This post tells you how to make a San Francisco sightseeing driving tour. Driving in Central San Francisco is super easy if you can visit on Saturday or Sunday when there is less traffic. Parking may be a problem but we found good solutions for that.
We spent a sunny Saturday driving around Central San Francisco and reserved the Sunday for Golden Gate area attractions. Both days were just fantastic and San Francisco is even more amazing than we had thought. San Francisco offers a lot of things to do for fist time visitors from Europe like us.
So our San Francisco sightseeing trip was a driving tour, but you can use public transport on the same route as well.
San Francisco has good public transport. You just need to buy a day ticket at a kiosk (around USD 20) and after that you’re free to use buses, streetcars and San Francisco cable cars during a whole day.
San Francisco Sightseeing: the Driving Tour Itinerary
This is our San Francisco driving tour on a Google map. You can click on the map to open it up in Google maps.
We entered San Francisco from the freeway and took the downtown exit. After driving up and down the incredibly steep hills we left the car for hours in a parking garage at Beach Street and explored the Fisherman’s Wharf area by foot. This garage had good rates and a flat rate on Saturdays.
There are apps and websites with up to date information on available parking spaces and their rates and these handy tools helped us a lot. Here are some examples and you can find more on Google:
Downtown San Francisco
We started with San Francisco sightseeing in downtown San Francisco. After driving down from the freeway we were in a deep gorge, between high skyscrapers.
This is San Francisco Financial District that has grown and changed a great deal since the Gold Rush when the miners came here to weigh the gold they had found.
On weekdays the Financial District is vibrant but on weekends there’s – simply nobody. It’s easy to find parking and have a city walk in the deep canyons where the sun doesn’t reach. Look upwards, these earthquake protected buildings really are high!
Market Street is the main street that cuts through the Downtown from the Ferry Building to the Powell Street Cable Car Turntable.
This street is very different from the skyscraper streets around it. Market Street with all its historic buildings looks like an old European main street. It is a business and shopping street.
Powell Street Cable Car Turntable
Here you can take a cable car to Chinatown San Francisco, Nob Hill and all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. You can pay the conductor who also sells day passes.
This is the end stop where the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde cable car lines turn so just set yourself in the queue and wait for the next cable car to come.
At the opposite end of Market Street is the old Ferry Building. It was the city’s main entry point until the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge were built.
San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides so you can imagine how useful the bridges are.
You can still take a ferry from here, to Sausalito or Tiburon north of the bay, or to Oakland or Vallejo in the east.
There are also ferries to the historic Alcatraz island but they leave from another terminal further north.
Chinatown San Francisco
Chinatown is like a small piece of China on the slopes of San Francisco. Grant Avenue that begins at the “Dragons’ Gate” is the main street. You can find authentic Chinese restaurants on the side streets.
The Chinese gather for Chinese music and games in the park on Kearny Street. It must be just like they used to have it in China.
Take California Street up to Nob Hill. California Street is so steep that I was afraid when driving uphill on it. You need to stop all the time in the steep slope and then start driving again.
The cable car in front of you stops all the time and additionally there are stop signs at most street corners, like they normally have in the U.S.
Streets like this would never ever work in Europe where lots of cars have manual gears. But here in the U.S. almost every car is automatic which makes it possible to drive on streets like this.
We did manage to get all the way up California Street (and all other streets)! – And we got used to the San Francisco hills.
Nob Hill and Russian Hill
Nob Hill is the next San Francisco attraction. It is the highest summit of San Francisco city center. Wealthy citizens originally built their homes here after the cable car line was opened.
Later much of Nob Hill was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and the wealthy house owners moved West to Pacific Heights where they built their new homes.
Nob Hill was rebuilt and today the area is popular among upper class families and urban professionals. And why not? Nob Hill and the next hill, Russian Hill, both have splendid views to the city and to San Francisco bay.
Close to the summit of Russian Hill you can find this street that is said to be the crookedest street in the world.
The Americans insist on driving up and down the 44 hills of San Francisco, but one street proved out to be too steep for their cars. That’s why the steepest block of Lombard Street was made driveable by adding eight turns.
The section of Lombard Street in question is one-way (down) and there is a speed limit sign at the top (5 mph, 8km/hour).
The curves are too sharp for long vehicles like buses and motorhomes.
Lombard Street twists past flower beds and there are steps for pedestrias on both sides and always lots of tourists watching.
Driving down Lombard Street was great fun! I recommend!
How to get to Lombard Street if you’re not driving: take the Powell-Hyde cable car that stops at the top of the block and walk down the stairs.
From Lombard Street it’s a short way down to the North Shore and the Fisherman’s Wharf. Fisherman’s Wharf still today is a fishing harbor but today the area has a new main purpose. Fishing industry has given way to another, tourism industry.
Fisherman’s Wharf is known for its both cheap and expensive seafood restaurants, cafes, shops, museums and other attractions. Ferry cruises to the bay of San Francisco start here.
Most of the old harbor buildings have been rebuilt to restaurants and shopping malls. Not bad. And pretty flower beds in between.
For nature lovers the thing here is the Pier 39 with its Californian sea lions. The sea lions came here after the 1989 earthquake and have since increased in number.
To get to the end of the pier where the sea lions are you walk past the tourist zone with souvenir shops and carousels. This carousel below has two levels.
Pier 39 is always crowded and there is a good choice of restaurants if you need lunch. There is a lot to do.
But what about the sea lions …
Pier 39 Sea Lions
Here they are, basking on the docks. Lying in the sun side by side and diving for food now and then. 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. And the sun shines and the seals have their dear friends around :).
The number of Pier 39 sea lions varies during the year. The record number of seals here at the same time has been 1700!
Most San Francisco seals travel south in summer when their pups are born and return here in winter. Only a small group of sea lions stays here throughout the year.
California sea lions are noisy, they are barking and they smell. But they are really cute and they look so social and intelligent! You should definitely include Pier 39 in your San Francisco sightseeing trip.
And there is a webcam where Pier 39 sea lions are streamed live:
From the harbor it’s an easy drive to the next San Francisco sightseeing attraction. The residential area of Pacific Heights is on another hill that has great views to the city and the bay of San Francisco.
In Pacific Heights streets are lined with old Victorian homes. You can tell that this is an exclusive neighborhood.
To start exploring the neighborhood drive around Lafayette Park. There are pretty Victorians on all four sides of the park.
Then take Washington Street towards the nex park in the west, Alta Plaza. The streets here are so quiet and leafy and you couldn’t imagine that you’re in a huge metropolis.
After you’ve seen enough of Pacific Heights it’s time to head south to a totally different atmosphere. The next San Francisco sight is Haight Ashbury.
Haight Ashbury has received its name from the corner of the two major streets, Haight and Ashbury. Like Pacific Heights and Nob Hill Haight Ashbury has large Victorian houses but that’s the only similarity.
Haight Ashbury has a different history. It transformed in the 1960s 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 young California dreamers flocked here by the thousands.
About 100 000 thousand hippies from all over United States and abroad gathered in Haight and the nearby parks of Panhandle and Golden Gate. Many of their idols like Jimi Hendrix lived here and rock music was played and hippie arts produced all around.
After the movement faded the area has decayed but it still retains much of the old atmospere.
Today Haight Ashbury is a vibrant area with second-hand shops, cafes, bars and music shops. It still has an appeal and it’s well worth visiting on your San Francisco driving tour.
This is one of the places San Francisco has been so famous for, Haight Ashbury is the “real old” San Francisco fo many people. But today Haight Ashbury also is an area that has problems with crime and drugs. So you need to watch up here.
Not far away from Haight is the place that ends our San Francisco driving tour for today. The Alamo Square houses above make the famous postcard row, probably the most photographed spot in San Francisco. These houses called the “Painted Ladies” can be seen on San Francisco postcards.
You get the best view of the painted ladies from the Alamo Square Park in evening, at the time when evening sun shines on them from the west.
The Painted Ladies are not the only houses in the big city that look great, there are Victorian houses all over San Francisco. Totally 14 000 Victorians have been preserved in the city after all earthquakes and fires that have occurred in San Francisco.
These Victorian houses together with the steep slopes and bay views make San Francisco look what it is. First after we made our driving tour I learned San Francisco was like this!
Next Post: Golden Gate Area Sights
In the next post there will be more things to do in San Francisco and more San Francisco sightseeing. On our next San Francisco day we are going to explore a must see attraction: the Golden Gate area sights.