Looking to explore San Francisco on foot, without renting a car? Start your elliptical workouts now and check out these easy tips to enjoy a walking tour of San Francisco.
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I left my heart in San Francisco
Ah, San Francisco! Home to clam chowder in bread bowls, big hills, squeaky cable cars...and me! Though I rarely mention it, as it was quite a long time ago now, I was actually born in SF, back before the seals had taken over Pier 39! More on them later! I've had the pleasure to return several times over the years, as we have family out there still.
In the time since I left, San Francisco has multiplied in size I'm not sure how many times, and become a *major* tourist attraction. And, with good reason! "The City's" weather is great, the scenery is gorgeous, and you are a hop, skip, & a jump away from a number of other wonderful spots, such as California Wine Country.
Can I see San Francisco without renting a car?
The million dollar question! Can you see San Francisco without renting a car? And the answer is absolutely yes. We just returned from a lovely 3 night visit to the City by the Bay, without renting a car!
We saw everything we wanted to see, and honestly so much more than we were expecting! I do find that when people are planning a trip to SF, they don't even consider spending most of their time on foot, and just assume that it's impossible. It's not, especially if you like walking as much as we do (and don't haul around a giant backpack, etc.).
I will give my lawyer warning here, that my husband and I walk A LOT and the second warning that there are hills. But don't be afraid - they're not exactly secret hills! You'll know when you're going up one, and if you change your mind, grab a cab/Uber/cable car, or take a break!
Naturally, there may be things you want to go that fall outside of walkability or you might just get tired. And that's OK - that's what the cable car and Uber are there for!
Where to stay in San Francisco without a car?
San Francisco is a tourist haven, and of course that means more hotels than you ever knew existed! And, of course, it depends what you're looking for! I've stayed in a few different areas.
Hotels in Nob Hill
So my recommendation for a *nice* and central location is definitely the luxurious Nob Hill. Home to several of the City's nicest hotels, it's a high-end area, with walkable restaurants on nearby Russian Hill, and down the Hill in Union Square (which is directly South).
I have stayed at The Huntington, a gorgeous hotel that's been lovingly restored and houses The Big Four, one of my favorite restaurants and bars in the City. Nearby are also the famous Fairmont, which is worth a visit, even if you aren't staying there, and The Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, also home to a great (indoor) rooftop bar, Top of the Mark.
Locals and people who've been to SF may be wondering why I'm recommending Nob Hill in an article about walkability. Yes, it's a hill. And, to get many places (including Union Square), you'll have to walk down a large hill, in the event you want to journey elsewhere. That said, Nob Hill is jam-packed with things to do and is also well-served by the cable cars, which seem to always be buzzing around. And walking down to dinner when it's light and taking a cab up when it's dark isn't a bad idea!
Hotels in Union Square
Most tourists will stay in Union Square, the heart of San Francisco tourism. We stayed at the Hilton, Union Square on our most recent visit, which was centered around - you guessed it! Hilton points. If you're looking for small and quaint, Union Square is not the place for you. If you're looking for walkability, then c'mon down! Fair warning: Union Square is a bit crowded, super touristy, and you'll want to be alert when walking around. Unfortunately, there are always people who prey on unaware tourists.
Hotels in Pacific Heights
Another central location is Pacific Heights, to the West of Nob Hill and Union Square. The Hotel Drisco is the banner hotel in this area - an absolute classic!
A walking tour of San Francisco, with maps!
So let's talk tourism! Here's my recommended itinerary for a walking tour of San Francisco in two fairly full days. On our most recent trip, we were only in town for two nights, so one day was really only 3/4 of a day!
San Francisco walking tour: Day 1
Day 1 and it's a big one! This itinerary, if you did the whole thing, involved me taking about 20,000 steps. So charge up that Fit-Bit before you go! Let's get walking!
Walk to the Ferry Building
Assuming you're staying in Union Square, start by walking through the Financial District to the Ferry Building, the headquarters of San Francisco's Embarcadero. It's about a mile walk from Union Square, though entirely flat, which is nice. Let the lack of hills lull you into a false sense of security!
Opened in 1898, the Ferry Building is the jumping/dropping off point of ferries moving around the San Francisco Bay. Originally, it was also a junction of several of the California railroads that "built" the American West. Incidentally, if you're interested in this type of history, I'd strongly recommend checking out Ken Burns' lovely documentary, The West, before your trip! Today, the Ferry Building continues to serve some of its original purpose, as you'll see ferries moving around in the Bay behind it. But, mostly it's a food hall and touristy shopping area (though definitely higher end than I remembered it being). It contains a number of sit-down restaurants, if you're hungry, but I've recommended my favorite restaurant in SF in Fisherman's Wharf, a little later in our walk.
If you journey behind the Ferry Building (it's a bit gritty), you'll get your first view of San Francisco's Bay Bridge. This is not the Golden Gate Bridge, as you'll note, it's not red, but many a disoriented tourist suspects that's what they're seeing! The Bay Bridge, one of the largest in the US, is well-known for partially collapsing in 1989, during the Loma Prieta earthquake, but it's in great shape today! It would take you over to Oakland, were you to hop on.
Explore the Piers
After you've finished at the Ferry Building (unless you're eating, I wouldn't build in too much time for this portion), continue Northwest-ish (left) to explore San Francisco's other piers. Numbered somewhat haphazardly, this walk will eventually take you to the famous Pier 39. Some piers are more built-out than others.
Pier 39 is a definitely on most tourists' to-do list, and it's a fun spot! *Super* touristy, it's absolutely not where you come if you're looking for bargain food or a "true" SF experience, but it's fun never the less. Mostly restaurants, Pier 39 is built up almost fully. And, be sure to visit its newest inhabitants, the sea lions, who essentially took over the pier starting in 1990. After a good ole' study, biologists decided it was a good spot for them, and a great tourist attraction was born! The sea lions love nothing more than pushing each other off of high places, so catch a bit of the pushing and shoving...and then move along. There's a bit of pushing and shoving among the people, as well.
Scomas in Fishermans' Warf
From Pier 39, continue your journey into the heart of Fisherman's Wharf (technically, Pier 39 is part of Fisherman's Wharf). A formerly gritty area, while it is largely touristy now, you will still enjoy seeing some real fishing boats at work.
Stop for lunch at my favorite restaurant in San Francisco, Scoma's. Scoma's at Fisherman's Wharf is the original, though they do have other locations. If you are heading out to Sausalito, I would absolutely eat at that Scoma's, as well! An SF classic, Scoma's feels like a step back in time. With white-coat-clad waiters, stiff cocktails, and fish that comes right off the pier, it's a bit like a scene from Mad Men, gone West. Prices are a bit high, but if you scope out the menu, you can definitely snag some lunch deals that won't break the bank. And even if they do, it's worth it. Scoma's also has a nice bar, if you're just looking to get off your feet for a bit!
Scoma's is also a celebrity haunt, for my celebrity watchers! The whole restaurant was crawling with Federal protection officers when we visited, though we had the awkward situation of no one knowing who the people were they were protecting (and we all went over and spied!).
Our final stop for this portion of the walk is Ghirardelli Square, home to the former chocolate factory founded by SF's favorite chocolatier in the mid-19th century. There's not a huge amount to do in this area, but you can get your first good glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, to the West! The Buena Vista is also nearby, known for its Irish Coffees (according to my sister-in-law. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit!).
Cable Car Adventure
And we have reached the end of this portion of the walk! Here you'll find the transit kiosk to board the Cable Car! This route will take you up Hyde Street, which goes past Lombard Street and up Nob Hill. Take that and grab dinner at Nob Hill. The lines can be quite long. For more on Cable Cars, check out the official SF Transit website.
Extra Credit: Walk back to your hotel from Ghiridelli Square
If you are truly a walker, *CLIMB* all the way up to Nob Hill or Russian Hill for dinner. It's a gorgeous walk up Hyde Street, but SO STEEP. This walk is not for the faint of heart, literally or figuratively. I flatter myself to say I'm in pretty good shape, and I had to take breaks and felt a bit faint at the end of it! Don't worry, one drink at the Fairmont's Tonga Room, and I was cured - more on that, below!
Extra Credit: Cavallo Point Lodge
Admittedly, venturing to Cavallo Point does require a car. But that's why it's extra credit! We were lucky to have a friend drive us, but you could take an Uber (warning: check how much it will cost - there's a toll to cross the bridge).
Cavallo Point is a former Army base, turned event facility and fancy hotel! The Cavallo Point Lodge is a cozy place to grab a drink, and the views of the Golden Gate Bridge are unbeatable.
San Francisco walking tour: Day 2
For us, this second day of walking (which we did first, not that it matters), was really only 3/4 of a day. So, feel free to take your time, or you may want to add something else on at the beginning or the end. I've included some recommendations.
Whether you're starting your tour in Union Square because you're staying there or because that's what I'm telling you, Union Square is our starting point for today! The heart of SF tourism, Union Square is like any touristy district - I'd compare it to the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Touristy, but with good shopping if you're interested! Neiman Markus, Saks, Burberry? You name, it, Union Square has it! Even if you aren't a big shopper, definitely spend some time taking in the atmosphere. It's also an easy place to hop on the cable car, though fair warning: expect a line!
If you're in the mood for the classic clam chowder in a bread bowl, be sure to stop by one of the branches of Boudin, either here, or throughout the city, to warm up!
The new Gumps, Union Square
And, *of course,* while you're in Union Square, be sure to check out Gumps. For the uninitiated, Gumps was a San Francisco classic high-end house store that went out of business at the end of 2018, to the dismay of many. Having been purchased, it has been revived first as an online store, so be sure to support the "new" company. Gumps has the most phenomenal Christmas ornaments I've ever seen.
Extra credit in Union Square: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
If you're looking to add a bit of culture, check out the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It couldn't be closer to Union Square - and always an enlightening experience!
San Francisco's China Town
The U.S.'s original China Town is certainly a sight to be seen! Today, more people visit China Town than the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a haven of Asian-American culture and history. Take a stroll around! Definitely pop into a souvenir shop - you won't leave empty-handed.
Nob Hill is undoubtedly my favorite spot in San Francisco. From high-end hotels to gorgeous Cathedrals, not to mention great views, Nob Hill has a lot to offer. Whether you're staying up here or just popping by, take time to enjoy Nob Hill. (And don't forget about The Big 4 and Top of the Mark, both of which were discussed above).
Grace Cathedral, Nob Hill
In a perfect location atop Nob Hill, Grace Cathedral makes for a perfect (and easy) visit. The third-largest Episcopal cathedral in the United States, Grace Cathedral stands on a site that has been home to a congregation since the years immediately following the Gold Rush. The year following its completion, after almost 40 years of construction, Martin Luther King spoke at the Cathedral in celebration.
Being a more recent cathedral, the church offers interesting allusions to some of Europe's most well-known cathedrals, including replicas of Florence's Ghiberti Doors and Chartres' labyrinth.
The Tonga Room, The Fairmont, Nob Hill
For a complete change of speed, hop over to The Fairmont to experience one of the oldest Tiki bars in the nation, The Tonga Room. Kicking off in 1945, it's been vacation and indoor thunderstorms ever since! Let's just say there was a line to get in at 5 PM. If you can, make it in time for happy hour.
Thanks for stopping by!
I hope you enjoy my hometown as much as I always do! Don't forget to drop your suggestions in the comments below!
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