San Francisco's Alcatraz Island prison tour

Things to do on your next San Francisco visit

From bay to bridges to Babylon

Lot of reasons come to mind for vacationing in San Francisco. We’ve always saved the city as our urban playground to finish a long outdoor adventure in California.

I won’t insult your travel I.Q. by reviewing the obvious attractions: streetcars, seafood by the wharf, Ghirardelli chocolate square, winding Lombard Street and that big orange bridge thingy. Instead, I’m sharing a few personal favorites from recent San Fran visits that I hope you find interesting.

San Francisco Beach Blanket Babylon comedy show
Beach Blanket Babylon is billed as the world’s longest running musical review.

Beach Blanket Babylon

My top recommendation – hands down. Beach Blanket Babylon is billed as the world’s longest running musical review. I’ve seen it twice. The performance combines music, song, theater, incredible costumes, humor, satire and pop culture that burst from the stage. They constantly change the show to mimic current events. And they’re always spoofing the First Family, no mater who occupies the White House.

And the performers’ hats! They’re epic and, by themselves, worth the price of admission. We loved Beach Blanket Babylon and will attend a third, fourth or tenth time, depending upon how often we return to San Fran. My prediction? One look at Babylon’s website and you’ll start planning your trip to the West Coast. Performed in a relatively small theater, get your tickets online well in advance.

Alcatraz inmate William Barker
Former Alcatraz inmate William Barker poses with Jim's better half, Jenifer.

Alcatraz Island

True confession – I don’t like tours. Maybe one or two in my lifetime. But Alcatraz rocks! I hope you get that witty play on words. The prison’s nickname is “The Rock.” Okay, this short paragraph was a waste of your time.

But I was enthralled during this tour overseen by the National Park Service. We participated in the self-guided cell house audio tour, hearing firsthand accounts from inmates and guards inside this notorious federal penitentiary, which provided a much more vivid description of life on The Rock than if a professional narrator had recorded the entire tour. And as an added bonus during our visit, one of the last living former inmates conducted a book signing in the gift shop. William Baker wrote “Alcatraz #1259” and he gladly posed with visitors. Now that’s a selfie!

San Francisco Dungeon
San Francisco Dungeon.

The San Francisco Dungeon

We had some time to kill, so we spontaneously bought tickets for what we thought might be a tourist trap. We were in the mood for campy amusement. However, the San Francisco Dungeon really surprised us. We had loads of fun inside this attraction themed after the Barbary Coast and its murky past and perils.

Not many attractions can successfully combine fear, laughter, history, thrills and audience participation. Live actors and actresses – talented ones – interact with guests inside creative sets with great costumes and special effects, all connected by an underground boat ride. The cast picked my wife out of the crowd (I volunteered her) and put her on trial for the punishments she deserved! Plus, The Dungeon has added a drop thrill ride since we’ve visited. This attraction is also replicated in seven other countries, with San Francisco being the only U.S. city to host it. And don’t worry; the scares are playful but well performed.

Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park
Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park.

Golden Gate Park

Yes, the bridge is awesome. But Golden Gate Park is the bridge’s playground that contains a great diversity of gardens, lakes, trails, museums and culture. It’s an urban oasis where you could spend several days taking it all in or just an afternoon exploring a specific element of interest.

Personally, we enjoyed the Japanese Tea Garden, its flora tapestry and authentic teahouse. Just a great place to relax and savor the sights, smells and tastes. Check out the de Young Museum, Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco Botanical Gardens and Dutch windmills. The California Academy of Sciences includes an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum. In addition, outdoor activities and special events decorate this city refuge.

All four of these attractions are accessible from the famous downtown area by foot, cab or bus. You really don’t want to drive in this city, unless you enjoy tension headaches and creative hand gestures.

Looking for other new things to do in San Francisco? Check out our walking tour blog.