San Francisco for the Solo Traveler: A Guide
With its temperate climate, laid-back atmosphere, and lively arts scene, San Francisco has something for almost everyone. From the swanky, upscale retail stores of Union Square to the vibrant, carnival-like ambiance of Fisherman’s Wharf to the organic, down-home feel of the farmer’s market at the Ferry Building, there’s a wide variety of things to see and do to suit the tastes of almost every kind of traveler. When I visited San Francisco in early September of 2010, I wanted to see and do everything but even after six days of exploration , I still felt like I’d barely scratched the surface of this wonderful city. If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco soon, the following are seven great activities and attractions to enjoy solo when visiting San Francisco. No travel partner required.
1. Commune with Nature in Muir Woods
Muir Woods National Monument isn’t exactly in San Francisco, but it’s not too far away and well worth the trip. Accessible by bus or car within a 30-40 minute drive north, this colossal outdoor cathedral of redwood trees is best experienced in person. Prepare to be dwarfed by these silent giants, with many standing just shy of 300 feet tall. The National Park Service offers interpretive guided tours through the woods or you can get a map for a small donation and head out on your own. Linger in the Meditation Grove for some silence and solitude, or take a hike up to the Muir Beach Overlook or down to Muir Beach itself if you’re feeling more active. After your hike, you can relax and grab a bite to eat at the Muir Wood Trading Company Café or peruse one of the two gift shops to purchase a memento of your visit.
2. Amble Across the Golden Gate Bridge
There should be a law—all visitors to San Francisco should walk the span of the Golden Gate Bridge at least once. The bridge itself may seem a tad unromantic but its reputation as a truly iconic marvel of modern engineering is well-deserved. Roughly 1.7 miles (2.7 km) across, the Bridge is best enjoyed on a clear day, with lots of opportunities to meet locals and visitors alike crossing the span on a bike or on foot. The bonus? Clear skies will grant you luminous, expansive vistas of the city of San Francisco to the south as well as the golden hills of the Marin Headlands to the north.
3. Hit Nightlife at the California Academy of Sciences
Think A Night at the Museum but much, much cooler. Drinks, a house DJ, and one of the most impressive planetarium shows I’ve ever seen, Nightlife is like a nightclub for the erudite. Held every Thursday night after hours, Nightlife offers a fun way to spend an evening in San Francisco while getting your daily dose of culture. Get the Nightlife signature cocktail (vodka, cranberry, and champagne), chat up the nearest cutie, and dance the night away while discussing science and natural history in one of the most educational settings in San Francisco. Spend the night under the stars in the Morrison Planetarium or up on the Academy’s Living Roof. Special planned group activities change from week to week and in the past have run the gamut from ballroom dance lessons to board games.
4. Turn Back the Clock at Mission Dolores
Serenely tucked away in the Mission District, Mission Dolores is the keeper of much of San Francisco’s early history. Widely regarded as the oldest building in San Francisco—it survived the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires intact—there’s a small graveyard attached, perfect for a quiet, meditative stroll. Visit the graves of some of the city’s earliest founders—Luis Antonia Arguello, the first Mexican governor of Alta California, is interred here–and then view the ornate altars of the original mission building as well as the neighboring basilica. A short stroll down the street towards the Castro District will take you to Maxfield’s, a small café with free wifi, big comfy chairs, an eclectic clientele, large windows, and great people watching.
5. Grab a Cone at Bi-Rite Creamery
This small-batch artisanal ice cream shop serves frozen delicacies well worth the wait. A favorite with locals and visitors alike, prepare yourself for the line that forms well before the store opens but the minor inconvenience comes with a plus: plenty of time to chat with your fellow queue-mates to get in-the-know suggestions for your next meal or insider information on the local arts scene. Once you get inside the small storefront? Heaven! The salted caramel flavor comes highly recommended (best described as swarthy yet sweet) but if that doesn’t get you salivating, there are myriad other options to satisfy your particular tastes. Think flavors like honey lavender, malted vanilla, toasted coconut, and brown sugar. Make no mistake—Bi-Rite Creamery is the real San Francisco treat.
6. Sample Teas in Chinatown
After you’ve spent a morning exploring Chinatown’s thoroughfares and alleyways, a great way to relax and take a load off is to stop in at one of the tea bars on Grant Avenue. The bars offer free tea tastings in the hope that you’ll buy some of their product. A potentially costly proposition, but the experience you get in exchange is no shabby tradeoff. You’ll learn the proper way to brew a cup of tea and learn about the many benefits of drinking each of the varieties of tea they offer. If you stop in at one of the Vital Tea Leaf shops and you’re really lucky, Uncle Gee might be mixing up your brew. The charismatic septuagenarian offers unique insights into the art and science of tea while spicing things up with his own special brand of bawdy humor.
7. Ride a Cable Car
Yes, some might think of century-old cable-drawn carriages as a “touristy” thing to do but they’re an iconic part of San Francisco’s past that you won’t want to miss. Take the Powell-Hyde line from Union Square down to Fisherman’s Wharf and stroll around Aquatic Park. Ghirardelli Square is only a short walk away; filled with lots of small boutique shops as well as the requisite Ghirardelli chocolate shops you can get a little retail therapy in while satisfying your chocolate fix. When boarding the cable cars, do everything in your power to secure a straphanger position—and then hold on tight. There are very few sensations as titillating as cruising up, over, and down San Francisco’s famed hills as the cool bay breezes sweep past.
This list is by no means an exhaustive collection of cool things to do solo while in San Francisco, but it provides a good place to start. Need more information? Check out the following links and map to start planning your own solo travel to the City by the Bay.
BONUS! Check out the full slideshow on my Flickr foto feed!
- Muir Woods
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Nightlife at the California Academy of Sciences
- Mission Dolores
- Bi-Rite Creamery
- Vital Tea Leaf
- Powell-Hyde Cable Car Line