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

Iconic bridges, splendid hotels, and steep streets that slowly slope down to the waterfront. Vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, each contributing a unique flavor to the city. Major museums, amazing architecture, shopping and dining, barking sea lions, and teeth-rattling cable cars. Whatever your dream trip to San Francisco includes, this self-guided walk is the perfect companion. Don't be afraid to brave the city on foot, as it can lead to hidden stairways that often turn up striking murals, pocket parks, and stunning views.
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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: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.7 Km or 2.9 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
  • Anchorage Square
  • Pier 39
  • Aquarium of the Bay
Union Square

1) Union Square (must see)

You can visit all the city's landmarks and tourist attractions if you want, but nothing represents the heart of San Francisco better than the iconic Union Square, which has appeared in film and television scores of times over the years. So many layers of history, cuisine, commerce, and culture in one spot! One could teach a master-class on the goings on at Union Square through the decades – from the pro-US (hence "Union") rallies during the Civil War to the red-light district on (ironically) Maiden Lane, the Dewey Monument and Alma Spreckels, the St. Francis hotel and its famous guests, the bullet hole from an assassination attempt, the 1960s protesters, the Theater District, the Powell cable car line, the Flood Building and the Woolworth's counter, the rooftop amusement park, the concerts, the window displays, and key appearances in famous movies. This place is quintessential big city San Francisco, in the way that Times Square is for NYC.

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. Best cheap eats? Sear's Fine Food or the Pinecrest Diner. Mid-range? Cheesecake Factory has a spectacular view of the square, and the Rotunda at Neiman Marcus is unforgettable. If you want to go posh there are too many choices, but Scala's Bistro at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel is great; also The Oak Room if you have the means.

Finally, no tour of Union Square can be complete without visiting the venerable Hotel St. Francis, where kings, presidents, movie stars, and historical figures from every field have stayed. In the 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 decor, with a giant chocolate castle diorama to salivate over. It feels like stepping into a bygone era of luxury and superb service.

Why You Should Visit:
This historic square makes a logical starting point for wandering San Francisco. From the range of services available to the square itself, the range of stores, restaurants, theaters, and also the famous cable cars – it's at the heart of it all...

The Powell/Hyde cable car (which starts and ends here) is said to have the best views of any of the cable car routes. Expect a line but it can move quickly.
Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)

2) Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)

Facing south, as per the precepts of Feng Shui, this large dragon-clad arch, opened in 1970, is a popular – and somewhat dramatic – way to approach Chinatown. Taiwan gifted the materials used, but the design came by way of Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee and was inspired by the ceremonial entrances of traditional Chinese villages. Such gateways are often commissioned by wealthy clans who wish to enhance their status, with the benefactors' names usually inscribed on the gates. Here, the central portal's four-character inscription reads, "tiānxià wèi gōng", or "All under heaven is for the good of the people".

Among other features of the gate are the two large Chinese guardian lions (or lion dogs) that guard the pedestrian entrances. One is male (west entrance) and the other is female (east entrance). In general, you can always tell which guardian lion is female because she holds a lion cub underneath her paw; the male just has a ball. The gate and 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 special modern look. It worked: dragon streetlights chased away the red-light-heyday shady ladies and now light the way to elegant shops where you can buy antiques, silks, teas, and gems.
Sing Chong Building

3) Sing Chong Building

After the devastating 1906 earthquake, San Francisco's City Hall smelled an 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 – a bid to increase its appeal as a tourist destination and cultural stronghold.

The results of this design strategy were the pagoda-topped buildings of the Sing Chong and Sing Fat bazaars, which were one of the first of the "new Chinatown" to open, and have become landmark icons since. Inspired by Sing Chong's standout look, many other buildings on the street started featuring similar architectural treatments. For instance, the Bank of America building at 701 Grant, originally the Nanking Fook Wo Inc., featured traditional dragon motifs.
Nob Hill

4) Nob Hill

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

One of the prime reasons why the Nob Hill attracts affluent classes is its centralized position in the city. It once has been home to some of the most prominent names in America like Leyland Stanford, Collins Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker and, if lucky, one can get a glimpse of their grand mansions poised with majestic galore atop the Nob. After the 1906 earthquake and fire most some of the former mansions were revamped into luxury hotels, the most expensive of which (Fairmont, Hopkins, Stanford Court, or Huntington) actually stand on the site of ruins of the 1906 disaster.

Drive, walk (seriously uphill) or take a cable car up and wander the neighborhood. Enjoy the architecture, stroll through the lobby of Hotel Fairmont (with its gallery of historic photos), have a drink and enjoy the scenics at the Top of the Mark in the Mark Hopkins Hotel, have lunch/dinner at one of several great restaurants, and enjoy a peaceful interlude in the beautiful Grace Cathedral. There's also the pleasant Huntington Park with the Tortoise Fountain, where you can sit and relax.
Grace Cathedral

5) Grace Cathedral (must see)

Sitting on a commanding site at the top of Nob Hill, the Grace Cathedral is one of the biggest hunks of Neo-Gothic architecture in the U.S.; if you are walking, it is a real climb but the California Street Cable Car takes you right there.

This church has been rebuilt no less than three times since the Gold Rush, with the current Notre-Dame-inspired, reinforced-concrete structure having taken four decades to complete. The lengthy gestation period partly explains certain hodge-podge aspects of the design – look no further than the faithful replicas of Ghiberti's famed bronze Florence Baptistery doors adorning the main entrance, which seem rather unexpected. The site is surrounded by arguably the two most opulent and expensive hotels in San Francisco, and the small park out front affords an impressive panoramic view.

Inside there are some clever effects with natural lighting suggesting a traditional – and thus remarkably European – Gothic atmosphere (sunny evenings are gorgeous) with an uninterrupted view up to the high altar. As you go in, you will immediately encounter a second labyrinth (the first being found right near the entrance) whose patterns are capable of bringing wanderers to a meditative state. The Cathedral is also visited for Jan Henryk De Rosen's famous work, which is visible in the aisle, as an altarpiece in the Chapel of Grace, and as a mural in the Chapel of Nativity's Adoration.

Why You Should Visit:
To find a peaceful respite from the world outside, enhanced by many beautiful works of art. Downstairs, you may find restrooms, a coffee bar and a small souvenir shop – a welcome plus in this otherwise "upscale desert" for tourists.

Check the website for free or donation-based events on the indoor & outdoor labyrinths, including candlelit meditation services and yoga, plus inclusive weekly spiritual events, such as Thursday Evensong.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 7am–6pm; Sat: 8am–6pm; Sun: 8am–7pm
Cable Car Museum

6) Cable Car Museum (must see)

With the City by the Bay being all about cable cars, it is only natural to think that they'd be celebrated with a museum – the hub of four main cable line systems that whir through the streets from 6am to 1am. Invented in the late 19th century, they were introduced on an experimental basis for the uneven and steep terrain of San Francisco. After two centuries, the cable car has not only proven vital for everyday life, but have also become an identity of the city and its inhabitants.

All the cables of the existing cars are routed from this building and visitors can view them from the top floor. One can spend an hour or so here looking around as the exhibits are well-spaced out and there is quite a bit of information to absorb. Not only is there so much history to see and learn, but admission is free! They have a donation box, but if one would like, there is also a cute gift shop with souvenirs and antique models for purchase. Cable cars are, to be sure, rather expensive to maintain and visiting this place and/or taking a ride on one of them can help keep the system running.

Why You Should Visit:
More than just a museum, but also the inner workings of San Francisco's entire cable car network. A fun stop, and free!

Try to visit on one of your first days so you can look at the cars in the street with more knowledge for the rest of your vacation. Great café across the road, too, for afterwards.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–6pm (Apr–Sept); 10am–5pm (Nov–Mar)
Lombard Street

7) Lombard Street (must see)

A tourist magnet, Lombard St is reckoned to be one of the most crooked streets in the world, which is not far from actuality. In any case, the 8 turns on a 4-degree slope do make one feel that it is, indeed, the steepest. Year after year, the one-way (downhill) street manages to get more than its share of visitors who marvel at its scenic beauty and strangeness.

Even though walking or cycling down Lombard may instill a sense of immediate vertigo/disorientation, which may be risky at times, the reason for its 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 ply on. As far back as 1920, it was suggested for the scenic switchbacks to be added in order to bring to a certain appeal to the surroundings – and that seems to have worked, too.

Although the zig-zag patterns may be reason enough to visit, a lesser known fact about the street is that it houses some of SF's most magnificent mansions, one of which – the Montandon House – has also earned a reputation for being haunted.

Why You Should Visit:
To check it off the bucket list!

Around 10am is the best time to visit due to less crowd and sunshine. It's 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 leads to Coit Tower.
Anchorage Square

8) Anchorage Square

Located in the heart of Fisherman's Wharf, Anchorage Square has something to offer everyone: families, kids, singles, and seniors alike. The place is quite massive with multiple floor levels and a great collection of entertainment, recreation, shopping and dining options. If you find the upscale stores too expensive, just walk around and people watch, or check out the large variety of seafood, Chinese, Mexican, and crepes. Worth a visit if you're on the Wharf and looking for a bite to eat!

The chowder hut in the center serves a nice burger at a nice price; just watch out for the birds – they will steal it!
Pier 39

9) Pier 39 (must see)

Pier 39, the focal point of Fisherman's Wharf, may not have the same fishing fleet it once had at the turn of the 20th century, but compensates with a two-story carousel, carnival-like attractions, and many shops and restaurants. Revitalized in the 1970s to resemble a quaint wooden fishing village, the pier draws thousands of tourists daily, but it's really more like a big outdoor shopping mall. On the plus side, its visitor center stores luggage and has free phone-charging stations.

One can spend all day here being outside and enjoying the waterfront view. By far the best reason to walk the pier is to spot the numerous sea lions – San Francisco's favorite mascots – who took over this coveted waterfront real estate in 1989 and have been tanning on its wooden boat slips ever since. A little stinky, but they all look so happy.

Why You Should Visit:
From the pier one can see Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge.
Ticket windows for boat/ferry rides to different attractions in the area are also located here.

Can get windy so always bring a jacket.
Aquarium of the Bay

10) Aquarium of the Bay (must see)

Spread across 9,000 sq ft, the Aquarium of the Bay is an insightful, fun visit for people of all ages; a place like no other in the world, where you get to touch, feel and see the world that exists under water, experiencing what it takes to be a deep sea diver – without actually getting wet.

The aquarium boasts of a collection of over 50 different species of sharks, as well as a wide variety of marine wildlife like skates, bat rays and thousands of other animals including eels, flatfish, rockfish, wrasse, gobies, kelpfish, pricklebacks, sculpin and sturgeons. A river otter exhibit opened in 2013, with snow placed in the otter enclosure periodically during the winter, in what are called "Otter Snow Days."

The top attraction, however, is the underwater exhibit, which allows guests spectacular close-ups as they pass through clear tunnels within large tanks, each filled with fish, sharks, crustaceans, and other marine life. Another point that elevates the experience to the memorable is the presence of touch pools upstairs, where kids and adults can feed and touch the slimy, squishy creatures. If you haven't seen them in the wild, seeing them up close will be quite fun!

Why You Should Visit:
Cool little aquarium with a pleasing emphasis on the environment and sustainability.
Huge underwater tunnels with a large variety of fish to see!

Pay the extra to do the behind the scenes tour (available only on certain days) where you literally walk above the tanks and all the people inside the aquarium.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–6pm

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