Things to See on a San Francisco City Walk-About

One of the best things about the city of San Francisco is that there are a lot of iconic landmarks and things to see and do that can be easily reached on foot, by trolley, or even a short jaunt in a rental car. Most of the places we visited in this post were reached by foot, although we may have used a trolley or car for a short portion of the excursion. My girls and I logged a lot of kilometres while strolling the city of San Francisco in September. (And hey, with all the calories we burned walking, we were able to sip some grocery store wine completely guilt-free in the evenings!) Here are some of the amazing places we were able to explore while traversing the city on foot.


Iconic Chinatown in San Francisco begins, if you want to do it properly, at Grant Avenue and Bush Street. That is where you'll find the majestic Gateway Arch, also known as the Dragon Gate, which is a fitting introduction to the colourful streets and shops beyond.

My girls and I hanging out at the Dragon Gate.

We technically entered Chinatown from a back-end side street, as we had taken the Powell-Hyde trolley from Fisherman's Wharf, and had exited the trolley car a couple of blocks from our final destination. It was neat to see the changes in the buildings and atmosphere as we neared Chinatown on foot. Slowly, buildings collected unusual bits of architecture and detail, such as a pagoda style portico roof, or Chinese-zodiac images hanging from the interior of an apartment window.

A shop filled with amazing wares in Chinatown.

Once we entered Chinatown, it felt like we were in a totally different country. Shops with sidewalk stalls filled with silk fans, embroidered wallets, paper lanterns, ginger roots, children's kimonos and so much more washed the streets in a sea of color. Delicious smells wafted through the air. Lanterns strung across the road, high above the traffic, danced in the breeze. Even the lampposts had been renovated to reflect the cultural style.

Chinatown is vibrant with color.

We did not eat in Chinatown, which I was dying to do because just the air smelled mouth-watering, but two of the ladies in our group did not like Chinese-style food. Neither did we tour the fortune-cookie factory, which I had read about. BUT we did do some shopping in the colourful stores, which were packed to the gills with merchandise of every sort. I bought myself a gorgeous floor-length dressing gown kimono for $20, which I thought was a steal of a deal.

Lombard Street

One of the most unusual streets in San Francisco is the twisty, turny, snake-shaped Lombard Street. To be clear, 90% of Lombard Street is a normal, straight road. A one-block portion of Lombard, however, was built upon a very steep hill, so steep that a straight road would make it impossible for vehicles to drive up and down safely. So it was built in a series of hairpin curve switch-backs, and is now famous for its crazy design.

At the base of Lombard Street, with cars snaking down the hill behind us.

We didn't drive up or down the road itself, mostly because we didn't want to. The vehicles move at a snail's pace as the traffic is extremely congested due to the popularity of the road, the sight-seers hanging out of the car windows, and just the road design. We began walking the distance of Lombard Street's steep hill from the top (why walk UP?!) on the staircase of shallow steps that serve as Lombard's sidewalk.

Hydrangeas the size of my head on Lombard Street.

Lombard Street is a residential street, lined with houses and apartments that are inhabited by San Franciscan citizens, so be respectful when visiting. Keep your garbage to yourself, don't yell and holler and act like an idiot, and keep decent visiting hours.

San Francisco's Famous Houses

For some reason, San Francisco is filled with a ton of famous houses, some having actual reasons for being famous, and some just famous 'because'. We tried to see them all.

We began at the Painted Ladies, that series of tall Victorian / Edwardian style houses nestled all in a row that are featured in movies, TV shows, postcards and books about San Francisco. The term "painted lady" actually refers to any type of Victorian / Edwardian house that is tall, narrow, and painted in bright colors. However, most of you will immediately picture one particular set of Painted Ladies, affectionately known as "Postcard Row".

The Painted Ladies on Postcard Row.

The houses in "Postcard Row" have never actually been in a movie as a set or anything: only their exteriors have been filmed for quick shots and stills. So they are very famous but not for anything in particular. Still, we had to see them.

Sitting outside one of the famous Painted Ladies.

We went to see the houses in "Postcard Row", which are addressed 710-720 on Steiner Street across from Alamo Park. At the time of our visit, Alamo Park was undergoing a major facelift, and so most of it was cordoned off with orange fencing and the grass had been torn up to resemble a giant dirt pile. But we weren't there to photograph Alamo Park, so it was all good. We ambled up and down Steiner Street, sat on the front stoop of a couple of houses, took our photos, and that was that. There is nothing else to do there, especially when the park is closed. A lot of people like to bring picnics, but picnicking in a giant dirt pile didn't sound that appealing to us. 

The next house we visited was the house where Robin Williams filmed "Mrs. Doubtfire". I was surprised at how small it seemed from the outside. In the film, the house seemed huge! But I guess looks are deceiving. The house itself didn't really impress me too much, although it is a pretty house to be sure.

The house the movie "Mrs. Doubtfire" was filmed in.

However, I was very touched by the memorials left to Mr. Williams outside the house. The sidewalk around the house is bordered by trees, and in the wee 'gardens' around the tree bases, rocks with warm messages and memories of Robin Williams have been left by thousands of fans. Even the trees have been signed by fans, written from the base of the trunk all the way up onto the slim branches. There were four trees, all covered in the same way. It was beautiful and sad all at the same time.

One of Robin Williams' memorial trees outside the house.

Finally, we stopped by the apartment which was the set for the original Full House TV series. I was not really a fan of the show, but a few ladies on our trip had been, and had kids that were into the revival on Netflix. So we made a point to stop and check it out. 

Folsom Street

This is a family blog, so I will keep this review of Folsom Street brief. Folsom Street is typically associated with an 'alternative lifestyle community', and holds an annual fair where anyone who even remotely participates in this community can be free to wander the streets literally however they want. HOWEVER THEY WANT. We found ourselves in San Francisco at the same time as the Folsom Street Fair, and were intensely curious as to what it might be like. One of my friends convinced us to go check it out.

The Folsom Street Fair flag.

It was an experience, that's for sure. I really don't want to write anymore, not because I am horrified by what I saw or because I don't agree or anything like that. I am a teacher by day, and if teachers can get into trouble for holding a beer at a family BBQ, then I dare not write about what I saw that day on here! I will say that everyone was friendly, happy, and having a good time, and even though I know I didn't fit in, no one cared about that. 

Tenderloin District

Everyone had told us, "No matter what you do, try to avoid the Tenderloin District." The Tenderloin is a downtown neighbourhood located just past Union Square that is notorious for drugs, criminal activity, prostitution, and general seediness. This is what we were told, what we had read, and ultimately, what we saw. Because yes. We are stupid and ended up in the Tenderloin regardless of the various warnings we'd received.

San Francisco has so much to explore... but maybe not the Tenderloin!

We weren't there for long, because we realized where we were quite quickly and backtracked ourselves to Union Square. Nothing bad happened to us, and in fact, the people we did talk to were friendly enough. But there was a distinct change in atmosphere and feeling the moment we rounded a certain corner, and suddenly the city looked different. It is hard to describe, and I don't want to be insulting, but there is definitely a different vibe in the Tenderloin.

Union Square

Finally, we explored Union Square by foot. Union Square is a business and shopping area in the downtown region, with mostly commercial buildings. For the most part, we simply strolled the area, enjoying some of the interesting architecture before we grabbed the trolley back down to Fisherman's Square via the Powell-Mason line.

One of the amazing buildings in the Union Square district. Photo by Tara LaBas.
Union Square was full of old, majestic architecture.

As our time in San Francisco was jam-packed and very busy, we got to see a lot in one week. However, there are some things I wish we had seen or visited that I didn't, such as Land's End, Coit Tower, or the slides at Seward Street. But I guess that means I have to go back one day!

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