If you are looking for a comprehensive list of all the best things to do in San Francisco, then you have come to the right place. Today we will be going over the top 28 things to see and do in the Golden Gate City.
Although far from the largest city in America, San Francisco manages to pack in a ton of incredible attractions. Home to some of the world’s most iconic sights, along with lesser known but no less interesting attractions, visiting San Francisco should be on anyone’s travel bucket list.
From its reputation as the LGBT capital of the world to its unique landscape and historic architecture, San Francisco is a vibrant city bursting with flavour. I’ll introduce you to all the must see attractions that you should work into your itinerary when you visit San Francisco.
28 Best Things To Do In San Francisco
1. Cross The Iconic Golden Gate Bridge
The world famous Golden Gate Bridge alone draws travellers from around the globe to visit San Francisco. The longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its construction in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge quickly became the most iconic symbol of San Francisco.
Designed in the art deco style and painted a vibrant orange, the Golden Gate Bridge is unarguably one of the best known bridges in the world.
Its distinctive image is such a treasured part of San Francisco’s culture that the city invests in constant upkeep of its paintwork, battling against the wind and saltwater eroding it.
A walk along the bridge offers more than just stunning views of the city and nearby Alcatraz Island. Welcome centres and vista points at either end of the bridge provide information about the history and development of the impressive structure.
One thing to be aware of is that the pedestrian walkways are only open during daylight hours. Of course, this means that opening times will change throughout the year, so make sure to check before you head out.
2. Take In The Culture At Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park covers over a thousand acres of land, at the heart of San Francisco. Lush with trees and jam packed with manicured gardens, lakes, and various monuments and installations, the park is the perfect escape from the press of the urban jungle.
Various walking trails wind around the woods and streams. The lakes and ponds allow for boating and fishing, whilst various courts and playing fields provide space for residents to enjoy sports and games in a scenic environment.
The park is also home to several popular attractions. The San Francisco Botanical Gardens, and the smaller Conservatory of Flowers, are within the park. Covering over 55 acres, the botanical gardens house plants from across the world in a variety of artful displays.
The California Academy of Sciences contains an aquarium, a natural history museum, and a planetarium, ensuring it has something to interest pretty much everyone. Meanwhile, the neighbouring de Young Museum offers an alternative for those who prefer art.
The Golden Gate Park also celebrates various world cultures. In the west of the park, a tulip garden surrounds a historic Dutch windmill, and a Japanese Tea Garden offers a slice of serenity in the east.
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3. Enjoy The Famous Sights Of Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of San Francisco’s principal tourist neighbourhoods and is the first place many visitors head to in order to take in some of the city’s top attractions. Aside from being packed with things to do, it also offers stunning views of both the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
Fisherman’s Wharf is home to Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco Madame Tussaud’s, and the Maritime Museum, to name just a few of the attractions you can enjoy here.
Many of the area’s attractions are located along the various piers. Pier 45 boasts several World War II battleships and submarines, which now act as fascinating museums.
Probably the most popular attraction in Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39. The Pier is packed with gift shops and food stalls. The Aquarium of the Bay sits at the entrance to the pier, whilst a carousel provides family friendly fun at the southern end.
Pier 39’s real draw is its sealions. A thriving colony of sealions has been making their home on a raft of pontoons at the north end of the pier since the late ‘80s. Visitors can safely observe them from the nearby viewing platform.
4. Ride Around Town In A San Francisco Cable Car
There aren’t many cities in the world whose public transport system comprises one of their most iconic tourist attractions. San Francisco, however, is one of the few that does. Few movies set in the city will complete their run time without a dramatic journey on the distinctive cable cars.
Only a few routes remain operational, but they still cover enough ground to make the cable cars a sightseeing tour in their own right.
The dramatic landscape of San Francisco adds to the unique experience of riding these cars. Swooping along the city’s infamously steep hills it can, at times, feel a little like riding a rollercoaster.
With San Francisco’s cable cars being such a treasured aspect of the city’s heritage it is little surprise that they have a museum dedicated to them.
The museum provides insights into the history of the city’s cable car network, their mechanics, and the various types and models of cars that have been used over the years.
5. Dare To Explore Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island is infamous for being the home of one of the world’s most notorious prisons. A little over a mile out into San Francisco Bay, regular ferry services shuttle tourists across to explore the island’s dark heritage.
Part of the prison lies derelict and crumbling. However, much of it has been preserved and now serves as a museum to satiate the morbid curiosity of tourists. Visitors can explore the cold hallways, peering into the dingy cells that were once home to some of America’s most infamous criminals.
Aside from the prison, there are a few other reasons to visit Alcatraz. The stunning views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge are one. Another is Alcatraz Lighthouse, which towers above the rest of the facility and provides the first glimpse of the complex to incoming visitors.
You can explore the island at your leisure, or delve deeper into its lore with a guided tour. The most daring amongst you might even brave a night tour of the island. The island’s fraught history and frequent fogs lend such excursions a distinct chill, both figurative and literal.
6. Indulge Around Union Square
Union Square is a large public plaza in the east end of San Francisco. The plaza itself often hosts art installations, public events, and festivals. The centre of the square is marked by the Dewey Monument, a towering column topped by a statue of Nike, the Greek Goddess of victory.
Union Square also refers to the region directly around the plaza. The area leading away from Union Square is known to be crammed with department stores and high end boutiques. It is the city’s central hub for shopping and both tourists and locals flock here to indulge in luxury shopping sprees.
After dark, this is one of the best areas to go for nightlife. Union Square is surrounded by an array of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, which keep the area lively no matter the time of day or night.
7. Feast On Eastern Culture In Chinatown
Whilst most major cities around the world boast their own version of Chinatown in some form, San Francisco’s is a cut above the rest. The oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest in the western hemisphere, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a treasure-trove of culture, cuisine, and history.
Often credited as the birthplace of many hugely popular American Chinese dishes and delicacies, including the iconic fortune cookies, Chinatown is a must visit for foodies. The area is packed with incredible restaurants and bakeries offering exceptional Asian cuisine.
Aside from the typical cultural shops and restaurants you expect to find in any Chinatown, San Francisco’s Chinatown also boasts plenty of distinctly eastern aesthetics.
From the colourful lanterns strung across the streets to the historic Dragon Gate that marks the southern entrance, you will know the second you step foot into Chinatown.
8. Show Your Support For The San Francisco Giants
It’s not only sports fans who will be familiar with the famous San Francisco Giants baseball team. The eight time World Series winners are one of the best known teams in Major League Baseball and their home grounds are a pilgrimage site for baseball fans the world over.
The Oracle Park Stadium is located right against the water of San Francisco Bay. The park is surrounded by gift shops selling Giants merchandise. There are even bars and restaurants dedicated to the iconic team, so you’ll be able to indulge in plenty of team spirit.
9. Expand Your Mind At The Exploratorium
If you are looking for a family friendly and educational place to spend a foggy afternoon, you can’t beat the Exploratorium. The waterfront science museum boasts hundreds of exhibits on subjects from technology to the arts, ensuring there is something to fascinate every visitor.
The Exploratorium has a particular focus on interactivity. Any opportunity to make the learning experience hands-on has been taken, making this a uniquely fun museum for all ages. In addition to the usual exhibitions, there is a varied schedule of temporary installations and workshops too.
10. Taste The History Of Ghirardelli Square
Once a huge chocolate factory spanning an entire city block, Ghirardelli Square is now a bustling social centre at the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. The square is home to various chic cafes, indulgent dessert parlours, and fashionable boutiques.
Although the factory has long since been converted away from its previous occupation, it retains echoes of its history. The southeast corner of the square is still home to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop, where you can see various pieces of the chocolate making machinery in operation.
11. Presidio Of San Francisco
A huge swathe of San Francisco’s northern tip is consumed by the Presidio of San Francisco. Once a military base, the sprawling park is now home to a number of popular attractions. Most notably, the park surrounds one end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Hiking trails wind through the forests of eucalyptus trees that blanket the park. Meanwhile, popular beaches run along its sides. Viewing points towards the north end of the Presidio provide stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and across San Francisco Bay.
Many of the old military buildings have been converted into museums or monuments. You can discover them as you venture along the various trails. The Walt Disney Family Museum offers something a little different, displaying artefacts and original artworks from Walt Disney himself.
12. Excite Your Palate In The Ferry Building
Any self-respecting foodie visiting San Francisco will make a beeline for the Ferry Building. More specifically, for the sprawling farmers’ market housed within the Ferry Building.
The building itself is majestic, with graceful arches and a 75m tall clock tower lancing into the skyline. Set right up against the waterfront of San Francisco’s main port, it casts a striking image against the San Francisco Bay.
Within the building is a long promenade stretching along its width, lined with food and drinks vendors. It’s great place to go for a bite on any day of the week but especially on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, when the farmers’ market takes place.
Farmers and artisans come from across the local region to showcase their incredible produce and cuisine. Take the opportunity to sample exceptional, locally grown treats and indulge in some of the best street-food around.
13. Gaze Across The City From Twin Peaks
If you want a scenic escape with some of the most stunning views in the city, then head straight to Twin Peaks. The pair of mountains at the heart of San Francisco stretch to 922 feet tall, providing uninterrupted panoramic views across the entirety of San Francisco, the bay, and the ocean.
Covered in 64 acres of parkland, you can drive to the top or enjoy a relaxing walk along the various hiking trails to take a break from the urban crush. It’s the perfect opportunity to appreciate a view of many of San Francisco’s major attractions at once and without the claustrophobic crowds.
14. Admire The View From Coit Tower
Perched on a hilltop in Pioneer Park, Coit Tower soars into the San Francisco skyline. Well away from the city’s cluster of skyscrapers, the tower looms over the surrounding neighbourhood. Elevated by Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower can be seen from blocks away.
Whilst the design of the tower itself is lovely and well worth admiring from street level, the real treat comes from the observation deck at the very top. 180 feet into the air, and with no high-rises nearby to block your gaze, you can enjoy stunning panoramic views across the city and San Francisco Bay.
15. Explore The Legacy Of Angel Island
A couple of miles out into San Francisco Bay sits the scenic Angel Island. You can reach Angel Island by ferry from either Pier 41 in Fisherman’s Wharf or the Port of San Francisco.
The island played an instrumental role in the reception of Chinese immigrants in the earlier half of the 20th century, earning it the moniker of the “Ellis Island of the West”. Several of the old processing facilities still remain and are open for visitors to take a look around.
The rest of the island is comprised of forested hills. Hike to the peak of Mt Livermore or spend a night at one of the southside campsites, to take in impressive views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
16. Wonder At Eastern Masterpieces At The Asian Art Museum
San Francisco is a city strongly influenced by eastern cultures. Few places celebrate this heritage as well as the Asian Art Museum, located right at the heart of the city. The museum boasts one of the largest collections of Asian art in the world, housing over 16,000 pieces in its collection.
The works come from across the breadth of Asia, representing the various cultures throughout the region. Some of the artefacts date back as far as 6,000 years, offering a look back through the history and heritage of these vibrant societies.
17. Admire the Splendour Of The Palace of Fine Arts
As far as celebrations of the arts go, the Palace of Fine Arts is an exemplary specimen of architectural design. The stunning Greco-Roman styled palace overlooking an ornamental lake and flanked by wings of looming columns is a sight to behold.
Surrounded by other notable attractions such as the Presidio of San Francisco, the Wave Organ, and the Lyon Street Steps, stopping by the Palace of Fine Arts is incredibly convenient.
Even if you don’t typically consider yourself an appreciator of the arts, it is well worth stopping by to admire the unique grandeur of the structure.
Behind the Palace of Fine Arts is the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. Hosting a varied array of shows, talks, and performances, it is always worth checking to see if anything on the schedule appeals to you.
18. Appreciate The Masterpieces Of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
In a city known for its colourful culture, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art doesn’t disappoint. With its exhibitions spread over 10 stories and 170,000 square feet, this one of the largest modern art museums in the world.
In addition to its permanent collection of over 30,000 pieces of contemporary art, the museum also hosts frequent temporary exhibitions.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is large enough to accommodate up to eighteen special exhibitions at any one time. Even returning visitors are sure to have something new to check out each time they’re in the area.
19. Walk Amongst The Giants Of The Muir Woods National Monument
If you have the time to venture a little further afield, then cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head north to the Muir Woods National Monument. The park is home to 240 acres of California’s iconic redwood trees.
The massive trees are a natural wonder that you should definitely take the opportunity to admire. Various hiking trails wind through the woods and mountains, catering to all abilities. Only a couple of miles out of the city, it makes a convenient escape from the hustle and bustle.
20. Bask In The Tranquillity Of San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden
Tucked into the heart of the Golden Gate Park, well away from the noisy, traffic jammed streets, San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden is a bastion of peace and serenity. The oldest Japanese garden in the United States, the garden has had over a century to perfect its exquisitely zen atmosphere.
The garden covers three acres and is stuffed full of exotic plants, traditional ornaments, and sparkling ponds. Winding paths twist between towering Pagodas, arching bridges, and pristine rock gardens.
The design of the garden draws from the various traditional spiritual practices of Japan, particularly Shintoism and Buddhism.
Aside from being somewhere to step away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the Japanese Tea Garden also allows you to experience the history and culture of a country thousands of miles across the globe.
At the centre of the garden is the tea house. The charming tea house offers the chance to sip delicate Japanese tea blends and sample traditional snacks whilst admiring the beauty of the gardens.
21. San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge
San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, known as Bay Bridge by locals, connects San Francisco city and Oakland through Yerba Buena Island.
It took three years to build the bridges, the construction began in 1933 and opened for traffic in 1936.
At night, the Bay Bridge lightens up with the San Francisco skyline, with 25,000 LED lights in the bridge, designed by the artist Leo Villareal.
In 2016, there is a 3.5-kilometer pedestrian and cyclist path to Yerba Buena Island and Treasure Island. You can do visit the flea markets, sample wine at Sol Rouge Winery and Vie Winery, and learn a boating lesson at Treasure Island Sailing Center.
There is a Treasure Island Museum if you want to learn about the island’s history and a Tran’s Bay Bike Shop if you want to rent a bike.
22. Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach, also known as OB, is a wide and long beach stretching from Cliff House south to Sloat Boulevard in the Sunset District of San Francisco.
Ocean Beach is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. You can find parking areas at Sloat Boulevard.
You can take a stroll along the Esplanade, and go all the way to Golden Gate Park or the San Francisco Zoo.
There are Bonfires in fire rings between certain beach access stairwells. There are many windsurfers along Ocean Beach. Swimming is dangerous here as the water is cold and has strong rip currents.
23. Lands End
Located near Ocean Beach, Lands End is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The Lands End trail is one of the best hikes in San Francisco.
You can start exploring from the Lands End Visitor Center, where you can learn more about the natural and cultural history of the area.
Some of the highlights on the trail are Mile Rock Beach and the Labyrinth which was built by artist Eduardo Aguilera. Eastern Coastal Overlook offers views of the ocean and the Marin Headlands.
You also should stop at the Land End lookout at Point Lobos, you can have a chance to spot migratory whales. Head to Sutro Baths for beautiful sunsets.
Other places of interest are the USS San Francisco Memorial, Battery Chester Detour, the Memorial for Peace, and West Fort Miley batteries.
24. Yerba Buena Gardens
Located in Mission Street, between 3rd and 4th Street in the SoMa district, Yerba Buena Gardens is a quiet garden area where visitors can relax.
Esplanade is an important part of the gardens that host various events and concerts during the year including the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival from May to October.
Located adjacent to Esplanade Gardens are the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and a large waterfall.
You can also find the Charles Looff Historic Carousel and numerous museums such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
There are also the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Moscone Convention Center.
25. Walt Disney Family Museum
Located just a short walk from the Presidio Transit Center, in the Presidio’s Main Post, Walt Disney Family Museum was founded by Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. It was once a row of brick army barracks.
There are galleries where you can learn about the pioneering animator’s creative risks, failures, and personal artifacts.
The Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall is named in memory of Diane Disney Miller where you can find primary exhibitions.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is open from Thursdays to Sundays.
26. Haight-Ashbury District
Haight-Ashbury is a famous neighborhood in SF. It is home to the Summer of Love, a social phenomenon in the summer of 1967 when young people sporting hippie fashions. It was a summer of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
If you are visiting SF on the second weekend in June, be sure to check out the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair. It has musical stages, food booths, and a variety of activities.
If you love Grateful Dead, you should visit the former house where the band’s five founders lived in the 1960s. This Victorian-style home provided affordable housing to thousands of young people.
You can also hike to the top of Buena Vista Park which offers spectacular views of the city. Haight Street has many vintage clothing stores, music stores, and boutique shops.
Other places of interest are The Booksmith, Coffee To The People, Kezar Pub, Club Deluxe, Amoeba Music, and Alembic.
27. Mission District
Mission district is a trendy neighborhood in SF with many stylish shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars. With a big Mexican community, you can easily find the best burrito at La Taqueria, Taqueria El Farolito,Papolete, and Taqueria Cancún.
The mission is a great destination if you’re looking for vibrant nightlife with bars, clubs, and pubs. There are numerous fine dining restaurants in the area.
The Dolores Park in the neighborhood is great for sunbathing, a picnic, or relaxing and enjoying the views of the city skyline.
You can also visit Mission Dolores which was built in 1791, the oldest building in San Francisco.
If you love art, there are plenty of artful murals on the alleyways, storefronts, and sides of buildings. The Mission District Murals are a must-see during your visit to the Mission District.
28. Castro neighborhood
The Castro is one of the most famous neighborhoods in SF. It has a rich history, a lively nightlife scene, beautiful murals, a vibrant LGBTQ community.
The Castro Theatre with its neon sign has become a symbol of the neighborhood. It hosts several of the area’s top film festivals.
If you want to learn about the LGBTQ history in San Francisco, head to the Human Rights Campaign Action Center which is the former house camera store of Civil rights activist Harvey Milk.
You will see other LGBTQ attractions including the rainbow-striped crosswalks, the Rainbow Walk, and Pink Triangle Park, which remember gay men in Nazi camps in World War II.
For a shopping experience, check out the shops on Castro Street.
Castro has a vibrant nightlife with many restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. You will have Anchor Oyster Bar, Twin Peaks, Hi Tops which is San Francisco’s only gay sports bar.
Art lovers will want to visit a mural on 16th Street, near Market Street, and a Harvey Milk mural at the former Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera store.
The neighborhood hosts numerous festivals such as Castro Street Fair, The National Queer Arts Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, and San Francisco Film Noir Festival.
So those are the very best things to see and do in San Francisco. If your time in the Golden Gate City is limited, these are the things you should prioritise taking the time to see. However, if you have longer to explore, there are charms and delights to discover in this colourful city.