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As one of the most popular destinations in the U.S., it’s no surprise that San Francisco is full of popular tourist attractions, some of which are best avoided. Some are decidedly underwhelming and some are overpriced.
There are, of course, some very famous attractions that you shouldn’t pass up, even if you’re an off-the-beaten path traveler. Although these are on every tourist “hit list,” they shouldn’t be confused with “tourist traps.”
Here are five popular activities in San Francisco, with tips on how to best navigate the tourist masses:
1. Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the city’s (and world’s!) most iconic landmarks. There are many ways to experience the Golden Gate Bridge, from walking or bicycling across to simply taking a photo from various spots around town.
My favorite spot to take in the bridge is on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge at the Marin Headlands. Here you’ll find several great scenic overlooks that make for some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and San Francisco.
On a warm, clear afternoon, Alcatraz can get pretty crowded with tourists. However, for a more intimate experience and smaller crowds, take the ferry over to Alcatraz for the special night tour, which take you to places not on the daytime tour. On a clear evening, Alcatraz offers a beautiful view of the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge.
3. A ride on a cable car
If you don’t want to be shoulder to shoulder with tourists, I recommend riding a cable car first thing in the morning before they get packed. While San Francisco’s cable cars are popular with tourists, even locals use them for getting up and over the city’s steepest hills.
After your ride, enjoy a free visit to the Cable Car Museum, which takes guests on a behind-the-scenes look at how cable cars work. However, whatever you do, don’t call them “trolleys!”
If you’ve been to Chinatown in New York City, this might not be on your “to-do” list. However, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.
Come to the neighborhood with an empty stomach and plan on restaurant hopping to sample some of the city’s dim sum. Afterward, head over to Golden Gate Fortune Cookies to see how the cookies are made.
5. The “Painted Ladies”
Constructed during the 1890s, the strip of brightly painted Victorian homes known as the “Painted Ladies” is located across the street from Alamo Park and is known as “Postcard Row” (given its immense popularity).
Alamo Park is one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon. After getting your photo snapped with the “Ladies,” pick up a sandwich nearby (there are several shops on Divisadero and Haight Street), and enjoy a picnic in the park.
Also in our guide: If you’re planning a trip to the city, be sure to check out our reviews of cheap hotels in San Francisco. Our editors have visited and inspected budget hotels in the center of San Francisco, many of which are within walking distance of these attractions (well, except Alcatraz…).