17 Best Things to do in San Francisco

San Francisco has it all: lip-smacking restaurants, stellar museums, worldwide known attractions, lush urban parks, picturesque beaches, you name it! So, as soon as you step foot in the city, you’ll be rewarded with a fabulous variety of things to see and do.

History buffs will love spending time exploring the fascinating Alcatraz Island, once a military prison, while foodies will have the best time eating their way through Chinatown. Are you an art enthusiast? Then don’t miss the chance to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is home to wonderful masterpieces by artists like Henri Matisse and Georgia O’Keeffe.

But where to begin? With such a glorious array of attractions and experiences, it can be challenging to narrow down what to gawk at first.

To help decide where to go during your San Francisco trip, we’ve created a list of the top 17 things to do in the city. From idle beach strolls to scenic sunsets, there’s something for every mood and moment.

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Top 17 Things To Do In San Francisco, California

Ride The Iconic San Francisco Cable Cars

Classic panorama view of historic San Francisco Cable Cars on famous California Street

Riding a cable car is an exciting way of exploring San Francisco. The city’s legendary cable cars are the world’s last manually operated cable car system and grew to become a veritable icon.

To catch a glimpse of the most famous local attractions, hop on the Powell/Hyde line, which runs from the bustling Union Square to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. Along the way, you’ll be able to indulge in view attractions like Lombard Street, a.k.a the “Crookedest Street in the World”!

Did the vintage cable cars spark your curiosity? Then head over to the Cable Car museum, which is home to three antique cable cars from the 1870s, as well as various mechanical devices, photographs, and detailed models.

Tour The Lombard Street

Cars winding down Lombard Street, in San Francisco, California.

Also known as the “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street is famous for its eight sharp hairpin turns framed by Russian Hill homes and well-manicured gardens. The street stretches from The Presidio east to The Embarcadero, and thanks to its quirky aesthetic, it’s photographed by millions of people every year.

You can either drive through the crooked curves or walk down the stairs located on both sides of Lombard Street. From the highest part of Lombard Street, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of San Francisco Bay, the Bay Bridge, and Coit Tower.

Marvel At The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge crossing the San Francisco Bay.

Whether you’re spending a day or a weekend in San Francisco, be sure to marvel at the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Opened in 1937, this legendary bridge is known for its two 746-foot tall towers, sweeping main cables, and a signature orange color named “International Orange”. The Golden Gate majestically crosses the strait of the Golden Gate from San Francisco’s Presidio to the Marin headlands, and it’s considered an Art-Deco architectural masterpiece.

To experience the Golden Gate Bridge at its finest, you can even see it from viewpoints like the Fort Point National Historic Site, Baker Beach, or Fort Baker, or bike across the bridge, which offers the most heart-warming vistas of the San Francisco Bay area.

Go For A Stroll In The Golden Gate Park

The Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco.

Comprising over 1,000 acres of land, the Golden Gate Park — the third most visited in the USA — is a wonderland filled with manicured gardens, dreamy lakes, meadows, and groves, making it a prime spot for nature lovers visiting San Francisco.

Within the park, you’ll find an array of must-visit attractions that are a feast for sore eyes. One of the most dazzling sites is the Conservatory of Flowers, a Victorian building that houses almost 2,000 species of aquatic and tropical plants, including a 100-year-old giant Imperial Philodendron.

There, you’ll also find the San Francisco Botanical Garden, which harbors nearly 9000 different kinds of plants from around the world.

Another bucket-list place in the park is The Japanese Tea Garden. This is the oldest tea garden in the United States, and it welcomes visitors with well-manicured plants, Japanese maples, cherry trees, a traditional tea house, and a towering pagoda.

Curious fact: At 1,017 acres, the Golden Gate Park is about 20% larger than New York’s Central Park.

Spend a Fun-Filled Day In Fisherman’s Wharf

The Famous sign at Fisherman's wharf, in San Francisco, California.

Looking for kid-friendly attractions in San Francisco? Then make your move to Fisherman’s Wharf. Placed on the northern waterfront of San​ Francisco, this lively neighborhood is praised for boasting an array of family-friendly attractions, making it a prime spot for taking the little ones.

A bucket list site in Fisherman’s Wharf is PIER 39, a 45-acre waterfront complex that offers scenic views of Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island. The pier is home to the two-level San Francisco Carousel, decorated with 1800 lights and 32 animals to ride, and to the adorable California sea lions who mysteriously took over the docks after the 1989 earthquake.

Families exploring Fisherman’s Wharf will also love visiting the Aquarium of the Bay, home to aquatic animals from the San Francisco Bay area, such as green moray eels, wolf eels, juvenile swell sharks, and the orange garibaldi, which is the marine state fish of California.

Did the hunger strike? Then head over to Ghirardelli Square, home to the famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, and try their signature chocolate caramel squares.

Photograph The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square

The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square in San Francisco, California

Considered one of the most Instagrammable places in San Francisco, the Painted Ladies are picture-perfect Victorian houses featuring unique colors and details, including classical columns, spindles, balustrades, and gingerbread-style gables.

Curious fact: also known as “Postcard Row”, the Painted Ladies were featured on the opening credits of the ’90s tv show, Full House.

Take A Tour Of The Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California.

Aside from harboring big-name landmarks, San Francisco is also filled with historical attractions that’ll take you on a thrilling journey back in time. A must-visit is Alcatraz Island, which was established in 1934, and used as a fort, a military prison, and a maximum-security federal penitentiary.

While touring the abandoned prison, which was home to some of the US’s most dangerous criminals, including Al Capone, visitors will hear stories of American incarceration, as well as significant events such as when, in 1969, Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz for 19 months in the name of freedom and Native American civil rights.

Alcatraz is also home to a myriad of other points of interest, all managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. After exploring the abandoned prison, make sure to visit the Alcatraz Island Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. Also, take the opportunity to walk around the island to discover its lush gardens and have close encounters with several migrating seabirds who visit the place. A must-visit historic landmark in San Francisco!

Watch The Sunset From Twin Peaks

View from Christmas Tree Point in Twin Peaks, San Francisco

For a breathtaking sunset and taking in gorgeous views of San Francisco, hike the 0.7-mile trail network that leads to Twin Peaks. Located 922 feet above sea level, this 64-acre hilltop park offers 360º scenic vistas of the Bay Area, and it’s a prime location for checking out the alluring San Francisco skyline.

Explore San Francisco’s Museums

People at an art exhibition at SF MOMA.

San Francisco treats locals and travelers with an array of museums that cater to every interest and curiosity. Art enthusiasts can’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Legion of Honor, home to European masterpieces from the 14th to the early 20th centuries by artists such as Fra Angelico and Claude Monet. They’ll also love exploring the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the United States, and home to works by big-name artists like Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Zaha Hadid.

Gloriously located in the Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum will take you to discover dazzling American art collections from the 17th through the 20th centuries, textile arts, and art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. 

For families with kids, the California Academy of Sciences is a must. Considered one of the best kid-friendly attractions in San Francisco, the institution is home to the famous Kimball Natural History Museum, which is home to more than 46 million specimens, making it one of the largest in the world. Treasures you’ll find in their museum include an 87-foot-long blue whale skeleton, a 4-ton cross-section of a redwood tree, 400 different types of gems and minerals, and an earthquake simulator that’ll transport the kids to the epicenter of the powerful 1906 and 1989 temblors.

Another must-visit museum in San Francisco is the Asian Art Museum, which houses one of the most extensive collections of Asian art in the world, with 18,000 artworks spanning 6,000 years and every region of Asia.

Discover San Francisco’s Beaches

Baker Beach with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California.

San Francisco has an array of great beaches that are perfect for those seeking a restoring time among nature.

One of the best beaches in San Francisco is Ocean Beach, which features an esplanade that is an excellent spot for scenic walks. And while this beach is not ideal for swimming due to the dangerous riptides, it has a 3.5-mile stretch of white sand where you and the little ones can sit down and enjoy the most show-stopping views of the Pacific Ocean.

Be sure to also visit the famous Baker Beach, located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This mile-long sandy shoreline stretches beneath rugged cliffs in the southwest corner of the Presidio and rewards visitors with heart-warming views of the Golden Gate, the Bridge Pacific Ocean, the Marin Headlands, and Lands End.

Recommended Read: A Guide To The 7 Best Beaches in San Francisco

Check The View From Coit Tower

The Coit Tower and San Francisco City Skyline.

Located in the Telegraph Hill district, The Coit Tower is a slender white concrete building that has been an icon of San Francisco’s skyline since 1933. Visit the observation deck of this 210-food building to indulge in spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline, which is dotted with landmark attractions such as the Golden Gate and Bay bridges.

Go For A Food Tour In San Francisco’s Chinatown

The Chinatown of San Francisco, California.

Exploring San Francisco’s Chinatown is an unrivaled experience. The largest Chinatown outside of Asia, this lively area is filled with buzz and vibrancy, and wherever you walk, you’ll stumble upon bright neon signs, glowing red lanterns, narrow alleys, and quaint flower shops design. There, you can also tantalize your tastebuds by feasting on Chinese dishes in restaurants like Kam Po Kitchen, famous for its roast duck with rice, and the Dim Sum Bistro praised for its life-changing assorted dumplings.

Admire The Beauty Of The Palace Of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts, in San Francisco, California.

The Palace Of Fine Arts will immediately transport you to another era. This whimsical building was developed for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition to exhibit works of art and was artfully designed to evoke the decaying ruins of ancient Rome. Surrounded by lush gardens, the building boasts an alluring Greco-Roman rotunda and colonnades and it has been featured in big-name movies such as Vertigo, by Alfred Hitchcock.

Shop Until You Drop In Union Square

Union Square Plaza in San Francisco.

Shopping in San Francisco is a truly rewarding experience, as the city is filled with a tempting array of stores, shopping malls, designer boutiques, and bustling shopping districts where you can find the latest trends. 

One of the best places to go shopping in San Francisco is Union Square, a centrally-located area dotted with famous stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom, as well as high-end shops such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior, Versace, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, and Giorgio Armani.

Visit The Ferry Building Food Market

Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Established in 1898, the Ferry Building was originally built as a terminal for ferries that travel across San Francisco Bay, making it the primary portal of San Francisco. The structure, which was designed in Beaux-Arts Style by architect A.Page Brown, boasts a majestic 245-foot-tall clock tower inspired by the 12th-century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain.

Now, this historic building is home to the famous Ferry Building Marketplace, a world-class public food market where you’ll find an array of stalls selling fresh farm products and artisan and prepared foods

Go On A Day Trip To The Angel Island State Park

Angel Island State Park, in San Francisco, California.

Need to escape the hustle and bustle of San Francisco city? Then head to Angel Island, the largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay area. Once a hunting and gathering destination for the local native tribes, and a safe refuge stop for Spanish explorers, the island draws visitors thanks to its 360-degree views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, Richmond Bridge, Tiburon, and the San Francisco bay.

The island is also praised for its immense natural charms. There, you’ll come across several plant species from the coast of California, including typical grassy chaparral, coast-live oak trees, and native grasses.

This 740 acres site can be explored through various scenic hiking trails and a tram tour that includes an audio history of the island.

Access to the island is by private boat or public ferry from San Francisco, Tiburon, or Vallejo.

Have A Scenic Picnic In The Dolores Park

Dolores Park, San Francisco, California.

Nestled in San Francisco’s famous Mission District, Dolores Park is a great location for a scenic picnic. The park has extensive rolling hills shaded by tall palm trees where visitors can indulge in breezy meals with a gorgeous view of the city.

FAQ

What is the most visited place in San Francisco?

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, with its orange arches rising above the Pacific Ocean, is the most visited tourist attraction in San Francisco.

What you should not miss in San Francisco?

When traveling to San Francisco, make sure you visit the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Union Square, and Fisherman’s Wharf.

What is the most famous thing about San Francisco?

San Francisco is famous for many things, but mostly for being home to iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, and the Victorian houses of Alamo Street. The city is also known for its stellar museums, tempting shopping spots, and multicultural neighborhoods.

What is the best time for visiting San Francisco?

September is the best time to visit San Francisco to San Francisco, as it’s when the city experiences the “Indian Summer” — an unseasonably warm, dry weather that happens during autumn in some places in the northern hemisphere.

What are the top attractions in the San Francisco area?

The top attractions in San Francisco are:

  • Golden Gate Bridge;
  • Golden Gate Park;
  • Fisherman’s Wharf;
  • The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square;
  • Chinatown;
  • The Legion of Honor;
  • Alcatraz Island;
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art;
  • Twin Peaks;
  • Palace Of Fine Arts;
  • The Beaches;
  • Union Square;
  • San Francisco Zoo;
  • California Academy of Sciences;
  • San Francisco Cable Car Museum;
  • Angel Island State Park;
  • Telegraph Hill;
  • Lombard Street.

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