How to resist the charms of San Francisco, with its hills, its famous sloping streets and its mosaic of populations? The mythical Californian metropolis, nestled in the hollow of a magnificent bay, has always been a Mecca of counter-culture and innovation. No longer really hippie, but downright high tech, San Francisco continues to attract all those, who love freedom, who answer the call of "Go West!" ". A breathtaking city of beauty and dynamism, undoubtedly one of the hot spots on the planet, which we invite you to discover through our favorites, from the buildings of Union Square to the majestic Golden Gate, passing by the gay district of Castro and the bobo fiefdom of Haight-Ashbury…
Please note, due to the health crisis, some sites and addresses may be closed at present.
Walk through Union Square and the Financial District
It is the nerve center of San Francisco, an essential place to take the pulse of the Californian metropolis. The heart of the city (Downtown), where the skyscrapers ofUnion Square have taken up residence. There are many luxury hotels (like the Westin St. Francis Hotel), department stores (Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co…) and theaters (ACT's Geary Theater, Curran, Marines Memorial Theater). The cable car, the typical San Francisco streetcar pulled by an underground cable, goes up and down Powell street, teeming with life.
The large esplanade is a strategic meeting place. It dates from 1901, but owes its name to the unionist demonstrations that took place there during the Civil War (1861-1865). In its center, a large column pays homage to the American victory in Manila, during the Spanish-American War (1898). The palm trees, which happily coexist with the concrete, remind us of how good life is in San Francisco. Like any central square, it hosts street performances, which captivate the attention of passers-by.
Right next door, the business district, Financial District, grew up on land reclaimed from the sea (late 19th, early 20th), in place of the old port. In terms of architecture, a few achievements are worth a look: Hallidie Building (1917-1918), fully glazed, or the Frank Lloyd Wright Building (1948), a sort of uncluttered brick cube, which moreover served as a project at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It is reminiscent of Art Nouveau. For a breathtaking view of the buildings, go to the tree-lined roof terrace of the Crocker Galleria shopping arcade, where office workers meet at lunchtime.
In the area, you must also make a jump to Ferry Building, easily spotted by its large clock tower. This beautiful ferry terminal, built in 1898, escaped the earthquake and fire of 1906. In the past, some 50 million passengers passed through it every year! Much less today, but it still fulfills its original function: boats cross the bay to reach Harbor Bay, Oakland ...
Since 2003, its galleries have also hosted a veritable small covered market, where excellent products are king. Craftsmen and chefs treat us! A great address for lunch and shopping. On Tuesday, Thursday and (especially) Saturday morning, it also welcomes outside the stalls of Farmer's Market, an excellent farmers market.
Museums galore, including the fabulous SFMoMa
When it comes to museums, whether you like art, history or even science, we can say that we are spoiled in San Francisco.
In the SOMA district, the star is of course the SFMoMa, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The largest of its kind in the United States. It has existed since 1935, but landed in the district in 1995, under the direction of architect Mario Botta. It was extended in 2016 by Snøhetta, a Norwegian architectural firm. The facade of the extension, white and bumpy, evokes the ocean, the hills and the legendary fog of San Francisco.
Inside, seven floors… enough to spend a good part of his day there. We admire in particular the works of the fisher collection (founder of the first Gap store in SF), which notably brings together Warhol, Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois and Roy Lichtenstein.
We also admire works by Matisse, Pollock or even Duchamp (and his famous urinal) or even Magritte, Frida Kahlo and De Kooning. For contemporary art, go to the 7th floor, which offers as a bonus a beautiful view of the district. The 3rd level will delight photo enthusiasts, from 1839 to today. It is the largest space devoted to photography in an art museum in the United States.
But it's not just SFMoMA! Let us quote of course theAsian Art Museum, which contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world (painting, sculpture, textiles ...) or the California Academy of Sciences, where there is both an aquarium, a planetarium and a natural history museum.
But also: the Museum of the African Diaspora, le Legion of Honor (Degas, Monet, Rodin, Rubens ...), the Walt disney museum (in the beautiful Presidio National Park), where to admire his first drawings ...
The biggest Chinatown outside of Asia!
Thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1850s, during the Gold Rush. Subsequently, many of them worked on the transcontinental railway: 9 out of 10 workers were Chinese. The others, in town, have opened businesses: laundry, clothing, catering ...
At the intersection of Grant Avenue and Bush street, The stage is set. Here we are facing the dragon gate, Chinatown Gate, donated in 1969 by the People's Republic of China. This pagoda-shaped door opens to us those of the largest Chinatown outside Asia (of the 870 inhabitants of San Francisco, one third of them are Asians, mainly Chinese). It is also the oldest in the United States. Hanging red lanterns, buildings reminiscent of pagodas ... it feels like it!
We linger in particular in front of Tin How Temple (1852) EastWest Bank (1909) Ying on Merchants and Labor Benevolent Association (1920) or even school Nam Kue Chinese School (1925). The locals do their shopping more on the Stockton Street. There, no souvenir shops, but greengrocers, fishmongers, rotisseries and other traditional pharmacies ...
Finally, at 56 Ross Alley, address of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in place since 1962, we gladly take a look at the traditional confection of the famous fortune cookies. They would also be from San Francisco ...
San Francisco by the Water: Fisherman's Wharf and Alcatraz Island
North of San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf, literally “the fishermen's wharf”, is one of the city's must-sees. You can walk there from the Ferry Building (Financial District) along the bay, for a pleasant stroll. Another option: get on board one of these legendary cable cars. Two of the three lines take us there: Powell-Masson and Powell-Hyde, the latter being the most emblematic; it borrows in fact the steepest streets of San Francisco and offers a bird's eye view of Alcatraz Island. Nice introduction, therefore.
Fisherman's Wharf is a very touristy area, which attracts millions of visitors each year. Those who like peace and quiet will prefer to explore the area early in the morning, before the souvenir shops open and the crowds arrive. The “Boudin Bakers Hall”, a sort of bistro-bakery set up in a large warehouse, starts serving coffee and pastries from 8 am, enough to recharge the batteries. Nearby, restaurants already offer crab sandwiches, a symbol of the neighborhood.
On the pontoons, some fishermen are already in place, but also the sea lions, which, from the morning, make themselves heard! A real attraction… The heart of Fisherman's Wharf is called Pier 39, an equipped jetty, dotted with restaurants, souvenir shops and other attractions, such as Aquarium of the Bay. We appreciate the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitor Center (on the history of San Francisco and the bay, the time of the Amerindians, arrival of the colonists…) and the old ships (Historic Ships: Eureka, Balcluth…).
Fisherman's Wharf is also the starting point for Alcatraz Islandright in the face. To visit the famous prison where enemy number 1 Al Capone was imprisoned, you have to book a few days (or even weeks, in summer) in advance. Some 4 visitors go there every day! In the distance, the Golden Gate is watching us. If you want to rent a bike to cross it, this is also where it happens!
The Golden Gate Bridge, overlooking one of the most beautiful bays in the world
San Francisco is inseparable from its bay and, since 1937, from the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Famous the world over, this 2m suspension bridge spans the bay, connecting San Francisco to Marin County. Its “international orange”, which contrasts with the blue of the bay, seems flamboyant as on the first day. Normal: it is repainted every week! The cost of the car toll ($ 737) is better understood, but fortunately the crossing is free for bicycles and pedestrians.
Anyway, to avoid seeing his head in the fog, if at all, it is better to avoid July-August. The two best seasons are spring (mid-April to June) and the off-season (September-October).
To get there, you can opt for the bike and / or the bus (number 101) and / or the ferry. If you are by car, take the opportunity to take the scenic route: it promises magnificent panoramas of the Golden Gate. The district of Presidio National Park We also have very nice views on the deck: depending on the sun, Crissy Field in the morning, Baker Beach in the evening ...
If we have time, even if it means crossing the bridge, we can push up to Sausalito, adorable coastal town (but beware, life is expensive and the area very busy on weekends and summer). Bastion of hippies in the 70s, it is known for its neighborhood of houses on the water (houseboats or floating homes), of all colors and sizes. Apparently Otis Redding wrote the lyrics for Dock of the Bay from Waldo Point. Really lovely!
There is another remarkable suspension bridge in San Francisco: the Bay bridge. Linking San Francisco to Oakland, it opened 6 months earlier than the Golden Gate. We also take it to get to UC Berkeley (1868), one of the most famous in the world (29 Nobel prizes, 14 Pulitzer prizes).
Very interesting to visit, to measure the full extent of an American campus: a city, no more and no less, with parks, stadiums, sports fields, museums… In the 60s, it was the haunt hippies! Very lively in the evening.
Lombard Street, a street like no other
San Francisco undeniably owes its charm to its relief: hills, hills and more hills ... And so, many very (very) steep streets, along which stand magnificent Victorian houses of all colors. Fortunately, not all of them were devastated by the earthquake of 1906 and the terrible fire it caused… Because, let us remember, Victorian houses are made of wood!
Names of well-perched neighborhoods? Some are very easy to remember: they end with "hill", which means hill. This is the case of Telegraph Hill (and its pretty Coit Tower), Nob Hill, Rincon Hill… Without forgetting Russian hill ! This residential area offers magnificent panoramas of the very chic houses of Pacific Heights, the bay, the island of Alcatraz ...
It is also home to one of the most famous - and most photogenic - streets in the whole city: Lombard Street. It is said to be the "world's crookedest street", translation, "the most crooked street in the world". Its zigzag course, which winds through the hydrangeas, was drawn in 1922; it made it possible to reduce the gradient of the slope to 16% (instead of 27), for the passage of horses.
Faced with these extremely steep streets, we quickly understand the importance of the famous cable car, arrived in 1873 (before, only horses took care of it!). Perfect for exploring these areas without getting tired ... unless you are in a hurry (9,5 km / h). Three lines are still in service, but the most emblematic remains Powell-hyde ; it takes the steepest streets and gives us plunging views over the bay. It just stops at the top of Lombard Street and leads us to the very interesting Cable Car Museum.
Haight-Ashbury, in memory of the hippies
Residential area popular with the richest at the end of the 19th century, Haight-ashbury becomes home to the hippie movement in the early 60s. After World War II, the upper class deserted and a highway project (which ultimately never saw the light of day) was announced. Result: the price of rents drops considerably and the first hippies come to settle. The news is circulating through the media and young people from across the country are flocking.
Even more in 1967, year of the famous “Summer of Love”. Janis Joplin, Hendrix, The Mamas and Papas or Scott McKenzie (and his famous refrain "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair") are then the headliners of the Monterey festival. , in the month of June.
A few months later, in the fall, the movement begins to run out of steam (too many people, problems of violence…). The coup de grace is given in 1969 by Charles Manson, when this madman who claims to be a hippie assassinates Sharon Tate, actress and wife of Roman Polanski.
From the hippie era, there are still some traces today: cool shops where you can find second hand clothes and vinyls, restaurants at good prices, tattoo artists (and piercers), small improvised concerts on the sidewalk ...
In terms of architecture, fortunately, the earthquake and fire of 1906 did not destroy everything in their path. One can thus admire, in the district, superb Victorian houses. There is a well-known string of them not to be missed, two quarters away: the Seven Painted Ladies. They are located in front ofAlamo Square Ashbury.
These seven are among the oldest (1892-1896), but also the most photographed by tourists. We quickly understand why when we see the overview: the old colored houses in the foreground, the buildings of Downtown in the background… Highly photogenic! And even more at sunset ... In short, we can not resist the call of the souvenir photo.
San Francisco, gastronomic capital
San Francisco delights us in so many ways. One thing is certain: there is no shortage of good restaurants!
San Francisco loves good products. This is where the locavore movement was born in 2005, which makes it a point of honor to consume locally (not necessarily organic, but often). More and more chefs are paying attention to the origin of their products, which they willingly display (“Farm to table” concept). The covered market of Ferry Building, where there are a multitude of good products and good restaurants, fully reflects this spirit.
And then, there is not just one cuisine in San Francisco (and in California in general), but several, inspired by the different cultures present here. There are specialties from all over the world, from Chinese dim sum to Mexican tacos and burritos (served in taquerias in Mission) or even Hawaiian poké (based on rice and raw fish).
And when the different influences are mixed together, the result is fusion cuisine, inventive, colorful, tasty ...
Mission, the birthplace of San Francisco
This is where it all started: Mission is San Francisco's premier neighborhood. In 1776, the Spanish Franciscans celebrated the first mass there (while they built a military square in the Presidio, to the north). We take a look at Dolores Mission : completed in 1791, this church is the oldest building in the city. Phew, she survived the 1906 earthquake!
The Mission district has remained Hispanic at heart, still nourished today by Mexican and Central American immigration. It is one of the most colorful neighborhoods : he is famous for these gigantic murals. It's the kingdom of street art !
Much of it is in the small streets Balmy alley et Clarion alley, but also on the facade of the Women's building, with the gigantic “MaestraPeace”, in other words, the “masterpiece”. The themes of the frescoes are often intended to be anti-establishment: the gentrification of San Francisco, the Latin struggles, women's rights… These murals are inspired by Mexican muralists, like Diego Rivera.
Mission is also one of the liveliest areas of the city! We like to start the evening in a taqueria, to taste the tacos and burritos, before going for a beer or a cocktail in one of the many bars in the area ...
Castro, gay paradise
San Francisco has a long history of attracting gays from across the country, most notably in the late 60s, along with the hippie community. They took over the low-rent Victorian homes at the time. Today, gays and lesbians represent 15% of the population. And San Francisco is home to the most famous LGBTQ neighborhood in the United States (not to say the world), the famous Castro !
In Castro Street, we notably pass in front of Twin Peaks Tavern, the first “openly gay” bar and Castro Theater, beautiful theater of the 30s. We then come across the apartment and the politician's photo store Harvey Milk, converted into a boutique by the Human Rights Campaign association. A great figure in the neighborhood, this man had a tragic fate ...
He moved here in 1972 and has worked hard for the rights of the community. So much so that he was nicknamed "Mayor of Castro Street". In 1977, he became the first politician to display his homosexuality. In 1978 he was assassinated (along with Mayor George Moscone) by Dan White, a former supervisor. The conviction of the latter, relatively lenient in view of his act, will cause violent riots ("the White night riots") on May 21, 1979, in particular on the side of the Civic Center. The place Harvey Milk Plaza, where floats a gigantic Rainbow Flag, pays homage to him, as does the excellent film Milk with Sean Penn.
The famous rainbow flag was also born here in 1978. It is omnipresent in the Castro. Even the zebra crossings are multicolored! To learn more about the history of the gay community of Frisco, visit the museum GLBT Historical Society Museum. It is the first of its kind in the United States and the second in the world after Berlin. It was created in 2011 and brings together some objects from Harvey Milk. In particular a recorded cassette, in which he predicted his assassination ...
San Francisco Gay Pride, which brings together hundreds of thousands of people on the last Sunday in June, was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020, but the festivities will be virtual because of Covid-19. Another highlight of the year: the Castro Street Fair, a very famous party created in 74 by… Harvey Milk.
We also like to come for a walk in the Castro to admire the victorian houses, very many. At 3841 18th Street, we linger in front of a blue house, leaning against the hill… Yes, it is she who inspired the singer Maxime Le Forestier! He lived here in 1971. Very pretty Victorian houses, too, in the steep streets of the neighboring residential area, Noey Valley.
Find all the tips, addresses and practical information in the Routard san Francisoo guides in bookstores.
To prepare for your stay, consult our San Francisco online guide.
San Francisco Tourist Office, where to download the Visitor guide and city maps (otherwise you can get it in hard copy from the Visitor Information Center)
How to get there ?
By plane : from Paris (Charles-de-Gaulle), Aer Lingus operates a flight with a stopover in Dublin (flight duration: 1 h 45, then 10-11 h). Big advantage: in Dublin airport we get rid of all the formalities for entering the USA, which saves considerable time on arrival! Return rates for San Francisco from 498 € incl. Information and reservations: Tel. : 0821 230 267 (0,12 € / minute).
Find your plane ticket
Or sleep ?
- Virgin Hotel: 250 4th St. Double starting at $ 225 (without breakfast). This recent hotel (February 2019), very well located, offers pleasant, comfortable rooms with a view of the buildings of Downtown. Really close to SFMOMA! Pleasant restaurant where you can have breakfast. Also a superb rooftop, for a good cocktail in the evening with a breathtaking view of the city… We also party there (frequent Dj-sets).
Where to eat ? Where to have a drink?
- Pallet: 816 Folsom Street. We know San Francisco's love for good, fresh and local produce… well, this restaurant perfectly reflects this locavore state of mind! Some dishes are even cooked over a wood fire ... Everything is served on beautiful ceramic plates. Dishes to share: about $ 18 small, $ 23 medium, $ 25-32 large. Special mention for the duck confit, a delight ...
- In Situ 151 Third Street. This is the good table at the SFMoMA museum and the food is really good. The concept: the dishes have been concocted by different chefs and restaurants around the world. On the plate (in pretty ceramic), good products and a refined, modern, fusion cuisine. Dishes to share: small approx. $ 12, medium $ 18, large $ 20-28 and +, desserts $ 10-22
- The Vault: 555, California Street. This chic and trendy restaurant is located inside the 555 California Bank of America building in the heart of the Financial District. Here, American and Californian kitchens revisit their classics, but always with good products. Small seasonal vegetables, meats cooked to perfection… we really enjoy it (special mention for the hot brioche bread that accompanies the dishes…). $ 25 express lunch and, in the evening: $ 55 for the chef's menu (5 courses). Otherwise, à la carte.
- Ferry Building: this beautiful building from 1898 houses stands where you can enjoy yourself. Good, local, often organic. And what a variety! We highly recommend the spring rolls from the Vietnamese restaurant Out the Door's, the fried chicken from Brown Sugar Kitchen (chef Tanya Holland), but also the small dishes to die for from the Japanese Delica. And if you're still hungry: chocolates at Recchiuti, ice cream (the peanut one!) At Humphry Slocombe, macaroons at Miette… Also good bread at Berkeley's Acme Bread and cheese at Cowgirl Creamery. Farmers' market on Tuesday, Thursday and (especially) Saturday morning.
Fisherman's Wharf district
- Boudin Bakers Hall: 160 Jefferson Street. This large rehabilitated warehouse which houses a bakery and a bistro is an institution in the neighborhood. The star is the sourdough, made since 1849; we owe it to the French emigrant Isidore Boudin, who arrived with the gold rush. Also sandwiches, soups (like clam chowder, all creamy clam) and other dishes.
At Presidio National Park
- Arguello: 50 Moraga Avenue (in the Presidio National Park). Mexican food lovers, you've come to the right place! As a starter, excellent guacamole, to be enjoyed with homemade tortillas. You can then order a ceviche (marinated fish, small fresh vegetables, etc.) or empanadas. For $ 13, we're full!
- Tacolicious: 741 Valencia St (but several other addresses). As the name suggests, the star here is the taco. Vegetarian, beef, chicken, fish ... there is a choice. All nicely presented. Warm atmosphere, even more with a very cold margarita.
- Hot Cookie: 407 Castro St. For a snack break while visiting the Castro, we stop at Hot Cookie. We warn you, it bears its name well: mannequin in "hot cookie" panties in the window, cakes in the shape of ... (no need to draw you a picture), walls of crazy photos ... Anyway, cookies ( which have kept a classic shape!) are delicious.
Information and guided tours
Official website of the Presidio National Park: go to the website to learn all about the national park: stories, activities, places to visit (in English or Spanish). On site, the pleasant "visitor center" is a great help: history, exhibitions, information, great shop ...
San Francisco by Gilles: native of Brittany, Gilles moved to San Francisco in 2010. He quickly realized that it was not so easy, for a Frenchman who is not very comfortable with English, to visit the beautiful "city by the bay". Former guide and tourism professional, he therefore had the idea of creating "San Francisco by Gilles" (10 people) over a half-day (2:30 to 3:30) from $ 45 / pers. Also private tours. All that remains is to choose from the many tour themes (Castro & Mission, Summer of love & Haight-Ashbury…), with something new this year: Golden Gate bike tour, Sausalito, photo safari in Mission, SF innovation side Contact: email@example.com
Free SF tours:
San Francisco City Guides: Free tours of San Francisco with volunteers (in English). For the emerging district of Dogpatch, we recommend Steven, a real character!
Special gastronomy tours (walking food tours):
Edible Excursions : to discover the best addresses in San Francisco and to feast, we can trust these guides! They offer “walking food tours” around different themes and at different places in SF (Mexican, Japanese, cocktails, etc.). The visits are very comprehensive: history of the place, the course of the artisans and chefs and, of course, tastings! The very friendly guide Travis knows the Ferry Building stands very well. From $ 83 per person (+ $ 2 reservation fee), food included. A word of advice: above all, come on an empty stomach!