San Francisco Introduction Walking Tour, San Francisco

San Francisco Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Francisco

A commercial and cultural hub of northern California, San Francisco is a popular tourist destination known for its steep rolling hills and eclectic mix of world-famous landmarks. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the teeth-rattling cable cars carrying riders up and down Nob Hill, Alcatraz Island, and the oldest Chinatown in North America are just some of the city's prominent attractions, each contributing to its unique flavor.

The original settlement of today's San Francisco emerged in 1776 when a group of Spanish colonists established a fortress (near the present Golden Gate) and a mission (a few miles away) both named after Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1821, the Spaniards passed the territory to the Mexicans, who in turn ceded it to the United States in 1848. The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought rapid growth to the area, transforming San Francisco from an unimportant hamlet to a busy port. By 1901, it had become a major city, largest on the West Coast, known for its flamboyant style, stately hotels, ostentatious mansions, and a thriving arts scene.

After the destructive earthquake of 1906, the city was quickly rebuilt, and on a grand scale too, seeing, among other achievements, the construction of the streetcar system. At the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, San Francisco undertook great civil engineering projects, including the Golden Gate Bridge completed in 1937.

After World War II, the city hosted the birth of the United Nations in 1945. It was the ground for the rise of the "beatnik" and "hippie" cultures in the 1950s and 60s. The Sexual Revolution, the Peace Movement (following the Vietnam War), the Summer of Love of 1967, and the gay rights movement of the 1970s asserted San Francisco as a center of liberal activism in the United States. More recently, the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, driven by the Internet industry, further invigorated the city's economy.

Still, tourism is one of San Francisco's major industries fueled by attractions like Lombard Street (known for its "crookedness"), Pier 39 (with its colony of sunbathing sea lions), the Aquarium of the Bay, and others. The historic heart of the city is centered on Union Square, the principal shopping and hotel district.

Whatever your idea of a dream trip to San Francisco is, take this self-guided walking tour as a valuable companion and brave the city on foot with GPSmyCity without fear of getting lost!
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from Apple App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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San Francisco Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: San Francisco Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Francisco (See other walking tours in San Francisco)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 3 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 5.3 Km or 3.3 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Union Square
  • Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)
  • Sing Chong Building
  • Nob Hill
  • Grace Cathedral
  • Cable Car Museum
  • Lombard Street
  • Ghirardelli Square
  • Pier 39
Union Square

1) Union Square (must see)

While there are lots of tourist sights in San Francisco to behold, there is none more representative of the city's spirit than the iconic Union Square. With so many layers of history, cuisine, commerce, and culture gathered in one spot, it is no wonder that this place has appeared in film and television scores of times over the years! One could teach a master class on the goings on at Union Square through the decades.

Starting from the pro-US rallies during the Civil War (hence the "Union" name) to the red-light district on (ironically) Maiden Lane, the Dewey Monument, and Alma Spreckels, the Saint Francis Hotel and its famous guests, the 1960s protests, the Theater District, the Powell cable car line, the Flood Building, and the Woolworth's counter – the list is long. Add to this the rooftop amusement park, the concerts, the window displays, and key appearances in famous movies – and you get the place that is quintessentially San Francisco in much of the same way as Times Square is for New York City.

Nowadays, the square is known as a sanctuary for the shopaholic at heart, ringed by premium boutiques, high-end department stores, and mega-brands – but also as one of maybe two places in the city where you can go ice-skating outdoors during the winter.

If you're looking for the best cheap eats, consider Sear's Fine Food or the Pinecrest Diner. For mid-range – there's Cheesecake Factory with a spectacular view of the square and the unforgettable Rotunda at Neiman Marcus. And if you want to go posh, there are too many choices, but Scala's Bistro at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel is ideal; also, The Oak Room, if you have the means.

Finally, no tour of Union Square is complete without visiting the venerable Hotel Saint Francis, where kings, presidents, movie stars, and other historical figures from every field have stayed. In its grand lobby stands an antique clock, and the phrase "Meet me at the clock" is known to most San Franciscans. During holidays, the hotel is decked out in festive décor, with a giant chocolate castle diorama to salivate over. It feels like stepping into a bygone era of luxury and superb service.

Given the range of delights available at Union Square (stores, restaurants, theaters, as well as the famous cable cars), it is safe to say it is at the heart of it all and makes a logical starting point for the exploration of San Francisco.

Take the Powell/Hyde cable car ride (which starts and ends at Union Square) for the best views of the city. And don't mind the line if there is one – it can move quickly.
Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)

2) Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)

Facing south, as per the principles of Feng Shui, this large dragon-clad arch is a popular (yet somewhat dramatic) entry to San Francisco Chinatown. The gate, opened in 1970, was made from materials gifted by Taiwan, but the actual design came from Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee inspired by ceremonial entrances to Chinese villages. In keeping with tradition, whereby such gateways are often commissioned by the wealthy who wish to enhance their status by having their names inscribed on the gates, the Chinatown portal carries a four-character inscription that translates to "All under heaven is for the good of the people."

Among other notable features, it has two large guardian lions (or lion dogs) looking over the pedestrian entrances. The one on the west side is male, and that on the east is female. You can always tell which is which since the lioness holds a cub under her paw while the male holds a ball. Both the gate and the lions symbolize protection from evil spirits.

Beyond the gate, the pagoda-topped architecture was innovated by Chinatown merchants in the 1920s – a pioneering initiative to lure tourists with a distinctive modern look. Indeed, this had worked, as the dragon streetlights soon chased away the red-light-heyday shady ladies. Today, they light the way to the elegant shops where you can buy antiques, silks, teas, gems, and more.
Sing Chong Building

3) Sing Chong Building

After the devastating earthquake of 1906, San Francisco's city government smelled the opportunity to drive Chinatown to the fringes, planning to resettle the community to what is now the Bayview neighborhood. But the Chinese Family Associations and the Chinese Consulate refused to budge.

A group of Chinese merchants, including Mendocino-born Look Tin Eli, seized on the idea of hiring American (non-Chinese) architects and contractors to design and rebuild the neighborhood in Chinese-motif "Oriental" style. The plan was to increase the area's appeal as a tourist destination and cultural stronghold.

The result of that design strategy was the pagoda-topped buildings of the Sing Chong and Sing Fat bazaars. These were among the first "new Chinatown" to open and have since become landmark sites. Inspired by Sing Chong's standout look, many other buildings in the area began featuring similar architectural elements. One such was the Bank of America building at 701 Grant Avenue, first occupied by the Nanking Fook Wo Inc., which got decorated in traditional dragon motifs.
Nob Hill

4) Nob Hill

The embodiment of "swank" in San Francisco's history, Nob Hill is perched on a hilltop above Union Square and Chinatown. The neighborhood elegantly preserves some of the character brought to it by the early railroad and financial barons who built their mansions here.

One of the prime reasons why Nob Hill attracted (and still does) affluent classes is its centralized location. Over the years, it was once home to some of the most prominent names in America's political and business history, including Leyland Stanford (governor of California and US Senator in the late 1800s), Collins Huntington (19th-century industrialist and railway magnate), as well as Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, founders of the Central Pacific Railroad. Strolling the area, you can get a glimpse of their grand mansions poised with majestic galore atop the Hill.

After the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire, some mansions were revamped into luxury hotels. The most expensive of them, such as Fairmont, Hopkins, Stanford Court, or Huntington, stand literally on the ruins of the 1906 disaster.

Presently, the neighborhood attracts thousands of visitors each year, who either walk all the way up (if fit) or drive or take a cable car to wander around, see the architecture, and, perhaps, stroll occasionally into the Fairmont Hotel lobby for a drink. You can also admire the scenery at the Top of the Mark in the Mark Hopkins Hotel, have lunch or dinner at one of the several local restaurants, or enjoy a peaceful interlude in the beautiful Grace Cathedral. There is also pleasant Huntington Park with the Tortoise Fountain worth checking out, where you can sit, stretch your weary feet and relax.
Grace Cathedral

5) Grace Cathedral (must see)

Sitting atop the commanding height of Nob Hill, the Grace Cathedral is one of the biggest hunks of Neo-Gothic architecture in the U.S.

This church has been rebuilt at least three times since the Gold Rush. Its current Notre-Dame-inspired, reinforced-concrete structure took four decades to complete. The lengthy gestation period partly explains the certain hodge-podge aspects of the design. The faithful replicas of Ghiberti's famed bronze Florence Baptistery doors adorning the main entrance seem rather unexpected.

Inside, there are some clever effects with natural lighting, suggesting a traditional – and thus remarkably European – Gothic atmosphere (which gets particularly gorgeous on sunny evenings) with an uninterrupted view up to the high altar. As you go in, you will immediately encounter a second labyrinth (the first one is right near the entrance) whose patterns are capable of bringing wanderers to the state of meditation. Also of note are the works of Jan Henryk De Rosen, seen in the aisle, including an altarpiece in the Chapel of Grace and a mural in the Chapel of Nativity's Adoration.

Another welcome plus are the cute restrooms downstairs, a coffee bar, and a small souvenir shop. If you're looking for a peaceful respite in this otherwise "upscale desert" for tourists, enhanced with many works of art, this church is the place. Outside the Cathedral, there are arguably two most opulent and expensive hotels in San Francisco and a small park out front, affording an impressive panoramic view.

The temple is open Monday through Friday, from 7am to 6pm; Saturday, from 8am to 6pm; and Sunday, from 8am to 7pm.

If you choose to walk up the hill, getting here is a real climb, but the California Street Cable Car can always bring you up – no problem – should you wish to do so.
Cable Car Museum

6) Cable Car Museum (must see)

When it comes to public transportation in the City by the Bay, cable cars steal the show! Invented in the late 19th century, they were introduced on an experimental basis for the uneven and steep terrain of San Francisco. After nearly two centuries, these cars have not only proven vital for everyday commute, whirring through the streets from 6 am to 1 am, but also become its identity card.

It is, therefore, only natural to expect them to be celebrated with a designated museum. Such a place does exist and is more than just a museum but is also a showcase of the inner workings of San Francisco's cable car network. The hub of four main cable systems, all the existing cable lines are routed from this building, allowing visitors to view them from the top floor.

You can spend a good one hour in the museum, looking around the well-spaced exhibits accompanied with quite a bit of information. Another incentive to visit is the free admission!

They have a donation box for those who care to contribute. Cable cars are expensive to maintain, and supporting the museum financially, much as taking a ride in one of the cars can help keep the system running.

There is also a cute gift shop with souvenirs, plus a great café across the road, for afterward.

If you visit the museum on one of your first days, you will look at the cars in the street with more knowledge for the rest of your vacation.

The museum is open daily: from 10am to 6pm (April through September); and from 10am to 5pm (November through March).
Lombard Street

7) Lombard Street (must see)

As a tourist magnet, Lombard Street is recognized as the most crooked street in the world. It takes eight turns on a 24-degree slope to make one feel that it is also, indeed, one of the steepest.

Even though walking or cycling this one-way (downhill) street may instill a sense of immediate vertigo, which can be risky at times, the reason for Lombard's crooked form, surprisingly, is safety. Given the natural grading of the land, the zig-zag pattern reduces the effect of the slope's steepness, making it easier to play on. As far back as 1920, it was suggested that scenic switchbacks to be added to bring a certain appeal to the surroundings, and apparently, it worked.

Year after year, Lombard Street manages to get more than its share of visitors who marvel at its scenic beauty and strangeness. Although zig-zag patterns may be enough to visit, a lesser-known fact about this street is that it houses some of San Francisco's most magnificent mansions. One of them – the Montandon House – is also reputed for being haunted.

For many, if not all, guests of San Francisco, a visit to Lombard Street is a must, if only to check it off their bucket list!

Around 10 am is the best time to visit due to less crowd and sunshine. It is nice to start at the top and look down, then walk down and look up. Not only is it a lot easier, but if you carry on down the road, it will lead you to Coit Tower, another attraction in its own right, offering panoramic views over the city and the bay.
Ghirardelli Square

8) Ghirardelli Square

Once a chocolate factory and a wool mill, this is the most attractive of San Fran's refurbished industrial facilities. Looming above the Maritime National Historical Park with its mix of old red-brick buildings and modern stores and restaurants, this shopping center retains the famous Ghirardelli trademark clock tower and original electric roof sign.

The Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory on the plaza beneath the tower still houses vintage chocolate-making machinery and sells the confection. These days, you can find pretty much everything under the sun here (if you know where to look), from succulents to small souvenirs and mementos to coffee, cheese, and ice cream sundaes.

At the square, there is always some live music playing. Its centerpiece, Andrea's Fountain, is decorated with bronze sculptures of mermaids and turtles and is the most popular gathering point for shoppers, day and night, much as the top location for all Instagram-ers looking for a perfect backdrop.

The views at night, opening from the end of Van Ness Pier, are even better. You can frame the quaint square (with high rises looming up behind it), the Coit Tower on the left, and a quiet cove full of sailboats immediately in front. And the whole image is reflected in the water.

The chocolate shop gives out free samples every day, so stop in and give yourself a treat.
Pier 39

9) Pier 39 (must see)

Pier 39, the focal point of Fisherman's Wharf, may not have the same fishing fleet that it once had (back at the turn of the 20th century), but it compensates it with carnival-like amusements and a two-story carousel (which is not quite visible from the street but sits closer towards the pier's end). Revitalized in the 1970s to resemble a quaint wooden fishing village, this pier draws thousands of tourists every day.

It is really more like a big outdoor shopping mall packed to the rim with stores, restaurants, and various attractions, like a video arcade, street shows, the Aquarium of the Bay, and virtual 3D rides. On the plus side, the visitor center offers luggage storage and free phone-charging stations.

Famous for seafood, Pier 39 is home to 14 full-service restaurants boasting some of the freshest and most delicious offerings. At Fog Harbor Fish House, you can get more than just classic waterfront favorites, such as oysters and cioppino fish stew; all seafood on the menu is locally-sourced and sustainable. Also, check out the floating Forbes Island restaurant for some freshly-caught fruits of the sea.

The top reason to visit the pier is to see the sea lions, San Francisco's favorite mascot. These marine mammals made themselves comfortable on this coveted waterfront real estate in 1989 and have been tanning on its wooden boat slips ever since. A little bit stinky, perhaps, they look quite happy and add a great deal of popularity to the place.

From this pier, you can also see Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, and the Bay bridges. Tickets for boat and ferry rides to different locations in the area are also sold here.

Regardless of the season, it can get windy at times, so bringing along a jacket is always recommended.

Walking Tours in San Francisco, California

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