Unlocking the Golden Gate: Five essentials for your first time in San Francisco

Just shoot straight up to the top of the 210-foot Coit Tower for an immediate reminder that you’re in one of the United States’ most beautiful cities. Perched high above Telegraph Hill, you’ll take in the iconic San Francisco Bay and its sprawling urban metropolis, framed by a fog so thick and ubiquitous it has long had its own name – Karl – and has come to define San Fran as much as the city’s unique topography, supersized burritos, lazy sea lions, seafood chowder bread bowls, free-spirited creativity, and world-class art scene. Though the most important take-away from this view is just how ripe for adventure the city is, presenting somewhat of a dream scenario for intrepid travellers, the ones who regularly dive into the city’s history and emerge with some of their fondest U.S memories.

There’s plenty of reasons why San Fran is still one of the top cities in the world for travel. It averages 160 sunny days per year (though don’t go mistaking that for consistently warm weather), is one of the most diverse and multicultural places in America next to L.A and New York City, and is surrounded by picturesque A-plus getaways like Napa Valley, Santa Cruz and Sonoma County. That’s just a few examples, next to regular destination gospel like the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, a storied history of progressive politics and inclusion, and a long list of charming, distinctive neighborhoods. Charm doesn’t even come close to describing some of the streets and hipster enclaves one would find dotted all across the board, from the perennial favourite Mission District to trendy, complicated Haight-Ashbury.

Whether it’ll be your first or your fourth time visiting San Fran, we’re here to help you with a list of five things we love to do while over there, from the tourist-typical to the slightly overlooked. Keep this one handy, you’re gonna need it.

Eat Your Way Through The Mission

Clarion Alley, in the heart of the Mission District, is noted for its community activities and the mural project that started in 1982. | Image supplied.

There are many distinguishing factors that contribute to the great diversity of San Francisco. The city’s neighbourhoods are each defined by unique character, but few can speak to a wider range of people as the Mission District. “The Mission” is indebted to its Latin roots but has since become a shining example of how strong and creative a scene can be if it has multiple cultures bleeding into one another. The result is best seen in the food of course, which is largely skewered towards Mexican as the classic taqueria dominates energetic Valencia Street. This is the location for some of the best tacos and burritos you in the entire country (yes, including L.A). The more-is-more Mission Burrito was born here, and you can taste many iterations and modern twists up and down the strip, but the classics will always be the best.

La Taqueria should be at the top of your to-do list; the undisputed champion of the Mission Burrito should never be overlooked, no matter how hyped up it is, and it’s here where you’ll likely find the single best casual eat in all of San Francisco. The best part, it won’t even cost you more than $10, although the better idea is to go full greedy-guts and make this a group feast, with a table spread of tacos, quesadillas, and guacamole so fresh you’ll probably never look at guacamole the same again.

Getting ready to eat a Mission Burrito from La Taqueria

Other things to do include admiring the oasis of murals found throughout the neighbourhood, shopping for vintage treasures at spaces like the memorable Electric Blanket, crawling through some nifty bohemian bars like Trick Dog, checking out the many small art galleries like Galeria de la Raza, and watching an indie flick at San Fran’s oldest theatre Roxie. Don’t forget to go get some of the city’s best coffee at Philz and of course spend some time in the infectiously energetic Mission Dolores Park, which boasts a stunning vista from the top and is one of the premier hang-out spots for the young and hip (and in San Fran, that’s saying a lot). If you’re in a group, don’t forget to try out Urban Putt, which really translates the city’s many quirks and history into an indoor miniature golf course.

Indulge in the Art Scene

SFMOMA | Photo by Henrik Kam

San Francisco’s art scene is one of the most refined in the country, with the city boasting a large range of wildly distinctive museums and galleries alongside playful favourites like waterfront wonderland The Exploratorium and numerous underground shows run by local collectives.

Those up for something a bit different should definitely look into immersive theatre show The Speakeasy, which requires a strict dress code but rewards all that effort with a true blast-from-the-past underground party. You’re thrown all the way back to 1923 by no less than 35 characters and one hell of a detailed set up. The best part is how intimate it all is, which means spots sell out fast so make sure you book in advance.

For anyone who missed it’s incredibly popular run in L.A, the Museum of Ice Cream is currently operating from a building near Union Square. It’s a nice accompaniment to the aforementioned Exploratorium, which should definitely be on your bucketlist, even if it’s just for its beautiful Embarcadero waterfront location. The Exploratorium is a scene of wide-reaching experimentation with creative ways to engage minds of any age with clever details like musical storage lockers to the famously dark and sensory-depriving tactile dome maze.

The famous de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is a San Fran essential for very good reason, with a plethora of American, African and Oceanic art dating from the 17th century and tracking all the way to modern times. Though even if you’re not too interested in the permanent collection of more than 27,000 works, it’s worth going here for the ninth-floor observation deck, from which you’ll find an immersive panoramic view of the city and the surrounding Pacific Ocean. After of before that, head across to the opposite California Academy of Sciences and marvel at their unique four-story living rainforest before ducking into their Morrison Planetarium and bottom floor Steinhart Aquarium.

de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park

Walt Disney Family Museum is another unique institution for San Fran, dedicating interactive galleries and modern exhibitions to the vast history of Walt Disney and his historic animations. Sifting through the seemingly endless collection of early drawings, cartoons, movies, music, video installations, plus regular screenings of Disney favourites is a joy when it’s narrated by Walt himself.

For something even more unique head along the The Audium Theatre of Sound, it’s not quite a museum but it’s the only one of its kind in the entire world, offering guests a two-hour performance that uses 176 speakers to immerse them in various “sound sculptures”. Oh yeah, and you’re left in complete darkness as well, left to the mercy of these sounds that vary in form, speed and movement. It’s not something you’ll soon forget.

More than 2,000 artworks spanning centuries make up the always popular Asian Art Museum, pop culture lovers will be in heaven at Cartoon Art Museum, and the unique Legion of Honor is located nearby the popular and stunning Land’s End hike (make sure you put Sutro Baths on the list if you’re headed on that way). Though it’s SFMOMA that’ll likely pull the widest range of people in, with their flawless collection of exclusively modern art from some very big names. Of course, there’s also the Palace of Fine Arts, which is a historical and architectural landmark in San Francisco and is one of the city’s most recognisable structures.

A lot of museum passes plus public transport is included in SF Travel’s “CityPASS” booklet so if you’re planning on seeing as much as possible you’d be wise to save some cash with it. You can check out all the details over here.

Watch a Game at AT&T Park

Sometimes the cheap seats are the way to go at AT&T Park.

Whether you’re going for the game or the atmosphere, heading along to a city’s primary sporting arena doesn’t often inspire the same level of awe as AT&T Park. The legendary baseball park is small fries when it comes to the nation’s biggest stadiums, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the game’s most important; certainly it’s most beautiful. Home to the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park first opened in the year 2000 and has since hosted some of the most iconic moments in sporting history, hiding an immaculate park behind that big brick exterior, of which the design reaches back in history and draws on both Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, the two oldest baseball stadiums in America. The most important feature for casual sports fans here is the backdrop, the expansive view ensuring that there is no such thing as a “bad” spot across the almost 42,000 seats. You’re either watching the game up-close or you have a jaw-dropping vista that takes in the Bay Bridge and downtown.

Even if you’re not heading inside for an actual game make sure you stop by McCovey Cove and watch fans waddle around in kayaks and other vessels hoping to scoop up a floating home run.

The park is currently hosting the big-ticket Rugby World Cup Sevens, so if you’re over in San Francisco now you can go check out the schedule HERE.

Explore the Largest Chinatown Outside of Asia

This is the birthplace of American-Chinese food and both the oldest and largest Chinatown outside of Asia. You’re simply not doing your San Francisco trip justice if you don’t pop down and explore this kinetic and important area of the city, which is largely credited as the origin point for dishes like chop suey and ubiquitous treats like the classic shapely fortune cookie. Get an egg custard tart from Golden Gate Bakery, have a modern Cantonese feast at Mister Jiu’s, join the crowd at the legendary House of Nanking, warm up at Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant, and discover the dumplings at Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea House, the oldest dim sum restaurant in the country with a history dating back to the 1920’s.

For a unique experience head along to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory located in Ross Alley and take a peek at the place where tens of thousands of fortune cookies are made every day.

There’s a pay-what-you-want walking tour of the sprawling Chinatown, so if you want to make the most of it head along to that and then stay on for a few more hours to do some of your own exploring.

Ferry Over to Sausalito and Alcatraz

Sausalito is one of the most essential San Fran getaways

Take a breathtaking 30-minute ferry trip across the Golden Gate Strait to the idyllic seaside town of Sausalito and bask in the European-esque atmosphere. It’s intimate and highly walkable with plentiful running and biking routes spread out from the central strips, like pleasant Caledonia Street where the best cafes are found. Lovely little swimming beaches and plenty of ice cream shops are dotted across Sausalito alongside art galleries and burger joints. It’s where most of the locals go when they want to just get away from the usual urban playground without having to travel very far.

If you’re headed over in early September, keep in mind that the Sausalito Art & Music Festival should be an essential part of your trip. The famous multi-day, multifaceted event attracts more than 50,000 people every year in addition to top-billing live acts and a huge celebration of the small town’s reputation as an artistic haven.

While Sausalito is the lighter part of San Fran’s two essential ferry trips, Alcatraz brings the darkness and is definitely worth a stop over if you’re particularly interested in the island prison’s complicated history. It’s one of San Fran’s most unique and memorable attractions, so you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to tours and options helping guests navigate the many, many secrets of this notorious spot. The less written about this island the better, as there’s some moments, nooks, crannies and generally chilling stories that are best kept secret.

Alcatraz is regularly one of the most referenced things to do in San Fran.

If you want to fit both in the same day it’s best to try do Alcatraz before Sausalto, and then either walk or bike back over the Golden Gate Bridge so you easily tick that bucketlist experience off in a casual fashion. Just make sure that before you leave this end of the bridge you pop by Battery Spencer, it offers perhaps the most well-known vista of the iconic bridge.

Day-trippers are going to want to be stay close to Fisherman’s Wharf in order to make those early-morning ferry trips that much easier. You can find some nice digs at the boutique and very affordable Hotel Zephyr which is about a five minute walk from the famous Pier 39 (where those aforementioned sea lions are).

The writer travelled to San Francisco as a guest of SF Travel.

Feature image: Umer Sayyam

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.