When planning a trip to San Francisco every tourist knows to walk, run, or bike across Golden Gate Bridge, visit Fisherman's Wharf, take a ferry tour to Alcatraz, visit the world's crookedest street (pst, it's Lombard Street), see the Painted Ladies, visit Ghirardelli and take a cable car ride. And don't get me wrong, these things are great! But once you've hit up these spots and are ready to see the city like a local, here are the essential San Francisco spots to include on your itinerary:
You cannot go wrong with a walk, run, or hike at Land's End. This ~3 mile path, starting where the Outer Richmond meets Ocean Beach, will take you past incredible view of of the bay, Golden Gate Bridge, and Marin. Within minutes you'll have completely forgotten the bustling city of San Francisco and be in awe that this place exists within the 7x7.
Check the weather before heading out - though the hike is great no matter what, it's best enjoyed when the fog has cleared. Download this weather app before your trip since it can be 70 and sunny in one spot and drizzly just a mile away.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States (20% bigger than Central Park in New York), and a visitor could spend days exploring everything within its limits. In fact, having lived in San Francisco for four years, and right next to Golden Gate Park for a substantial part of that time, I still discover new things every time I'm there.
There are loads of museums, trails, and gardens, but in my opinion you should make sure to stop by these free things: The Conservatory of Flowers, the buffalo, the Rose Garden, and Stow Lake.
Loved by locals and full of controversy, Dolores Park is often overlooked by visitors. It's not a place to do a drive by viewing, but if you've got some time, it's a great spot to go enjoy a Saturday picnic, complete with beers or a bottle of wine (yes, it's illegal to drink in public, but you'll fit right in at Dolores) and excellent people watching. If you get a spot on the hill aka “gay beach” you'll also enjoy awesome city views. Oh, and if you're dying to get away from Karl the Fog, this is going to be your best bet.
Beware: You will get inquiries about purchasing everything from rum coconuts to truffles to slices of pizza. Some of these food items contain illicit substances and some of them are sold to meet the needs of the cravings that ensue. Buyers beware.
The Embarcadero and Ferry Building
Two miles around the edge of the city from Fisherman's Wharf you'll come upon the gorgeous ferry building. Don't miss it. And make sure to take a stroll inside among the artisanal food and craft shops. Though it will be crawling, if you're into Farmer's Markets (for groceries or street food), head here on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday morning and you won't be disappointed.
My recommendation is to start one day at the Ferry Building (whether a Farmer's Market day or not, you can always get coffee and pastries from Blue Bottle or Pete's) and stroll along the Embarcadero until you get to Fisherman's Wharf (and then Ghirardelli Square). Yes, it's a couple mile walk, but you'll get to enjoy great views of the bay, so you can't really go wrong. Your walk will also mean more room for sourdough bread bowls and ice cream sundaes... so....
(Psst if you walk the other way, about a mile down, you'll hit AT&T park.)
Just a bit beyond Fisherman's Wharf (aka Pier 39, aka tourist trap, aka worth it once) you'll come upon Ghirardelli Square (some locals may lynch me for calling this a local spot, but hear me out). If you haven't heard of Ghirardelli, or even if you have, but you've never been to one of their exclusive shops before, make a stop. For one, they'll give you a free square of chocolate just for walking in. For two, if you are in need of a ridiculous ice cream desert, they have that too.
This hilltop also boasts great bay views. If you're too cold or too full for ice cream, try San Francisco's best Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista.
If you have a car during your visit, drive up to the top of Twin Peaks for the best view of the city from within the city limits. Unless you're really crazy, don't try running, walking or biking up to the top of Twin Peaks, but if you can swing a drive and want to take in all of the neighborhoods from a bird's eye view, this is your spot.
Everyone has their biases and I'll readily admit mine: The Mission. In San Francisco you're either Marina or Mission with the most high level stereotypes for each being fratty or hipster, respectively. If you fall on the hipster side of things, you'll love a stroll along Valencia Street (between 14th and 24th).
Stop in any store and browse everything from thrift store steals to overpriced backpacks and greeting cards. Grab coffee at Four Barrel or Ritual, a pasty at Arizmendi Bakery, or a cocktail at the El Techo rooftop bar (okay, technically on Mission Street), and enjoy the beautiful day.
Hayes Valley is awesome for all of about 6 total blocks and then you're in Civic Center which is really not nice. It's not really dangerous, but there is lots of homelessness and drug addiction in the area, so it's not a fun place to explore. However, if you stick between Octavia, Hayes, Buchanan, and Fell, you'll love Hayes Valley. In my opinion it's a very compact version of Valencia Street. Get Smitten Ice cream, Ritual coffee, and drop in Biergarten for massive beers and decent german bar food.
SF Fun Cheap
If you want to get really local and stay within a budget in a city that makes that very hard to do, check out SF Fun Cheap. You might get lucky and find that the Hunky Jesus contest, SantaCon, or something else equally awesome is happening in San Francisco while you're in town.