As I can't help myself, before my most recent trip to San Francisco I did do a lot of research in my trusty Lonely Planet guides but honestly, as I spent all my summers growing up in SF as my Dad lived there, I already knew where I wanted to go, especially as I was taking two of my best friends who had never been before. Having said that, I did find some new things I couldn't remember seeing before and I hit up my beloved Pinterest boards too, just to make sure I didn't miss anything.
I can't believe I'm sectioning my favourite place in the world down to 5 top sights, but if you're in a whirlwind or need to know exactly what you can not miss here it is:
1. Bike the Bridge.
If this is all you read, please, please, please do this. It was one of the best days of my life honestly. I now want to rent a bike and explore every city I ever visit. I have walked the bridge before, drove it a million time but it's not only the bridge it's everything else about this day that makes it amazing.
There are a few companies around the Bay that offer rentable bikes so you can enjoy the whole of San Francisco and the Bay all in one day. I used Blazing Saddles and they are probably the oldest and most definitely the most popular in the area. A full review of our experience with them is coming soon.
2. Sunset at Sutro.
Sutro Bath and Point Lobos are probably one of the most beautiful and artsy spots just outside the city. Situated by the world famous Cliff House on Ocean Drive this place is host to some breathtaking views of the Pacific and has everything that makes a coast typical of Northern California. The trees, some trails and rocks to sit on looking out over the Ocean. This relatively, unknown by tourist, spot is a must see. Go early before Sunset, take a walk along the trails down to the baths where the ruins meet the Ocean and then head back up to the benches to see off another beautiful day in the Bay.
3. Have Clam Chowder in a Bread Bowl.
If you've done any sort of read up about SF before your trip you'll know the place is famous for sourdough, in particular the bread bowl, but nowhere does it like Boudins. If you're in Fisherman's Wharf set aside time to pick up their Clam Chowder Sourdough Bread Bowl, it's amazing and you can take a tour around the bakery afterwards and see where they make all the amazing bread for Boudins. Sometimes there is a wait, but if you as for a table in the window looking over the Wharf it's totally worth it.
4. Buena Vista Park.
This one is a little less touristy and a little more of a journey out the city. There isn't a car park, a visitors centre or a gift shop in sight in this place, which is just what some people are looking for. Crazily, I don't remember even going up to Buena Vista before this year, but it has such an amazing history for this city. At 575 ft above the Bay, not only is is a beautiful place to explore with amazing views of the city and the Bay Bridge, but it's also the sight where during the 1906 earthquake and fire hundreds of people took to safety for up to 5 days.
I would recommend getting a bus to Haight and walking up, cheating slightly here that also means I recommend Haight Asbury, but if you're driving park right at the top point of the park in the residential area, it is free and will be less busy away from Haight Asbury visitors.
5. Boat on the Bay.
This is probably the mostly classically touristy suggestion of the list but you haven't truly experienced San Francisco until you've frozen from that Pacific breeze at least once. The two main companies running these cruises throughout the Bay are Blue&Gold and Red&White, both have various options as to Bay Cruise, Island Hoppers or Round trips to Alcatraz, my favourite though it the Bay Cruise. It's a 90 minute round trip taking you out and under the bridge, back past Angel Island and around Alcatraz and I won't ruin it but you're going to definitely need a jacket for at least some of the trip.
Enjoy your stay in SF and make the most of every corner because there really isn't any other city like it in the world.