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Top Five San Francisco Sights

Think you know the best spots in the city by the bay? Our intrepid staffer might surprise you with his picks—and his reasons for choosing them.

Cable car in San Francisco, image
Photo caption
San Francisco's famous cable cars still enchant both commuters and tourists.


5. Cable Cars

Yes, the cars can be jammed and the waits long. But I promise it’s worth it. A $5 fare takes you up and over hills and past architectural wonders—Chinatown, Grace Cathedral, Lombard Street—that still make my heart leap. The Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines run past the Cable Car Museum, worth a stop to peer at the giant wheels, called sheaves, that power the cables that pull the cars that haul you up those mighty slopes. 

4. Ferry Building

A temple to food, it’s been called, and that’s not spin. Look down Market Street at any point along its three-mile run up to the Castro. You’ll see a 245-foot clock tower at the bay’s edge beckoning to lovers of all things gourmet—cheddar, chocolates, chiles, chicory, chicharrones, chardonnay, and on through the entire alphabet of local and seasonal edibles. Everything is packed into a few dozen nooks in an airy concourse—well, not everything. There’s a happening farmers’ market outdoors three times a week. Tastes are offered; resistance is pointless.

3. Coit Tower

Don’t drive there—walk. Then rest near the 210-foot tower and eavesdrop on visitors gushing “Wow!” in a dozen languages. To the east stretches the Bay Bridge and woodsy Yerba Buena Island and, beyond, rise the equine freight cranes of Oakland’s port. Northward are sailboats bucking the tide, the foreboding prison blocks of Alcatraz, flocks of feral parrots, and the ruffled plain of the bay framing the hills of Marin and Sonoma. Off west lies the city’s undulating grid, the misty gap of the Golden Gate, and the world’s most enchanting bridge clad in outshine-the-sunset orange. Bring binoculars.

2. Golden Gate Park

This 1,000-acre oasis isn’t one great sight, it’s an encyclopedia of them. I’ve happily paid to dawdle in the Conservatory of Flowers, a 130-year-old glass palace filled with orchids, bromeliads, and ferns. Likewise, the revamped California Academy of Sciences, home to the Steinhart Aquarium and its menagerie of fishes, snakes, penguins, and alligators. All around: woods and lawns, lakes, waterfalls, a botanical garden, sports fields, a carousel, and a stretch of ocean beach. Oh, and the de Young Museum, a copper-sheathed habitat for 1,800 works of art, crowned by a 144-foot viewing tower.

1. Crissy Field

Know how chocolate always appeals? Crissy Field gets me every time. There’s a big bayside beach, a wide path for walkers and cyclists, a bird-filled tidal marsh, a lawn for kite flying and Frisbee flinging, a cheery hot dog stand, a fishing pier, a snug warming hut with crafty baristas and honest souvenirs, and killer views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, and Alcatraz. Icing on the cake: It’s an easy walk to Fort Point, the Civil War–era fortress planted right where San Francisco Bay hits the Pacific Ocean. In a word: awesome.

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This article was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.