|Intrigued? See #4 below.|
There are certainly some things you should see while you're in the city, but there are better ways to see/do/experience them than the typical tourist will find. Here are some suggestions for ways you can enjoy the city and experience all it has to offer without being trapped by the tourist trade.
1. Instead of visiting Joe's Crab Shack, go to Fisherman's Grotto. Joe's Crab Shack is a popular chain restaurant that is conveniently located on Fisherman's Wharf. There's a great view of the bay (and the Bush Man), and the food is good. However, for a uniquely San Francisco experience, go to Fisherman's Grotto and eat seafood that was caught that same morning and prepared five minutes before you bought it.
2. Instead of riding a cable car, go to the Cable Car Museum. Cable cars are cute and San Francisco-y and make people break out in Rice-a-Roni theme songs, but they are slow, expensive, and crowded. There is always a line to get on the cable car, and some tour guides suggest you skip this line by waiting at another cable car stop, but they say the same thing to EVERYONE, so the problem is still the same. Since the cars are so popular, they are really crowded, and you will probably be smashed somewhere in the middle, seeing nothing, rather than hanging off the side snapping pictures with your smartphone. A better alternative is the Cable Car Museum, where you can learn about cable cars, see old ones, see the actual cable the cars run on, and learn all about them without paying $6 to ride 9 miles an hour.
3. Instead of driving/walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, take a boat tour underneath it. Everyone wants to walk on the Golden Gate Bridge, or drive across it, or whatnot. It's the single most photographed structure in the world. Instead of driving across the bridge or facing the crowds and bicycles as you walk across, take a boat tour of the bay and see the bridge from underneath. Near Fisherman's Grotto and Joe's Crab Shack on Fisherman's Wharf, conveniently located in the same area as the Bush Man, are several boats that are licensed to give tours. The boat captains will call out the price for their tour and try to get as many people on their boat as their licenses allow, so bring some friends and fill the boat faster so the tour can start. This way you can see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge from a different perspective. It will be cold and windy, though, so dress accordingly.
4. Lombard Street has been hailed as the "crookedest street in the world," This tourist location is so popular that there are frequent traffic jams at the top and the base of this curvy hill. It is fun to see a strange curving road, especially one that is brick paved like Lombard Street. However, if you want to see the real "crookedest" street, you need to visit Vermont Street. Vermont Street is the new home to the bring your own big wheel races held every Easter in San Francisco, and this hill has steeper curves than Lombard Street. You might even find someone willing to let you borrow their Big Wheel so you can race down the hill.
5. Instead of just eating sourdough, visit the a sourdough factory and learn about how it is made. Everyone wants to eat clam chowder out of a sourdough bread bowl when they come to San Francisco, but very few people know much about the process of making sourdough. Luckily, if you visit Boudin's on Fisherman's Wharf, you can do both. Boudin's bakery features a restaurant, a cafe, a shop, and an area outside where you can watch sourdough being made. Often times one of the employees will have a microphone and will explain what s/he is doing while making the sourdough, so you get to learn about the food and then go inside and enjoy some of it.
6. Instead of visiting the sea lions, make a morning or afternoon of it and see all the street performers. The sea lions are cool. They are large and loud and smelly and kind of mean, but it is neat to see how they have taken some of Pier 39 and made it their own. If you are in the city and facing Pier 39, go to the farthest left side, behind the last row of stores. There is a boardwalk back there that is not too crowded and will take you straight to the sea lions. Enjoy taking pictures of them, then head back toward the rest of Fisherman's Wharf and take in the various street performers. If you tip them, most street performers will gladly pose for a picture with you. This way you can see lots of interesting life native to the city, all in one day!