Charm and beauty, history and hills, food and wine. They make the City by the Bay an ideal destination for group travelers.
There must be hundreds of yards left until the top—at least that’s what it feels like. I take a quick break to catch my breath before continuing up the steep gradient, my shoes gripping the loose sand and dirt of the makeshift path in Buena Vista Park as best they can.
This experience is nothing new in San Francisco, infamous for its precipitous hills. These mini mountains, sprinkled with an eclectic mix of architecture and people, are part of what makes San Francisco so different from anywhere else in the country.
Apart from my knowledge of San Francisco’s topography, I was unsure what to expect on my first visit. I had been told to see a variety of sights, and there are so many noteworthy attractions that it is tough to decide which ones take priority. The solution? A city tour.
Down at Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, groups can sign up for any number of city bus, bike, Segway or walking tours. For something fun and wacky, hop aboard an upgraded WWII vehicle (called a DUKW and pronounced DUCK) and quack your way through the city. Ride the Ducks San Francisco hits some of the city’s well-known areas, including Union Square, North Beach and Chinatown, giving you some background on the role these districts played in the city’s history. After your excursion on land, your group will splash into the bay to get a water view of the city and AT&T Stadium.
Extranomical Tours offers a variety of city bus tours that show visitors not only San Francisco’s hot spots, but its hidden gems and neighborhoods, too. For an off-beat experience, book an adventure aboard Magic Bus San Francisco. Groups will explore the city in the present, while periodical video projections showcase San Francisco’s iconic history. When the windows are covered with screens displaying archival videos, you’re instantly teleported back in time.
Tour groups can get their cardio fix with Blazing Saddles Bike Rental & Tours, where they can pedal along the shore and across the Golden Gate Bridge (a truly incredible experience I highly recommend). Or explore the city with active tours from Sports Basement, offering customizable running tours, and Urban Hiker SF, helping travelers explore the trails, hills and stairways of San Francisco.
Outside the city limits, there is even more to discover. A quick drive took me to the stunning landscape of Muir Woods, a national monument every nature-lover can appreciate. Here, I strolled among 1,000-year-old redwood trees soaring to heights of 260 feet, the tops barely visible. As I walked the jagged dirt trails, the proximity of the metropolitan area drifted from my mind—I was in a completely different world.
If you have the time, plan a full- or half-day excursion outside San Francisco. Tower Tours offers three-hour tours to Muir Woods National Monument, as well as “The Grand City,” “Wine Country,” and “Monterey and Carmel.” Tam Hiking Tours designs educational hiking tours on Mount Tamalpais, located just 15 minutes from the city. Groups interested in learning about the trails, history and geology of the area will thoroughly enjoy this tour.
Getting in touch with nature isn’t difficult in San Francisco. You don’t need to go far to find it. If your schedule doesn’t permit a side trip to neighboring regions, simply guide your group to Golden Gate Park. The 1,017-acre park holds gardens, lakes, picnic groves, trails and monuments, providing a true oasis for city dwellers. Stroll through the world-renowned collection of orchids and water lilies at the Conservatory of Flowers, or admire a classic arched drum bridge and pagodas at the Japanese Tea Garden.
Amid the long list of must-see sites on my list was Alcatraz, the notorious, spine-tingling old prison representative of America’s dark side. “The Rock,” as it’s called, sits just a mile and a half off San Francisco’s shore .Some of the most infamous criminals were incarcerated there. Hear all the escape attempts and legendary stories on a recorded cell-house tour, taking you through the prison buildings and grounds. The night tours are the most popular and sell out quickly, so be sure to book early. Groups can also opt for a day trip to the island or combine a visit with one of the city tours.
San Francisco is known for its wide variety of cuisines, classic dishes and top restaurants. Go back in time to the San Francisco of the past at John’s Grill, a landmark restaurant opened in 1908 in the Union Square neighborhood. Enjoy bowls of Seafood Cioppino and plates of Grilled Pacific Red Snapper in one of the restaurant’s private dining areas, perfect for small or large groups. Be sure to glance up from your delicious meal to see photos of well-known patrons and the city of old.
Enjoy seafood favorites like Dungeness crab and fresh oysters at Franciscan Crab Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. The restaurant offers spectacular views of the Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz. Groups can dine in a contemporary gastropub at Urban Tavern; enjoy delicious Peruvian-style seafood dishes at La Mar; or taste French, Spanish and Basque cuisine at Piperade.
Of course, no trip to San Francisco would be complete without wine. The city’s proximity to Napa Valley allows locals and visitors to sip some of the best wines in the country. If there’s no time in your schedule for a day trip to Sonoma or Napa, fear not. You can still satisfy your palate at Bluxome Street Winery, located in the heart of the historic SoMa (South of Market) district. Opened in 2010, the winery is located in a large warehouse, where the dedicated team of vintners produces wines with balance and finesse. Groups can visit the tasting room to sample pinot noir and chardonnay while watching the varietals being made. Bluxome also takes groups on a bus tour of the Urban Wine Trail or on a private yacht for a paired tasting dinner.
Another great option for wine: the San Francisco Wine Group, a collection of urban wineries located on Treasure Island. There are five different wine brands with separate tasting rooms. The setting is ideal for a walk-around wine tasting, and groups can spend the day sipping and socializing, and even enjoy a game or two of bocce ball.
On the last day of my visit, I venture to Buena Vista Park, the oldest official park in the city. I make my way up a steep dirt path, silently cursing the hill and wondering why I put myself through this. I see an opening in the trees and soon emerge onto a tailored lawn. San Francisco spreads out in every direction, and I take in the view of this grand city. Every step was worth it.