San Francisco has spectacular scenic views, and they are everywhere. The city’s location at the northern tip of a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, hilly topography, rugged windswept coastline, magnificent parks, huge bay, expansive bay front, eclectic neighborhoods, pastel-colored houses tightly packed together in ascending layers, and magical stairways offer unparalleled views.
Majestic Golden Gate Bridge is synonymous with San Francisco. Spanning the often fog-banded bay entrance (called Golden Gate) from the north end of the San Francisco peninsula to the Marin Headlands, views are picture-perfect. The sight of the red superstructure against the blue sky or punching through the fog layer is awesome. Whether you walk over it, drive over it, or take a tour bus over it, the crossing is memorable. Here’s how to see it:
- Walk it! The round-trip over and back on the pedestrian-only pathway is about 3.4 miles. On the way over, views from high above the churning waters below and of Marin Headlands hills straight ahead are spectacular. On the way back, views of San Francisco’s bayfront and hilly, high-rise and house-draped skyline are wonderful.
- Bike it on a guided Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito Bike Tour. It’s thrilling, scenic and good for all ages. Daily 3-hr narrated tours begin at Fisherman’s Wharf, travel the bayfront route past Fort Mason, and then it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for – the ride over Golden Gate Bridge! After taking in breathtaking views, it’s on to quaint Sausalito where the tour ends and you are on your own to explore the picturesque town. When you’re ready to head back, use the ferry ticket included in the tour cast for a cool, pictureque ride across the bay.
- Imagine biking over the grand bridge as the sun sets over the Pacific. Do it on the California Sunset Tour which gets to the bridge along the same coastline route as the day trip. It crosses the Golden Gate Bridge on the Ocean side, which is way coll as it opens exclusively for cyclists at 3pm. Unobstructed sunset views over the Pacific are glorious!
- See it from the water on a Golden Gate Bay Cruise. After departing from Pier 43 on Fisherman’s Wharf, the cruise travels along the waterfront for great city and Presidio views. Crossing under the massive bridge, looming ominously overhead, is unforgettable. After turning around at the mouth of the Bay, the boat heads to the other side, cruising past Marin Headlands and Sausalito before crossing over the bay, past Angel Island for a slow cruise around eerie Alcatraz Island before docking at Pier 43.
San Francisco’s Painted Ladies are so picturesque they are featured on postcards and promotional brochures. These circa 1892-1896 restored private residences, with the San Francisco skyline and bay behind them, are great photo ops. The Ladies show off their best side in the late afternoon light. See them from various vantage points from Alamo Square across the street.
Coit Tower, perched on top of Telegraph Hill, is another symbolic landmark. Wonderful 306° views of the city and bay spread out below the Art Deco tower. There’s a fee for the elevator ride to the glassed-in observation area at the top.
Twin Peaks is another popular visitor destination with scenic views. Tour buses and private cars drive around the base and up to the parking area. Panoramic views of surrounding neighborhoods stretching out towards the bay, views across the bay and out to the ocean in the distance are amazing. The adventurous traveler can’t resist climbing up wooden stairs to the top. One of the coolest sights is to be there as fog rolls and drifts up the west side of the peak and cascades down the east side.
BOAT CRUISE VIEWS
The 90-minute Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise is great for anyone fascinated with bridges. The boat travels under both the Golden Gate Bridge and the massive, curving Bay Bridge, taking in spectacular city and bay sights between the two.
For adventurous visitors, the thrill of cutting through the water of the big bay on San Francisco Day Sail aboard Adventure Cat is the ticket. The glow of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean experienced on the California Sunset Sail is simply spectacular.
For those who enjoy a leisurely cruise with views, meals and entertainment, Hornblower Fleet has several options. Cruises depart from Pier 3 for bay cruises which pass scenic highlights, including the Golden Gate Bridge. The 2-hour Brunch Cruise is a nice daytime option. Evening options – Supper Club, Midweek Dinner and Weekend Dinner Cruises – offer glorious views of the city sparkling in night lights.
Two accessible overlooks on the Presidio’s coastal bluffs have fabulous unimpeded views. Sit on a rustic wooden bench on Pacific Overlook for dramatic Pacific Ocean views from Lands End to the Golden Gate Bridge. Nearby Golden Gate Bridge Overlook has fabulous ocean view plus a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from a totally different perspective.
Lands End Overlooks. Views from this rocky, windswept urban wilderness overlooking the mouth of the bay in the northwest corner of San Francisco, is a must see. Rugged cliffs, windblown forests, pocket beaches and churning waves rolling in from the Pacific Ocean are simply spectacular. The under 3-mile round trip walk along dirt and paved Coastal View Trail to Eagle Point Lookout is gorgeous. Views from several other well-marked overlooks are breathtaking.
Sutro Heights Park and Sutro Bath Ruins above Cliff House Restaurant offer dramatic views directly over crashing Pacific Ocean waves, and of Ocean Beach and Sunset District homes. Enjoy lunch at Cliff House perched on a rocky promontory overlooking Seal Rocks.
Hawk Hill really does have hawks – and other raptors, especially in the fall when they ride the currents above this magnificent Marin Headland hills site. Good for all skill levels, the .2 mile hike, beginning a short distance from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, is popular year-round. Vistas from this 923-foot perch are phenomenal. Parking is a challenge. Dress for cold and wind.
Stairway Walks are uniquely San Francisco. Finding them and climbing them is a super cool, off-the-beaten-path way to come upon spectacular views. Hundreds of stairways cross over the city’s 42 hills. Each stairway is different, having been built for neighborhood access in areas too steep to go straight to by other means. Many stairways are maintained by residence, adding to the picturesque charm. Stairway lists are available. Well-known stairways are Filbert Steps leading up to Coit Tower Stairs which lead to Coit Tower, Green Street Stairs, Vallejo Street Stairway, and Greenwich Street Stairs.
BUS TOUR VIEWS
Considering parking and driving challenges in a busy city, a bus tour is a good choice for first-time visitors and for travelers interested in maximizing their time. Big Bus of San Francisco 24 & 48 Hour Tours are a good option. The route covers the sights you came to see, including both sides of the iconic bridge, which are two of the 20 designated hop-off/hop-on stops. The open upper level of Big Bus vehicles offers unobstructed views. Dress warmly for winds and cold. Lower level seating is comfortable, warmer and has large viewing windows. Consider a Big Bus San Francisco by Night Tour. The city glitters at night.