AOL PICK from our Editors
There's absolutely no shortage of things to do, see and experience in San Francisco, a city filled with natural beauty, creativity and an irrepressible spirit. Needless to say, narrowing down its wealth of attractions to a mere top 10 must-sees is no easy task. The sights and experiences we landed on comprise a diverse mix of the best the city has to offer, including iconic superstars (Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower) to cultural powerhouses, such as the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and de Young museums, to spectacular places that defy categorization but will leave an everlasting impression (Crissy Field, Japanese Tea Garden, Lombard Street). Getting to these places is relatively easy and the cost of admission varies (some of the best are free). OK, hit it—enjoy our favorite quintessential San Francisco attractions.
Neighborhood: Russian Hill
For those seeking out San Francisco's OMG hills, Lombard Street is the mother lode. Situated between Hyde and Leavenworth streets sits the famous and whimsical red-brick slope with eight switchback turns. The one-way street (from Hyde down), generously sprinkled with flowers and manicured greenery, wends through the well-to-do Russian Hill neighborhood, past gorgeous Victorian homes. Built in 1922, it was designed to allow cars to navigate the steep grade. Prepare for bumper-to-bumper traffic when driving down the hill (go slowly), or avoid the wait and walk down, or up, the staircases that flank the block. (Take the Hyde Street Cable Car and get off at the crest.) The best place to take pictures is from the bottom of the hill. This "crookedest" street is quintessential SF at its best.
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Neighborhood: Lincoln Park
Albert Hitchcock fans will recognize the California Palace of the Legion of Honor—locals call it simply the Legion of Honor—for giving Jimmy Stewart a run for his money in Vertigo,’ as the museum where the mysterious portrait of Carlottta Valdes lived. With its neoclassic beaux-arts facade and extraordinary cliff-side location overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge, the museum does justice to the state's WWI casualties for whom it was dedicated. (The structure is an exact replica of its Parisian namesake.) The sprawling museum houses an enviable collection of ancient and European art spanning 4,000 years. Along with an ever-changing rotation of stellar modern art exhibitions (O'Keefe, Picasso, Toulousse Lautrec, etc.), the museum is rich in permanent treasures, most notably Rodin's ‘Thinker,’ the star of the Legion's outdoor Court of Honor. That’s not all—more than 70 Rodin sculptures make their home here. Additional highlights include one of the largest collections of prints and drawings in the country, European tapestries and reproductions of room interiors from the Middle Ages on. Plan on spending a good couple of hours taking in the exhibits and then grab a bite at the lovely Legion Cafe. Free parking. Closed Mondays. The Legion is part of San Francisco's Free First Tuesday of the month program. (Admission tickets to the Legion include same-day general admission to the de Young Museum (special exhibition fees not included).
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Neighborhood: Golden Gate Park
It's impossible to be anything but Zen at the gorgeous oasis known as the Japanese Tea Garden, which lives in glorious Golden Gate Park. Visitors are transported to another time and place as they are surrounded by cherry trees, bonsai and pretty ponds, winding paths and arched bridges, as well as a traditional Shinto gate and a large bronze Buddha (made in 1790 Japan). This is a great place to grab a spot on a bench, turn off your iPhone (and any other e-devices you have with you) and enjoy the quiet and magnificence of the surroundings. One of the most popular spots in the park and the oldest public Japanese garden in the country, the traditional Japanese garden was initially built for the Midwinter Exposition in 1894. Famed Golden Gate Park landscaper John McLaren hired Makato Hagiwara to design and care for it, which he did faithfully until WWII. The teahouse pagoda serves authentic Japanese teas, snacks and sweets, and the gift shop is ripe with souvenirs. The best time to visit is during early spring when the pink blossoms on the cherry trees are in full bloom. The garden is open daily, with free admission before 10AM; $7 admission for non-resident adults; $5 for non-resident seniors and nominal fees for children 5-17.
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Locals never tire of it and tourists fall in love at first sight. Crissy Field is a stunning public park and wildlife refuge that's situated between the Marina Green and historic Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 1861, Fort Point was designed to keep hostile fleets from gaining entrance to the Bay during Civil War days. Today, it's a fascinating museum also worth a whirl. Enjoy a stroll or bike ride along the hard-packed, family-friendly promenade that snakes along the Bay and beach, past beautiful marshes and dunes, home to herons, egrets, gulls and many endangered species. The Warming Hut, a café/gift shop, is a perfect stopping point. Pull up a picnic table or throw down a beach blanket and enjoy the gorgeous views of the bridge and the impressive boats, windsurfers and parasailers that flock here. Any time of day is a lovely time to visit, although the wind tends to pick up in the afternoon. Always pack a sweater or sweatshirt, wear comfortable shoes and don't forget the sunscreen.
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Neighborhood: Golden Gate Park
Located in Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is housed in an ultra-cool modern building wrapped in copper, with a breathtaking twisting tower befitting the amazing treasures it houses. A vast collection of American art from the 17th century through modern day is the jewel in its crown. Other star collections that comprise the easy navigable museum include works by premier California artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud, international textile arts and costumes, as well as African and Oceanic artworks. Its rotating special exhibitions will knock your socks off and have included stellar programs such as Yves St. Laurent and Warhol Live to Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes. An excellent café and top-notch museum store are not to be missed. Closed Mondays. The Legion is part of San Francisco's Free First Tuesday of the month program. (Admission tickets to the de Young include same-day general admission to the Legion of Honor (special exhibition fees not included). Paid garage parking is available beneath the museum.
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If you equate San Francisco with all things peace, tie-dye and Summer of Love, this is the tour for you. While the focus is the famous hood's hippie roots, tons of interesting tidbits about the area's history are sprinkled in by the knowledgeable tour guides (i.e. in the early 1900s, the area drew visitors for the thrills of the hills with a popular amusement park ride called the Chutes that featured a log flume ride, landing in a pond). As you stroll a 12-block area from the tour's starting point (corner of Stanyan and Waller streets), you'll visit all the famous landmarks and learn the truth behind the lore. Highlights include the onetime locales of the Psychedelic Shop and Drogstore, and the still-operating Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. But if you're like most, the coolest part of the tour will be ogling the homes of the famous residents who inhabited them back in the day. These include the Grateful Dead, Charles Manson, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin, among others. This tour is extremely popular so make sure to reserve in advance. Tours run Tuesdays and Saturdays at 9:30AM, Thursdays at 2PM and Fridays at 11AM.
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Neighborhood: Telegraph Hill
It's one of San Francisco's most visited and beloved landmarks. The 210-foot white, fluted pillar pierces the skyline from the top of Telegraph Hill and affords visitors some of the most magnificent 360-degree views of the city. The tower was built in 1933 with funds bequeathed by Lily Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy, colorful woman who left one-third of her fortune to the city, with instructions to beautify the skyline. Not only is Coit Tower a memorial to its namesake, but also to the San Francisco firemen whom she adored (as a child, she was saved from a fire). Some liken the tower's façade to the nozzle of a fire hose. To get to the top of the tower you can take an elevator or climb the 400 or so steps. But before you ascend make sure to check out the tower's other treasures—the ground-floor murals, painted by 26 master artists and 19 assistants, depicting various aspects of the Great Depression on the city. The colorful artworks were created as part of Roosevelt's Public Works Art Project.
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Locals and tourists can't get enough of the Ferry Building Marketplace at the foot of Market Street and the Embarcadero. Along with its magnificent bayfront views (hello there, Bay Bridge), this landmark building beneath the famous clock tower (born in 1898), is a veritable foodie heaven showcasing local and regional talent. It's stuffed with cafes and shops/stalls featuring everything from artisan cheeses, specialty foods, baked goods, ice cream, cookware (including newly opened local Heath Ceramics) to organic produce and offshoots of some of the city’s top restaurants and one of the best itself: Slanted Door. It’s also home to one of the biggest and best organic Farmer’s Markets in the country, which runs Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10AM-2PM and Saturdays 8AM-2PM.
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Even the most breathtaking images of the city's most recognizable icon can't do it justice. That's why visitors need to get up close and personal with the Golden Gate Bridge and its famous International Orange hue (specially formulated to protect the bridge from rusting due to fog and moisture) and majestic towers, which continue to marvel 70+ years after its birth. Lorded over by chief engineer/designer Joseph Strauss, construction took four years (1933-'37) and cost $35 million. The engineering wonder and 1.7-mile suspension bridge (today, the second longest in the country) connects San Francisco and Marin County. It is open to pedestrians and bicyclers (enter on the east sidewalk). There are two lookout points on both ends of the span to take in spectacular views and click images. The Roundhouse, a visitor center featuring a historical exhibit, gift shop and café, is located on the southeast side of the span and a must-visit.
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Neighborhood: Fisherman's Wharf
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Its life as one of the most legendary prisons ever came to an end in 1963, but the ghosts of infamous gangsters like Al Capone and Robert "Birdman" Stroud live on at Alcatraz, one of the city's most-visited attractions. The short ferry ride to the island departs several times throughout the day from Pier 33 in Fisherman's Wharf. For those who don't spook easily, see how you hold up during a night tour. (Reservations are highly recommended for all tours.) The Rock's storied and fascinating history comes to life while listening to the stellar audio tour and roaming the cellblock and cafeteria, seemingly frozen in time. Outside the buildings, colorful gardens provide a bright contrast to the somber prison structure. The grounds have also become home to rare plant-life and sea birds. Although it is little known, Alcatraz's pre-prison history is quite interesting, as well. Just a few tidbits: It was home to the first American lighthouse on the West Coast and served as a major defense fort during Civil War days.
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