San Francisco is America's gleaming city by the bay. As one of the first large settlements on the west coast, it holds the alluring legacy of the 1849 Gold Rush - where ambitious Americans go west to chase their dreams. With its dynamic financial district and high-tech Silicon Valley, San Francisco maintains this Gold Rush essence.
My first sight of San Francisco occurred when I emerged from the Powell Street BART Station, immersing me in some of the city's biggest skyscrapers and busiest streets. The first impression was impressive. San Francisco was, at the time, the largest city I'd ever visited. And to this day it remains one of my absolute favorites. With numerous distinct neighborhoods, gorgeous parks and public spaces, and plenty of opportunities for exploring outside the city limits, San Francisco is a traveler's dream.
When planning a trip to San Francisco, consider staying in a more affordable area, possibly outside of the city. With San Francisco's recent tech boom, housing has become incredibly expensive. And this applies as well to short-term rentals such as Airbnb. For an affordable and accessible alternative, consider staying in nearby Berkeley or Oakland. Both cities have convenient BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stations for quick access to San Francisco, as well as their own charm and attractions. Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue is lined with vintage stores and coffee shops, and captures Berkeley's unique character.
In the city limits, there's almost an endless amount of things to do. My first day in San Francisco I spent aimlessly wandering, and could not have been happier. Near downtown, walk along the waterfront and check out the historic Ferry Building along the Embarcadero. Only a few blocks inland, I highly recommend Coit Tower. This 1933 Art Deco structure, surrounded by lush gardens and featuring iconic murals, Coit Tower offers some of the best views of the city. From the Embarcadero, walk past Levi's Plaza and up the Greenwich Steps pedestrian path to the top of Telegraph Hill, where Coit Tower is located.
Just back down the hill to the Northeast are San Francisco landmarks Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square and the iconic switchbacks of Lombard Street. This neighborhood, only blocks from the Bayfront, is one of San Francisco's trendiest. The Marina District is full of fantastic restaurants catering to all types of dietary restriction, upscale boutiques and local coffee joints. At the Marina District's East edge, bordering the Presidio, you'll find the Palace of Fine Arts, another one of San Francisco's architectural landmarks. With a sprawling lawn, peaceful ponds and incredible architecture, the Palace of Fine Arts is an excellent spot to relax in the afternoon, or wander around taking fantastic photos.
Urban planning is a hallmark of San Francisco and one of the reasons the city remains so livable, albeit expensive. San Francisco is covered with a tremendous number of neighborhood parks, some sprawling like Golden Gate Park and others as small as Coit Tower's single square block. These parks often occupy hillsides with incredible views, such as Mission Dolores Park, pictured above. This gem, between the Dolores Heights and Mission Districts, offers unparalleled views of downtown San Francisco, and is easily accessible from the 16th Street Mission BART station. While in San Francisco, be sure to check out the Painted Ladies, a row of pastel-colored victorian homes, the hippie haven Haight Ashbury neighborhood, and Golden Gate Park.
Of course no trip to San Francisco can be complete without visiting the Golden Gate Bridge. On the San Francisco side, the Bridge can be explored from the Presidio, a large seaside park that borders the Bridge to the east and west. This is the most accessible, with convenient city bus options. But the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and of San Francisco, come from the other side in the Marin Headlands area. This protected mountainside is criss-crossed with trails and roads, and offer spectacular views of the Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Just down the road you'll discover Muir Woods, the legendary Redwood Grove named after John Muir, where President Franklin Roosevelt signed the accords to establish the United Nations.
San Francisco is one of the world's most beautiful cities. With all the charm and culture of Europe, as well as the natural splendor of the American West, it is certain to blow you away.