Culture

9 Things All First-Timers Should Do In San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond.

San Francisco has been the muse of countless artists, musicians and filmmakers, and for good reason: it’s beautiful in a way that really fills your heart.

When you’re visiting the bayside city for the first time, there’s at least one experience you won’t need to worry about missing. You will get lost – or attempt to “take a shortcut” – and find yourself walking up a hill that’s so steep your heart threatens to jump out of your chest. So once you get that out of the way, here are nine other must-dos in this iconic city.

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Cycle to Sausalito over the Golden Gate Bridge

It almost goes without saying: the crimson bridge is an essential part of any San Francisco visit. But, rather than walking across, grab a rental bike from Fishermans Wharf and witness it from all angles.

The ride takes a beautiful, easy-to-follow path along the shoreline, with only a couple of steep hills to power up – well worth it for the views across the bay when you reach at the top.

Once you’re on the bridge itself, pause and drink in the spectacular skyline, then enjoy a freaky-fast trip down the hill toward picturesque Sausalito. Get a well-earned pizza and beer by the water before taking the ferry back to the wharf.

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Eat lunch with sea lions at Pier 39

Pier 39 has to be seen to be believed. I’m not talking about the ambience – San Fran’s waterfront is gorgeous, albeit a tourist trap – but rather, the inhabitants. Since 1989, California sea lions have chosen Pier 39 as their favourite place to hang, and they gather here in their hundreds. No-one is sure why or how this phenomenon started, but the animals have certainly laid their claim.

Grab some fish and chips and sit by the pier for a hilarious lunchtime show, as these enormous creatures wallow happily in the sun, constantly pushing each other off to claim the best spot.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Get a burrito in The Mission

As the name suggests, this neighbourhood is built around a mission: the oldest surviving building in San Francisco, Mission Dolores. It’s also the home of the “mission burrito”, a meal so good it’s practically sacred.

There’s a plethora of mouth-watering taquerias to choose from, but if “America’s best burrito” is on your bucket list, the carnitas burrito at La Taqueria is where it’s at. When you’re satiated, take a digestive stroll through The Mission and explore the colourful murals and mosaic mini-parks that brighten the district.

Photo: T.Tseng / Flickr

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Take the ferry to Alcatraz

It’s impossible not to be intrigued by Alcatraz. This strange little island was the site of America’s most famous prison – and, incidentally, some of the world’s best escape stories. Tours here are really popular, and for good reason. The ferry over is beautiful, and drives home the reality of what being imprisoned here would be like – knowing that people were living their lives in the city just across the water.

There’s another side to the island’s history, too: It was the site of a major Native American occupation that brought about real change for indigenous people in the 1960s. If you want something a bit different, do a night tour – just make sure you book in advance.

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Visit City Lights bookstore

A must-do if you’re interested in American literature, poetry and the Beat Generation, City Lights was co-founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl And Other Poems a few years later – before being tried on obscenity charges. Next to the bookstore is Jack Kerouac Alley, which boasts a colourful Zapatista mural and quotes from the likes of Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck engraved on plaques.

If you’re keen for more, the Beat Museum just around the corner has loads of interesting stories, memorabilia and first editions by Bukowski, Burroughs and more. It’s worth checking out the bookshop and second hand records even if you don’t do the tour.

Photo: Graham C99 / Flickr

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Picnic with a view on Mount Davidson

If you want a great panoramic view of the city, avoid the crowds at Twin Peaks and opt for nearby Mount Davidson. The highest natural point in San Francisco, it’s a short hike to the top – 15 to 45 minutes, depending on which path you take. Pack a picnic to enjoy while you take in one of America’s most beloved skylines.

Mount Davidson also has some important history: the 31m cross on top of the mountain serves as a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. If you visit in April, you’ll see it glowing over the city as it’s lit up for Easter and Armenian Genocide Memorial Day (April 24).

Photo: Daniel Ramirez / Flickr

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Take in some tunes at the Great American Music Hall

SF has some excellent music venues, but if you can only get to one, make it the Great American Music Hall. The city’s oldest music club, it’s straight-up 1920s decadence with elaborate frescoes, huge marble columns and fancy balconies on the second level. Everyone from Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan to the Grateful Dead, Arcade Fire, Patti Smith and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have played here.

Formerly a jazz club, it’s now run by the same crew as Slim’s – a legendary R&B club first opened by Boz Scaggs in the late ‘80s.

Photo: GAMH

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Have a night out in Oakland

If you’re looking for unique and fun bars, get yourself over the Bay Bridge and spend at least one night in Oakland.

For bar games, head uptown to Make Westing – they have a couple of indoor bocce lanes as well as killer cocktails and an outdoor patio. Analog is a cute little bar dedicated to all things vintage, with a huge collection of vinyl and VHS, a jukebox full of 45s and a Nintendo NES. If you’re a beer connoisseur, check out The Trappist – a beer café set in an awesome 1870s building with 25 rotating taps.

And for a fabulous bit of history, let loose in the oldest operating gay and lesbian bar in the United States, The White Horse.

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Take a day trip to Yosemite

If you have a day or two to spare, visiting Yosemite National Park is something you’ll never forget. The national park is approximately 3.5 hours drive from the city, so it’s doable in a day if you’re committed (although you could easily spend a week there).

The sheer enormity of everything in the park is indescribable. Climb up boulders that are ten times your size to play at the base of the pounding Yosemite Falls. Stare at the insanely pristine reflection of mountains and sky in Mirror Lake. As you leave, catch the long sunset over the entire valley from Tunnel View. It’s pure magic.