Want to see the most sights in San Francisco in the least amount of time possible? Then you need my patent-pending, Best Damn Driving Tour of San Francisco—it's the most efficient way to tour the city of San Francisco without coughing up hundreds of dollars for a helicopter ride.
So who's this driving tour of San Francisco for?
This tour is for people who've never been to San Francisco, obviously. People who've never driven across the Golden Gate Bridge, never taken a Red Line boat to Alcatraz, never heard the honking sea lions of Fisherman's Wharf, and never watched the sunset from Twin Peaks.
Sad, right? Well, soon, that won't be you anymore if you follow this route!
To be more accurate, this tour is for anyone who has a valid US driver's license and either owns their own car, can borrow a car from a friend, or is old enough—and has the requisite credit rating—to rent a car in California.
You could, I suppose, use ride-sharing companies like Uber® and Lyft® to get you from point to point along this route. But, with surge-pricing and driver tipping, I'm not sure if it would be any cheaper than the helicopter ride.
Driving in San Francisco can be a nightmare.
Cars aren't the only way to tour San Francisco. In fact, if you have more time, you could reasonably see all of these same sites by walking, riding a bicycle, or using some combination of the SF Bay Area's two main mass-transit systems, BART and Caltrain. But the title of this post isn't “The Best Damn Walking, Cycling, and Mass Transit Tour of San Francisco,” now, is it? No, it's not. But it is a good idea for another post.
What makes my driving tour the “best damn” one, you ask?
Experience, plain and simple. You see, I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1997, and I know what tourists from the rest of America (and the world) want to see while visiting this fair city. I'm talking about Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, Haight-Ashbury, the Castro, and the rest.
Basically, tourists want to see every location in San Francisco that they've seen in movies and on TV. And the easiest way to do that is by driving—especially within the short time-frame most tourists have before their annual business conference ends (see also, Dreamforce). In one day, you can see practically everything your friends back home will ask you if you saw while you were visiting San Francisco.
Follow my favorite tour route through San Francisco.
When friends and family of mine from New York, or anywhere on the East Coast, visited San Francisco, they'd often ask me to give them “a driving tour of San Francisco.” Of course, some of them would ask me to buy them weed, But when I wouldn't, they settled for a driving tour.
In fact, so many people had asked me to drive them around San Francisco so many times, that I finally made a Google Map of my favorite and fastest route through the city.
By creating a Google Map on the Internet, I wouldn't have to keep reinventing the route every time somebody I knew visited the Bay Area—which was very often.
Better yet, I could just share the Google Map with anyone I didn't like well enough to spend 4 hours in a car with. As a result, my anti-social-ness, horrible memory, and laziness are your gain!
Is this really the best damn driving tour of San Francisco? Yes.
There are plenty of excellent reasons why people from all over American come to San Francisco, and you'll see a lot of them on this tour. Here's a list of the 25 must-see sights you'll totally-see when you follow my best damn driving tour of San Francisco:
- (A) 4th & King Station – The OG downtown Caltrain San Francisco Station
- (B) Cupid's Span – That big Bow & Arrow sculpture on the Embarcadero
- (C) The Ferry Building – Where ferry boats and fancy food-stalls meet
- (D) Fisherman's Wharf – Seafood and subs like the USS Pampanito.
- (E) PIER 39 – Where giant sea lions snore loudly on wooden docks in the bay
- (F) Ghirardelli Square – Landmark public square with chocolate shops and restaurants
- (G) Coit Tower – 210-foot tall tower with great views of San Francisco
- (H) City Lights Bookstore – Literary landmark founded by beatnik poets in 1953
- (I) Chinatown – The oldest Chinatown in North America
- (J) Cable Car Museum – See the San Francisco cable car system in action!
- (K) The Fairmont San Francisco – Luxury hotel featured in many films, including, The Rock
- (L) Union Square – A popular shopping, hotel, and theater district
- (M) Lombard Street – The famous “crookedest street in the world”
- (N) Fillmore District – The largest jazz scene on the West Coast
- (O) Palace of Fine Arts – Museum, originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition
- (P) Crissy Field – Marina District picnic area with views of the Golden Gate Bridge
- (Q) The Presidio – Converted military base that's now a public park
- (R) Sea Cliff – Restaurant overlooking the Pacific coast, burns frequently
- (S) Great Highway – Road that runs along Ocean Beach on the Pacific Coast
- (T) Twin Peaks – Two 900+ foot tall hills outside of downtown San Francisco
- (U) Haight-Ashbury – Home to 1960s hippie and counterculture weirdos
- (V) Alamo Square – See the “Painted Ladies,” a well-known postcard image
- (W) Castro District – San Francisco's mecca for LGBTQ+ folk
- (X) Mission Dolores Park – Where to smoke pot on a blanket
- (Y) City College – One in nine San Francisco residents go here
Drive my fastest route to see the Top-25 sights in San Francisco.
This self-driving tour of San Francisco is a fairly comprehensive—and relatively speedy—route, considering that it covers 25 of the most popular “Fog City” highlights! Wow, that's a lot of stuff to see and do.
So, to make the best of your limited time, you'll want to get started early on my driving tour of San Francisco, when traffic is lighter. Of course, in San Francisco, traffic is only lighter at 4am. Maybe wait until the sun is up, so you'll actually be able to see the sights without night-vision goggles.
Some driving tips for driving in San Francisco.
Large pickup trucks and SUVs are not welcome in San Francisco—do not rent them unless you're a masochist. San Francisco is a cramped city, not a sprawling suburb like most Americans may be used to. So driving and parking anywhere, in anything larger than a damn Yugo®, can be a real b!tch.
Instead, rent the smallest car you can possibly get, and then download the SpotHero parking app. That will make finding a place to park in San Francisco a helluva lot easier.
Quick note: when parking your tiny rental car on a hilly street in San Francisco—in other words, all of them—you must “curb your wheels” by law.
Curbing your wheels simply means turning your front wheels hard towards the curb before putting the car in park. DO NOT FORGET TO DO THIS.
The reason for curbing your wheels is important. If the car rolls, for whatever reason, the car will only roll until it hits the curb—no harm, no foul. If you don't curb your wheels, the vehicle could roll straight down the hill, gathering speed, until it kills innocent people. That would be bad.
More general tips about San Francisco you should know.
Basically, the weather in San Francisco is the world's most annoying weather. It gets damn cold, even in the summer (just ask Mark Twain). And it gets effing hot, even in the winter. In San Francisco, you can expect to experience a temperature range anywhere between 50°F and 95°F. Every. Damn. Day.
Mornings are freezing*, midday is sweltering, and afternoons and evenings are freezing again. So accept the fact that you'll never be able to choose the right clothes.
If you commit to wearing cool clothes, you will regret it. If you commit to warm clothes, you will regret that, too. The only solution is to bring several layers of clothing, always and everywhere. Do not trust the weather in San Francisco—it lies.
Oh, and one final tip: Sourdough bread kinda sucks. There, I said it.
*Hey, I grew up in the Snow Belt and froze out here. So don't think, “I can handle 50°F,” because it's a different type of cold in San Francisco. You WILL freeze, and you will get fleeced buying an overpriced fleece from some guy who makes a good living off cocky North Easterners.