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Top five things to see in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco
By Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines

A Northern Californian city, San Francisco promises visitors a unique city experience. From riding the cable cars to walking over the Golden Gate Bridge and taking in views from the bay. You’re sure to have a great time exploring metropolitan America in the sunshine.

So if you’re visiting as a family, as a couple or are looking for alternative San Francisco activities, this guide will help.

What is San Francisco known for?

Painted ladies and San Francisco skyline

San Francisco is an iconic East Coast city that’s well-known for its cool, sunny atmosphere. A highlight of the Californian coastline, it encapsulates the best of the state. Sunshine, unique architecture and a relaxed approach to life are just some of the hallmarks. 

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, mysterious Alcatraz Island and the bay’s skyline are some of the sights San Francisco is most well-known for. Its proud LGBTQIA+ community, strong Mexican influence and close proximity to Silicon Valley are all key parts of the city’s culture.

Must-do tourist activities

There are some San Francisco attractions you can’t not do when you visit. Embrace your role as a tourist and make sure these sightseeing destinations are on your to-do list.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

No trip to San Francisco would be complete without the 1.7-mile hike or bicycle ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s quite possibly the city’s most famous and breathtaking landmark. Pedestrians can take in the impressive skyline and the bay islands from the bridge’s Eastern side walkway. Look west for views of the Marin Headlands’ wild hills and the glittering Pacific Ocean or explore the nearby Golden Gate Park.


Pier 39 resident Seals, San Francisco

PIER 39 is a bustling waterfront marketplace and one of the city’s most popular attractions. Amid the carnival of shops, eateries and attractions is a large colony of Californian sea lions. Stroll down to the end of K-dock to watch these playful, barking pinnipeds relaxing in the sun. Plus, you can enjoy iconic San Francisco sights from both sides of the pier.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, USA

Regarded as America’s most notorious prison, Alcatraz Island is a must-see for all travellers to the city. Known around the bay area simply as ‘The Rock’, this former prison contained some of the nation’s most infamous criminals. 

Cell-house tours are available, allowing visitors to learn about the prison as they explore the buildings and grounds. It’s a popular destination, and one that Fred. Olsen offers tours to, so be sure to book your place.

Unique things to do

You’ll spot lots of quirky sights and people just wandering around San Francisco’s streets. Put these on the list if you enjoy doing something a bit different.

Climb the 16th Avenue Steps

If you want to combine viewing art with a workout, then head to 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. This public mosaic has 163 steps decorated by neighbourhood artists. Opened in 2005, volunteers look after the surrounding gardens, making this one of the best free things to do in San Francisco.

Visit the Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

The iconic Palace of Fine Arts has featured in numerous television shows and films through the years. It has become a San Franciscan treasure, beloved by visitors and residents alike. The Greek-style colonnades and soaring central rotunda make for gorgeous views. These are accented by the sight of swans gliding across the peaceful lagoon.

Ghirardelli Square

Add a touch of Californian glamour to your night with a visit to Ghirardelli Square. A historic bayside building that’s lit up like the Hollywood sign, it’s also home to many local food and drink vendors. This includes the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate. Here, you can explore their Chocolate Experience or enjoy a delicious dessert as you soak up the sunshine. 

City Lights Bookstore

First opened by a poet in 1953, City Lights Bookstore has been hosting the city’s creatives ever since. The perfect place to pick up a second-hand copy of your favourite story or to explore the shelves for something new.

California Academy of Sciences

An aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and Natural History Museum all under one roof. There’s plenty to explore at the California Academy of Sciences. The perfect place to feed your imagination, they can also learn plenty about science and sustainability here. With lots of events and exhibitions, it’s a great place to spend a rainy day with the family.

San Francisco Zoo

Leopard in San Francisco Zoo

Bears, lions, birds and reptiles, you won’t be short of unusual and amazing animals to spot at San Francisco Zoo. Explore the zoo and gardens yourself or book an on-foot or cycling tour to find out more about the attraction’s history and conservation work. Mini train rides, carousels and playgrounds are also there if your little ones want to run off some steam. 

Cable Cars

Cable car, San Francisco

One of the most thrilling ways to explore the streets of San Francisco is via the city’s iconic cable car system. Be sure to flag down a Powell-Hyde car along Powell Street and hold on as you rattle up mansion-topped Nob Hill. Then enjoy the descent to Fisherman’s Wharf as you take in the fantastic sights of the stunning San Francisco Bay below.

Taste the city

China Town, San Francisco

With influences from across all global cuisines, San Francisco is a great destination for any foodie. Pick up a pizza in Little Italy around North Beach. Tuck into a chow mein in the oldest Chinatown in North America. Or explore the dozens of Latin eateries in the Mission District. You won’t be short of delicious things to eat in this city!

Visit San Francisco

Glimpse your first sight of San Francisco from the sea when you visit with Fred. Olsen Cruises. It’s a destination on some of our cruises to the United States of America and Canada and on our Around the World trip. So when you travel on our ships, you can enjoy all that San Francisco has to offer before exploring further along the North American coastline.

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