AAA Walking ToursUnion Square/ChinatownThis self-guiding tour takes about 2 hours, depending on your pace and the number of stops you make along the way.
Let's face it—San Francisco is known for its treacherous hills, which can tax even the fittest walkers. This tour, however, takes advantage of flat stretches, although you’ll still want to wear a pair of comfortable shoes. If you're unwilling or unable to navigate the steeper sections of certain streets, you can always hop on a Muni bus or cable car.
Union Square is the starting point. The Powell-Hyde cable car stops on the south (Geary Street) side. Garage parking is pricey, but if you must drive the underground Union Square Garage can be accessed from Geary Street (one-way westbound). Rates are cheaper at the Sutter-Stockton garage at 444 Stockton St. (between Sutter and Bush streets).
Note: Ongoing construction of Muni’s T Third Line in the vicinity of Geary and Stockton streets creates occasional traffic and pedestrian disruptions; follow marked detours where necessary.
Built in 1850, this paved plaza was named for the demonstrations held in support of Union troops at the start of the Civil War. Standing at the center is the 97-foot-tall Dewey Monument, erected in 1903 to honor Commodore George Dewey's 1898 Manila Bay victory over the Spanish. A Goddess of Victory statue tops this needle-shaped column.
Union Square is the heart of the downtown hangout scene. Sidewalk vendors sell flowers, streetcar bells clang and car horns ceaselessly honk. People relax on benches, nap on grassy areas and fill umbrella-shaded tables at the Emporio Rulli café.
The historic Westin St. Francis (335 Powell St.) not only survived the 1906 earthquake but served breakfast on the morning of the disaster. The hotel's spectacular lobby features an antique grandfather clock and long served as a local meeting place, thereby coining the well-known request “Meet me at the St. Francis” (the catchphrase also appears on the city's cable cars).
A huge Macy's faces Union Square's south side. Saks Fifth Avenue rubs elbows with Tiffany & Co. Neiman Marcus, at Geary and Stockton streets, boasts a six-story rotunda topped with an elaborate stained-glass dome. An arched ceiling features a mural of a sailing ship and crowns The Rotunda, a fancy-schmancy restaurant where the well-heeled convene for afternoon tea.
Apple Union Square, at the corner of Post and Stockton, is up-to-the-minute cool, with giant windows providing a view of the square and all the latest technological gadgetry on display.
From Union Square, walk along Maiden Lane east to Grant Avenue. This short, narrow side street was lined with bordellos during the raucous Barbary Coast era more than 150 years ago. At Grant turn left and head to Post Street. Here die-hard shoppers will want to detour temporarily left and/or right and check out the high-end clothing retailers.
Past Post Street, continue on Grant to the corner of Bush Street and the symbolic entryway into Chinatown, a green-tiled gate bedecked with golden dragons. Dedicated in 1970, it was a gift to the city from the Republic of China. The carved stone guard dogs standing guard at each side are supposed to ward off evil.
You’ll explore Chinatown later, but for now turn right on Bush, walk two blocks to Montgomery Street and turn left. You've entered the concrete canyons of “Wall Street West,” the Financial District. Deals have been made here since the 1850s, when prospectors returned from gold mines flush with treasure that needed to be protected, thereby creating a demand for banks.
San Francisco’s skyscrapers are architecturally varied. Lean and seemingly striped, 44 Montgomery (just north of Post) was built to house Wells Fargo's world headquarters. The concrete and steel structure stands 561 feet tall. The Mills Building, 220 Montgomery St. (at Bush), was built in 1892 (the tower was added in 1907). It occupies most of the block; various artworks are on display in the large lobby.
At 435 feet, the 1928 Russ Building (235 Montgomery St., just north of Bush) was the city's tallest until the 1960s, when construction of the Transamerica Pyramid began. Back then it was referred to simply as “the skyscraper.” The Gothic design was modeled after the Chicago Tribune tower.
Speaking of “the pyramid,” San Francisco's tallest building can be seen looking north. Standing at 600 Montgomery St. where Columbus Avenue meets Washington Street, this 48-story skyscraper has nearly 6,000 windows and is topped by a 212-foot-tall spire.
In its shadow is the Jackson Square Historical District, which dates from the gold rush era. The brick buildings with iron shutters that line Gold and Balance streets contain antique shops and restaurants. Victorian-style lampposts accentuate the old-timey feel.
Continue on Montgomery to California Street and turn left. Carved concrete, marble, brown stone and red brick decorate the facades of banks and office buildings, and extravagant chandeliers hang from lobby ceilings. The 52-story skyscraper at 555 California St., formerly known as the Bank of America Center, has an accordion-like exterior that features carnelian marble.
It's a short but relatively steep two-block climb up California back to Grant Avenue. Old St. Mary's Cathedral stands on the right, sandwiched between sleek high-rises and contrasting Chinese-style architecture. Built in 1854, this Catholic church is believed to be the first cathedral in California. It survived the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires; following renovation, it was rededicated in 1909. Across the street in St. Mary's Square is a 12-foot-tall metal and granite statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China.
Turn right onto Grant Avenue. Originally called Calle de Fundacion, this is Chinatown's main drag. Red and yellow flag pennants flutter above the narrow street, entwined dragons decorate lampposts, and store window and market signs are predominantly in Chinese. Apartment buildings, some with laundry-draped balconies, stand above the shops and businesses.
Numerous restaurants advertise dim sum specials, their employees handing out menus to passers-by. Stores sell fine antiques and jade sculpture. Sidewalk bins are filled with Chinese Barbie dolls, plastic Buddha statues, tea sets, embroidered slippers, postcards, bamboo flutes, three-for-$10 T-shirts, mah-jongg games and cricket toys that produce an ear-splitting shriek.
Do a little browsing. The Canton Bazaar (616 Grant Ave.) is a popular import shop. The Chinatown Kite Shop (717 Grant Ave.) sells fish kites and hand-painted paper kites, while the Wok Shop (718 Grant Ave.) peddles all sorts of housewares. Then check out the dragons adorning the columns and guarding the front doors at the Bank of America branch (at the corner of Grant and Sacramento).
Continue up Grant five blocks to Pacific Avenue, turn left and walk a block to Stockton Street, then turn left again and walk down Stockton. Instead of souvenir shops, Stockton has mostly produce markets, bakeries and delicatessens, the latter often featuring a row of skinned ducks (with the heads still attached) hanging upside down in the window.
Saturday mornings on Stockton explode with activity. Residents pack the sidewalks, grocery shopping and socializing. Elderly women inspect the fresh water chestnuts and giant jackfruit with a keen eye, and street vendors hawk Chinese newspapers.
At Sacramento Street turn right and walk a block to Powell Street. This is the one uphill slog along the route (just keep telling yourself it’s good exercise). Once you reach Powell the reward is a vista looking east toward downtown. That’s one of the good things about San Francisco’s hills; they offer elevated vantage points from which to view the cityscape.
Turn left onto Powell. Among the tony hotels you’ll pass is the Sir Francis Drake (450 Powell St.). Take a peek inside this historic 1928 hotel; the public spaces have a swanky, old-school grandeur.
If you’re feeling hungry, stop at Sears Fine Foods (439 Powell St.), another historic spot that’s been in business since 1938. The house specialty is Swedish pancakes—18 of the crepe-like morsels, served with whipped butter and warm maple syrup—and you can order them until 3 p.m.
Continue down Powell to Post Street and you’re back at Union Square, where the tour began.Fisherman's WharfThis self-guiding tour takes about 3 hours, depending on your pace and the number of stops you make along the way.
When it comes to Fisherman's Wharf, you're likely to hear many San Franciscans sniff, “You won't catch me there—that’s for tourists.” And it’s true—the stretch of San Francisco Bay waterfront from Pier 39 west to Fort Mason is the city’s most unabashedly touristy area. Although the souvenir-heavy atmosphere may not be to everyone’s taste, most visitors do make the pilgrimage, and it’s an obvious destination if you’ve got kids in tow.
The seafaring character that gave this area its name is still evident in the docked boats and squawking seagulls swooping over the water. If you threw on a sweatshirt and headed to the piers at the crack of dawn, you might see fishermen preparing to head out for the day’s catch. While the local fishing industry is a shadow of its former importance, boats still range as far north as Bodega and as far south as Monterey bays in search of sole, flounder, cod and king salmon. Most visitors, however, are content to sleep in a bit later and hit Fisherman’s Wharf when the attractions and restaurants start opening.
This tour begins at Hyde and Jefferson streets. First take a stroll along the Hyde Street Pier, part of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, and snap some photos. Four berthed vessels dating from the late 19th century comprise the Hyde Street Pier Historic Ships. You can board each one and learn about what sailors of yore did and how they lived (the crewmen’s quarters, for one thing, were really tiny). National Park Service rangers also conduct regularly scheduled free programs and tours.
Walk east on Jefferson Street toward The Embarcadero. Every couple of doorways is a souvenir emporium, all of them featuring the same mishmash of T-shirts, San Francisco Giants pennants and postcard stands.
A bit farther along you’ll find a trio of tourist attractions: Madame Tussauds San Francisco, The San Francisco Dungeon and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium. If you’re interested in seeing any or all of them you might want to budget time for a visit later, although it won’t take long to duck into Madame Tussauds for obligatory photo ops with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Al Capone, Jerry Garcia, Lady Gaga and other notables both famous and infamous.
At Jefferson and Al Scoma Way there’s a gaggle of seafood restaurants, including well-known favorites like Scoma’s Restaurant and Alioto’s. The round Fisherman’s Wharf sign at the intersection turns up in many a vacation photo. Along “Fish Alley” are several stands where you can purchase lobster rolls or a seafood cocktail to go, assembled on the spot by vendors who constantly call out to passers-by.
At Jefferson and Taylor streets take a short detour on Pier 45 to the Musée Mécanique. This large, warehouse-like building contains a bunch of vintage arcade games as well as Laffing Sal, a red-haired figure with a creepy laugh who gave nightmares to impressionable young kids coming face to face with her in carnival fun houses during the 1930s and ‘40s. Also docked at Pier 45 are two more historic ships, the USS Pampanito and The Jeremiah O’Brien.
At Boudin at the Wharf: Museum and Bakery Tour you can see how one of San Francisco’s signature culinary specialties is created. And if you want to get an early start on a day of culinary indulgence, check out the various products for sale at the Boudin store or have some clam chowder served in an edible vessel: a sourdough bread bowl.
Jefferson ends at The Embarcadero. After passing the Blue & Gold Fleet docks at Pier 41 you’ll come to one of the most popular destinations at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39. You can’t miss the flags fluttering in the breeze atop tall poles. For an elevated perspective, take the stairway up to the pedestrian bridge that arches over The Embarcadero.
Pier 39 is mostly about shopping, shopping and more shopping. You can also feast on funnel cakes, mini doughnuts, hot pretzels and other carb-loaded goodies. Kids will love the old-fashioned carousel, and of course there are souvenirs galore, from fog in a can to the ubiquitous “I Escaped From Alcatraz” T-shirts. The upper level offers better opportunities for photos of the surrounding waterfront and Alcatraz and Angel islands.
Ever since they began hanging out on the floating docks (built especially for them) at the end of the 1980s, sea lions have been one of Pier 39’s biggest draws. Loud, gregarious and playful, their antics were guaranteed to draw a crowd. They almost totally disappeared in 2009, an event thought to be related to a shifting supply of food fish. Summer months, when females travel south to breed at offshore island rookeries, see the fewest sea lions; their presence at the pier begins to increase in the fall once breeding season is over.
From Pier 39, continue on The Embarcadero past Pier 33, embarkation point for ferries to Alcatraz Island. Cross The Embarcadero at Pier 29 (the foot of Chestnut Street), then cross Chestnut to Sansome Street. Walk three blocks on Sansome to Filbert Street; the Filbert Steps are to your right (look for the sign that says “Steps to Coit Tower”).
Climbing the east side of Telegraph Hill, the stairway rises in three sections to Telegraph Hill Boulevard, encircling the base of Coit Tower. Pause along the way both to catch your breath and to admire the views of San Francisco Bay and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The flowering plants and backyard gardens of the houses perched on either side of the steps are at their most luxuriant in the winter and early spring, the rainy season.
When you reach the top of the steps, take another breather before following Telegraph Hill Boulevard to the Coit Tower parking area, where there are great views of the bay, Alcatraz Island and, in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. Coit Tower, 210 feet tall, was built in 1933 with help from a financial donation by wealthy San Franciscan Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Take the elevator to the top of the tower for a more spectacular view.
Backtrack to Filbert Street and continue five blocks to Columbus Avenue. Fortunately you’ll be walking downhill, not uphill, and the street is so steep steps are built into the sidewalk at certain points.
At the intersection of Filbert and Columbus Avenue is Washington Square, the focal point of North Beach, San Francisco’s “Little Italy.” Just as North Beach isn't a beach, Washington Square is not a true square but a pentagon. On sunny days kids play, people catch rays on park benches or feed the pigeons, and devotees of tai chi do their thing on the lawn.
The twin white towers of the Romanesque-style Church of Saints Peter and Paul overlook the square's north side. Known as the “fisherman's church,” it offers mass in English, Italian and Cantonese. The annual Blessing of the Fleet celebration, an old Sicilian tradition held in early October, begins at the church and proceeds to Fisherman's Wharf for a fishing boat parade and memorial ceremony at sea.
The restaurants and cafés lining Columbus Avenue are very popular for alfresco noshing, especially on sunny days. For some of the best coffee in North Beach—and that's saying something in a city where excellent coffee is basically taken for granted—stop by Caffe Trieste (just east of Columbus at 601 Vallejo St., two blocks south of Washington Square). You can grab a sandwich there, too.
From Washington Square, walk up Columbus Avenue seven blocks to Beach Street, turn left and walk a block to Hyde Street. At the corner of Beach and Hyde is the Buena Vista Cafe, a San Francisco institution where you can fortify yourself with more caffeine—in this case, an Irish coffee.
A block west of Hyde along Beach Street (between Polk and Larkin streets) is Ghirardelli Square. When Italian-born candy maker Domingo Ghirardelli purchased a city block back in the 19th century to build a factory to produce his product, he probably had no idea it would become the historical landmark it is today. In addition to the namesake ice cream and chocolate shop, this complex of brick buildings houses specialty stores and restaurants. If you don’t mind braving the crowds, get your high-quality chocolate fix here.
The corner of Beach and Hyde marks the end of this walking tour and is also the northern end of the Powell & Hyde cable car line. Hop on the cable car (fare $7) and hold on tight as the car is pulled up very steep Russian Hill to Lombard Street. If you disembark to take photos of the famous block known as “the crookedest street in the world,” remember that you’ll have to pay again to board another car, unless you have a passport offering unlimited usage of Muni transportation for the duration of its validity period.
San Francisco, CA
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State and county sales taxes total 8.5 percent in San Francisco. A hotel room tax of 15 to 15.5 percent also is levied.
California Pacific Medical Center, (415) 600-6000; Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, (415) 353-6000; St. Mary's Medical Center, (415) 668-1000; Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, (415) 206-8000; University of California San Francisco Medical Center, (415) 476-1000.
749 Howard St San Francisco, CA 94103. Phone:(415)391-2000
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about 13 miles south near San Bruno off US 101 (Bayshore Freeway); it receives flights from some 50 airlines as well as private charters. Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) is about 3 miles northwest of downtown San Jose. Oakland International Airport (OAK) is off I-880 about 10 miles south of downtown Oakland.
Hertz, with locations at the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports, offers discounts to AAA members. Phone (650) 624-6600 for the San Francisco airport location, (415) 771-2200 for the outlet at 325 Mason St., (510) 633-4300 for the Oakland airport location, (408) 938-6000 for the San Jose airport location, or (800) 654-3080.
For schedule and fare information phone Amtrak at (800) 872-7245.
Greyhound Lines Inc., (800) 231-2222, departs from Bus Deck Level Three of the Salesforce Transit Center, 425 Mission St.
Taxis in San Francisco are metered, with fares averaging about $3.50 for the first one-fifth mile and 55c for each additional one-fifth mile or minute of waiting time. Either phone for a cab or wait at a hotel taxi stand (hailing one on the street often takes time and persistence). Limousine service ranges from $60-$80 per hour.
San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) provides public transportation consisting of buses, streetcars, light rail, trolley buses and cable cars. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) connects San Francisco with East Bay cities, and passenger ferries link the city with the northern Bay Area.
As a AAA member, you'll save even more. Your AAA Travel Agent will check to see if AAA Vacations is combinable with other AAA member benefits, plus cruise and tour past passenger discounts and benefits.