If you are traveling to San Francisco, consider these 11 awesome San Francisco Area Travel Experiences. Take some time to follow the Barbary Coast Trail or take the San Francisco Time Machine Tour with Emperor Norton to learn about the city’s historic gold rush days. See paintings by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt at the Legion of Honor Museum. Drive out to Napa Valley for an afternoon and take an aerial tram to enjoy a special wine tasting experience overlooking Sterling Vineyards. Drive about an hour south of San Francisco to Half Moon Bay to relax overlooking the ocean at the Ritz Carlton’s outdoor patio or Conservatory Restaurant. Discover the ruins of the Sutro Baths overlooking the ocean closer to town, and walk a bit around the bend to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a special angle. These are just a few of the San Francisco area special experiences that you will learn about in this post and podcast as I discuss San Francisco with Billy O’Connell of BillysCities.com. Be sure to click on the audio bar at the end of this post to listen to our conversation, and check out all the details in the article below.
I got to know about Billy’s travel writing and expertise through Jeff Peo, CEO of walkli.com. We both were asked by Jeff to design some travel maps for walkli based on our focus on walking to really get to know a city when we each travel. Like Jeff, I realized that Billy had much knowledge to share about his travel experience. I especially love his many blogs about San Francisco, his home base.
So, when I was able to arrange a visit to San Francisco, I asked Billy if he would agree to join me on my podcast and to share his tips for what to see and do in San Francisco. In addition to sharing some basic helpful tips about the San Francisco cable car, Lombard Street, Alcatraz, and Fisherman’s Wharf, together we highlight 11 special experiences on the podcast. I have highlighted these 11 San Francisco area special experiences here, as well.
San Francisco Area Special Experience 1: San Francisco Movie Sights City Tour
I traveled to San Francisco with my friend, Debbie, and we took the San Francisco Movie Sights City Tour with SanFranciscoMovieTours.com. We both thought it was awesome! The 3-hour tour is offered daily at 10 am. Our guide, Marie, shared over 100 (yes 100!) movie clips on a screen on our small bus. Just as each short clip would end, the driver would amazingly be in just the right location for Marie to point and say, “Look, there it is!” We saw the house where Mrs. Doubtfire lived in the movie by the same name, scenes from “Dirty Harry,” “Bullitt,” “Vertigo,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and so many more. We stopped at Alamo Square to see the beautiful multi-colored houses called the “Painted Ladies” where you might recognize the view from the television show, “Full House”.
Another highlight is the stop to go inside the ornate City Hall where many movies have been filmed inside. Here, be sure to count the brides getting married throughout the day, every day, at City Hall. The stop at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge is pretty awesome, too! It was worth the $49 per person for the tour. I noticed on their calendar that they do sell out this tour, so be sure to get tickets in advance if you want to do this while you are in San Francisco. The tour leaves from Pier 43 ½ in Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Francisco Area Special Experience 2: Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine Tours
This fun tour of downtown San Francisco takes place every Thursday and Saturday at 11 am and at 2:30 pm. Meet Emperor Norton in the center of Union Square in the heart of downtown San Francisco. The real Emperor Norton was a citizen of San Francisco in the mid-1800’s who proclaimed himself “Emperor of the United States”. Of course, he had no real power, but the citizens of San Francisco treated him with the highest honors as if he were really an emperor. He would get free tickets to special events. He issued proclamations throughout the city, and he even printed his own “money”. You won’t miss the Emperor in the center of Union Square under the tall column in the center waiting for your group to join him.
Before you leave Union Square, Emperor Norton will tell you about Alma de Bretteville, the model for the Goddess of Victory statue at the top of the column. Adolph Spreckels, owner of the Spreckels Sugar Company was a member of the committee who selected this particular design for the column. Adolph was enamored with Alma, a six-foot tall beauty from humble beginnings who had questionable roots including modeling in the nude. Adolph was 24 years older than Alma, but he was determined to marry her. After five years of pursuit, Alma finally married Adolph in 1908. We will hear more about Alma Spreckels later.
As you walk through San Francisco on this 3-hour walking tour, you will learn about the fascinating history of the city during the Gold Rush days as you learn about the historical past of San Francisco and how the past has shaped the city today. Before you leave Union Square, look for the heart painted by Tony Bennett, who truly has left this heart here in San Francisco! Highlights of this tour are the China Town area and visiting an actual smugglers’ tunnel beneath the city. Debbie and I thought it was definitely worth the $30. Book this or other Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine Tours at EmperorNortonTour.com.
San Francisco Area Special Experience 3: Murals of the Mission District and WPA Murals in the Coit Tower and the Rincon Center
Billy especially loves to take visitors to his city to see the murals of the Mission District, as well as the World War II era WPA murals in Coit Tower and the Rincon Center. He discusses these on the podcast (link below).
Check out the murals of the Mission District on his website here:
His specific post about the Coit Tower murals can be found here:
And Billy’s information about the Rincon Center murals can be found here:
San Francisco Area Special Experience 4: Barbary Coast Trail
While Debbie and I got a taste of the Barbary Coast Trail on our tour with Emperor Norton, Billy has followed the entire trail. Listen to Billy’s experience on the podcast link. Read more about this area of San Francisco, named after the original Barbary Coast in North Africa, similarly notorious for pirates, slave areas, and dangerous bars, on Billy’s website here: http://www.billyscities.com/san-francisco-2016-day-1-part-1/
San Francisco Area Special Experience 5: Chinatown Painted Balconies and Tin How Temple
Be sure to check out Billy’s post on Chinatown, as well. Listen to more by clicking on the podcast to hear his comments about the painted balconies and the often overlooked, Tin How Temple, in 125 Waverly Place in Chinatown. See Billy’s blog for much more about Chinatown, “How to Get the Most Out of Chinatown,” here:
San Francisco Area Special Experience 6: Take an Aerial Tram to Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga in Napa Valley
Debbie and I drove about 90 minutes north of San Francisco to Calistoga in Napa Valley to visit the special Sterling Vineyards, perched high above the town. First we stopped in the center of Calistoga to look at the cute town and shop a bit. Then, we drove about five minutes to Sterling Vineyards and took the aerial tram to the top of the treetops overlooking the vineyards to enjoy the Diamond Mountain Ranch Terrace Experience. As you visit the various levels of the winery, you will hear the bells of London’s Church of St. Dunstan’s that have been transported here to the top level of the winery. I loved sitting out on the terrace enjoying a delicious cheese plate and tasting some of the excellent wines. The final stop after seeing the winemaking process is to enjoy a taste of wine on the panoramic terrace overlooking the Napa Valley below. Be sure to stop in the shop for souvenirs before you take the aerial tram back down to the valley below. Learn about their tasting and tour offerings here: https://www.sterlingvineyards.com
San Francisco Area Special Experience 7: Shop at Ottimo and have lunch at Bouchon in Yountville in Napa Valley
Less than 30 minutes south of Calistoga, in the heart of Napa Valley is the lovely town of Yountville. You may know about Yountville from its famous restaurant, The French Laundry. I had the pleasure of eating here several years ago, and it truly is a special once-in-a-lifetime experience. For something a bit more down to earth and just as delicious, in my opinion, make reservation in advance at OpenTable.com at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro. The authentic French restaurant offers delicious Steak Bouchon, and brunch dishes like Truffle Croque Madame at reasonable prices. The French bread here is as good as any I have had in Paris! Learn more about Bouchon here: https://www.thomaskeller.com/bouchonyountville
Across the street from Bouchon, be sure to stop in the small shopping complex. I especially liked the shopping at Ottimo, an Italian shop and café that serves coffee, pizza, and casual dishes. The shop sells handcrafted household items, including some unique kitchen accessories and glassware. I bought a small hammered stainless steel mug that will be a memorable souvenir of our trip to Napa Valley. Check out more about Ottimo here: https://www.ottimo-nv.com.
San Francisco Area Special Experience 8: Visiting Sausalito
After we visited Napa Valley, we drove back about one hour from Yountville to Sausalito via CA 37 West and US 101 South. This special town across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco would be a nice place to stay for a night. It had more specialty shops and restaurants than I remembered from my last visit. Even though we arrived late, we were able to shop for a while in the unique gift and jewelry shops. Then, we had dessert on the porch of The Trident restaurant looking across the bay at San Francisco. It was the perfect ending to our perfect day! The Trident website is: http://thetrident.net. The Barrel House Tavern also has great views and was recommended by locals. We will try that restaurant, too, when we have more time. The Barrel House Tavern website is: http://barrelhousetavern.com.
San Francisco Area Special Experience 9: Drive one hour south of San Francisco to Half Moon Bay to enjoy the breathtaking scenery at the Ritz Carlton Half-Moon Bay
Drive just south of San Francisco to Half Moon Bay to relax overlooking the ocean at the Ritz Carlton’s Conservatory Restaurant. We asked to be seated near a window for the best view. The Piquillo Crusted Rock Cod Sandwich, $26, was fresh and delicious. Check out The Conservatory website for a menu sampler and more information here: http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/california/half-moon-bay/dining/the-conservatory
After lunch, we took the elevator down to the Ocean Terrace and relaxed by the outdoor fire overlooking the ocean. We enjoyed the All American Cookie Box, $12, for our dessert! The Ocean Terrace website is http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/california/half-moon-bay/dining/the-ocean-terrace.
On my next trip, I would love to stay at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay for at least one night. See the website here: http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/california/half-moon-bay.
San Francisco Area Special Experience 10: View world-class art works at the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum
On another day of our trip we began the day at the Legion of Honor Museum where we saw paintings by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt and sculpture, include “The Thinker,” by Rodin. All of these works are part of the permanent collection of the museum. This fine arts museum is open from 9:30 am until 5:15 pm daily, except Monday. General admission is $15 for adults. There is an extra charge for special exhibitions. The museum is located in Lincoln Park, just 20 minutes from Fisherman’s Wharf in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge and Presidio Complex.
The museum was opened by Alma Spreckels, wife of Adolf, the wealthy candy baron in 1924, shortly after the death of Adolf. You may remember her from the top of the column in Union Square. In part to gain respectability from San Francisco society members who shunned her due to her early roots, she wanted to open a fine arts museum in San Francisco. She even went to Paris where she met the famous sculptor, Rodin, and acquired his cast of “The Thinker”.
When you arrive at the museum, you will enter from the center courtyard where you will see what has come to be the symbol of the museum in San Francisco, Rodin’s masterpiece, “The Thinker,” standing in the center of the plaza. There is no charge to visit the plaza, so if you do not want to spend the money to visit the museum, at least consider a quick stop here to see this masterpiece. After you spend some time admiring the sculpture and taking some pictures, hopefully you will decide to step inside the museum and see some more world-class art.
After you pay for your admission ticket, walk directly through the center domed area to Gallery 10, to see more of Rodin’s famous works including The Gates of Hell inspired by Dante’s “Inferno”. Rodin designed the sculpture as part of a group of sculptures to be placed at the entrance to a Decorative Arts Museum in Paris, but that museum was never built. Notice the unique fluidity of “The Three Shades” designed to adorn the top of the entrance. To the right of this gallery, see more works by Rodin in Gallery 12.
Next, continue walking to the right to Gallery 14. Here you will see the museum’s only Rembrandt painting on the far wall.
Now, look down the long hallway to the right toward the front of the museum. There, at the end of the hallway, framed by the arch above, you will see one of Monet’s famous Water lily paintings. Continue all the way to this room, Gallery 19. This gallery is, in my opinion, the reason to visit the interior of this museum. Here in one room are works by Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, and more artists. Pictures are allowed, as well as short video.
If you are driving to the Legion of Honor Museum, I definitely recommend visiting early in the morning to be able to get of the limited free parking spaces available around the fountain right in front of the museum. There is also some limited free parking along El Camino del Mar. We arrived at about 10 am on a Wednesday morning in the summer, and we had no trouble finding a parking space. But, when we left at 11:30 am there were a number of cars circling and one lucky person got our parking spot when we left.
The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park at 100 34thAvenue, San Francisco. The website is https://legionofhonor.famsf.org. There is a café and a very nice gift shop on the Lower Level.
San Francisco Area Special Experience 11: Visit the Lands End National Park, Sutro Bath Ruins, and Cliff House
On the same day that we visited the Legion of Honor Museum, we drove just 10 more minutes to the Lands End National Park Visitor Center. Park here for free and go inside to look out over the ocean to see the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
Adolph Sutro developed the baths and the second iteration of the nearby Cliff House in 1894. The baths consisted of an ocean pool aquarium and a 3-acre covered public bathhouse. The public swimming facility for the enjoyment of the citizens of San Francisco was divided into seven swimming pools at various temperatures. It included slides, trapezes, a high dive, band concerts, and restaurants. The Sutro Baths could accommodate 10,000 people at one time. The entrance area of the bath contained educational natural history exhibits, galleries of sculptures, paintings, tapestries and artifacts from Mexico, China, Asia, and the Middle East, including the popular Egyptian mummies. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the baths were not as well visited and profits declined. Eventually, they were closed and fell into ruin. The ruins are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Read more about this United States National Park here:
Billy says you should walk down on the path toward the baths and then walk a bit around the bend to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a special angle. Be sure to look for the Labyrinth. Find out more about the Layrinth here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/labyrinth-lands-end
It was quite cold and windy on the early August day when Debbie and I visited, so we just walked about five minutes down the hill to the renowned Cliff House to shop at their gift shop and to look at the pictures of all the famous people who have visited here since the first Cliff House opened in 1863. Read more about the Cliff House here: https://cliffhouse.com.
We had a delicious lunch overlooking the ruins of the Sutro Baths at the appropriately named, Sutro’s at the Cliff House. The two-crab salad with soft-shelled crab was fantastic. Debbie loved the two-crabcake appetizer. We celebrated an end to our trip to San Francisco with the molten chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream. (Well, we were on vacation, right?) Check out their website here: https://cliffhouse.com/sutros/.
Bonus San Francisco Area Special Experience
While I was in San Francisco I also visited the Walt Disney Family Museum in the historic Presidio Complex near the Golden Gate Bridge. I was honored to be able to interview Kirsten Komorske, Executive Director of the museum, for my upcoming podcast. Visiting this museum is definitely another special San Francisco area experience, so stay tuned for my next blog and podcast about that museum. Until then, check out the Disney Family Museum website here:
You might be interested in my article and podcast with Jeff Peo of walkli to learn more about that great mapping website. There are some links to maps by Billy and other travel bloggers, like me, who love to create walking maps of our travels. Check out my blog and podcast with Jeff here:
You can find Billy at his website, BillysCities.com, and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest @BillysCities.
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Until next time, I hope all of your travel days are just perfect!
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