. Here are 12 of the popular sites for visitors and locals of all ages.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous bridge in the world, Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles long (2.7 km) and hosts cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists. Its art deco design, striking International Orange color, and numerous suspension cables encase each person crossing with a sense of awe.

2. Alcatraz Island

As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see the rock island of Alcatraz prominently centered in the bay. Formerly a military fort and prison, maximum security federal penitentiary, and civil rights protest occupation, today it is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco.

3. Cable Cars

One of San Francisco’s most exhilarating tourist activities, a cable car ride is a spirited mix of old-time travel through the neighborhoods of this modern city. Climbing and descending steep hills to the accompaniment of clanging bells and hand-operated brakes is one of my favorite ways to traverse the city.

Fog in San Francisco is as common as a sunrise.

4. Fisherman’s Wharf

With restaurants, museums, an aquarium, and more, the Wharf is also a good place to catch boat tours. Pier 39, also located at the Wharf, is an animated shopping center complete with rafts of barking sea lions.

My favorite Wharf spot is at the west end at Maritime National Historic Park where you can tour the old sea-faring vessels, watch the birds and swimmers. The square-rigger Balclutha, launched in 1886, is permanently moored here for self-guided tours.

5. Ghirardelli Square

Also down at the Wharf’s west end is Ghirardelli Square. Once the factory where Ghirardelli chocolate was made, this building is now a restaurant and retail complex with views overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

6. Transamerica Pyramid Building

A popular symbol of the San Francisco skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972. Here, visitors can enjoy a park with redwood trees in the middle of the Financial District. There is also a virtual observation deck experience that allows lobby visitors to operate four cameras positioned atop the building’s spire.

7. Coit Tower

San Francisco 1930s history comes alive inside this building decorated with stunning fresco murals. The tower was built in 1932-1933 and dedicated to volunteer San Francisco firefighters who lost their lives fighting fires. Visitors to the open-air top are rewarded with city and bay views.

This is one of the many murals inside Coit Tower.

8. Palace of Fine Arts

A pleasant stroll around this structure and lagoon brings the visitor back to the days of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition when it was erected as a temporary building. The only Exposition structure not to be torn down, it has been rebuilt and renovated since then, and has had a lifetime of different purposes.

9. Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in North America, this neighborhood is a densely populated Asian enclave covering 24 blocks of shops, restaurants, homes, hospitals, and churches. A walk through on any day is an interesting combination of old and new culture.

10. Painted Ladies

Seven Victorian houses in a row on Steiner Street. Alamo Park, seen here in the foreground, is often busy with tourists taking selfies in front of the houses.

There were 48,000 Victorian and Edwardian houses built in San Francisco in the years 1849-1915; many can still be seen. The advent of painting them in bright colors started in 1963 and still exists today.

11. The Ferry Building

Completed in 1898, the Ferry Building was originally built as a transportation hub for ferry boats as well as transcontinental railway lines. Since then there have been many changes and renovations, but it still remains a hotspot for ferry boats, commuters, and tourists.

12. Ocean Beach

On the far western side of San Francisco is Ocean Beach. It has been a local recreational site for over a century with Playland, the Sutro Baths, Fleishhacker Pool and several renovations of the Cliff House. Today it attracts residents, visitors, joggers, dog walkers and families.

Whether you visited decades ago or are planning a future visit, these 12 iconic San Francisco sites are just a few of the many picturesque highlights of the City by the Bay.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

74 thoughts on “San Francisco: 12 Iconic Sites

  1. Thanks for the wonderful tour of the city, Jet! I’ve never been there but have seen a very old video taken just days before the 1906 earthquake happened. The Ferry Building is prominent in the video as the trolly car slowly heads for it. Amazing!

    • It is such a delight to give you a tour of San Francisco, John. That excellent video is wonderful, makes you wonder why there weren’t accidents every day with the chaotic nature of the traffic. Thanks very much.

  2. This brought back very happy memories of our day together, and has us looking forward to another visit in the not too distant future. We hope you and Athena are well, and enjoying summer, both on the mountain and in the lovely city on your doorstep!
    Thanks, Jet!

    • I thought of you, too, pc, as I was composing this SF post, thinking about that wonderful day with you and Mrs. pc. We are enjoying both that lovely city and our mountain. We’ve had a week of heavy fog and it has been deliciously cool. Cheers to you both, and many thanks.

  3. How wonderful it is to see these unique sights and structures again!
    I needed to remember what an incredible city San Francisco really is and why!
    Seeing these photos shook my sleeping memory and reminded me
    of all these great wonders. Thanks so much Jet and Alexander for making this
    fine tour possible! Have a fine day you two! hugs, Eddie

    • Oh how glad I am to have revived your memory of beautiful San Francisco, Eddie. There are so many gorgeous spots to explore, it was difficult narrowing it down to 12. I’m happy you enjoyed the tour. Thank you so much for your kind words.

  4. Wonderful tour, Jet, thank you! I’m excited to realize that I’ve been to almost all of these lovely places! I hope to see the rest on a return visit soon. πŸ˜ŽπŸ’ƒ

    • I am so very honored to have shared these spots with you, BS, and I hope you do come back for more. There’s always more to explore! Thanks you so much, dear sister.

    • Thank you, Diana, I think it will be a great checklist to get you started when your SF days come. Until then, I hope you have fun days wherever you are. Thanks so much.

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Jane, for you and I both have a love affair going with SF and it always shows. My warmest thanks for your lovely comment and visit.

    • How nice to hear that SF is one of your favorite cities, Eliza. I think for folks like you and me who spend a lot of time outdoors, cities are often not our cup of tea. But I have found many places to enjoy the outdoors here, and I’m glad I could share them. Cheers to you.

  5. I enjoyed your tour of the city. I went to San Francisco as a child many years ago on a family trip. The photos provided lots of memories. I also recently finished reading Golden Gate Graveyard. I enjoyed the twists at the end. You really brought the city alive with your writing.

    • What a delightful surprise to hear you finished reading Golden Gate Graveyard, Kristie. I am really glad you enjoyed the story and the city in it, and glad you enjoyed today’s post as well. Many thanks for buying the book and stopping by, much appreciated.

  6. Thank you Jet for this wonderful tour of San Fraccisco.- one of my favourite places in the United States. I love everything about it.and hope that one day I might get back there. Have a beaytiful weekend. Janet :)X

  7. Every place in San Francisco is iconic and beautiful! The Geography of the city is so proper to design absolutely great buildings with so much aesthetic value. Lovely. Thanks for the enjoyable post, Jet. πŸ™‚

    • It is a great honor to share a few lovely sites of this beautiful city with you, HJ. With the mountains and hills, bay and ocean, there is much beauty to behold. I thank you for your wonderful comment, HJ.

    • I am so glad you had a chance to stop by today, Terry, as you and I have explored this city together so very many times. How wonderful that you enjoyed the photos. Thanks so much for your visit.

  8. I’ve been to every one of those spots, and more. Each of them has memories attached, but Chinatown has the most, and the most enjoyable. For a time, I worked as an assistant to a Chinese professor. We’d often go with his family for dinner in Chinatown, and I got to experience a side of it many (most?) tourists don’t. Above many of the public spaces in the restaurants there are private dining rooms, where there are no menus, and little English spoken. The professor would order for us all — in Mandarin, I suppose, although he spoke other Chinese languages. We never drove, but took BART and walked through the streets to the restaurant, making it a perfect SF evening.

    • I very much enjoyed hearing about your authentic Chinatown experiences, Linda, and I am sure you partook of some amazing meals in addition to the restaurant scenes and walks from Bart. Thank you for sharing these special times.

  9. I’ve only been to San Francisco twice, once for business once for pleasure. Both trips were delightful. The first time (for business) I stayed in a delightful boutique hotel that had murals painted all over the walls and even on the ceilings of the rooms. My room displayed a rather graphic depiction of Adam and Eve. πŸ™‚ Then next time I visited we went to many of the places you noted and it brought back such wonderful memories. One of my favorite spots was a Japanese garden in some park near GG Bridge. It was so peaceful. I would like to go back again. I go to the Pacific NW often to visit family; maybe after being reminded of how much I enjoyed SF in the past, we will swing by there again. In fact one of my dear friends just moved to the Bay Area. You have sparked my traveling mood, Jet. Thanks!

    • It was wonderful to hear about your two trips to San Francisco, LuAnne, and now with your dear friend there you will have a good opportunity to visit again. There is a serene Japanese garden in GG Park, perhaps that is the one you went to. Your adventures sound memorable and exciting, and I am glad I sparked your traveling mood, too. Thanks so very much, LuAnne.

    • Hi Janet, I am glad you have been to Coit Tower, they have the most wonderful murals in there, and they have been renovated within the last few years and are really gleaming now. I like the fog shot a lot too. It was taken at dawn on Thanksgiving Day on the other side of the bay in the town of Tiburon. And those sea lions are always a draw, they’re so much fun to hear and see. Thanks very much for your visit today.

    • Thanks so very much, Anneli, for your visit and lovely comment today. I’m really glad you enjoyed my tour today. It’s always fun to share this beautiful city with friends. I hope your weekend is a joy.

      • Looking forward to a stress-free weekend here. Things have been hectic with appointments here, and are settling down so looking forward to some relaxing home and garden time. Have a great weekend yourself, Jet.

  10. Thanks for a lovely intro to San Francisco’s popular sights. Never been, but the trams on steep roads always seem to spring to mind when I think of it. πŸ€—πŸ”†

    • Too bad you didn’t get to visit SF, Simone. It certainly has been a rough year and a half with let-downs and lost plans. Maybe one day you will be able to visit, and until then, I’m glad I could share these 12 sites with you. Always a pleasure to hear from you.

    • I really liked hearing that your first flight was a trip to SF, Belinda. How very fun for you. I hope you do get back some day, it’s still a wonderful place. Many thanks and smiles to you.

    • Your comment was wonderful to receive, rabirius. I am glad you have had the joy of visiting San Francisco, and delighted I stimulated your memories of it. Thank you.

  11. That’s a beguiling pastel picture of the skyline at sunrise.

    The last time we were in the San Francisco area, in 2016, we parked very close to the Transamerica Tower on one of our drives into the city.

    Caught a part of Albert Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” on television last night. One scene shows James Stewart and Kim Novak walking by the Palace of Fine Arts.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the SF post, Steve. That sunrise photo is one of my favorites, glad you found it beguiling. I am a huge Hitchcock fan and have great fun seeing his movie scenes staged throughout the Bay Area. Did a post on it once. Thank you, Steve, very much.

  12. What an enjoyable tour – some of the scenes are familiar to me but only from movies shot there, they are indeed iconic. I particularly like the foggy sunrise, and the last photo has an unusual perspective.

    • Thank you, Carol, I’m happy you enjoyed the SF tour. The foggy sunrise is so beautiful, isn’t it? And the last photo was taken from a boat; that is the unusual perspective you correctly spotted. I am lucky to have the opportunity to be so familiar with this lovely city, and delighted I can share it with you. Thank you so very much.

  13. Thanks for a great guided tour, Jet. I’ve only been to San Francisco once and saw exactly zero of these iconic locations. πŸ™‚ We went to Yosemite and Big Sur but not into town, staying up in Marin. If I do return I know where to go now.

  14. Oh my! This was like a time machine in some ways… taking me back to the first tour I ever had back in ’68. It was then I fell in love with this delightful city. You and Athena served as great tour guides this time, too! Hitting all the right spots. How some things remain the same while there are some changes (of course!). One thing that seemingly remains the same is how photogenic this amazing city is. Oddly enough, it seems that as a resident, I tended to miss some spots featured here. Have you ever noticed that when you’re local there’s often that tendency of putting off the popular spots, as if they’re taken for granted somehow?

    How appropriate that just now I stumbled across a library book that goes into great depth explaining the whys and what-nots of the 1906 earthquake. The author goes clear back to the drifting continents, Mt Diablo, Iceland and other big quakes scattered here and there. [A crack in the edge of the world by Simon Winchester if you’re interested.]Β  I’m nearly halfway through it at the moment. We’re supposed to be expecting the “Big One” here any moment. I think about bridges crumbling and being suddenly more isolated than we have been this past year or more… That is if fire doesn’t displace us first. πŸ₯΄ Best not to dwell on such stuff… 😏 There are no guarantees.

    On that cheerful note, I’ll wish you and Athena a splendid week to come and an explosive 4th!

    • I so enjoyed your visit today, Gunta, thank you. I am happy this tour of SF brought back good memories of your life here, and also glad you were inspired to read the library book about the 1906 EQ. Yes, I have found that many locals don’t visit the touristy spots, for it does have its difficulties with the crowds and unpleasantness. I have learned how and when to visit the spots to avoid the masses, and also which spots are less touristy and more outdoorsy. We zip around taking it all in but don’t get bogged down with staying long or engaging too much. Because the bottom line is as you said, it is so amazing and photogenic, and there is much to see and admire. I am delighted I could share it with you, dear friend. Thanks very much.

  15. I have great memories of visits to all these places in the City! Thanks for taking me down memory lane with these wonderful images. Now I’m craving a Beignet from a little place in Dogpatch! πŸ˜€

  16. Jet I smiled through this entire post. Almost all of these iconic spots we have visited and some with you! San Francisco remains one of our top city picks and we look forward to visiting again in the future. Tomorrow almost all restrictions lift here, although our border still remains closed to non essential travel. We are getting there!
    I hope you are both well and thank you for this happy walk down memory lane.

    • Dear Sue, so wonderful to receive your comment, and right now having read it, I am smiling broadly. I am honored to have spent time with you and Dave at some of these sites, and hope there is a day when we can do so again. Until then, we cherish our memories and enjoy the beauty wherever we are. Thank you so very much.

  17. what a fabulous tour, Jet. thank you! most of the iconic sites brought wonderful memories. this post makes want to go back to San Francisco – a beautiful city! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    • Thanks so much for your visit, Wilma, I’m really glad you enjoyed the SF post. And I’m also happy that you have spent time in this wonderful city. Warm wishes to you for a Happy Fourth.

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