San Francisco, aka the New York of the West Coast, is a pearl that hides breathtaking views and affable inhabitants who never ceases to amaze – literally never – for their entirely open-minded culture.

I was fortuitous enough to live under 30 minutes away from the city for about 10 months. During that period I had the opportunity to explore the bay far and wide. Will you be visiting San Francisco soon and don’t know where to start? I’ve got this for you! Here you will find the five things to see in San Francisco – but also some pointers about lesser-known tourist alternatives.

Pier 39 – Haight Street

Starting from the assumption that to really know a new country, you should stay well clear of the infamous “tourist traps”. Pier 39 is undoubtedly the first on the list, with shops that sell the same old souvenirs and “typical” restaurants that offer the same run-of-the-mill dishes. However, there is a good reason to visit the Pier. From here you can admire the bay in all its beauty, with the Golden Gate and its characteristic red battling the blue sky (assuming there are no fog banks!) and Alcatraz that seems inescapable from this viewpoint. Soaking up the sun there are sea lions. Numerous favour the Pier and use its bays for a break between one swim and the other.

If you are like me and prefer the more indigenous experiences, my advice is to leave the Pier and reach the Haight – Ashbury neighbourhood, which was the scene of the sixties hippie movement. San Francisco is recognised for its Victorian-style homes, and everywhere there are flags of peace, strange architecture and bizarre people. At odd times you might run into someone sporting nothing more than a thong. It’s definitely my favourite neighbourhood and one of the best things to see in San Francisco.

Haight-Ashbury buildings with woman legs

Baker Beach – Kirby Cove

Do we have our share of breathtaking views? Baker Beach is part of Presidio, an ancient Spanish military base dating back to the 1800s that is now a large park and overlooks the ocean directly. I went there at sunset and spent an hour watching the huge container ships slide into the bay through the enormous iron Golden Gate.

Alternatively, there is a beach unknown to most located on the coast opposite Baker Beach. I’m referring to Kirby Cove, reachable only through the Golden Gate heading towards Marin County (Google Maps can be a lifesaver for this one). It is part of a campsite that can only be reached on foot. Park the car as soon as you find a spot and set off on foot, fearless of the various prohibitions. The beauty of this pebble beach? The famous swing is the protagonist of all the pics taken from here, with the bridge and the city in the background. Definitely one of the unmissable things to see in San Francisco!

Woman on a swing in Kirby Cove in front of the Ocean

Chestnut Street – Vesuvio Café

Let’s get onto the subject of food: San Francisco offers a variety of cuisines from every corner of the world. But if you want to play it safe, my advice is to go for Mexican cuisine. It will never be the real thing, but I assure you the Californian version is worthwhile. Chestnut Street is famous for its clubs and restaurants, so here you are spoilt for choice: spin a bottle and take your pick!

I propose a particular alternative: as a reader and a keen traveller, I simply need to mention the Vesuvio Café! The cradle of the beat generation, Kerouac, Bob Dylan and Francis Coppola regularly got drunk in this small bar in the North Beach area. Among the suggestive interiors with good music and local pale ale, you will feel like going back in time!

Vesuvio cafè, one of the things to see in San Francisco

Painted Ladies – Hidden Staircases

Don’t miss the stop at Alamo Square. From here you can admire the famous Painted Ladies, a series of twinned Victorian-style terraced houses that are identical except for their colour. The undisputed protagonists of the San Francisco postcards that survived the earthquake of 1960 and are still today one of the most sought after tourist destinations.

Slightly more obscure are the Hidden Staircases. They are located on the 16th street and face the ocean directly. The peculiarity of this staircase is its decoration. The steps have a mosaic that, seen from afar, forms an almost unreal image. I went there at sunset but it was not my wisest choice. The mosaics reflected the sun’s rays and consequently, my snaps weren’t too good. It’s best to visit in the morning when the stairs are more shaded.

Secret stairs with a mosaic in San Francisco

Sutro Baths – Martins Beach

And what about more talk of sunsets. I admit I am very fond of them, and I strive to find the most hidden spots where I can admire them.

The Sutro Baths are located in the Lands Ends area. They are what remains of a late 1800s saltwater pool complex. They overlook the Pacific Ocean and deserve a stop after wandering around San Francisco. I also recommend popping into Lands Ends, where there is no shortage of relatively difficult hiking trails.

I give you one last gem: my all-time favourite place in the bay, a small pearl of tranquillity and peace. To get there you are unfortunately obliged to rent a car. I assure you that the only way to get there is by road and it’s worth the expense. Martins Beach is located along the Pacific Highway, the extensive road overlooking the ocean that stretches from Seattle to Tijuana, the last American bulwark before entering Mexico. Here too, Google Maps help us find the point on the road where to park the car.

The area is private, so you descend on foot, crossing a series of fishermen’s houses until you get to the beach, where the breathtaking panorama dominates a highly unusual shaped rock. I spent entire evenings waiting for the sun to be swallowed up by the ocean right here, in the company of friends, a beach towel and a beer. At the end of the day, what more can you ask for?

Martins beach at sunset

If you don’t want to miss any of the things to see in San Francisco and California, discover our 12-day tour!

WeRoad Team
Written by WeRoad Team