Leave out Alcatraz during your visit to SF unless you are desperate to see the island jail. The tickets are usually sold out weeks in advance anyway. Instead, put your trekking shoes on (or at least a good pair of sneakers) or get a bike and try out the many trails around the legendary Golden Gate Bridge.
First, make your way to Ocean Beach. It is a place where you might not want to swim (yeah, drop down your ideas of California beaches, the ocean is freezing cold), but can build a bonfire, fly a kite, or ride a wind-powered kite buggy through the sand. It’s the most-visited beach in the San Francisco area where you can admire some amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and the nearby Cliff House (a charming restaurant with The Terrace Room Sunday Champagne Brunch Buffet) and the romantic Sutro Baths ruins (remains of an extravagant bathhouse built in 1896 which burned down in 1966, leaving only ruins of the indoor swimming complex which featured seven salt-water pools and 500 dressing rooms) as well as the odd-shaped Camera Obscura built in late 40´s.
The beach is also a cool spot for picnic, but you need to know that alcohol is not allowed here! Neither glass containers.
From the beach, you can hike via Lands Ends Trail (winding its way around rocky cliffs above the ocean, moving through shady stands of cypress and eucalyptus and emerging on to spectacular views of the shore and headlands) to the Lands End Lookout, down to Baker Beach and then up to Batteries to Bluffs Trail which runs parallel to and downslope from Lincoln Boulevard, is mostly comprised of sets of steps and some flat sections of trail, and will take you all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Once you cross the bridge, more trails open up to you. There are dozens of them in the Marin Headlands that will stun you with the great ocean and GGB views and the colourful wildflower displays (in spring). You might even know some of the lookouts from movies.
You can also camp in the area at various campsites. But know that winter is cold here and avoid foggy days as the coastal views will obviously remain hidden to you.
My favourite trail would probably be Golden Gate Bridge to Black Sands Beach (about 12 km), a fantastic hike that offers great views of Angel Island, Highway 101 and GGB as the route meanders through green rolling hills. The destination is Black Sands Beach, a long sandy beach with few visitors where you can relax and chill out.
Another great one – of about the same length – would be Miwok Trail to Rodeo Beach and Point Bonita which also offers beaches (so you can have a little picnic here) and ocean views.
There are, however, many more, so just make your way to Marin Headlands Visitor Center and ask there for relevant information about the best trail(s) that would fit your health condition, experience and expectations.
Most of the trails are named and also have sign-posts along so you can navigate yourself pretty well. I do recommend though that you download maps.me offline or a similar app to avoid some crazy moments of freaking out, thinking that you got totally lost, while you might be a few hundred metres away from a marvellous viewpoint. The battery in my phone died out while I was trekking and as I was alone, hungry, with no water left, I broke into tears of despair at one point while standing literally three hundred metres below a stunning viewpoint. If it was not for a prayer, a blue bird that suddenly appeared as a sign of hope and a lovely couple who all of a sudden came up towards me from behind a meander to cheer me up (and later even offer me a lift back to the city – God bless) I would have missed out on a pretty cool spot.
So, just be smarter than I was, bring enough water, food, a charged phone and possibly more layers of clothing if you go in the spring (it might get truly windy and cold up there) and enjoy the astonishing sceneries.
San Francisco Downtown and the Most Expensive Asian Milk Shake Ever
OK. I guess it is a must when you are in SF.
You´ve got to walk your way through the downtown, checking out the Chinatown (you can leave that one out if you have been to a few other before – this one is not such a marvel, compared e.g. to Bangkok Chinatown – obviously – or Montreal Chinatown), especially if you are looking for some of their particular products or foodstuffs, the crooked, notoriously famous Lombard Street (to me though, Vermont is much nicer, but as it is longer than Lombard, you can truly appreciate it just from a viewpoint from which you gain a greater distance), the harbour and Hyde and Powell Street where the popular cable car (dating back to 1870´s) runs through – and it is quite a ride, as it is an open tram and the wind blows through your hair and the world seems a happy, holiday place indeed.
Actually, the San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last manually operated cable car system. It is an icon of San Francisco, and I would sooner leave out Alcatraz than a ride on the tram, which costs only 7 USD per one way ride and passes through the most significant sightseeing places such as Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf.
You also get a great view from the tram over the Alcatraz Island and if you can also observe how the drivers manually turn the cable car around at the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you make it to Chinatown, forget about the prices you know from Asia. Everything is terribly overprices. I got the condensed milk shake which I usually get in South East Asia for half a dollar or dollar max. (in truly touristy locations) for 3.5 USD. Just how crazy that is!
What to See Around
Once in SF, if you do have more than say three or four days, like at least a week, get out of the city, rent a car and drive up to Humboldt Redwood State Park (a 5-hour-drive), Siskiyou Mountains (2 hours away from Redwood) or/and Sequoia National Park (4 hours). Amazing places you shall never forget!
If you want to make it to other renowned Californian cities, LA and Hollywood would be about 6 hours away from SF.
And if you love road tripping, you could drive all the way to Las Vegas in Nevada (9 hours).
There are also some really good deals on the flights from LA to SF and vice versa.
Have a fun California time!