If you ever get the opportunity to travel to California, San Francisco is one of the most interesting cities to visit. The city not only has an fantastic and vibrant energy, it also has a number of historical landmarks that are worth a visit.

While San Francisco isn't your typical California beach vacation due to its relatively chilly temperatures in comparison with other popular California destinations, the city does have plenty to offer. In fact there is so much to do you're likely not to miss the beach at all. And after your trip to San Francisco, chances are you'll want to return.

There are many fabulous sights to be seen in San Francisco, but here are five of my top picks:


The infamous former jail and military location is cited by many as San Francisco's top attraction. If you only plan to visit the city on the bay once in your lifetime, it is well worth it to put a visit to the island on your 'must see' list while you're in town. While you can see the jail from the shore with a pretty decent view, it's even better to visit the island itself. This requires purchasing a ticket and taking a ferry ride across the San Francisco Bay, but in my opinion, is worth the expense and time. Tickets sell out fast during certain times of the year, so plan this one early if you can.

The ride across the bay is pleasant and offers some pretty beautiful views of the city. Once you reach the island you can explore the jail itself and walk the grounds. There is a museum and many artifacts located within. If you are heading to San Francisco, a trip to Alcatraz Island is a memorable event.

[ Related Reading: Did Alcatraz Escapees Survive in 1962? ]

Alcatraz Island
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

A view of the former prison from the mainland (2006)

Piers on Fisherman's Wharf

What's a trip to San Francisco without a visit to the piers? Sure it contains many of the elements of the typical tourist trap, but it also has many interesting things sandwiched in and about the piers. There are restaurants, shops, street shows, and arcades to spend hours in with lots to see and do.

One of the interesting sights on the pier is the sea lions sunning themselves as they lounge on Pier 39. A terrific (and free!) show that both kids and adults alike love to watch.

Seals on Pier 39Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The Pampanito submarine and Liberty WWII cargo ship are located on Pier 45. I found the tour of the sub to be amazing; those who are history buffs will particularly like this one. The quarters are tight, but seeing the inside of an old submarine is a unique experience.

Another sight I found to be interesting on Fisherman's Wharf is the Musee Mecanique. This old-fashioned arcade contains many historical artifacts and showcases authentic century and decades old nickelodeon machines right up to recent arcade games, and the best part of all is they are in working condition and you can play them by slipping in a coin.

Nickelodeon machine at the Musee Mecanique
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Nickelodeon machine at the Musee Mecanique

Lombard Street

This "crookedest" street really does exist. From afar, the sight is unique as you can watch cars slowly crawl down the hill in zigzag fashion. It is beautifully decorated with flowers and offers a fantastic photo opportunity to bring home this memory. If you have the patience to wait, you can get in line and take a drive down. (Note: As of May 2014, the city approved a measure to temporary close Lombard Street2 over the summer to non-residents due to grid-lock and residents having trouble entering their driveways. So if you want to drive it, you might want to do some research first to see if it is accessible).

Lombard Street
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

I took this photo standing across the way from Lombard Street


Originally a Spanish Fort in the 18th century and later a U.S. military installation, today the Presidio is a national park. The former fort boasts a visitor's center, the Exploratorium which is a famed science museum, military artifact displays, and many other historical elements.

The park is located in close vicinity with the famous Golden Gate Bridge which makes it a great sightseeing spot on many levels; it also has many breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay leading out to the Pacific.

Route 1

While this is not exactly a San Francisco sightseeing spot, if you've traveled far to get to San Francisco, this slightly off the beaten path excursion is well worth the time spent leaving the city for a day or so because it is perhaps one of the most scenic sightseeing spots on the west coast. This little side trip was perhaps one of my favorite days of the trip, it was not on my original plan, but I was advised by a co-worker to do it, and glad I took her advice.

If you start north in San Mateo county (San Gregorio Beach is a nice place to start - we came upon the Pacific unexpectedly after taking a mountain road and this was the beach we landed at) and drive south you will be treated to some of the most spectacular sights. You can buy a parking pass, and this gives you free reign to stop at all the wonderful beaches and landmarks along the way.

San Gregorio Beach
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

San Gregorio Beach

One other "must see" stop along Route 1 is the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. In my opinion, the views here are simply indescribable, just beautiful. As you travel further south down the highway, the weather begins to warm and you'll reach wonderful places such as Santa Cruz, Monterrey and Carmel. Santa Cruz is about where our time ran out and we had to turn around to head back to the city.

Pacific Coast off Route 1
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

While there are many wonderful things to see and do in sunny, yet sometimes windy and chilly, San Francisco, these are some of the top five sightseeing locations. After a visit to this fabulous city on the bay, it may very well likely leave you longing for more. At least it did for me. And there is lots more to see. I really hope to be able to go back someday and revisit places I've seen and discover what else I had missed.

Not to mention, I'd love to explore other places in California too.

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San Francisco, CA, USA