The bohemian US city of San Francisco has been oozing culture since even before its heyday in the 50s. Nowadays, it has a reputation for its counter culture, with creative types and Silicon Valley techies living here and lovers of the arts and contemporary lifestyles visiting in their droves.
Here’s a rundown of the best cultural attractions in San Francisco, with plenty of things to do, whether you’re travelling as a couple, with the family, or on your own. The worldly cuisine, open spaces, excellent museums housed in interesting buildings and sunny climate are sure to win everyone over.
Getting your bearings
Even though San Francisco is on a fairly small peninsula, buses and cable cars are the best form of transport to combat the steep hills. The latter are an attraction in themselves and crazy fun (pictured above during a trip with mom!). The cable cars here are an antiquated form of tram with cables hidden beneath both California and Powell Street.
Built in 1873, you can learn more about their history and how the underground system works at the Cable Car Museum. If you’d prefer a longer ride and have access to a car, download the route for the 49-mile drive and take in a whistle-stop tour of all the city’s main sights.
A city of the arts
You don’t even need to visit a gallery to mop up some creative vibes in San Francisco, as you can just wander around and take in the street art. However, for a more structured approach to art, head to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). Having been expanded in 2016, it’s now America’s largest contemporary art museum, with displays of pop, minimal and figurative art, not to mention American abstraction and post 1960’s German art.
San Francisco is synonymous with jazz, and both the SF Jazz Center and Fillmore are the places to go to listen to world class jazz and blues. As you can see in the featured photo above (which my lovely sister Kristi took of me on our most recent trip to visit our brother there), the lakeside Palace of Fine Arts Theatre is gorgeous and hosts concerts, as well as theatre productions, comedy and more.
In San Francisco, even the more mainstream visitor attractions are unique. Of course, the Golden Gate Bridge will draw you in with its Art Deco towers painted in ‘International Orange’. You can take a free guided walking tour on a Thursday or Sunday, or just stop at the Welcome Center.
Another attraction, on the water, is Alcatraz, the world-famous maximum security prison that held Al Capone. Either take one of the public ferries and enjoy the Cellhouse audio tour under your own steam or book with a tour company for everything included, even a night-time or behind the scenes tour.
History and discovery
Among the wealth of museums in San Francisco, you’ll find the Walt Disney Family Museum and a Cartoon Art Museum. However, one of the most celebrated is the California Academy of Sciences, which houses not only the Kimball Natural History Museum and Asian Art Museum but also a planetarium, the Steinhart Aquarium and a rainforest dome.
Situated in the gorgeous Golden Gate Park is the fine arts De Young Museum, with its Hamon Observation Tower offering 360-degree views across the city, the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Also in the Golden Gate Park, but with a far more family-focused appeal, is the Bay Area Discovery Museum, which offers interactive exhibits, activities and creative programmes for kids up to age 10.
I mentioned The Palace of Fine Arts already for its theatrical offerings, but the stunning 1915 building also houses an Exploratorium. This tactile dome is a science museum where you can experience sensory elevation through hands-on interaction.
Cultures and cuisines combine
Being such a multi-cultural city, each of San Francisco’s neighbourhoods has a different cultural heritage. You can shop for souvenirs with a difference at the Japan Center and stay in Japantown for fried chicken ramen at places like the excellent Suzu Noodle House. This area will give you instant vibes of travelling in Tokyo.
Or head to Chinatown, to add your own message to a fortune cookie at the small factory, drink at tea houses and sample treats in dim sum restaurants, like Hong Kong Lounge. Wherever you go, there are street stands, food trucks and restaurants of every nationality and flavour. Try Little Beach for Italian trattorias, the Mission District for Mexican food and even the tiny French Quarter at Belden Place.
I hope you’ve found this guide useful for planning your culture-filled trip to San Francisco, with or without kids in tow. There’s so much more to see and do that you’ll no doubt need some further reading, so definitely do some more research or check out a guide to San Francisco, covering yet more attractions, as well as beaches, shops, nightlife, hotels, travel tips and beyond.
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