This post will show you a San Francisco sightseeing itinerary by car. As distances are long in San Francisco, driving is by far the best way to explore the large city.
Without worries, driving in Central San Francisco is super easy, yet try to visit on a Saturday or Sunday when there is much less traffic. However, parking in San Francisco may cause some problems, but we found good solutions for that which I will share.
We spent a sunny Saturday driving around Central San Francisco and on Sunday we explored the Golden Gate area. Both were fantastic sightseeing days and the natural beauty of the hilly city surprised us. There was a lot more to see than we had thought, coming from Europe and being fist time visitors.
So we did all our sightseeing by car, but you can use public transport if you prefer and get to the same places. But to do that you will have to examine San Francisco bus and cable car maps a little bit.
San Francisco has well developed public transport and many connections. You just need to buy a day ticket at a kiosk (something like USD 20) and having that you are free to use buses, streetcars and San Francisco cable cars for a day.
But now about our trip.
Driving Itinerary: San Francisco Sightseeing
San Francisco by car: driving itinerary on the map
Here you can see our San Francisco driving itinerary marked on a Google map. You can zoom in and out the map and use it as your guidance when driving.
We entered San Francisco from the freeway from the downtown exit. After driving a long while up and down the incredibly steep hills (yes, they are steep) we left the car for a few hours in a parking garage (the location was at Beach Street) and explored the Fisherman’s Wharf area by foot. Beach Street garages had very reasonable rates and they had flat rates for the whole day on Saturdays.
There are apps and websites with up to date information on parking spaces and rates. These handy tools helped us find where to park. Below are links to some of them that might be helpful to you, and you can look for more on Google.
Downtown San Francisco
So we started with downtown San Francisco. After driving down from the freeway we dived into a deep gorge with glass skyscrapers on both sides.
San Francisco Financial District
This is San Francisco Financial District that has grown and changed a lot since the Gold Rush when the city already existed. At that time the business people were miners that came to weigh their gold.
On weekdays the Financial District is hectic but on weekends there’s – simply nobody. It’s easy to find parking space and have an urban walk in the deep canyons where the sun doesn’t even reach. Look upwards, aren’t these earthquake protected buildings high!
Market Street is the main street that cuts through downtown San Francisco, running from the Ferry Building to the Powell Street Cable Car Turntable.
This street is very different from the canyons around it. Market Street has mainly low historic buildings and rather looks like a traditional European high street. And San Francisco Market Street is one of the main shopping streets of the city.
Powell Street Cable Car Turntable
From the Powell Street cable car end stop you can travel by cable car to Chinatown San Francisco, Nob Hill and all the way to the other side and almost to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you want to travel, simply pay the conductor. Cable car conductors also sell day passes.
This is the end stop where two cable car lines, the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines turn back, so just set yourself in the queue and wait for the next cable car to come.
San Francisco Ferry Building
At the other end of Market Street is the old Ferry Building. This was the main entry point to the city until two bridges, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, were built.
San Francisco has water on three sides so you can imagine how useful the bridges were, and still are.
Despite the bridges there’s still ferry traffic. You can take a ferry to Sausalito and Tiburon north of the bay, or to Oakland and Vallejo in the east.
There are also ferries to the historic Alcatraz Island, leaving from another terminal further north.
Chinatown San Francisco
Chinatown is like a piece of China on the steep sunny San Francisco slopes. This is Grant Avenue, the Chinatown’s main street. The busy street begins at the “Dragons’ Gate” and you will find a huge concentration of Chinese restaurants on the main street and even more on its side streets.
The Chinese community of San Francisco gathers for Chinese music and games in a park on the nearby Kearny Street. Looking at them you could imagine being in China. Fantastic how people keep their traditions!
From Chinatown we headed up to Nob Hill along California Street. California Street is so steep that I almost refused to sit in the car thinking driving is too dangerous as we had to stop all the time in the steep slope and then start uphill again.
The cable car in front of us kept stopping all the time to let people in and out and addition there were the stop signs at each street corner like they always have in the U.S.
Streets like this would never work in Europe where most cars still have manual gears. With an automatic car it’s easier…
However, in some way we did manage to get up California Street (and all other streets)! – And very soon we got used to driving up and down San Francisco hills.
Nob Hill and Russian Hill
Nob Hill is our next San Francisco destination. It is the highest summit of San Francisco city center. Nob Hill looks like a wealthy area. That’s because wealthier families built their houses up here when the cable car line made it easier to get to the hill.
Later the 1906 earthquake took much of Nob Hill after which the wealthy house owners moved west to Pacific Heights and built their new homes there.
However, Nob Hill was rebuilt and today it’s a place where upper class families and urban professionals like to live. And why not? Nob Hill and the next hill, Russian Hill, have splendid views to the city and to the bay area.
Drive to the summit of Russian Hill and you will find a street that they say is the crookedest street in the world.
San Francisco Sighseeing: Lombard Street
Even when the Americans insisted on driving up and down the 44 San Francisco hills, one street, Lombard Street, was too steep for theim. So they added eight turns to make it drivable.
The curved section of Lombard Street a one-way street (only down) and there is a strict speed limit (5 mph, 8km/hour).
The curves enable driving down Lombard Street but the turns are too sharp for longer cars and buses.
Lombard Street twists down past green bushes and flower beds. If you’re not driving there are steps for walkers on both sides.
Driving down Lombard Street was so fun that we had to do it twice. Recommend!
How to get to Lombard Street if you’re not driving: take the Powell-Hyde cable car. It stops at the top of the curved block and you can walk down the stairs and see the cars.
From Lombard Street it’s a short drive down to the San Francisco North Shore and the area of Fisherman’s Wharf. Fisherman’s Wharf was and still is a fishing harbor has today a new main focus as fishing industry has given way to the growing tourism industry.
Fisherman’s Wharf is known for its seafood restaurants (they exist in all price classes), cafes, shops, museums and other typical tourist attractions. Ferry cruises to the bay also start here.
So most old harbor buildings have been transformed to restaurants and shopping malls. Not bad, both tourists and locals like this. And I like the pretty flower beds in between.
Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 39
Yet what nature lovers come here is for the pier number 39 that has colonies of Californian sea lions. These sea lions settled here after the 1989 earthquake when they had to escape from somewhere else and they have since increased in number.
To get to the end of the pier where the sea lions are you will need to walk all the way through past the tourist zone and all souvenir shops and carousels. By the way, the carousel below has two levels:
Pier 39 is always packed with people and there is a good selection of restaurants where to have lunch.
But then the main thing, the sea lions:
San Francisco Pier 39 Sea Lions
Here they are, San Francisco’s famous sea lions, basking on the docks. Lying in the sun side by side, now ant then diving into the waters for food. The place at the end of Pier 39 is perfect for them, there is a lot of food in the water and the bay is sheltered from winds and big waves. And the sun shines and the seals have their dear friends and neighbors around them :).
The number of Pier 39 sea lions varies along the year. The record number of seals present at the same time is 1700!
Most San Francisco seals travel south in summer to give birth to their pups and to afterwards return here for winter. This means only a small number of sea lions stay here throughout the year.
California sea lions are noisy, they bark and they smell. Despite that they look really cute as they are so social and intelligent. You definitely have to include Pier 39 in your San Francisco sightseeing day.
Through this webcam you can watch Pier 39 sea lions live:
Then, back to the hills and to Pacific Heights:
From the harbor it’s an easy drive to our next San Francisco destination. The residential area of Pacific Heights is on another hill that has great views to the city and the blue bay of San Francisco.
Pacific Heights is a surprising area: all streets are lined with old-style Victorian homes. Easy to tell that this is an exclusive neighborhood.
To start exploring the neighborhood you could first drive around Lafayette Park that has pretty Victorians on all four sides.
Then take Washington Street towards the next park in the west, Alta Plaza. The streets here are so quiet and leafy that you couldn’t imagine being in a huge metropolis.
After you’ve seen enough of Pacific Heights it’s time to turn a bit south to see a totally different neighborhood. Our next San Francisco sight: the hippie suburb Haight Ashbury.
Haight Ashbury got its name from the corner of its two major streets, Haight and Ashbury. Like Pacific Heights and Nob Hill Haight Ashbury consists of large Victorian houses but that’s the only similarity.
Haight Ashbury has a different history. In the 1960’s the neighborhood suddenly transformed from a middle-class residential area to the hotspot of the Flower Power generation. The heyday of the Haight was the 1967 Summer of Love when thousands or young California dreamers flocked here and filled the quarters.
Then finally about 100 000 hippies from all over the United States and abroad gathered in Haight and the nearby parks of Panhandle and Golden Gate. Many of their idols like Jimi Hendrix were living here at that time and there was rock music and hippie art all around.
After the movement faded the area has decayed a lot but Haight Ashbury still retains much of its hippie atmospere.
Today Haight Ashbury is a vibrant area with second-hand shops, cafes, bars and music shops. It still has an appeal and is well worth visiting if you are exploring San Francisco by car.
Haight Ashbury is one of the places San Francisco was world famous for and the “real old” San Francisco for thousands of people. Yet today Haight Ashbury is also an area with severe crime and drug problems. So you need to watch up when walking here.
Not far away from Haight Ashbury comes the place that will end our San Francisco sightseeing tour for today. Alamo Square has nice sets of Victorian houses, one of which is the famous postcard row that probably is the most photographed spot in San Francisco. These houses called the “Painted Ladies” are on many San Francisco postcards.
To get the best views of the painted ladies come here in the evening and look at them from the Alamo Square Park. In the evening the sun shines on the painted ladies from the west and makes them shine.
Yet the Painted Ladies are not the only houses like that in the big city, there are Victorian houses all over San Francisco. Totally 14 000 Victorians have been saved in the city after all earthquakes and fires that have occurred during years.
These Victorian houses together with the bay views from the steep slopes of the 44 hills of San Francisco make San Francisco what it is. How many people really know that San Francisco is like this?
Next Post: Golden Gate Area Sights
In my next post I will show you more things to see in San Francisco. We will go and explore the Golden Gate Bridge and other Golden Gate area sights.
More on California Travel
My other California posts might also interest you:
Explore San Francisco:
San Francisco day trips:
- Napa Valley Day Trip from San Francisco
- Exploring the Historic Sonoma
- Day Trip to Muir Woods Redwood Forest
- Coastal Drive from San Francisco to Monterey
My all posts on California can be found on the California category page.